The word calling has always bothered me. I suppose it’s because I have a hard time distinguishing between what’s inside me that I should work to bring out and what I feel like doing that day. I love pushing a pen across paper, finding and waiting for the perfect words to write a story. I would also love to be a Luv-a-Bull. The pull to dance at a Chicago Bulls’ half-time game is as strong as the pull I have to write. You can see why I get confused about calling. Also, I am a creative nonfiction writer, which means that the line between what is true and what could be true tends to be blurrier than that Robin Thicke song. This is to say I have a great big imagination and it’s not hard for me to believe that if I really want something, I can get it.
I’m in the Atlanta airport when this rumination on calling and storytelling begins. I’m on the way home from the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, and I have a three-hour layover. Then, after a ninety-minute flight, I have a forty-five-minute drive. I’ll be home around two in the morning. Walking around this place that should be its own city reminds me of my graduate school days, and all it took to get to my residencies. I think I took every mode of transportation save a horse and buggy to get out west. It wasn’t just getting there; leaving my family stung too. The Festival of Faith and Writing is only a weekend, unlike the ten-day residencies I attended, but I’m beginning to wonder about the effort I go through to study words. I’m beginning to contemplate the toll it takes on me and my family and whether it’s worth it.
I don’t know if I come back a better person. It’s not like the movie City Slickers when Billy Crystal finds his smile after helping a cow give birth. Usually, I return bewildered, moody, and full of doubt. I’m beginning to wonder if I am truly called to write.
That’s what I’m thinking about while I’m on a train that carries us from one wing of the airport to another. A man in a wheelchair being pushed by a woman gets on. They barely make it. She is dripping with sweat. His head is bowed and his body shuffles with the movement of the train; like a doll’s body that has no control and must rely on the carrier to keep her protected.
The day before, I was sitting in the Calvin College Chapel, listening to Tania Runyan read her poem, “Instructions for My Daughter’s Nurse.” She asks the nursing home attendant to look carefully after her daughter because she won’t be around to do it. The mother will be long gone, and this child who once giggled and waddled and clung to her hip will be at the mercy of the staff worker who wipes drool form her chin, feeds her, changes her diaper. “Please, take a moment/to find my daughter among the stone stares./Go to her, touch her shoulder, and look into her face.”
I watch as the man reaches for his wife’s hand and holds it; their hands rest together on his shoulder while the train bumps along and they shake as one.
Later, I’m in a bar having a beer that’s so big I need to hold it with two hands. Two men sit down at the table next to me. “You by yourself?” they ask, hoisting themselves onto the high chairs.
“Yes,” I say, and quickly open up my journal and take out a pen.
“Can we use your extra chair then?” one man asks and points to his foot. It’s bandaged and looks like it’s probably been sprained.
“Sure,” I say.
They ask me about the beer I’m drinking, my layover, where I’m headed. I give them short answers and open up Paula Huston’s One Ordinary Sunday, knowing they’ll read the subtitle: A Meditation on the Mystery of Mass, and stop talking to me immediately. It works.
“A real pilgrimage,” Huston writes, “strips you of your identity. You are a stranger among strangers, dependent on the goodwill of others. You are vulnerable. You can easily become a magnet for evil. But at the same time, you are full of hope.”
I flatten the book so I can underline those words. In the margin I write, “This is exactly how I felt in grad school.” Susceptible to evil and brimming with hope. It’s the same way I felt at the Festival of Faith and Writing. I’m haunted.
I’m not saying calling is a burden, but I’m wondering if being called means working harder and bearing more than you ever thought you could. I wonder if it means walking around haunted for most of your life.
Their conversation changes and one of the guys says, “Some of this stuff he does on the farm makes me nervous. I’m not sure he should be working that hard, but you know you can’t tell him that.”
His friend takes a drink and says, “I know. I can’t tell my dad that either.”
Everyone sits in silence for a while. My gigantic beer is gone. My bill arrives. I pay and walk away toward my gate, thinking about aging parents, and Chicago.
Recently, a member of my church died. At the memorial service, our pastor explained that the last song her family sang to her, the song that her heart stopped beating to, was “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” He went on to tell us about this lovely lady while I thought about my pastor sitting at the round table in his office listening to this family tell him about this woman’s last moments. I thought about them leaving the office, my pastor quietly shutting the door, walking to his computer, and staring at the blank page, thinking about how to take what he has just been offered, what he has helped to bear, and make it into a story so that the rest of the congregation can bear it too.
I watched him while he spoke. He looked like he was in pain; a magnet for evil and full of hope at the same time. I wonder if this is the work of a storyteller: being willing to bear the weight of what others are living. But not just bearing it; somehow finding a way to recreate it and send it out into the world so that others can hold it too.
I read a story once, and I’ll probably get some of the details wrong, but this character was a collector of stories. Every time she heard a bit of news, she’d write it on a rock and pile it on a wall of other rocks. I guess she was making a wall of stories. One day, though, the news she was collecting was too much for her, and she took one of the heaviest rocks, went down to the river, and held herself in it; clinging to the rock because she couldn’t bear the story any longer.
If I am called to be a storyteller, I want to be one who is eternally haunted, one who is a magnet for evil and full of hope. Dear Father in heaven, be with me as I stand in these two extremes and observe. Hold on to me as I create. Let me never take a rock down to the river.