Eight years ago, on the first week of March, my husband of 14 years moved out of the house we had purchased together only eight months before. That same week I got my first real job offer for any position not related to the church. Ever. The following week I turned 44. After the hands-down-worst-year-ever of my life, the chance for a fresh new start brought liberation and relief. Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” played almost every day on the radio and became my manifesto. “Feel the rain on your skin. No one else can feel it for you …”
This month, I am settling into my new home. For eight years the house I never wanted–the house of broken memories–had also become the house where my son grew up, the house where I took a leap of faith into self-employment, the house where I fell in love again. And then again. The new memories patched the old ones and put on a fresh coat of paint. But the structural integrity of the foundation of my life there never felt entirely stable.
Today I turn 52. I am in my new house and I have a new/old love who chose to go away to find his own sense of structural integrity before he could come back. Now we are both solid – individually and together. Funny how solid sounds so much like solitude. I think of Parker Palmer’s quote, “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people; it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.” (A Hidden Wholeness)
What does it mean to be fully present to one’s self? Remembering the ways I have been present to myself and others over the years – to congregations I served, to my friends, to my husband, to my son, to my parents – and the ways I have failed to be present to either them or myself, I know the two go hand in hand. A seeming paradox. A spiritual reality.
I learned to be simultaneously in solitude and community during the years I attended Quaker Meetings. Together, in silence, we each tapped into the deeper source that connects us all. The Inner Light. That of God in every person. Later, when I was being examined for my fitness to become a Presbyterian minister, an older man asked me about my understanding of the importance of spiritual community in light of my years as a Quaker. His clearly suspicious question implied that if I believed that God was in myself and accessible there without the mediation of the church, I would be overly individualistic in my faith.
I managed to answer in a way that eased his suspicions, but the question still leaves me shaking my head, 25 years later. I thought then and know more profoundly now, that the richest way to be in a community is to be fully acquainted with the deepest truths in one’s own bones. I doubt it’s possible any other way.
Women’s International Day was three days ago. The day before that our nation marked the 50th anniversary of the March at Selma. In movements of civil rights, or any push toward social justice, communities act together to bring attention to a cause – to make a pattern of exclusion more visible, to create a crisis for the majority that has only been felt before by the minority.
As a teen, I read many biographies and memoirs of those leaders for justice that I so admired: Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Clara Barton, Gandhi, St. Francis. I wanted to learn how to be like them. It has taken much trial and error to learn, as Parker Palmer says in Let Your Life Speak, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”
Movements for justice around the world are made up of people who are fully present both to their community and to their own hearts. I suspect leaders like Diane Nash or Wangari Maathai or Aung San Suu Kyi endured jail and worse because they came to an unshakable understanding of who they were. Solitude sounds a great deal like solidarity.
Today I turn 52. My prayer for this new year is that I enjoy the solitude of meeting myself again and again so that my presence in my community is solid and true; that I learn to feel the rain on my own skin so that my solidarity with the world may be bone-deep.