11 April 2008

finding center

I went to the bottom of the ravine, and then I climbed to the top of the hill.

Saturday, March 15 was my first full day at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference. I left for Mount Hermon much like I left for Florida, at a quarter to 2 in the morning after just two hours of sleep (luckily there weren’t several inches of snow this time). After checking in and getting my luggage to my little red cabin, I felt in danger of toppling over from fatigue.

But here I was: a writer amongst writers.

I went to the dining hall for lunch and received my first introduction to the two-pronged line of questioning posited throughout the course of the conference whenever I sat with writers, publishers, agents, and editors I didn’t know:

What do you write? Are you married?

After the first orientation session, I reasoned my time would be better spent napping than fighting the urge to fall asleep during one of the first elective sessions. I got my nap that afternoon, but was still competing with the impulse to return to bed over the course of the next day. It was at lunch on Saturday that I was ready to reprint my cards with the answers to the two questions I had already begun to answer automatically: I write non-fiction and I’m single.

I was at the premier Christian writer’s conference and I was happy to be there. But it was during this same lunch hour that I realized that I was getting sick of all the writing talk. These mealtimes (breakfast aside) were a time for writers to talk themselves up and sell their ideas to whatever publisher, editor, agent, or freelancer happened to be sitting at the table. It was a place to secure appointments and make dazzling first impressions. I just wasn’t in that place. And while I was perfectly okay with that, I felt myself becoming a two-dimensional cardboard cutout in the eyes of those around me; I felt as though I was being considered only in terms of my preferred mode of writing and my marital status because that is all anyone seemed interested in knowing about me.

I didn’t try to reason my way out of feeling like I didn’t want to talk about writing anymore. I understood that many had been preparing for these few conference days since the previous year and were ready to be in active pitching mode. I had only known for three weeks that I’d be attending, and now I was here. No wonder my head was spinning. No wonder I felt as though I had taken up residence in an alternate universe where I was learning the language and customs by immersion.

I gave myself permission in that moment to skip the afternoon sessions, knowing my attendance would only exacerbate the feelings I was having. I dropped my bag and my three-ring notebook off in my room, grabbed my camera, and took off down the Sequoia Trail. It was crisp and chilly, but bright. I felt lightened as I made my way down the trail; I was alone, a speck in danger of being swallowed by the redwoods and sequoias that towered over me. I craned my neck back to see if could make out the tops of the trees that I imagined piercing the floor of heaven and tickling God’s feet.

I ran for several stretches along the trail, clearing thick and gnarled roots as though they were hurdles, kicking up damp earth and pulling its scent deep into my nostrils. I was unshackled, free of four hundred strangers. It was just me and Yahweh, traipsing through these magnificent woods together, talking freely and listening intently to one another. I talked to Him about all sorts of things: about the places in my heart where I so recently had difficulty remembering, and the fresh ache that pressed on me when memory came back in a torrent. I tried to speak to Him about new aches to which I was unable to give any shape with my words, so I didn’t force it: I simply exposed my heart let the ache speak for itself.

As gravity propelled me downward, the promise of stillness became closer. The place of narrow questions and big notebooks and lectures and sales pitches felt far away. I was alone but for the sounds of shallow water slinking steadily and slowly over rocks in the creek bed; I heard the low and lonely hoots of an owl. The water burbled on and I could breathe; the space around me felt limitless. It felt as though I was at the center of a circle of quiet; everything revolved around this place that was the middle of all things, motionless as the foot of a compass.

I went to the bottom of the ravine.

It was that evening that they announced there would be a hike Palm Sunday morning to the top of a hill where a 20-foot cross stood watch over Scotts Valley. They would depart from the administration building at 6 a.m.

Rising early enough to make it to the administration building by 6 a.m. was nearly unthinkable; fatigue had its thick claws embedded firmly in my heels, enticing me and pulling me toward a deep and warm unconsciousness. I had been looking forward all day to an early retreat, counting down the hours and minutes until I’d be able to trade my trail runners for my pajamas and wrap myself in the musty blue comforter on my bed.

I walked back to my cabin that night, feeling the pull between my profound and deeply visceral hunger for sleep, and the simultaneous voice insisting I make my way to the cross in the morning. I found myself unable to argue; to contend I was too tired to go to the cross seemed a pathetic argument. He was pulling me; He had hooked my heart and tethered to those two perpendicular wooden beams.

I met about thirty others in the darkness of the early morning of Palm Sunday, the stars and streetlights the only points of light on the mountain. I walked with a woman who was on the shuttle bus from the airport with me. We talked about our faith and our writing in a way that was easy and natural, in a way that didn’t make me feel hemmed in.

The sky was just beginning to release the indigo hues of night when we reached the summit of the hill. The outlines of the cross were beginning to become perceptible. Our guide began telling us the history of Mount Hermon, of the story about that cross and how it came to be there. I really don’t remember much of what he said.

The sun rose, yellow and orange flaming up from the horizon, giving way to blues that darkened on the way up. My fellow wayfarers stood around the cross and began singing hymns.

I really didn’t sing much either.

It was growing lighter with every minute that passed, the deep blues being exchanged for paler shades.

I planted myself at the foot of that cross. The others sang around me while the sun continued to crawl up the edge of the sky in the east. I sat at the bottom of that cross, at the unmoving center of a circle of songs. And I was quiet.

I went to the bottom of the ravine, and then I climbed to the top of the hill.


  1. You have captured things I only dreamed of capturing in my words. Words about MH. Words about where I'm at in life right now. Words... I am in the center of yours.

  2. i agree with l.l. and sarah -- you captured words about where i am right now, and it is beautiful.

    what a wonderful glimpse into the pivotal experience you had during those days. you captured it so well that i felt myself there. i love the way you have been capturing whole scenes and sights and smells and textures and experiences so that they feel visceral and concrete. you are really developing deeply in this area as a writer.

    perhaps what i love most about this experience is how you honored where you were, totally and completely. you honored the fatigue and took a nap. you honored the frustration of feeling compartmentalized and decided that next time you would bring a sign and emblazon it on your shirt. you honored the need for quiet and time with yahweh, so you traipsed to the ravine, in the quiet and the stillness and the rush of the run. you honored his call to you to meet him at the cross, and you went.

    you do not make any apologies for any of this. i so love that. it is something i am still learning to do, myself.

    ps: had an amazing experience today that put the last few weeks in total perspective. i'm going to start blogging about it. not sure if i will finish it today or tomorrow . . . but it will also show that much more that God has placed us in such similar places. in fact, i laughed to myself and shook my head with a huge smile on my lips when i read the title for this post: "finding center."

  3. l.l. - thank you. these are the only words i found to describe the experience, the feeling of wordlessness that was one of the results of my time there.

    sarah - thanks, friend.

    christianne - thank you. i can't tell you how closely i held your words to me during that time from that conversation we had right before i left. you said you envisioned me going there "unadorned", just with the offering of myself. i so love that; i did love it then & i love it now. because that is such the perfect word to describe how i engaged myself in that experience.

    i am learning how to be wherever i am in the present moment, not to try & force myself to be somewhere else. it isn't easy; there are plenty of times i do not like it. but yeah ... honoring where we are. this is good.

    i cannot wait to read about your recent experience(s) & the similarities. i laugh & rejoice at the divine goodness of God in intersecting our hearts & making our journeys almost unfailingly parallel. he must be so darn amused, that yahweh of ours!! so thankful we're on this journey together, friend. and so glad you're gaining the gift of some much-needed perspective while you've been sifting through things in the dark, leaning hard into mystery & brand new things.

    love you.

  4. Kirsten, what great imagery that you used to describe how you felt during that whole process. I even find it hard when I am surrounded at my local conferences or even browse in writers magazines with the mfa programs, retreats and other things that are stressed. while I may never be E.B. White or Dickens, at least I enjoy stringing together words to bring light to the trees I encounter. May you be blessed with your little circle and glad to hear that God is working in on you. sorry I could not comment earlier since I work during the day.

    that nap must have felt good and the time with the redwoods must have been awesome and put things into perspective. May you continue to worship Him. And find the time and patience to find the right man. He will be so blessed when you do.

  5. wow - i, like christianne, felt myself there, with you, which was amazing! Thank you!

  6. Your eye for the "small" yet wonderful things of everyday is amazing. I could smell the raw earth under the duff and could feel that great feeling of raw instinct as you run through the woods as I read this. I can feel such similar things as I am riding through the woods. You brought me to that spot from my desk. Thank you.

  7. ah- the tangled webs of Western Christianity....to have to be defined by your legal partnership to someone else. Jesus, the ultimate author, would have felt equally as forlorn- not in a shameful or self-doubt sort of way, but in the polarizing labels "his children" tend to sort through and categorize one another, intentionally hurtful or not. your relationship with the Lord is amazing and inspiring to all the sisters and brothers who journey to the destination of your soul everyday, eager to absorb the words which you so skillfully and powerfully craft- your offerings at the feet of our Lord.

  8. This is baptism. This is participating in Christ's death and His resurrection.
    I love that idea about going unadorned--because it's then that Christ can adorn us in His beauty.
    Thank you for sharing.

  9. this was so freeing to read kirsten, and i respect you more and more with every word you write. i'm with christianne...how cool that you honored what was going on in your heart and followed those promptings. and i'm so stinking bugged about those questions and the way they minimized this holy calling you have on you at this point in your life. i'm tired and angry for you over those attitudes.

    then again, this always happens with the called ones. they suffer. i'm sitting here holding my breath, waiting to see what God is up to here...and waiting to hear the words you will lovingly carve into this space to share this message with the rest of us. know that there are souls in this world who see you exactly where you are in this moment and agree with God when he spoke those original words and speaks them now in reference to you..."very good".

  10. if i remember correctly you haven't read hinds' feet yet but when you do i think you are going to be in for a real treat and maybe a similar experience as i had reading it--was as if she was writing the story of where you had been in the most beautiful language...from this "bottom of the ravine to the top of the hill" and "the heart He's given me in exchange for the one I surrendered to Him...bursting with fullness, lush and verdant and teeming with new life" i'm excited for the familiar gems you will find in that little treasure book.

    now, about stupid questions people ask mindlessly...like "so what do you do" to someone who maybe lost or hates their job; or "do you have any kids" to someone who has been through years of trying; or "are you married" to someone who wants to be, or was and isn't anymore; we need to come up with some new conversation starters! so what do you do for fun? (now if they say play with my kids, or go dancing with my husband, you can ask those more potentially insensitive questions) or so what's something that really matters to you now?" or my favorite, "so what's on your mind?"

    honestly, couldn't your interviewers have simply asked "so what brings you to Mount Hermon...what are you hoping for while you're here?"

    the questions we ask really do communicate the level of which we want to engage in a conversation with someone, or if we prefer to keep it surface, or just want to filter whose in or out :(

    i think it's time for a walk even though it's freezing cold outside. where is spring anyway? brrrr! suffering for gracie ;)

    have a good day and thanks for your vivid telling of the sights and smells and quiet whispers that can just make us feel right there with you through it all.

  11. I really love the way you write. The only problem is that you generally leave me speechless and unable to comment when I feel the need to do so.

    This, and your virgin martyrs post, just awesome.

    Take care.

  12. scott - it was an amazing & peaceful time to be away from the crowds & the noise. i was grateful God met me there.

    ilse - hooray, i'm glad you felt like you were there. it's not always easy to convey, but i've been working at that in my writing, so i'm glad you found it effective. ;o)

    caleb - sounds like we both have similarly engaging experiences with God in nature. probably one of the many reasons why we get along so well!!

    judy - i agree. this experience reminded me how easily we tend to compartmentalize and/or categorize one another. it made me aware of the ways in which i do that too, darnit. people generally resist being put in boxes & i am no exception! thanks for stopping by; it is good to see you again.

    heather - i agree: baptism, being available to be adorned with the beauty of Christ. it is my hope that that will continue to happen.

    terri - i want to cry as i read what you wrote. you're practically my personality twin, so i know that you get how that felt. and you're right - when God is in it, the enemy is going to feel threatened & go after it in whatever way he can. if one of those ways is by making me feel compartmentalized, you can bet that that is what he's going to do (the jackass!!).

    i'm waiting too ... and wondering.

    di - *sigh* ... and WOW!! i so appreciate your thoughtful reflection here. hind's feet is in that pile of books for me to read & i think now i MUST MUST MUST move it toward the top since my own experience seems to echo the story there.

    i love the thoughtful ways in which you rephrased those common questions ... it's so easy to default to those simple yes/no ones instead of phrasing the question in such a way that it invites a story rather than the yes/no answer.

    blessings to you today!!

    dean - thank you, friend. thank you so much. whether or not you have anything to say, i love your heart & i love that you offer it so freely here.

  13. Beautifully written . . . and elegantly illustrated . . . loved the pictures!

    Sorry I missed your call. :(

    Hope to see your name pop up on my caller ID soon.

  14. WOW...... absolutely gorgeous narrative, kirsten. i felt i was there with you.

    you are coming into this writer skin and it doesn't seem to be a separate entity anymore.... it is YOU!!

    i just want to sit here and linger in the beautiful words..... so i think i will. :)