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How did I come to be in all of the cultural margins in which I’ve served?

My favorite answer to that question is: God’s great sense of humor.

LabyrinthAnother good answer is: by putting one foot in front of the other, moving incrementally in whatever direction seems right in the moment.

And both of those answers are connected in a simile that pleases me: my professional journey has been like the walking of a meditational labyrinth.

The kind of labyrinth I mean is a medieval design that seems confusing like a maze but is really a single path on which one can’t get lost. You can find them all over the world, but I have three favorites: one on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France, and two (one indoors and one outdoors) at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Early on in a labyrinth walk it looks as if the center is near. But the next moment there is a U-turn that heads back toward the outer edge of the labyrinth; and when it begins to seem as if the center will never be reached, suddenly it is straight ahead, waiting.

From supervising a suicide-prevention hotline in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to becoming a Certified Professional Guardian for the state of Washington; from cleaning toilets and changing diapers for people with Alzheimer’s Disease to becoming a nationally-certified hospital chaplain; from giving seated massages to street people under the viaducts of San Francisco to midwifing the deaths of hospice patients; from earning national certification as a massage therapist to serving as a Guardian ad Litem for the Superior Courts of four Washington counties, I have walked the hairpin turns of a labyrinthine career. As portions of the path presented themselves to me over the years, I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t sure where the trail was leading, wondered often if I were terribly lost, then suddenly there I was, in awe of working in yet another kind of margin.

And no matter where I pause along the way, almost always I can hear something that sounds like divine laughter, sometimes in a satisfied basso, sometimes in an ironic alto, and always with a rich timbre of delight and compassion.

All I wanted to do was tell the stories, the best of the stories from my twenty years of work in the margins of our culture.

So I wrote stories of the street people and the isolated people, the sick people and the dying ones, the creative people and the clever ones, the needy people and the generous ones, the “crazy” people and the demented people (two distinct afflictions).

I wanted to tell the funny stories and the sad ones and the amazing ones, and let the readers draw their own conclusions as to which was which. I believed that readers could derive their own wisdom from a well-told tale.

And that is true.

But the book-that-was-yet-to-be demanded more than a collection of vignettes. In its several iterations over the years, Meeting in the Margins has directed me with a variety of voices, not all of them welcome.

The first voice was Christina Baldwin’s, who told me at a writing workshop: “The good news is that your writing is powerful; the bad news is that you have two books in this manuscript, and you’ll need to tease them apart.” (Christina has, years later, graciously written the foreword to Meeting in the Margins.)

Next was a friend who read some of the portraits and said they were “too hard.” He felt uncomfortable reading in such detail about being close to people who, our culture says, are supposed to remain invisible.

Later a copy editor said, “I don’t believe this story. I don’t believe that you can be blissed out while you’re massaging filthy smelly feet. You’ll have to prove it to me.”

And finally, most subtle yet most insistent of all, the marginalized people themselves, or at least my memories of them, said, “Not good enough – go deeper. What’s the real heart of this story? Bring me to life in your words, and bring with me all that I have to offer your reader.”

And when I finally obeyed THAT voice, I was allowed to complete my manuscript.

Meeting in the Margins will be published in October of 2015. Look for it at your favorite bookstore, or online, or here at this website.