nonsermon #8: my soul

by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

A few months ago, I bought some flowers for my wife. She likes Queen Anne’s Lace, Anne
being her grandmother’s name and their shared favorite flower, but the florist had none, so I settled for a mixture of orange and white flowers, the names of which I have since forgotten. In the months that have followed, I have somehow managed to keep the orange flowers alive (the white not surviving the first month). Or—rather—I should say that I have managed not to kill the orange flowers. They have perhaps survived in spite of me.

For my part, roughly once a week while drinking water I will remember that the flowers—like me—need water to survive. I will fill my glass and share the water with them, letting in the light through the window and realizing that both the light and water are good for me and this plant. I peel away any dead leaves or petals, and I admire the plant’s willpower to survive. New flowers seemingly bloom weekly from the plant: it just won’t quit. I interrogate my role in maintaining the flowers, whether I am good for them or if they could use a better caretaker. I consider that though the flowers were for my wife, I think I get more use out of them. I suppose I have just been wondering how life for the plant carries on, both with and without my attention. And whether even this scant attention does as much for the flowers as it does for my soul.

Nearly one year ago, I began taking notes on what would become eight nonsermons. For several days that crept into weeks and eventually into months, I gathered every possible idea that might have some bearing on the conversations I would soon have with friends on the topic. I began to pay close attention to the ways that people find meaning in the world, using the words of people wiser than me to plant a garden I hoped would translate into personal and communal growth. At the top of the very first page of my notes, I wrote what I found later to be a popular misquote of Walt Whitman: “We were together. I forget the rest.”

The line, taken from “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City,” actually reads, “we were
together—all else has / long been forgotten by me,” but the idea seems, at least at first brush, essentially the same. In fact, Whitman’s speaker in this poem is inundated with the city’s various methods of attention-grabbing, including “shows, architecture, customs, traditions,” all of which try to imprint upon his brain “for future use.” It is only a woman met in that populous city, however, that the speaker remembers—and nothing of the surrounding context.

Reading the misquote, I had thought that Whitman’s speaker remembered only the togetherness and not the details or context of that togetherness. It seems rather that the speaker’s time with the woman was indeed held onto, and the rest of the city forgotten. I appreciate this interpretation, which seems more accurate to the poem’s intent, but I have to be honest—I still like the misquote. I like to believe that even if the details of my relationships may eventually lose their edges in my memory, the people will remain with me in some way.

In other words, what does it matter what my friends and I were doing last summer? If we were helping one another through crises in faith or simply choosing each other over whatever else was going on in our lives? If both could be true? Whatever we did or did not learn, we were together. And that will always be sacred.

After finding my place in a faith community for over twenty-five years, I lost faith—in what, exactly, I still cannot say for sure. I certainly lost faith in the denomination I grew up in. I lost faith in the idea of church for awhile. I lost faith in the answers and convictions I once held dearly, and I lost faith in the idea that those questions were okay so long as I remained the person I was expected to be. 

I confessed to friends and family that I was no longer going to church because I do not know what it does for me anymore, that my friends and I were figuring things out together. Or honoring the process of figuring things out, even if it did not turn into set answers. For myself, I know that in spite of what I lost, I have come to see this reckoning as a leap of faith in itself. Though these writings are but a small drop in the vast sea of written words, they have shaken the small community I call my own. But I trusted that by being honest with the people who love me, they will see me as the real person I am, not the shadows of who I was. That the people who truly care for me will not see me as half of a person but a whole person, broken as I may be.

“We fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live,” wrote Audre Lorde. And it’s true: I feared—and still fear—the visibility I need to live. When this piece of myself was still invisible, I felt unknown—and thus not fully loved—by the people surrounding me. I needed them to see me as I am in order for me to break new ground on who I might be. My heart truly hurts for those who believe that my soul is somehow lost or in contention, but I want to tell them that for the first time in a long time I feel whole, centered, and even happy. Perhaps it would be of comfort for us to practice saying, “We are together. We’ll figure out the rest.”

Last summer, one of our friends—the first to do it—moved across the country and left a space in the group that we never thought would be empty. Around the same time, I read an interview with Vanna White—of Wheel of Fortune fame—that has stuck with me this past year, of all things. She said she never expected that one day she would come into work and the letters would no longer be physical letters to turn, but digital letters to touch.

“I miss turning the letters,” she said.

I told our friend that whatever comes of her cross-country move, however much we might not understand it, at least when she looks back on her life and misses certain parts, she will know that she turned the letters while she could.

I feel that way about last summer, and about our lives together. Since she left, three other friends have moved to chase dreams or be closer to their families, and I know the leaving will continue as a natural result of growing up and apart. We never know when we might lose another friend, or when these nights don’t hold the same meaning for us. Other friends who have moved through our group have found other lives in the same city, and I miss the time we shared. I moved to Dallas and had a group of friends, two of whom I lived with, that I don’t know or speak to now.

