Entertaining I Don't Know
Four years ago today I was in Montenegro. It was the end of an 8 1/2-month journey that started in India, took me through that country, as well as Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Morocco, France, the Netherlands, and finally, unexpectedly, Montenegro.
That day four years ago was rainy and chilly, conditions that might have kept me indoors if it hadn’t been my last day before venturing back to the U.S. After a glass of wine from the family I was staying with, I took a bus to a nearby town. When I couldn’t reach the place I had intended to visit, I walked a path that led me first through cypress trees and then into an olive grove.
I first fell in love with olive trees in Jerusalem in the Garden of Gethsemane, where a few of the trees are said to be over 2,000 years old. Gnarly, knotty, beautiful. The trees I encountered on my walk were not nearly as old, but still enchanting.
Knowing I needed some sort of ritual, I had brought with me all the notes and letters I had received from friends and family before and during my journey. And so, to commemorate my time away and to close it, I moved from tree to tree, note to note. Hand on a tree as I read each note, I felt deep connection to the person who had offered encouragement and love. I felt deep connection to the places I had traveled, places that both grounded me in reality and uprooted my previous understanding. Tree and note, tree and note, I felt gratitude, sadness, joy, more gratitude. So much gratitude. As I moved, rain and tears wet my face, both serving to cleanse me, to ready me for the all-too-quick trip home.
I had chosen to arrive home in time for my former students’ graduation. Having taught two-thirds of the students in the graduating class, many for two years in a row, I had a special love for the group. I wanted to celebrate their transition, their stepping into the new, something I understood better than in previous years. I knew well the bittersweet of ending: the sadness of loss, the anticipation of what might lie ahead. In my return to the familiar, I, like the seniors, was stepping into unknown territory.
I found it easy to relate to my former students, who were aware and excited and scared of the transition ahead of them. As we asked questions of each other, “I don’t know” was an answer we often shared.
I found it more difficult to talk to people who were immersed in the routines of stability. Though I was very comfortable with the reality of “I don’t know,” many people not in transition seemed less satisfied, less comfortable with my answer. I tried not to let their discomfort affect me.
I have been entertaining "I don’t know" for four years now. I hope this will be true for the rest of my life. That isn’t to say that Clarity has been elusive. In fact, she has been a frequent visitor, guiding me to a new school as a long-term substitute to teach a spirituality seminar (perhaps the most fun class I’ve ever taught), to Palestine, where I’ve worked as a human rights defender with Christian Peacemaker Teams, to JustFaith Ministries, where I continue to grow as a writer, a teacher, a prayer leader, and, I hope, into a more whole person. When I leave the door open for her, Clarity walks through exactly when I need her to. Her timing is impeccable and her offerings most often sweet.
I Don’t Know is also a welcome guest, offering more complicated tastes and more mysterious treasures. I invite I Don’t Know in by asking questions whose answers are far from my grasp; they may always be out of reach. I invite him by trying to keep my ears, mind, and heart open to people who I know will challenge me and what I know to be true; I Don’t Know asks me to accept truths that may appear to be contradictory. By taking out a sketch book, going to a mosaic class, reading poetry I’ve written out loud to others. By making invitation after invitation after invitation, to people I know well and others I’ve hoped to know better. By trying to graciously accept their answer, whether yes, no, or no reply at all. By accepting invitations, sometimes without a full understanding of what I’ve said yes to.
By reveling in the fact that I will never know it all. By inviting Patience along with “I don’t know.” By remembering that Clarity and Certainty are not the same, though they may look a lot alike. By forgiving myself when I don’t offer I Don’t Know the same hospitality as I offer Clarity.
Four years ago I was on the cusp of something new. The same is true today. The same may be true every day, though we may not like to acknowledge it. Life can turn on a dime.
When I am willing to receive I Don’t Know with grace, he is more likely to enter slowly and gently, without forcing or breaking the door (though he, like everyone else, has his moments). He may help me to feel grounded. Or uprooted. When I receive him with total acceptance, he helps me connect – with myself, with others, with God.
I am grateful, so grateful, for I Don’t Know.