I first hiked the Grand Canyon in January of 1981. There was snow on the rim yet 70 degrees at the bottom where we dipped our toes in the Colorado River. The whole experience turned me on my head. To start a hike going a mile down instead of a mile up as in Alaska. To see layers upon layers of rock billions of years old. To find a trail where I couldn’t see how there could possibly be one on that seemingly sheer cliff. But mostly to feel the reverberation of the canyon walls that went right through me and touched soul.
We hiked the New Hance trail that first time and came up the Grandview. I came back a few times to hike down the Hermit Trail (my favorite) and a long day when Steve and I hiked the Kaibab to the river and back. I see on the information packet given us today, that one should never attempt to hike to the river and back in a day. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time, and it was December, not the heat of summer. We were exhausted after the 12 hours up and down, but in that good way of feeling your body reach for its max. And to be walking through time, feeling minute and yet a part of some wonderful creation. Even feeling the genesis of our race here–the stones could tell that story. “
We have stopped to walk the rim trail a couple of times as we’ve traveled through on our way to elsewhere and we just about didn’t stop this time as we headed north. The crowds are so much greater now 38 years later and so many more restrictions on hiking, it just doesn’t feel the same in some ways. However, we were lured back again. The beauty is too compelling. And we found an off trail along the rim where we saw no one— relishing just the simple hiking on the edge of one of the world’s natural wonders.
It has so many complexions and emanates such mystery in its spires and sheer walls, holding fast to the knowing of ages far past, silent in its power and vastness. And as always, letting me glimpse back in time.
From a book on the Kabbalah, the book of Jewish mystics, there is this compelling thought. “According to legend, being absolute and all, the Holy One was complete but, even so, it held a desire to experience itself as if from outside, and this was the creation came into being. The Divine Plan is therefore for “God to behold God.”
When I’m at the Grand Canyon, it’s not hard to imagine God beholding God.
Sojourn means a “temporary or short stay” and thus a good word to describe my 3 day stay in the D.C. area every April for the last 4 years. I join 4 other family members there as part of an ongoing ten year research study of the LiFraumeni syndrome. When my family discovered that we carried the gene, it was both good news and bad news. On one hand, it was good to finally have some understanding of why I have a brother who had cancer at 2, a sister who had bone cancer at 15 and breast cancer at 31, another sister who had breast cancer at 49 and a father with lung cancer at 61. Two survived, two did not. One had an arm amputated and the other a leg. Cancer has defined my family in many ways and it hasn’t been just a “sojourn”. Was it just a bad luck or was there more? Dr. Li and Dr. Fraumeni first named the syndrome in 1969 after following several case studies. We weren’t the only family to have multiple carcinomas and sarcomas. They also discovered the source in a mutation of the P53 gene–a gene that suppresses the development of tumors.
We now know that there is a 50% chance of inheriting the gene if the family carries the mutation, and that is pretty much what happened with my 7 siblings. Four have it and 3 do not. With this new knowledge, our family line will not pass it on. And we are part of this research study to develop screening protocols for those that do have the mutation. So each year we have a brain MRI, a whole body MRI and for the women, a breast MRI, plus blood tests and colonoscopies every 3 years. After 6 years into the study, the researchers have proved that the whole body MRI does detect early cancers in about 10% of the participants, and early enough to prevent the need for chemo or radiation in all but 2 of the participants. With this evidence, they can recommend this to the federal agencies that verify this for insurance coverage by Medicare and Medicaid. Private insurance will then follow.
I write all this to say that at a time when we question our institutions and have a polarized Congress, I am so grateful for our government. As I walked around the sprawling NIH campus and saw the plethora of diseases that are studied and saw the hundreds of patients who are also there to aid the research, I felt a sense of community again within my country. Lots of good people with compassion and a desire to make the world a healthier and better place. I hope we can dwell in that place for a long time.
Here are the “lab rats” as we call ourselves among the April cherry blossoms of our capital.
Tomorrow, April 11, has been declared International Listening Day by a group I follow called Urban Confessional. Like the Listening Post of Anchorage, this group has experienced the power of intentional, nonjudgmental listening and is tired of the status quo–the status quo of talking over one another, interrupting, defending one’s own position. The loss is understanding where the other person is coming from–and then we lose as a community. Urban Confessional operates simply by asking folks to make a cardboard sign with the words “Free Listening” on it and go stand in a place where people pass by–and listen to understand.
