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We Are Stories and Stardust

It has been a buzzy whirl. I’m back in my favorite coffee shop here in Schull, overlooking the harbor, taking a moment to land. It’s hard to believe sometimes how much change can happen in a few days. Not a week ago, we took to the polls in Ireland. “Landslide” was not a word I would have expected to be associated with the referendum, but that indeed it was. We had got it wrong — we had misjudged the nation’s position; radically so.

The night before the referendum, I traveled down to the most southerly tip of Ireland, to the villages of Goleen and Crookhaven to do some canvassing for the yes vote. I was a very reluctant canvasser at first; hesitant and scared to talk openly about what is such a sensitive and personal issue. What’s more, I’ve always gotten creepy vibes in Goleen, so it was the last place I wanted to knock on doors! But there is power in the pack, and when my friend here in Schull, the activist and Uplift founder, Siobhán O’Donoghue, invited me to come along, I knew this was a chance to step into my own margins, to the edge of my comfort zone.

With an interest in how social change happens, I suppose I have been training myself to think about the margins too; what’s happening on the edge of society, of innovation, of social entrepreneurship, of leadership. What new ideas or people are bringing things to form, and how can we shine a light on some of these initiatives as a way to highlight the possibilities. The margins, I have come to appreciate, have valuable insights for our collective future.

As our canvass grew closer, and as my nerves grew too, I was reminded of one of the core themes from the On Being Gathering, which I attended back in February: to listen. “There is the power of being heard. Really heard,” I had written in my On Being notes. “How often does that happen in our families let alone in political life and leadership? To learn how to be heard we also need to learn how to listen. Really listen, and be generous with it.”

Something flipped for me then. I realized I did not actually have to talk much, but instead really listen — to the “no” side, to the “yes” side, to the undecided, and to my own fear. Rather than try to impose any view or opinion, what felt more important was to give people space to reflect, tell their story, and be heard in a safe and open way. What mattered was to show up with a respectful and compassionate heart. This was my chance to practice and be generous with my listening.

As we drove the twisting rural roads, I was expecting “no” all the way from these little villages on the margins of Ireland. It was a glorious sunny evening when we arrived, the sky awash with migratory birds and evening song, the Atlantic waters calm by our side. Could I not just sit by the sea instead? My nerves grew stronger as we began the conspicuous walk. I tagged close to Siobhán. The doors awaited.

We entered in a dark pub. Men in rows drinking dark pints looked us up and down, slowly, and with great caution. One man by the bar furrowed his brow and kept his eyes low to his pint. I wanted to bolt. “Just listen,” I told my beating heart, “and stay open.” I took some deep breaths and imagined sending loving thoughts into the heart of each of those men. I was still scared.

An awkward nervousness descended. An old man raised his pint, then his eyebrows. With a gentle upward nod of the head, he finally broke the silence.

“It’s your body. You make a choice. Who are we to stop you?”

Then another man raised his pint and his approval. Then another. Then another. “You have my yes.” All the old men, with their dark pints in this strange village, “Yes.” The man who sat at the bar remained silent, his brow now softened, a smile about to breach, if only he’d let himself.

It was all enough to know: I had misjudged the margins.

Edges. Perimeters. Boundaries. Borders. Peripheries. Horizons. Thresholds. Margins.

These are things that hold interest, marking one state of being to another, an “us” and a “them,” an inside and an outside. So often we are led to believe that they are fixed; that the boundary marks an end state; that the edge of our comfort zone will always be the edge; that we get to grow only to a point; that minds which are fixed will forever be fixed.

Nature tells a different story.

Back in biology class, circa 1995, I learned about osmosis: “The movement of liquid or gas from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration through a semi-permanent membrane.”

The cell wall is not a fixed state, but a frontier, or a passage, between one state of being and another — through the margin of the wall, the entire chemistry of the cell can be modified. No cell wall is fixed. Whiz deeper, and we get to the sub-atomic level in any case, where we realize that we are all just bundles of bouncing energy and space, with plenty of room to maneuver. Nothing, not even something that appears solid, is in a fixed or permanent state — not even ourselves. And when when we think of ourselves as immutable and irrefutable, we become locked in our own definition of ourselves; constricted somehow, until the world we want to know is the world we already think we know. In other words: We become small.

In the 1983 abortion referendum, 66.9 percent of the votes were in favor of inserting an amendment into the Irish Constitution, which gave a pregnant woman and unborn babies the equal right to life.

In the 2018 abortion referendum, 66.4 percent of the votes were in favor of removing the said amendment in the Irish Constitution.

In the space of 25 years, the nation changed its mind, even at its edges.

Ideas are not fixed. We are not solid. Minds can change. Hearts can too. Men in dark pubs can raise their dark pints and declare that a woman has a right to the margins of her own body. Life at the edge is never as it seems. Osmosis tells us so.

