putting to rout all that is not life

putting to rout all that is not life

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
-from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Last December I started a tradition of watching a movie by myself once I got home from the last day of classes, before the kids came home. A scene from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (the newer one) had come to mind in a random moment, so I figured that would be a good selection, since this has been a particularly difficult semester –one in which I’ve asked myself on more than one (or twenty) occasions, “why am I doing this again?” Several classes which don’t seem to have much to do with what I want to do at the end of this educational adventure were getting me a bit draggy at the heels. And in light of the fact that last year was sort of unabated amazingness, well, the contrast was less than helpful.

And, so, I figured a little cinematic existentialism couldn’t hurt.

…But that quote –I really, really want that to be true, but I know it’s not. Because living that way tends to lend itself to losing appreciation for the moments when there are no walls to see behind, no dangerous things, seeing the familiar world. And if I lose that, I know I lose the real purpose of life.

It’s losing the ability to fight to find the beauty in the ordinary, joy in the mundane, that leads to what Thoreau might call “leading a life of quiet desperation.”

The end of Dead Poets’ Society (last December’s semester-end choice) shows the futility of living life in endless pursuit of the mountaintop moments, driven by self-determined goals of what we want our lives to be about.

I remember being pretty disappointed with Walden, when I finally got around to reading it. Thoreau struck me as being sort of self-absorbed, rather anti-social. I’d hoped for a manual on living a richer life, I suppose. I didn’t get that. I got the ruminations of one man who threw out society’s ideals and went off by himself and pretty much gave up on his community. I was left with a feeling of emptiness –a lot like I was at the end of Dead Poets’.

I guess the thing I appreciated about Walter Mitty was not so much the journey of finding courage, but the end: the point where he discovers that everything he needed was right in front of him. The wallet in the trash. The gift he’d ignored. It was all in his back pocket, and he’d gone and thrown it away. He’d made a false dichotomy between safety and adventure, and in the process, sort of missed them both.

Sure, jumping off a helicopter was a thrill, long boarding through Greenland (or was it Iceland? I can’t remember) was pretty incredible.

The journey may change you, but sooner or later, you’ve got to go home.

And that’s where I find myself, months from graduation –about on my journey back home, back to the world of work and writing things maybe nobody will read. Maybe this semester was about fishing through the trash to find that wallet. Learning again to fight for the joy in the mundane. Needing to look harder to find the beauty in the things I live with every day.

“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention” -from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

What’s the purpose of life? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Forever includes the days circled in red on the calendar and the days in between. It includes the unforgettable moments and hours of tedium. It’s all part of forever.

The art of it is to realize that joy is worth the fight.

what matters

There’s a spark somewhere that I hit sometimes when I write. It doesn’t always happen, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out the alchemy to make it happen when I desperately want to sometimes. Sometimes it takes time, thought, quiet, a few days’ rumination. Sometimes, there’s a holy moment of incredible joy when I hit that final word and know that it is done, and I got it exactly right. But the more I write, the more I appreciate that rare moment for what it is. It doesn’t come along without paying the dues of days and weeks where that moment just won’t happen.

I’ve never loved anything –writing or otherwise– without that spark of …whatever it is. Passion, life, risk, I don’t know. Maybe it’s something like the breath of the Spirit into an idea or a person or a leaf on the wind. I can’t make it happen. I suppose that comes with the territory of this calling I’ve walked into. Everything I write that matters is written with borrowed words. I’ve invented no language. At best, I’ve been taking notes of the world, carefully curating thoughts and ideas and images, gathering them all together as I travel, bringing them home, spreading them on the picnic table, sorting them, arranging them in such a way as to tell not just the story, but to give the idea of what it was like –the wandering and the walking along. Not just the collected items, but the thread that ties them all together. That’s the magic that happens when I get it right.

Just enough words, not too much, paired with a willing ear or eye and the magic happens. I wish it happened every day, but maybe that would be asking too much.

Or would it?

Change Calling, part one

Change Calling, part one

            “Hello, you’ve reached my crazy, busy life. I’m sorry, but I can’t come to the phone right now. Please leave a message after the tone, and I’ll get back with you in ten or twenty years or so. Your call is important to us…”

College is supposed to be the place you find your calling. In my case, however, my calling was there, hiding from me in plain sight even before college, but I seem to have forgotten to check the voicemail.

