Uncategorized

Having Published a Book

I confess to writer’s block. I miss my manuscript, always waiting for me here in my study, beckoning me to sit, concentrate, and create as well as recreate, rewrite, edit, and try different phrases on for size and feel.

On what shall I focus now? she asks. Shorter things. Different things? How can I when writing is part and parcel of me—the way I learn what I feel and think. When bemused, befuddled, and out of focus, I need words to write by hand to talk to myself, as I do frequently in my journal. That journal lasts a year, perhaps, and then is shelved—and often not consulted again because it is the very process of writing that informs me.

I wrote a review myself for Loving the Enemy, because I felt satisfied that I had done my best. It isn’t perfect. I still spot phrases I wish I had spent more time on. But nearly 10 years!? Really. I wrote it in fits and starts among the three or four positions I held since 1999.
The beginnings were reflections on how to cope with the decline in my oh-so independent parents, suddenly claiming weakness, and, in my dad’s case, falling prey to a UTI (urinary tract infection). Read all about it in Loving the Enemy: When the favorite parent dies first.

I’d love for you to read it. You will find the benefit of seeing a family approach a crisis no one had prepared for, whose patriarch refused intervention until he could no longer refuse. A move to a nursing home completely unanticipated in their children’s minds. The need for decisions no one had considered with both parents. It was as if what my parents waited for was fate. Neither made any decisions ahead of time. No plans. And I suspect they would have waved off any attempt at planning! So shortsighted.

Clearly, writing about how I feel about my book is the thing to do. I’d love to know what you think, especially if it gives you any wise ideas.

Uncategorized

The Thread You Follow

Life has taught me that I rarely know how my choices will turn out. Sometimes there are remarkable discoveries and sometimes nothing. Little by little, year after year, and under the thrall of many talented teachers, I began to learn to understand paradox, the language of the spiritual journey. One of the “rules of the road” is, What appears to be a detour may be the most important leg of the journey. [“Paradox Road,” Judy Cannato. WeavingsXVI:6] These are not the rules you follow on a “road trip.” They’re spiritual rules of the road. Paradoxical, because that’s how Spirit works.

As we learn to trust God, our lives change—but the changes don’t always make sense. Change calls for discernment, weighing the dynamics of travel through the deserts, plains or plush gardens of God’s dwelling in our lives.

As a cradle-roll American Baptist in Everett, Washington, I was in community with friends, worship, and my work through my university years, except for the several years that I was an organist for an evangelical Presbyterian church. I needed the money for college tuition and books. I later became the organist at my church as well, but then moved to Seattle. While teaching English at Garfield High I played for Prince of Peace Lutheran Church near where I lived. In church after church I discovered varied worship, but God was as present to me in one place as the other. I didn’t understand that I felt untethered as well as tethered. Not in my community worshiping, but worshiping, nevertheless. Offering my “God-given talent” as I had been urged to do and also because I needed the work.

Was this “okay”? My home church had emphasized church involvement throughout our lives, but when we move, how do we maintain that commitment? Is a different church okay? A new denomination? A Catholic influence for a Protestant? Why not?

The charismatic renewal in the early seventies drew me and a few friends into Pentecostal worship, singing prayers, prayer-group sharing.  Compared to the informality of the Baptists, it felt heretical, but I really grew to know myself better than I had before. I joined the Episcopal church then, participating in a number of ecumenical worship gatherings, including the Cursillo, a “little course in Christianity” founded by laymen in Catholic Spain. I reembraced a deeper spiritual inner life—as I had experienced at church summer camps where singing around a bonfire on the beach and sharing prayers in the wild felt holy.  It was curious for a Baptist to commune at “mass,” but I was as drawn to the Eucharist as I had been drawn to “give my life to Christ” when, at 8, I went forward to be baptized. Except that now, I could “go forward” every Sunday. I loved the prayers and reading Scripture in the service.

