So we're sitting at our garage sale this past weekend, enjoying the free show of people stopping by to browse our discarded belongings, when a matronly middle-aged woman began to peruse our collection of books -- a collection including many Writer's Digest how-to-be-a-writer books from back in the day when I thought I could read myself into writing.
"Is one of you a writer?" she asked.
"I do a little writing," I responded.
"I write historical novels," she replied. I raised a half-curious, half-skeptical eyebrow. "I'm on my fifth." Oh, really?
"What are your novels about?" asked Fellow Traveler.
The woman hesitated. "They're set in a certain county in Minnesota in the 19th century. They're about...well...why don't I just tell you my story."
So she did. She had no academic background in writing or journalism; she was "just a person" living here in Castorville. She'd had a difficult life, including an extended stint helping a self-destructive, bottomed-out young relative come back from the brink. At one point, she said, despite the successful mentoring of the young person, she found herself depressed, weary of living and considering ending it all.
"Then one night I had a dream," she continued. The dream focused on a solemn Native American man telling her an extended story about some place in Minnesota she'd never heard of before. She saw scenes of the story. Then the man gave her a word that she understood to be from the Lakota language. And she woke up.
She said that, after this dream, she felt compelled to begin writing the story down. The plot, the characters, the setting poured out of her day after day, for hours as she sat and wrote.
Meanwhile she tried researching the meaning of the word she'd heard in her dream. When she heard about a regional pow-wow where one of the elders present was a speaker of Lakota, she traveled there to ask him the meaning of the word. When she asked him, she said, he became visibly shaken. "Where did you hear that word?" he asked. So she told him her story. "You've been given a great gift," he told her.
The woman eventually traveled to Minnesota, where she discovered the same place names she'd dreamed about. When she got to the community where her novel was based, she found the same surnames in local cemeteries and public records. She then asked if there were any Native Americans in the area, and was directed to a nearby reservation. She told her story to one of the reservation employees there, who took her to meet an elder who was also a shaman.
"I've been expecting you," was the man's first comment when they met. "The Grandfathers have given you the gift of this story in thanks for saving a life."
The woman self-published her firt book, had modest success in that venue, and has kept writing ever since.
Fellow Traveler and I sat fascinated as this local housewife told us her story. My own skepticism struggled mightily with the tantalizing thought, What if it's true? The woman gave us her card and invited us to lunch.
FT and I often joke about being, as one of my Facebook friends put it, flypaper for weird; but this was a positive, good weird.
Thinking about this encounter, I found myself contrasting it with the fundamentalist Baptists we run into Saturdays when we have lunch in downtown Outer Podunk. These people -- men in white shirts and ties, women in calico dresses -- descend upon the downtown around lunchtime and set up stations at major street intersections. There the men preach -- to the few pedestrians who stop in our town on weekends, to passing motorists, sometimes it seems just to themselves -- screaming, waving their Bibles around in the air, while the womenfolk sit silently with signs warning of hellfire and brimstone for those who don't repent.
The contrast between the spiritualities is striking. It reminds me of Matthew Fox's observation that fundamentalists believe the universe is conspiring against them, while mystics believe it's conspiring on their behalf.
I know which side of the street, so to speak, I want to be on. And it's not with the sour saints. It's with people for whom "God is alive and there's magick afoot," who speak and act like people who've been invited into a conspiracy of hope and healing.