Awhile back, my partner and I ran into my old roommate—someone who was once my best friend but somehow became a stranger to me—at the grocery store. I wanted to know what he still carried with him from our friendship, if it meant more to him than how easily we let go tells me it did.

It all makes me wonder if I knew to appreciate turning the letters while I was with them, or if I only realized it much later. And does much later mean too late? Or can we still learn to appreciate the letters while they are ours to turn?

                                                                                  —

I find that people, and our feelings toward them, are much like prayers. At a Bleachers concert, my friends and I spoke of how sacred their shows have become to us, how something comes over the crowd and everyone feels free to just exist in the moment throughout the duration of the show. Jack Antonoff, the singer, said to the crowd that, in the world we live in today, it is a good thing for us to come together and celebrate just that: being together.

He sings, “What I lost in you I will not replace.” It’s a song about one of his sisters, who died at the age of 13, and it reads like a promise and a prayer that we could all make to each other—not to replace the feeling we give to one another, but to hold space for what people mean to us, even after time, distance, circumstances, and even death separate us. In an interview, Antonoff said that his entire career has been revisiting this personal loss and using it to connect to his listeners. When writing a song, he reflects, “I’m thinking very clearly about making someone proud who isn’t here.”

I cannot think of a person in my life who is not trying to make someone proud who is not here: for me it is my grandparents, all of whom I have lost. For my wife it is her father. A lot of devoutly religious people are essentially doing the same with a higher being, and I want to suggest that we can honor the holy in all existence: whether that is God, or those who are gone, or both. These beings we give ourselves in service to are at our core, and they may very well make up the thing we call a soul. To me, it is not blasphemous to see that which is sacred in the people we love: the human is not apart from the created existence that we are called to cherish.

In a set of peculiar vows given in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, a rabbi admonishes a couple: “And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other’s pain, and being present for it.” This is very near to my belief that in holding space for the ghosts that others carry, we are doing the work of helping people to heal, or at least be whole.

I introduced rituals that my group of friends might practice as we honored the holy among us, and one that we practiced was to write our ghosts down on a notecard and pass it to someone else to carry for us. I encouraged the group to write only what they felt comfortable with, to otherwise simply draw a ghost for the carrier to keep close. We then threw our ghosts into a bowl and picked them anonymously.

When I received my ghost, it had no words but upwards of one hundred dots next to the small ghost that was drawn. I keep it on my desk, and I consider it often (recall that to reconsider is rooted in the meaning of the word religion itself). Some questions I ask: Do I know who this ghost belongs to? Does each dot represent a different ghost? Is this ghost hard for this person to articulate?

While considering this ghost, I almost laugh: I cannot even remember if I wrote my own ghost down or simply drew it. I don’t even know what ghost I was thinking about in that particular season of my life. I guess someone else really is carrying it for me, as I am doing for this person.

Of everything summer camp taught me, it taught me to regard what I share here on this earth with others as a miracle taking place daily. Much as I may desire, I do not need to repeat the steps of last summer or continue with the same rituals, but to try to tend to every moment and relationship in my life, to cultivate them like a plant which I understand needs water and light but marvel, too, at its ability to grow—I can know the science of it and still find myself awed by its divine quality of life.

Nick Flynn: “Understanding the miracle, I forget / what it is.” My prayer lately has been this: Let me not try to understand, but merely to marvel.

In March, my best friend of several years, who was my best man, moved four hours away. It was and still is an emotional moment in our lives, as both of us came to expect to see each other every few days and this is now no longer possible. We drove to meet in Austin for a night, where we talked about the loneliness of our recent days, how we expected but could not prepare for this particular shade of sadness.

Something about this friend I’ve always admired is his ability to become friends with anybody. He spent his years in Dallas cultivating so many relationships that he left a large hole in everyone’s lives when he left. But last week I noticed something that had not been apparent to me: several of the people I’ve started spending more time with in his absence I only met because he had first befriended them and later introduced us.

Annie Dillard writes, “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” It’s almost as if my friend was tending a garden all this time, only to ask me to care for it while he’s gone. I am glad to have put myself in the path of his beam.

I’d like to return to that great humanist Kurt Vonnegut one last time, who in many
commencement speeches encouraged graduates to make extended families. He said that the essential argument couples have throughout their relationships, no matter what they think they are arguing about, is this: “You are not enough people.” Vonnegut lamented how small extended families were becoming in our lifetimes, and asked students to commit to reinvigorating them in their generation. This advice has done wonders in my own marriage, as my wife and I have learned that our love for each other only gets better when we share this love with our friends.

Vonnegut also asked his son what advice he would give people. His son said that we should each figure out a way to look at wherever we are, whoever we’re with, and say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Vonnegut repeated the question throughout his addresses, and the phrase became the title of his collected commencement speeches. To me it is not merely sentiment, but an organizing principle of life, a way of giving attention to what matters and treating that attention as sacred.

