Terry Tempest Williams: The Art & Act of Listening

Terry Tempest Williams: The Art & Act of Listening

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN PRINT,  ISSUE #4, December 2008. (Now out of print. E-book versions forthcoming.)
Newly published here, online, the day after Election Day, November 9, 2016. (Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect any opinions of Whitefish Review, which can have no opinion on public candidates, since we are a 501c3 corporation. We engage in ideas.)

Whitefish Review founding editors Brian Schott, Mike Powers, and Ryan Friel had two conversations with Terry: first, on the eve of the general election in 2008, and next, the day after President Barack Obama was elected.


November 3, 2008

: Hi Terry. How’s it going?

TTW: Hello. Good. We’re just on the road now, so we may cut out a bit.

WR: We wanted to get a sense for how you are feeling today.

TTW: I am excited. I am nervous. I think Obama will win, but I am concerned about the mechanisms of voter registration and the lines. My fingers are crossed that democracy moves painlessly and without corruption. The pulse that I am taking is that my family who are Mormon—Republicans historically with a long, long tradition—every one of them in my family has voted for Obama. So, I’m encouraged. I just had lunch with my niece who is a student at BYU. This is her first election. She is voting for Obama. She has a button on her backpack, and so, for me, that bodes well.

WR: So talk to us about that for a second. We always feel funny when we see those maps of the red and blue states. It always seems so black and white. What do you think about that?

TTW: Well, I love Obama’s line from the speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention, that we’re not a blue America, we’re not a red America, we’re the United States of America. And I think that is more true than we even know. After traveling around the country, what is clear to me is that this is a transformative time with a transformative figure—and I think that people are really willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and see what he can do and how he can restore this very divided nation into what many call the radical center.

WR: When you run into people who are ideologically opposed and you come up against a wall, how do you deal with that?

TTW: For me it’s about listening. And really, once we truly listen beyond the words and opinions, we all want the same thing—to be our highest and deepest selves and see democracy in its fullness. Nobody wants to be at war. And we want our economy restored. We want public lands to really be our public commons. I think that people are beginning to move in a different direction—where sacrifice and responsibility and service replace greed, entitlement, and selfishness.

WR: So are you feeling that the “open space of democracy” is, in fact, opening?

TTW: I hope so. The Bush Administration has done much to close an open society. But it’s not going to be easy. We have a lot of work ahead of us to restore what has been lost. It’s easy to project all of our hopes and dreams on one person and that is also very naïve. He is going to open the door for a greater participatory democracy. But we’re all going to have to really work hard to support his vision and to work hard so that he understands our vision from the grassroots up; especially regarding public lands issues.

WR: What are the arguments you hear about public lands or open space issues?

TTW: I don’t think Obama knows very much about them. He’s an urban politician, so the hope is that he will get very smart people around him that will understand these issues. And I think having new Senators like Mark Udall and Tom Udall from Colorado and New Mexico will help make that transition stronger.

WR: How is your book tour going?

TTW: The book tour has enabled me to open the conversation about larger issues within communities. The conversations that I am having and that I’m hearing are how can we take that which is broken, especially our democracy over the past eight years, and restore it to a place of engagement once again. And I think that’s very much on all of our minds. How do we reengage with hope? How do we reemerge in a living democracy? And how do we find the language that opens hearts rather than closes them as we begin this new conversation with a new administration.

WR: So, in a couple of words, sum up your mood one day before the election?

TTW: I am very hopeful, optimistic. Believe me. I will be breathing a huge sigh of relief and great, great enthusiasm the day after the election, if Obama becomes our 44th President. And believe me; I’m not going to sleep. Because the last two elections I went to sleep, I woke up with a different President than I had anticipated. I think this is a thrilling time. And I think it’s a transformative time. We are on the eve of American history, world history. Our son Louis Gakumba who is from Rwanda received a text message from his uncle in Rwanda. They are all watching this election. It’s not just America anticipating the results of this, but the entire globe.

WR: Thanks for your time. We’ll talk with you in two days time.

TTW: Let’s just keep lighting candles for this new era. I really think it’s going to happen. I think the voter turnout will be huge. And there’s a part of me that believes that this is going to be a landslide for Obama, which is really a landslide for change. So that’s where my heart is. Right now as we speak I’m looking out over the most beautiful desert light in Castle Valley, red rock cliffs, illuminated.

November 5, 2008

WR: Hello, Terry. How are you?

TTW: Can you believe it?

WR: It’s unbelievable. I mean it’s believable, but it’s so exciting.

