This Place That Has Made Us Kin

An Interview with Barbara Brown Taylor



Barbara Brown Taylor preaches, teaches, and writes, most recently about the unity of the spiritual and the natural worlds. An Episcopalian priest, Taylor is a widely sought speaker, professor at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, and was an adjunct professor of spirituality for nine years at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. The author of twelve books, her latest, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, was a New York Times bestseller.  

Taylor lives with her husband on a working farm in the northeast Georgia mountains, and there she finds many occasions to recognize the spiritual in the manual, the sacred in the physical. In An Altar in the World, she links practices like paying attention to one’s surroundings, walking, being with other people, living with a sense of purpose, and engaging in physical labor to a deeper existence.  In other words, she writes, one cannot be fully divine without first being fully human. 

Back in August, Flycatcher assistant editor Jordan Thrasher, a United Methodist minister, traveled to Piedmont College to talk with Barbara about An Altar in the World and the role that place and physicality play in Taylor’s writing—and in her living.

—Kathleen Brewin Lewis, Senior Editor


JORDAN: In Leaving Church, you write about the Irish idea of “thin places.” What are “thin places,” and what is your experience with them? Is your farm a “thin place,” and if so, how? Have you continued to find places where you would put up an altar?

BARBARA: I’ve known thin places all my life, but I didn’t have the language for them until I took a trip to Ireland a few years back. Perhaps I read the phrase in a guidebook—I can no longer remember—but I had the experience long before I had a name for it.  Thin places are transparent places or moments, set apart by the quality of the sunlight in them, or the shadows, or the silence, or the sounds—see how many variations there are?  What they have in common is their luminosity, the way they light an opening between this world and another—I’d say “between this world and the next,” but that makes it sound like one world has to end before the next one can begin, and a thin place doesn’t work like that.  It works to make you more aware of the thin veil between apparent reality and deeper reality.  It works to pull aside the veil for just a moment, so you can see through.

Sometimes I know I’m in a thin place because it feels like the floor just dropped two or three levels beneath my feet and set me down in a deeper place. They can open up just about anywhere, but some of the most reliable places on the farm are near running water—there are three springs on the place—or near sleepy animals.  Feeding the horses at night under a sky full of stars never fails to pull back the veil for me.  Saying good night to the chickens does the same thing.  I walk in there and they’re all chuckling to each other in the dark, fluffing up their feathers for the night, and it’s all I can do not to try to climb on a perch with them. 

But thin places aren’t always lovely places, and they’re not always outdoors.  Hospital rooms can be thin places.  So can emergency rooms and jail cells.  A thin place is any place that drops you down to where you know you’re in the presence of the Really Real—the Most Real—God, if you insist.

JORDAN: Does time factor in to a thin place?

BARBARA: I think time vanishes in a thin place. When you go to an “official” thin place like Jerusalem or Rome, it’s like the centuries melt away.  You could turn a corner and run into Jesus or Peter.  But it’s the same way in the barn or the chicken house.  Creaturely life has been going on in places like those for centuries, whether or not anyone is there to notice.  There’s a sanctity to the rhythms of life in them that defies the clock, so that when you step into them yourself it’s easy to lose track of time.  I have heard artists talk about “flow,” and I’ve heard athletes talk about “being in the zone.”  Being in a thin place has that same quality of timelessness to it—or maybe what I’m describing is eternal life—not the kind that comes after this life but the kind that is available in this life from time to time, at least for those with a little time to spend looking for a thin place.

JORDAN: Do you seek thin places, or do you find them by accident?

BARBARA: I’ve always loved to travel, and the places I’ve been drawn to are all pilgrimage places of sorts—Jerusalem, Machu Picchu, Lalibela, Kathmandu—so yes, I do seek thin places, both at home and abroad.  Plus, I’m always finding them by accident.  One of the thinnest places I’ve been lately was in line at the Clarkesville Post Office.  There was this red-headed child ahead of me, waiting for her grandmother to finish buying stamps.  I could see she was bored, so I smiled at her.  That made her bold enough to pick up my right hand and turn it over in both of hers, looking hard at all the dings and freckles on both sides “How’d you get that hurt?” she asked, touching an old puncture wound near my thumb.  I told her I had hurt it on a piece of chicken wire.  Without saying another word she leaned over and kissed the hurt place.  Then she found another hurt place to kiss, and another.  I thought I’d fall straight through that thin place.