I stuck with this worship style for almost as long as I had been Baptist. But another significant relationship change led to a renewed curiosity with those Baptists. When a friend and I decided to visit Seattle First Baptist Church to see what was going on in the 90s, I was amazed to be as drawn to the extemporaneous prayer as I had been drawn to the liturgy before. Both styles of worship met needs of mine, as music enriched the whole. We stayed. And unexpectedly, I felt a call to ministry as well. You know that story.

People of faith—of any faith or belief system—often talk about looking back to see a thread that connected unrelated parts of their experience through their lives. Few people I know have done the same thing, worshiped the same way, and believed the same principle for years and years. I have been committed both emotionally and spiritually to at least four church communities. Now I am committed to two of them, while devoting most of my time to the fifth: a small Lutheran church close to home.

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message [Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992], writes that when we move to another town, state or country and start looking for a church, we ought to choose the local church most convenient to our new home. Why? Because church is about community more than denomination: creating it, learning from it, improving it, and growing it. This surprised me. Rather than loyalty to only one denomination, Peterson recommended membership close by, the goal being engaging as much as possible in other people’s lives while following the faithful path. A life of faith is lived more in community, conceivably, than only in a faith system.

I’ve experienced over and over a spiritual life spiced by surprise and paradox. It is the foreign country we enter when we become intentional about our walk with God, following where we are led. Another rule of that road is that it is permissible to ask for directions and, often, ‘enemies and aliens’ make good traveling companions. William Stafford says it more poetically in “The Way It Is.”

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

~ William Stafford ~

Lavish loving, Soul Work

One voice in a Many-Voiced Chorus

There I was, perched on a stool at the Genius Bar, Alderwood, contemplating my dark (dead?) iPhone, praying for it, for a tech to rescue me. Misery came in threes this week. First, the Prius was undriveable due to loose bearings in the left rear wheel—garaged while we drove Ardene’s FIT to Oregon last week. Upon our return for a large weekend conference, my phone ran dangerously low on battery. Reentering the passcode numerous times, the system locked me out. Full stop.

And third, after returning home late, we discovered our cat Sugar had thrown up her breakfast. We took fifteen minutes searching hidden corners to find her crouched in the back of the last bedroom closet. She was lethargic and wouldn’t eat. Sunday morning, worried, we carried her to the only open vet: the emergency hospital in Lynnwood where she received fluids and an anti-nausea med. We joined the last plenary late, only to find, that evening, that Sugar still wouldn’t eat enough to survive.

On Monday early we postponed my date at Toyota service and drove to our vet, admitting poor kitty once again for fluids and appetite stimuli overnight. We had one car. No mobile phone. No cat. I spent the third day at Toyota.

Thursday, four days later in my newly safe car, I made it to Apple rescue. Hallelujah. In less than 30 minutes my phone was restored. Finally, I joined Ardene to pick up Sugar and return home with iPhone, cat, and wheels.

This is the stuff of our lives. Luckily it was a cat, a car, and a phone, and not a knee-joint, bleed, or heart attack. Not disease. Not famine. Not war. The world surrounds us with worse hourly. And what good does knowing that do? Millions of our neighbors suffer sorrow, pain, death, and heartbreak worldwide, drowning us in guilt that we can do so little. How useless I felt. I was not ill. We had enough to eat. We were not under attack or afraid of invasion or arrest, as millions are. In fact, despite our quarreling, the lies and vitriol, we are among the most fortunate peoples on the earth. And even here, among our close neighbors, are hunger, sickness, and death; threats of arrest, and abundant hate.

I remember Thoreau writing, “One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?”    I found solace in an email….

Remember you are not asked to save the world or even a single creature.

You are asked to listen, to hear what you are called to do/, great or small, and do that….

                     In the chorus you sing only one part, but when you change your note, you change the whole chord.*

 

Let us sing our faithful harmonies into the universe, offering our united choruses of hope close to home, as well as far away.

