“Give Your Pen to Me”

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Our public world is not the way to define our relationship with God. Who we are is defined when no one is looking. –Jennie Allen

 

“Give your pen to me” he says.

I slowly hand it over, unsure as to whether I really want to.

He is gentle with me, but daily I hear the same thing: “Give your pen to me.” 

*****

When I began writing, every day I would pray.

I would pray “Let my words tell your story. Let my words be bigger than I am, bear witness to a greater reality.” It didn’t matter whether people read or not, I wanted my words to reflect God’s glory.

Slowly, people began to read. I was so grateful. Then more people read, and I was excited and grateful.

But I lost sight of my original intent. I became a better writer, a more popular blogger, and a worse person. It began to be more about me, more about statistics, more about popularity. I lost sight of whose pen was in my hand and I focused on who I was.

I lost sight of God in the midst of my own noise. So I burned out. Because when it’s all about me, it’s uninteresting and unsustainable.

I wanted to blame it on others; I wanted to point the finger. But over and over the fingers pointed back at me.

Slowly I began to realize what I was doing. Slowly I began giving my heart and my pen back to God.

Slowly I am making my way back to the beginning, back to the bigger and better story, back to the Author.

And my longing grows stronger by the day – to bear witness to a greater reality.

*****

“Give your pen to me” he says.

Exhausted with self effort, I finally hand it over willingly. I – a slow learner, he – a patient teacher.

The pen is no longer in my hand and I sigh, realizing it was never mine to begin with. 

To You Whom I’ve Never Met


Last week, my husband came home with a package. After tearing off the brown paper, I opened a beautiful, decorative, handmade sign for our home. Someone who I’ve never met, who has never seen my world, took the time to make it for me. I couldn’t believe her kindness and generosity. And so I began thinking about so many of you, you whom I’ve never met. You who email, comment, and encourage. This is for all of you. 

To You Whom I’ve Never Met….

I read your messages and I alternate between weeping and laughing. We share so much – yet we’ve never met. From boarding school tears and laughs to awkward first days in our passport countries it is like we are brothers and sisters.

And yet – we’ve never met.

We know the joy of international terminals, and the tears of the word ‘goodbye.’ We share the cynicism that overpowers when we confront narrow world views and the fresh breeze that comes of kindred spirits communicating. We know what it is to grow up too quickly and yet be considered immature in many ways. We don’t have a clue what it would be to stay in the same place for life and yet we partially envy it.

We share all these things – and yet we’ve never met.

I receive your emails and your messages, your tweets and your texts. We might share our thoughts through a couple words, or through long paragraphs that detail our stories. No matter – there is a common thread that binds us.

We come from places of faith and places of doubt, from different countries and political persuasions, but something binds us together.

We know what it is to live in a world between, we know what it is to communicate across boundaries. Whether those boundaries be in our back yard or across the ocean, we navigate them regularly and learn through the hard and the easy.

And yet, we’ve never met.

Others of you have stayed in the same place all your lives. Yet, you read and connect with my words with warmth and empathy. You encourage me to be settled but not stagnant, to love places that are near and far.

Thank you. For being a part of this journey; for living between worlds so well; for being okay with home not always being a ‘place’; for laughing at the funny and crying at the difficult; for loving the world and understanding negotiation; for getting what it is to be ‘other’ and using that to make a difference. Thank you for being the third culture kid, global nomad, and lover of the world that you are.

Maybe someday we’ll meet, but until we do, I’m grateful. 

And Jenn Sforza, thank you for my beautiful sign! 

When Two Writers Meet–A Lunch with Elizabeth Trotter


Yesterday I drove across the great Kansas plain, over and down through the Flinthills, to meet someone, Elizabeth Trotter—a fellow writer, that I’ve only ever known on-line. It wasn’t a very long drive, I think it took me maybe an hour and a half, but it felt much longer. Truth be told, I was nervous. I admitted as much to my friend Marilyn in a gasping text message an hour before I left the house, “Here’s a stupid thing: can you pray? I’m meeting Elizabeth Trotter for lunch and I’m having all these second thoughts and insecurities and misgivings. And I think I might have been the one to initiate… which I never do! What was I thinking?!

It’s a little daunting to meet someone face to face that has only known you through your writing. I write my heart. She’s read my heart. I write my pain and problems. She’s read my problems and my pain. It’s one thing to think of the ‘reader’ as a nameless, faceless thing out there—it’s another to imagine your expression as my words are ingested by your eyes and taken into your brains. You’ll either spit out those words as irrelevant or meaningless or quite frankly wrong, or the words will land inside you. They’ll settle on your souls. An expression, a turn of phrase, a metaphor, enters and springs to life in you and takes up residence. It’s risky to write. It’s risky to write to readers. It’s riskiest of all to meet one of those readers, who has only known me through my writing, face to face.