JORDAN: Is your farm still a thin place?

BARBARA: It really is. My husband and I totally lucked out when we found it—an old cow pasture nine miles from town, at the dead end of a dirt road. At night, there’s not an artificial light in sight—no house lights, no street lights—just a long, dark tree line backed up by the silhouette of Mount Yonah against acres of sky.  And it’s just as good in the morning.  Most days I can’t walk to the mailbox without seeing at least three amazing things—a spider’s web hung with dew, an ant with red rings around its belly, a hawk diving for a mouse. It’s incredible what you can see if you look.

JORDAN: Have you continued to find places where you want to put up an altar?

BARBARA: Yes, all the time, though I should probably clarify that I don’t actually haul rocks around and make little tables out of them.  That might be fun—to look out and see a whole field full of stone pillars—but it would also put a human stamp on something that looks fine just the way it is.   When I talk about putting up an altar, I mean something that happens in my heart when I feel reverence for a place, or a person, or a creature that is showing me something important about what it means to be alive.  That’s when the ground under my feet drops down a couple of levels and I’m moved to do something in response to what I’ve just been shown. Sometimes that calls for kneeling and sometimes for lying all the way down.  Other times it can be as simple as saying a blessing prayer—a prayer that recognizes the holiness in things whether they happen to be lovely or not. Some of the ugliest things in the world are just waiting for someone to say a blessing over them.
 
JORDAN: You said recognizing the holy as opposed to making things holy. As humans do you think we too often desire to put our stamp on places? Or could it be a need? A need to mark our control in the world?

BARBARA: It certainly could be, couldn’t it? Any time I want to neaten things up, I try to stop and count to ten first. When I moved to the farm in 1994 and was still getting used to having a hundred acre “yard,” a tree would fall and I would think I needed to go get the chainsaw and neaten it up.  It took a while, but I got over that.  I learned that in ten or fifteen years the wood would go back to the earth, and meanwhile it would give the woodpeckers something to do. In that sense, I got over the wish to neaten things up and make them conform to my sense of beauty or order. And yet, there are other times when I find myself standing next to a bush with two long tendrils rising out of it and I can’t stop myself from twirling them around each other so they make a circle that wasn’t there before. Maybe that’s the human wish to participate, to leave a thumbprint on something so someone will know you had a hand in it?  Maybe that’s why pilgrims add stones to the cairns they see along the way.  It’s their way of saying: I was here. Here is my mark, my visible prayer.

JORDAN: What is the significance of “place” in Irish culture and history? You said that the phrase “thin place” named something you have already felt.  What have you encountered in your studies of Irish culture regarding sense of place?

BARBARA: I’ve studied the religious history of the British Isles—Druid, before the Christians came—with stone circles and sacred groves serving as places of worship. That helps explain the sanctity of “place” in Irish culture for me. After the Christians came and built churches, some of the old places were labeled “pagan” but I don’t think that stopped the locals from going there.  They just learned to keep their mouths shut when clergy were around. But even the clergy loved their wild places. If you’ve ever tried to visit the Skellig Islands, you know that paying your money and getting on the boat doesn’t mean you’re ever going to visit the monastery.  The sea may let you and it may not.  The waves may be beating too hard for the boat to dock, so that all you get to do is look at the Skelligs—but that’s the truth, isn’t it?  You can’t always touch holy things.  Sometimes it’s too dangerous to get that close to them, and all you get to do is look.  I loved how hard it was to get to the Skelligs. There was nothing easy about it, which made it that much more memorable. 
 
JORDAN: The speed of travel has definitely taken its toll on lots of places.

BARBARA: Yes.  I wanted to make an Atlantic crossing in a boat this summer, so I could get a feel for the real size of the ocean.  Flying over it in seven hours doesn’t do it justice.   The crossing didn’t happen, but I did get to spend two weeks on a boat, which gave me a fresh sense of how moving water can be its own kind of thin place. If you’re not paying attention, then the open sea looks like the same gray expanse every day, but if you really look at it, it’s changing every second.  You can look at it, in it, and through it, all at the same time.

JORDAN: What are you teaching this year?

