Call with Christian McEwen

Traversing through time and space, and through humanness to the beyond, listening is a powerful and underrated practice. So says author, educator, and cultural activist Christian McEwen. She prefers to use the word "listening" not simply for the work of our ears, but as an extended metaphor for openness and receptivity - less actual than symbolic, less physical than metaphysical - rippling out from the self-centered human to the farthest reaches of the non-human world.

In her latest work, In Praise of Listening (2023), she offers many accounts of listening as a pathway to realities forgotten and hidden, ranging from intimate anecdotes about family and friends to transformational social narratives from researchers, healers, activists, and more. The book tracks the endangered practice of listening through literature, Buddhism, nature writing, science, and sociology, including interviews with writers and therapists, naturalists, storytellers, and musicians.

Christian's latest work might be seen as a cousin to her earlier, popular book, World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (2011), now in its second edition. "From the beginning, I was concerned with how slowness might intersect with happiness, and then again with creativity," Christian writes in World Enough. "Like the English composer Brian Eno, I wanted to find a way of living in 'a Big Here and a Long Now.' It was obvious from the start that this would not be easy."

Strewn with a delicious assortment of quotes on slowing down - ranging from Lily Tomlin to Gandhi to Rumi - World Enough also gave rise to a separate book of quotes celebrating slowness, aptly titled The Tortoise Diaries.

Growing up in the Scottish countryside, perhaps it was the quietude of her childhood - or its contrast with the fast-paced life in New York she witnessed as a young adult - that drew her life to dedicate her life to listening. Even in her early work as a poet, listening was key to expressing what is experienced beyond the immediately visible. Her writing draws attention to minute everyday subtleties and deeply felt personal experiences. Pausing to listen to a snail as it munches on a leaf, or to a hyacinth growing loudly in its pot, she brings together many different stories of people who've learned to listen and attune.

Her work grapples with a range of topics, including gender. In 2004, she co-produced a video documentary titled Tomboys! that celebrates "tomboys of all ages" - highlighting real-life stories of feisty girls who grew up to be spirited women. At the start of the documentary, you can hear Christian's crisp, enchanting voice, "When I was a child, I was what people called a tomboy. The word itself seemed magical to me: fiery, disobedient, gloriously untidy." She's also written a play Legal Tender: Women & the Secret Life of Money (2014), based upon personal interviews with more than fifty women about their relationship with money - intended as a creative catalyst, modeling courage and honesty for its listening audience, both through the play itself and through a linked project known as "The Money Stories" workshops.

Christian's thesis as a writer and producer is simple: stories give rise to other stories, and courage and clarity inspire more of the same. She has edited four anthologies, including The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing and Sparks from the Anvil: The Smith College Poetry Interviews, based on a series of interviews she conducted with visiting poets. She has written for The Nation, The Village Voice, and numerous other journals, including The Edinburgh Review of Books and the Shambhala Sun.

Growing up in the Borders of Scotland "in a big old-fashioned house" with "beautiful shabby rooms and scented gardens" and "a perpetual drone of adult anxiety about school fees and taxes and the latest heating bill," Christian first came to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship. She has taught poetry and creative writing at a number of venues, including Williams College in Massachusetts, the Zen Mountain Monastery in Upstate New York, and the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. She has also worked as a writer-in-the-schools for ALPS and the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Christian has been a fellow, several times, both at the MacDowell Colony, and at Yaddo. In 2011, she received a grant in playwriting from the MA Cultural Council.

In all her work, she continues to encourage the reader to take a moment to stop and listen. "In a world of racket and distraction, generous, expansive listening is increasingly under siege. But it remains a skill worth honoring, worth passing on...Many an old story begins with the words, 'Long ago, when animals could speak....' Perhaps the corollary would be just as good an opening.... 'Long ago, when people could listen.'"

Join us for a slow conversation with this ardent listener, as we co-create a circle to reclaim this ancient medicinal practice.