Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara is a New York Times bestselling author, professor, and Episcopal priest. Her first memoir, Leaving Church, won a 2006 Author of the Year award from the Georgia Writer’s Association. Her latest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, was featured in Time magazine. She has served on the faculty of Piedmont College since 1998 as the Butman Professor of Religion and Philosophy, and has been a guest lecturer at Emery, Duke, Princeton, and Yale.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Barbara and I spoke about appreciating the power of divine absence as well as divine presence. We talked about the value of spending time in darkness—both literal and metaphoric—and what it might mean to have a conversation with darkness. We also talked about busyness and the role of the Sabbath in balancing our life, and finally, the importance of recognizing that we are all already blessed. Here’s my conversation with Barbara Brown Taylor:
Barbara, I wanted to begin with a quote from your book, Leaving Church. Here’s the quote: “Loss is how we come to surrender our lives.”
I wanted to start with this topic of loss and, if you will, the value of loss on the spiritual journey because it’s something that people don’t talk about a lot, and I think it’s so important. It’s been so important in my own life. To begin, I wonder if you would talk a little bit about how you see the value of loss on the spiritual journey.
Barbara Brown Taylor: Most importantly, I suppose—it’s a cure for omnipotence or any fantasy that we can make life be what we want it to be. I’ve spent plenty of time trying to make life what I want it to be.
But, whether loss comes in the form of a parent who walks into a child’s room and says, “We’re moving again,” or the loss of a family pet, a vocation, a beloved one, health—all of those have been occasions for me to surrender not control, but surrender the illusion of control. While I would not have chosen and didn’t particularly enjoy any of them, I wouldn’t give a single one back.
TS: You talk about the power of becoming familiar not just with the divine presence, but with divine absence. I think that’s such a powerful idea. Talk to me about the times in your life where you’ve felt divine absence—or any kind of absence—and how did it become divine absence?
BBT: [Laughs.] That’s a great question. I think I’m a human being, which means that the earliest stories about divine absence were praying for things that didn’t happen. Whether they were noble things or stupid things, they didn’t happen—and that translated early on as the absence of God.
I think later I became subject to descriptions of what it was supposed to feel like, sound like, be like when God was present. When my life didn’t line up with that description, I experienced what I called “the absence of God.” It really wasn’t until I started working on a book called When God Is Silent that I both combed not only my scriptures but other scriptures and began to discover the ways in which silence is an ancient language of God—if one wants to call that absence.
I began to decide that to be still and to be quiet and to have no answer—and to not know what was coming next—was not a matter of being abandoned, but maybe a matter of being as close to the heart of things as I could be.
So, I think the short answer is I gave up a lot of my expectations about what the presence of God should be like.
TS: OK. But, let’s say someone’s listening and they’re in a period in their life where they’ve been praying for some kind of response—some kind of guidance—and they’re not getting anything. They’re just feeling despairing about that. It sounds wonderful to appreciate the silence, but they’re not.
BBT: “Get out of the house!” would be my first advice. Praying for something that doesn’t come sounds very, very lonely to me. I can’t walk to the mailbox without being rescued from my worst temptations, if I keep my eyes open—and again, I should probably start right off by saying that everything I’m going to talk about in this conversation is about a Level 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, because in a program of this length I don’t think I can go all the way down to the basement nor all the way up to the heavens.
So, I’m not talking about clinical depression [or] kinds of mental illness that are crying out for intervention [or] maybe chemical rebalancing. But, at the Level 5 of, “I am wanting, wanting, wanting, wanting things to be different than they are and they simply will not budge,” I accept that as its own answer—which means it’s probably time to give up on whatever that is.
Again, I’d love to get specific. It could be, again, a voice, a direction, an answer, an open-the-Bible-and-point-to-the-verse, and there is what I wanted. It may be love. It may be a child. It may be a different job and maybe more money than I’m making. I guess we’d have to talk in some cases about what’s being prayed for, because there’s a kind of hierarchy of needs at the spiritual level as well as a psychological level.
TS: I guess what I’m getting at is those times in our life where the truth is [that] we do feel abandoned. Like, that’s how we feel for some reason. We feel abandoned by God. We feel alone. Your suggestion here to get up out of the house—I would like to hear more about that [and] why you’re suggesting that.
