Sunday, February 21, 2016

Listening to Faces

On my best days, I am quiet. "You have two ears and one mouth," said my Grandpa one day as we walked together down a row of tomatoes, "So you should listen twice as much as you speak. You might learn something if you listen." I looked into his watery blue eyes, watery with memories from his childhood on a dairy farm and service in World War II and work in heating and air conditioning, watery with tenderness from raising five children and caring for my Grandma and tending gardens, and I grinned at him with a twinkle in my own watery blue eyes. I didn't say a word. I was quiet. I was listening.

One evening, I was sitting on a bench on Main Street reading my worn copy of Cry The Beloved Country, marveling at the way Alan Paton listened to life, writing in my notebook, wondering at the life around me, when I looked up and saw an old man shuffling by. He wore a tattered, holey raincoat, a baggy pair of pants splattered with mud from a thunderstorm from earlier in the week, and a pair of leather shoes with the sides split out of them revealing sockless, bruised feet that were battered by hot, hard streets. I watched him quietly, without speaking, only listening as he passed by.

I was listening to something without words, because he wasn't speaking to me or to anyone around him. Or was he? "You should listen twice as much as you speak," I remembered.

"Maybe," I thought, "Just maybe that's because the most important things in life are quiet and speak to us twice as much without words as with words." I listened in a way I had never listened before. I listened to the old man's face.

Yes, I listened to the old man's face. I listened to each wrinkle along his forehead and around his eyes. "What made that wrinkle?" I asked myself. "Was it laughter...or tears? Is it natural old age...or deep suffering? Was it carefree living...or a heavy, heavy heart?" I listened to the sadness in his watery blue eyes. "Why are you looking down as you shuffle by?" I asked myself. "Are you holding back tears? What have you seen with those eyes?" And I listened to his dirty, unshaven cheeks. "Do you have anyone to take care of you?" I thought. "Are you lonely...are you alone?"

Listening to faces is hard work and has to be developed slowly over time. We live in a world that teaches us to speak twice as much as we listen, or to speak without listening at all. Yet, over time, listening to faces will grow the most important thing we can have in our hearts - deep empathy for each person we encounter every day. And, over time, listening to faces will grow the most important thing we can have in our hands and feet and, indeed, our words - simple kindness that guides us to put our arms around the shoulder of a shuffling old man and say, "Would you like to sit down and have coffee with me? Would you like to be my friend?"

I found a friend because I listened to his face.

As a public school teacher, I work hard to listen to the faces of my students. Just this week I was talking with Geraldine about a wonderful book she is reading, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. "Oh Mr. Barton," she said with a giggle, "I'm just like Ophelia in the story because she's a curious kind of kid and I'm a curious kind of kid because I want to know everything about everything." Then she became serious. "But she's a nervous kind of kid, too, because she's had a hard life and I've kind of had a hard life, too."  I looked into her earthy brown eyes and thought about the ground and soil from which she came, for she came here from the farms and fields of Mexico with her family. For the first time I noticed the faintest of dark circles around her eyes, the slightest of a downward turn at the corners of her mouth, and a hint of tiredness and sadness that should not often be on a ten-year-olds face.

"Geraldine," I asked, "What's your life like?" And she told me her story. "I share a room with my Mom, my Aunt, my sister, and my two younger cousins," she began, "And my family works really hard."

As she talked with me about the book and about her life, a tiny tear appeared in the corner of her eye. I wondered if it came from giggles or from sadness. I caught the tear in my hand as it rolled off of her cheek.

"See how I caught your teardrop?" I asked. "As your teacher, I'm here to catch your happiness and your sadness, Geraldine. I'm here to help you learn everything about everything so you can be anything you want to be. I am here."

I was there because I listened to her face.

What are the stories of the people around us? What are their faces saying? With our two ears, and with the ears of our hearts, let's listen.

