“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.”
— David Wagoner, “Lost”
“Oh, the places you’ll go!” — Dr. Seuss
“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” — Irish proverb
It’s hard to be here, sometimes.
I’ve got this dream of moving to California, working as a part-time therapist and spending the rest of my time writing, reading, and surfing. Although I’ve only spent about 45 minutes on a board in the Pacific, I’m drawn to it (and need to wear a wetsuit next time). The ocean is a mysterious and beautiful thing, and it’s brought me to tears more than once. In an essay on surfing, Sam Eldredge writes, “it was like the sea was winking at me. It was as though I had finally gotten the punch line of a joke told long before I was born.”
While I hope that one day this dream will come true, and I’ll live in some little bungalow off the coast of Monterey or San Diego or Santa Cruz or Big Sur or wherever, I’m aware that geography isn’t everything. I’ve been depressed off the coast of Jamaica, and I’ve been happy in the cloudy mountains of Washington (a state that I’ll soon call home). Our dreams, both the ones we have asleep and the ones we have awake, deserve to be listened to, and I reject those theologies and psychologies that say to ignore all matters of the heart. And, of course, when you’ve been steeped in such a theology of duty and the Protestant work ethic, any talk of “following your dreams” may immediately sound like heresy at worst, or “secular” at best. But I am reminded of that great quote, often attributed to Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” And if I’m honest, even that quote shakes me, because it’s a daring and risky thing, to name what makes you come alive, and to go do that. But then I remember that the same one who told Frodo, “it’s a dangerous business, going out your front door,” is the one who left his, and told a story that otherwise would have not been told.
Interconnected with our desires and dreams (for a “different” life, or different location, or different job, or different spouse, or whatever) is the reality of what is our life, right now. Dr. Dwight J. Freisen, associate professor of Practical Theology at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, says that “one of the greatest teachers God gives us is the place where we are.” The job, the family, the coffee shop, the bar, the park bench, the country you live in, the therapist’s office you are sitting in — they all have something to say. God is not met “out there” but right here. Wherever we are, in whatever we are doing. Life is what is happening right now, wherever “right now” happens to be. And maybe, when listening to the various factors of my life, I realize they are saying that I should change some things; but change without embodiment of where I am is nothing more than escapism. In other words, I’ve gotta learn to be here before I can be there. But maybe it’s by being here that I realize I don’t have to be here, and so then I go and be there, and then being there becomes being here.
I remember talking with a spiritual mentor a few months ago, trying to decide if I should leave the country for a short time, and then move to a different state after that. I remember telling him that I felt bad for those desires, for wanting change. And I knew that uprooting my life wouldn’t “fix” all the pain in my life, so I assumed that maybe the best decision would be to stay where I’m at. But, with the wisdom that tends to only come with someone who has been around the sun a few more laps than me, he refused to give me a solid answer. Instead, he asked if I had any responsibilities or obligations where I live. I suspect he already knew the answer, which was none.
“Then you’re not running away,” he said.
In his book, How to Be Here, Rob Bell writes, “No one has ever done this before. No one has ever been you before. This exact interrelated web of people and events and places and memories and desire and love that is your life hasn’t ever existed in the history of the Universe. Welcome to a truly unique phenomenon. Welcome to your life. I want you to be here. Welcome to here.” Scott Erikson echoes this, in a different way, in his phenomenal book Say Yes. Erikson says, “to dream is to desire. And to desire is to want. And to want is to want to be here. And if you don’t want to be here, then being here can be really, really…hard. It can be incredibly hard.” I read Erikson’s words at 2 a.m. in the little town of Bobbio Pellice, Italy, and I wept. It was as if months worth of emotions had finally caught up to me, and my eyes watered almost as much as the clouds outside. It truly is a holy and hard thing, to admit that you have a hard time being here. Whatever “here” means for you.
I think that what Bell and Erikson are getting at is that our lives demand us to be present, and to be present can be really, really hard. To be attentive to where we are, to our emotions, to our bodies, to those around us — and to our dreams. Ugh, our dreams. Those are hard things.