BARBARA: I teach an introduction to world religions every semester, which I think of as my vocation now. I wish I could re-title it “Religious Literacy 101,” because that speaks more to the point of the course.  The world is too small for us to ignore each other any longer, yet most of us know next to nothing about any religion but our own—or the one that is dominant where we live.  We buy stereotypes about people of other faiths because we don’t know any better, and then the stereotypes themselves keep us in our cages.  How can we love our neighbors without knowing what our neighbors hold sacred?  I teach world religions as part of my Christian practice.  It’s my way of making peace.

The other course I’m teaching this term is called “Reading and Writing Spiritual Memoir.” It’s cross-listed in English and Religion, so I’ve met students who might never have signed up for a class in Bible or theology. During the first half of the course they’ll read Donald Miller, Lauren Winner, and Eboo Patel, among others—youngish writers, to help youngish students find their voices.  Then during the second half they will write, write, and re-write their own first-person essays for a national project called “This I Believe.”  I can’t think of a better way for them to refine what they believe than to put it down on paper.

JORDAN: What role does “place” have in your writing?

BARBARA: There are so many ways to answer that. In the first place, I am aware of how important my physical location is to what I am writing.  I can write essays in a chair in my bedroom, and I can write letters in a chair in the living room, but if I want to work on a book then I have to go to the woods.  I have a little cabin about five minutes from my house—twelve by twelve feet, with no plumbing or electricity.  It is mostly windows, with a little stone fireplace along one wall that barely keeps the place above freezing when it’s cold outside.  But the minute I walk through the door, the words have absolutely no competition. There is no telephone there, no washer, dryer, dishwasher, checkbook, or computer. There is nothing there but a chair, eight windows, and all those lovely words.  So, there’s that. A writer is physically in a place when he or she is writing, and that place matters.  Another way physical place figures in my writing is by functioning as a kind of magnet for memories and associations. When I was writing Leaving Church I was having a hard time organizing the book until a friend suggested that I think of one physical place that was essential to each leg of the journey and then invite the material to congregate in those places.  That worked like a charm. The three places were the altar at Grace-Calvary Church, the front porch of my home, and my classroom at Piedmont College.  Once I set those “magnets” in place, the material went where it was supposed to go.

Finally, I would say that physical places function like time machines for me.  When I am outdoors on the farm I am very aware of all the beings who have preceded me. One day I am walking where I have always walked and all of a sudden there is an arrowhead poking out of the ground—a reminder of the Cherokee people who lived here for centuries before me.  Then I come upon the partial skeleton of a deer, whose flesh nourished the mushroom that is growing through its rib bones.  Then I see the tracks of what can only be a great blue heron, and a little beyond that, a turkey feather, just a few feet away from the ruins of an old still.   There might as well be a guest book nailed to a tree, with a hundred signatures already on it.  When I add mine, the place goes thin on me.  If I hold really still, I can hear us all breathing together, in this place that has made us kin.  Someone worked here, someone fed here, someone died here—so much happened here before I ever arrived!

JORDAN: And it will continue to be here after we are not here

BARBARA: Oh, we do need to remember that, don’t we?  We are transients too!

JORDAN: I appreciate how much you write about physicality. It’s something I’ve always noticed is absent in a lot of churches. For instance, in Altar in the World, you talk about the woman who freaks out a little bit when you talk about how much skin Jesus is showing in the stained glass window. You’ve always highlighted the physical nature of humans and places and faith. What role does the physical have in a person’s faith?

BARBARA: The body is its own kind of physical place, is it not?  Last week at the Raleigh airport I was trying to find my gate when I looked up and saw a woman sitting in a very small chair holding a very new child in her lap.  That baby was so buried in his mother’s flesh that he looked like a sleepy little town snuggled in the valley of a comfortable mountain.  His mother was as much a place as a person for him just then.  She was the center of his earth

At the writerly level, I’m aware of the ways in which body language builds bridges between my readers and me.  While it’s possible that you may find some of my abstract thoughts interesting, I stand a much better chance of connecting with you if I can remind you why you like carrot cake better than pound cake, or what a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade tastes like on an afternoon in late July. Once language like that has done its work, then you and I are better equipped to talk about things that matter—but I think it’s important to establish the physical connection first. 

At the religious level, I think that being Christian has made me more aware of body language. There’s something about being a follower of the Word made flesh that makes you more attentive to flesh—and not just human flesh but the physical bodies of all created things.  One of the fundamental truths of the Abrahamic faiths is that matter matters to God.  So of course it matters to me.

