Margaret Dulaney is the creator of Listenwell, a spoken word web site exploring faith through story and metaphor. Below is a Q&A with her…
Considering that you had a learning disability as a child and writing was one of your biggest challenges, how did you become so successful at it?
I suspect our challenges are placed in our paths, like great mountain ranges, to make us strong, build up our lung capacity, our stamina. When I was a child, and struggling so with reading and writing, being tested and tutored in order to make even the lowest of grades, my mother would say to me, “Try and remember, this will have no bearing on your adult life.” I would like to say that I listened well to her advice and never despaired over my learning disabilities, but that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I truly fell in love with the written word. Perhaps we all need to pass through our frightening mountain ranges to find our strengths. I followed the path of love, and it has led me here.
“Hope is a necessity, not a luxury. It’s like clean water. We can’t live without it and stories are powerful vehicles for this necessity.” Why is this your philosophy?
I love a good story that lifts me up onto its shoulders so that I can have a better view.
When a woman who recently lost her partner hears about a man who lost his mate five years earlier, and has managed to find his way back into a full and joyful life, she listens. She allows him entrance to her mind. When the story he tells offers her hope, she opens the door a little wider, allowing it entrance to her heart.
When the conclusion of the story is one of transcendence over pain, she will carry it away with her, like a beautifully wrapped present. She will look for another with which to share this gift.
“Many times in my life, I have been saved from utter despair by words and I consider those who did the lifting to be my friends.” Why do you feel this way?
I would say that my greatest influence in print is Ralph Waldo Emerson and his enthusiastic support of one’s individual belief system. I have always been drawn to those writers who can write of their own connection to the spirit of love and wisdom without insisting that their view is the only view worth observing.
A good story will not dictate, should not constrict the listener, but should allow the mind to open, to flick on its own searchlight and uncover its own philosophy, it’s own truth.
Why is faith important in your life and what you create?
As transient as my own view has been of the divine over the years, I could not have survived this life without a sense of connection to something greater than myself.
Your Spoken Word website attempts to puzzle out spiritual ideas through story and metaphor. What was the inspiration for Listenwell.org?
I can read a hundred “how to” books on how to be happy, how to mourn, how to lift myself out of despair, and still remain the same old stagnant, lead-headed me. But, give me one true story… tell me a sad, funny, tragic, but ultimately uplifting story, and I walk away enlightened, literally shining with a little more light.
The tricky moment came when I lifted my head above the page to wonder where these stories might land.
One day I was staring out into my backyard in Bucks County Pennsylvania and noticed that there was a recording studio in it. My husband, record producer, Matt Balitsaris, had converted our old barn ten years earlier into his studio, Maggie’s Farm. This revelation caused me to have an aha moment.
Why is listening so important? How can we become better listeners?
Listening is such a generous gift. It feeds everyone. At some point we all long to be heard, even if just by one quiet ear. The act of being heard is essential to the process of self-discovery. It shapes destinies, spreads enlightenment, betters the world.
True listening cannot be forced. Listening is an allowing. It is like falling to sleep, it is a letting go.
Instead of doing a blog, you do a blab. What is that?
Perhaps what is most unique about Listenwell is the combining of the spoken, written word with the accessibility of the internet. One can log onto the site during a quiet moment and enter another world.
There is a pleasing nostalgia in being read to. Whether you were fortunate enough to enjoy this precious privilege as a child or not, the calming effects of a spoken word piece of writing can be so sweet. The professional quality of the recordings, coupled with the gentle pace of reading will have a soothing effect on your day.
Do you have favorites among the plays and essays you’ve written?
Many of my favorite play characters have lives that seem insignificant. Yet, they end up being heroes because the number of people one touches doesn’t matter, it’s how one touches them that is everything.
One of my greatest influences was a friend of my grandmother’s who by all outward accounts had a tiny, insignificant life, but no one who met her walked away unenlightened. I have always been drawn to gentle, humble people with modest lives.
My favorite essay is one I wrote on prayer, The Wisdom of Communication. I have a friend who tells me that she can’t pray, implying that there is some sort of skill involved. “Try throwing your head back and hollering. ‘Help!’” I suggest. I don’t believe that a saint’s supplication is any greater than a child’s simple wish.
After many years, you and your record producer/musician husband left the city of New York to go live in the country. How has that changed your outlook on life?
When I was little, and being raised in the rolling, lush hills of Kentucky, I came to the conclusion that Mother Nature and God must be married. In fact I haven’t revised this notion, for it seems that when I am visiting one, the other is always nearby.
You’re surprised, yet encouraged that 1/3 of Listenwell members are men. Why?
I have found that men tend to be more tenuous and thoughtful than women when sharing their beliefs. Where a woman will happily discuss her current thinking on spiritual subjects, a man will hold back, not wishing to open the floor for comment. Listenwell provides a safe place to explore one’s beliefs, without the pressure to share one’s conclusions.
You’re working on your memoir. What do you hope to accomplish with the telling of your own story?
My memoir, as with all of my writing, is designed to lift the reader into a place where one might trust the great wisdom behind the direction of their lives. Exploring this principal of guidance with the help of the metaphor of a loving teacher, I hope the book will encourage a sense of trust, a faith in the wisdom behind one’s own journey.
My hope is to raise awareness and money for the work of an organization that has been raising the lives of hundreds of thousands of Haitian women for over sixteen years. Fonkoze is a micro-lending bank for the rural poor, which helps people by the lending of small loans along with added support, such as literacy training and access to health care. In an atmosphere of dubious charitable effort in Haiti, I hope to point to an organization that has proven itself to be enormously effective in poverty reduction.
In April of 2012, a group of neighbors accompanied my husband and me on a trip to see the work of Fonkoze. None of us will ever be the same after this trip. The mixture of so much devastation and resilience is enough to blow any American mind. We could all learn so much from this remarkable country.