Normally, a background section gives an historical narrative of an author’s personal and professional life. But I like this interview, done years ago by a web magazine in Washington D.C. I’ve updated it a tiny bit to reflect changes in my life. I find it more informative and full of life than a standard bio. I hope you agree.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I was born and raised near Minneapolis. Perhaps the most formative experience of my childhood was going out with my father, who worked for the Red Cross, when he went to help victims of fires and floods who had lost their homes, their possessions, and, sometimes, their families. He would get the same calls as the fire department, and we would often arrive simultaneously, often in the deepest night, and confront the same tragedies the police and firemen confronted, only our responsibility was to provide aid and comfort. These experiences gave me a profound understanding of human suffering and hope, and left me with an indelible belief in a life of service. They also taught me how fragile our good fortune is, and how lucky and blessed I have been to live the life I’ve lived.
After high school I went to the University of Minnesota in American Studies, then to Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities, then to Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where I received a Ph.D. in conjunction with the University of California at Berkeley. My doctorate was in Religious Studies and Art. For many years I devoted my life to creating over-life sized sculptures from tree trunks. My heroes and mentors were Michelangelo, Donatello, and Rodin, all of whose works I had the good fortune to study in person while living for a time in Europe.
After returning to Minnesota, I moved north to the pine and lake country near the Canadian border, where my wife and I got married and have lived ever since. For several years I worked on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation helping students collect the memories of the tribal elders. This changed my life and introduced me to the native spiritual traditions that have become so central to the message in my writings.
I switched to writing from sculpture about 20 years ago when I realized that I could reach more people as a writer and that I had skills in that area.
My work has been a constant search, from various perspectives, for an authentic American spirituality, integrating our western Judeo-Christian tradition with the other traditions of the world, and especially the indigenous spirituality of the people who first inhabited this continent. Someone once called me a “guerilla theologian,” and I think that is fairly accurate. I am deeply concerned with the human condition and our responsibility to the earth, the people on it, and the generations to come. I believe that we are, at heart, spiritual beings seeking spiritual meaning, and I try to honor this search wherever I discover it in the course of my daily life.
My wife and I live on a beautiful lake in northern Minnesota, where on good days we can listen to the whispering of the birches and the cries of the loons on the lake, and on bad days we huddle against -40 degree temperatures and winds swirling like banshees outside our window. We share our house with an earnest and loving yellow lab and the hallowed memory of an irascible orange cat, whose passing has taken away one of my great sources of solace on days when my writing is going badly.
I have four children – three who came in the “package deal” with my wife, each wonderful and interesting in his or her own right, and each now into adulthood and building careers and family. The fourth, my biological son, is currently a student at Evergreen College in Washington state.
We have two grandchildren and a third on the way, and their presence has opened up a wellspring of joy every bit as deep as the joy that comes from the love of a child.
Your writing seems very poetic in style. Is this something you do consciously, or is this just the way the words flow out?
I take the music of language very seriously. Like a heartbeat, it exists right below consciousness, but it animates and infuses your language with life. As both a reader and a writer, I tend to subvocalize, thus making my pacing and thoughts more auditory than conceptual. I want the sentences to aspirate and pulsate with cadence and internal music. A good sentence should sound good and feel good and roll comfortably off your tongue, not simply serve as a conveyor for ideas.
Who inspires you?
Donatello, Rilke, Nelson Mandela, Black Elk, Bach, Mahler, Lao Tzu, good elementary school teachers, caring nursing home workers, and anyone who spends time with people who can offer them no benefit.
You quote the Sioux writer Ohiyesa in “Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life.” Do you have a favorite quote or thought of his?
I constantly hark back in my own life to his comment about spirituality: “Whenever, in the course of our day, we might come upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime – the black thundercloud with the rainbow’s glowing arch above the mountain; a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of sunset – we pause for an instant in an attitude of worship.” This, it seems to me, is the key to a humble appreciation of the gift of life we have been given and a proper way of honoring the Great Mystery we have come to call God.
What makes you hopeful about the future?
I am hopeful for human beings because I believe that, at heart, we all seek the same thing – a chance to love and be loved, to raise good children, and to live in peace with our neighbors and families. That we so consistently fail to do so is troubling. And I admit to being deeply upset by the selfishness that is abroad in our own land – believing that we must look out first and foremost for ourselves (though perhaps that may be changing) – and the tendency, both here and abroad, to use religious belief to justify cruelty toward others.
Do you have a favorite writer or book?
I love Graham Greene, Jim Harrison, Annie Dillard, and Rainer Maria Rilke.
When you write, do you ever feel that something greater than yourself is providing the words or ideas?
