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Love at the Speed of Email – a story of home, faith, love & purpose

Friday, July 20, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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One of the biggest treats I’ve given myself this summer has been the time to read. Long before I ever thought of myself as a writer, I was a reader. Books were my favorite place to hang out as a child. And they still are today. I can’t think of many things I love doing more than curling up in a sunny spot to lose myself in a good book.

So, as part of the great summer of rest and renewal, I’ve been reading up a storm. During a five day yoga retreat in Mexico I read five books. Over the past three days (during what was supposed to be a dedicated period of editing my manuscript for the US publishers) I’ve read three more. I’m reading the way a starving person might eat, were they suddenly faced with a buffet table laden with good food.

I’ve read a lot of wonderful books this summer. I’ll share my full summer reading list soon. But one of them stands out. One of them made me feel as though I had met a wonderful new friend, the kind of friend I wanted to stay up with talking all night.

The book was Love at the Speed of Email, a memoir by Lisa McKay.

Lisa looks as if she has it made. She has turned her nomadic childhood and forensic psychology training into a successful career as a stress management trainer for humanitarian aid workers. She lives in Los Angeles, travels the world, and her first novel has just been published to some acclaim. But as she turns 31, Lisa realizes that she is still single, constantly on airplanes, and increasingly wondering where home is and what it really means to commit to a person, place, or career. When an intriguing stranger living on the other side of the world emails her out of the blue, she must decide whether she will risk trying to answer those questions. Her decision will change her life.

If you’ve been reading here for even a short time, you’ll have no trouble seeing the parallels between Lisa’s life and mine (down to the fact that I’m currently studying Forensic Psychology!). The themes of Love at the Speed of Email overlap significantly with the themes of Zen Under Fire and I’m confident that if you enjoyed my story, you’ll love Love at the Speed of Email.

I highly recommend Love at the Speed of Email, and wanted to share with you this conversation I had with Lisa and her husband Mike.

Lisa, there were so many moments while reading Love at the Speed of Email when I thought ‘Yes! Yes, that’s exactly how I feel, or have felt, and I’ve never quite been able to articulate it.’ One of those moments was when you wrote:

I am starting to catch myself wondering … whether … I’ll wake up in fifteen years and still believe that it was worth it – this choice that I have made again and again throughout my twenties to pursue adventure and novelty and helping people in faraway lands rather than stability and continuity and helping people in a land I claim as mine.

I’ve asked myself that question in the past. These days the question has changed a little, largely because I’ve chosen family, continuity and the chance to serve people closer to home (culturally, at least, if not always geographically) for home – and because I’m happy with the choices I’ve made. But I still sometimes feel the gentle pull of those alternative lives.

Do you still feel the occasional tug on your sleeve of an alternative life? If so, how do you meet that tug, today?

Lisa McKay, author

Lisa: Yes. Now more than ever, actually, as we know that we’ll very likely be leaving Laos within the next year and a half or so, and we don’t have a clear vision for what’s next. I put it this way to someone recently, “Oh, we’ll likely either move to Australia, or the US, or … anywhere else.” So rather than feeling the occasional tug, it feels more as if we’re fast approaching (another) major crossroads without a clear map. And this time we have an 11-month-old passenger along for the ride which adds a whole different dynamic to the “what next” discussions we’re starting to have.    

Marianne: Another moment of recognition was in your writing about cynicism and hope. I’m not cynical by nature, in fact colleagues have told me in the past that I need to be a little more cynical, that I trust too easily and hope for too much. So I really appreciated the honest uncertainty you expressed about where you find hope.

First you wrote:

…when I’m most often surprised by hope’s companionship is also not when I’m trotting full speed down the road to Jericho. It’s when, by my all-too-human standards, I’m not really making much progress at all. It’s when I pause to see others’ love in action… When I’ve stopped for beauty…

But then, and I loved you for this, you wondered whether that is really true, whether that was really where you were mostly likely to find – or be found by – hope. Do you still carry a question around where hope finds you?

Lisa: I still find hope a slippery concept, honestly. I find it hard to completely untangle hope from joy, passion, peace or optimism. I think I’m also a fairly present-oriented person and hope is quite a future-oriented concept. Mike often asks people what they feel hopeful about and I am frequently stumped by that question. 

