At age fifty, I snapped half a plastic handcuff around one wrought iron bar of the White House fence. Glancing over my shoulder at the famous sloping lawn and the imposing white pillars of the south portico, I slipped the other cuff around my maroon leather glove and locked it into place.
That’s how Quaker author Eileen Flanagan opens her latest book, Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope. There was no way I could stop reading. Later in the first chapter, I read words that especially struck a chord. Eileen described feelings from a year earlier that ultimately drove her to the White House fence.
Sleepless at 3:00 a.m., I stared at the ceiling in a midlife hormonal funk and realized with a shock that my life was not what I had expected.
Though our stories are quite different, I resonated with Eileen’s analysis of a source of her tossing and turning:
I had felt alone in my midlife angst, though I knew I really wasn’t. I’d heard whispers from my middle-class friends, more than one of whom wished she had less house and more freedom. At the very least, everyone I knew had too much junk in the basement and too many e-mails.
In Renewable, Eileen describes her yearning for a different way of life—perhaps more like the simplicity of living in a mud hut as she’d done as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana— and to live up to her potential. Additionally, as she grew increasingly worried about her children’s future on a warming planet, she felt unable to make a difference to address the complex issue of climate change.
Eileen writes with wit, wisdom, and honesty about her journey through a spiritual midlife crisis. Ultimately, her concern about climate change led her to work with the nonviolent, direct action environmental group, Earth Quaker Action Team, and to a sense of fulfillment and hope. Her book gives me hope, too.
About twenty-five years earlier, and at an age very close to that of Eileen when she longed for a different way of life, I’d been in a similar frame of mind. Torn between feelings of impotence to promote health for people in need and uncertainty that I was still being called to work as a nurse, I stepped off the Middle-America treadmill in search of clarity and a simpler way of life. In my forthcoming memoir, Hiking Naked – A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, I recount how, in 1994, I quit my job as a public health nurse and convinced my husband and our thirteen-year-old twin son and daughter to move to Stehekin, a remote village in Washington’s North Cascades. Though far—geographically and metaphorically—from the fence around the White House, the solitude of Stehekin helped me find the clarity I sought about how I’m led.
During those years in Stehekin, I came to understand that callings may change throughout someone’s life. Since then, I’ve also discovered that discernment about work is an ongoing process. Eileen’s writing has been a companion along the way.
I first met Eileen in 2010 at a Friends General Conference Gathering when we both gave readings from our own books—I from my first book, Hands at Work, and Eileen from her then-new book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference.
Based on the Serenity Prayer, The Wisdom to Know the Difference presents stories of people finding the courage to change their lives (and sometimes the world), as well as stories of letting go and finding peace. It’s a book I return to when my clarity about how I’m led turns murky.
Now I’m inspired by Renewable, both as a seeker and as a writer, so I contacted Eileen with some questions that she graciously responded to.
Iris: Your book includes many threads (your Irish heritage, discernment about leadings, Peace Corps experiences and Africa, the environment—to name a few). When you began to write, did you know that all of these themes would be included?
Eileen: Not really. At first I described it as a book about money. Then it was a book about buying a new house. The Peace Corps and my Irish family history kept showing up, no matter what I thought I was writing about, but there were other stories, too.
When I gave the first draft to three friends to read at the same time, they all agreed that there were too many themes, but disagreed about what should stay and what should go. One said she thought I should cut the parts about climate change, and that was really helpful because it made me realize that climate change was one of the parts I absolutely couldn’t cut.
This is my third book, but it was the hardest to write because of the question of what to keep in and what to cut out. A life is messy and full of lots of experiences, but a memoir has to have some focused story line, or it would be unbearably boring for the reader.
Iris: Please describe your writing practice or routine.
Eileen: It really depends on whether or not I’m working on a book. This past year I’ve spent a lot of time publicizing Renewable—public speaking and writing articles—which means my writing time comes in fits and starts. I’m hoping in 2016 to get back to a daily writing practice, which is essential when I’m working on a book. For me, that usually means going to a coffee shop and staying at my computer for at least the morning, whether or not inspiration seems to be there with me. One of the nice things, now that I’ve been at this awhile, is that I can finally push some pages out, without constantly rewriting every sentence as I go, and trust that I can always edit later.
Iris: What place does writing have in your Spirit-led work?
Eileen: Writing plays an important role, though it’s not the only form my work takes. I think one of my gifts, as I say in the book, is helping people to make connections. Writing is one of the ways I do that, though I also feel led to public speaking and activism, which are different expressions of the same gift and leading.
Iris: What kind of response have you received from readers of Renewable?
Eileen: I’ve gotten so many positive responses. Although it’s nice to hear from people who have similar stories, my favorite responses are often from people whose lives look very different from mine on the surface, such as an Air National Guard Colonel at midlife and a school teacher who knows that the system she’s working in isn’t serving kids. The teacher said to me, “I don’t know about climate change, and I’m not going to do the kind of things you are doing, but hearing your story makes me want to be more courageous in speaking up at my school about the things that I see that are wrong.” I loved that.
And I especially love Eileen’s answer to this last question. As writers, we rarely know what effect (if any) our words have on readers. I believe that’s out of my hands, yet it doesn’t stop me from hoping that by sharing my story, others will be strengthened to honor their own. Eileen’s Renewable has done that for me.