Alas, no. I wish I did. But I do believe that we are all God’s hands here on earth, and that in and through my writing I must endeavor to do God’s work, however one chooses to define or give a shape to God. I do know that there are moments when writing feels like a walk in a beautiful garden, and the joy of discovery is everywhere around me. At those times I feel myself in the presence of something close to Grace, though it seems more like a gift that I must honor than a channeling of some outside force.
You write about experiences you’ve had that suggest you’ve studied with various spiritual traditions. What’s been particularly helpful or pivotal in your path?
I love the Beatitudes from the Christian tradition, the use of natural forces as analogy in the Taoist tradition, and the spiritual commitment to the power of the earth in the Native American traditions. I believe we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, that the ways of force and acquiescence shown in nature must govern an integrated and balanced life, and that each person must, indeed, find his or her own spiritual path and live each day with an attitude of prayerful awareness.
In the Washington DC area, it seems like we’re out of balance a lot, that we haven’t found a way to live that responds to the reality that we find ourselves in since September 11. It’s as if we’re ignoring something and internalizing more and more stress. What do you think is missing?
Washington’s a tough place. Culture – and in your city’s case, political culture – is stronger than nature. People come there to exercise far reaching power and get swallowed up in that awesome responsibility. They are asked to do ethical work without the spiritual nourishment that comes from reflection and powerlessness. The result is that people become too wrapped up in trying to be leaders while losing the true vision of the need to be servants. This is painting with a broad brush, I know. But I think there is at least a kernel of truth here. When you live in a world of square corners, both physically and metaphorically, you lose some of the natural rhythm of life. And when you live in a place that is built upon the creative tension of opposition, it is hard to resist becoming angry, or at least, frustrated. It is the rare person who can live through a day of constant administrative or political pressure and keep a primary focus on the need to be kind. Unfortunately, without kindness, which is the more gentle and generalized expression of love, life gets out of balance. I know I couldn’t do it. But I also know that the world occasionally offers up individuals who can transcend the life of strategy and tactics and administrative necessity and maneuvering, and can wield power with vision and kindness. When such a person arises, it is in Washington D.C. that he or she can do the greatest service for us all.
Do you recommend spending time in nature?
Let me quote Ohiyesa again. “All who have lived much out of doors, whether Indian or otherwise, know that there is a magnetic and powerful force that accumulates in solitude but is quickly dissipated by life in a crowd.” We should all seek the healing and clarifying power of nature so that our spiritual focus and power is not allowed to dissipate.
You talk about the importance of ritual in “Small Graces”. Are there any rituals or practices you’d recommend to someone seeking a more spiritually focused life?
Prayer – not as petition, but as reflection and contemplation. Mentoring. Service with no thought of recognition. I know these are not specific. But each person must find his or her specific expression of these general principles. Helping a child or an elder or someone in need will do more for one’s spiritual focus than closing any deal or building any building or achieving any position of fame or celebrity.
Do you believe that “coincidences” may be more than that?
I believe in the subtle power of intention – again, like the Taoist belief in the slow, inexorable power of water – and I believe that the miracle of life cannot be accidental. As to whether there is a force that guides our every move and shapes outcomes for some greater or smaller purpose, I don’t occupy myself with that thought. All I know is that I must be God’s hands on earth, and I must express thanks for the goodness that befalls me. Whether my actions are guided or determined is not something I contemplate.
Do you believe in miracles?
Interventionist miracles? I’m not sure. The general miracles of two people creating a child, the impenetrability of death, the endlessly renewing human experience of love? Yes. I guess I believe that God embedded the miraculous in the ordinary, and it is our task to discover it and celebrate it.
Do you ever imagine some sort of ideal world somewhere in the future? What’s it like?
I am less a visionary than a caretaker. I have seen too much sadness and injustice to have any faith in an ideal world. I admire those who do, and I believe they are the ones who should lead us. But I am more concerned with the alleviation of human suffering and the fostering of human kindness than I am with overall visions.
You have a lot of wonderful quotes at the beginning of each chapter of “Small Graces”. Is there one that’s particularly special to you?
I believe in them all. But I would think that the essence of my philosophy about life is in the quote, “We are not all called to be great. But we are all called to reach out our hands to our brothers and sisters, and to care for the earth in the time we are given.”
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Seek the unseen in life. Celebrate the ordinary. Serve the weak rather than currying the favor of the powerful. Find a way to direct your life towards God. And live for the seventh generation rather than for yourself. Most of all, follow the invitation of the Lakota chief, Sitting Bull, “Come, let us put our minds together to see what kind of life we can create for our children.” And remember that we do not all live holy lives, but we all live in a world alive with holy moments.
Thank you so much for your time.