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Good Letters

20110923-the-work-is-calling-by-allison-backous-troy“It was only love we were looking for….”
—Patty Griffin

Part of my task at Good Letters, for myself, is to work on my first book. With the ways that daily life squashes my writing time, I’m trying to see these posts as ways into my memoir. The book that I’ve wanted to write, and felt unable to write, for a long time.

I feel the need to approach it more clearly these days, but am unsure of the way.

I used to think that I was being disobedient to God, not getting this book done, this account of my family story, my conversion, the crushing intersections of faith and despair at which I’ve found myself.

At the Glen Workshop last year, I talked with Lauren Winner about my desire for a book, the ways that it felt both inevitable and terrifying. I knew that I had something to say; I knew that my written words had been affirmed. But I was lacking some central vision, some understanding of my story’s scope and direction.

And Lauren, acute and brilliant as ever, just stared at me. I hoped she could give me a metaphor, an image, that she could see holding it all together. She didn’t.

“You’re in a rut,” she said. “A thinking rut. And you need to write about other things to just give your brain some space so that you can keep going.”

I sort of did this. I jumped into another year of teaching, and found myself writing syllabi, assignments, critiques of thesis statements. As an editor for The Other Journal, I wrote letters of acceptance and rejection. I wrote to organize, evaluate, help others move forward.

I don’t know what this did for my brain. I wish that I had read more, filled my free time with poetry and novels for the sheer joy of language, trusting the words of Marilynne Robinson and Mary Oliver to sustain, and feed, the gestation that my heart and mind needed to keep writing.

But I did listen to more Patty Griffin, whose entire discography catches exactly what I have felt and known my whole life: in every movement of my family history, every broken bit of it, we’ve been looking to be loved.

And the ways we have loved each other, terrible and difficult as they have been, are more than proofs of brokenness. It’s not enough to list every mistake of my parents, my grandparents, as a way of setting the record straight.

In my house, we have longed for communion, for ease around the dinner table. For mercy to hold us close.

I celebrated my twenty-seventh birthday in the past two weeks, and it was no time to celebrate a birthday. My friends were busy, I began teaching again, and Jeremy was far away, so I just threw myself into my work.

My dad emailed me twice for my birthday, which was typical: my father hates the telephone, hates the way it forces him to make conversation when he would rather sit with his drapes drawn, quiet and alone in his dark apartment.

I know this, and try to respond to his emails as quickly as I can, do what he will let me do in order to keep close.

I didn’t respond quickly to these emails—I was tired, busy, spending fourteen hours a day leading class and prepping for new ones. I was annoyed that he couldn’t actually call me on my birthday, that I had to accept the ways he could love me without really feeling loved in return.

But at the end of the week, my father actually called me (while I was teaching). The message he left me, voice thick and cracking, was just another proof.

“Hiya Red, hope you had a great birthday. I’ve got a card coming to you in the mail, should get it by the end of the week. Leave me a message on my phone to let me know if the address is right. I love ya.”

I’m not in the right spot to work on this memoir every single day. I have no clue how long it will take me. But I know that, now, the clarity has come. The work is calling.

And the work is this: to begin believing that we have been loved the whole time, the whole way through, that not one moment of our life together has been lost.

Because, if this were not true, what would compel me to hear my father’s voice this way? To look at my writing as more than an act of revenge? To want that love myself, angry and confused as I am?

The work is calling. For me, my father, my mother. My children, whenever they come.

I am unsure of the way. And I’ll be using these posts to keep finding it, to keep going.

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

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