The first snowy day of December in 2010 found me skidding helplessly down the frontage road that emptied into highway 11 in Sioux Falls. Alone in my minivan, I was feeling conflicted about the job interview I’d had a few days before, and wondering why I really didn’t want them to call back. The interview had gone really well, I’d thought, but I still had a feeling in my gut that something just wasn’t right.

As I was careening down the hill, my thoughts were divided between finding a clear spot between the cars so I could get down without crashing, and thinking about emailing one of my former teachers who had mentored me through high school. I figured that regardless of whether I got a reply in time, writing it all out would help me get things sorted out. As I reached the bottom of the hill (safely), I decided to sit down and send the email when I got home.

I returned home, I sat down to the computer, pushing aside my unfinished college re-application form, and composed the email. I hadn’t reached a conclusion by the time I hit send, but I knew change was in the wind.

That was how I began my second chance at finishing my college education.
In May of 1993, I left Dordt College (a small college in northwest Iowa –if you know about it, you’re probably related to someone who goes there) after two years, after my dream of teaching art turned to disappointment. I had finished Ed 101 with an A …and the undeniable conclusion that I was not cut out to be a teacher. My “Plan B” was graphic art, but Dordt’s art department then was not what it is today, at least as it concerned digital graphics. So when my dad offered me a job back home with the family printing business, I did the math and moved back home. I figured the degree could always come later, if I needed one at all.

For the following seven years, I worked as a graphic artist and pre-press technician, and found that while the work was challenging and interesting, the magical aura of “This is it! This is what I was born to do!” failed to materialize. My jobs paid the bills and put my husband through graduate school, but when my job title changed from “graphic artist” to “full-time at-home mother,” I was completely relieved. Surely this mom gig was what I was born to do. …And it was.

I found that with a house full of pre-schoolers, my days were full of more than just diaper changes and reading stories. I found skills I was not aware I had –I could manage a home better when I was home full-time, I read extensively on nutrition and voluntary simplicity (partly sparked by necessity as a one-income family). I became a student of my new profession.

In our travels during those years with little ones, we spent a difficult year living in Phoenix, Arizona. My husband had taken a job there teaching, and we quickly found that the job was not a good match. Our church, however, was a perfect match for our needs that year. Like us, our church was in a transitional period, examining its mission, and as a part of that investigation into who we were as a church, they sponsored a weekend seminar designed to help each of us find our own calling as individuals so that we could better bring our gifts together as a church. I honestly didn’t figure I’d find much new information. I knew that since girlhood, I’d loved the idea of being an artist, and while it wasn’t the thing that I naturally gravitated to, doing art was the thing I wanted to do.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Armed with three colors of post-it notes and a blank posterboard, our Saturday-morning assignment was to piece together a storyboard of our life. Negative memories and influences on one color, positive on another, and neutral on the third color. Once that was put together, we studied it, questioning over the big-picture patterns of our lives –where God was moving us, our resistance to that moving, and what that could mean for the future.

To my shock, I found that while art had always come as a struggle, writing (including the work involved in doing the storyboard project) both came easily and naturally and also gave me a joy that I’d previously dismissed. I sat in front of that storyboard the day or two after the workshop, piecing together the clues: I journaled through high school, and I credited it with keeping me sane and emotionally healthy. In elementary school, I was known as the girl with the above-average reading and spelling skills. One sixth-grade teacher published a short story I’d written in an anthology of student work. Another teacher referred to me in a second-grade report card as her “little reader for the Lord” (Christian school teachers… bless their heart). My favorite memories of childhood involve a chair and a book. My favorite place to be had always been the library or Barnes and Noble. A friend in college had read a literary analysis of The Scarlet Letter I wrote in high school and was fairly intrigued by it (“Who writes like this in high school?!” he asked).

While we were piecing together a church mission statement, I wound up as our small group’s secretary. I was at a table with two professional writers, and both commented on my ability to gather the things we’d mentioned into a clear, concise and complete statement.

