Why Do We Do This? Thoughts on Writing and Letting Your Life Speak

There’s a cage I’ve known.

No, not this cage.

For longer than I care to remember now (the archive in the sidebar shows 2004), I’ve questioned why I write. Why I feel like I should. It wasn’t enough just to say what Parker Palmer says in Let Your Life Speak. 

As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to disern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. – p.12

I knew this, but I had to also question my reasoning. What was I saying about my desperate desire to speak–was I saying I didn’t appreciate my easy Christian suburban upbringing? Was I ungrateful for my safe life with dedicated parents, parents everyone else esteemed and loved?

In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.

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What racism have I known? What sexism? What true oppression? I’ve laughed along with the humor of regretting such an idyllic childhood couldn’t lead to great art. And I’ve believed my very desire to create such art was selfish at the core.

I’ve written. A lot. About this very thing. I’ve been self-focused and ashamed of that. I’ve found comfort in countless stories and recognized a certain underground misfit culture, and been emboldened by the beattitudes–if I feel this, maybe I’m among those he’s saying are blessed.

And yet, don’t I flatter and feign? Thinking about thinking is never helpful, but maybe there comes a time to realize as Anne Lamott says, “you own everything that happened to you.”

We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then–if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss–we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.

I’ve written to keep a record, spotty and inaccurate as it might be. And the many journals I’ve filled and the thickly self-conscious prayers I’ve written, it’s all been a way to hold back and not say what needs saying. Substitute vulnerability, surrogate struggle.

“Look how honest. Feel affirmed by this. Yes, I’ve felt it too.” 

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I became an editor and helped publish many books promoting healing and hope. But I never faced my truth. I never let my life speak.

‘Faking it’ in the service of high values is no virute and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one’s nature, and it will always fail.

You never have true character until it’s forged by regret and tested in the face of opposition.

Can I still change? Palmer shares Buechner’s definition of vocation, “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” And I know that’s right–starting at my deep gladness, born of the struggle I was given as a gift to convince me, to shape me, to form this maddening ambition to face the darkness come what may and be real, once and for all.

And the velveteen rabbit’s friend taught me how to do that long ago. You have to get beat up in the service of love. And this doesn’t mean denying the particular shape of the imago dei within us, but asserting it as the only way to show a divided world how to be whole again.

…people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision: they decide to live ‘divided no more.’ They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside. -p. 32

When we’re done being diminished by all the ‘shoulds’ we’ve accepted, we can know the true result of sin isn’t just the bad we do, but also the bad we’ve been done. And both need acknowledging and specific healing to be finished once and for all. But they can’t be done in you until you accept they both already have been finished by the one who lived fully alive and gave all he had to remove its power.

Believing I was a victim has kept me safe in the cage, but I’m done accepting the reducing of that sin–the sin I’ve done and done to me. I believe something entirely different now. I’m walking out.

This is the message I’ve been given, by Parker Palmer and many others who’ve been Spirit-led, after 14 years and much writing and pondering: neither the sin we’ve done nor the sin that’s been done diminishes anything about us. And now that I know, maybe I can stand up and say to that cage “Open,” and I’ll be free.

 

Sometimes it takes a long time to play like yourself.

– Charlie Parker

 

For the higher purpose,

Mick

On Process – My Writing Life – Step 1: Set Out to Return

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walking

The beginning is in the end. And the end is returning.

The idea of turning again back to the place you started from, it has a particular irreplaceable merit.

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Sheri, Ellie, Charlotte, and I set out on a walk, like every walk, from the home we’ll never stop cleaning up and repairing. We leave it behind for just a while to seek adventure and see the world that beckons beyond the front door. The familiar falls away, and our feet step down into a new place we don’t know. Our neighbors and strangers have come out following the morning downpour to wrestle their yards into their original designs, and apparently, none include knee-high weeds or crabgrass.

We walk to the Catholic graveyard because it’s a place of contrasts, beautiful and spooky, and full of very old and very recent residents. Sometimes we read the headstones, and other times we appreciate the flowers. Today, we’re just trying to get back because there’s too much to do back at home before our guests arrive.

“We need to get back,” Sheri says, and much as I want to stay, I know she’s right. “There’s much to do.”

