Monday, 20 January 2020

Listening / in a time of urgency

It seems I have a tradition here of first signalling another blog post that has inspired me to finally sit down and write this one. Today it is ‘umb’ by So Mayer, which – exactly one month ago – flung me into the present moment, reminding me that writing doesn’t have to go somewhere else, be something else. That it can sit right in what is happening, even when that thing is unspeakable, hard to process, unprecedented, and beyond the confines of this language system I have found myself bound to.

So’s words don’t try to move beyond a state of (n)umbness, but to speak from it. The deep strong resonances their words create in my body remind me that the work I am constantly trying to make happen in the world is about just this: providing places and times when humans can come together and do nothing, move nothing forward. Places and times when we can be together without the need to also demonstrate that we are here.

It’s quite hard to say that out loud with conviction. The debate about whether this listening-gathering work I do has any worth goes around and around inside my head, as well as passing between me and brilliant others who do activist work that allies listening with politics in more obvious ways than mine. As I write it, now and every time, I feel ‘need for change’ and ‘need for action’ telling me that I should be doing something different. How can I argue that we should stay still, be together, without action, in a moment like this? The world is quite literally on fire.

“Numb. Succumb. A rhyme lost and found in the silence of an excrescent letter is a signal alerting us to be ready. To hold, open, even as we are going under. To let things echo in the hollow, however uncomfortable and hard – in their complexity, in their absoluteness, in their burden – to speak or to keep silent.

In that strange, held, horrible, heart-hollowing moment between the two – speech and silence – in the –umb, is listening.”


The blog post I began writing back in September was about a series of events I recently organised called Listening Tables – gatherings in which a group of up to 25 people collectively performs an act of reorientation, attempting to meet across difference from a place of listening, while taking on roles that we are not usually assigned within mainstream culture. In other words, an attempt to literally change who gets a seat at the table, who is heard, and how listening happens.

In a document about the project, I describe it as follows.

Each event will take place in two halves:

From 5-6.30pm ten people will drop into a place of listening, and collectively discover the words that arise from there. This is the Listening Table. Audience members who are not taking part in the Listening Table will have the opportunity to listen in via headphones from another room.

From 6.30-8pm we will enjoy a more convivial gathering in which everyone will be invited into a loosely held discussion together, shaped by the Listening Table that has just taken place.

It sounds joyful, doesn’t it? That’s the betrayal of words. The reality of doing this work is that it feels like a full body encounter with the stuckness, stubborness, and confrontedness of human beings facing change. It is some of the most complicated and challenging work I have ever done.

As anyone who has attended a workshop or gathering that I’ve organised in the past few years knows, I like to hold space by proposing parameters that challenge default modes of communicating. Something like:

No questions.
Silence and speaking are equally valid.
Anything is welcome.
Challenge your usual behaviours, so that those who are usually heard might find this a place in which to practise listening, and those who are usually unable to come to voice might find enough time and space to be able to speak.

These parameters always provoke relief/revelation and frustration in equal measure. By which I mean that there are always people who are frustrated by the amount of silence, who find the invitation to listen constraining, challenging, even violent; and there are always people who find the very same invitation a huge relief, a revelation. I have repeatedly been surprised that the ways in which people interpret the invitation fall so clearly down race lines: those who are used to being heard tend to find the experience silencing and oppressive, and are often the people in the room who pass as white and/or male; those who are used to not being heard are more likely to find it generous, and generative, even tender.

(image from Listening Table I)


Listening has a relationship with the unspoken, of course. When a room of people are collectively attempting to listen, there will be things that are not spoken that might otherwise have been voiced. And there will be things that are unspoken because they cannot yet be voiced. And there will be silencing, of self, perhaps, or coming to voice. And these things will be felt in bodies with histories, threaded through with the resonances of other stories from other lives, before and after, and alongside: our peers, mentors, parents, siblings, lovers, friends, and those who we pass by without realising that they changed our lives.

And yet, the invitation to listen is not an invitation to keep things unspoken. For me, it is actually quite the contrary. When we attempt to listen, we can more clearly perceive the extent of what is not heard, what is not said, and how speaking or declaring are only a part of what we share, navigate, and negotiate together with other humans. The things that are unspoken sit in the room with us. In the act of sharing listening, a slower, more careful dialogue unfolds. Unless it is arrested.


Listening  Safety  Whiteness.

Already those three words, sitting next to each other, do so much work. And that work lands differently in our different bodies. What is obvious in seeing those three words together changes as they are read by different eyes or heard by different ears.

When I say that I’ve been surprised that people’s behaviours so often fall along race lines, perhaps what I mean is that I’m disappointed at the impossibility of the task. My goal is not to reorient spaces that usually centre whiteness. My goal is to do the listening work that becomes possible having performed this reorientation. But it is hard not to get stuck reeling at the apparent enormity of the first task. The reorientation is such a surprise for some that they seem to experience a strong sense of vertigo. In response to this sensation, they hold on tight. And it is hard, if not impossible, to hold on tight and listen.

I want to keep safe those who are usually harmed within those spaces.


But I also want to let go of the illusion that I can keep anyone safe.

During the time that I've been running Listening Tables, I have come back to those three words again and again. I've been forced to feel the violences that run through a room when they are brought into proximity. And I've been forced to confront my own limits, my own desires, my own hurt.


I’ve been living and working on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people these past few months, witnessing the immense fires that are beyond my human understanding (though caused by human, and specifically colonial, actions) growing and changing every day. I have been trying to sit with the idea that there is no going 'back to normal'. That we are not okay, we are not okay, we are not okay. How is it possible to sit with these feelings without turning completely inwards with despair?

There have been moments in the last few months when I’ve felt shattered by these Listening Tables, and wondered whether I have the capacity to continue this work. You might think that the recent wildfires would have me turn my back on this kind of thing in favour of something more on the ground. It certainly feels strange to prioritise sitting in a quiet room, listening for what might arise between a group of strangers, while the world ends violently around us. But as it turns out, I believe in this work. I believe that, if nothing else, it reveals the underlying structures that hold us – the histories and ignorances that we would like to think belong in other bodies, somewhere out there. And it asks us to to sit with those feelings, knowing that we are not okay, together.

Trusting that the change will come wider and longer with this pause.