Outside/Inside – nonfiction by John Backman


Sue puts down the notebook with my poetry in it and gazes out the window in her dorm room. “This is very good and all,” she begins, “but what it says about you—that worries me.” She looks around, grasping for words, finally settling her round brown eyes on me. “It’s like—it’s like you live on the outside, looking in.”

She’s partly right. One definition of outside is “the place where they send you when you don’t fit in,” and I never did. I was practically an only child on a street of large families. I was the awkward child where sports were everything. I cried a lot, and boys don’t cry.

During those years I learned about the beauty of inside. Inside my house, safe from the taunts of the neighborhood kids. Inside my room, with my LPs and my thoughts and (later) my weed, where I could keep my mother at bay. Somewhere in there I discovered inside-myself as well.

* * *

I’m looking out the bedroom window to the driveway below. It’s several years after college now, my cousin’s wedding day, and the bride and a bridesmaid are standing in the drive, under the clouds, doing what women have done for ages: happy talking, listening, their words tumbling over one another, the touch on an arm or the squeeze of a hand.

I belong down there, I know I do, but I look like a man and no men are allowed. No one’s dreamed of letters like Q, as in LGBTQ, as in what I am. It’s 1982, after all. So I am outside. And instead of an embrace that brings me inside, a poem starts forming, and I jot it down. It even has a title: Misbegotten Males. Aristotle’s term for women, now applied to me.

* * *

A friend gets a new job in corporate management. It’s what she wanted, but it has its costs. “When I wake up in the morning, I take my personality and put it inside a tiny drawer for the day,” she tells me. “Then I go to work and act professional until I go home.”

I’ve done something like that to grow my business, attending countless dinners and luncheons and networking events, putting on a version of myself I didn’t know I had: glad-handing, chatting with strangers, making connections. It’s a flowering of sorts. Suddenly my outside is the vital part, the part of me that grows the rest of me.

Sometimes I can’t even tell what’s inside and what’s outside. That’s all right. I’m still young, with years to sort it all.

But I must take care. The end of my friend’s story warns me of that. “All day long my personality waits for me in that little drawer. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I forget to take it out.”

* * *

Inside isn’t always warm and pretty. Like when I sit in the car in an abandoned lot and the gloom grips my heart like talons. Forty years this gloom has visited me like an unwelcome houseguest, but almost never this intense. I can barely breathe, let alone drive.

Somehow I find my way home. Home and upstairs. Upstairs beneath a puffy down comforter, head and all.

How strange that I crawled inside something when the horror came from inside. Like fleeing into a safe place to find your attacker.

* * *

Still, inside is where things happen, for me at least. Abba Moses knew it. That’s why the desert sage gave his immortal advice: go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.

So I live mostly in one room of my house. A neighbor’s maple fills the view from a high window. I watch the rains come, the buds unfurl, the red and gold leaves turn to brown and fall, branches thrash about in the winter wind.

Somewhere in there I meet God, whatever that means. It’s like a kaleidoscope, or those Russian nesting dolls. I am in my room, God is inside me, God is outside me, remarkably like sex.

Over time, the insideness changes me. I begin to reach outside and draw others in, if not to my house then to my friendship. Maybe this is what everyone else does. I don’t know. I do know that the people I draw in, they have the haunted look of being outside too much for too long.

I wonder if Julian the mystic saw her calling the same way. Julian was sealed into one room on the side of a Norwich church. There she lived in her cell, and her cell taught her everything. She met God, whatever that means, through the window with a view of the church’s altar. At another window, which looked outside, people came to her for counsel and comfort. She took what she drew in from the altar, from her one and only room, and gave it to them.

Richard Rohr wrote this about hermits: they “go apart to find a way to experience their truth in a healing, transformative way for others. They look like they are alone, but exactly the opposite is the case.”

Or: they look like they’re outside, when actually they’re inside reaching outside.

Maybe this is what I’ve always been, and I did not know it.

* * *

That would make a great ending, wouldn’t it? I could wrap up this essay on a happy note and be perfectly content. But my meetings with God, whatever they are, keep pushing.

They introduce me to Manjusri. Manjusri is a bodhisattva, those wonderful beings in Buddhism who can enter nirvana but choose to remain “behind” to help the rest of us. He shows up in a Zen koan and messes with my inside/outside:

One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?”

Manjusri replied, “I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?”

I have left the outside after decades trekking its wastes and drinking from its springs. I have settled on inside-reaching-outside as a home for my heart. Now comes this koan that questions whether there is inside or outside at all.

I do not know what to do with this. I do know it is important and, strangely, comforting. It removes the need for distinction. By doing so it puts me at rest.

At last.

But of course there is no last. Just next. Always, always next. I take a deep breath and hold it, like a diver on the edge of an impossibly high springboard, poised for the next time when, prompted by that obscure divine push, I plunge deeper in—if in is the word—than I have ever been.


John Backman: As a spiritual director and monastic associate, John Backman writes mostly  about contemplative spirituality and its relevance for today’s deepest issues. This includes a book (Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart) and articles in such places as Spirituality & Health.


  1. Jai says:

    I love you John Backman!!!!!!


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