My family lives in a typical 1960s house in the Washington
DC suburbs, and I work at home.
“Typical 1960s house” equals small and no closets. As a result, my books were taking over
and there wasn’t much space to write.
We decided to move my job to the backyard. Thus was born “Mom’s writing cottage,” a 150 square-foot
white clapboard house with green trim and a window box. In recent weeks, my daughter and I
planted flowers all around making the tiny house literally bloom with
creativity–not to mention a plethora of purple pansies.
About two weeks ago, I posted pictures of my cottage on
Facebook. What happened next truly
surprised me–my wall and my inbox were literally flooded with comments. “Oh, it is so cute!” wrote a good
number of my friends, “I want one, too.”
Strangers requested copies of the building plans. Indeed, the envy factor ran so high
that I apologized for causing so many people to break the 10th
Commandment–Thou Shalt Not Covet.
As I read my these notes, I began to realize that they
represented a powerful spiritual impulse in our culture–to have a place, a cozy
place of retreat, to think, read, reflect, and pray. A little place to do good work; a room to call one’s own
(many people quoted Virginia Woolf’s famous line back to me).
The really odd thing about this is that many–if not most–of
my friends self-identify on Facebook as “liberal,” “left,” or “progressive”
when asked about their politics. They
are activists, justice-oriented, politically engaged, non-profit do-gooders, and
most of them live in cities. They
are busy people working to make the world a better place. They feed hungry people; they lead
marches at city hall. Frankly, their response to the cottage reminded me a
little of the kind of thing that Thoreau might hanker for–a tiny corner of the
world where one might better encounter the spirit in order to feel the ethical
heartbeat of the universe.
There’s a bumper sticker that says: “If you want peace, work for justice.” I think that is true. New progressives, however, may want to
turn it around: “If you want justice, seek out peace.” Historically understood, progressive
faith has always insisted that activism springs from prayer; that ethics must
be grounded in devotion. Thus, the
way to social transformation is a way that knows when to retreat–not escape–but
retreat to connect with the God who
is justice, and whose beautiful dream of justice shapes the political
When I was a teenager, I read a book by Elizabeth O’Connor
called Journey Inward/Journey Outward (no
longer in print). In it, she argued that the greatest mistake of 20th
century religion had been to sever the relationship between spirituality and
social justice. She pled for the
inner of devotion and outer life of activism to be reunited.
With all the difficult challenges we face with international
relations, the economy, and the environment, it is a good thing to remember
that fixing the outward circumstances isn’t the entire goal. A more complete progressive goal is to
help bring about a world in which all people might experience the profoundly
human journey of loving God and loving neighbor. We have to pay attention to the inner life as well as the
outer one. Journey inward. Journey outward.
Many thanks, Facebook friends. You reminded me that progress often involves retreat–the
right kind of quiet pause to grow deeper as we reach further. And if you are ever in DC, come by the little house for a cup
of tea. We’ll talk about changing