I made so many assumptions about those men, about that village. Sometimes it’s easier just to make assumptions about others rather than listen; for then we don’t have to step outside our comfort zone. We can feel safer in our pack, retreating to what we think we know for sure, or who we think we are. When we challenge our assumptions of others, we have to challenge our assumptions of ourselves. This is the hardest part, for our assumptions live right up against our internal margins; the boundaries of self and identity we place upon ourselves, who we think we are, what labels we define ourselves by (religion, gender, status), and the limits to which we think we can go. But if we don’t learn to challenge our assumptions of ourselves, we don’t get to challenge what we are capable of becoming either. We can assume we are not creative, or talented. We can assume that our circumstances alone give rise to our outcomes. In making assumptions about our resources and capacities, we place false boundaries on what is available, and therefore possible. Assumptions are like blinkers, blinding what wants to be seen, or emerge, or be created.

How do I know? Let me tell you a story.

A long, long time ago, I placed a staunch label of a religion around myself. That religion became my world, and in that world I thought I would belong forever. I felt safe there, and understood. But I had so utterly defined myself by that label, that religion, that I fell into the black and white school of thought. It was either this way or the wrong way. You either believed, like me, or you could be converted to believing, like me. I was young and convinced I had the truth, a singular truth. There was no room in me for gray, or ambiguity, or even giving a parting glance of a notion to the fact that I, one day, would be out canvassing for a “yes” vote in an abortion referendum. I would not have recognized the me of now, and now, I can hardly recognize the me of then. I am proof of change.

What changed me? Well, it was ancient and simple, really: stories, and love.

When I was in my early 20s, I got myself into a fancy pancy university to be “educated.” Little did I know the kind of education I would actually get there. It turns out that it wasn’t the education of books, or labyrinthine libraries, but the simple act of sitting with a group of different kinds of people around a big dinner table, night after night, and listening to their stories. They each had a different one to tell: stories of believing, stories of abuse, stories of achievement, and honor, and failure. Stories of heroism and heartbreak. Stories which melted me. Night after night, I realized that I could no longer see these people as other, or wrong, or even different. Story after story, meal by meal, we became friends, and closer friends. I even fell in love with one of them — a young man who was the total opposite of whom I thought I “should” be attracted to. In other words, he was nuanced, and complex, and confused, and beautiful. Story after story, love after love, the boundary of how I defined myself started to break down; my own story no longer held to be true. Soon I knew I had to drop the “religion” label. It was terrifying. Who was I without the label? The definition? My tribe? The protection of my own walls? What would happen to me if I stepped across my own margin of myself?

I stepped across into what was to become one of the hardest times in of my life. In losing the definition of myself, for a while, my whole world imploded. I did not have another story to hold me, so instead, I turned in on myself, harming myself. It was terrifying. Until one day, when another friend showed up in my life and decided to listen to my story, generously, and with an open heart. He did not try to fix me, he did not try to correct me, or give me his opinion. Instead, he listened, and in doing so, I was returned back to love.

To listen to each other, to really listen, is to redeem the best in ourselves so we can learn to write a new story for how to fully and beautifully show up in the world.

Those old men in the village with their black pints and raised eyebrows? I have been relearning: Assume nothing. They tell me to not assume that I know what compassion looks like, and definitely not assume that I have the full picture or the singular truth. Ever. They remind me to be open to listening.

I am now wondering: What if we could each entertain a different story for a while, one that goes something like this: That we are semi-permanent membranes, bouncing around with infinite possibility and space. That we are each other. That as much as we are stardust, we are also stories. That if I disagree with you, I can still respect you, still hold you in a universal understanding that your version of the truth is yours, and mine is mine, and somewhere in between we might get to an answer, if only we can learn to really listen, if only we can climb over our walls.

We drove back into Schull, amazed and shook and beaming. The swallows and swifts darted across the twilight sky. Schull was buzzing with festival goers; the annual Fastnet Film Festival was in full swing with people traveling from all over the world to see art, make art. In other words, to listen to stories, to tell them, and to shape them too.

As in art, so in life.

The following day, the nation was to vote. That night, I could not sleep. The bird song was on high volume, and with a full moon on the way, the tide was high too. I lay in bed reflecting on how far away the old me now seemed. As the moonlight made its way through the cracks of my bedroom blinds, and as the thick blanket of night lay flat across the peninsula, I thought of the strange little village on the edge of things, and I swore, if I listened close enough, I could hear the world rewriting itself as the old men with their black dark pints lifted their quite heads and raised a nation.

The film festival will return next year with new stories, when I’ll sit again around a big dinner table, with old friends and new strangers, and together we’ll learn how to listen. It’s the way I’ll remake myself again. In fact, I think it is the only way we’ll remake each other: with stories, and with love.

Editor’s Note: This was originally published on Clare Mulvany’s website. It is reprinted here with permission. 

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