Dusk comes early this time of year out in the country. Across the barren fields, pole lights come on in farm yards. Down a stretch of gravel road, headlights crest a hill and sweep across the horizon. Down lanes, lights fill the windows at houses, and sometimes I’m tempted to drive toward them, to knock on a door, to say, when someone answers, “Thank you for keeping the lights burning. Finally, I’m home.”
Tonight, I saw the lights at a church set back from the road, and I knew that folks were gathering for Sunday services. As I drove past, I found myself overcome with the memory of what it was like in my youth when I was one of those folks. My parents and I would walk up the steps of our small church, and inside would be the soft voices of people talking, and the smell of the cold on their coats, and the perfumes the women wore, and the scent of tobacco smoke that the men carried with them. For an hour or more, there we’d be—all of us together.
Anyone walking past could look in the windows to see our heads bowed in prayer, could hear our voices rising in song, could watch us open our Bibles to study the scripture. And would they, as I did tonight, wish that they were about to open the door and step inside?
Although my life has gone on for years and years without my ever darkening a church door, I’ve never quite forgotten what it felt like to be sitting in a pew with people who called me their brother.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this or what it has to do with the work we do on the page, but I think it may have something to do with the gathering of people of like minds and desires—the coming together of a congregation.
To sit around a writing workshop table is a blessing. In spite of the criticism that MFA programs often receive, I continue to believe in their value—just as I believe in the efficacy of a good writing group, or a good summer writers’ conference. Wherever two or more are gathered. . . .
The point is even though writing is so much a solitary activity, it’s difficult to improve your craft without engaging with others who are trying to improve as well. We find our congregations. We take strength and encouragement from them. We humble ourselves. We confront our flaws. We try to be better. We celebrate one another’s victories. We learn from one another’s mistakes. We form a fellowship to give us the faith we need in order to keep moving forward when we have no idea of whether we’ll ever get to where we want to go.
Something about driving past that church—something about the call of those lights—brought this all to my mind, and as I drove on into the gathering dark, I felt the comfort of community however we define the word, and wherever we choose to find it. For over forty years, I’ve chosen this family of writers. For me, the spirit rises around our writing tables. I choose to call them our “welcome tables”—the places where we gather, the sacred places where we sit and talk about the words we make on a blank page.