Slowly, the light in my mind came on: what if, all this time, I’ve been a writer?

This is what finding my calling looked like. Not a sudden, timely realization, not a goal, not the culmination of a collection of hard-won skills, but a gradual revelation. To borrow a phrase from John Green, it happened slowly, then all at once. (If you missed the reference, ask any teenage girl who reads. She’ll get it.)
As a result of that epiphany, I found myself a few years later back within reasonable commuting distance to Dordt, my old college, but it took me several years to gather the faith to make the jump and finish my degree. But I count that snowy day in December as the day I began my journey back to college. I finished the email, and was shocked to find a reply only an hour or two later, encouraging me to waste no more time if this was where I believed God was calling me. I sent in the re-application, and by January, I had started back –just one class, and no certainty of what would come after that—but I felt a joy that I hadn’t had since those days with a house full of babies and preschoolers. I knew that finishing my education would enable me to be a better steward of my gifts, but I also knew that finishing school meant finding a job at the end of the process. It took me a while to figure out that what I was experiencing was a change of seasons.

By this point, my kids were all in school. I watched my own dedicated full-time at-home mom in “retirement” from her career, and knew from her experience that even though I would be a mom forever, in my case, being an at-home mom full-time was only a temporary job. God was opening me up for another vocation.

(to be continued)

 

 

Remembering / Not Forgetting

So I’ve been accidentally working on the chunk of story I spawned in Fiction Writing class a couple years ago that someday might grow into at least a small novel. If you’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, …this is my “Arthur.” If you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s a special kind of awkward right now, a happy little mess that I can’t quite leave alone yet. In the last couple days driving I’ve had a few ideas, and I’m finally (!) learning to have something with which to take down all the mental sticky-notes of ideas and words and stuff floating around in my head. Right now, it’s my evernote app on my phone (no pen necessary, and I always have my phone with me).

So this happened yesterday… I’m thinking it’ll go somewhere in the beginning. Or maybe I’ll keep it for something else. Whatever.

Remembering and Not Forgetting

I remember and I do not forget.

Remembering is the thought that floats by unexpectedly on the breezes of the day,

snagging the chain on the light in your soul

as it sinks into consciousness.

Not forgetting is an act of the will.

It’s the effort to capture the echoes of a lost love’s voice in the ear of your mind.

These are the things I remember,

and the things I will not forget.

success is my only … option

…Or so went my going-home soundtrack a couple days ago. I’ve just about maxed out my phone memory on downloaded Spotify soundtracks for the ride home, but I forgot about making one for bad days, because up until Tuesday, they didn’t exist. Turns out, Eminem is massively awesome rage music. Who knew?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been floating in this sort of “is this really happening” cloud of elated incredulity that I could really, truly be doing this and not just daydreaming about it behind the wheel again. I still can’t stop smiling every stupid time I pass that “Dordt College” sign in the morning. Seriously. I’m kinda annoyingly happy. This is a new thing for me. …But I think I could get used to it.

As Newton’s law (it was Newton, right?) goes, what goes up must come down, and I managed to resist my internal pessimist (see, I told you I’m going insane…) enough to forget that with four straight weeks of this, something was bound to happen. Sooner or later, the static from KFKD (it’s an Anne Lamott thing…) would finally break through, and I’d be Don Music-ing my way home.

So, it happened. I survived. And now, I’m maybe a little bit embarrassed about it. As I reminded myself on the way home Tuesday afternoon (in between singing along with Eminem. All the words…), Einstein flunked math. Edison failed thousands of times before he got the light bulb right. Hemingway was a drunk. Wait –that’s not terribly encouraging. Scratch that.

Anyway, life is going on just fine beyond my initial happy fog of beginning a new semester, and I think I’m going to make it through, whether I have a couple spectacular failures or just a couple mediocre papers (which anybody who cares about their work can tell you IS THE SAME FREAKING THING) or things just go fabulously well the rest of the semester. And I know how to use semicolons now. And sentence fragments (although parenthetical statements… still a problem). I must be learning something along the way.

So, to those voices in my head (see also: KFKD): bring it. This is SO on.

Back to the lab again, yo.