BBT: Personal experience? I guess a couple of years ago—and it was during the darkest part of the year. I probably hit a real late-life low point and did all the interior work I knew how to do, from silent meditation to inspirational reading to playing with a Jack Russell terrier to cooking good meals.
I’m a pretty solitary person, so I thought I’d just go against the grain and do uncharacteristic things. For me, that meant getting out of the house. It meant—oh, heaven forbid—joining a yoga group in town where people could see what rotten shape I was in. It meant connecting with friends I had lost touch with. It meant doing things that might have looked like distraction, but for me they were—it was like I had been swimming in one direction and it just got deeper and lonelier.
So, getting out of the house at least changed my day enough for there—eventually, after months and months—to become the possibility of the planet turning toward the sun again, I guess.
So, again, I’m so reluctant to answer questions like that when I don’t know who’s being abandoned by what.
TS: Yes. Yes. It’s hard in general. I always think, though—I’m always imagining in terms of who might be listening to these Insights at the Edge
conversations—that there’s someone out there who’s suffering. I’m always imagining that person and wanting to provide them with something that will be nourishing.
So, when I hear something like a positive framing of the silence of God, I think of that person who’s not in a positive frame around that silence. So, that’s kind of what I’m trying to bring forward.
BBT: There are a lot of helpers, and a bunch of them are on your program.
I have, at times like that, taken over God’s voice and said what I wished it would say. When I encounter the silence of God, I sometimes go to a questionnaire. What am I afraid will happen if I don’t hear the voice of God? I go to worst case.
There are other times, again, I get out of the house. There are other times—I have a few go-to friends or books that will at least help me hold my place.
For most of us, things don’t stay the same. For most of us—even those of us reluctant to use words like “hope”—there’s always the wisdom, easy to test, that today is really exactly like tomorrow. So, sometimes I just look for placeholders and have learned my own warning signals well enough—and some of the handholds I can hold onto while the world turns.
And again, if the world doesn’t turn in a couple of weeks [or] if the world hasn’t turned in a month, it’s time to get better help.
TS: Now, Barbara, in your book, Leaving Church, you tell the story of how you became the pastor of a small congregation in rural Georgia and then how you left that position—and left formal life as a member of the clergy officially. I wonder if you can explain to our listeners a little bit about why you left that role—what was happening in your life that caused you to leave.
BBT: Sure. The role I left was a congregational minister. I’m still clergy and still operate that way, but I’m a college teacher day-by-day-by-day for 17 years now.
But, like any life story, there are probably 10 ways to tell this one. I went from a big-city church intentionally to a small rural church to see how everything from language to pastoral care to celebration of birthdays and hymn-singing would change. I loved it for four out of five years.
But, we grew. It was an exciting place to be. This little church—with very few resources and not too many people—started an awful lot of new things in town that brought more and more people to our doors. The catch was we worshipped in a beautiful little sanctuary that held 80 people when it was full.
So, in an odd way, succeeding ended up souring the soup in a serious way—whether it was people not being able to find their regular seats or having to contemplate the possibility of going into debt to build a larger space. I think the bottom line is that the romantic in me hit the wall. The prophet in me asked for direction and didn’t get one. The congregational minister in me looked around and saw that I might be part of the problem, instead of part of the solution.
So, I left and I found a great place to land. I think that the parish would say that they did fine too. We just ended up not going in the direction we had thought we would go together.
I hope that’s not too vague. Leaving Church has details.
TS: Well, you said that you suspected that perhaps you were part of the problem. Tell me why.
BBT: I don’t know how to talk about this, exactly. I had gotten some acclaim for my public speaking, and that brought visitors. I was teaching at schools and seminaries here and there, and that brought visitors and interest. I think there began to be in the minds of some parishioners sort of a conflict between whether I was there for them or for all of these other people who were showing up.
I don’t know. It was a great lesson in how sometimes, when you want to succeed and be great at what you do, that cannot create the best outcome. [Laughs.] So, it was an extremely humbling event to find that out.