The Listening Post offers weekly Free Listening in 9 places in the city now with over 35 active listeners. Yet there is another layer of vulnerability to offer it on the street. I’ve done it only once at the Town Square in our city on a cloudy cold September day that marked our ten years of listening as an organization. And tourists, university students and a few homeless came to sit. The simple act of connection in sharing a story. I’ll be doing it tomorrow again.
Wherever you are ( you don’t have to be on the street) I invite you to take a moment to listen in this way to a family member or friend or colleague or that random person you encounter in your life tomorrow. Or go to Urban Confessional.org and register to join the movement . It’s thrilling to see who is part of this movement worldwide. I can tell you how listening empowers, clarifies, de-escalates, affirms, builds trust and connects, but it’s the experience that changes us, not these words. We are in a culture that is bent on division. But it’s not who we really are.
And if that person has an opinion that is the exact opposite of how you see things, you might ask, “I wonder if you would be willing to tell me how you came to the opinion?” It has sometimes blown me away to realize what I have assumed is not so true.
I asked you to stay tuned to my exploration about Difficult Conversations following the meeting with my Listening Post volunteers. This group always brings me insight and balance when I bring a question to them. And this conversation was no exception.
Twenty-three of us met last Saturday on this topic, as listeners at the Post often have difficult conversations in their listening with our patrons. And we have come up with some pretty good guidelines for those situations when we need to confront a patron with his or her language or behavior. But we also are seeing that we take our listening into our lives outside the role of listening volunteer. How do we respond in our daily lives when we want to initiate a conversation that is hard but it matters to us? How do we keep our listening intact and have the conversation we want to avoid but we know we honestly need to have? And how do we do it with those that are closer to us?
We could all resonate with what one volunteer started with: “I say to myself, ‘I have to have this conversation’ but then I don’t. And the next day I say it again, but then I don’t.” Initiating the conversation is linked to the fear that if we say anything, the situation will get worse, not better. “Things just get inflamed,” said another volunteer. “I start talking in hyperbole,” said another. “I feel like I have to sell my point of view and start saying ‘always’ and ‘never’ when it really isn’t true. But I it feels like I just have to be passionate to get my point across.”
We each come to this conversation with a history, a story, blocks, wounds and assumptions based on how we were raised or what we have experienced. I have a wonderful mother, but she was petrified of conflict and worked desperately to achieve her goal of having her family of 9 “all got along.” Holding the family together meant no conflict. “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all,” was not only her mantra but in the entire culture as well. And I had a pretty wonderful father, but he could get angry. And we were not allowed to question his authority or as he would say, “talk back.” Again, pretty normal for most kids growing up in the 1950’s. So I associated difficult conversations with never being heard, fear of reprisal and a collapse of my own will in deference to another. I have had no mentor or model for a difficult conversation that goes well. And I don’t thing many people do.
One of our volunteers did, though. Her former husband had a way of telling people hard things in a way that they didn’t get defensive and could hear what was being said. “He would put his arm around their shoulder and start walking with them, telling them what they had done wrong on the job but nobody every felt bad the way he did it. It was feeling that they were liked, I think. Not matter what he said, they felt liked and that went a long way.”
The conversation veered to experiences when they were at the receiving end of a difficult conversation. “I know it’s said to never take things personally–that usually people are projecting an older relationship onto this one–like they are angry at me because I remind them of someone else and they vent because I’m safer. But still it’s hard to remember that when you feel like you are being attacked.”
When we broke into small groups to explore a difficult conversation that we have had or that we wish we could have, the group came back afterwards to debrief. What more had we learned? “Two of us are feeling so passionate about this conversation that we know we will never have,” said one volunteer. “Wait, I’m confused,” said another. “If you are so passionate, doesn’t that mean you need to have that conversation?” The person replied, “We just know that the other person involved would never be open to talking about it. And in some ways, it would be unkind to have the conversation. But it felt so good, cathartic, to tell another person about it.”
This was an interesting twist–how to have the discrimination to know when that may be true or when we might use that as an excuse not to have it because it’s hard. As my co-director volunteer summed it up in the newsletter that followed, “It makes me all the more compassionate about the conversations that get left unsaid on a regular basis. But it also deepens my desire to move from the certainty to the possibility of truly listening to someone ‘on the other side’ of where I stand.”
This is only a start to the conversation about difficult conversations! But it’s a start. Below are the 5 areas of challenge in a difficult conversation brought forward in the book of the same name.
Again stay tuned. I think I’ll be learning about this for quite a while as I take this intention into my life.