Firstlight – Excerpt

From the Introduction

When GuidepostsBooks first approached me about collecting my early inspirational writings into one volume, I was ambivalent. I had no idea then what a remarkable gift this book would become for me. I was only imagining how humbling it could be to read my work from those first, developmental years. What fifty-seven-year-old writer wants to go back and read what she wrote when she was thirty years old? I imagined it would be a little like looking at old photographs of myself in a forgotten album and being appalled at my hairstyles, wondering why I’d chosen a bouffant or why bell-bottoms had seemed like a good idea. I thought about the stories and meditations I’d composed all those years ago on a portable typewriter in a corner of the family den as I jumped up every five minutes to tend to my toddlers. Would I read them and wince at certain sentences or wonder why I’d thought it was a good idea to write about the death of my daughter’s goldfish or an encounter with an old woman on a sand dune?

What is it about revealing one’s beginnings that is so disconcerting? Is it because our beginnings contain so many “bad hairdos”? It seemed likely that the writing I’d done in my literary pubescence would possess a natural greenness—less maturity in my voice, technique, style, and language. More disconcerting than that, however, was that my early work was autobiographical in nature and spiritual to boot. As my writing had evolved, so had I. My spirituality had moved through long and laborious courses, growing deeper and more permeable, increasingly able to hold uncertainties, ambiguities, unorthodoxies, and was marked by a rich and restless searching. Did I want to revisit what seemed like less seasoned times? Would there be too much piety in those early efforts?

For as long as I can remember I’ve been compelled to write about the workings of my soul, to record my ponderings about God and my search for meaning in things great and minuscule. “I cannot see my soul, but know ’tis there,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Some part of me has always felt the truth of that, has experienced moments of quickening when the knowledge of a mysterious, unseen inner life flames up. Meister Eckhart, a theologian from centuries back, called this combustion the “god-spark.” Thomas Merton, the well-known Trappist monk, referred to God’s presence in the soul as the pointe vierge. This French phrase refers to the “virgin point” that comes just before dawn, those ripening moments before the first ray of light flares into the darkness. Whatever name we give this hidden incandescence, this “firstlight,” I believe it exists in all of us. I believe, too, in the impulse to capture its flickerings through words. It seems that I’d been trying to do this in one way or another, with varying degrees of skill, experience, and success from the moment I set upon the writing life.

Arguably, a significant portion of my life can be understood as a spiritual quest and the articulation of that experience. I’d written dozens of stories, personal essays, meditations, and inspirational reflections during the inaugural decade. They’d all had their brief lives—a small flourishing—then disappeared beneath the layers of years. I’d had no desire to dig them up. It was eye-opening, finally, to see that my ambivalence over having my earliest writings excavated and republished in the present came from a well-meaning conceit: I wanted to be read and known for who I am now.

Naturally, the moment I came to this, paradox reared its head. What if knowing who I am now is incomplete without knowing who I was then? What if part of me was lost back there with that body of work? Did I have to return to the place of my origins as a writer in order to understand myself fully? Can we ever go forward without going backward?

At some point, while nesting in this tangle of questions, I recalled something I’d read about Merton. First, I suppose you should know that Merton’s writings were perhaps the most formative works I’ve ever read. His famous autobiographical book, The Seven Storey Mountain, written when he was a young man, had a life-altering effect on me when I read it at the age of twenty-nine, a few months before I decided to give myself over to writing. The book revealed to me the startling reality of the inner life, cracking open a raw longing for the Divine and exposing an irrepressible hunger for that deepest thing in myself.

So imagine my bemusement when I read that later in his life Merton had a somewhat ambivalent relationship to The Seven Storey Mountain. Apparently he felt it had created a myopic view of him. He had become heavily identified with the Merton in those pages, the pious young monk. He seemed to chafe at the thought of being frozen in those early years—as if they defined, described, and contained the whole of him.

This awareness put me in the unlikely position of experiencing the truth of both sides of this odd dilemma. I knew the power of Merton’s first work—I could not imagine The Seven Storey Mountain not being part of his canon or not being available in the world—and at the same time, I could relate in my own small way to his brooding tension with it. My early inspirational writing in no way parallels Merton’s first masterpiece, but the moment I stood in the middle of this paradox, I was able to open my arms to my thirty-year-old self, to the words that sprang from her portable typewriter in a corner of the den.

Opening myself to the creation of this book, so aptly titled Firstlight, became an unexpected act of reclamation. The surprise to me in all of this was that Firstlight became a bridge—a way for me to return to my beginnings, to works that had been lost, orphaned, forgotten and dismissed. It was a gift of reunion.

