A distinguished gentleman one pew over tapped me on the shoulder last Sunday before the service and said, “I’ve been enjoying reading your thoughts in that paper of yours, young lady.”
    “Thank you,” I smiled demurely, attempting humility appropriate to the time and place, but secretly basking in the compliment. And the word “young.”
     “You seem to have a hard time making up your mind,” he continued.
      Humility accomplished. And just in the nick of time. (Cue the organ.)
      That same week, a friend told me over lunch that I need to be more “provocative” in this column. “You were pretty provocative for a while there, but then you wimped out,” he said. “You need to challenge people again. You need to make them think!”
      I’ve been ruminating on these two observations and wondering how to respond.
      Observation # 1: Yes, I have trouble making up my mind. I stew over things that most folks barely seem to think about, weighing and sifting, vacillating and shifting, landing on one position only to find myself drawn to another. More than anyone I know, I am forever evaluating (and reevaluating) my… values. It’s just my nature. If you regular readers find it tiresome, just think how I feel. I have to live in this head!
      So, anyway, yes… I cop to that charge.
      Same goes for Observation # 2: When it comes to being provocative… I have wimped out. I’ve been trying to tone it down, stay away from controversial topics, keep things light and sparkly. I’ve been trying, above all, not to offend anybody. I really, really hate offending anybody. The problem with these easy-breezy puff pieces, however, is that they’re boring. Not just to read, but to write. And they seem such a waste of time and energy – and even paper – when there are so many important things to talk about…
     So, I’m frustrated, y’all. I’m frustrated because I want to write about those important things – the way we live, the beliefs we hold (or reject), the struggles we share, the solutions we long for –  but I’m a lover, not a fighter. I can’t stand the ill-informed, inconsiderate trash talk that passes for public discourse these days, and I want no part of it.  With all due respect to President Obama – and I do respect him very much – his hope that we might all learn to “disagree without being disagreeable” seems more elusive each day. People choose their teams, stay hopped up on the diatribes of their respective mascots (Limbaugh? Olbermann? Pick your poison…), put their fingers in their ears when the other team speaks (wouldn’t want to accidentally hear them sounding human!), and are poised to pounce at the least provocation. And anything passes for provocation. For instance, no matter how hard I try to be cordial, kind and thoughtful, at least half my readers will be offended by this very column. I’m guessing many of you were peeved from the get-go, since I started with a reference to church. (“Christianist!”) Still others of you are now ticked off that I just tipped my hat to the president. (“Socialist!”) And I’m sure I’ll make several other unintentionally ‘loaded’ references before I’m  done. It’s like tiptoeing through a minefield, a tightrope act I can’t seem to master. Which is why I enjoy the dubious distinction of receiving angry e-mail from both sides of the political spectrum.
     But this is not about me and my thin skin. Oh, I do have a thin skin – every one of those ugly notes is a punch to the gut – but I’ve come to terms with it over the last few years. I know if I’m going dish it out, I have to be willing to take it. And I am. And I do. And it’s easier now than it was.  So, this is not about me crying ‘waa waa waa, I just wanna be loved!’
     But, in a way, it is about love.
     Because, see, love is the reason I write. It’s the only reason I’ve ever written.  Not so much to get love, but to give it.
      I am not good at much. I have many, many character flaws and very few talents. I’m lazy and disorganized, scattered-brained and careless, petty and proud. I’m a bad cook, a worse housekeeper, and the thought of giving a party turns me to jello. I am neither crafty nor athletic, can’t change a tire or pitch a tent, sew a dress or arrange a bouquet.
       But I’ve always been able to write. Ever since I was a little girl scribbling stories and poems in my bedroom, I’ve had a knack for cracking myself open and pouring myself out with honesty and abandon. And that, I think, is how a writer best loves. Sometimes, it’s the only way. Observers and ponderers by nature, we tend to hold ourselves apart, to separate ourselves from the thick of things, avoiding the nitty-gritty of life. Not that we want to; we just… do. We can be awkward friends and difficult partners and distracted parents. We are too much in our heads. But we do love, and we love deeply, and we do it best on paper. When I come to you, my reader, with words of pain or longing, confusion or joy – when I shed my armor (irony, sarcasm, whatever) and my fear of rejection, and trust you enough to flat out show you who I am – and you see me, and you get me, and you know I get you, and you’re suddenly a little less lonely under the wide, inscrutable sky… then you’ve read my essay as I wrote it. As a love offering. The best I have to give.
      But if I put my ‘best’ out there, and it mainly breeds anger, or ridicule, or hurt feelings… then something is very wrong. When well-meaning writers can no longer share thoughtful opinions and raise useful questions without setting off ripples of ill will (not just reasonable disagreement, which I welcome, but ill will) everybody’s the worse for it. In today’s free-for-all public square, we’re all either poised in attack mode, crouched in defense mode, or walking on eggshells, afraid of being misunderstood. None of these postures is conducive to fruitful conversation. When more people are talking than ever before, but fewer are listening, you get lots of noise, but little communication. Simon and Garfunkel were more prophetic than we knew when they sang about “people talking without speaking… people hearing without listening.”
     And I am at fault, too, of course. I made the stupid mistake of aligning myself, however loosely, with a political movement, which immediately put me in a box for many readers. Some of you like that box and others don’t, but either way, it’s a box. A writer doesn’t do her best work from a box. And this particular writer is dreadfully cramped and uncomfortable there. With my easily-agitated, self-contradicting, paradox-loving brain, I don’t fit neatly into any political movement. I have my leanings, but they’re just that – leanings. They’re flexible, and so am I. I have no trouble admitting that I find the recent behavior of many conservatives embarrassing. But here’s where you and I might part ways: I think the left can be every bit as reprehensible as the right, and it chafes at my sense of fair play that they, and only they, are allowed to get away with it…
      But that’s a subject for another day. Or maybe not. If I can’t find a way to write about these issues with humility, humanity and love – yes, I’m serious, love – then I’ll write puff pieces ‘til the cows come home. I will not use my gift – my only gift – to further pollute an all-too-littered landscape.
     So maybe I won’t be as provocative as my friend (a politician, incidentally) would have me be. Is it possible, in this day and age, to be interesting and challenging without provoking anger or disgust? I honestly don’t know. I hope so. But as I stumble along with that project, I need your help. I’m asking that you receive me on simple human terms, just person to person, reader to writer. I will share with you my failures and triumphs, my humiliations and joys, my yearnings and strivings – and if I do it right, you will recognize them as your own, and feel understood, and even loved – but only if you open your heart – forgetting the labels, buzz words, and biases we’re all weaned on these days – and let me in.           
     Easier said than done, I know. But if you will do me the great favor of letting me out of my box, I might just help you escape yours.