I mean, I can list things I hope for – continued good health and happiness for love ones, for example – but that seems different than feeling hopeful. To me, feeling hopeful implies that you are reasonably optimistic (or, on the other end of the spectrum, desperately wishing against-all-odds) that something will come to pass.

Having seen so many of the vagaries and uncertainties of life in play there isn’t a whole lot I feel reasonably certain about – not even my continued health much less larger issues related to economies and governments. On the other hand, I’m also in the privileged position of not feeling truly desperate about much at present, either. So perhaps it’s understandable that I don’t feel intimately acquainted with hope at the moment, but more at home with the concepts of faith, joy and the like.

Marianne: I also related to the comparisons and contrasts you drew between joy, hope and faith. Working in places like Afghanistan, where so many people suffer and so little can be known about the future, I certainly have found faith and gratitude to be more reliable companions than hope.

How much do you think hope matters in life generally, and in humanitarian work in particular? What do you think the relationship is between hope and faith in this work?

And if Mike is willing, I’d love to hear his view on hope as well. I loved when he wrote:

I think that sometimes hope sneaks up on us when we’re wallowing in a dark, dark place and bursts into the room holding a giant candle and says, ‘Surprise! You forgot about me. But I haven’t forgotten you!’

I know I’ve experienced those moments. Where do you think that comes from? How can we stay open to those moments, even when we are in dark places – whether in the form of internal states or external environments of suffering, violence and pain?

Lisa: For me, those moments do often come because of beauty, or when I’m struck by seeing someone do an unexpected kindness or when something prompts me to slow down and pay attention to the moment. Sometimes when I’m in a dark place, or simply stressed and busy and rushing and burdened by life feeling grim, it’s those small moments that reach in and trigger a perspective shift that is so valuable. And here’s where I think hope can be closely tied to gratitude for me, because it’s in noticing and being grateful for something small, like a beautiful flower, that helps shift me to a different place in my mind and outlook on life. Now I think I’ll let Mike weigh in on these questions if he’s willing. Mike?

Mike, baby Dominic and Lisa

Mike: How much does hope matter in life generally?  I think a lot.  I think in general hopeful people are happier people and in general I think people who are “more happy” have more positive energy to offer to others that do people who are “less happy”. 

How much does hope matter in humanitarian work?  A lot.  I think people who have higher “hope quotients” tend to suffer less from the maladies that cynicism can bring.  I used to think there was a correlation amongst humanitarian workers between hope and faith.  But now I wonder whether there’s a stronger correlation between the amount of hope an individual possesses and their internal disposition/natural inclination. 

I think some people are better at staying “open” to hope, or perhaps more naturally inclined to notice hope when it sneaks into the dark room and announces its presence. Some people don’t take notice of hope until the room gets really really dark and the candle is unexpectedly bright.  A few months ago I gave a talk on hope as a spiritual discipline – about how we can choose hope even when all seems dark and hopeless.  Now, in the months since giving that talk I’ve had what you may call “a significantly above average” number of days when the skies of my internal world have felt grey grey grey. 

I wish I could honestly say that I’ve done well in choosing the spiritual discipline of hope during all the grey sky days.  I wish I could say that I’ve been naturally inclined toward hope and alert of times when it shows up.  Alas, no.  But as they say, knowledge is the first step.  So perhaps tomorrow I’ll do a little bit better about noticing when hope shows up, even if it turns out to be a grey sky kind of day. 

Marianne: In another exchange, you and Mike discuss the rarity of what he calls ‘humanitarian moments’ in humanitarian work.

I don’t think you can do this just for the humanitarian moments.” Mike wrote, “They’re beautiful when they come, but they’re not enough, and there are not enough of them. I do my work now as best I can because I still feel more passionate about this than anything else, and I still believe it does more good than harm.

Recent years have seen increasing debate as to whether or not humanitarian and development work actually does more good than harm. Do you (and Mike, if he’s willing to answer) still believe this work does more good than harm? If the answer is ‘sometimes’ or ‘it depends’, can you tell me what you think it depends on?

