Writing in the Window

I am writing this in a store window.

The store is Appletree Books in the Cedar Fairmount district of Cleveland Heights, OH. It’s NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month and Appletree invites writers to sit at a little table in their window and write.

It is also a metaphor for writing. Writing in a window means that I am putting into words how I see the world through a particular frame. It also means that I am on display. And that is what writing is.  Writers share the world they see through the particular frame of their own life. Writers also put themselves on display. As my friend and neighbor, Stephen Calhoun says, it is “performance art.”

So, I’m going to put myself on display by writing about why I write.

A year or so before I retired, Jacquie and I attended the Key West Literary Seminar. A lot of the people who go are also writers, so a way to make small talk with strangers during breaks is to ask, “Are you a writer?”

When someone asked me that the first day, I said, “no”.

The second day I said, “Well, I write a lot in my work, but I’m not a ‘writer’”.

The third day I said, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

As I listened to the speakers, all of them people whose books sit in big displays in bookstores, I thought at first that I am not one of them. But then, as they talked about getting themselves to sit down with a pen and a notebook, or a keyboard and a screen day-after-day, trying to hammer out some words that will mean something important to someone else, trying to write something clearly and truthfully, I thought, “I’ve been doing that for over forty years.”

My sermons averaged about five pages long. I wrote a minimum of fifty per year. So I was knocking out the equivalent of a 250-page book every year. And I was doing it in between hospital calls, meetings, funerals, wedding planning, and figuring out how to pay for a new church roof. I was a writer even if I did not write best-sellers.

That realization made it possible for me to retire. As I look back, I was hanging on to my job because it was satisfying something important in me. I knew it was not the meetings, the fund-raising, or handling the complaints about last week’s choice of hymns. When I admitted to myself that I was a writer, I knew I could let go.

After my retirement, I tried to set up a new normal with a blog, an outline for a book, and a schedule of writing almost everyday. I kept to it for a few months. But then I realized that I was hanging on to what was important to me in the morning of life that was no longer important in the afternoon.

It was not the writing. That was still what I wanted to do. I think it was the window. It was the frame through which I saw the world. I was still looking through the pastor-window. And, the person I revealed in my writing was still the pastor. Everything I wrote sounded like a sermon – a sermon that I might have preached 25 years ago.

I preached fine sermons 25 years ago, so why should that be a problem?

In his novel, Jean Christopf, Romain Rolland wrote: “Most men die between the ages of 20 and 30 and then they go on saying and doing the things they said and did when they were alive.”

I do not know if that is true of “most men”, but as I tried to write I could see that it was true for me. When I was young, I wrote about what I knew – I conveyed information about the religious tradition in which I had been raised and in which I still believe. I think that what I did then was important. I think my religious tradition is rich and speaks to the deepest needs of human beings.

But my window frame has changed. It is weathered and carries the patina of age. I have seen so many changes through this window that it has changed my perspective on what I see right now.

if I am to be alive and write, not out of what I used to be, but out of who I am now, I will write, not about what I know, but what I don’t know. I will write out of wonder instead of certainty. I will write leading with my heart rather than my head. Instead of solving problems, like I did when I was young, I will write about how facing and even accepting problems can lead us to wholeness.

And, as you look back at me through the window of my writing, I hope you see a man who is coming to terms with the realities of aging as well as enjoying the afternoon of life. It is either that, or dye my hair a strange shade of orange, comb it over my bald spot, and walk around with a woman half my age saying and doing the things I said when I was alive. Given those alternatives, there is no contest.

Christmas Dinner with People I Don’t Know – The Abrahamic Version

Our sons and their families are not strange. But they are far away — and one family is Jewish, so we don’t do Christmas with them. That’s been OK in previous years, because Christmas Day was the day I collapsed after all the Advent activities, two or three services on Christmas Eve and, if Christmas fell on a Sunday, on Christmas morning, as well.

This year, free of that activity, we learned about some other folks who were going to be alone at Christmas. We contacted them, pooled our resources and everyone gathered around the table at our house on Christmas Day. About half of us were Christian. The other half Jewish.

When the meal began, I knew everyone from a little bit to not at all. Then, we shared stories of where we came from, people we missed at this time of the year, and kindnesses we have received in the past year. After the sharing of stories, I understood at a deeper level my wife, Jacquie’s, observation: “To know someone’s story is the love them.”

The coincidence of the gathering of relative strangers on Christmas Day has made me ponder the theme of hospitality that runs through all three Abrahamic religions.

For example, I have heard stories coming out of Iraq of American soldiers breaking down the doors of houses in search of insurgents, only to be offered tea by the Muslim family whose home they invaded, so strong is the teaching that those who “believe in God and the Last Day” will offer hospitality even to those who come unannounced.

Christians and Jews remember Abraham’s hospitality to strangers who came with the promise of an impossible child. Thus, a Jewish Christian wrote in the first century, those who welcome strangers may “entertain angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

At Passover, a place at the table is set for Elijah.

At Christmas, our manger scenes testify that Jesus came into a world that believes it has no room for strangers, and those who find the real meaning of Christmas seek to reverse that.

Henri Nouwen defined “hospitality” as making room for other people to be themselves. What I did not realize is that the ostensible host gets to be himself or herself, too.

Often, when we gather with relatives — or even with old friends — we think we know everyone and everyone thinks they know us. Recall a family gathering in which you were treated as if you were the 10-year-old you used to be. Family gatherings are great blessings, but they can hamstring us into old roles that we have outgrown — or want to outgrow.

Dinner with strangers, on the other hand, can reveal something new and delightful — maybe something that you thought was impossible, if you give each other room to be yourselves.