I want to protest, to stay out and play in the glistening day. But I say, “Okay, let’s go,” because I know submitting quickly is the best way to promote happy wives, and also to continuing the play all the way home and beyond.

And oh, the older I get, the more I know that keeping the play going is pretty much the whole magic trick.

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Or maybe it’s better to say, staying in the play. That abiding is a mindset, of course, an intention of continuous practice, with just enough awareness to the conceptual world in the midst of the actual steps and tangible responsibilities. That balance is a metaphor for any meaningful relationship–it’s my marriage, my family, my writing, our house.

What you want is never what you think it is until you return to the start. Yes, of course that’s hard to understand, but why shouldn’t it be? You have to always give up something real, submit to it, and return to that initial design, to preserve what you really want.

You can’t see what you really want. And of course that makes it hard to submit.

I don’t want the fun walk in the graveyard to end. But that’s not what I really want. It’s deeper: I want the adventure to never end. And I want to do what I see as my job, my constant task as a husband and a dad and a writer–to keep the adventure going. Yet I can’t do that if I see this momentary returning as a subtraction, a quenching of adventure. I can only affirm and submit to my partner and the more important friendship we share.

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You’d think this wouldn’t be such a big deal, wouldn’t you? It’s always a bigger deal than we think.

Because it’s always about more than the surface issue. If I can remember that I don’t want to resist love but to submit to it and continue the adventure, I can respond well here. And I can connect up this inspiration to writing: we must venture out, add to our lives escape and exercise and fun and so many other needed things. But we must also return and realize that has its place, and it isn’t subtraction if we’re fully submitted to it.

Returning, too, can be adventure.

We get to the end of the road and turn around, and I see the sunlight fading through the trees, slanting off the wet limbs and reflecting the multicolored sky. The girls aren’t as resistant and have already found how beautiful the light is now ahead of us as we retrace our steps to crest the low hill and turn back. And suddenly, I’m reminded of a T.S. Eliot quote I’ve always loved, which feels in some way its been waiting until now to speak:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

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It’s from his “Four Quartets,” written after his conversion to Christianity and understanding of salvation. He continues:

“Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.”

I’ve said it so often to writers I’ve coached, hoping it’d make its way from my consciousness to my lived experience, that our job is simply to follow in submission to the call of inspiration. And at the end, when we read back over, the venture will prove out what the initial design intended, and what we had forgotten to intend. We can’t see it on that first go around. And that’s as it should be.

I want to stake my life on what I’ve returned to on this walk, the surprise of it, and to have it live forever in my heart. The true adventure.

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Returning always means submission, not merely to a spouse or always specific to a person, but to an idea. Sub (under, from below, up) + mitto (to send). From sub+mitto comes “upsend,” which creates our other key definition of submit: to propose or promote a plan. Submitting also means promoting. And in spiritual terms, it means placing oneself under a sending mission.

To go out and let go. And to return to the beginning. What we intend is not what we mean to intend. We must be brought back to ourselves after we’ve submitted and gone out. Being sent is a gift that inspires and intends a return. It’s added, included in the fabric of the eternal tapestry. And we circle back and know our line has been included because we heard and went and trusted

in submission.

Someone said if things aren’t good yet, then you can know this isn’t the end. Stop. Turn around. Start back.

I take her hand and we walk home together behind the girls, the light breeze from their steps lifting their hair in expectation, and the blinding light turning it to waves of willing fire.

“If it be true that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, the saint goes to the centre, the poet and the artist to the ring where everything comes round again.”

– William Butler Yeats

For the higher purpose,

mick

For Writers, Is Living Love a Process?

“Success has little to teach us during the second half of life. It continues to feel good, but now it is often more an obstacle to maturity than a positive stimulus toward it.”
― Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity

The day’s list of projects is looking mighty long. I know enough by now to simply do the hardest, most pressing thing first, and stick to the process until I get through it all. Last week was a great reminder that “Bird by Bird is always the way.

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Looking at the calendar reminds me I’ll turn 45 on my next birthday. It’s not so old, but seems it’ll be harder to deny I’m middle-aged and “should be” more mature by now. Or whatever other “shoulds” I should be thinking about at my age.

And that list seems pretty stinking long too.

Apart from all of that–the work and the worries about shoulds–what would I choose to be doing to find the most meaning and significance? I know I’m being coerced by the clock and the calendar, but it’s a valid question, and a good one for a Monday morning.