JORDAN: You are a minister in the South, where churches are ubiquitous. Flannery O’Connor has the great quote about how the South is not so much “Christ-centered” as “Christ-haunted.” What effect do these things have on your writing? And does the South, and particularly north Georgia, have a distinct voice in the overall conversation in regard to religion, faith, and spirituality?

BARBARA: Yes it does.  I should mention that while I have lived most of my life in the South, I spent a few years in the Midwest growing up and another three in New England while I was going to graduate school.  This accounts for my accent, which sounds Southern to Northerners and Northern to Southerners.  It also accounts for what I can only call my final surrender to the South.  After graduate school I decided that I did not want to be a Southerner anymore.  It was too hot, there weren’t enough bookstores, and nobody I voted for ever got elected.  So I moved back to New England and lasted exactly three months.  Who knew I would miss the cicadas so much—or the pines, the humidity, and the stories?  In the South, no one ever asks you if you have time to hear the whole story.  They just start telling it.  So I came back, and while everything that used to drive me crazy still drives me crazy, I have surrendered.  I am like that child in his mother’s lap at the airport.  I know my place on earth.

As for churches being ubiquitous: yes, they are.  As recently as a week ago, I could count nine churches on my way home from school—one per mile.  Then last week I noticed a new Independent Baptist Church sign in town, so now there are ten.  Most of the messages on these church signs make me wish I were a Buddhist, but every now and then there’s a good one, like, “Having trouble sleeping?  Try one of our sermons!”  Pastors still write regularly for the bi-weekly newspaper here.  Restaurants are still empty on Wednesday nights.  When I travel to Canada or the West Coast, it always takes me a little while to get my balance because religion isn’t nearly as heavily weighted there as it is here. 

A few years ago I did a talk for a Piedmont conference called “Red Letters in Red Clay.” Since Flycatcher is a Southern journal I probably don’t have to explain the references, but the red letters have to do with the color of Jesus’ words in certain editions of the Bible, and red clay is the color of the dirt here. I chose the topic because I wanted to figure out why the Bible still holds so much power in the South.  The short answer is: the Civil War. 

I never really thought about it before, but Southerners are the only Americans who have ever lost a war—on their own soil, no less—which makes the biblical themes of sin, fall, judgment and redemption read differently in the South than they read in other places.  Even Southerners who know their side was wrong still live with the ghosts of all those dead soldiers under their feet.  Even young people who can’t name a single battle still live with the ghosts of those ghosts.  I’m no Civil War buff, not at all, but when a Southerner talks about “the War,” even I have to stop and think which one they mean.

JORDAN: How did you begin writing, and what inspired you to pursue that vocation in your life?

BARBARA: I wrote as soon as I could hold a pencil. I grew up with parents who valued books, and who taught me to treat them with care. In my house, you didn’t write in books, you didn’t set wet glasses on dust covers, you didn’t turn down the corners of pages. My parents took me to public libraries, not churches, so reverence for the word came naturally to me, and early.

I have always loved language—the way it can sound, the places it can take you—and I have always worked hard to write the best words I could.  When I was in high school, my English teacher wrote, “You have a way with words” at the end of my book report on Moby-Dick. I wanted to frame that and put it on a wall, because a way with words was what I most wanted to have.  Though I wouldn’t have used this language at the time, that teacher’s praise worked like a blessing on me. He might as well have laid hands on me.

At some point, I began to engage creative writing intentionally, with some hope of becoming a published writer of poetry or fiction. I got very methodical about submission letters, cover letters, going to poets’ and writers’ conferences, and finding out which magazines accepted what kind of writing.  I would stuff brown manila envelopes full of perfect offerings, take them to the post office and mail them, keeping track of how long they had been gone and when I could expect to hear back from the editors.  I collected an impressive file of rejection slips—including a handwritten one from Lewis Lapham at Harper’s!—but I never published a thing beyond a couple of poems in a local broadsheet.

To make a very long story short, I took a part time job in a church after seminary, was invited to preach my first sermon at some small service during Holy Week, and afterwards someone came up to me and asked for a copy of that sermon . It wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized I had just “sold” my first short story.  Someone wanted to read what I had written! Either that, or they couldn’t understand a word I had said and wanted to find out if it made any more sense on paper. So that was it.  The train left the station and I spent the next twenty years writing in and for the church.  I found my audience.  I found a way to use language that seemed to work for some people and it is only now—nearer the end of my life than the beginning—that I’m turning back to creative writing again.  The last two books have been memoirs.  The next one will have more natural history in it.  Then I’d like to see if I could write some fiction again.  I have put out the call to the cosmos: “If there is anyone out there looking for a writer to channel your story, come see me—I’m available!”  Now I’m just waiting to see if the Muse will show up.  
 
JORDAN: You've lived many places in your life—Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, Alabama, Atlanta, and now northeast Georgia.  How do you know you've found your place? Where is home? What is the connection, and are there any notable differences, between one’s place and one’s home?

 BARBARA: Here’s a metaphor: I’ve been happily married to a man I love dearly for thirty years now.  In many ways I cannot imagine being married to anyone else.  But at another level I’m pretty sure that I could have married several different men and stayed happily married to at least a couple of them for the same number of years.  I’m not sure that came out right, but you know what I mean.  But that’s not what I did.  I chose this particular man for my heart’s home.  I invested in him, and accepted everything he gave back to me.  So he’s my home.  Is he my only possible home?  No.  But he’s my one true home. In the same way, I think I could have chosen a different place to live—near an ocean, in a desert, on an island, in a city—and made that my home, too, but that’s not what I did. I chose this place in north Georgia to make my home. I invested in it, and accepted everything it has given back to me.  So this is my one true home, and I’m staying here as long as I can.

JORDAN: In the introduction to An Altar in the World, you seem to define spirituality, which you distinguish from religion, as a longing for more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life.  There is more to life than what meets the eye.  More in nature, in love, in art, and in grief.  A deeper reality.  And you believe that this "more" is found in everyday activities in the place where one dwells.  Tell me about some of your everyday activities—how you attend to your daily life so that you find “more.”
 
BARBARA: I think I understand what people mean when they say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” but I’m not sure I could be a spiritual person if religion had not taught me how. Of course a lot depends on how you define “spiritual” and “religious.”  I define “spiritual” as being committed to living in relationship with the spirit—you can capitalize that if you want—that animates everything that lives, both in the visible world and the invisible one.  I define “religious” as being allied with one of the great historical traditions that has kept track of its successes and failures at being spiritual over time.  If I had not learned the stories, the songs, the rituals, and the teachings of a particular religion, then I am not sure how I would have learned how to recognize the spirit or stay tuned to it. I am as disappointed as anyone else in how the members of my religion have behaved, but even our most spectacular failures have taught us things we need to know.

One thing I really like about the great religious traditions is how they all have self-critique built into them. Mine, for instance, has teachings about taking the log out of my own eye before I try to take the speck out of yours, and not judging others lest I be judged.  I’m not sure that pure, unaffiliated spirituality has that kind of self-critique built into it. 

I also like sacraments, which use real physical things like bread, wine, oil, and water to convey real spiritual things like grace, remorse, pardon, and rebirth.  Those spiritual realities aren’t much more than words until someone acts them out.  That’s where the everyday activities come in.  As important as the sacraments that happen in churches may be, it’s the everyday sacraments that keep life going—baking casseroles to take to people who are sick, chopping wood to make fires to keep children warm, hauling water for thirsty animals when the rain doesn’t come—taking hold of all those real, physical things that are all around us every day and using them in ways that sustain more lives than our own.  That’s what my religion taught me, anyhow.  If you want to know God, get to know your neighbor.  If you want to serve God, do something concrete to make that neighbor’s day.   Act on that and you won’t have to wait long to discover the “more” in everything you do.

JORDAN: That is something I think about a lot. That Jesus promoted mindfulness when so many people in popular religious talk speak of mindlessness.

BARBARA: It means a lot to me that Jesus walked wherever he went, except on Palm Sunday.  He rode a donkey for a while that day, but as far as we know he walked everywhere else, didn’t he? That gave him lots of opportunity to be mindful of where he was, and who was walking with him.  Gandhi did the same thing.  At some point in his life he stopped riding in cars.  He started walking everywhere instead, just like his low caste neighbors did.  There’s huge solidarity in that.  The speed of walking is so different from the speed of riding in a car or even riding a bicycle. There’s a lot you can’t ignore when you’re walking, so the fact that Jesus was a pedestrian really matters me.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on that.

JORDAN: You also write, "All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need.  The only thing that is missing is our consent to be where we are."  How does one go about giving oneself consent?
 