Saturday, February 20, 2016


The sun rose on the horizon, half way over the land, half way under the land, reddening the island the color of revolution. Tomás laid on his side and looked out the single window of the gardener's hut. He felt Gabby's body against his, her chest on his back, her leg over his hip, her arm around his shoulder, holding him, holding him. "Gabby's body isn't against mine," he realized in the silence, "Her body is with my body, her hands are with my hands, her feet with my feet, her heart with my heart, her life with my life. She is my friend. I am not alone, not alone."

Tomás feared loneliness with a fear both ever present and absolute, a fear he sometimes stood against nose to nose and fought against with bare knuckles and raging heart, yet a fear he sometimes fled unequivocally with weeping eyes and pounding heart, a fear that grew out of the dry, broken ground of his parents deaths, deaths he could neither fathom nor give voice to because one moment they were there with him, with him, holding his hand, running their fingers through his hair as he drifted off to sleep, holding him in their arms, and the next moment they were gone, crushed by the landlord and the land until they disappeared into dust and memory, a bitter root of loneliness that grew on a plant of fear.

Once, the priest had told him, "Do not fear loneliness, Tomás. You are never alone. God promises that. God is with you. You are never alone."

Tomás loved the old priest and respected his life and work. He didn't have much use for his metaphysics, though. There was much more comfort in the priest's friendship and Gabby's presence than in words and ideas about God.

"Words and ideas, ideas and words," thought Tomás. "They are worth so little...yet are so much of my own life." They were. He remembered his childhood, when he was a boy in his first years of primary school. His mother held his tiny hand and led him over the threshold of the door of their small house toward his first day of school. He stopped suddenly, grabbed the door frame and exclaimed, "I'm only going to go to school so I can learn now to write!"

After he learned to write, he wrote and thought and thought and wrote. His Mother, on the way to the garden to pick fruits and vegetables from the plants and vines and trees of the land, would find him beneath the apple tree beside the fence of the garden, writing, writing, his bony shoulders hunched over his notebook as if he were a human question mark, his long fingers gripped around his pencil as if he were a human exclamation mark, writing, writing the things that he saw and heard and smelled and tasted and thought and felt. His Father, on the way back from the sugar cane fields, would find him on top of the giant rock in their yard, thinking, thinking, his eyes to the sky as if he were seeing something others barely missed seeing, his ears to the ground as if he were hearing something others barely missed hearing.

Both his Mother and his Father saw that in these moments of writing and thinking, a soft light encircled his body, the mark of a saint, a faint halo that lost his parents in wonder, for, even though they did not believe in the god of the church, they did  look for evidence of god around them, hoping against hope that god was real, was with them, would help them. "Perhaps god will be in the words of our son," they thought as they drifted off to sleep each night, worn down from the hard work of planting, gathering, tending, and hoping, holding each other with calloused hands in stick thin arms with full hearts hoping, hoping.

Sometimes as he wrote, and the light glowed around him at his bare work desk, he used words to fight the loneliness - the loneliness of the farmers, giving their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies to the land day after day, year after year, until they became the dust from which they were made; the loneliness of the workers, giving their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies to the factories, day after day, year after year, until they became gears and grease themselves; and the loneliness of the servants, giving their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies to their patróns day after day, year after year, until they became the rags and the basins from which they served - all working, the farmers, the workers, and the servants, for subsistence, enough food to stay alive, barely; for shelter, enough wood and tin to stay alive, barely; and for song, enough music to stay alive, barely, for nothing and yet for everything.

Sometimes he used words to flee the loneliness - his own loneliness, his fear of losing Gabby, his fear of losing the priest, his fear of losing the doctor, so he used words as colors and his pen as a brush and painted their human faces, in hope that these faces would live beyond his years, in faith that these faces would be with him, be with him, always, always, and as he painted these pictures he wept, a weeping from a place deep within him, a place of which the old priest had spoken, "See with the eyes of your heart," he had pleaded, "For it is then, only then, that you will see to build a new humanity, to build a new world," and he painted Gabby, her brown eyes filled with life and kindness, her black hair hanging down to her shoulders, her dark skin in nakedness beautiful, beautiful, her hands and feet calloused and compassionate, her smile for him, for him; and he painted the priest, his tattered clothes from so much giving, his tarnished crucifix, the first gift he was given after his ordination, his reminder that Christ is in each and every person he sees each and every day, his hunched shoulders from so much praying, his face, his face so full of love, love; and he painted the doctor, the sparkle in his clear, blue eyes, the deep wrinkles of concern on his forehead, the broken hands that heal, heal...and he turned to Gabby in the morning light and held her closely to him, held her, held her and whispered, "I love you," and the loneliness went away, for a while.

