A Real Life

Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.     –James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

Just how real the interior life is I’ve yet to discover, nor will I ever, which doesn’t stop me from relentlessly, endlessly seeking it. Daily I taste it’s effectiveness when the words I churn up onto the page change me, lending a glimmer of understanding, a sharpening perception. Occasionally those words move a reader too, although I rarely know why or how. Or when I meditate in silence, or when my imagination drifts before sleep, or, for that matter, when I literally dream and wake with an image—this morning a man surviving a car crash and then kissing the earth in gratitude: These intangible, interior movements have their counterparts in the exterior world. I do not wholly believe it yet, but I’m getting there.

Last week I lost a friend with a magnificent interior. Michael Bischoff was a Quaker who spent countless hours in silence. He talked regularly with Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. and with his own ancestors, and wrote about these experiences during his almost five-year “adventure” with cancer. For as long as he was able, he biked everywhere, including to his brain surgeries and radiation appointments. He spent hundreds of hours walking along the Mississippi, communing with the trees and birds. Michael struggled with insomnia for as long as I’ve known him; I imagine his nights full of anxiety, emptiness, prayer, applesauce, and the rich, real workings of the interior. Michael was a man of solitude.

Hundreds turned up for Michael’s memorial service. We sat in silence and testified to the abundance of Michael’s gifts, mostly external: How he asked great questions; how at a gathering he once donned reflective gear and a helmet to throw himself onto the crowd; how present he was; how much he loved his family; what a great organizer and networker and story-teller… Between each sharing, the woman carrying the microphone walked slowly, ever-so-slowly, to the next person. Words settled down into silence. We returned to the interior, where I felt, palpably, unequivocally, Michael’s presence.

Because group prayer for Michael always happened in the round, we had rearranged seating for 500 into a semblance of a circle, the first time in the staid old church a gathering had ever sat this way, and I sensed the physical power of Michael’s interior moving chairs, bringing us together, ushering us into relationship with one another and with the divine presence. I think of the team that coordinated the service, how I’ve become friends with Michael’s friends because of how intensely we’ve worked together these last weeks, and know without question that this is Michael’s doing, not after the fact but now, here, moving among us.

The interior life is a real life and it’s the life that continues. It’s powerful beyond imagining, especially if entered with love. Michael is teaching me this, even now, in these words.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew