My family had our Christmas celebration a week early this year to accommodate everyone’s schedule, so Mark invited me to his family’s Christmas dinner. It was a lovely time, with delicious food and fascinating people. I met people I’d heard Mark talking about for years, and found them every bit as interesting as he’d described. When we sat down for dinner I joined a table with Mark’s three sisters, a niece, and two wives of Randa’s husband’s brothers. I loved our conversations about work, introversion, and social media, and the fun of opening our Christmas crackers, sharing the jokes, and trying on the crowns.
A few days later, Mark’s sister Randa posted the picture above of our table on Facebook. It’s funny — when I sat down at the end of the table there was an empty seat next to me, but I figured someone would sit there. Karen, Mark’s sister (in the red crown) noticed I was all alone at the end of the table and tried to draw me in, which I appreciated. But I didn’t feel alone or left out, I just felt happy, surrounded by all those lovely, interesting people. I wasn’t expecting anything, wasn’t needing anything. But what I received was so amazing — great conversation, great food, the warmth of the fire, and even a gold crown. And after the picture was taken Mark’s other sister, Suzy, sat down next to me, filling out the table and completing the circle. It wasn’t until I saw this picture that I saw what Karen had seen — me looking alone and apart. It made me think.
I hadn’t felt alone at the gathering, partly because Mark’s whole family was so loving and welcoming, but partly also because being alone wasn’t the story I was telling myself. But to be in that place, where I could be sitting slightly apart and not feel sad and lonely, really feels like a miracle. I think it is a miracle. Because that was my internal narrative for nearly 40 years, that I was left out, different, doomed to be alone. I felt such pain for so long, when I was alone and when I was with others. Even in my family small things would make me feel slighted and unloved. There was a deep pit of pain at my center, and I spent so much of my life trying to find a community where I would fit in and finally feel at home. I caught glimpses of that community over the years, but could never quite make myself a part of it. In my college fellowship, in seminary, in Maine with friends who had a farmhouse and a band, at Park Street Church, in ministry with InterVarsity, and finally in an actual intentional community in Boston where I lived for seven years. There would be moments of warmth, sitting around a fire singing, or reading from a prayer book, eating a hearty meal, talking about God or literature. But then my inner narrative would kick in and I would feel outside, apart, misunderstood, left out. So as I sat at the table and broke bread with Mark’s family, it felt miraculous to feel whole, to be able to be present and happy without that deep inner pain.
It is a miracle, but it has also taken so much work. The Enneagram helped so much, as did Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, Thomas Merton, and Esther Ekhart. It took years, but I rewrote my story. Instead of a story of someone alone and on the outside I started to tell of someone deeply loved and whole. I told the story of someone who was quirky and a little awkward, but also smart and witty and warm. I told the story of someone who loved being alone and creative, but could bring that solitude and imagination to her relationships. And then I told the story of a woman who could be a home for others, with a crackling fire and prayer books within herself, who could welcome in those who felt alone and outside. And when I learned to stop grasping and to let go of things and people I couldn’t have I found myself surrounded by love and friendships I couldn’t have imagined before.
It is an ongoing lesson, of course, and envy is still my besetting sin. When Randa posted this picture on Facebook I did feel a twinge of loneliness and envy. I wished I had leaned in to the picture and smiled better, wished I had photographic evidence of my inner feeling of inclusion. I wished I could prove to the world that I was “in”, that I was loved. But then I did what I have learned to do, from Henri, from Esther, from the Enneagram: I sat with the feeling without either running from it or letting it define me. I observed it, and asked what it had to teach me. I remembered that I am loved, that I am whole. And then I wrote about it, turned it into prose, transformed it into an essay that can hopefully be a warm, inviting home to my readers: Welcome to your community, welcome to the party. You are loved and whole and part of the family. You are quirky and maybe a little awkward, but we love that about you. Come sit at our table, take the seat by the fire. There is room for you here. We’ve been waiting for you.
If you need help imagining the coziness, here’s some audio from the Gryffindor common room.
If you relate to what I’ve written, you might want to check out Henri Nouwen’s book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom or the practice of contemplative prayer as written about by Thomas Merton. You may also want to check out the Enneagram: Richard Rohr‘s book is a good place to start. (If you relate to envy as your besetting sin you might be a four like me!)