*Afterthought #50 More Mystery

Doubt. Certainty. Unanswered questions. Knowing. Faith. I’ve wrestled (still do) with them all, but the grappling is easier in the company of other seekers. Earlier this month I wrote about one of them, author Dani Shapiro. The very same day, poet friend James Scott Smith tackled the same ideas in his poem, “Mystery.” James generously agreed to my reblogging his piece.

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If you like this poem as much as I do, you’ll be happy to know that James’s poetry collection, Water, Rocks and Trees, will be published this September by Homebound Publications.

 

 

 

 

Mystery

James Scott Smith

To ask

the questions

with no answers.

To learn

faith is more gut

than brains,

more moment

than memory.

To find

the lost way

of understanding

without needing

to know

I have.

 

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

The Last Word

 

typewriter2 (1)I read the last word in my memoir manuscript, Hiking Naked, and shut the lid of my laptop. That day, the document was twenty pages shorter than when my publisher offered me a contract—and requested some cuts. I hoped my trimming and editing resulted in a tighter story with stronger verbs and fewer adjectives. More showing, less telling.

A little over a week remained until the deadline for me to send the revision to my editor. I decided I had one more task to do—read all 225 pages out loud. It seemed a daunting undertaking, but the next day, in the quiet of my writing office, my yellow lab/shepherd curled at my feet, I began.

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Sierra Club photo

I hadn’t anticipated how many times my reading voice would crack and tears would lodge in my throat, even though I know this story of my family’s two-year sojourn in a remote mountain village so well. The reading aloud revealed not only some overworked words and bits of stilted dialogue, but also the heartache of my struggle for clarity about work, my yearning for control, and the grief of losses that followed me to the Stehekin Valley.

Perhaps some of the tears were for the end of the writing process as well. For twenty years I’d worked to put this story on the page. I had re-read journal pages filled with questions —Am I good enough? Can I accept that I’m not in control? Is it okay to tend to my inner life? Is it possible to experience joy fearlessly? I tapped out words on my keyboard, trying to make sense of how those two years in a different place and a different way of life brought me to the balance and clearness I sought.

My creative writing development showed in the variety of ways I wrote about those questions, doubts, and fears. But as I spoke the text, I realized the questions persist, the doubts still surface, the desire for control and certainty remains. Once I reached the manuscript end, imagining it being out in the world for others to read, a single word hovered at my ear—fraud.

That label weighed on me, prompting me to seek counsel from my husband, a longtime spiritual friend, and a trusted writing friend. It faded for a few days, then resurfaced and lodged in the suitcase I packed to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing last week.

After Tobias Wolff’s opening keynote, “Some Doubts About Certainty,” I made my way to a session led by writer Dani Shapiro. daniI’d slid Dani’s memoir/writing book, Still Writing – The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, into my backpack in the hope she’d sign it. I settled in to hear her discuss her daily practice of attempting to make art out of a chaotic childhood and a painful early adulthood marked by profound loss.still-writing

“When I begin to write, it’s an act of faith,” Dani said as she talked about her three memoirs (a fourth, Hourglass, is due out in spring 2017). “I feel profound uncertainty. I don’t write what I know, I write to discover what I know.”

Evidently the judgment of myself as a fraud had wedged itself into my backpack, too. When it came time for questions, I asked Dani if, when she completes a book, she feels she has the answers. “No,” she replied, “I’m just better able to articulate the questions I started with.”

Dani went on to explain that, before an interview on the “Today Show,” she called a spiritual friend for help to calm her jitters about explaining the uncertainties that compelled her to write her first memoir, Devotion. Her friend suggested, “You’ve written a book about what you know now.” For Dani, implicit in that wisdom was, “You’ll know more, later.”

Until I read that last word in my own memoir manuscript, it seems I’d expected that I had figured it all out, had answered all those questions that sent me to my writing desk. “The book ends, but the journey doesn’t,” Dani said. I’m holding on to those final words.

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*Afterthought #49 Going Back for More

QEarlier this month I wrote about my first time at Quaker meeting and how that experience nearly thirty-five years ago felt like coming home. That was enough to keep me going back for more, even though I left that silent worship with many questions. I didn’t know if that time of worship was typical or if it would be different on another day. I wasn’t sure if I’d broken any “rules” about where to sit or what to wear. And I wondered what the other hundred or so folks were “doing” during that hour of silence.

