The Truest Thing I Know

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.”

In Writing

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.

In Life

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.

A Balm

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.

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*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

Paradox, Part II: Solitude and Community

I’m fascinated by something I’ve been reading lately by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It’s this paradox: “Whoever can not be alone should beware of community; whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone” (from Life Together, 82-83).  Willa Cather says something similar: “Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship” (Shadows on the Rock, book III, ch.5).

When we start talking about solitude and community, it often quickly gets sidetracked by the introvert/extrovert discussion— how we “recharge” our energy either by being alone or with others.  But solitude and community are concepts that go much deeper.  Apparently, if this paradox is true, then to experience the fullness and depth of each in a satisfying way, we need to learn more about this “inner connection” (Bonhoeffer’s phrase) between the two.

Bonhoeffer states, “Many persons seek community because they are afraid of loneliness.  Because they can no longer endure being alone, such people are driven to seek the company of others…..More often than not, they are disappointed.  They then blame the community for what is really their own fault….In reality they are not seeking community at all, but only a thrill that will allow them to forget their isolation for a short time.  It is precisely such misuse of community that creates the deadly isolation of human beings” (Life Together, 81-82).

This rings true for me.  If I am unable to face myself alone in the light of piercing truth and reality without hiding, then how can I be an unhindered blessing in the lives of my friends, family, faith community?  I have to reckon with my own poverty of spirit—the brokenness that is always present in some way—and be honest about it to myself if I want to experience deeper connection with others.  Please hear what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that I have to fix myself before I can be of use to others.  I believe that’s largely God’s work, and He isn’t through with me yet.

If I have learned to be alone then I can be part of community without the compulsion to hide.  I can, perhaps, serve with more humility and love, speak with wisdom, bear another’s burdens.  Community won’t be where I go with my mask on to disappear among the crowd, or to suck others dry with my neediness.  There are seasons of need in each of our lives in which our family and friends will have opportunity to care for us, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in that.  But if I fear solitude and its work in me, I will never have anything to bring to the table, not even honesty.

On the flip side of the coin, Bonhoeffer says, “Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone….Those who want community without solitude plunge into the void of words and feelings, and those who seek solitude without community perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair” (Ibid., 82-83).  We are made for each other.  We are imprinted with a need for relationship, and it is in relationships that we learn who we are, how to see the world, how to subdue our own egos, and how to love.  And love is the thing.  Some say it isn’t, but I disagree.  Humans have an infinite capacity for self-deception, and too much solitude can pave an easy road for that “bottomless pit” Bonhoeffer described.  We become big in our own eyes, and everything and everyone else diminishes in significance.

Octavio Paz writes, “Man is the only being who feels himself to be alone and the only one who is searching for the Other” (The Labyrinth of Solitude).  Solitude and community exist in a beautiful and delicate tension, like silence and speech.  “One does not exist without the other,” says Bonhoeffer.  We will always be striving for the balance between them, and probably often failing to find it.  But let’s “be and be not afraid” (Tracy Chapman) as we try.

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The Gift of Presence

My family and I moved recently to colorful, gritty, spunky and historic Baltimore— “Charm City.” Our earnest desire is to plant ourselves here and not move again for a long, long time—as in decades. As such, we are doing careful research into where we want to buy a house, where we want to send our roots down. It’s a big decision.

Right now we have endless possibilities in front of us. We have the luxury of comparing neighborhoods and streets, surfing Zillow and imagining ourselves in each home, making our mental list of priorities and preferences. But one day soon, we’ll make a decision. As in one. One house, one neighborhood. We will love it, probably, but it won’t have everything. There will be some things we have to let go of in order to choose that one house. And once we move in, if we begin second-guessing and continue to imagine ourselves elsewhere—what if we had chosen that one instead? would we be happier?—we will make ourselves crazy.

When we say yes to one thing, we say no to others. When I said yes to my husband, I said no to the possibility of any others. When we say yes to this house, in this city, we will be saying no to others. That means it’s time to let the other possibilities go. They can’t camp out in a someday-room of my brain, enticing me from time to time with dreams and what-ifs. If I let them stay, they will slowly eat away at my contentment and at the purpose for which God has chosen a place for me.

As a third-culture kid who grew up in six different countries, I’m longing now to put down roots in a flesh-and-blood place with flesh-and-blood people. Within an actual physical boundary. I want to know and be known in this one place. I love, love, love my friends and family and peeps all over the world, but I also want to live life with the people right in front of my face each day. I want to be able to reach out and touch them, to give and receive hugs, to hold a hand in solidarity and sorrow. I want my physical home to be a welcoming place for relationships to grow.

This morning I asked God to begin weaving the threads of my family’s life into the fabric of others’ lives here in this city. I believe place matters to God. It is not inconsequential. He puts us in places, and He does it for a reason. I’ve lived much of my life feeling somewhat guilty for desiring to feel connected and rooted and part of the fabric of a specific place. After all, I say I belong to Someone who had no place to lay His head while He walked the earth. Oh, and heaven is my ultimate home, right? Yes, I believe that, and my longing for it grows each year that I’m alive. But I also believe that God wants me committed to the place in which He has placed me, to be fully present here so that His Emmanuel-nature can live through me in real love, presence, healing and grace. I can’t do that by remaining detached and uncommitted and discontent and transient.

Recently one of the elders at my new church gave a message, simple and bold, on the story of the paralytic’s four friends who broke through the roof to get their friend to Jesus. He asked us, “Are you a friend? Do you have friends?” The hurt and the longing of those words pierced me right through. Am I a friend who is vested so much in others that I will seek them out in their pain and paralysis, push through crowds, carry them and their burden, claw through whatever obstacle is facing me, and bring them to the feet of Jesus? Even now, as I sit here, new to this place and beginning relationships in hope, do I have friends who would do that for me? How I desire that.

So, I’m saying yes to this soil, to this plot of ground in the garden. I’m sending out my tentative little roots, feeling for the nourishment and life-giving water that is all around me. I’ll endeavor to “Emmanuel” myself where I am, choosing contentment of people and place and discovering the One who is active in them, making all things beautiful.

The gift of presence—His and ours—is the best gift.

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“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you….Pray to the Lord for it.” Jeremiah 29:7