What’s the best use of the day?

Certainly, I can assume a whole list of things it isn’t. Paying any more attention to that blowhard. Worrying about money or bills. Getting just one more modern convenience. 

FullSizeRenderI’m like most modern people. We’re all way too distractable. That’s different from being purpose-driven and interruptible, like Jesus always was. We’re too often thinking about ourselves. We don’t serve the sick and needy, the most innocent and vulnerable. We serve the powerful, the promising, the ones we deem worthy and projecting the right image of success. We elevate those we think can elevate us with their power, prestige, privilege, or position. We avoid those who might drag us down and look instead for promising partners who can help raise our status and standards.

If I could have my way, I’d have no other thought but to serve God and love Him fully through the care and keeping of the weakest and gentlest people I could find. Or so I think. I would be about His business, at least that’s what I tell myself.

But I don’t get involved. There are plenty of opportunities to serve those around me and I don’t. Haven’t I been faking my way through this spiritual writing life up to now? Aren’t I really all about myself, my own wants and needs, my own little comforts? 

IMG_0758Ronald Rolheiser, in his wonderful book Sacred Fire, says, “One of our deepest struggles in life is dealing with the unconscious anxiety inside of us that pressures us to try to give ourselves significance and immortality. There is always the inchoate gnawing: do something to guarantee that something of your life will last. It is this propensity that tempts us to try to find meaning and significance through success and accumulation. But in the end it does not work, irrespective of how great our successes have been.”

Meaning and significance are at the base of my motivation for everything. I want to matter. Jesus says to lose my life and I look for assurances it’ll be saved. Are they right–have I stopped believing because I don’t believe the Bible?

This process of pushing for the ever-deeper question is the impulse that compels me in the search for meaning. I know that I know the Bible is a guide to understanding, the bedrock of belief, but I don’t believe the inspiration is over and done. There’s life to be lived, experience to confirm the Word, and the writing life with the Spirit is a continual proving of faith in living and questioning and seeking, whether in sensing directly, or trying to make sense of his directing. To live the writing and write the life are the word and the deed, inseparable and constantly shifting.

FullSizeRender_1If you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.

And that is why we have to be about process. Progress is inevitable when your goal is the process, and living is always about processing what is lived. Step by step, moment by moment, now and now, the product is being shaped and guided each day until meaning and significance become byproducts of an active, proven faith. Get living in love and writing that lives will be the result.

What more proof do I need? Bishop Michael Curry was so right in that sermon. (I mean, can you get any better proof anywhere on the Web these days? Seriously.)

Writers must focus on process because there is no more powerful way to love everyone God needs us to love. Process is what ensures what’s happening when is what needs to be happening–writing or life, it’s all about the love. And focusing on process, the in and the out, like breathing, is how all the lists will finally be completed, all the work finally finished, and all the words lived out and written out.

And that is how the most powerful meaning will be achieved.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

(I’ll be breaking down some of the steps in my process over the next few weekly posts, so I’d love it if you did some writing and living about your own process as we go along, see what we might find… meantime, here’s a podcast I did with the Pastor Writer about learning to love process recently) 

The Secret Simple Key to Overcoming Overwhelm

  1. No one can tell me when I’m getting overwhelmed.

  2. Pretty much anyone can tell when I’m getting overwhelmed.

These two facts are in my mind the moment I open my eyes Tuesday morning. They have taken me more time to acknowledge than I would like to admit. And yet if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the things we would most like to deny are the things we most need to acknowledge next. Denying overwhelm has caused me to mess up more than I ever would have without the denial. I know for a fact it’s kept me pointlessly working long beyond what I would have otherwise. IMG_8560

I do know I’m the one who has to spur myself on to get to work and keep at it when I want to quit. No one else can do it. I won’t let them, or it simply won’t work. The simple secret to finishing no one had to tell me is the same for you–and I know because when it comes to our work, we’re all the same this way:

Our work is ours. 

How did any major accomplishment get finished? I know from Anne Lamott it had to simply be done “bird by bird,” but just like waking up this morning and knowing I had to get to work on the 18 things waiting for me after a long weekend, it doesn’t get done on someone else’s motivation. It’s my job to find my motivation.

