By my desk, there is written on a green index card this quote that I see every day as I sit down to write:
“Say the truest thing you know, line by line.”
I read it in a guide to writing poetry by Suzanne U. Rhodes, The Roar on the Other Side. My tendency as a writer and poet is to hide behind metaphor, or to talk my way around a thought, couching it in beautiful lyricism or visceral imagery. Many times I’m unaware that I’m doing it at first, but my phenomenal poetry workshop partners point it out with gentle stubbornness. They encourage me to push deeper, to dig for the stone at the heart of the poem and bring it into the light. Rhodes’ quote challenges and helps me in the same way.
An editor who gave me feedback on a short story of mine said it was “85%” there.” She told me to go back through it and expose the emotional state of the main character in a few key scenes. “Twist the knife,” was how she put it. Don’t be afraid to dig in, to poke at the wound.
If I have to push myself to write the truest thing I know, the challenge also applies to life, and specifically, to my relationships with others. I’ll be turning forty in less than a year, and the older I get, the less I can tolerate wearing masks in conversations with others. But to speak about true things—deeper things—with others requires courage and a killing of my own ego, or vanity. It forces me to push past self-protection (which can manifest as “niceness,” cynicism, sarcasm, judgment, and even shyness).
But speaking true things from our hearts, and listening when others do so, happens when love overrides fear, when the desire to connect our own humanity with others’ takes precedence. A couple of weeks ago I kept feeling a prompting to write a letter of empathy and encouragement to a woman I knew who was struggling with the long-term aftermath of a devastating end to her marriage, inability to get a job despite trying daily for two years, and anger at God for allowing so many trials in her life. I felt a bit foolish—we weren’t close friends—and I definitely didn’t want to preach at her. But I ended up writing four pages, letting her know that I see her, that I hurt for her, that I understand what it’s like to feel like you’re a ghost looking in at everyone else living their normal lives when your life is unraveled and on pause. I shared with her some words from authors* who have helped me to hope for something sacred and even beautiful to emerge from my own “dark nights of the soul.”
It was a pretty raw letter. I held onto it for a day before having the courage to put it into the mail. I heard back from her after a couple of days, and one thing she said was, “Just knowing that someone notices that I thirst and tries to bring me water…girl. No words can express my gratitude.” That letter opened up a life-giving dialogue. We were set free to be who we are with each other, no masks. (And it inspired her to apply to one more job that day, which led to an offer of employment as a teacher! She said she was “raw and genuine” in her cover letter, as I had been in my letter to her, and that is what caught the attention of the woman in charge of hiring.)
This morning I spent time reading, journaling, and praying about this very thing—how to be life-giving and human and real in my relationships. But I was also having a bit of a pity party because my deepest relationships with those who know and love me best are long-distance ones, dear friends scattered to the far corners of the earth, literally.
I finished, took a shower, and was just getting dressed when the phone rang. It was one of my best friends, who lives a few hundred miles away and is dealing with the pain and confusion of a recent divorce and doubts about her faith. We’d been emailing but hadn’t spoken on the phone for months. She just felt prompted to call me today, and to open up to me about her faith struggles and the grief she’s carrying.
What followed was a half-hour, deep drink of the draught of heart-to-heart connection. It was a balm to my soul that she trusted me and loved me enough to express her doubts and pain, and that we were able to listen to each other and to hear everything beneath those words. We encouraged each other to be brave in the things each of us is facing even as we feel fear or grief, and we shed a few tears together.
In his sermon-essay, “The Killing of Time,” Frederick Buechner writes, “We are really alive when we listen to each other, to the silences of each other as well as to the words and what lies behind the words. ‘Looks as though we might get some rain,’ somebody says. Speak to me for Christ’s sake. Know me….I’m bored and tired as hell, if there’s such a thing as hell. A cup of cold water.’”
May the true things we dare to say, and the deep way we learn to listen, be a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty today.
*Frederick Buechner, Brennan Manning, Larry Crabb
“And in the meantime, this side of Paradise, it is our business…to speak with our hearts…and to bear witness to, and live out of, and live toward, and live by the true word of [Christ’s] holy story as it seeks to stammer itself forth through the holy stories of us all.” Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark