Finding D.L. Mayfield might be one of the hinges of my life. I can’t remember when we first connected (through one of Sarah Bessey’s link-ups?) but our response to one another was immediate: you too? living with refugees? and struggling with this tension? and how in the world are we supposed to WRITE these things, but how can we not WRITE them? In the last year of our friendship, we’ve emailed obsessively and talked on the phone several times and turned what could be a fun online relationship into a real, deep friendship. She is hands-down one of my very favorite writers and I am waiting breathlessly for her first book, which she is currently writing. Her McSweeney’s column about living with refugees had me at in stitches and tears for its full run. And this piece, as always, has had me thinking for days. I love her phrase below “one eye on the beauty, one eye on the horror.” There, in that place of tension, I am so grateful to have found D.L. Mayfield.
“When we think about the people who have given us hope, who have increased the strength of our soul, we might discover that they are not the advice givers, warners, or moralists, but the few who were able to articulate in words and actions the human condition in which we participate and who encourage us to face the realities of life.” Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
Years ago, I started a blog. It was just a way to keep friends and family updated about travels, experiences, funny little stories of the day. When my husband and I moved into a low-income apartment complex that was filled with many of my refugee friends, the stories seemed endless. There was always something hilarious, always something tragic, going on. I also wrote about going to Bible college, working terrible retail jobs, consumerism, spirituality–whatever happened to cross my little brain. I named the blog “Little Somalia,” because that is what we called our complex, and it was like my cute little online journal. I assumed my mom, and maybe a few friends, ever read it.
One time, I broke my rule of no pictures and posted a few from a Somali wedding I had been to (which was fraught with emotions for me, a story for another time). I never used real names or addresses, but I did mistakenly title the image with the names of some of my friends. Through this oversight, I suddenly had hundreds of hits a day from members of the Somali Bantu community, googling their own names and finding my site. People were upset, to say the least. Due to language barriers, I could barely explain what a blog was, and how sorry I was that I had violated their privacy. I had taken what I had thought were preventative measures, but the internet always finds a way. I felt helpless to explain my own motivations for writing about them without their knowledge. Even after I took down the offending post, traces of it still came up in Google. The internet, like our words, is hard to erase. Eventually, I shut down my personal blog for the sake of my friends. With one click, 4+ years of my writing was gone. My relationship with my friends was salvaged, but just barely . I sobered up, real quick, to the fact that my friends were not props in the story of me, and that there were things more important than telling an interesting or absorbing story.
At the same time, I am not ashamed of the writing I have done in the past. I have made mistakes, of course, and I hope to always be learning from them, to have everything I do be constantly held up against a hermenutic of love. But, like the character Tiffany from Silver Linings Playbook, I like the sloppy parts of myself. I am passionate, friendly, curious–a real bleeding-heart type. My not-perfect parts are what lead me to live out such crazy, intense experiences, the kind where I have to struggle with thoughts like does anyone else experience this? does anyone else know this is going on? Why is the world so wonderful and awful ,and how can any of us stand it? My sloppy bits are what brought me into my diverse friendships, my low-income neighborhood, my not-anywhere-near-perfect community. Every day I want to weep at the pain I see and hear and experience around me. And every day it feels like my birthday, like I can’t possibly can’t contain the joy of the kingdom coming. I am a mess; but I am grateful for it.
I am currently in a season where it is not valuable to write about my life; relationships are still in infancy, my own emotions are all over the map. In the future, there may be a possibility of doing it well. But for now I am in a place where I am learning to dig deep wells, both within myself and my community. I am in a place of seeking solitude, of sitting with my questions, of discovering who I am and what I believe. This is not a time to produce, to be subject to the whims of the crowd. This is a time to dig deep, to enter into the wilderness with no knowledge of when, or how, I will ever come out. Like Buechner says: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” By stepping back and allowing some silence into my writing life, I have found the antithesis of fear. I have allowed love to open up my thoughts, words and actions. I have given up the right to represent people, to use them, and to process through them. I am trying to give up my idols of being understood, of being recognized, of putting the entire burden of the world on my small and stooped shoulders. Instead, I am busy pursuing reality, and it is more beautiful and terrifying than I ever imagined.
I am still learning how this all plays out. For a while now I have written under a pseudonym. I imagined that this was necessary, based on some of the aspects of my life. That a separation of my “ministry” life and my “writing” life was something to strive for, and to be protected. Now, I realize that a life lived with integrity needs no veil of secrecy. I am not trying to convert anyone. I am not trying to convince anyone. I am even done with trying to feel less lonely. I am just living my life, one eye on the beauty and one eye on the horror. And everything I do must contribute to the former, and take away from the latter.
I used to want to be the advice giver, the warner, the moralist; now, I just want to be in the world, flush in the reality of Jesus and his kingdom, now and not yet. I am, first and foremost, a neighbor and a friend. I am, secondly, a writer, and everything must be filtered through the first lens. Really, I want to be a fellow sojourner, stateless wanderer, and most of all–a fellow traveler.
D.L. Mayfield lives in Portland, Oregon. She blogs somewhat erratically on the Kingdom of God, babies, and intentional community at http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook. She is currently working on her first book, which will be published by Burnside Books.
Read all of the posts in this series on the Questions of Travel Series page.