*Steve Garnass-Holmes, “Unfolding Light”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being the Light, Discovery, Fear of the Dark, Soul Work

Saving the Day

 

I scan the front section of the Seattle Times at breakfast to see the trash at a homeless camp in Montlake, saddened by both the need for such a “shelter” and the lack of support that results in such a mess. I read that the Dems “fumed” at the White House balking to supply their subpoenaed file. A trade war “rattles” our markets. Denver hosts the latest school shooting. And Boeing is suspected of obfuscating causes of an earlier failed altitude sensor in a Turkish Airlines crash in 2009.

Ten minutes of morning news eclipse my calm from a good sleep, delight at another warm, dry day.

I search for remedies to my grief, my dis-ease, at all the known conditions of the world we cannot fix. I used to think a lot of money would fix such things as the homeless camp with its despondent resident, city legislation and resources that could be deployed to fast track the clear necessity for housing. We live in one of the wealthiest cities in the nation and cannot resolve the plight of homelessness. Politicians at loggerheads. Apparently naive and jaundiced political advisors. Businesses that are, after all, all-business with a bottom line and a fixed expenditure list.

The shooting? One more statistic to prove that nearly everyone has a gun or access to one, and it is trendy to “go postal” with one’s grievances and cut short the lives of innocent children…once innocent children. I grew up practicing bomb drills in a concrete hallway, kneeling on the cold floor with one hand protecting my neck, and one over my eyes to dodge an impossibly brilliant flash of ignition. I was afraid of the bomb. Today’s children fear the shooter.

Turning to the natural world restores my soul. But even that is under siege from earth warming and drought. Whales beach themselves to escape the slow pain of starvation. Whole species dwindle steadily from the rising temperatures. The wise aren’t taken seriously. The foolish play at government.

How can I escape the juggernaut of all that is wrong with our world? “This fragile planet, our island home.”

Robert Frost wrote    The way a crow / Shook down on me / The dust of snow / From a hemlock tree /Has given my heart / A change of mood / And saved some part / Of a day I had rued.

I look out the front windows. Three azaleas in bloom, lavender, dark orange, and white. A chickadee splashing in the bird bath under the coral-bark maple. The robins sitting in courage and hope over their turquoise eggs, looking out for the black cat who likes to perch on a cedar stump nearby and simply watch with her wide green eyes. She’s no problem. She’s too old to hunt and never was any good at it. Arthritis in her elbows slows her down. She naps on the flagstones in the front yard, soothed by the warmth from the sun.

“It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being: God, a Soul, and a Moment. And the three are always here.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel) I stop to find God in the world, breathe slowly, and promise to be God’s love in this world today.

 

Being Quiet, Discovery, Fear of the Dark, Loss

History, Architecture or Spirituality?

St. Anne’s. Built by Crusaders in  Jerusalem in 1130

What accounts for our fear of seeing Notre Dame ablaze? For the French it is the national symbol of their lives in the past, not least, its surviving World War II, but also recent births, marriages, burials, anniversaries, and Holy Days.

Do we fear losing the building itself? Its form through the last thousand years? Or will we lose our memories of walking through its doors under the vaulted roof, awed by its majesty, height, and vastness, while on a momentary stop with a ragtag group of college students on summer tour?

Does she capture the elusive Spirit who beckons each of us into communion with the holy? Is this true even for those of us who do not darken church, mosque, or synagogue doors, who claim spirituality only in being alive, who do not take time to listen to the silent heart? And true even for those who aspire to be in such a stunning, outrageously beautiful edifice that promises prayer when they cannot bring themselves to go to any old house for worship?

Yes, I was there, astonished. On first walking under the vault, I remember holding my breath, hardly able to see the roof so high above me. The vastness stunned me to silence.

How could we endure the destruction of such a place? A place that symbolizes…God? Could it be God who speaks in such grandeur? A god most of us cannot imagine, a god we blame because we attribute the state of the world today to “His” malpractice.  But could it be that the thought and sight of such a cathedral in mortal danger suggests to us the danger of losing a god we do not know at all? That something is there, even so? Some spirit?

