You write about that wonderful line from Blake, that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love. Some have recoiled at the thought of that.
It’s just awful. I really think it’s the hardest work we do. That and letting go, letting go, letting God, letting go. I’ve always said that everything I’ve let go of has claw marks on it. And it's true--even though it gets a little tiny bit easier every year. So letting go and enduring the beams of love are the challenges.
We’re really girded against being that open and that permeable for obvious reasons. You protect yourself as a child and as a teenager and from the pain of love and the pain of being hurt in love and the pain of the death of people that you are so, so, so dependent on.
Everything in us teaches us to put up walls and get the surface just right and never go out without the armor on. Then we come into circumstances where the armor and the wall won’t work anymore--either because we’re so sick, or because someone we love intimately is so sick, that we don’t have the luxury of keeping the walls up and the surface looking nice and enviable.
It turns out to be, as my friend said about his facial disfigurement, an elaborately disguised gift from God. …I have had the shield come down and it’s like the wonderful Leonard Cohen song that there are cracks in everything and that’s how the light gets in.
If I’m doing an event on stage and talking about the heart or talking about grief, I become very quiet. I’m not trying to be funny or cute or erudite. The response from the audience feels like those beams of love or like water coming into a tide pool.
I’m a very isolated person, left to my own devices, which is why I’m so grateful that I have a God and a spiritual life and a beautiful circle of friends and a community.
Left to my own devices, I’m like a tide pool, with these little crabs and animals struggling for survival. I run out of soul food or emotional nourishment. Then from the audience or from my church or whatever, I can feel the tide come in and bring with it little bits of seaweed or krill or nourishment. It’s gentle but it’s startling--the cold water is startling and it brings with it everything I need.
I’m a worried person and that’s why I think it’s such difficult work. Our whole lives have been practicing not being startled or surprised by water and by the baptism. That’s why baptism is so profound—you’re submerged, you can’t breathe, and you sputter for a minute--but when you come out, you’re a different person.
I often feel exactly what you just said about claws. The idea of surrender offends me.
Oh, me too. Yet I know it’s a secret of life. I know that the only peace, freedom and spaciousness is in letting go.
I just wrote a piece about this—how at the Wailing Wall, the place exists for you to cry out praise or suffering or your stuckness.
If you look at photos of the Wailing Wall--I’ve never been there--what you see are little bits of paper stuck into the cracks between the limestone blocks. On those pieces of paper are prayer requests.
That’s such a deep way of surrendering, to write it down, and to give it over either to the wall or to a tiny little God box. I actually wrote about that in Operating Instructions, when I was pregnant and I didn’t have any money or a partner. I didn’t know whether I could have this baby and be a decent mother.
I wrote this question down and put it in a little God box and said to Jesus, I am not going to do anything until I hear from you. You really need to get back to me on this, and I’m going to keep my sticky hands off the control of the spaceship until I hear from you.
I tap my foot and look at my watch and feel like I’ve been so patient and enough already.
A couple of weeks later, I woke up from a dream about this baby boy falling off a dock into the waters of San Francisco Bay, and diving in, going deeper, deeper, deeper into the coldest, darkest part of the bay and finally being able to hold this baby in my fingers and feeling a desperation about his survival and getting to the surface and having my friends reaching down from the dock to take this baby for me to the hospital, but I knew he was fine.
I lay in bed and I went, oh for God’s sake, I’m going to have a baby. And I never looked back, I never doubted there, it was absolutely black and white--which is so often another of the most annoying things about God, that things aren’t often black and white.
I always think, would it be so much skin off of God’s nose to just get back to me in a more obvious way? Surrendering is so scary because everything we’ve learned has been to not let go, to not drop the ball.
You’re taught at an early age, especially if you’re being raised by high-achieving perfectionist parents… you get on the tightrope and you hold your breath.
I was in my mid-thirties when I discovered that if you fall off the tightrope, it’s about a foot and a half to the ground. And that there’s always someone around to help you get up and dust off your butt and help you get started again.
It's such a terrible habit to let go, to learn to say the words and kind of mean, "Thy will be done, not mine."
Don’t you just wish you can say it just once and that part’s done?
Yeah, I think it’s a terrible system. If I was a God, or at least if I was God’s West Coast representative--because I secretly believe I would be an excellent representative—I will go to the grave with the belief that my ideas are good ideas, with 50 years of evidence to the contrary--if I were God, I would have a different system. I would have email, you would pray and you would get email responses or voicemail responses. You could reach a certain point of having suffered or having had to be in limbo. Then you would graduate and God would say, "Well done, faithful servant."
Then you would get all these spiritual coupons you could use if things got tough again.
But it’s like Augustine: you start over every day again in your relationship with God. In Plan B, I said something like, it’s not like your faith is slippers that your dog brings you every morning. It’s Groundhog Day, one of the most spiritual movies ever made: you start over again and try to get a little bit right.
You try to let go, you try to be a little tiny bit more silly and playful and enjoy it more, try to remember to breathe more, try to remember to get out of your self, be a person for others more. You try to just trust that even though it doesn’t make sense, God has a plan and that, even sort of begrudging way, you’re game, you’re in.
Is writing like prayer to you?
Writing is not like prayer at all for me because prayer is a habit that 100% of the time works in some way or another. I always, without reservation, know that prayer and letting go, prayer and surrender, are gonna work in some way.
Whereas with writing, even 30 years later, I struggle with the exact same self-loathing and low self-esteem and grandiosity, in equal proportions, that I was saddled with as a younger writer at 19 and 20.
With writing, I have found ways to get myself to get the work done on a daily basis. I sit down at the same time every day and I take really, really short assignments when I write. I don’t expect to do a great deal on any given day. It’s like Mother Teresa saying that no one can say great things but we can all do small things with great love. So I do small assignments and I let myself do a really bad job.
I would say that writing is a great deal like my spiritual walk as distinct from my prayer life. My prayer life is pretty automatic and is mostly three important prayers: "Help me, help me, help me"; "Thank you, thank you God"; and "Wow"—which I say almost every time I step out of the house, and when everything’s worked out in a way that makes me smile or that surprises me, and whenever I think God is being a show-off.
I write down everything I want to use in my work because I’m so absent-minded. I write down everything people say spiritually that is nourishing, that I want to tape to my wall.
So my spiritual walk isn't like my writing life; you don’t need to do it alone; in fact, to do it alone means it’s going to be a lot harder than with my writing. I have friends who will read my stuff for me and I read their stuff for them, to whom I will offer the truth when it’s their work and from whom I will accept the truth when it’s mine and so on.
But prayer is like that first cup of coffee in the morning or a shower; a shower never fails you and prayer never fails me. I very often do not get what I pray for, though.
Since you’ve been so outspoken politically, do you pray about politics?
I pray to endure this administration. I pray not to contribute to the damage that we are living with and that we must start recovering from.
My heart has softened towards Bush, although not towards the administration. I pray for my heart to be softer. I have very, very passionate political beliefs that are all obvious; if you read a paragraph, you know where I stand--the old, hardcore, aging, hippie, left-wing activist and Democratic preaching leader. It's who I’ve always wanted to be, who my parents were.
I pray not to do more damage; I pray to bring hope, I try to help people get through this.