*Afterthought #55 – Listening Across Lines

Parker Palmer

Alongside reading wisdom from early Quakers in A Language for the Inward Landscape by Brian Drayton and William P. Taber, Jr., I recently listened to the wise words of a contemporary Quaker, Parker Palmer. An educator, author, and activist, Parker participated in a conference call organized by Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) on the subject of talking across ideological lines. The call was recorded, and you can listen to it at this link: http://fcnl.org/events/call_with_parker_j_palmer/.

I’m distressed by the polarization in our country and feel at a loss about how to engage in meaningful civil discourse. Parker’s opening comments about his orientation to talking across ideological lines heartened me, and throughout the call he succinctly described some strategies. Here are a couple that especially spoke to me:

  • Drawing on David Whyte’s poem “Start Close In”, search for someone you perceive is within reach and with whom you have a relationship. Begin with sincere questions to learn that person’s story.
  • Stand and act in the “tragic gap.” The gap will never close, but act out of faithfulness, rather than concern for effectiveness.

In the coming days and weeks, I’m open to opportunities to “start close in,” listening to stories of those with differing ideas. I believe Parker’s closing assessment: “No matter who wins this election, civil discourse will be needed more than ever.” Now is the time to become more skillful at bridging ideological divides.

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

Afterthought #53 Clarity by Committee

candlesThe clearness committee is one process Quakers have developed to help people discern when, or even if, Spirit is leading them. It’s like going to your favorite aunt when you’re trying to make a decision. She nods slightly as you weigh pros and cons; she responds to your wonderings with gentle questions that unlock the answers inside you.

Quaker “aunts” and “uncles” have sat with me several times as I’ve sought clarity about decisions regarding moves, work, and schooling. We’d meet together just as we do in Quaker worship. After about fifteen minutes of sinking into the silence, the clearness committee convenor would ask me to explain the decision I was seeking clarity about. The committee members would ask evoking questions, questions that only I could know the answers to. These “listening hearts” set aside personal opinions and listened deeply to my responses, supporting me to hear inward guidance.

Nearly four years ago, I wrote about my friend Jon Watts when he organized the largest clearness committee in the history of Quakerism to seek clarity about his work. Like me, Jon strives to “make decisions in a discerning way, to find the way forward that I can’t imagine, can’t arrive at just through reasoning.” A year later, I reported the results of Jon’s discernment in Afterthought #23 and announced the launch of his new work, a YouTube video series called QuakerSpeak.

And now, three years into this ministry, Jon is again exploring Quaker clearness committees with this recent QuakerSpeak video. If you’re curious about this process of spiritual discernment, this segment offers descriptions from a variety of Friends about how clearness committees work.


*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

*Afterthought #51 – Listening as an Act of Love

I’m continuing to read and enjoy Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, the latest book from StoryCorps that I reviewed in my previous post, The Perfect Pairing. And, as so often happens when I tune in to something new, I’ve experienced some lovely synchronicity—in this case, regarding the book’s example about the importance of listening.

As part of my research about Callings, I visited the StoryCorps website and found this video introduction for the project.

I was struck especially by this comment, “When you listen, great things are going to happen.” StoryCorps has some facts to support that claim. In 2015, the project surveyed listeners and found out some great things have happened as people have listened. Here are a few:

  • Increased understanding of people with a disability or serious illness
  • Increased understanding of immigrants, Latinos, and African Americans
  • Feeling connected to people with different backgrounds
  • Reminded listeners of their shared humanity
  • Helped them see the value in everyone’s life story and experience
  • Became interested in thinking about how society could be improved
  • Made them feel more positive about society

 A few days later, I got some clues about why Dave Isay considers listening “an act of love” in this On Being interview with Krista Tippett. Now I want to read another StoryCorps title, Listening Is an Act of Love.listening cover

Of course, I also was delighted with Isay’s answer to Krista’s question that she opens each interview with about his religious or spiritual background in childhood: “I went to Hebrew school when I was a kid. And I didn’t connect at all. I went to a Friends school for high school. I think I’m culturally Jewish—and maybe a little more spiritually Quaker.”

On the heels of that interview came this QuakerSpeak video.