BARBARA: One reason I resist using the metaphor of “being on a journey” for living a spiritual life is because being on a journey implies that you’re not “there” yet.  Your destination is always ahead of you somewhere, still out of sight over the horizon—and I don’t think that’s helpful.  In that scenario, you’re always somewhere short of where you’re supposed to be, which gives you the best excuse in the world to ignore where you really are.  Why invest yourself in this place—in this job, in these neighbors, in this community—if you haven’t reached your final destination yet?  Why not save yourself for “there”—wherever “there” is?

That’s why I think it’s important to look down at your feet from time to time and at least try saying, “Well, this seems to be where I am, so why don’t I make my home here?  Looks like I finally arrived!” Why are we so reluctant to be where we really are? 

JORDAN: In a poem from his collection Given, Wendell Berry writes: "There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places." How might these lines connect to your life and work? How might they connect to the themes of your writing, particularly in Altar?

BARBARA: The first thing that comes to mind is that there is no in between—the sacred and the desecrated places, I mean.  When I let that line wash over me (God bless Wendell Berry), the first thing I have to do is to take responsibility for places I’ve had a hand in desecrating.  Maybe I didn’t do it with a bulldozer, but I still did it—with my credit cards, my investments, my utility bills, my travel.  I have to own up to my own part in desecrating the sacred places.  Until I let that hit me, I’m not sure I can appreciate what makes a sacred place different—or what I can do to protect it.

Beyond that, Berry’s experience matches mine.  All any place needs is someone to show up and say, surely God was in this place and I did not know it. Or someone to show up and say, this poor place has been so desecrated—how can I be part of its healing?  The thing is, that’s an expensive question.  You can’t ask it and expect to be told that if you just pray about it, or recycle, then everything will turn out all right.  If we really want to be part of making the desecrated places sacred again, then it’s going to cost us.  As far as I can tell, most of us would rather die than change the way we live.  

If we decide to turn around, then maybe we can learn something from the Jews.  A Jewish student taught me that tikkun olam—the mending of the world—is the duty of every person in covenant with God.  It’s the duty of every community of people in covenant with God, because mending the world is too big a job for any one person to do alone.  No one can heal a river all by herself.  That takes a village. We got where we are together, so we’ll have to find the way out together too
 
JORDAN: Could you speak a little more on the influence of Wendell Berry on your life and writing? You mention him, for example, in Altar, writing about how you used his “Sabbath Poems” in one of your classes.

BARBARA: He is among those writers whom I read to remember the power of language. He is on a short list, a really short list, because he can write essays, fiction, and poetry equally well.  He’s also an effective speaker. It’s not fair that one person can do so many things well! But it’s his ability to notice where he is—to notice the soul of the place he is in and to write about it so well—that increases my ability to do the same thing. When I first read Annie Dillard, she had the same effect on me.  When she wrote about the tree with lights in it, I was better equipped to see the lights in my own trees. That’s a wonderful gift: to see things so well that you help other people see better, too. 

JORDAN: Who are some other writers, particularly place-based writers, who have influenced you and your writing?  And what are you reading right now?

BARBARA: I really need to keep a list because I can never remember the title of the book I am reading right now.  Wait!  I’m reading a novel called And the Word Was by Bruce Bauman that is set in India. Every night, I go to sleep in India.  As I plan my reading, I try to alternate novels set in this country with novels set in other countries.  That way I move around the world on a regular basis.  On this continent, the place-based writers who come quickly to mind (other than the ones we have already talked about) are Terry Tempest Williams, Edward Abbey, Reynolds Price, Gretel Ehrlich, and Farley Mowatt.  If you let me check my bookshelves, I could come up with more, but those are the ones that come immediately to mind.  I’ve just discovered a new nature writer named Barbara Hurd whose work I really like.  And of course the minute you open the list to poets, Mary Oliver zooms to the top.  What a gift she has for being where she is!

JORDAN: Talk with me a bit about a word you use a lot—the word "reverence." What is the relationship between reverence and belonging to a place?

BARBARA: “Reverence” is another word I found later in life, to describe an experience I already knew very well. The experience is about being in the presence of something greater than you that you know you have no power to control. That could be God. It could also be a thunderstorm, or a grizzly bear. Maybe that’s too vague or secular for some people, but I think it’s very helpful to stand in the presence of something you know you have no power to control.  An experience like that can put you in your place.  It can remind you of your true size, which is what reverence does.  Reverence also moves in the direction of gratitude, because once you remember your true size and realize that you are still alive in the presence of powers you cannot control, thanksgiving should be the next thing on your to-do list.

