I had stayed too long, visiting. Not an uncommon occurrence for me. He – Jelani Greenidge – had pulled his chair up next to mine and introduced himself. Said his wife wouldn’t forgive him if he didn’t.
We were friends of sort already, before gathering over Chipotle chicken in the basement of Newberg Friends Church. Church basements are all the same, metal chairs, round tables, people chatting over coffee or colas. Wonder, does Heaven have a fellowship hall?
Facebook friends, Jelani and me. Twitter, too. Altho, he won’t read this. He’s fasting Social Media for Lent. He told me. So if you run into him, tell Jelani I am looking forward to the blog post he’s going to write and I’m going to share.
We were deep in discussion about comedy and what makes it funny versus what makes it corrosive. So you can see how I got sidetracked, didn’t make it into the sanctuary early. That’s how I ended up sitting in the balcony next to Sarah Bessey.
“Karen,” she called out, throwing her arms open wide. Sarah lives her entire life that way, I have a feeling, arms always open wide, ready to embrace others. If only we would all try that approach.
Did I mention I don’t like balconies? Heights, they make me woozy. The wooden pew where Sarah and I sat was pushed clear up next to the too short railing. When I stood for the worship, I kept recalling how in 2009 I had attended this church in Pinehurst, North Carolina. I would sit in the balcony of that church, too, but further back, not right up next to a too-short railing. From the bird perch in that church, a person had a clear view whenever the parishioners passed out.
They weren’t being Slain in the Spirit. They were just old. Their blood pressure too low, or maybe too high. Those things get harder to regulate the older one gets. It wasn’t unusual to have a person fall out nearly every service. Fall out is a southern colloquialism for fainting or dropping dead.
On Friday night – the opening night of the Faith & Culture Writing Conference 2014 at George Fox University- I was worried that I was going to be the one falling out. I envisioned it several times. Me going willy-nilly over the balcony, landing on the heads of some unsuspecting soul below. Sarah, however, doesn’t appear to get woozy in balconies. She threw her arms skyward and sang praise songs with the abandon of a preschooler.
Sarah Bessey turned to me and laughed: “If we were writing to please others, we’ve done a pity poor job of it.”
Okay. She didn’t really say pity poor. Feel free to improvise.
Writing to please others has never seemed like art to me. It seems like anything but art. It is counter-intuitive to art in any form. Writing to please others doesn’t require courage in any way. It only requires some basic market understanding. It isn’t creating. Writing to please others is a controlled study of human behavior.
Sarah Bessey and I kept our hands at our sides, then, and again later, when Tony asked: Raise your hand if you feel unsupported in your writing.
That’s when I saw her below, from my perch in the balcony. An older woman, 70ish, thin, elegantly dressed in a coat that appeared woven from golden threads.
Her hand shot into the air.
I wanted to leap over the balcony and take her by her frail shoulders and hug her. I wanted to tell her about that day two summers ago when I stood in the backyard surrounded by my mother’s paintings. The ones I had pulled from their storage in the garage and washed clean of the dust film that covered them.
I had been too often dismissive of the art within my mother. My mother went to her grave never knowing her own worth or value, always questioning whether she was good enough.
I hadn’t done it on purpose, of course. I hadn’t even really been aware that I was doing it, until that moment on the last of the summer days of 2012. In those early weeks when we learned Mama had six brain tumors and was dying.
I am one of the fortunate daughters. I do not know what it feels like to be unsupported in my work, the way my mother did. My family has always respected the craft of writing and honored the gift within me. They have made sacrifices so that I could write. Many sacrifices.
It has not paid off well for them. Not monetarily at any rate. Although, I suspect, they would all agree that the experiences that have been theirs because of the writing have mostly been rich ones.
Creating does that.
It enriches our lives in ways that nothing else can.
We are not tools of God, Sarah Bessey said, later. We are co-creators.
I believe that.
We are either creating alongside God, our partner. Or we are actively destroying what he had hoped to create along with us.
My mother’s paintings hang throughout the house now that she is dead and gone. In her paintings, I see the world as my mother saw it: A place of beauty and wonder.