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Spelunking the Strange Questions

    John Backman

    The following is a guest post by  John Backman, whose creative nonfiction piece “One of Those Exquisite Nothings” appeared in issue 21 of Typehouse.


    Can you form friendships with dead people? Can the poem you wrote when you were six influence your decision to help a stranger fifty years later? Can you be bigender and Buddhist—someone with two “selves” who believes in no permanent self?

    For some people, the term spiritual writer may conjure an array of stereotypes: clergy, self-appointed moral scolds, wielders of gratuitous religious symbols. My own spiritual writing has never gone in that direction. But in the past three years it’s become even less conventional, shifting from articles on well-traveled spiritual topics to personal essays that explore strange wrinkles in the universe (like friendships with dead people). The shift is more natural than I’d first thought: spirituality has a way of opening its practitioners to wonder and mystery—to far more questions than answers—so it’s inevitable that some of us would stumble into the weirder alleys.

    In “One of Those Exquisite Nothings,” my essay in Issue 21, I receive a life-changing diagnosis on the same day I begin cleaning our new deck to prepare it for staining. As it turns out, both the disease and the deck cleaning involve technical issues that require action on my part despite the fact they may not exist. By cleaning the deck, I remove something from the wood that might not even be there; in my diagnosis, I have something to address that some experts believe is no big deal. That wrinkle led me (and the essay) to include other strenuous efforts that could be construed—at first glance anyway—as a waste of time: my own Zen practice, the creation and destruction of breathtaking sand mandalas by Buddhist monks.

    Maybe the stereotypical spiritual writer would seek to solve wrinkles like this. I’m more inclined to feel my way into the twists they present, just as spelunkers (who, for the record, are now called cavers) might use their hands to navigate a cave. A fringe benefit of this approach to writing, for me, is that when I start I rarely know where I’ll end up. What could be more fun than that?

    For some reason, my mind wanted to link the wrinkle in “One of Those Exquisite Nothings” with a larger aspect of the universe: the myriad things we do and experience that make a near-zero impact on the planet, our species, even our immediate vicinity. They are close to nothings, but exquisite nothings nonetheless (like sand mandalas). When I began writing the essay, I didn’t expect it to end up in that larger aspect, which took several days and numerous revisions to emerge.

    On one of those days, I wrote myself a note in the right-hand margin: “This last paragraph is not quite there. And right now I’m not sure where there is!” That’s where I live as a spiritual writer: in the freedom of not knowing, in the joyful suspense of what comes next.


    A spiritual director, bigender/nonbinary person, and quasi-hermit, John Backman writes about ancient spirituality and the unexpected ways it collides with postmodern life. This includes a book (Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart) and personal essays in Typehouse, Catapult, Tiferet Journal, Amethyst Review, and Sufi Journal, among other places. Last year John was named a top 10 creative nonfiction finalist in the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards. or on Twitter. @backwrite

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