TTW: It is exciting. What are you seeing from your vantage point?

WR: There seems to be a good sense of unity.

TTW: And I love that today Rush Limbaugh said that he’s not interested in unity. That is a direct quote. Which I think says everything. We’ve become addicted to this kind of political polarization. And I think in the heart of America, we’re all sick of it. I loved that in his acceptance speech, Obama said, “I promise you I will listen, especially when we disagree.”

WR: We thought that was the power of the speech right there—directly talking to the people who didn’t vote for him.

TTW: Again, America feels flush with possibility right now. It really shows the power of leadership and the hope that Obama inspired. It is more than words—it is a vision he is holding, not only in this country, but all over the world.

WR: Did you hear from your son?

TTW: We did. In fact Louis was saying that he couldn’t sleep all night long because he was receiving so many calls from his relatives in Rwanda. After Obama won the Democratic nomination, Louis’ uncle called and said, “We have a cow for Obama—how can we get it to him in America?” He said people are so excited and that his friends from Kenya have called and it’s a national holiday today. People are dancing, singing. I think it’s just indicative of this transformative moment all over the world.

 WR: So what do you think the implications of this election will be worldwide?

TTW: What the Obama presidency conveys to the world is that America wants a different way of being. It wants to return to an emancipatory democracy, not the imperialistic, impulse behavior of the Bush administration. The key word is “listen” and America is committed to listening—to the people, to each other, to those who disagree—and a commitment to listening to those around the world. If you’re committed to the act of listening, then you’re committed to dialogue. And out of dialogue comes true change.

WR: Talk to us more about listening. How does one become a better listener?

TTW: One becomes a listener when one is interested beyond oneself. When you are truly interested in what the other person is thinking and feeling, empathy emerges. We can begin to consider another person’s point of view. Curiosity empowers the art and act of listening. Listening becomes engagement. And we haven’t had an administration that supports this and I think that has affected all of our societal conversations. All you have to do is listen to the pundits on television. No one is listening. They’re shouting. They’re telling. They’re exhorting. But to listen, one has to have a stillness of soul, a steadiness of mind, and a regard for others. When we listen we can respond from a place of thoughtfulness rather than simply reacting out of our opinions.

WR: Has spending time in quiet places in the wilderness helped you become a better listener?

TTW: It’s one of the reasons why I feel so strongly about wilderness and open spaces. It not only invites us to listen on a deeper level, but it almost demands it. The other powerful aspect of listening is that in order to really listen, one has to create an atmosphere where that kind of trust can be maintained—and not only be maintained, but encouraged. The way Obama did not take on a stance of elation or put the focus on him, I think that was so instructive. Instead, it was immediately, “This election is not about me, it’s about you. I need your help.”

He then introduced two words, “sacrifice” and “service”. It’s a very different tenor than what we’ve heard before in America where it’s all about the individual, where it’s about our right to a certain kind of livelihood. This is a radical change in the rhetoric. So not only will we have a culture of listening from the top down with Obama at the helm, but all of us now have been challenged, encourage,  inspired to listen within our own homes, to listen within our own neighborhoods and communities. And just that act alone will shift our conversation in remarkable ways. What can we sacrifice in the name of the common good? How can we serve and perhaps more to the point what are we in the service of?

WR: So talk to us a little more about the national conversations 24 hours ago versus today.

TTW: I feel like I can breathe, for one thing. I was talking to my father who has been a lifelong Republican, where he just said, “I feel calm today in a way I haven’t before because I feel like there is someone who is willing to learn.” I think that willingness to learn, to evolve, to realize that you don’t know everything is important—and that you’re going to surround yourself with people who are knowledgeable—just that alone crosses over the divide of the Republican and Democratic congress. We’re all going to be asked to stretch and it’s not going to be easy. Now, the real work begins—after eight years. Today I was so excited and thought “How can I be a better neighbor, how can I be a better person, how can I be a better aunt?” Again, I think Obama is asking us to be our highest and deepest selves. How do we create that steadiness of soul and capacity to really listen, which is our ability to engage on a much more substantial level.

WR: Obama seemed to downplay what the government can do for us and turned it into more of what we need to do and how we need to act and take on more responsibility.

TTW: Isn’t that what democracy asks of us? To participate? And we seem to forget that. We are not a nation of voyeurs. We are a nation of open-hearted people who have a great capacity to give. That’s what the world has missed. I do not believe we can look for leadership beyond ourselves. Ultimately, I think we have to look for it within our own heart. And I don’t think we can wait for someone or something to save us from our global predicament. We need to look in the mirror and ask, “If I want the direction of the country to change, how can I change myself?”