I can think of plenty of places that inspire reverence in me—places that drop me to my knees—like the north rim of the Grand Canyon, or Times Square, or my own front yard on a night with no moon.  Then there are those other kinds places we talked about earlier that are inside but just as powerful—hospital rooms, labor and delivery rooms, places where people are being born and dying.  There’s not much control you can exercise in places like those either, but you can still be reverent.  You can still give thanks for being there to see it, and maybe even to be of some use.  That’s a choice each of us always has, I think: to be reverent or not, to be present or not.  There are enough distractions these days that even being present can take heroic effort.  As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s true.  Just call me on my cell phone and I’ll crash my car trying to answer you.  How ridiculous is that?

JORDAN: You also write and talk about "becoming fully human."  I'm going to read from the chapter on “The Practice of Living with Purpose" from Altar: "To become fully human means learning to turn my gratitude for being alive into some concrete common good.  It means growing gentler toward human weakness.  It means practicing forgiveness of my and everyone else's hourly failures to live up to divine standards.  It means learning to forget myself on a regular basis in order to attend to the other selves in my vicinity.  It means living so that 'I'm only human' does not become an excuse for anything.  It means receiving the human condition as blessing and not curse, in all its achingly frail and redemptive reality."  And that seems what much of your writing is about:  taking all these feelings and putting them into action, creating something concrete, making being human count for something.  How do we embrace our human-ness, and what prevents us from doing that?

BARBARA: I hope my books cover that in more detail than I can give you right now.  What prevents us from being fully human?  Our certain knowledge of our own frailty and our wish to protect ourselves from that.  Our deep desire to be right—whatever that means—and our subsequent separation from people whom we believe to be wrong.  Our one-size-fits-all fear, which keeps us captive in places far too small for fully human spirits to thrive. It always comes down to fear for me—not just my fearfulness about being hurt, but also my fear about being the kind of person who will hurt other people to keep them from hurting me. 

What came to mind while you were reading that passage is a quote from Irenaeus of Lyons, an early bishop of the Christian church.  “The glory of God,” he wrote, “is a human being fully alive.” If that’s true, then it’s not just good news for Christians.  It’s good news for anyone who loves being alive and wants to be even more alive than he or she already is. 

 JORDAN: And speaking of Irenaeus, the physical was huge for him!
 
BARBARA:  Yes, it was—just as it was huge for plenty of Christian mystics.  As I said earlier, it’s hard to be a follower of the Word made flesh without taking flesh seriously.   Matter matters to God.

JORDAN: Speaking of Iranaeus, in a modern translation of a poem called “Capable Flesh,” Iranaeus says, "The flesh is not to be excluded from the wisdom and power that now and ever animates all things." And then at the end of Altar in the World you quote Rumi who said “there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” You believe that the physical—human flesh, the earth itself—is as important as the spiritual, and the two go hand-in-hand. Can we be ‘only human’ and still be part of the divine? What are the implications of this on one's sense of ‘nativity,’ truly belonging to one’s place, whatever that happens to be?

BARBARA:  My flesh is made of where I live right now. My well only goes down thirty feet, so I live off water that runs close to the surface.  When it doesn’t rain, I don’t have water to boil for tea in the morning (or anything else).  My guess is that the minerals in my water are different from the minerals in yours, so maybe our bones are different because of that.  Right now I’m eating at least one heirloom tomato a day since they’re coming in from the garden by the bushel.  Next month it will be green beans, and the month after that it will be collards.  The eggs my chickens lay have orange yolks from the bugs they pluck from the fields around my house.  In short, I live by the grace of the land on which I live, which surely makes me a native of this place.

I don’t think it’s any different for my friends who live in the city—or my eighty-three-year-old mother, who grows a few Beefsteak tomatoes and some fresh tarragon in plastic pots on her porch. We are all nourished—or malnourished—by the places in which we live, and no one is too poor or too hemmed in to plant a seed in a plastic pot.  That’s all you really need to practice reverence on a regular basis—just plant a seed and watch it grow—oh, and maybe invite the neighbors over for tomato sandwiches before the summer ends. 


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