What was it in 1160, when it had hardly a form? Or one hundred years later when it was complete. How did Parisians feel about it then? In those years, cathedrals were the center of the community…the Christian community that included nearly every person alive. Not only were prayers heard within, but just outside there were markets and celebrations, feasts and gatherings. It was where everything happened; the center of town.

I wonder how many of us understand the incredulity of the French people that such an icon could be destroyed. The dread that it really was burning. And then, how many of us can empathize with worshipers in our own country when their churches, mosques, and synagogues are burned? While not icons of a nation, they are icons of their communities, the center where births and marriages are celebrated and lives mourned, where prayers rise like incense as if we can hear them gathered in by God.

If you have no such sacred place, what symbolizes holy silence for you? Where does hope reside? How can others reach to celebrate your life and comfort you in death?

Notre Dame is all these things. The history of a nation since 1160, steadfast—like God—decade by decade, centennial to centennial. An amazement of design, creation, and story-telling for more than 800 years. And spirituality. Notre Dame captures the spirit of millions whether we worship with her or view her from afar.

Maybe church buildings mean more to us than we realize. Maybe that’s why some confused people try to burn them down.

Being the Light, Discovery, Grace Happens, Ordinary Miracles

Spirit Stones–Undergoing a Transformation

Spirit Stones is alive and well, just undergoing a transformation. You’ve just found me on a redesigned website more easily searchable that will, one day soon, announce the emergence of my new book, Loving the Enemy: When the favorite parent dies first.

You’ll find some of the ‘Stones lovingly cached within the book. And you will also get a look at the ending of my parents’ lives, including the back stories, encounters, and astonishments that reveal how a new relationship comes to fruition with time, care, and love. But not before knowing some of the confusion and pain of family story

So many drafts I cannot count them. So much rewriting following advice from two professional editors in New York. Many of my friends have shared comments and suggestions along the way. It takes a village to write a book.

I am a veritable archive of quotations from others. Many of them appear within as well. How I wish I had begun earlier to get permission from the many publishers to reuse these pithy quotations. They are still trickling in, for example Sue Monk Kidd, Richard Rohr, and Joan Chittister.

A good friend and published writer told me that she would never let a publishing company get hold of her work again. She advised I self-publish as well. She didn’t let on how much work that is, however, and how long it takes to decide when one is finished. I am finished!

It is complete, except for the process of formatting, printing, and arranging marketing to let you know it’s ready. You will see it in late spring. And I will keep you posted.

Here are three short excerpts.

  1. “’Look at all that!’ Mom remarks, as I pull the stringy innards of the pumpkin out and slop them on the newspapers covering the table. She is charmed, seeing the orange pulp as if for the first time. With a large spoon I scoop out handfuls of strings and seeds. Once the shell is clean, I ask, ‘Now, where’s a candle we can put inside?’ I make holes for eyes and carve a large mouth in a smile while she goes to the hall closet. A small votive candle fits perfectly, and I put the pumpkin on my parents’ mantel. “When I drive away I’m pleased; I’ve done something tangible. Should I be doing this more often? Should I be caring for my parents as if were the parent? Is it time? Will they permit it, I wonder? Mom’s marveling at the pumpkin worries me. Why, for her, is this so fresh? Has she forgotten she’d led this exercise for me and my brothers and her grandchildren for years?”
  1. “I betrayed my mother. The two of us face each other in the social worker’s office at Rocky Glen, the nursing home where Dad is already placed. Mom’s red blouse and charcoal sweater punctuate her anger, always dreadful for me. My mouth is dry, my face blank, hiding fear and deep sadness. She has visited Dad here once; she knows where she is, and she knows it’s not her home. She frowns at me, leveling her dark eyes, adamant she will not be admitted against her will. ’This is just for a short while, Mom. It’s not safe for you to stay at home alone.’ My voice is soft and trembling, but full of what I hope is compassion and understanding. She has only rudimentary understanding of what is going on. ‘When Dad is stronger, the two of you can find a retirement home together.’ She glares.”
  2.  “’I can’t see the television captions from my chair,’ Dad explains of the set on top of his bureau but, as I quickly offer to get a larger one, he stops me. ‘No, no. I don’t want a bigger one,’ he insists. But it isn’t the last time he brings up how hard it is to see and understand what’s going on. Apparently it is just one more factor he has accepted. He’s not complaining when he shares these things, he’s reporting. There is nothing I need do. Does he view the circumstances as temporary? Tolerable? Or is he simply done with allowing other people to do things for him? Maybe in his silences at home he was just as content, and I couldn’t read it on his face.”