I wondered if I had a headache yesterday morning. I didn’t. I wondered if my mother-in-law, who had woken unusually early, was well. Maybe I needed to stay home with her? She was and I didn’t. I wondered if the car, which did seem very shaky and who’s muffler must surely have a hole in it for the noise it made as I rattled along the I-70 highway, was safe enough. Perhaps I should turn back? I didn’t.

Instead I bravely went to meet Elizabeth Trotter.

There’s this thing that happens when two writers meet. So much ground had been covered by our writing and reading of each other’s lives, we jumped into conversations half way through. It’s like we’d been talking for years, we were mid-sentence in each other’s stories. We simply loaded up our plates with delectable Indian food, filled our mini-mugs with hot spicy chai, sat down and continued where we’d left off, transitioning without hesitation from the written words we’d read, to spoken words with voice.

Having shared written pains, spoken heartaches were easier to articulate. I found myself confiding in Elizabeth the stuff of blog posts I’ll never be able to publish. Those things landed safely on her. Elizabeth never flinched or gasped. She received with grace my various confessions.

Jonathon and Elizabeth Trotter are on home assignment. It’s a nebulous, often misunderstood, role. It’s hard work. There are joys of reunions and dreads of departures. Their time is consumed with connecting with people long known, reporting to churches and donors, attending to administrative details. I remember the ‘mixed-bag’ of emotions associated with home assignment and they have my sympathy. I also know how very busy and exhausting home assignments can be. I was deeply honoured that Elizabeth carved out time to meet me, a friend she hadn’t ever met. I was thankful to Jonathon for sacrificing the time to allow it to happen.

And I’m thankful for the graces embedded in our conversation. Elizabeth affirmed me as a writer. I often struggle to think this is real for me. I’m married to a real writer, I write with a real writer. But Elizabeth looked me in the eye and blessed the gift I’ve been given. We talked about being writers. We talked about being married to writers. She empathized and laughed a little at some of the writing arguments Lowell and I’ve had over the years. Elizabeth gave space to my current pains. She didn’t rush into fix them, or talk me out of them. She heard my heart and she let the pain come to the table and join us. She taught me some American Church history and it’s relevance to today. We reiterated the central role of Jesus in all of that—and in our own lives. We talked about mothering a little, the stages we’ve loved, the stages we’ve struggled through—all the while drinking masala chai from the lunch buffet.

I felt very brave, in the midst of my anxieties, driving down the highway toward Elizabeth. I felt deeply blessed afterwards driving toward home. Although the chai cups had been emptied many times, or maybe in part because they had, my heart was full. Whether a reader or a writer, it didn’t matter in the end. I had met a friend.

The Stories of Others

Learning to tell our storiesSince writing in a public space I have done a lot of reading and thinking about story – specifically writing the stories of others. I think about this as I come back from Iraq, full of stories, and I begin to tell these stories in this space.

Indeed, there is a lot to think about. The first question is if I even have the right to tell the story of another. Should I tell the story or not?

For help in sorting this through I have read several essays but the writer I continually come back to is Katherine Boo.

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about poverty. She writes stories for those with no voice. In 2012 she was interviewed by Guernica magazine. The interview is a thoughtful, long-form piece and I encourage you to read the entire interview. What I love about her words is that she honestly addresses the struggle of writing with integrity. She addresses the criticism of telling the stories of others and the soul-searching that a writer who tells those stories goes through. While the topic she specifically writes about is poverty, it holds true for other stories as well.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?

Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.

But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced. 

There’s more to this than the telling. It’s also how we tell the story.

If someone is entrusting us with their story and has given us permission to share the story, it means we have an obligation, a responsibility to tell it the best way possible. If we are telling our own story or the stories of others, we have a responsibility to tell the narrative with integrity and truth. But we also have a responsibility to write and tell stories as well as we possibly can – and that means with descriptive language, with passion, with sensitivity. We have a responsibility to write so that people want to read and want to share. We are the voice for the one who doesn’t write. We are custodians of the story.

In the next few posts, I will be telling some stories of those whose voice would otherwise not be heard. I write, both grateful and fearful. Grateful, because I was able to sit with people and hear their hearts. Fearful, because it is important that I honor their story, and in an online space that is not always easy.