Monday, February 15, 2016





3 billion

miles away from Earth

a small, cold forgotten planet

that a group decided is no longer a planet

"Pluto is not a planet because of its size and location in space," they agreed

When I was a little boy at my desk in my classroom, Pluto was my favorite planet because it was so small and far, far away

Pluto had no gravity, no pull on the Earth, but it had gravity on my heart

I loved Pluto, felt it in the deep space of my heart

New Horizons just journeyed there

found it had a heart





Sunday, February 14, 2016

Particles of Light

Did you know that one particle of light (called a photon for those of you who aren't science nerds like me) can be in one place and another particle of light can be in another place and yet they can be so intimately linked that if you changed one then it would affect the other? It's true! Elizabeth Landau, who works for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote about it in an article titled "Particles in Love: Quantum Mechanics Explored in New Study." That article works through entanglement, an idea published by John Bell in 1964 that said that even though information cannot travel faster than the speed of light (Albert Einstein proved this), particles can still affect each other when they are far apart.

Here is a cartoon from NASA/JPL-Caltech that explains entanglement.

Even though there are two photons, they behave as if they are one. What you do to one affects the other, even if they are separated in space and time.

In 2015, three separate studies were published on entanglement, and all three studies were consistent with Bell's idea. Those studies showed that any model of the world that contains variables that are hidden (as the world of the tiniest things does within the branch of physics called quantum mechanics) "must also allow for entangled particles to influence one another at a distance," said Francesco Marsili of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who collaborated with colleagues on a paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters titled "Strong Loophole - Free Test of Local Realism."

Bell's idea makes me wonder - are we as human beings like entangled photons?

When I was a boy, I walked down the newly plowed row with my grandpa, feeling the warm, red clay on the soles of my bare feet, listening to his stories. I held a tomato plant in my hands, the rich, black potting soil falling off of the small, vulnerable roots, as he knelt and dug a place for it in the garden. Hey, he said, here's something my daddy told me when I was little. God gave you two ears and one mouth because He wants you to listen twice as much as you speak. If you do that, you'll learn something. If you don't, you won't.’”

I especially remember his stories about his childhood on the family dairy farm in Greenville, S.C. in the 1920s. I liked to hear stories about the black folks who came and worked with him and his family. I heard hard work in his voice and saw struggle in his face when he talked about those times.

He was a son of the South Carolina soil, a soil that had produced slavery and Jim Crow. His stories reflected his philosophical shift from the idea of white supremacy to the idea of equality. He described the black folks hed grown up with in words both simple and stark.

 I guess I looked around our farm and saw the black folks as tools, he told me once. "But there was a teenager, about my age, who worked on our place. His name was Billy, and he helped me with my work."

"One day," he continued, "We were in the barn together, cleaning up the milking area, when he cut his hand on a piece of metal. Daddy wrapped it up in a rag soaked in kerosene, as was the remedy for most farm accidents at that time, and asked me to drive him home. As we headed toward the black folks part of our town, I thought to myself, Billy must get up very early in the morning, earlier than me, to make it to our house on time. As we drove up to his house, which was what we called a shack, I thought, I wonder if Billy can stay warm in there. As I saw him holding his injured hand and watched his momma hold him up and lead him up the creaking steps and through the rickety door, well, it seemed to be one of the first times I knew that black folks had hands and feet and needs just like me. They weren't tools. They were people.

In that moment, my Grandpa learned that we as human beings cannot be separate and equal. As a matter of fact, we cannot really be separate. What happens to one person affects another - no matter what separates us. We are like photons. Good begets good. Bad begets bad. If we're good to each other then we'll be like photons in another way, too. We'll be particles of light.