Loving the Enemy: When the Favorite Parents Dies First.

Catherine Fransson.     Stilwell Press.

Stay Tuned!

Discovery

Turning Over Rocks

Once in a while I have to escape my familiar walls at home, even my cat, to get close to the wider, wilder world. When I do that, I am entranced by the small things: beach rocks and the tiny crab who flee when I turn them over, lichen, white, black and tan, tree bark, and nurse logs from which all growing things arise. What is it that compels us to pick up a small enough, well-enough shaped beach rock, and spin it into the waves? Why do we sit on the gravel and comb through the multiform stones for one that’s distinct? The one we take home with us?

The well-placed pebble tossed into a small pool distinguishes itself by the ribbons of ripples that spread in all directions at once, expanding until they reach banks even I cannot reach. I like to study things small and close to examine exactly what/who they are. As Thoreau observed, Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. For example, a tiny white mushroom leaning out of a gaggle of bright green moss growing on the side of a tree.

And then what? Is the observation enough? Sometimes. I know when, when I feel in awe at all our neighbors on the planet. And yes, I count moss, lichen, mushrooms, stones, and pebbled beaches where tiny crab hide. Awe is my response to the world. Especially when I have a chance to explore it firsthand.

I was struck by this cairn of remembrance, or thanksgiving, at the top of the Trollstigen Mountain road in Norway, well-known for its steep pitch and 11 hairpin turns. There was not just this one. There were perhaps, a hundred. Carefully placed to mark someone’s safe passage, or the hope that the return to sea level would be safe as well. I have a friend who builds a cairn in the many places she has hiked to remember her mother, who recently left the planet. She calls her into presence as she stops to envision her standing on the spot with her. Thanksgiving. Presence.

Present! We say, when our name is called. On All Souls Sunday we heard the names of those who had died this past year, and then said aloud with emphasis, Present! for each one. There are more things in our world than we can possibly see firsthand, and even researchers, when they concentrate on one phylum, genus or species, find they cannot come to the end of their exploring. Just as the stars we can see spread out into the distance and the distant past, we can never come to the original seed. You may not agree. But these depths are beyond my ken.

Similarly, turning over stones is one way to go in deep to the core of things, to their spirit, their place, their nature, though we cannot name it or understand it. Spirituality is like that. It is what is not seen. Often not glimpsed. But even when not glimpsed, it might be felt, sensed somehow. The awe we feel in the presence of the ocean surf, the forest pond, the tiny acorn, the Magnolia seed pod, is what I feel when I sense a Presence when it is not present. Yet it is. It definitely is. And I live in search of it every day.

Fear of the Dark

Welcoming Darkness

Welcome darkness? Not really. I turn on as many lights as possible trying to keep darkness at bay. I add candles, spotlights, twinkling garlands and bright lighted trees to assure myselfthat the dark is not disturbing.

As a child I was more afraid. I called loudly for Mom or dad to come into the hall and turn on that light so I could walk quickly to the bathroom. I insisted on that light so passionately that my tense cry awakened a parent who got up to turn it on.

Yet as time passed as I was in my room alone, I began to watch the moon rise through the east-facing windows and branches of a tall Oregon Ash. My own tree. From branch to branch, it rose, and soon I was fast asleep. Somehow the darkness there became comfort. I listened to a program of poetry recited to “Ebbtide,” with ocean waves tumbling in and out in the background. That, too, calmed me.