I know that there is wisdom to be found in the murky places between where I’ve been, where I’m at, and where I long to go. To constantly long for something else prevents me from noticing the present, but to deny a longing within me prevents me from hoping for the future. In the words of Levi the Poet, “I just hope that if we’re a true reflection of some magnanimous Other, I won’t have to assume that every longing will find me buried alive.” I felt that, Levi.
The Celtic Christians referred to the Spirit as “the wild goose,” and I find comfort and humor in that. There is a certain wildness within me — not a barbaric, violent one (although that one knocks on my door sometimes, too, just like my old brother Cain) — but a gentle restlessness, a nudging, a “following of the breadcrumbs” so-to-speak. And I wonder, what is the wisdom between appreciating where you are and being “here” while also allowing yourself to dream? To desire? I want to be rooted somewhere, but I also feel that nudge in me, perhaps that same nudge that led Abraham to leave Ur, and Bilbo to leave the Shire. And maybe that nudge doesn’t mean you need to have a quarter life crisis. Maybe it means to love more, or to listen more, or to simply practice “being here” more. And, of course, by practicing “being here,” we tend to learn what it is that is making “being here” so tough.
I dream a lot. And I’m prone to romanticize nearly everything in my life, which means I’m also prone to incredible lows. Being a highly emotional person tends to result in being paralyzed by either elation or depression, both of which can affect the ways in which I am present to my life, and the lives of others. And while I recognize this tendency to get my hopes up (a little too much, at times), the last thing I want to do is to stop hoping, stop dreaming. I’ve had a lot of cynics (who would call themselves “realists,” because most cynics would not call themselves one) tell me to not hope so much, and while I get that, I’m starting to think it’s bullshit. Hope is a good, necessary thing, a sign of that childlike faith I think Jesus refers to when he says “let the children come to me.” Hope is not manipulation; it’s not grasping with closed fists, demanding for things to be a certain way. But I do think it’s a posture of life, a posture of goodness and longing, a recognition that you want things to be different, whether it’s your own personal life or the death of your grandparent or a political injustice or the genocide of a people a few thousand miles away.
In a book that has been monumental for me over the past month, titled In the Shelter, Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “the only place to begin is where I am, and, whether by desire or disaster, I am here. My being here is not dependent on my recognition of the fact. I am here anyway. But it might help if I could look around.” A few pages later, he asks, “what is the name for the place where you now are? […] To name a place requires us to be in a place. It requires us to resist dreaming of where we should be, and look around where we are.”
I was in Starkville, Mississippi a few years ago for my brother’s college graduation, and it must have been around the time I had just finished reading The Great Divorce, because I explicitly remember thinking to myself that Starkville felt like Lewis’s depiction of “the grey town” in the novel. I knew from the first hour of being there that I never want it to be “here” for me. When thinking of matters of place, the place I am now (Newnan, Georgia) often feels like the grey town to me, and yet the irony is that the city I am moving to, Seattle, is, quite literally, the Grey Town. Not because it was Lewis’s inspiration by any means, but because it’s so…well, grey.
My point is found in Ó Tuama’s quote. To name where you are, in a way that is honest, truthful, and, more often than not, painful — is a wise and perhaps difficult thing. And yet, before leaving the place we are, whether that is a physical leaving or an emotional or spiritual or relational one, we must first name the place and look around.
“Hello loneliness. It is not nice to see you again, but I see you nonetheless. What do you have to teach me? How can I be here?”
In learning to be here, wherever that is (and I’m not just referring to location), comes with it the gift of understanding. Understanding why you don’t want to be here, or why you love it here so much, and maybe what to change and what not to change, and maybe too an understanding of how going there won’t change everything, but also giving yourself grace to go there, knowing that eventually “there” will become “here,” and while not everything will change, maybe some things will, or maybe not, but grace can be found in all of it, so practice learning to be here and then go and be there, and maybe come back to here, or make here there.
So back to that dream, the one about California and surfing and writing and therapy. Damn. I want that. But I am not there. I am here. In a town I’ve spent most my life in, often feeling lonely and misunderstood (which have been common feelings in every other place I’ve been, too). Maybe one day I will be there, or maybe it’s just a hope that helps me work through the pain of being here. And, like always, I don’t just mean location. It is hard, sometimes, being here. But I am glad I’m here. It’s a holy, messy, beautiful thing. To be here.