This morning I woke up and went down to the banks of the Colorado River. I was so excited, thinking how everything had changed. But then I was struck how in a sense, nothing had changed. And yet, from my own human perspective, everything has changed. It put things in perspective, because it’s easy to get caught up in the euphoria of “we won” and “this is what we’ve been waiting for, this is what we’ve been dreaming about.”

But really, when it comes down to it, the river’s still running, the red rock cliffs are still standing as they have for five hundred million years. We still live in the same place. We’re a nation at war twice in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our economic structure is collapsing. One man is not going to make everything suddenly right, but I think that he is a mirror of what is not only possible but necessary in this nation, where each of us has the capacity to change. And that change comes from a personal level and on a national level and a global level. To me, that’s the power of Obama being president.

WR: What drew you into activism and political dialogue?

TTW: For me, it’s always about love. Love of family. A love of place. A love of wildness. A love of justice. And love requires our direct engagement.

WR: One thing we recently learned is that you spent time in jail for an act of civil disobedience. We were interested to hear about that.

TTW: It’s not something that I talk a lot about. I do believe in civil disobedience. It’s a powerful tool for social change. I’ve actually been arrested many times at the Nevada Test Site when our country was still testing nuclear bombs in the desert. I write about that in Refuge and how I belong to a Clan of One-breasted Women. Nine women in my family have all had mastectomies; seven are dead. Crossing the line of the Nevada Test Site was really crossing a political line for me that I could no longer sit by and watch everyone in my family die. My brother passed away three years ago from lymphoma. This is the ongoing legacy we live with in the atomic West.

In 2003, there was a large demonstration at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Washington D.C. It was two weeks before the occupation in Iraq. There were probably 10,000 people involved in that march. We marched down to Lafayette Park right across from the White House. We were told we could not enter the Park. Lafayette Park is part of the National Park Service. Public lands, public commons, was now closed. I remember Medea Benjamin, from Code Pink, was talking to the chief of police for Washington D.C. saying “Here’s our permit, why can’t we go onsite?”

And then I remember Rachel Bagby, an extraordinary signer, African American, walk over to one of the policemen that was creating this blockade, also an African American. She looked directly into his eyes and began singing “All we are asking is give peace a chance.” In that moment, I realized that neither one of them would be who they are or where they are, had it not been for their mothers and fathers and mothers and fathers before them who had committed acts of civil disobedience in the name of social justice. I watched the officer’s eyes fill up with tears. He stepped aside and literally created the open space that we walked through. There were 23 women who walked through—and, one by one we were arrested and taken to the Anacostia jail.

 WR: That is a powerful story.

TTW: I think what’s powerful about it is, again, that capacity to engage on a deeper level.

WR: And sometimes on a one-on-one level.

TTW: Exactly. And so often so much of what we hear in the news, so much of what we hear about the government, is an abstraction. But when you are engaging one person at a time, it becomes very real and deeply human. When I think about John Lewis in his biography Walking with the Wind, he talks about when he crossed the bridge at Selma and was one of the first to be beaten by the police. He knew that if he just had enough strength to wipe the blood from his eyes before he lost consciousness and make eye contact with his perpetrator, that his life would be saved. And the life of the perpetrator would be changed. And that’s exactly what happened. With his last bit of strength, he wiped the blood from his eyes and his eyes met with the policeman’s eyes and the man stopped beating him. For him, that was the transformative moment.

And I think that’s what is so powerful about the human experience is that if we listen to one another, if we hear each other’s stories,and if we care enough to engage on a level that may create risk for both sides, transformation can occur. The remarkable thing about the Obama campaign is that it really has been a campaign from the ground up. To the point where our son from Rwanda, who was here for less than a year, gave twenty-five dollars to Obama, when he had less than two-hundred dollars to his name. And he has been completely and utterly engaged ever since. When he sees Obama he sees the possibility for himself. It is the same kind of personal engagement that people feel when they are called upon to serve—to be a part of something larger than themselves. Perhaps this is the power of community.

And I think that’s what civil disobedience is—when you read Thoreau, when you read the work of Martin Luther King Jr. This is what the beloved community looks like, feels like. And I would argue that I believe we’re evolving to a place that community involves all species, not just human beings. So that becomes my question. What might a different power look like? Feel like? And can we engage and let go of power to really honor species other than ourselves? That is a leap. The book that I just completed, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, looks at the power of mosaic, not just as an art form, but as a form of integration. Taking that which is broken and creating something whole.

