A month ago I went away for a week to do nothing but write poetry.
I went prepared, taking with me my poetry “sketchbooks” (ideas for new poems), and potential poetry drafts that I hadn’t nurtured in years, and a few pretty good poems that just needed their “final” polish (note: for a poet, no poem is ever “finished,” even after it is published!).
Given the luxury of a whole week with no distractions (I didn’t even have to prepare my meals!), I anticipated entering, and writing from, those interior spaces where the emotions live, the deep places that often resist being explored.
But as my writing time unfolded, I was fascinated to see that the drafts I wrote from my interior were mostly theological. What I wrote were questions, dispatched from my internal darkness into the limitless ether. Three, then five, then ten drafts of potential poetry about divinity, and those eternal Big Questions: what does it mean to be human? Is there a God? Can there be an I/Thou relationship between a human and the Creator? Which metaphors best convey the unknowing?
As I wrote I realized I was not seeking answers so much as wanting to ask the questions clearly. I hoped to wear the questions more comfortably in my daily life. This has been a lifelong pattern for me, this wanting to explore the inner questions. As early as age eight or nine I was deeply curious about the target of people’s praying – but I didn’t dare ask about it because in my Unitarian family we had judgments about prayer, and we didn’t “do” it. (We didn’t talk about sex either, but that’s for a future essay, not this one.)
When I was a teenager I consulted pastors and preachers and teachers of various stripes to find out what their personal experiences of Life and Death and God were. Almost to a person, they offered me a book or three to read, and sent me, dissatisfied, on my way.
Then, for three decades I was a practicing Roman Catholic. I found consolation and a feeling of divine connection in the rituals and mysticism of the Church. But eventually those Big Questions started rising up again, and the Church no longer satisfied.
In my late forties I returned to college to complete a bachelor of arts degree. I remember taking an ethics course in which we were assigned a research paper on any one of the major ethics issues (abortion, euthanasia, bioengineering, etc.). We were to research what professional ethicists had to say about the issue we chose, and summarize their work in our paper. But I wanted to unearth, and report on, what I thought about the issue. I was nearly fifty, and I had a lot more life experience than most of my classmates; I wanted to wrestle with my own reasoning, not regurgitate the rationales of others. It took some cajoling, but eventually the professor acquiesced, and I got to write the paper my way. When he saw the results of my ethical struggles, he agreed that all my upcoming papers might be written the same way. He hadn’t been used to students actually thinking!
And now, twenty-some years and a masters degree in theology later, I’m still eager to discover my own truths. I still want to clarify my own questions. I like diving deep and braving those dark, interior spaces. I love the hints hidden in dreams. I need metaphors to provide insights where plain words don’t suffice. All of that takes creative time, plus some amount of courage and tenacity. And that explains why I came home from my writing week with over a dozen raw question-filled poetry sketches instead of a collection of finished work.
Guess I’ll just have to go away for another writing week. I want to explore those new drafts, and see how I might enfold unanswerable questions into meaningful metaphors, so some of my questions can be brought out of the darkness. My inner nine-year-old still wants to hold them up to the light.<