Where I once shared my faith with many people in my life—most of whom were
Christians—much of what I have shared with my friends in the past year are my doubts. Though intellectually I have known not to see these two concepts as antithetical to each other, I think I am only finally feeling emotionally what it means to tether faith and doubt as a singular, complex pursuit for meaning.

Charles D’Ambrosio: “We are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.” The purpose of my questions is no longer to find an answer, but to see community as an answer in itself. My life is oriented around the ones I love, and daily I choose to reorient myself to the best possible version of myself for such connections to flourish. I have often leaned on my introversion and social anxiety to avoid community, but to honor the holy in my life I must place myself in the path of others’ beams, to allow their light to illuminate my wholeness.

In one of his final essays before his death, James Baldwin wrote of salvation, which he argued had everything to do with how people connect, and truly love, others: “There is absolutely no salvation without love: this is the wheel in the middle of the wheel. Salvation does not divide. Salvation connects, so that one sees oneself in others and others in oneself. It is not the exclusive property of any dogma, creed, or church. It keeps the channel open between oneself and however one wishes to name That which is greater than oneself.”

It only recently crossed my mind that to tell people I had become somehow strained from my lifelong faith, some might think that my salvation was up for debate. Some might worry—with good intentions, to be sure—that I was somehow not “saved.” In a past life, one not so distant from the one I am living now, this may have worried me, too. I am not so arrogant as to say that I do not believe in an afterlife, since I have not experienced death any more than the next living person. I maintain a posture of unknowing: and that I do not know does not mean that I am not humbled before that great mystery before me. (Stephen Colbert recently described faith exactly
as I see it: “My faith approaches a mystery. My faith comes from a place of a need to be
grateful.”)

The fact of my salvation, though, is not my concern, but rather my efforts to bring about that salvation within the communities I belong to. Like Baldwin, I believe in a salvation that is very much tied to what I do or do not do on this earth. I see my salvation as entirely dependent on what I do to connect with others, to open the channel between myself and That which is greater than me. And what I see as That which is greater than me could be the same God I have always worshiped, but I have also been called to see this spirit in every person I encounter. It’s not an either-or question for me: it’s both and all. A phrase I have been carrying: everything is everything.

I have spent the past year opening the channels between myself and That which is greater than me. I am not waiting, like I once did, to feel the spirit of That mystery, but to keep opening the channel and allowing what flows in to come, and see those encounters as the miracle.

I have learned to love deeper this past year. My friends and I have helped each other to love ourselves better, not in spite, but because of, our doubts. My daily work is to honor my students’ wholeness and teach them to love themselves, a character trait the world will try to strip from them every chance it gets. I try to create a safe environment for them to truly be themselves, and impart to them what I wish I had known at their age so that they can skip some hard lessons. I try to remember that they are my community, and my work with them the only small part of the world I am capable of changing for the better, not the big wide world that seems to crumble at every turn. I tell them that though someone else will try to write them off, they are the true authors of their stories, and they must fight to tell that better story. I am daily working to bring a little water and light to the flowers I am tending, to grow and be known and accept love.

I am opening every channel between myself and That which is greater than me, and friends, I truly believe I am starting to see the fruit of my efforts.

You can call it religion, or you can call it a wandering, wayward soul, strayed from the path and lost beyond hope. In the meantime, I’ll be letting the light in wherever it chooses to shine on my life. I’ll be doing it with the people I love and who love me in return, and I won’t worry anymore about those who can’t see me in all of my broken holy wholeness. I have plenty of love over this way, and plenty more to give. I am leaving the windows open for the light to pour in from every direction.

And if on some occasion I see one of my people years from now, after we’ve been separated by time and circumstance, I hope to remember to ask what they still carry from the right now that will someday be back then. And if they should reply, “We were together. I forget the rest,” then so be it. Amen, amen, amen.

notes:
1. Walt Whitman, “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City,” from Leaves of Grass, 1855.
2. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1984).
3. Leopoldine Core, “An Interview with Vanna White, The Believer, May 1, 2018,
https://believermag.com/an-interview-with-vanna-white/.
4. The Bleachers line comes from “Like a River Runs” on Strange Desire.
5. Matthew Schnipper, “Bleacher’s Jack Antonoff is Your Favorite Pop Star’s Secret
Weapon,” Pitchfork, March 31, 2017.

6. Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2016).
7. Nick Flynn, “Homily,” in My Feelings (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2015).
8. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974).
9. Kurt Vonnegut, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? The Graduation Speeches and Other Words
to Live By (New York: RosettaBooks, 2016).
10. Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering (New York: Tin House Books, 2014).
11. James Baldwin, “To Crush a Serpent,” in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings
(New York: Vintage, 2011).

One Comment Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Ben Lewellyn-Taylor and commented:
    My final nonsermon is about my soul, which it has taken me this long to see as whole and not merely broken. Endless gratitude to New South Journal for giving me the space to share this series.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s