But, I’m happy doing what I’m doing! Also, maybe in a way we were talking about earlier, the worst happened and I didn’t finish out my time there the way I thought I would—and found myself standing in front of a classroom of people, trying to figure out how to be and do something new at the age of 40-plus. That ended up being almost a rebirth—almost a “woke back up on the operating table and got another chance.”
TS: Do you have a sense that churches in general—and I know this is a big statement—but that churches in general are needing to evolve in a certain kind of way in today’s spiritual landscape in order to stay relevant in people’s life?
BBT: I visit an awful lot of churches—coast to coast, small and large—churches in the crowd who call themselves “emerging Christians” and good old-time, mainline Christians. So, I see it all.
I see [some] churches that are even doing both. They’re having traditional things in the morning and then doing quiet, contemplative, Celtic kind of [stuff]—candles in the dark and people lying on pews and under the altar things at night.
I think, again, it comes back to where the church [is] and what kind of community [it is]. Who’s coming, who’s not.
I know aging churches that are serving their aging congregations beautifully—and they’ll be out of business in about 20 years. Meanwhile, they’re doing exactly what they ought to be doing. A whole community’s dying or shifting.
And then I know others that have so changed what they do that they’ve gotten rid of buildings and official clergy and microphones and the whole thing.
So, from my point of view, it’s a frightening time for people who knew their way around the old landscape. It’s a pretty exciting time in terms of the norms are all but gone. Or there’s such a variety of new norms that there’s hardly an experiment not worth doing right now.
TS: Now, Barbara, you talked about your “success,” if you will, in this small church—
BBT: [Laughs.] “If you will.” Put quotes around that! Yes.
TS: Yes. And how that generated quite an audience. In doing research for this conversation, I learned that you were named one of the “12 Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking World” by Baylor University. That’s quite—
BBT: [Laughs.] That’ll ruin every sermon you give from then on!
TS: Yes, I bet. That’s quite a thing! When I read that, I was like, “Oh my God, what’s it going to be like to hear her put some sentences together? I’m going to fall off my chair.”
So, first of all, I’m curious: What do you think makes an effective preacher in general? And how do you think you won such acclaim?
BBT: Well, the answer to that is everybody on that list had some kind of print, radio, or TV arm. I had a print arm. So, whoever answered the survey knew of the people on that list because they were not strictly doing their jobs at home. They had some kind of public outreach.
So, I think the big surprise was I was the only woman on the list. That even surprised Baylor, which I don’t think at that point officially believed in ordained women.
But, as to your question about effective preaching: it baffles me. I’ve never taught preaching full time. I’ve been invited to, but I have listened to people who I think speak effectively about living at a deep level. Some of them are clergy, but a lot of them are on the Moth Radio Hour or giving TED Talks. I listen to a lot of public radio to learn what makes for effective speaking.
But, it seems to me that—just given the responses from a couple of congregations—it had to do with talking in a real voice about recognizable things, and saying what could be said and leaving unsaid what could not be said. I don’t know—not daring people to go way, way further than their lives gave them any evidence to go. But, affirming a lot of human experience as being already blessed—not needing extra blessedness. Just needing eyes to see the blessedness that was already there. That, again, is in a Christian culture where original sin can be talked about quite a lot.
TS: That’s a beautiful phrase—”already blessed.” That’s beautiful.
Now, a big part of my inspiration to have this conversation with you is because I’m a fan of your book Learning to Walk in the Dark. In it, you talk about something you call “lunar spirituality” as distinct from “solar spirituality.” So, tell us what you mean by “lunar” spirituality.
BBT: I think I probably slightly stole that from David Whyte—the poet—because he wrote a wonderful book many, many years ago—and it was really about the soul in the workplace. He talked about the workplace as being a solar environment, where one is called upon to shine like the sun all the time. I went back to make sure I hadn’t plagiarized him, but he certainly gave me the idea.
I guess I chewed on that idea for 10 years, and moved to the country [and] lost a lot of my fear of the dark just from the change in my physical location. [I] began to experiment with literally walking in the dark more, and I discovered the moon—learned its names, learned its phases, learned all the things I could see by the light of even a tiny, tiny moon.