In this conversation, a Quaker named O talks about the role of listening in healing our humanity. She also offered thoughts on what happens when we don’t listen:

My concern is that we don’t listen to each other, and it creates the world we see… People not being heard, not being seen, not being appreciated, not being valued, not being recognized. People not being recognized for that of God that dwells within them… And so we fragment… We become broken because we are not seen for who we really are.

O refers to the Quaker practice of listening each other into wholeness… to the place “where our heart is actually touched.”

My heart has been touched by all of this listening.


*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

The Perfect Pairing

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A sip of wine and a bite of food—when matched in a complementary way—dance in my mouth, the liquid and the morsel swaying in rhythm. Each is enhanced by the other, and the two together create a new pleasure—the perfect pairing. I discovered a similar delight last week when I dipped into Dave Isay’s new book Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. In my view, Callings pairs perfectly with Hands at Work, the book I collaborated on with photographer Summer Moon Scriver in 2009.

daveisayDave Isay is the creator and president of StoryCorps, the nation’s largest oral history project. Founded in 2003 with the idea that everyone has an important story to tell, StoryCorps’ approach is elegantly simple.branding_icon-b191d052a6030c56b3157fbe4cda3a9db033f161

Two people sit in a soundproof recording booth in Chicago, San Francisco, or Atlanta, or in mobile storybooths that travel the country, and for 40 minutes they ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask each other. So far the organization has recorded 60,000 stories, all archived at the Library of Congress. Many of them also end up in the Storycorps podcast.

33Callings is the fifth book from the organization. For this one, Isay narrowed the focus to stories that celebrate the passion, determination, and courage it takes to pursue work that’s about more than just making a living. He heard in these stories the same sense of being called to work that I saw in a 2004 exhibit of Summer Moon Scriver’s black-and-white photographs of people’s hands. I was particularly drawn to the images of strong, weathered, and muscled hands engaged in the work of knitting, kneading dough, digging potatoes, and spinning wool. 2They suggested to me that these people were not only willing to labor with their hands, they were nourished by those acts. As a writer, I immediately wanted to give voice to their stories.

18Summer and I had no difficulty finding a cross-section of people who rely on their hands for their work in our small, rural community in northwest Washington, though we did venture beyond our home for a few profiles. Most people were humble when asked to participate, doubting that their work, their stories, and their hands could be of any interest or importance. Yet as we talked with and photographed them at work, their fervor for painting, weaving, fishing, cooking, quilting, sculpting, boat-building, puppeteering, and even car repair was palpable and exhilarating.

As in Callings, some of the people we interviewed came to their work early in life and had a sense of finding their right place; others were on second or third careers, having found their current work later. Some were nudged into their work by someone else or were caught up in an element of romance and mystery.

Both books include stories of people stumbling into their work, responding to a strong pull to do something other than what they’d planned. For many, this clarity came in an instant as in one of my favorite pieces in Callings. An ink (as in tattoo ink) removal specialist named Dawn described it this way:

I went to school for laser tattoo removal, and the moment that I put the laser in my hands, I had one of those aha moments that you hear about but you wonder if they’ll ever happen to you. I just knew this was going to be my career. It felt so right.

 Dawn’s feeling of rightness takes on deep poignancy in her Storycorps conversation with one of her clients who, like Dawn, had been in an abusive relationship. Dawn tells that she removes those women’s tattoos free of charge.

Even though none of the people in Hands at Work used the term “calling,” many of them expressed a sense of guidance for their work coming from something outside of themselves. Here’s how vibraphonist Hawk Arps described it:

When I make music, it’s not about me. It’s something grander, a beauty out there to be witnessed through the senses. That’s why I play music – to open people to that beauty.



Every one of the thirty-five people I interviewed for Hands at Work expressed thanks for being watched and listened to as they went about the work that feeds their souls. Their gratitude was a surprise; I had underestimated how rare it is for people to really listen as we talk about our work. The power of being listened to, particularly about work, is equally evident in Callings.

I learned the lesson about listening again this past year as I interviewed twenty-eight farmers for the BOUNTY project. When the stories, photographs, and recipes from those farms and farmers come out in a book this fall, I think they’ll also pair perfectly with Callings.

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