I later began to realize that in a darkened room, or an old church, I felt cloistered and calm. I seek out churches to go inside, and just sit. I have walked the shadowy Grace Cathedral labyrinth when the spacious nave was lighted only by candles along the aisles. I found my way down ancient stone steps to the very dark undercroft at France’s Vezelay Abbey lighted only by tall thin orthodox candles affixed to ageless stones they had dripped over for centuries. I fell to my knees completely captivated by the summons to prayer.

image

I fall into every prayer offered in worship hungrily, my yearning to be closer to God met in the deep quiet. Darkness can enrich our search, as can the bright sun of Easter morning striking into the heart of the tomb and touching all Jesus’ friends and followers.

Yet where did they go next? Afraid, into hiding. Back into the darkness.

When those we see all around us snared in the ugliness of racism, isolation, selfishness, power plays, poverty–the angry taking from others who already have less than many–I wonder why I am not tempted to hide. Maybe I am hiding in my own time-worn ways of escaping anguish. I wonder if, walking the journey of Advent, waiting and watching for the birth of Jesus, we have forgotten that he is already walking with us without our noticing?

We may spend too many hours wishing God would do something, when God already has. That news is good. Good news brings peace to everyone who believes, and even in darkness the candles shine, reminding us that light defeats the darkness. Darkness cannot overcome it.

Be the light in the darkness. Light up in the sure and certain hope of God’s presence among us. Gathering together with our lights held high brightens us all with light we need, and Light we receive.

Welcome darkness? Not really. I turn on as many lights as possible trying to keep darkness at bay. I add candles, spotlights, twinkling garlands and bright lighted trees to assure myselfthat the dark is not disturbing.

As a child I was more afraid. I called loudly for Mom or dad to come into the hall and turn on that light so I could walk quickly to the bathroom. I insisted on that light so passionately that my tense cry awakened a parent who got up to turn it on.

Yet as time passed as I was in my room alone, I began to watch the moon rise through the east-facing windows and branches of a tall Oregon Ash. My own tree. From branch to branch, it rose, and soon I was fast asleep. Somehow the darkness there became comfort. I listened to a program of poetry recited to “Ebbtide,” with ocean waves tumbling in and out in the background. That, too, calmed me.

I later began to realize that in a darkened room, or an old church, I felt cloistered and calm. I seek out churches to go inside, and just sit. I have walked the shadowy Grace Cathedral labyrinth when the spacious nave was lighted only by candles along the aisles. I found my way down ancient stone steps to the very dark undercroft at France’s Vezelay Abbey lighted only by tall thin orthodox candles affixed to ageless stones they had dripped over for centuries. I fell to my knees completely captivated by the summons to prayer.

 

Lavish loving

Learning to Love

How I love this world. An elegant variety in a multitude of growing things: flowers, shrubs, annuals, perennials, and tall dogwood next to tiny purple eruptions from ground I never planted. Could the abundance entice us to bloom as well? To bloom into love for ourselves and others?

Does the tree just tolerate the camellia? The crabapple the crocus? Or do they love their neighbors? The primordial and present forest trees are connected with nearly invisible fungal filigrees beneath the duff that help them send warning signals about environmental change, search for kin, and transfer their nutrients to neighboring plants before they die. The visible roots themselves crisscrossed unpredictably throughout the paths we just walked, or more honestly, climbed and stepped over and around only with occasional slippage.

Wouldn’t it be loverly if we had the same invisible links to humanity? Don’t we already? Isn’t it a relief to recognize a fellow human being (of any stripe) when we feel most exposed and vulnerable?

In my yard I mourn the decline of hosta and anticipate the hellebore. The red coral bark maple is a delight as it turns crimson in the winter. As much as I have to watch my step on damp, slippery leaves, I love how leaves seem strewn by an artist on the rich earth below. The splash of bright yellow beech or larch surprise me amid a stand of evergreen.