That opened up a whole idea of a lunar spirituality, where what is up in the sky changes every single night—never the same twice. In fact, the moon is entirely gone for three days every month. That seemed very different to me from the kind of solar spirituality that was always wanting the 24/7 shininess of the self and the divine and the neighbor.
So, lunar spirituality seemed truer to my experience at every level—physical, emotional, psychological. So, I jumped on it and wrote a book.
TS: Now, when you say you learned the names of the moon, I mean there’s the full moon [and] the new moon. Does the moon have more names than that?
BBT: It has so many names! It seems like every Native American tribe had a different name for the moon, of course, depending on whether it was a way-north New York nation or if it was a Florida nation.
But, I’ve found two or three different Native American names for the moon. I’ve found Old English names for the moon. So, it all depends on what’s happening under the moon at night. It’s harvest moons and blue moons and cricket moons and milk moons. I wish I had my list in front of me. I’d charm you the rest of the time, giving you all of the different names.
But, I think it supports my point. The moon—she is different every night. She has all kinds of dresses in her closet. [Whereas] the sun—except for the clouds—wears the same gold dress every day.
TS: Now, talk to me some about spending time in literal darkness and how that helped give you insight into what we could call the metaphorical dark periods of our life.
BBT: Yes. I’ve got to watch that metaphor, because it’s a deep one. I suppose the first thing I noticed is that “darkness” is an abstract word. I guess it’s an abstract word. I mean, I can certainly cover my eyes with my hands and manufacture darkness. But wow does it carry metaphorical weight for people—dark moods, dark emotions, dark times. I think you have had a hand in a book called Darkness Before Dawn, where “darkness” is a synonym for depression.
I certainly found that was true, and yet as I—I don’t deny any of those meanings. They come easily to my lips even now. But, as I—again—would be patient with the darkness where I live now, I would find how much light there was in it—and how many things I could not see in full light.
As someone pointed out, they’re mostly lit things like moons, fireflies, comets, and lightning strikes. So, they’re mostly eruptions of light in the dark. But, they’re not things that are visible by the full light of day.
So, the metaphor became: if I could walk in the literal dark much better than I thought I could—not only by the little bit of light available, but also through bringing up huge reserves of resources from other senses that were usually cut off because my eyes are such good workers—that there might be something true about that at the spiritual and emotional levels of my life as well. I could get by on less than I thought. If I would not put so much energy into bringing the dark to an end—lighting it automatically [and] lighting it quickly before unwanted angels started asking me questions or bouncing on the bed—that there might be something to be gained from that.
And, as I say in the book, people ask me all the time, “How long do I have to do that?” I say, “You don’t have to do it at all. But, you might do it for one breath more than you think you can stand it. That would be plenty.”
So, I never, never want to override people’s instincts about their own safety or what is good for them. They know far better than I do, since we all have our own histories of darkness.
But, I did find in my own case [that] I had a much greater capacity for being in the dark and finding treasure in the dark and embracing the dark and silence in the dark that was healing and not frightening.
TS: Now, I thought a very interesting part of the book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, had to do with your comments about the invention of the electric light and how that has changed us as a culture. I wonder if you can talk to our listeners about that.
BBT: It’s a very recent experience, and there are plenty of good books on it. You can go to the Dark Sky Association’s website and learn quite a lot. You can find out about not only the darkest places on Earth, but the lightest places on Earth and how many of us are participating in a science experiment we never gave permission to participate in.
Last time I checked, 24/7 light was being identified as a carcinogen, with more and more medical evidence coming in about what sleep deprivation and disturbed sleep architecture does in terms of increasing levels of everything from diabetes [and] heart disease to anxiety. I think the statistic that knocked my socks off was that women who work night shifts have a 50 percent greater vulnerability to breast cancer than women who don’t.
I found that in two different sources. Now, I’ve not followed it up with the American Medical Association, but the bottom line is this light that comforts—these lit screens we spend so much time in front of—may not be as good friends to us as we think they are. It begins to raise the question of what we are doing to ourselves literally by cutting ourselves off from full, natural periods of dark and light.
TS: And how did this information change your approach to sleep?
BBT: I’m not there yet. Here’s the best I’ve done so far—what I’d love to do if I were my ideal human being is that I would perhaps use electric light long enough to get dinner on the table by about 7:30.