A swift kick to “just do it” can work for a while, but eventually leads to burnout. I know from experience mustering it to muscle it only messes it up and mangles me. More often than not, the impulse to “just do it” denies what I’m feeling in the overwhelm and the real reason for the overwhelmed feeling. The old mind over matter trick is no trick at all, and trying to ignore it to simply cross things off the list is foolish and disintegrating. What I really need is to simply not look at the list.

What I really need is to acknowledge the feeling and consider what it’s trying to tell me. What I need is to slow down and pay attention, to integrate the fear and the excitement, the anxiety and the anticipation of finishing and celebrating. If I can do that and hold both of those and know that my greater good is here, in the stalling to get out of bed and as I get up slowly to begin the process of getting ready for the day. Process over product is the secret. I don’t have to overthink it, but if I can be present to the fatigue and disconnected sensations of all that remains unresolved from the week and the weekend, and the night before, I can forego the swift kick and the burnout that would follow, and experience the fuller experience, rather than relegating so much of it to unconsciousness, and rendering it unavailable and unrealized.

The truth no one has had to tell us, the simple secret to finishing anything difficult we might consider our true work, is that all of it is ours and meant for us to experience and grow from. We can’t numb ourselves to feeling difficult emotions without also numbing the ones we enjoy, nor can we effectively evaluate what should or should not be disorienting, disintegrating, or distancing us from our fuller selves. We don’t know why certain things affect us, and as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we don’t control whether or not they will.

However, each of us does control what we will do about the things that affect us. And acknowledging what the emotions are in the midst of the overwhelm never feels good or particularly convenient, but whatever other ideas we had about our true work, this is it. Whatever we may have thought our work was for today, this being conscious and aware of our full feelings about it is our true work. 

And whatever we might call that–messy, frustrating, 100% inconvenient and completely unwelcome–when we don’t list that work first, we merely add one more impossibility to the list.

Can you trust there’s a reason you’re here and being asked to handle this? Regardless of whether you should be facing all that’s on that list, can you acknowledge there’s a higher purpose in it? Something beyond the drudgery and gripey feeling it gives you? Something you might even now be able to relabel a gift?

We don’t need anyone to tell us this is what we’re here for, whatever else we may have to face today. We don’t need proof there’s a very good reason for the place we find ourselves in–the proof is that we’re here. And if we are, it means God is God and he has his reasons. The question is, what would he have us do, learn, feel, say, know, share?

I get up, shower, dress, go down to find the kid who needs to get to school, drive her and drive back, get to my office and get out my list. It’s only Tuesday but it’s already overwhelming, and it’s already clear I’m going to have to adjust some things. But what can get done will get done, and I’ll trust the rest will find its fulfillment another way. One step at a time, one item at a time, all of this is manageable and meant for more than getting through it.

No muscling. No mangling. Just mercy, and more gifts to be received and given back in their proper way and time. And in the slow, deliberate facing of my feelings, and accepting them, and processing them, I’ll find my way to finish all I was given to do.

The list looks much more manageable from that perspective.

“To be a teacher of a process such as this takes qualities too few of us have, but which most of us can develop. We have to be quiet, to listen, to respond.” – Donald M. Murray, “Teach Writing as a Process, Not Product”

 

Makebelievers description

When 28-year-old Zeke Van Wyk finally leaves his dead parents’ faith to join Dr. Modoc’s “mind-spirit” therapy program, he finds God, love, and incredible miracles—along with some terrifying side-effects.

 

Back cover:

You may remember things differently now. That’s good. It means your faith can finally start over.”

Fed up with American Christianity, 28-year-old suburbanite Zeke Van Wyk is burned out trying pretend he still believes in the religion his parents devoted their lives to. Ever since the car accident in his childhood that took them away, he’s been fighting off a crisis of faith. Quitting his cake job at a high-profile international Christian ministry, he and aimless childhood friend Slope receive an invitation from charismatic neuroscience professor, Dr. Brant Modoc, to take part in a “faith-regenerating” therapy program. As beautiful tech assistant Avie administers their selectively-revised flashbacks, Zeke experiences God’s love for the first time, along with some miraculous abilities. But clarity comes at a devastating price. And as their memories begin to fade, they must discover what’s really happened before the truth is lost forever. When belief, free will, and the unanswerable are replaced with absolute certainty, what sort of life would really be left?

Chapter 1