Saturday, July 31, 2021

Blog friends / Writing letters / Finding a Home in the World


Thanks so much to Beth at Alive On All Channels for introducing me to so many writers from diverse traditions all around the world.  Pádraig Ó Tuama is one of them.


From Pádraig Ó Tuama in my email inbox this morning:

Dear friends,

I’ve always loved writing letters. The older I’ve gotten, the less reliable I am in replying quickly. But there were enough years — perhaps from the age of ten to thirty — when letter writing was such a significant part of my life that I know it’ll always be part of me. In fact, I’m trying to do it more. Letter writing is often predicated on distance, and it takes time — not just to arrive, but to read, too; often when I get a letter, I wait for a good time to read it properly. I’ve kept all the letters I’ve received. They are a treasure. 

I wrote letters to people who’d never reply, too, notably to Saint Augustine. Reading his Confessions made me want to know him, so I decided to write. While he never replied, I did get more of a sense of him knowing that whatever I read in his writing was likely to come up in a letter. The distance between us was, of course, unbridgeable: time and death are certain barriers, but that didn’t stop me. Utterly complicated as he is, I retain an extraordinary love for Augustine. I hope he’d say the same for me.

This week’s On Being episode feels like a letter. One of the things that the pandemic has done has been to remind us of distance. No longer able to call around to a house, or arrange a visit while on a work trip, the qualities of connection are nonetheless strong between us: Zoom calls, or texts, or cards, or other ways continue to bridge the distance with love and well-wishing. 

For this hour, we get to eavesdrop on a conversation between two friends: Krista and the young leader, Rev. Jen Bailey. Jen is in the conversational driving seat this week, asking questions of Krista. Together, they engage in a discussion about belonging, healing, what the past year has planted in us, and what that might look like as we progress. Listening to the show, it’s evident that Krista and Jen’s deep friendship is nurtured by both their similarities and their differences. 

Jen paraphrases the Oscar Romero prayer where he says, “It helps, sometimes, to take a long view,” and this long view of time is something that they explore: Krista reflects on her years in divided Cold War Berlin; Jen calls to mind 9/11 and Ferguson, becoming a mother during a pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd. The combination of tenderness and brutality, possibility and anxiety in these events are held together in their conversation. What does it mean to live in this time, now? And what can we do that will be beneficial for the future? 

Sharing in common a love of theology, Krista and Jen riff on Moses, who never got to see the Promised Land he was leading his people toward. Krista says, addressing Jen from the vantage point of a different generation, “What I’m going to do for the rest of my life, I will not see the end, the final fruits of. And that is fine. And it’s the way of things. But I’m also partly able to just embrace that, because I see you.” Jen brings Toni Morrison into the conversation, paraphrasing Morrison’s line: “We live and then we die.” Having experienced a lot of grief in her own life, Jen is wise in speaking about how the recognition that life can be short is a protection against apathy and cynicism. In part, what Krista and Jen are doing by this is bringing ancient text into conversation with contemporary reality, and using literature — whether ancient or contemporary — to speak to the question of what it means to live, and how we can find out who to be with one another. “Belonging,” Jen calls this as their conversation begins. The “Beloved Community,” too. 

To return to how we began, it is friendship and care that hold this conversation together. That isn’t just because Krista and Jen know one another, but because the posture of care they model — toward self, others, and the world — is necessary for this good work to continue. Jen wishes to see a time when every movement-based organization in the U.S. would employ a chaplain to look after the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of the workers. Those organizations work for policy and legislative change to improve the lives of individuals. But policies and laws will not be enough. They need care, “that tender, tender work,” Jen calls it. 

Friends, in all your work, friendships, connections, readings, and energies, we wish you this tenderness, too, in order to shore up the strength for the good work that’s before us. 


Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound

1 comment:

ellen abbott said...

I had a pen pal from England starting about 10 and we wrote for at least 5 years. I could still remember her address for a long time after. I may still remember. 24 Windsor Road, Surrey. seems there was more that I can't remember. I wrote letters as an adult to a few far away people but embraced email instantly and then texting. a good friend who moved to NY state has started sending me short notes on cards or postcards. I replied in kind. amazing how rusty your handwriting can get.