But in the same way I live on an organic vegetable farm and we try to eat locally, it would be really interesting to try to sleep seasonally. In other words, to sleep less in the summer and more in the winter, and really ditch the electric light no later than, say, nine o’ clock—and live with some of the twilight that turns out to be one of the most potent times for human consciousness, between waking and sleeping—which typically comes at going-to-sleep time, at waking-up time, and then I guess when human beings were in the dark for long periods of time, it also happened in the middle.
But, I’m not my ideal human being. So, the best I can do is douse them at ten. If that means a couple of hours of lying in the dark, so be it.
TS: Now, you talk in the book about actually having a conversation with darkness—that that’s valuable, to have a conversation with darkness. How might you suggest someone might go about having such a conversation?
BBT: Well, first I’ll name Clark Strand. Again, I get my ideas from other people sometimes. He wrote a wonderful article in—is it called Tricycle or Tri-Cycle? I’ve never know the right way to pronounce that magazine.
TS: Tricycle. Yes.
BBT: Tricycle? He suggested a darkness retreat, and I just picked it up. I didn’t do it for the length of time he did, but that was one of his suggestions—was to go (in my case) just 24 hours with no artificial light, which is a long time at the Summer Solstice—no, it’s a short time at the Summer Solstice, which is why I picked that.
But, it was still plenty of time to have time on my hands. I didn’t find a whole lot to say to the dark, but he did suggest that if you became impatient, you could go ahead and talk back to it, tell it what you were concerned about. I think that’s what I was playing with. Earlier, when I said if God doesn’t talk, go ahead and play God’s part just to see what comes out of your mouth.
So, I—again—have found talking back to the dark often ends up being a talk about what I’m frightened of. I guess we’ve all got different muscles of how far we can go with that. Ultimately, death and losing everything I love. I go there pretty fast.
But, it’s the truth. There is reality in that. I think—speaking of muscles—it’s one that a lot of us could work on, because our running isn’t serving us very well.
TS: This is an opportunity for me to bring up one of the quotes from Learning to Walk in the Dark that I’d love to hear you comment on. I thought it was so beautiful. Here’s the quote from the book: “At this point in my life, I’m more afraid of what I might leave out instead of what I might let in.”
BBT: [Laughs.] Yes. Yes, I think for a lot of years of my life—fear does that, you know. Fear for me has always functioned for me to be a guard at the gate—to be a filter, to be a fence, or to decide what’s harmful and what’s not, what can come in [and] what can’t.
But, wow is it hyper-vigilant. It’s a hyper-vigilant guard.
So, as you said, later in life—now it’s probably the last third of my life—it’s become much better use of my time to risk encountering some of what I formerly might have called “dangerous strangers.” So many of the ones I let in are not as dangerous as I thought or as dangerous as I’d been told.
So, it kind of comes down to fear, doesn’t it? I mean, a lot of my writing is about what most frightens us, I suppose. You started out with loss—however we parse that.
I suppose in some of what I’m saying you can hear that I’m an unofficial student of Buddhism, which says that reality can’t finally hurt me. But, my fear of reality can hurt me a lot.
Now, I’m not living in a refugee camp and I don’t have children being battered by their parent. There are a lot of “buts” in that. But again, I’m talking about a Level 5 kind of garden-variety trying to get along.
TS: Now, when you say “dangerous strangers,” that’s an interesting phrase. I wonder if you could give me some examples of what letting in what you thought were dangerous strangers [and] what that might be like for you.
BBT: Well, I’m going to pull a 180 and we both might get whiplash. But, I teach world religions for a living. Certainly in the five religions that I introduce students to, Islam is the one is the most frightening—to the point that students signed up for a field trip might be talked out of going by their peers or family members who just don’t want them going [and] don’t want them exposed to a room full of Muslims. Those would certainly qualify as dangerous strangers to a lot of my students now—and probably did when I first started teaching, because I didn’t know many Muslims either.
But, through a complete fluke, I ended up in a masjid on the Friday after 9/11. So, I heard my first sermon about those airplanes flying through the twin towers from an imam and that dangerous stranger turned into my pastor in a way I’ve never forgotten.