How I love the pebbled shore, too, and the sea’s chuckling laugh as it recedes into its vast deep. The steady slap at the pocked, worn bulkhead. The salty air where gulls sail in rising circles.

Im3RSKdFShmDXw0kSi9QAQWhat a blessing to live in the Northwest where temperate winds freshen the air and all we dare to fear is deep within the tectonic grinding below. This world is fragile–dependent on millions of intermixed elements, its inner furnace and molten center hissing out through fissures and shooting out geysers we gleefully cheer to see.

I wish I could embrace it whole. Despite its hazards, how sweet, how precious–more because it might not much longer remain our permanent safe home. Even now, so many of our neighbors across the globe suffer more than we with rising water, drought, hunger, typhoon and hurricane. I hold them in my heart and sing comfort prayers of peace and well-being.

What if our emergence here as infants is the inauguration of our education: learning how to love. Love is taught by a myriad people, peoples far away we’re only beginning to see as neighbors. Distance need not dictate fear more than love—why not neighborliness? What if the dream of earth is for all of us to share this fragile home, our island planet? To love, nurture it, and care for its tender and delicate balance.

I have had a tiny microchip planted near my heart ensuring that it beats methodically–always. It will no longer need to think so hard, after years of unpredictability. Now, will there be more room in it for love? More capacity than mechanics–love that I can teach, model, and offer lavishly without regret? I hope so.

Engaging the Stranger

A Small Clearing

It may be only among strangers in airports or waiting rooms, planes or elevators, that I manage to suspend my well-honed biases. Oh, I know, we must always receive the stranger as a guest, lest we miss entertaining angels unawares. But it is only when I have read everything in sight or played enough Solitaire on my iPhone I will look up wondering if there is a conversation worth having. 

Travelers have a destination in common. It’s a good place to start. In unfamiliar places, foreign locations, I am readier to engage someone who might know a little more or seems as lost as I. Company in misery. On tours participants share the interest that led to a common appreciation, cameras at the ready for long-envied sights. Proximity lends itself to familiarity that is mostly nonthreatening. Such an approach might be useful in other situations.

Such encounters may be what philosopher Anthony Appiah calls “sidling.” Rather than confront someone with religious or political views opposed to mine, he suggests “sidling up” to them. Sidling is a better way to construct a bridge across a chasm of differences–race, religion, gender, economics, politics–than to exchange opposing points like a ping pong ball. Instead of trading shots without hope of common ground, it might be more productive to describe where I was when I was six, then invite a conversation partner to share. Childhood, schools, and early work could fill a canvas with family experience, a list of callings, nuance that makes up a whole person. This brings the background to the foreground and might justify or just explain the values any of us holds when and if we get around to examining more divergent views. 

I have an email pal in North Carolina I’ve never met. A staunch Southern Baptist, she believes the Bible is inerrant and that “total truth” cannot only be discerned, but practiced. We have been corresponding for a number of months. We do not agree. But she, in particular, finds the correspondence heartening. I’m not sure I do. She knows I am a person of faith. She just can’t figure out why I don’t share her beliefs. She’s curious how I manage it. How I preach the Word without her Truth.  She has sent two books to convince me. 

I am trying to glance off the obvious differences between us. To make myself a little vulnerable with a few personal experiences, tangents and questions. I spend a great deal of time thinking how to do this, a lot more work than firing off a volley to squelch her last assertion. I grew up exchanging volleys with my dad, a competition rather than dialogue. I’m used to it, used to hearing it everyday.

It may be that humankind has come to a place where our ping pong habit can get us nowhere. There is no return: unless we learn to listen to one another, we won’t be able to go on together at all. Sidling up to each other may create a small clearing before the great divides. I am convinced that dialogue will not open into its rich wealth of gifts unless one of us dares say more–or less–than a trite closed statement. I hope what I am practicing will lead me to entertain more angels unawares.