Lisa: I’m firmly in the “it depends” camp. I think it depends on the problems being tackled, the political and economic context, the people on the ground who are living with the challenges, and those on the ground trying to solve them. It depends on so many big and small things – some things that are controllable and foreseeable and some that aren’t. Mike anything to add?

Mike: Just for the record, this is one of THE QUESTIONS that is contributing to my “significantly above average” number of grey sky days.  So I think I’ll stay away from it, other than saying that I can argue several sides of this question and my answer vacillates wildly from week to week and sometimes it even vacillates wildly throughout the course of a single day, which is most unsettling.  Alas.

Marianne: One of the things I suspect may help determine how much good, or harm, we do in this work is something you wrote about, and which also happens to be one of the main themes of my book, Zen Under Fire: the power of presence.

In Zen Under Fire I wrote about an interview I had with a man whose daughters had been kidnapped by a local warlord:

Listening wasn’t much to offer a man whose need was so great and so pressing. So I was surprised by his genuine gratitude. Since our first meeting I have learnt, slowly, that people don’t expect me to be able to solve their problems. My willingness simply to hear them out is sometimes more than anyone has offered them before.

So I loved reading that someone in one of your workshops suggested that just being present might be enough, that even when we don’t know what to say, our mere presence (and in my case, my ability to really listen) can make a difference. And here as well, your uncertainty touched me.

This theme of the power of presence stuck with me. Presence can seem like such a small offering. I want to believe that sometimes when I show up I sow some seeds of hope in fields of violence and despair, but I’m not sure. When I stop to think about it, I am rarely completely sure of anything anymore.

In retrospect, do you think simply showing up – with compassion, empathy and a willingness to bear witness – can be a worthwhile offering in itself? What do you think might be the benefits of that approach? What are the possible risks?

Lisa: Yes, I think it’s a very valuable offering. I think listening really well and asking good questions are wonderful life-giving skills that are not intentionally cultivated by enough people. Most people hunger to feel understood by others, and I think that the stresses associated with going through extreme experiences are magnified greatly if you also end up feeling isolated and misunderstood – like “nobody understands”.  

Two possible risks with simply being a caring presence, though. One danger period is on the scene of a critical incident. Immediately after people have been through a traumatic incident (such as a bad car accident) they likely need knowledgeable and practical assistance related to contacting relatives, organizing child care and taking care of other necessary logistics even more than they need an empathetic presence. And on the other end of the spectrum – the long term – offering endless compassion and empathy without a willingness to ask hard questions and really challenge can end up enabling destructive patterns. 

Marianne: Another theme that resonated for me, and for many people who have traveled and lived in many different places was your ongoing exploration of the concept of home and – very familiar to me:

The internal and unwinnable war between the longing for adventure and home.

Eventually, you come to a point where you describe ‘another level of home’ –  a level that is about coming home to ourselves.

The word home comes from a root meaning “the place where one lies.” The phrase refers to our physical place of residence and rest, our bed, but it also prompts me to consider where the core of the “one” that is me – who I am, my soul – lies. It makes me think of identity, purpose, passion, and being at home in my own skin. This one is a work in progress.

How’s progress going on that one? Seriously though, I also sense that my real ‘home’ is the place where my true self, or soul, lies. My meditation and yoga practices feel like a process of ‘coming home’ to that true self. How do your spiritual practices contribute, do you think, to your experience of this level of ‘home’?

And how does your sense of purpose arise out of that ‘home’ and/or contribute to feeling at home in your own skin?

Lisa: The first thing I thought of when you asked that first question about spiritual practices was writing, and it’s the word I keep circling back to in my mind. Writing has become a spiritual practice for me, and it is the practice of writing more than anything else at present that helps me clarify myself and life and how the pieces are fitting (or not fitting) together. I don’t think everyone needs this, precisely, but for me that sort of precise, “naming” is foundational to my sense of being at home in my own skin. I feel all out of sorts and vague and as if life is passing me by – slipping carelessly through my fingers – if I’m not writing. 

If I’m not exploring life by writing, I also feel as if I’m not living into my “purpose” or “vocation”. So for me perhaps my sense of purpose less arises out of home, but rather living into my purpose creates that sense of feeling at home with myself.

