I was only ever outside once

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This piece was originally posted in February of 2004 and was intended to describe my experience as an anonymous blogger and my creepy feelings about how insulated Church culture is in our world. It also marks the first appearance of Hugh Elliott in my writing. Hugh appeared off and on over the years in things I wrote. He is a kind of dream symbol for me. I’m certain the real Hugh doesn’t mind his life being  appropriated. People make symbols out of their friends all the time. It’s a human thing.   

“When Jenny died” is a reference to my brief time as an agnostic/atheist after a particularly awful patient death when I was a chaplain. My temporary atheism was purely cerebral and the sort of reaction passionate men in their 20s have to traumatic events. Making a quick move to a new worldview, then beating a hasty retreat back home.

Here we are 11 years later and I now LIVE outside.

I was only ever outside once before, and that was after Jenny died. But that was like a kid sneaking out at night. I stood beside the door for a few moments, trembling, then I darted back inside. I never even talked to anyone.

And I’ve been inside ever since.

Most people in here stay away from the windows, but I’m curiously attracted to them. Right in the middle of a conversation or a ceremony, I find myself losing interest. I keep stealing glances at the window. “Mm hmm,” I say, faking interest while I look at the curtains.

I may have a spiritual form of ADD.

When I get through with my work, I run to a window. I move the curtain a little to one side and slip my face in against the glass. I watch the people outside for hours. I never get tired of it.

Here is what I’ve noticed about the people outside. First, there are an awful lot of them. They seem to be making out okay, too. They love their children, enjoy life, and are deeply curious, as I am, about the meaning of it all. I really like the way they walk. They seem to know where they’re going. They walk like they do, anyway.

One morning in December I did something crazy. I didn’t think much about it. I just got up from the window, opened the door, and went outside. I can’t remember what made me do it, but it was a long time coming. I think I was going to bust open if I didn’t do something.

I didn’t go very far; I just stood by the door. I was proud, but scared too. And I said the same thing to every stranger that walked by.

“Look at me! I’m outside all by myself.”

Some people brushed me off. “Yeah yeah, kid. You’re outside. Terrific. Now get outa the way.”

But others stopped to talk to me. A woman said, “Look, one of the little boys from inside has gotten out. Do you think they know he’s out here? Maybe he’s lost.”

“He’s cute,” another woman said.

Pretty soon there was a small crowd around me. They said a lot of interesting things.

“We should take him and run away. I used to live in there, and I hated it. He would be better off with us.”

“No, no. They’re nice inside. My aunt lives in there. Anyway his people will come get him after a while. Does anyone have a cookie or something?”

“How do we know he’s really from inside? People from inside don’t come out here, do they?”

“I’ve been trying to get inside for years. I’ve been knocking on that door, but no one ever answers. Maybe I can slip inside with him if he ever goes back.”

I listened to everything they were saying, and then I asked the question that I wanted to ask more than anything in the world.

“Is it true you can say anything you want out here? Anything at all?”

Everyone looked at me, aghast. They couldn’t conceive of a place where you had to be careful of what you said.

“See,” someone said. “I told you it’s no good in there. They’re not honest. You have to watch what you say.”

A man named Christopher spoke up. “No, that’s not true. I used to be inside. I’m kinda in and out, you might say. In some ways, they’re more honest than we are. But yeah, you have to watch what you say. That’s true. In other ways, it’s less honest in there.”

I took a deep breath and spoke a little louder. “I just want to say what I want to say for a while. Just for a while, maybe. Is that okay? Am I allowed to?”

“That’s sweet,” a woman said from the back. “He’s adorable. Let him talk. I like hearing him.”

And then a very tall man named Hugh bent way down and took me by the hand. He whispered in my ear, “You can say whatever you want out here. You can. Go ahead and have fun.”

“Honest?” I said.

He nodded seriously. “Cross my heart!”

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