It’s as though I’d spent the first forty-five years of my life listening to (and being stirred by) great piano concerts every Sunday morning, and then one day sat down at the keyboard. I’ve no clue how to make music. But I’m learning, and as any ...


Blessed Are…Those Who Move? and more...

Blessed Are…Those Who Move?

Inveterate—confirmed, hardened, incorrigible, habitual, compulsive, obsessive: Yup, that describes me as a church-goer. I may lurk on the periphery, I may rail against the church’s (titanic) flaws, I may flinch every time I name myself a Christian, and yet I can’t help myself. Church has blessed me. So I show up.

Those of us who are inveterate church-goers are numb to scripture. We’ve heard the stories so much, our immediate reaction is, “Blah, blah, blah; same-old same-old.” A rare good sermon might shake us out of our complacency, helping us hear scriptural wisdom afresh or making it relevant. Every once in a while, a beam of sunlight breaks through the barriers of the text and lands, shockingly, on our bored hearts. Most of the time, for me at least, the Bible is flat, familiar, and, frankly, uninteresting.

Over the past few years, the central arena of my faith life has shifted from church to practice. I’ve been deeply engaged in the spiritual life for decades, so it’s not like I’ve been some shallow pew-sitter passively going through the motions, but still, my Christian identity revolved around church and my spiritual life was something else entirely, largely (and paradoxically) unrelated to anything that happened on Sunday morning. Then I discovered the contemplative prayer tradition hiding beyond the edge of institutional Christianity, and I began practicing. I began, daily, ineptly, consenting to divine presence and movement. It’s as though I’d spent the first forty-five years of my life listening to (and being stirred by) great piano concerts every Sunday morning, and then one day sat down at the keyboard. I’ve no clue how to make music. But I’m learning, and as any musician knows, you learn by practicing.

Needless to say, everything is different. To give you one small example, the Beatitudes have always been for me a refreshing spring rain: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The sound and sentiment are beautiful. When I actually lose a loved one and am mourning, however, I feel–well, cursed. The Beatitude has helped me not a whit. Through the lens of practice, I recently heard “Blessed are those who mourn” as a process—a metaphysical description of how real change happens. Those who mourn, who feel their losses deeply, who fearlessly enter the awful emptiness of grief and move through these darkest of emotions, will experience transformation. Suddenly the Beatitudes call me forward: practice poverty of spirit, mourn all you’ve lost, become meek by exercising humility in your agency.

Now I’m a beginner fumbling at the piano. Faith is a means, a movement, a thorough, whole-hearted, full-bodied participation taken (as those in the recovery movement say so wisely) one step at a time. One faltering, inadequate, and blessed step…at…a…time.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

(Thanks to Walter Brueggemann for the inspiration and Nancie Hughes for the photo.)



** I’m excited to be back at the Madeline Island School of the Arts this September, offering a retreat based on my latest book.  Please join me September 24-28, 2018 for Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice retreat.

** Please join me for the ongoing Second Friday spiritual memoir drop-in series at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality:
4/13: Characters: Real People in Two Dimensions (This session is facilitated by Carolyn Holbrook)
5/11: Dialogue
6/8: Adding by Subtraction

** Have you read Living Revision?  Please consider posting an online review on Facebook, Amazon, Goodreads, or your blog.  I appreciate readers’ help in getting the word out!



Finding Acceptance in Surprising Places

I read this story recently in Poets & Writers. It may be a parable about stick-to-it-iveness, or perhaps it’s an invitation to apply the vision of hindsight to our current ambitions. Bear with me.

Daniel Wallace, the author of six novels including a New York Times bestseller, has tried for more than thirty years to publish in The New Yorker. When he first began submitting work there in 1984, The New Yorker defined literary success for him. His stories landed on the desk of the fiction editor, Daniel Menacer, who eventually began jotting “a little something” on the rejected pages. “I had no idea who this person was,” Wallace writes, “and it didn’t really matter because at that time in my life, editors were all-powerful demigods whose approval would allow me entry into the world I hungrily watched from afar.” Over the first six years, Menaker’s rejections grew personal and encouraging. One story he even called “very good…as far as it goes.” He actually invited Wallace to continue submitting. Writers call such comments “good rejections.”

Eventually Menaker left The New Yorker to become executive editor (and later editor-in-chief) at Random House; he now writes novels and teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook. Over that time Wallace continued submitting stories, over fifty of them, and receiving rejections. Then, on a recent whim, Wallace looked Menaker up. Menaker remembered him and agreed to meet over a meal, which turned out to be ordinary, connective, and lovely. They’ve been in touch ever since.