It looks at a Utah prairie dog colony in Bryce Canyon National Park and it also looks at a genocide survivor’s village in Rwanda. One could say, “How dare you talk about prairie dogs and Rwanda genocide in the same book?” But I would argue that the extermination of a species and the extermination of a people are predicated on the same impulses: prejudice, cruelty, ignorance, and arrogance—all circling around issues of power and justice.

WR: Talk to us a bit about Rwanda and how you arrived there.

TTW: I never know where I’m going in terms of my work. I just live my life and trust it. In 2005, Lily Yeh, a Chinese-American artist, asked if I would accompany her to Rwanda and be her scribe, part of her team of Barefoot Artists, to help build, with genocide survivors, a genocide memorial. What I learned by listening to the stories of the women who watched their children butchered by hand, was that they needed a place of beauty to bury the unburied bones of their children.

It was a matter of national security—the security of their own hearts. We witnessed both Tutsi and Hutu working side by side creating mosaics literally from the rubble of war and constructing a genocide memorial for the bones of their beloved—so the bones of their beloved could be buried. What I learned was that finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.

WR: How does traveling like this affect your consciousness?

TTW: One thing I realized is that much of this book is about witnessing—bearing witness. I think before working with the prairie dogs and certainly before going to Rwanda, I believed that witnessing was a passive act. I don’t believe that anymore. I think that when you bear witness, especially in a place like Rwanda, your consciousness changes.

You see things, hear things—you feel things differently because you are there. And you are engaged. You are a participant in that conversation, in that listening, in that act of witnessing. And I think that when your consciousness shifts, your actions follow that change of mind. Rwanda—it was so shocking—the violence that is now its history. Neighbors killing neighbors by hand. Nothing in our imagination could prepare us for what we saw and what we heard—the stories. You look at the women’s eyes and their faces and you know that the grief is alive. You know these women are still hurting, traumatized. Every square inch of Rwanda have had been bled on and bled over. There was no church that we went in that we didn’t look up and see bullet holes. Light raining down, like constellations. Blood stains on walls when you are walking though town. The evidence is everywhere, even thirteen years later. But it is mainly in the people’s faces. That’s the other side. There is this incredible resiliency—the power of the human sprit to stand up again.

WR: We’re young writers and are interested to ask established writers how they work.

TTW: Writing is really hard for me. Words don’t come easily for me. But they come with a cost. It’s worth it. I don’t write every day. I’m a binge writer. I write out of love. I write out of my passion. I write out of anger. I write to disturb. I write to make sense of what makes no sense at all. I write to uncover. I write to discover. I think mainly I write to the heart of my question. With Refuge, the question that was keeping me up at night was, “How do we find refuge in change?” For this book, the question was, “How do we find beauty in a broken world?” I remember with the first book I wrote, Pieces of White Shell, it was really the question of what stories do we tell that evoke a sense of place? So for me, it’s always a question grounded and illuminated with people in place.

When I wrote that op ed piece for The New York Times, about how our vice president Dick Cheney was creating our energy policy behind closed doors, I talked about these 40,000-pound thumper trucks that were roaring across America’s Red Rock Wilderness just outside Arches National Park. That was fueled by anger, but behind and beneath that anger is love. So, I think that’s the motivation.

WR: A lot of people see activism as being angry about something, and we wondered where the line is between being angry about something and being in love with something?

TTW: You know, I remember talking to Ed Abbey about that very question when I was in my twenties. I loved his answer. He said, “Anger. Call it sacred rage.” I think there’s such a difference. We’re not writing polemics. Who wants to read that? But there is a sacred rage. It is, as you suggest, a coupling of art and love, with anger. And I think it’s okay to be angry. But only if it doesn’t shut down our heart. I think that phrase, “sacred rage,” asks us to create something beautiful out of the pain of what we’re feeling, or the joy. To explore, to convey, to illuminate, elucidate—again, why we write.

Known for her impassioned and lyrical prose, Terry Tempest Williams is the author of the environmental literature classic,Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Patience and Passion in the Desert; and The Open Space of Democracy. Her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World, was published in 2008 by Pantheon Books. She is a columnist for the magazine The Progressive. Her new book is The Story of My Heart by Richard Jeffries, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams (Torrey House Press), in which she and Brooke Williams expand upon the 1883 book by Richard Jeffries. Her most recent book is The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The book was published in June, 2016, to coincide with and honor the centennial of the National Park Service.

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