Listening

I was privileged to be present the day that my husband, Jeff, read aloud what he had written for the Native Corps. In Nome, AK. The Elders gathered in a small room around a large table to hear the story of how 2 native boys had led “Three Lucky Swedes” to the gold that was rich on the beach at Nome. The year was 1898. That event led to what has been called the “Nome Gold Rush.”

Jeff had previously edited a book of the letters and photos of two brothers, white men who arrived in Nome from San Jose, California, in 1899, two young men seeking their fortune.  He pieced together their story from a cardboard box of the letters and photos that had been sitting high in a dusty closet of the son of one of the miners.  In the course of putting the book together, Jeff had traveled often to Nome, and there he met with the white settlers, and then, with the Natives, who had their own story to tell about how the gold had been discovered.  His invitation to write the native account of the gold rush had come from the Native Corps because the natives had never forgotten the kindness of the two young men, gold-miners from San Jose, their kindness an anomaly in the native experience of white people.  Oral history had kept their kindness alive, and by writing about the brothers, Jeff was connected to them, to their kindness.

After many interviews and collaboration with the Native Corps., Jeff had been asked to write again about the Nome Gold Rush – this time, from the point of view of the natives.  On the day that Jeff was to meet with the Elders, I was invited to accompany him.  I will never forget that day, a highlight in my own life.  I sat at one end of a long table next to my husband, encircled by the people who would hear their oral history  put into written words, for the first time.  They sat silently as Jeff read the account, based on their own words, in interviews.

His writing told the story of how the two native boys, not knowing the value of the gold in the white man’s world, had led “Three Lucky Swedes” to the gold on the beach.  When he had finished reading, he closed the small book and sat back in his chair.

A long time passed. Silence. Finally, out of the silence, one Elder after another spoke, without interrupting one another. They reflected on the words they had just heard, often prefacing their thoughts with the words: “this is what I was told.” Their memories edited what had been written. And their memories brought into the room the living, breathing oral history that had held onto to this story – kept it alive – for a long, long time.

I was silent, observing and experiencing the wonderful moment that lay before me. I sat in the silence that the people held – in their persons – as the silence of the Holy. There was no arguing about facts. The stories were their own facts. The unwritten stories, the oral history, was truth.

I think often of that moment in my life.  I have never forgotten the depth of what I had experienced, witnessed, and known in that room.  The Elders listened, then spoke, only when they had taken in what had been told, and only when they had gathered their own thoughts. 

How do they do that? How do they remain completely present, completely whole in the company of others? How do they remain present in the avalanche of words that we so often use?

Listening, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, December 12, 2020

I have a busy mind.  I’ll bet yours is busy, too.  The mind is always “busy,” active, moving, debating, arguing, remembering.  I’m sure you know the circular movement of the mind.  The mind – in its way – prevents us from being present to this one moment.  That’s what it does.  If you doubt me, pay attention to what your mind does.  If you can, pay attention for an hour, or for a day.  The mind is not silent.  The mind is loud – and full of words. 

Listening is another spiritual practice you can embark upon.  And it is practice – for sure!  I don’t know that you’ll make progress in silencing the mind, though that may happen as a product of simply listening, of bringing your awareness to the mind.  Listen, until you begin to know that your mind is a constant flow of words, ideas, thoughts.  Listen, until you begin to know the silence between words, between thoughts.  Listen, and when you practice listening, may you begin to know this silence.  Listen, and begin to live into this silence, this Holy silence.  See what waits for you there.  And see what waits for you, then, in the presence of others.

Mary Elyn Bahlert

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