the kindness of not having to be alone


    There’s an old joke about a preacher standing up one Sunday and saying, “Today we are going to confess our sins to one another and find forgiveness.” Members of the congregation began to stand, tentatively at first, and tell their secrets. The pastor would respond, “Thank you. You have confessed and you are forgiven.” As the service continued, the confessions became bolder and more outlandish. When one man spoke of his relationship with some of his farm animals, the pastor said, “Oh, brother – I don’t believe I would have told that one.”

    From time to time, I come across culture watchers and social commentators who lament the loss of privacy in our society, pointing out (and often pointing at the blogging world) that we are giving our privacy away more than it is being taken from us. The question is a live one for me as I sit down to write: how much do I tell? In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says if you want to be a writer you have to write as if your parents are dead. I understand her point about getting past some false internal filters and I don’t want my parents’ deaths to be the prerequisite for my being able to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?).

    So “how much” is not the first question. What comes before is I must ask, why am I telling the story of my life? Needing to speak or be heard, or feeling as though I have something important to say are not adequate reasons on their own, I think. A quick trip through my Bloglines feeds each day reminds me my voice is not more important than another’s. At the bottom of it all, I write to connect – and by that I mean something beyond having folks comment on the posts (though I like reading the comments); I mean working to be one of the voices that pulls people together rather than one of those that tears things apart.

    One of the relationships in my life that has found a way to stretch over the miles and years is with my friends Joy and Mark, who live in Iowa and both teach at Waldorf College. Joy is also a writer. Their first son was born with multiple birth defects; he is now sixteen. She wrote a book about their lives so far called Involuntary Joy. This week, in response to my Playgrounds & Pain post, she sent a wonderful email message, part of which said:

    I’ve just returned from a small book signing. A few women–who have already read Involuntary Joy–shared comments that will be helpful as I attempt to move forward with finding an agent/national publisher. Everyday I see my son’s joy over things that I might miss if he had not taught me how to look. I’ve explained that reality the best way I know how: Involuntary Joy. However, asking others to share the journey through reading makes for a bold invitation. The ones who accept are rewarded from the ride that is that portion of our life’s journey. But I’m finding that some start to read and nearly quit because our life’s pain is too much. (The ones who’ve talked to me have not quit reading, but admit they almost did.) One woman–who said she loved the book–suggested that it might be necessary to not tell everything in order to find other readers. I’m extremely open to such. In fact, would welcome the opportunity to have someone attempt to define what parts of our lives aren’t necessary to share. But I have this lingering wonder: What kind of journey would they be taking with our family then? Can the rewards of a less intensely painful read be as great? Would the concept of life’s involuntary joys become as fully known?

    Her questions sent me first to Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem, “Wild Geese”:

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees

    For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

    You only have to let the soft animal of your body

    love what it loves.

    Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

    Meanwhile the world goes on.

    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

    are moving across the landscapes,

    over the prairies and the deep trees,

    the mountains and the rivers.

    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

    are heading home again.

    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

    the world offers itself to your imagination,

    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

    over and over announcing your place

    in the family of things.

    Joy and Mary’s voices harmonize to remind me when we share our despair with one another we give birth to joy – and kindness. In a recent post, Jen Lemen, another scribbling woman* who speaks to me, wrote:

    We float on the sea of otherness together, our differences folded into the kindness of not having to be alone–no matter how young your sorrow or how old your hope.

    I know there are days I have written out of my loneliness, craving comments and community; at my best, however, I work to write in solidarity rather to feed my need to not feel by myself. I dig into the words as one among many who are mining our pain and circumstance hoping to strike the veins of joy and kindness that sustain us all. As I sit solitarily at my computer, I learn again (even as I change metaphors) that I am one voice in the great cloud of witnesses and participants in our shared humanity – even today I have quoted Joy, Mary and Jen. I close with the words of Bob Bennett’s song, “Hand of Kindness.”

    I’ve no need to be reminded
    of all my failures and my sins

    I can write my own indictment

    of who I am and who I’ve been

    I know that grace by definition

    is something I can never earn

    but for all the things that I may have missed

    there’s a lesson I believe that I have learned

    there’s a hand of kindness
    holding me, holding me

    there’s a hand of kindness
    holding me,
    holding on to me

    forgiveness comes in just a moment

    sometimes the consequences last

    and it’s hard to walk inside that mercy

    when the present is so tied up to the past

    in this crucible of cause and effect

    I walk the wire without a net

    and I wonder if I’ll ever fall too far

    but that day has not happened yet

    ‘cause there’s a hand of kindness

    holding me, holding me

    there’s a hand of kindness

    holding me, holding on to me

    “There is no joy in eating alone,” it reads at the top of the sidebar on this blog. There is great joy and kindness in not having to be alone even as we eat and write and pray and grow and live holding on to one another.


    *with an ironic nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne who lashed out at “those damned scribbling women” whose books often outsold his.


    1. Aware of the Lamott quote. And I think that someone has to be brave if the story of a human is to be told. Who cares what human? So I tend to push the edges at times. It feels right to be a little risky. But in doing so, there has to be something that makes it sound like you are telling everyone’s story. Then it can be okay. I don’t know how to pull that off. Sometimes I think I do.

    2. You amaze me, MIlton, with your concept of connectedness and your ability to gather the greater world into your own. I’m honored to be part of it.

      Regarding the Anne Lamott quote: A young, urban professional mother of preschoolers (who happens to be African-American) read Involuntary Joy and then told me– a middle-aged, rural living, freelancing mother of teens (who happens to be very Caucasion), “We are so much alike.” Then, she asked, “How were you able to write what you did while the people are still alive?”

      If found that quote quite affirming. Thank you!

      Please don’t stop writing and making the connections. I like thinking of it as connecting dots–and you are a great dot, and people, connector!

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