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Listening: At the Farmers Market, At the Monastery

Farmers Market

At the entrance to the Saturday farmers market in Tracy, California, I call out to each passerby. Latinos, Asians, white folks like me; people with head scarves, Trump hats, tattoos hurry past, pushing strollers, trundling groceries.

“Hey, could I have a few minutes of your time to ask some questions?” I shout over the hubbub of the street. A 40ish Asian woman pauses, examines me quizzically. “Maybe,” she says, “What’s this all about?”

I have a wide brimmed hat, wide smile, silver hair, and a sign on my clipboard declaring in red white and blue—Register to Vote. I’ve come here from Berkeley to help turn this swing congressional district from red to blue.

The woman has black hair in a bun, a flowered blouse, heeled sandals, a shopping bag, and an accent (I am not sure from where).

Me (leaning against a recycling bin so I can take notes): “On a scale of one to ten…what matters most to you on this list? Healthcare; the Economy; Education; Environment; Housing; World Affairs; Women’s Rights?”

She (interrupting): “Watch out! He’s coming back!”

Me: “Who’s that?”

She: “Obama, to be president. We have to be really careful. He’s dangerous!” She lists dangers, bad economy, weak foreign policy, soft on crime….

Me, confused after she sums up her list: “No worries. That just won’t happen. You can only be president eight years. He’s done his term.”

She: “I have friends who know all about these things.”

After I say it a few different ways, I realize she’s not listening to me. Listen to her, I remind myself. I hope she’ll feel heard.

Since the Presidential election in 2016, my husband and I have often driven the 55 plus miles from Berkeley to Tracy’s Saturday Market to do voter registration and talk with people about what matters to them; this conversation is developing in unexpected directions.

I return to the list of issues and she picks healthcare. I tell her that healthcare is important to me too. I am a cancer survivor and I want to make sure health plans cover preexisting conditions.

She: “There’s a lot of cancer in this country. You know why?”

Will she say the environment? I wonder. I remember the Latino family earlier, the young teen son chipping in, “Mom, say the environment, say the environment!”

She: “I’ll tell you why. It’s the immigrants!”

That stops me. For a moment, we lock eyes.

She: “I know that may seem strange to you for me to say this, since I’m from Vietnam. But I know it for a fact from people who are up on it. Immigrants bring in the cancer.”

Me: “You do know cancer is not contagious?”

But that doesn’t convince her, and as we talk about it, I see that she is not going to be convinced. She looks at the list again and picks the economy.

She: “I love the Trumps, the Bush family. They’re successful. They come from business. They know about money.” She’s watching me closely. “Obama comes from a poor family. Why should I trust him?”

I mention that Obama got a lot of education, Occidental, Columbia, Harvard Law School….

She: “You sound like my mom. She’s with you. You don’t agree with me, do you?”

Me: “No, it’s true, there are things I think about differently. But I’m interested in what you think and why you think it.” So we continue talking, going back over some of the same themes. She keeps returning to Obama.

She: “You can’t be safe with Obama. During Obama, some of my friends got assaulted in the streets. With Trump, no one would dare beat them up.”

Keep listening, I tell myself. This matters to her.

Finally I say: “You seem really interested in these issues. I’m wondering if you might want to get more information. It seems like you could do some more studying up, research some things.”

She: “I have no idea where I could do that….”

Me: “You might try out NPR or MSNBC or CNN for the news sometime, just for a change. Consider lots of different points of view. Or talk to more people.” I give her a card from my clipboard packet with the telephone number for the community meetings of the local Indivisible group which has set up this canvassing.

She: “You’re so patient with me.” She laughs. “I don’t know why.”

Me: “Tell that to my husband and my daughter.” I laugh too. “My friends tell me I’m one of the less patient people they know.”

When she leaves to shop, we have a warm goodbye. I’m good at this, I think.

The Monastery

A monk in ochre robes seats himself on a cushion and pours himself a cup of tea; he is facing several rows of tea-drinking students including myself. I am grateful for this visit from Ajahn Pasanno each month, traveling from his home monastery in Ukiah to the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. I have come to this teatime with a question.

I am looking for Buddhist teachings I might bring to activist work. Since childhood, I’ve tended to be an activist or at least “active,” often acting on impulse before I listen and reflect. A few years back I ran into my fifth grade teacher, who told me that she always remembered the time she had asked for volunteers to do an errand. Before she finished talking, I had raced out of the room, only to speed back a few minutes later, confused because I hadn’t heard what she wanted or where to go. That sounded like me. Buddhist practice has been central in my life for over forty years now, but I am slow to learn and slow to apply what I do learn.

“How might I foster true dialogue,” I ask Ajahn Pasanno, “with people who hold views that appear to be the opposite of my own?”

“You need to listen,” he begins. He describes a stance of openness, of curiosity about what that other person has to say. “Listening is essential” he says. I feel immediately reaffirmed by his words, as that was exactly what I was trying to do at the farmers market with the Trump-loving, Obama-suspecting woman.

Then Ajahn Passano gives me a teasing smile. “Of course, you can’t simply listen to the other person. You need also to listen to yourself.”

I hear this with a jolt. Had I tracked my own reactions? I don’t think so. I reflect back on my conversation and I can almost hear my voice, “You seem really interested in these issues. I’m wondering if you might want to get more information….” Was my tone supercilious? I remember the facial diagrams of micro-expressions developed by Paul Ekman. What did this woman read in my face? Were there signals I was giving through micro-expressions rooted in unconscious feelings and views? It comes to me now how much pride I took in my own “patience.” “Ahh pride, it’s the most difficult, the last of the defilements to let go,” Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein once commented to me.

I remember a story by Eduardo Galeano of a man walking through the streets of a village. He is carrying a mirror in his hand and looking at himself with furrowed brow. “What are you doing?” people ask him. “I’m here,” he says, “keeping watch on the enemy." Surely, condescension, pride, unobserved by me—the purveyor—would get in the way of “true dialogue.” Had I been free from these obstacles, I might have been more open, more flexible; sensing this, the woman at the farmers market might have felt more at ease, more open as well. Who knows what fresh understandings might have evolved?

Gathering my thoughts back into the present, I take a sip of tea. I bow to Ajahn Pasanno and smile back at him.

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