But if you as readers have shown me anything, it’s that you honor stories. So I hope you’ll join me as I tell some of the stories that I heard in Iraq. Thanks for reading along.

Grace in the Space Between

long obedience quote

In a world of online noise, I often wonder where this space stands, what it can do. More and more, I’ve had to evaluate – does this blog belong? Is it useful? Does it really say anything different or new? I’m not sure. And I’m not looking for compliments when I say that – really!

When I first began blogging, it felt easy. I had so much to say and so little time. And then I realized, every time there was a controversy, everyone wrote about it, whether they were qualified of not. Because in online space it seems that to merely exist is qualification enough. Every time there was a major scandal, millions of voices spoke into the scandal, some screaming for grace, others screaming for judgment.

And I have become so tired.

Perhaps you too are tired. Perhaps you too are wondering where you stand. During the short break I took from daily blogging, I decided that Communicating Across Boundaries would continue.  So many of you honoured and encouraged that break. Through comments and messages, you spoke words that were like  gifts.  And the break was so good. It was so necessary.

But now I’m not so sure about this space.

More and more my prayer as I go forward is that I don’t waste this space. That I don’t waste time – either yours or mine.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote the words below for the online community at A Life Overseas. They are the words I give you today as I think about this space.

My prayer for us today: That we may have Grace in the space between.

Between the taxi ride and checking in at the airport
Let there be Grace
Between the tears of goodbyes and the joys of hello
Let there be Grace
Between a warm bed at home and the halls of boarding school
Let there be Grace
Between Sunday rest and Monday work
Let there be Grace
Between doubt and faith
Let there be Grace
Between grief and laughter
Let there be Grace
Between bitter anger and redemptive reconciliation
Let there be Grace
Between life on earth and longing for Heaven
Let there be Grace
Let there always be Grace in the Space Between

Choosing a Smaller Font

  
Choosing a Smaller Font by Robynn

Lately I’ve been struggling to write. There are several reasons I’m sure. It’s always harder for me to find quiet uninterrupted time when the kids are home from school. The rhythm in the house slows. A laid back lovely laziness seeps over this place. The kids sleep longer and later. There’s more television watched, more games played, more art created, more books read. I manage the absolute necessary: the laundry gets done, the place gets cleaned. Obligations connected to my job are usually completed but with less energy and enthusiasm. Things still get checked off my to do list, but the creative juices fueling my drive seem to seasonally run dry. It’s nearly impossible for me to write during the summers.

As I was exploring this yesterday with Lowell, he asked me why I write. What motivates me to keep working at it? I was surprised he had to ask–obviously, I have things to say. (Insert smiley face emoticon here!) There are passions in me that need voice, truths that need to be elaborated on, soapboxes I want to stand on. I write also to process what’s at work in me. When I don’t understand things writing seems to help me clarify them. When I’m confused writing often mysteriously brings clarity to my cloudiness.

I’ve developed relationships through writing. I have come to humbly love and appreciate my readers. I suppose on one level I must assume people read, but when I actually meet someone who admits to reading I’m astounded that people really read what I write. I feel a connection to those readers. Readers are a part of my community, my sense of belonging, my place. I take you seriously. I feel responsible to you, and in some cases, for you.

Deeper underneath those things there lurks another more ignoble reason. I think, if I’m completely honest, that I write to remain seen. I’m afraid that if I stop writing, I’ll somehow disappear.

All my life I’ve longed for a broader scope. I’ve ached to have a global impact. I’ve wanted to make a difference to the world. I suppose that’s what happens when, as a little girl, you watch your parents cross the seas to enter their vocation. The international collection of colleagues they worked with must have further cemented this in my mind. People leave their various countries to make a difference in the world. They came from far away corners of the earth and went into all the world. That must have rubbed off on me. It’s what I’ve dreamed of for years.

I remember, rather sheepishly now, telling Father Albert at Conception Abbey in St Joe, Missouri, several years ago, in a spiritual direction session, that I wanted to be famous. His hands escaped his dark cassock, slapped on his knees, and he threw back his head and guffawed. He guessed he’d never really heard anyone admit that before. But it wasn’t fame I wanted; it was that big stage with a big audience, a big impact on a big world. 

My life has shrunk. We used to live loudly in India along the banks of the Ganges River. Now we live quietly in Kansas, in the middle of a large country. We used to travel by airplane, with layovers in large bustling airports. Now we use the car and we stop at gas stations and rest stops. We used to need suitcases and carry-on bags, tickets, passports and visas. All we need now is my purse and an overnight bag thrown in the back of the car. We used to host countless people for meals and overnight stays. We were a destination stop and people came to see us. Now we rarely have guests for more than the occasional meal. We used to speak two languages regularly. Now we speak one. We used to have three kids living under this roof. Now one is preparing to move away to his own life experiences and adventures. Soon we’ll be down to two.