I guess I’ve tried to stop believing the world the headlines present to me and have tried to engage both my critical thinking and my willingness to travel—whether it’s across the yard or across town—to decide more what the world I live in is like beyond the headlines. You know what I mean? We get so much of our idea of the world from the headlines, and then we live in that world. It is so seldom the world we live in day by day by day.
TS: That makes a lot of sense—and I didn’t get whiplash, incidentally. You’re doing just fine.
But, in terms of dangerous strangers on the outside, that makes sense. I’m curious what a dangerous stranger might be like on the inside for you.
BBT: I guess Carl Jung did the best with that, didn’t he? I mean, the shadow. I mean, hold my feet to the fire. My shadow is a sloppy, lazy—some days she’s that. Other days she’s just a crone—although I’ve become kind of happy with the crone lately.
But, the dangerous stranger inside is whatever I have invested the hugest amount of my time and energy into not being. The older I get, the more variations there are on that theme.
So, that speaks to interior work. Also, again, having a sane community around me of some kind—either self-made or already out there, waiting for me to become part of it—to kind of steady me while I’m walking warily around some of those dangerous strangers inside.
TS: Now, you mention that you live on a farm now. I know in the book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, one of the topics you address is busyness and how busy many of us seem to be in contemporary life. I wonder what it’s like living on a farm—it could still be super busy. You could be busy doing farm chores all the time, even if it looks different than contemporary work life for some people.
But anyway, I’m curious what your relationship to busyness now in your life.
BBT: Oh, you can be just as busy here as you can anywhere. I just had a friend from the city come. She sat on my front porch and we looked at Mount Yonah and the fireflies coming out n the trees. She said, “What would it be like to live here?”
I said, “You’d be at the computer. You’d be cleaning the cat boxes. You’d be cleaning out the refrigerator. You’d be doing the laundry.”
Busyness is not a function of our environment, I don’t think—though I do have what I think of as this huge medicine cabinet right out my front door. Headache, shortness of breath, whatever I have—I’ll just go out and sit for a bit. It’s a very steadying panorama out there.
So, busyness—I don’t know any cure for it but what the old-timers call Sabbath and what young people call “downtime.” There’s absolutely nothing in the culture that I can think of that will sanction that. So it’s a very difficult thing to do.
I can’t think of a thing in the culture that tells us to slow down. Yoga class, maybe. What do you think?
TS: Probably depends on the teacher. But yes, there’s a possibility.
BBT: Yes, I’m just trying to think. It’s one way where synagogue, masjid, church, temple—it is a place to enjoy what one of my favorite writers called “a royal waste of time,” to be still, hold still, not be productive for a period of time if you can find the right place.
But, we don’t have much else in our lives that I can think of that sanctions the opposite of busyness. Mostly, it’s more and more, faster, faster. That, like too much light, is killing us.
TS: Did you have to introduce a discipline in your life to the discipline of a Sabbath day—a 24-hour rest period? How have you addressed busyness?
BBT: I have addressed it largely by decideing—and I could do this only after I left congregational ministry—that Saturdays would be a day of —I mean, no Jew would recognize it as Sabbath—but a day of no buying and no selling. No driving. No catalogs—that’s buying and selling. No computers. No work. No cat litter pans.
But, a day of enjoyment. A day to live as if all my work were done.
I’ve had long, long periods of enjoying that discipline, but I keep it intact by myself, So, there is no community near me—no community I’m part of. There’s probably an online community, but I don’t want to keep Sabbath in front of a computer.
So, again, it’s a real challenge for anyone interested in those disciplines to find even a small cadre of people who are willing to ask you how it’s going.
TS: Well, I’m asking you about it because I notice it’s a real challenge in my life. I notice most of my friends—we claim we want unstructured time, and yet we don’t create any of it. And when we do, we just get busy again.
BBT: Isn’t that wonderful? So, we know we don’t really want it. Mostly our lives will tell us what we really want.
But, it’s another really great time to pull out the self questionnaire. Wow, have I done that questionnaire of what am I afraid of? What will happen if I am not busy today? What will happen if I have time on my hands? What will happen if I don’t file everything in the file basket within the 30 days that my time management book says I should?