On my thirtieth birthday, I walked into the kitchen of my brick house in South Carolina and announced to my husband and two children, “I’m going to become a writer.” That was my annunciation. In a kitchen. To a two-year-old and a five-year-old and a husband who was trying to get them to eat their cereal. My plan was earnest but highly unlikely. I lovingly refer to it now as my “great absurdity.” We should all have one or two of those in our lives—a hope so extravagant it seems completely foolish and implausible. I’d studied nursing and worked during my twenties in hospitals on surgical, pediatric and obstetrical units, even spending one summer as a public health nurse. I didn’t know anything about creative writing or whether I had any ability for it. All I had was the impulse and passion of my heart.

It was during the months prior to turning thirty that my creative life began to wake up. I had the feeling of something urgent and necessary pressing in, wanting to be born. I think it had a lot to do with reading the aforementioned book by Merton and discovering the deep place within where I was sourced—the interior realm of the soul. My creativity seems to emanate from making portals into this inscrutable land. For me, creativity is essentially a spiritual experience, a conversation between my soul and me. So it’s probably not coincidental that my writing life began almost simultaneously with my initiating this conversation.

The day after my birthday, I enrolled in a writing class in which the teacher gave us an assignment: Write a personal experience article and send it off to a magazine. I wrote a very simple story about the first Thanksgiving after I was married and submitted it to a writing contest sponsored by a magazine that I’d often seen lying about the house when I was growing up. The magazine was Guideposts, an interfaith, inspirational publication with millions of subscribers, which had been founded by the late Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his wife, Ruth Stafford Peale, in 1945. To my amazement, I was one of fifteen winners who were invited to New York to a writers’ workshop. You can ask anyone who was there and they’ll tell you I barely opened my mouth the entire time. I believe the Guideposts staff assumed I was shy, but the truth was I felt like I’d been dropped off on a new and unknown planet. People spoke a mysterious literary lingo—in medias res, SASEs, take-aways, denouements. I’m pretty sure I was the only writer there who could not speak the language, who’d never had anything published, and whose whole assemblage of work was comprised of one story. Mostly, though, mine was the silence of a sponge soaking up everything.

That was 1978. I would continue writing for Guideposts for the next twelve years.

It was through Guideposts that I began an apprenticeship to the narrative form. I learned not only how to write stories, but to love them, to revere them even. I discovered the power of honest, personal, revelatory writing. Humans, I discovered, need stories the way we need air.

The majority of writings in this book come from the work I did for Guideposts during those dozen years. When the publisher sent me the stack of work that had been compiled for this book, I was astonished at the assortment, the wide medley of variation. I discovered my first published piece in the pile—a story about an unusual experience I’d had with death and forgiveness while working as a nurse during my early twenties. (You will find it in the last chapter.) There were, in fact, several stories from the few years I’d spent as a nurse, as well as a plethora of stories about my mothering years, about my children (who now have children of their own). I discovered my recollections about the year I lived in Africa, meditations on my childhood and my grandparents, reflections on my marriage and on a stream of common moments: watching a bird feeder, a homeless man, a golf tournament. There were numerous chronicles about travels to the shore and to the mountains, as well as to the Chalice Well garden in England and to Gethsemane garden in Israel. I read articles I’d written about moments of crisis and transition, and short devotionals—anecdotes from which I’d extrapolated a message. Material from other sources exist here as well, notably a series of longer essays published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, written in my forties, which contain more complex renderings of my spiritual experience.

The works in this collection are not arranged chronologically, but gathered loosely around thirteen motifs. You’ll find an essay I wrote for Weavings in 1995 followed by a Daily Guideposts devotional I wrote in 1983, both of them about solitude.

In order to adapt the writings for the book, I made minimal edits, primarily in the form of tightening sentences, clarifying an insight, or adding a few words here and there, but otherwise the pieces remain unchanged.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the collection does not comprise a whole portrait of my life during that time, but rather offers bits and pieces of it. Nevertheless, I’m the first to admit there’s a revelation of myself going on here. At the core of personal spiritual writing is a hungering for wholeness, for self, for meaning. The question “Who am I?” reverberates quietly in these pages, as does a willingness to be known. I wonder sometimes why I chose to make my spiritual musings visible. I want to believe it is mostly because such vulnerability creates what we might call “a soulful being together” between the reader and the author. A kind of communion born through the meeting of vulnerability and identification. It is in this delicate communion that books bestow their small transformations.

I have come to love the following words by the French Nobel laureate, Albert Camus: “A person’s life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, or love, or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened.” Where did your heart first open? And how shall you find your way back to that dawning? My hope is that this book—Firstlight—will, in its modest way, help to point you there. To the place of your beginning. To the moments when the light broke and your heart opened.