Here I am in sunny Seattle . . . no, seriously, sunny, walk-around-with-your-jacket-unzipped-if-not-off, Seattle, writing about being here for a book festival in which I will talk about writing. Sort of. It’s KS-Christie’s fault that I’m here, but I’ve gotta say Seattle is pulling out all the stops and if I weren’t more in love with my Paul than I just discovered I am with Pike Place Market, I would seriously consider moving here. Except for the fact that this place is far too hip for me and would probably realise that and regurgitate me within a month. Or sooner. Like . . . after I give my presentation at this book fest tomorrow, for example.
Back when I was taking grad classes for the second time (there might be a third time, starting this autumn, but that’s not a foregone conclusion yet), I used to “study” for exams on my blog by blogging about topics and issues about which I was studying. Maybe you remember that. Anyway, it kind of helped–once–so I’m going to try to explain to you what I hope to discuss at 2.15 p.m. PST tomorrow and hopefully it will go better.
The title of my talk, which I came up with months before I really had a clue what I was going to present, except that it needed to tie in with both Trees in the Pavement and the topic of the festival (The Search for Meaning), is “Displacement: Finding Meaning Outside the Comfort Zone.” I love that title. It sounds so . . . title-y. I’m having a hard time feeling as delighted with the content of the presentation, however.
Essentially, my argument runs like this (after I find out what people’s definitions of/associations with the word displacement are): Displacement–which I think can be as extreme as being forcibly moved from one country to another as a war refugee and as mild and run of the mill as consistently feeling like a square peg in a round hole–is what catalyses a person’s search for meaning, and what allows for meaning to be found. I hypothesise that all writers–at least all writers of fiction and probably all poets–feel somewhat displaced and/or misplaced, and that that is why we write. We write in order to draw meaning out of and put meaning into our discomfort. For some of us (not me), the discomfort is legitimate anguish, but all of us at least have stones in our shoes and can’t figure out how they got there but might have a chance if we write about them. (I don’t think I’m going to use the stone-in-the-shoe analogy tomorrow because it doesn’t fit with the “displacement” theme very well, but . . . it kind of works all the same.)
Back when I first moved to London, Auntie Susan suggested I write a story about a refugee child adjusting to life in London. Knowing some of these children in person, and having had a non-refugee but still international childhood myself, fused on paper and turned into Trees in the Pavement. I don’t think I realised until recently how much meaning my own cross-cultural ill-fitting as a child influenced the writing of this book, though I was certainly aware of drawing some personal meaning out of the displacement-experiences of my refugee friends in London who directly inspired the book.
It was also in London that I began the first drafting of Favored One, my sporadically written novel about Miryam the mother of Yeshua. That one was also inspired by a feeling of displacement. I started it as an extended exercise in a version of lectio divina (I might have told you this already), in which I put myself into a biblical narrative as if I were one of the characters. It’s not an attempt to reimagine (or call up) the real Miryam. It’s an attempt to imagine how I would have behaved and responded had I been that Miryam. I began the writing of it just at the time I started feeling like God Himself was telling me to leave London. I didn’t particularly want to leave London and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next, and when I did leave, it took me at least three years to readjust to life in the US. It occurred to me, as I continued this exercise of identifying with Miryam, that when a person feels they have had an encounter with God, that’s a kind of displacement, too. If you respond to it, you can’t remain the same, and you won’t quite fit in to whatever milieu you were in before. When Jacob of the Hebrew Scriptures encountered God “in person,” his hip literally was displaced. When Miryam was called by Adonai, she acquiesced to being an unwed mother of the Messiah in a society where bearing a child conceived by an unknown father could have gotten her physically stoned to death. The way the Gospels read, you don’t necessarily get the impression that this agreement on Miryam’s part was always entirely consistent. There’s certainly evidence that she didn’t always “get” the meaning of her displacing experience, or of her own son. When she did, it was essentially a pushing through the displacement to God–to seeing His meaning–to finding meaning in Him.
The more I thought about it, the more it began to dawn on me that the entire Christian story is about displacement, too. Everyone in the Bible is displaced in some way or other. Abraham hies himself off to he-doesn’t-know-where. Ruth leaves her family and culture to devote herself to her mother-in-law. Moses has a confusing cross-cultural upbringing and then has to oppose the primary culture in which he was reared in order to lead the people in which he was born to freedom–which was also, to them, a kind of displacement. People are constantly acquiring new names because they don’t fit their old ones after God meets with them. And Jesus? Yeshua? Well, if the Christian story is true, then even God knows what it is to be displaced.
But in His case, it’s like He is a reverse-refugee. He comes to the war-zone. He comes to the place where the violence and the barriers and the heartache and all the things that displace us are. There’s a strange passage in the book of Hebrews which says that Yeshua “learned obedience” by being here, so maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that He learned “meaning,” too—in a different way than He would have known it had he just stayed united to His Father in whatever incorporeal existence God has. It’s like the Bible is one big story of displacement, leading up to the climax of the displaced God, in whom all the smaller stories acquire their ultimate meaning. I believe this displaced God still can provide meaning to the displacement—the results of what’s traditionally (and unpopularly) called sin—that we feel today. There’s someone bigger than us out there who knows just what displacement feels like, and can guide us through it and give our stories meaning. He came, in the end, to be and to bring us home.