In a well-known koan from the Book of Equanimity, an abbot asks a scholar where he is going. The scholar replies that he is going on pilgrimage. The abbot then asks, “What are you going on pilgrimage for?” The scholar confesses he doesn’t know. The abbot simply responds, “Not-knowing is most intimate.”
one long listening: a memoir of grief, friendship, and spiritual care
by Chenxing Han
North Atlantic Books, April 2023
288 pp., $17.95, paperback
Chenxing Han takes this last line as the guiding philosophy of her new book, one long listening: a memoir of grief, friendship, and spiritual care. Written in the aftermath of her friend’s death from acute myeloid leukemia, one long listening is an ode to not-knowing, chronicling how grief fundamentally restructures Han’s view of reality. She describes the book as a “mala bracelet of rumination-worn beads” that circles around three autumns: the fall of 2014, when she began a chaplaincy residency at a hospital in California; the fall of 2015, when she moved to Taiwan to study spiritual care at a Buddhist college; and the fall of 2016, when her friend and former roommate passed away. Han’s friend once said to her that autumn is “the most honest season,” as it “does not pretend that life blooms forever.” The autumns that Han chronicles in one long listening are no exception. Filled with reminders of impermanence, these three seasons of Han’s life are times of profound loss and quiet transformation as she learns what it means to grieve—and to care.
The memoir’s fragmentary structure mirrors how Han comes to understand grief: as a cyclical process that ruptures expectations of coherence and instead unfolds in its own time. Over the course of the memoir, we watch Han revisit the same memories, turning questions over again and again as if in prayer, never arriving at a clear answer but rather delving deeper into the intimacy of not-knowing. In eschewing linear narratives and clean resolutions, she aims not just to describe the experience of chaplaincy and grief but also to evoke it in all its opacities and uncertainties.
As she lets go of her expectations, she comes to experience the mutuality of spiritual care, allowing herself to be transformed—and cared for—by the patients she meets.
Han, as a hospital chaplain, interfaces with uncertainty on a daily basis as her patients and their loved ones grapple with new diagnoses, rapid physical decline, and death. Confronted with their many questions—“Why does my father have cancer? Is grandma ever gonna leave the ICU? Where is my daughter now that she’s dead?”—she can only answer honestly, “I don’t know.” For Han, this is the heart of chaplaincy: learning to accompany others through the unknown and unknowable as they come to terms with illness and impermanence. Of course, this is no easy task: “At the threshold of every patient’s room, I can foresee nothing of the visit ahead,” she writes. “This not-knowing is terrifying.” Often she is called in when other medical providers are at a loss and when every possible intervention seems inadequate. There is no easy fix; all she can do is listen and be present. Yet sometimes, impossibly, presence is enough. Her honest and tender vignettes of bedside visits illustrate the intimacy that can emerge from holding space for another without rushing to offer a solution. Her patients trust her with their despair and heartache—and with their hidden joys. (“No one told me this work would be full of love stories,” she muses.) Through listening openheartedly, Han bears witness to the fears, delights, shames, and regrets that make up a life.
This is challenging work, and Han frequently finds herself on the verge of burning out. In her first written assignment as a chaplain resident, she “waxe[s] poetic about the chaplain as bodhisattva,” striving to offer herself fully to her patients, sometimes losing herself in patients’ stories as a means to “forget [her] own hauntings.” Soon, though, she realizes how untenable it is to attempt to accompany every patient through their existential distress without also tending to her own. At a friend’s urging, she begins to give herself “permission to fall short of limitless generosity,” accepting that she, too, is in need of support. As she lets go of her expectations, she comes to experience the mutuality of spiritual care, allowing herself to be transformed—and cared for—by the patients she meets. Sitting at the bedside of a dying elderly Chinese man, she is transported to her own uncle’s deathbed; visiting a Buddhist writer who is undergoing chemotherapy, she receives a blessing not to give up on her own writing. These moments blur the lines of who is caring for whom, and Han comes to recognize that “we are each other’s bodhisattvas.”
This lesson becomes all the more poignant as Han finds herself in the throes of her own grief. As she sits at her dying friend’s bedside, Han notices all the ways that her friend is caring for her and teaching her how to go on after her death. After her friend dies, Han comes to view their friendship as “one long listening.” And though she initially finds herself livid with the “listening-bereft world” after her friend is gone, eventually Han discovers that she is still listening—and her friend is too. Honoring her friend’s memory becomes a way of opening up to the everyday wonder of the world, and Han is often startled by the beauty she encounters—and the care she receives—when she sheds her expectations and follows what she views as signs from her departed friend.
In a poem written after her friend’s death, Han quotes the Upaddha Sutta’s refrain that “admirable friendship is not the half but the whole of the holy path.” In this light, one long listening is a testament to the ways that friendship can guide us through grief, cataloging Han’s companionship with patients, friends, strangers, oceans, trees, and the world itself. For its readers, the book serves as a companion, orienting us to the intimacy of not-knowing, the sustaining power of friendship, and the importance of honoring the losses in our lives. Through listening to Han listen, we might learn to listen to the world—to its cries and its silences, its sorrow and its pain, its joy and its despair—and to find beauty in it all.
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