Sometimes, when the dishes are finished and the night has finally spilled across the sky, when I’m sure everyone else is already asleep, I go to church.
Not to a service or anything, just to church – the thing is, I have a key that no one ever asked me to return, and the church is just across the lane.
When our children were small I used to teach Sunday School, help organize potlucks and so on, but not so much anymore. We have a long and uneasy history, the Church and I. But we are cordial to one another now, and always polite. Do I keep my distance with good intentions? I think so. I have a kind of covenantal relationship with the Church, which I honor still.
But at night, when I’m sure not a soul will be there, I sneak out the back door and go.
It’s an Anglican Church, decades old, so always the little red light is glowing in the dark, dangling from the ceiling in a little lantern, the symbolic everlasting presence of God.
I like that image. I pretend it’s a real candle even if it’s not.
I don’t turn the lights on, for fear of attracting attention. I’m not sure why, honestly, what would they do if they found me out? I guess they could take away my key and that would be a shame. So I am careful.
Usually I go to the old piano. I am not a pianist by any stretch of the imagination but I love the sound of chords played on a real piano in the dark. I love the deep, throaty, perfect sound of just the right notes together, creating music that your ears know is meant to be exactly that way, for one reason or another.
When you get the chord wrong, you know it. But when you get it right, you can feel your insides ease, settling in like a lion lying down beside the lamb, each sound belonging to the other.
In the dark church, when it’s late and I am fumbling through the pews, hand over hand, slipping along the edges until I reach the piano bench to sit for a moment, often I squint trying to see the keys. To figure out exactly where to put my fingers without a light is troublesome, and the awkward sound of the wrong keys pressed in together is excruciating.
But when I stop myself and just forget that it’s dark, I close my eyes and resist searching. With your eyes closed you give in to the darkness, it matters so much less. I ease my way in, letting my fingers fall to the smooth surface. When I hear it sound wrong, I lift my fingers and simply wait.
They will find their way, they know where to go. Just like that, like magic, my hands slide and the keys respond, and somehow when I stop squinting and begin to feel my way across the smoothness, my fingers find their way with no light at all. It’s amazing how well my fingers see in the dark.
Today, a lovely woman asked me about writing stories to change the choices people make. She wondered about stories that bring about compassion and goodness, stories with intention. How on earth might one write such a story, if it’s a difficult story to tell, if people honestly don’t want to hear it?
I thought for a while about this, because I am a great believer in the power of stories to change the world, to speak deeply into people’s lives.
It’s what I live to do.
But what if the way forward isn’t clear? What if the story we have burning inside us is a story that some may not want to hear? Then what?
I knew the first part right away. I’d been here before.
I know now, the only way in is to first find a way to let go of angry feelings. They will not serve you or the story, I’m afraid. I don’t mean the work should not be fuelled by passion, but the storyteller’s motives must be filled with goodness, not anger.
You won’t get anywhere without this first step. It may take awhile, but you must find the way through. You have to manage yourself first.
As writers, we are responsible for the stories we are given. Sometimes we tell stories that belong to us, and sometimes we must tell stories for others, but we are responsible, nonetheless. To bring a story into the world is important work. You mustn’t risk trying to do this with an axe to grind in your hand.
Secondly, you must seek to understand. You must understand yourself and your reactions, and you must understand the people you hope to reach. You must understand their experience, their hurt, and their questions; you need to travel in their blood stream, know what frightens them about this story. You must slip on their shoes and walk for miles and miles until you get it, until you finally understand.
Thirdly, you must be seeking what’s true. You must need to know. What you see today might not be complete. There may be more truth for you to take on than you knew existed. There may be pieces missing in the story that are neither yours, nor your reader’s, but are part of a truth that you must accept if you are to tell this story, if you are to release it to the world with integrity.
This, I believe, is the call of the writer, the chord we seek with our fingers in the dark: to let go of anger, to understand, to seek the truth. You will need to close your eyes and forget that it’s dark. Stop squinting. Feel the keys beneath your fingertips responding in the dark, bowing and easing, releasing the sound they make together. When you hear it, you will know. These three will sing together in a way that will make the lion lie down beside the lamb to listen to the story you’ve been given to tell.