What a strange place to realize why you write (because yes, by now you must own that you are a writer) – deep in the thick of Wisconsin woods, tucked back by the leafy shores of a wide sparkling lake, waiting in the white clapboard building of an old YMCA campground-turned-college, surrounded by a hundred pastors twenty years your senior (and you the only Catholic for miles, and a lay woman at that), wandering in your own thoughts as the retreat session begins with a call to prayer.
From over your shoulder someone flutters a piece of paper onto your lap as strangers’ throats clear and chairs shuffle to start the opening prayer, and you look down to read these words:
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope –
not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower;
nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;
nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges
(our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through);
nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is Gonna Be All Right,’
but a very different, sometimes very lonely place,
the place of truth-telling,
about your own soul first of all and its condition,
the place of resistance and defiance,
the piece of ground from which you see the world
both as it is and as it could be,
as it might be, as it will be;
the place from which you glimpse not only struggle,
but joy in the struggle –
and we stand there, beckoning and calling,
telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”
– Victoria Safford
And you know the prayer must have continued around you, with all those pastors’ kids and smooth-talking preachers warbling on perfect pitch in the summer breeze, sweet enough to break your heart. But you, you have to sit back down into that awkward plastic folding chair and you have to stay with these words, breathe them in, feel them hum against your heart as you clutch the paper in your hands.
Because these words speak why.
Why you started this journey, why you keep tapping these words, why you keep wondering and writing any chance you get – because the only truth you can tell in this maddening world is the story of your own small life.
And because perhaps in telling it, in flinging it out into the void while you retreat, vulnerable and doubting again, you might just hear some faint echo ring to your ears, some tiny rattle of the lone pebble dropped down the dark well.
This well that starts on your own soil, in the middle of your messy backyard, ringed round by little boys who giggle while they spray each other soaking with the cold clear stream of the garden hose.
This well that starts on the surface of the everyday but sinks steadily downward to the deep, to the secrets buried below, to the source of the water that flows beneath us all. The aquifer of human experience, one wise teacher once taught you.
So every day when you sit down to write (because it is every day, it must be, it drags you out of bed every dark morning before the babies stir, every nap time when you sink into the couch to seize the quiet, every exhausted evening once the same boys are tucked bedside again), you write with this aim in mind: to plant yourself at the gates of hope.
To refuse stubbornly to let go, even when the world spins cynical around you and whispers nagging doubts in your ears – no one cares about these questions any more, about God and faith and truth; it’s a waste of time, you know.
To sit tight in the lonely place of truth-telling.
To keep trying to hone the craft, to find the just-right words, to seize the struggles and the searching and the soul and the sacred in this everyday.
To say yes, there is still joy. Always, in the struggle, in the call, in the resistance, in the seeing. There will be joy.
And because all of these things – digging in your heels to hope, never letting go of what you love, teaching truth-telling, honoring the holy, naming the joy – all of this is how your heart is being reshaped into a mother’s heart, too.
For you this writing and this mothering linked arms from the first days and swore a fierce blood promise never to part. And you know they will not.
So even when you are hundreds of miles from the ones you raise, they are still – and will always be – your prayer and the words you seek. For they will always be your joy in the struggle.
They will always be the truth in your words.