“Do you see what just happened?” Wallace asks us readers. “After a lifetime of rejection, I had been accepted. I had made a friend.”

I’m not entirely sure what moral Wallace wants us to take away from his story, but it makes me think about how readily we writers—and humans in general—allow ambition to limit our imagination. We dream of success (and what could be more successful for a writer than being published in The New Yorker?), but when we don’t attain it, or even when we do, we’re blinded to other possibilities of what might be created–what might come alive.

What if the new life we look for (in publication, in success) might also be found elsewhere? I don’t want to discourage writers from publishing so much as encourage all of us to experiment with not being enslaved to our ambition. What freedom is then possible?  What else that’s truly new might happen?  It’s worth a try.   –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Upcoming events:

Second Friday spiritual memoir drop-in series at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality:

3/9: Writing as Exercising Forgiveness
4/13: Characters: Real People in Two Dimensions (This session is facilitated by Carolyn Holbrook)
5/11: Dialogue
6/8: Adding by Subtraction

Living A Legacy: Passing On Faith by Writing Your Faith Story
Tuesday, April 17, 1:30-3 p.m at Easter Lutheran Church.


Tunneling Through Anxiety

Anxiety is my familiar and unwelcome friend. In my early twenties when I was teaching seventh grade, I’d stand in the shower first thing trying to breathe in the warmth, the heat, the calm, while my heart pounding uncontrollably in terror at the day ahead. Before book releases, twice I’ve landed in the doctor’s office, hooked up to an EKG. The second time, my doctor asked, “Have you tried breathing deeply?” I hadn’t. When my mother died my foundation crumbled; I struggled with high blood pressure for months; I’d wake up in the night, unreasonably panicked and sweaty.

Our house was burglarized recently and all the jewelry I’d inherited from my mother was stolen. It was awful for the expected reasons, but also because it triggered that old anxiety: A smoke alarm chirps in the night and I’m awake, drenched, heart racing. This, I know, is anxiety in small proportion. In larger doses it’s debilitating and even life-threatening. Today anxiety is an epidemic among teens, a health crisis of daunting proportion, even a cultural norm. These are difficult times.

So I was intrigued when Brother David Steindl-Rast in a recent On Being interview with Krista Tippett embraced anxiety. Acknowledge it, he suggested; affirm it.

“Anxiety—” he said, “this word comes from a root that means ‘narrowness’ and ‘choking.’ The original anxiety is our birth anxiety. We all come into this world through this very uncomfortable process of being born, unless you happen to be a cesarean baby. It’s really a life-and-death struggle for both the mother and the child. And that is the original, the prototype, of anxiety. At that time, we do it fearlessly, because fear is the resistance against this anxiety. If you go with it, it brings you into birth. If you resist it, you die in the womb, or your mother dies.

“Anxiety is not optional… We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it and remember it and say to ourselves: We made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.

“And that can teach us, and that can give us courage, also, now that we think about it, in looking forward and saying: Yes, this is a tight spot. It’s about as tight spot as the world has ever been in, or at least humankind. But if we go with it — and that will be grateful living — if we go with it, it will be a new birth. And that is trust in life.”

Fear is our resistance to anxiety; fear is life-destroying; fear, Steindl-Rast implies, is optional. But anxiety is simply what it feels like to move through the birth canal, and awful as it is, it brings us to birth. So now, when I’m awake at night, I try to welcome the anxiety, I trace its wild course through my blood stream, and I imagine welcoming it for our whole country so we can pass through these narrow choking times into something new. Welcome anxiety, welcome anxiety.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Spring offerings:

Second Friday spiritual memoir drop-in series at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality

3/9: Writing as Exercising Forgiveness
4/13: Characters: Real People in Two Dimensions (This session is facilitated by Carolyn Holbrook)
5/11: Dialogue
6/8: Adding by Subtraction


Related Stories


The Small, Accessible World of Publishing

A few months ago I led a workshop at a church; only five people showed up so we sat around and swapped writing stories. One an older member shared has stuck with me.

Every Sunday morning while she curls her hair, she composes a haiku. Then she goes to her desk and fills out her offering check. She places it in an envelope, seals it, and writes her haiku on the outside.

In the past she’d been on the committee which tallied money after church. “It’s boring,” she told us. “I want to make those volunteers’ day a little brighter. They love it. They always let me know how much it means to them.”