It’s—for me, again—fear-driven [for] what will happen. But, this is truly where I am religious and not spiritual at this point, because I do think the great religions of the world have got a good bit to say about hallowed, sanctioned times of non-busyness. Whether they’re festival times of eating and drinking and being with other people, or still and quiet times, they’ve got a lot of wisdom about that that the culture seems to have lost.
TS: Now, one of the themes, Barbara, that it seems to me runs through all of your books—at least the handful of books of yours that I’ve read—is a question of faith. Questioning faith, exploring faith, looking at it upside down and every which way from Sunday, if you will.
I’m curious to know: if you were to speak right now, in this moment, about faith in your life, what would you say is your faith?
BBT: Now, see, that’s an incomplete sentence. I mean, in my mind—because it’s got to be “faith in.” Faith at what will happen, faith at what won’t happen, faith in whom, faith in . . .
So, I break the word down to “trust.” I’ve pretty much cleaned house—or I’m at least in a pretty clean house, period, right now—of trusting that life is basically for me, trusting that whatever happens will teach me something.
Note please that I am stopping far short of saying that God is making things happen or teaching me things. That’s not part of my consciousness.
Faith is a huge, naive trust that life is basically for me—that most people do not mean me harm, that I can make a difference in a few people’s lives by listening and being present and writing a book now and then. So, it’s naive—but that’s the trust, that life is basically for me, most people don’t mean me harm, and I can do some good both alone and in community with some other people. That seems like enough to live on most of the time.
TS: Now, this phrase that you’re using—”life is for me.” What do you mean by that?
BBT: I mean—let’s go straight to story. I mean when I go in for a mammogram and the doc calls me back and says, “We need to see you again. There’s a problem,” and I start to spiral, that if I can catch my breath—oh, this is going to be so heady. Even though I’ve lived through it.
But, if I can catch my breath—and this happened to me not too long ago, waiting on a table for the umpteenth sonogram. It was very weird, to be lying on that table waiting for a report. It was as if in my mind a door opened. I walked through it and—imaginatively—there were all these women living with breast cancer. Either past, present, or in whatever stage.
They welcomed me and they said, “Here’s your chair. Come in. We’ve got all kinds of stories to tell you.” It was a remarkable moment of life opening a door where it looked like a wall.
I did not get a diagnosis that day that put me in a room like that, but I now know there’s a room like that. I kind of knew it, but now I really know it.
So, that’s an example. I’m not living with breast cancer, but it was a surprise that even the worst kind of thing at that point—there were people to welcome me who had been there, walked that, and might find a chair for me. That seems like life being for me.
TS: Now, you mentioned, Barbara, being a crone at this point in your life. I’m curious what that means to you, how you know you’ve passed into the phase of being a crone, and what that archetype means to you.
BBT: Oh, I think of me. I’m 63. Yes. Sixty-three.
My hair turned white ages and ages ago. Because I’m in a small town, I’m not quite invisible, but I’m almost invisible. I remember clearly the first few times I went to a counter and couldn’t get anybody to wait on me. I mean, the invisibility of being an aging woman—I could go on and on and on.
But, I’ve begun to enjoy it—the invisibility—and enjoy other women my age and older who have thrown a lot of caution to the wind. I have a terrific 87-year-old mother who is still teaching me about crone-dom. That woman is shameless, and she’s just so funny. [She] has a very healthy libido at 87, so she’s one of my main teachers in all of this.
Crone-dom means hanging up a lot of clothes I used to wear for certain effect and making peace with a face that doesn’t look like it did and doesn’t look as bad as it’s going to—and finding the hilarity in all that. With other survivors—with other people who are in my stage of life or older. Preferably older.
So, crone. Crown. Receiving your crown, and going ahead and playing with the archetype. If I could just train a raven to sit on my arm, I think I’d be . . .
TS: OK, Barbara. Our program’s called Insights at the Edge. I’m always curious to know what the edge is that somebody might be working with in their life—whether that’s in terms of their creative life or in terms of their interior world. What’s the edge that your currently exploring?
BBT: I have two. We probably don’t have time to do much with them.
