If I am honest with myself, I can’t actually remember the last time I read a whole book. The moments when I have total head space are few and far between diaper changes and a chatty toddler. But the moment I held this book in my hands, I knew I would simply have to find the time. So while nursing or walking to sleep, paragraph my paragraph, I have soaked these pages in. Dee Dee is an amazing writer who weaves together scripture and her story calling on each of us to remember our own stories, to hold on to those deep truths that matter, and to sing and dance through it all. This book is a gift. I am grateful to share this interview and encourage you to find yourselves in the pages of The Soulmaking Room.
Lydia Wylie-Kellermann: What is this book about?
Dee Dee Risher: The book is about using the difficult and challenging parts of life as a way to deepen your spiritual path and become more authentic. The only way I knew to do this was to share my own story. My own path is not nearly as difficult as so many people I know, but my insight was that we all have to deal with loss. Our social justice causes fail. Life rolls on and the positions we take on certain issues become more complex and more difficult to hold with integrity as we see many grey areas. Our beloveds die, leave us, or become someone else. Situations come up that are so incredibly unjust they have you asking whether there is a God in this world. The rich stay rich while the vulnerable have a thousand new ways to suffer. Often, we are in neither of those groups, so we watch the debacle, trying to take an ethical stand. Life ain’t easy, especially if you live with eyes open and conscience listening.
LWK: You beautifully weave your own story through this book which breathes life into the Shunammite woman’s story and her story breathes life into yours. What is the role of our own stories and storytelling in theological work?
DR: Well, after all, the Bible is a collection of stories. Under every genealogical record, every prophesy, every Levitical rule, every parable of teaching, is a host of stories and specific contexts. The stories of those who recorded those words. The stories of those who listened, those who read them over centuries.
Most biblical stories are shared in broad brush with a lot of white spaces. Those white spaces are where the stories come to meet our own lives, and resonate with our own struggles.
For years, in editing The Other Side magazine, we would take on intense and difficult theological issues. We learned that the way to talk about any of these issues was to begin by sharing the stories of people whose lives were dramatically affected. Scholarship is important. Abstract frameworks have their place. But in the end, it is when we share our stories that we realize how complex, how difficult, and how relational any conscience or moral compass must be. God tells us to love one another. Love is where it begins and ends. When someone tells me their story, honestly, I almost always fall in love with them.
LWK: What is a soul making room? Do you have one?
DR: A soulmaking room is a place one regularly has a meditative, prayerful, and open space. It does not have a to-do list on the desk. It is endlessly grateful, and it takes every crumb of time we are willing to give it.
In the book, I share some of the odd places I have seen people find and create this space—a monk meditating amidst a throng of shoppers ten people wide on the streets of Beijing. An Amish mother of eight who threw her apron over her head to pray. A suburban mother who drove the minivan 15 feet to the end of the driveway at naptime to be out of the house and alone with God. It is not the size or the quality of the space. It is showing up, being there, and creating that great pause.
I have a few such spaces. A friend shared her writing and poetry room with me for decades, once a week. I have a chair that looks down the front path to our house, and on to a few trees over the changing seasons. I have places of land on this earth that I love, but I have learned to find God in smaller, simpler corners.
LWK: What was your first encounter with the woman from Shunem?
DR: Well, I have known the story of this woman since childhood, but I never really read the details closely until about 13 years ago when the story popped up in a devotional. I reread it in its entirety. It was so striking even then, before I had certain difficult life passages happen to me. Her words were so strong. The story of her confrontation with grief was so compelling, and the closeness the holy man came to failing also riveting.
Later, I found, in the amazing Jan Richardson’s Sacred Journeys: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayer, a chapter on this story. Jan reprinted a 12-cycle poem by Ellen Anthony called “The Extra Room.” So much of Anthony’s emphasis in the poem struck the same chords this story had been bringing up for me. I started writing on themes of gifts, loss, and grief, and people responded. The ideas– that healing can be a struggle and process, pondering who our people are, and questioning gifts from God—resonated with many people. I found so much in this story.
I would not be telling it all if I didn’t say that the woman from Shunem reappears a bit later in 2 Kings 8:1-6. This took me a while to notice. She comes back after fleeing a war which has devastated the region to get her land back. Scripture seems to include this detail as a way of validating the original story, but it gave me more ways to work with privilege and loss while using this woman who had become so interesting to me. As a privileged woman, it was good to have a story of a relatively privileged woman to work with and keep me honest.
LWK: How was the experience of writing? What was your writing rhythm like?
DR: I’ve wanted to be the person who wrote a little every day, but that rhythm is impossible for me when I need to move a larger, more cohesive project forward. Our house is small; my children were young, and it was almost impossible for me to make incremental progress. I just had to leave and go somewhere. I have been graced by friends and family and total strangers who loaned me a space to write—for an evening, a day, a week, and longer. When I did get away, and there were long months and even a year between those times, I would just sit at the desk and write, often focused on the project 16 hours a day. I wrote so much I had to cut the manuscript down by 35 percent when I completed it to meet what publishers are generally looking for.
LWK: What are your hopes for the readers?
DR: There are ways I really put myself out in writing this book, largely because that is how I live in the world anyway, but also because it seems the way I know to tell a true story. My hope is that readers will find a way to stay close to their deepest values and instincts, and that they will recognize the path of grace and gratitude that enfolds all of us. Many people have sent me notes that they love how well-written it is. I am a writer, and so of course that is a compliment. But what I really cherish are the many notes that say: “I was really struggling, and this book helped me through this week.” I want the book to offer others some path, some clarity on as they move on their own journey.
In one sentence Dee Dee describes herself:
I am a bold, Southern, white woman who loves the earth and its fruits and likes to share stories and laugh, sing, and dance with my sisters and brothers—and then sit quietly and watch night come.
Dee Dee edited The Other Side magazine, and CONSPIRE magazine, published by the Simple Way and a larger group of Christian communities. She is grateful to have been part of the Word and World community since its inception. At present, she is doing property rehab with the Vine and Fig Tree community, an intentional community in Philadelphia.