I respect how this woman’s writing practice is dynamic, holistic. She writes out of delight; she gives her poem as an offering; in the midst of the volunteers’ drudgery they receive a splash of joy; and the writer receives enough evidence of her work’s value to keep her writing. The place we’re called, Frederick Buechner says, is “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This writer found the sweet spot.

The offering envelope might be a humble platform, but it’s arguably more successful (and certainly more sustainable) than most writers’ experiences with publishing. I’ve been thinking about it because it seems to me that when we writers consider our options at the end of a project, we aren’t very creative. And as catchy as Buechner’s words sound, finding our deep gladness or the world’s deep hunger—or, for that matter, the place where they meet—is immensely challenging.

Perhaps the key is starting small. Twenty-three years ago, I moved away from my home church for a spell and decided to write a column for the newsletter as a way to stay in touch. Unlike the book I was working on, which took me ten years to write and publish, I received immediate responses to my column—notes of appreciation, rebuttals, stories told in sympathy. That column closed a loop in my writing life I hadn’t known existed, and it sustained me for the long haul of writing the memoir. It still sustains me; this blog is an evolution of that old column. It’s become a central practice in my writing life.

Not all writers need an audience and not all writing needs publication, but writers who long to communicate need readers, and readers have particular needs that writers can fill. The small ways we find to close this circle are beautiful works of art in their own right.   –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Living Revision is now available everywhere! Hooray! Please support your local bookstore.

If you’ve read it, consider posting a review on Goodreads, Amazon, Facebook, or your blog. Thanks!


February 9, 9 a.m.-12:  Writing the Sacred Journey, an introduction to writing spiritual memoir, at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

Second Friday spiritual memoir drop-in series:

2/ 9: Dreams, Our Most Intimate Scripture
3/9: Writing as Exercising Forgiveness
4/13: Characters: Real People in Two Dimensions (This session is facilitated by Carolyn Holbrook)
5/11: Dialogue
6/8: Adding by Subtraction


Yours, for Keeps

After Emily and I got an estimate to have a professional paint our stairwell ($10,000?!), we asked our neighbor Kurt who makes his living hanging wallpaper for his advice. Could we paint it ourselves? You bet. Kurt set us up with scaffolding. He even jumped on it, thereby proving it was trustworthy. He also examined the ceiling with its strangely peeling paint, the rim of painted-over wallpaper along the top edge, and the long horizontal crack running the length of our hallway wall. For ten grand the pros would have fixed these. Kurt waved them off. He ran his hand along the jagged split in the plaster. “Nope,” he said. “That’s your crack. It’s for keeps.”

Our house is eighty years old; of course it has settled, shifted, and cracked. For an exceptional amount of money we (hypothetically) could have repaired the glitches in our hallway, but that was a degree of perfectionism that neither Emily nor I could stomach. Between caring deeply for a house and an extreme focus on aesthetics lies a fine line. Besides, the affection in Kurt’s voice was infectious: “Your crack.” We’ve patched a little now and painted, and our crack is still there. It’s for keeps.

Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” A crack in the wall that lets in light is worth money and effort to fix, but metaphorically you get what Cohen means. Smile wrinkles give a face real beauty. Our beloved’s flaws might drive us crazy, but they’re also endearing and a source of true love. Only the destruction of a wild fire will break open the jack pine cone and release its seeds. Unfathomable as it may seem, our very human brokenness is the entrance for transcendence and transformation.

Spending outrageous resources to cover up or even try to fix our brokenness is pointless; I’d even go so far as to say it’s a form of denial. We mess up. We make mistakes. We have bad moods and cultivate hidden prejudices and are mean to people we love. Certainly we’re called to do our best—to be kind, to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly. It’s important to care for the house. But perfectionism isn’t the goal. Wholeness is. Our cracks are for keeps, and the spirit of a loving life flourishes when we accept this, put up a fresh coat of paint, and move on.    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Happy new year’s greetings on this cold January day!

Living Revision is now available at some independent bookstores (you can get it at Powell’s at least) and on  If you can, please support your local bookstore!

Have you read Living Revision?  Consider writing a quick online review–on Facebook, Amazon, Goodreads, your blog… I appreciate your help in spreading the word.

Interested in writing spiritual memoir?  I’m teaching an introduction called Writing the Sacred Journey at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality on February 9, 9 a.m.-noon.  You’re also welcome to drop into the ongoing second Friday series:

2/ 9: Dreams, Our Most Intimate Scripture
3/9: Writing as Exercising Forgiveness
4/13: Characters: Real People in Two Dimensions (This session is facilitated by Carolyn Holbrook)
5/11: Dialogue
6/8: Adding by Subtraction

Hope to see you there!