Anatomy of listening: The Shape of Stones

One afternoon in the hospital I was working with and elder, I will call him Jim. He was having difficulty breathing and panicking that he could not get his breath. We sat together and very gently, by invitation, I just massaged his hands as we were chatting. I often think the hands are portals to our interiority. When another person holds our hands it’s almost as if with that action, the door to each others’ world is opened briefly. Jim spoke about his illness and his story so far. Then a sentence landed from Jim right between us, as a bright visitor to our conversation, he said through a half whisper; “I cant seem to keep up with it all”

 I asked him what was he trying to keep up with, and he said; “the world”

I was sat in the airport in Madrid, an older woman was on crutches, each step in itself seemed a whole universe. She occupied such a different time to all those around her. I sat and watched her for an hour or so, and that hour melted into deep time, but she was clearly invisible to those around her. People would enter her orbit and have to change gear, they had to re-navigate and break their own rhythm. I could see peoples’ frustration as their progress was briefly redirected. For me there was something joyous in witnessing the change, the block to progress, the redirection, and the gravitas with which she moved.

At this time in particular we are forced into another rhythm, and as humans, rhythms are so primary to how we navigate ourselves in the world. Whether its the seasons or how we eat and sleep. Our rhythms and our relationship to our own and others’ is so key to feeling well.

So thinking about rhythm in relation to listening.

It seems that In order to listen we must first surrender something – something within ourselves – and touch in with an inner availability or emptying of sorts. So often in listening, the part of us which formulates a response is habitually awakened. Albert Camus coins this perfect sentence which encapsulates the rhythms of togetherness:

“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow

Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead

Walk beside me… just be my friend.”

The work i do, if you can call it work, is about being beside. There are, perhaps, many ways to be beside another as there are people. But the particularities of listening, of sidestepping our own rhythm for a little time, and allowing our selves to feel out another, is part of it.

Sometimes I imagine placing my ears on my heart, how wonderful that would be. 

One on the front, and one on the back. One to listen to what’s coming towards my heart and one to hear what’s about to come out, if anything. But all this listening located gently in the heart.

As one listens, the stories impress themselves, like a heel in clay upon us. Deep or light. The communication leaves a mark, then we feel that imprint and let it be there.

St. Benedict’s rule for monastic life speaks of “Listening by inclining the ear of your heart.”

So one of the questions I have is how we arrive at the conditions necessary to enable listening. How do we incline, or shape our inner ear like a sail, so that we catch the right wind to take us out to the vast sea where we may meet the other.

Listening, perhaps in some cultures and conditions, is a luxury. The very fact that one’s time is not occupied by wondering about safety, food, shelter. When one’s interiority is available without fear, when there’s time even to daydream, how a precious thing that is and how we can take it for granted to have daydreaming time.

When i was about 7, I used to be lucky enough to spend days up in my father’s house in North Wales. Early morning I would set off for the day, a bright skip into the day as if it was pulling me towards its unfolding. I would head down to the river and slowly begin the work of listening. Now, as I recall and look back, I see that play was a kind of prayer. In the organisation of rocks and mud to places in the river, a small dam to hold the water, and a little red boat that, when the time was right, I would set it free downstream. 

Each time a stone would be moved, I would hold the stone, and in me I would listen to its shape – ever so briefly – through my hands, and as a 7 year old that I was, it was done without too much seriousness about much of anything. I would know where it needed to go through the feel of it. Each stone carefully placed in the work of play, formed this inner care for my hunches. Over time, and over years of work as an improviser, the home of my intuition was built. Stone by stone. 

Intuition is one of ingredients of listening, but it can be slippery and you can’t always catch it’s tail. But the practice of trusting that arising yes or arising no that knocks on the inside door of the body, is what cultivates it, and makes it more possible to lean on in daily life. One listens in, and from the cacophony of voices that call up within us each day, there is always one voice that steps forward with a clarity. That voice is often earned by waiting about, patiently. There’s nothing more tiresome than pulling out the words from myself when they haven’t been warmed up by the fire of the heart.

The care we take with our own story, and the stories of others, seems so vital. I have spent time with some in the hospital watching how, as the story rolls out of their mouth, along with the  corresponding gesture, a brightness falls upon them, even in recounting the darkest of stories. The words and gestures often weave a mirror that hangs majestically, right in front of them, for only a few moments before it vanishes. And when that mirror appears you see it in the eyes; two canyons of light.  

The remembering of something about themselves was there long enough to bring back a knowing that was forgotten. 

A strange visitor, entering, nodding its head with a familiar smile  saying: “Yes, yes it’s you: you’re feeling.” And leaving again. 