Professionally, the edge is finding ways to communicate with people who don’t identify with any religious tradition because I love to go some depth with people. And yet, to meet people who don’t have a particular language for going deep—or a particular community in which they go deep—it’s a wonderful edge. It’s both stultifying—it kind of shuts me up sometimes; I don’t know how to proceed—and it’s also really, really a wonderful learning edge.
Currently, I’ve decided—along with a wonderful, now-dead German writer named [inaudible]—that nature and eroticism and suffering and community and joy are all places that human beings have always and will always go deep. So, I’m interested in those now as spiritual topics, if you will.
So, there’s that. The other one we’ve already talked about—which is the edge of shifting gears for the final third of life, which is very clarifying. [It’s] finding how that changes my priorities.
TS: Yes. I’m curious to hear a little bit more about that shift in priorities. What would you say are your priorities at this point?
BBT: Well, they are not things the world rewards anymore. So, it’s a real move from a very public life to not a more private life, but a more personal life—a more intimate life. A life with fewer people in it with whom I share more meals and tell more stories. It’s a life of moving from a lot of attention to social action to—I think very appropriately—more inner work, more of whatever it is that will see me through to the end of my life. It is a shift in priorities from doing a lot not so well to wanting to do a very few things well.
Then, I’ve just got a huge hunger to flee my competence and learn new things, and find ways to be a beginner. Every year I get older, I want to be a beginner at something else.
So, the priorities shift. But, it’s all like a setting sun because none of them will be rewarded in the same ways I’ve been rewarded by my busier, more productive self.
TS: What supports you in making that shift to a set of priorities that aren’t necessarily considered socially—it doesn’t fulfill some ambition in terms of getting attention in the outer world?
BBT: Mentors, authors. Everybody from Abigail Thomas, whose latest book just arrived—What Comes Next and How to Like It. I think it’s called something like that.
But, I read lots of memoirs. I read people who can help me in this transition. I have friends my age with whom I’ve begun to plan regular adventures that we do together—to go find new things. I am partnered well to a man who’s 14 years my elder, and he teaches me things.
Then I pay attention to what happens in my yard. I watch that cycle. The priorities of the yard in the summer are different than the priorities of the yard in winter. So, I’m noting the ways in which the things that grow here conserve themselves as the days grow shorter—taking some lessons from the chestnut trees. Those that are left.
TS: OK. I’m just going to ask you one final question, which is: We talked briefly about fear. You talked about fear as a type of—I don’t think you exactly used the phrase like “a guardian at the gate”—but can keep us away from what we’re afraid of letting in, and how important it’s become in your life to let in instead of leaving out. I’m just curious how you might help someone who’s listening to this conversation—and I know this is abstract; we don’t know who this listener is—but who still has this sense of, “You know, I hear this—but how do I work with my fear? My fear of going deeper into darkness—my own internal darkness. Literal darkness. Metaphoric darkness. How do I work with that fear?”
BBT: My answer to that is: respect your fear. It’s probably not a satisfying answer, but I just think the worst thing in the world is to tell someone that he or she shouldn’t feel the way he or she feels. I’m a great respecter of the soul, and the soul knows not only what it’s capable of at the moment, but the soul is also capable of great curiosity about what’s beyond the boundary that is laid out.
I think. I think that’s true.
So, if someone is listening and saying, “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t,” I’d say, “Then why don’t you be where you are?”
But if you’re listening to this show, you’re curious. If you tune into this show regularly, you want to lift up your foot and put it down maybe an inch further out than it is.
So, I think the very best way—perhaps—to be respectful of someone listening who feels that way is to say, “Respect that. Respect your own wisdom.” And, “Stay curious. Keep an ear open for the unexpected invitation.”
TS: Barbara Brown Taylor, the author of the book Learning to Walk in the Dark as well as a memoir of faith called Leaving Church, and a beautiful book called An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.
Barbara, I am so appreciative of your willingness to come and participate on this show, Insights at the Edge. Thank you so much—and thank you for your beautiful writing and your beautiful work, [as well as] your courage to be true to yourself. I’m a great admirer of yours.
BBT: Ah, Tami—and I of you. Thank you for the opportunity.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.