My life is shrinking. Deep inside, in a core, hidden corner, I constantly battle the dread that I’m slowly disappearing. My life is getting smaller and smaller and I fear that I am too.

Shrinking isn’t necessarily bad. Alice in Alice in Wonderland, had to get smaller and before she would ever meet the Mad Hatter, the white rabbit, and the Queen of Hearts. The children in the movie, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, came to truly know their father loved them only after he accidentally shrunk them. Hagar, in the Old Testament story, had a personal encounter with the God Who Sees, only after her world had forcibly squeezed her into smaller spaces. 

John the Baptist knew that if Jesus was the Bridegroom then he was simply the Groom’s attendant. Understanding that John said, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). He must become bigger, I must become smaller. John the Baptist seemed to understand that Christ expanding mandated his own shrinking. He didn’t resent the size exchange. It wasn’t forced on him. He chose it with sincere joy. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:29-30).

I’m feeling the squeeze. I feel hard pressed on every side. I fear myself shrinking. I know in my head that writing is powerless to stop the process. I’m trying to give myself over to this as a spiritual discipline, a holy refining process. Intentionally I want to choose small. The Apostle Paul seemed to understand this. He could volitionally choose to be shrunk and stripped away. He could choose a smaller size for a larger purpose. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things…. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:7-11).

I think I’ll struggle on in my writing. I’ll push through this season of summer sludge. Perhaps, in alignment with the lessons I seem to be learning, I’ll choose a smaller font.

Like a Dead Man

machine-Anne Lamott

One day last fall I was speaking to my priest about self-centeredness and pride. In the course of our conversation, he relayed to me this story: It seems a man came to a priest one day and asked him how he should deal with people who praise him as well as with those who criticize him. The priest looked at him and told him to go to see a man who lay dead in a room, waiting to be buried. “Go and ask him what you just asked me and see what he says,” said the priest.

The man was puzzled but this was his spiritual father, so he did what he asked. When he came back to the priest, the Father asked him what had happened. “Well, nothing,” said the man “he was dead.”

“Then that is how you are to react to both of those  things.” said the priest. “Like a dead man.” 

I love this story because I struggle with both of those things. How do I act when people criticize and how do I act when people praise. I am incredibly sensitive to words and opinion. Far too sensitive. It is one of the things that I have had to learn as a nurse – when a doctor, another colleague, or a patient yelled at me, angry with what I was or wasn’t doing, I wanted to fall apart. I wanted to hide myself away and be able to cry until there was nothing left of me. But that wasn’t going to work as a nurse. I had to face it and act like nothing happened.

So why am I blogging about this? Because this past week Between Worlds came out on Kindle. Not only did it come out, but for a limited time it is free. I am delighted and overwhelmed by the response. It has been shared over and over – and I am glad! I want it to be available to people overseas who can’t buy it from Amazon. But there is another thing happening here. I’m also aware that the more people read it, the more vulnerable I become to criticism. Everyone will not like it. Everyone will not think it was worth publishing. There will be those who verbalize this in any way possible.

Because that’s who we are as humans. We find our own opinions valuable and feel they will benefit others. 

And so I go back to the story of the man who asked a dead man how to respond to both praise and criticism — and I find that is what I want to do. Perhaps not totally dead – but comatose, with a mere nod and squeezing of the hand that I hear the words, but they will not affect the core of who I am. Because I know this – I don’t want either criticism or pride to prevent me from doing what I have grown to love. 

Anne Lamott, a well-loved author, wrote a book on writing called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeMy friend Robynn gave me a copy this summer and I have loved reading it, underlining and nodding through the entire book. Because it’s not just about writing, it’s about the human condition and our insecurity, our anxiety, our fear of failure. In her case these things manifest themselves in the response to her writing, in other people these things may raise their strong, ugly heads over other things.

As I think about reacting as a dead man to praise and criticism, I also realize that there are those, like Lamott, who have walked this road a lot longer and open themselves up to far more criticism than I ever will. And so I close with some of the quotes that are helping me as I navigate this world of writing.

“You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we’ll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”

“What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65… and you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life?”

and finally:

Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.

How about you? Do you find yourself vulnerable to praise and criticism? If so how have you handled it? 

[All quotes from Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life]