I guess I come this this work because I know the power of being listened to, simply put. Listening can bring you closer to feeling more like yourself.

I once heard Nóirín Ní Riain tell a story on an online talk about an old traditional Irish singing called Sean nos. When this was sung, the men – particularly, would pull the cap down over their eyes to allow them to go into the song and become the song. I find that, in a way, listening is the same, we pull down the cap over the habits of thought so we can listen deeper to the song of the others, in their words and gestures.

As I walk the corridors of the care home with the team I work with. We make ourselves a flock. A small one, but a flock nonetheless. With the ears of the heart as open as they can be, we are shepherded around by voices, calls from the rooms, smells, sighs, shouts and cries, and as a faithful flock we follow where the wind takes us.

We enter a room, and are greeted and we greet. An eye to an eye, and hand to a hand or something else less known, and we wait, and we listen. The musician plays something that seems to arrive on the wind too, it grows out of what’s happening now, right now. We rock back and forth, and a song emerges. A small movement emerges from the distance of this person in a bed that always seems to consume the sleeper like a tired mouth. A hand unfurls, and we carry that gesture a little longer by picking it up ourselves. The unfurled hand becomes a note, and that note becomes song – a song that’s known – and ‘Amazing Grace’ appears with great vigour. We are in a church of our own making.

It all settles, a head turns, we creep back out into the corridor and are plunged back in to the listening of the whole again. That’s the rhythm.

Listening can hold together what might seem separate. I often think of the act of listening more of a receiving, as if the words, gesture, a silence – or the way the person wears their face that particular day – is like a perfume. 

It fills the corners of the air with a scent that the listener takes time to receive. At first, one scent, then another, then the whole, then gradually one can begin to differentiate and appreciate the complexities of each part.

If you could open up listening like a body, and take a good look around, the pumping life giving ground of it, you would find at it centre, in the middle of the blood wet heat of the heart is care.

The morning state changes when I arrive at the care home.

We are like the weather system, moving through the home, bring rain, bring sun, bring cloud to shelter.

We are clowns, priests, handymen, entertainers, singers, chaos bringers, peace makers, protestors, interior designers, listeners, trouble makers.

Mothers, fathers, brothers, nurses. That cousin you never liked, the school teacher, the robber. 

We are lost, most of the time, I think thats the point. We only know where we are, when something comes alive by whats called out from within us by the elders we work with.

She looks out of the window

We enter the dream she is in

The grief of her father comes through in waves

her body curls in

and uncurls out

He holds her feet

We sing a song

The sun is so so bright somehow

He sits in the chair

I smell the flowers

He hums a lullaby made for now

As we leave she gestures a kiss that

meets the air

Her hand extends, reaches her lips

She sends a kiss our way.

She is fully there in this action

She turns to look out of the window

The man in the wheelchair is on the other side of the corridor

Far away he gestures

He comes closer

“I was once lost, now i’m found,” he sings with us

I feel the grief like wind hit my face

He has tears in his eyes

The woman with him couldn’t

sense that, she smiles, he is crying

Halfway through the song we all forget the words and laugh

I taste that feeling of forgetting briefly

Is that whats it like to be suspended in


We ask the question: What do you

wish for?

Its surprising how difficult it is

Where have the wishes gone?

Can we find out?

The desire, the fire.

have they been stored somewhere in a room

in the basement?

Maybe hope is there too?

Shall we break in at night and set it all free?

How can people not see how all that is older matters as much as what is young?

I think of the staff. I imagine them, one day soon with their feet in hot water and salts like my grandmother used to do

Feet up, eyes closed, resting, maybe someday

Perhaps we can all go, all of us, when this pandemic eases, 

offer a bucket of warm water and our hands

Our listening hands.

Oh the touch we can give again and the touch we can receive. We could wash their feet, hold their feet, that have been up all hours, perhaps

Not in a holy way – although it is

But with ordinary thanks for all their care

because we are all fragile

Those in charge, those who care, those who are cared for

We have all been shaking a little at home in our pyjamas these days.

This morning i saw this white streak in my hair, it caught the light right, for me to stop for moment and wonder about getting older, and that its happening now. This very moment, things die and things grow. The need to see and feel ageing within our very tissues to know its inevitability, to care for those changes as precious within us, perhaps might make us care more for those who are a little further down that road than us. But know that we are all walking the same road, we might want to begin that work now, of how the elderly are cared for, repair the road, as it were. How we see and value elders. Their contribution to the fabric of all the communities we exist in, and the people who care for them. During this time of the pandemic the ethics of care has shown its face so clearly in the holes that we see in the system and how the elders have often fallen through. We can see now I hope,  I really do, that every life, no matter where its sits within the strange numbers we give it. Is precious

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