As for progress on this front … I actually feel in some ways as if I’ve gone backwards in terms of being at home in my own skin since I finished writing Love At The Speed Of Email. Since the book was completed I’ve become a mother, and that’s turned my inner world (and outer world) upside down all over again. So the journey is definitely continuing.

Marianne: Another of the many things I appreciated about Love and the Speed of Email, was that your faith was ever present, but never in a dogmatic way.

Our ‘origin stories’ share some common threads. I was raised by committed Christians, moved to Papua New Guinea with my parents where they worked as missionaries, was baptised at fifteen, married the pastor’s son aged twenty, lost faith in the Church and it’s teachings when my marriage failed despite my best efforts to be a good girl, a good wife and a good Christian, and then found (or, more accurately, am finding) my way ‘home’ through writing, meditation and yoga. So I was touched by your own description of your faith.

I’m far less sure of the semantics of faith than I was a decade ago. The language of church doesn’t fit me completely, and unshakable certainty in any domain scares me. But I do believe that I am part of a meaningful story that’s far bigger and more important than just my own thread, and I believe that the heart of God is love.

I may have followed a different path to get there, but I also believe I am part of a meaningful story that is far bigger and more important than just my own thread (and I’m profoundly grateful that this is so) and that the heart of God is love. Perhaps most of all, unshakeable certainty in any domain makes me suspicious. Which is one of the many reasons I enjoyed Love at the Speed of Email so much, your willingness to be uncertain was refreshing.

So, in a twist on the ‘This I Know’ meme that has made it’s way around the internet in recent years, could you share five things about which you are currently uncertain?

Mike, Lisa and Dominic on Mekong River

1.  Where the next steps on this journey will take us once we leave Laos.

2.  Whether I will ever be brave/crazy enough to travel internationally alone with a baby under the age of two again (I’m currently in Australia for a couple of weeks with Dominic by myself, and Oh. My. Word … the plane travel with a baby alone. Hideous. Worse than listening to children’s songs on repeat for a solid month.)

3.  Whether heaven/life after death exists. I really hope it is so, but this is one thing I’d say I’m not sure of.

4.  Whether Love At The Speed Of Email will ever be what you might call a “publishing success”.

5.  Whether I will prove strong-willed enough to limit myself to eating sensible amounts of ice cream once we leave Laos and I can buy it at the grocery store again.

Marianne: Thank you so much for writing Love at the Speed of Email, and thank you (and Mike!) for taking the time to chat with me about this wonderful book. It deserves to be a great publishing success, I really hope that many, many people get the chance to read it. Also, there is no ‘sensible amount of ice cream’, there is only ‘as much as you want for as long as you want it’. In my experience, it’ll taper off eventually.

Lisa: Thanks for having me, and for engaging in such a deeply personal dialogue sparked by the book. This is an author’s deepest hope – that some people will be moved and touched by their story in important ways. This conversation has made my week.


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7 Responses to "Love at the Speed of Email – a story of home, faith, love & purpose"

  1. Tina Tierson says:

    Marianne, Lisa, and Mike – I don’t have the words just now to tell you how special and meaningful to me this interview is. As Marianne knows, I’m not and have never been a human rights worker, but care so much about what’s going on in the world and feel helpless so much of the time. I, too, believe being a witness and listening is all important and in my case, just talking to people here and trying to answer questions if I can. I’ve just ordered your book, Lisa, and can’t wait to read it. Marianne, you know how I feel about yours and how much I admire you. Still hopeful — Tina

  2. Anne Hayner says:

    Great post and interview! Thanks for sending the link, Lisa — and to all three of you for your thoughtful reflection on (and acting through) the tough questions. I know Lisa through my work with students and alumni of the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame where she did her MA, and reading your bio, Marianne,I suspect you may have encountered other Kroc alumni in Timor Leste or Gaza or New Zealand! Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

  3. I appreciated both the probing questions and the forthright answers. Love at the Speed of E-mail is a great read. Lisa’s characteristic humor always makes me smile. 🙂

  4. bert0001 says:

    A g reat post, with very valuable information. Though on the style front difficult to read and wade through. Or am i just feeling tired? 🙂
    … loved to read the views about hope and presence …
    Love and Light

  5. […] her wonderful book Love at the Speed of Email, Lisa McKay wrote: The word home comes from a root meaning “the place where one lies.” The […]

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