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Good Letters

Photo of a bench in front of a tree by a body of water. The bench and ground are covered in snow.

The other night, I got home from my writers’ group feeling jazzed. After struggling with a story revision, I’d decided to show them something different, twenty-five pages of new nonfiction. “I loved it,” they said, and “This is what you should be writing.” Comments and questions, too, but in general a big thumbs-up.

I dropped my satchel on the hall chair. I wanted to read everyone’s comments. But it was a little after ten, and C wanted to hear about my day and I about his, and by the time we’d talked and brushed our teeth, it was eleven. I’d look at the comments in the morning, I told myself: first thing, at the dining room table where I work.

In the morning I woke, less eager than I’d anticipated. I started oatmeal over the stove, prayed, drank a cup of coffee. I went to the satchel and pulled out the marked-up pages, carried them to the table.

Then, back in the kitchen, while slicing banana onto my oatmeal, I thought of a line for the story revision. The narrator needs to do something icky, and I haven’t figured out quite what. I’ve jotted down ideas, but I haven’t been written any out.

I know that until I actually do—force myself to write, word by word, what makes me uneasy—I won’t get anywhere. I’ll keep circling, hovering, like a plane in holding pattern over the runway, not yet cleared for landing.

I am my own air-traffic control, I remind myself. I can clear myself for landing at any time.

So, at the table, I call up the story. “The Ruins,” revision number four. I write a few words and think, OK, time to read what my group wrote.

And a voice says, “No, stay here, finish this scene.”

I write a few more lines. I get another idea. Got to keep going so I don’t lose it, I tell myself, though each moment writing this is a moment away from that….

One Saturday afternoon last April, C came over to Berkeley to meet me after my class. “Want to sit?” he asked, gesturing toward a bench in the sunshine, near an old oak.

“Sure,” I said.

For a minute, I thought. Then we need to choose a movie, plan our evening, figure out when we’ll eat.

He had in mind a different kind of sitting. Staying, really, for longer than I ever would have done so alone.

We watched a feisty terrier disobey his owner. We felt the sun on our skin. I lay with my head on C’s lap. We held hands. For thirty, forty minutes. Then we got up, walked down Telegraph Avenue past the jewelry vendors, the head shops, the tie-dyed onesies for sale outside Starbucks. We went into Moe’s and browsed books, then crossed the street to Caffè Med, where we drank latte and talked about C’s alcoholism, my depression, my brother’s addiction.


Not at all. It was unexpected confidence, unplanned intimacy, a moment that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t sat on the bench and strolled down Telegraph Avenue. We would have found our way around to the discussion at some point, but the takeaway lesson for me came in staying in the moment.

Advent is about waiting. Waiting can become watching the clock, counting down, focusing on a future point or looking back at accumulation from the past. When C and I were first together, I counted every week, every day. That afternoon in Berkeley, I could’ve said—to the day, to the hour—how long we’d been together. Then, on August 20, we reached six months and went to the beach, and I stopped counting.

Advent is also about being, about that tension of the middle place—what Bernard of Clairvaux calls, in his fifth sermon on Advent, “the middle allotments”—between Christ’s coming as man on this earth and his coming again at the end of the time.

While praying the Anglican rosary during Advent, I sometimes use “O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you” for the beads called days. This morning, I found myself—on the second or third round—saying, instead, “O God, you are here; O God, I am here.”

How can I seek what is already here? The tension, at first, seems contradictory. Then I think of the words of Eucharist Prayer D from the Book of Common Prayer, which create synthesis: In seeking you, we might find you. And here’s Saint Augustine, in a sermon quoted for December 1 in Augustine Day by Day: “Love sings now; then, too, it is a love that will sing. But now it is a yearning love that sings; then it will be an enjoying love.”

Yearning can be an uncomfortable place, full of—well, yearning. But it’s where we live. And when we can allow ourselves to rest—however briefly—in the tension, unexpected gifts just might arise. I stay in my story, to find the place where—as Melissa Pritchard said, in her fiction workshop at last summer’s Glen Workshop —the hairs on the back of my neck will stand up.

Yes, I will turn to the pages from my writers’ group, and I will read what they wrote.


For now, I stay where I am.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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