Over the years I’ve learned the answers to those and many other questions through reading, discussions, and by attending many meetings across the U.S. and in Latin America. And still, I never tire of hearing how people prepare for and are touched by this form of worship. Whether you’ve never attended a Quaker meeting or you are, as we say, a “seasoned Friend,” you might enjoy these two short QuakerSpeak videos: What to Expect in Quaker Meeting for Worship and What Do Quakers Do in Silent Worship?.

 

Big thanks to: Friends Journal for supporting this project; QuakerSpeak project director Jon Watts; and project partners Friends Committee on National Legislation, American Friends Service Committee, and Friends World Committee on Consultation.

 

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

First Time at Quaker Meeting

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A yearning for a spiritual community spurred my husband, Jerry, and me to a Quaker meeting three decades ago. Though I’d grown up in the Lutheran church and Jerry had been brought up as a Baptist, we both had questioned those traditions as college students.

 

In our late twenties, we’d found each  other – and a more relevant church home in an intentional ecumenical community in the inner city of Evansville, Indiana. Mutual friends had started the community, and they introduced us and nurtured our spiritual lives, our social justice consciousness, and our relationship. In 1979, two community members, ordained United Methodist ministers, had married us in the living room of the small house our group used as its base for neighborhood ministry and worship.us (1)

Two years later, Jerry and I recognized we needed more education to pursue our respective careers; Seattle offered programs for both of us. By that time, I was pregnant and due in July. We moved in the spring, hoping to settle in before the birth and the start of fall classes.

Part of our settling in included hunting for a church home without the formality of traditional worship services and one that was involved in peace and justice work. Quaker Meeting had made our list of places to check out. At that point, our only acquaintance with Quakerism, more formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, was through the American Friends Service Committee. We’d handed out anti-war brochures from the organization a couple of years earlier in Evansville when registration for a military draft had been re-instituted.

One Sunday in April, we made our way to University Friends Meeting. We paused in the doorway of the worship room, scanned the rows of molded plastic chairs arranged in a circle, then chose two seats near the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. Called Meeting for Worship, this hour of sitting in silence with no minister, no liturgy or sermon, no hymn singing or scripture reading, and no kneeling and standing, was nothing like the Lutheran services of my youth. Neither did it much resemble the house church we’d attended in Evansville, with folk songs accompanied by a guitar and communion with homemade whole wheat bread and a common cup of wine.

At first I fidgeted, wondering when someone would say something. Eventually I closed my eyes, focused on my breath, and blocked out the sounds of crows skittering across the skylight and the whoosh of bus doors opening and closing at the Metro stop on the corner. I don’t remember if anyone spoke that day, but I recall I found comfort in the quiet presence of a hundred others doing the same.

Jerry and I talked later about how we both had felt at home in that simple space and service. A sense of “being at home” is commonly expressed by people when they talk about their first time at Quaker meeting. In fact, those are the words that Scott Holmes used to describe his first meeting in the recent episode of QuakerSpeak – My First Time at Quaker Meeting: “I felt like I had been wandering around a long time and had come home.”

Charlotte Cloyd explains that during her first time she was preoccupied, just as I had been.

“The first time I went to Quaker Meeting, I didn’t know how to listen, and I sat and was uncomfortable and noticed the silence and was too analytical of what the silence meant… I had to work on the process of figuring out: what am I listening for? Am I listening to myself? What’s going on? What is everyone else listening to and how does that affect the community and me?”

After our “first time,” Jerry and I attended University Meeting regularly. We were welcomed by other couples having babies, as well as seniors and singles who, when our baby unexpectedly turned out to be twins, became surrogate aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

We came to recognize that Quakerism was our path. For me, it was a place that not only allowed, but encouraged, my questions about God and faith. Anthony Smith found solace in the questioning he experienced at Quaker meeting, too.

“What impressed me about it was that there were people struggling. Not that they had the answers, but that they had questions and difficult questions that they were wrestling with, and they were trying to do so in a spiritually informed, but also very intelligent way.”

After many more times at meeting, Quakerism affirmed my belief that my faith, my work, and the way I live my life are all of the same cloth. It also gave me a vocabulary—such as the terms leading and calling—as well as tools and to open to a source of love and wisdom outside of myself to discern what I’m meant to do with my life. I remain grateful that my “first time” was a homecoming.

 

If you’ve found a spiritual home—at a Quaker meeting or elsewhere—what was your “first time” like?