Standing in my calling

Standing in my call
In the labyrinth outside Baird Hall on the campus of San Francisco Theological Seminary, May 24, 2016.

Last week I retreated with my master’s of divinity class, one year after our graduation. The theme of our retreat was “thriving through transition.” I stood in the middle of a labyrinth where, six years ago, I first changed my answer to the question: “Will you change careers, drop what you’re doing now, go to graduate school, and become a pastor?” I said “yes” for the first time in the middle of that labyrinth. Then a little over a year later, I was laid off from my job as a news reporter and forced out of a career that I had loved for nearly half my life.

The psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has researched a concept called “grit” that is making rounds lately in podcasts and media think-pieces. Here she discusses grit and how to learn it: “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint….(Growth mindset is) the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. When kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”

During the retreat, led by Carolyn Foster, we heard this poem, which funnily enough hearkened back to my days as a Kentucky journalist:

By expenditure of hope,
Intelligence, and work,
You think you have it fixed.
It is unfixed by rule.
Within the darkness, all
Is being changed, and you
Also will be changed.

Wendell Berry

Even though I had said already said “yes” to a career change, I still felt like a failure and tasted the bitterness of the layoff for months, even years afterward. But as I stood in that labyrinth last week, I rewrote my story of failure. I remembered that I had said “yes” to change many months before being forced to change. I reminded myself that I have agency and power, and that as long as I’m alive, my story is not yet finished. I will keep on changing.

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Job: A lamentation

I lie at the side of my road, hollowed by shareholder robbers, identity thieves.
Where is the voice, the calling in the wilderness, I had heard drawing me forward?
I was so distracted by your voice, O God, I forgot to watch the intersections
And you allowed me to be bowled over, and I tumbled and rolled and skidded
Out of my clothing, out of my very skin, which is left on the pavement after flaying
And I lie on my back, open to the slate sky, blank. Who am I without my job?
No one will answer; my compatriots, fellows on the journey, stream by, and you allow
Their abandonment, you let them continue without me. They become my enemies
Unwittingly. I am on the same road, still, but unmoving, and suddenly with perspective
Anew, from below, from the side, from the sidewalk. I strain for your voice, for you
To tell me who I am, how to re-clothe myself, where the pieces of my skin can be grafted
And where I must scar as a reminder of who I was (or still am?) Only you can tell me
What happened, because I was listening to your voice and didn’t see what happened.
And now I cannot hear you.
I cannot hear you.
I know you were there.
Because of you, I am here.
But I cannot hear you now.
Until I stand up. And lose my shame, and decide on my identity, and choose a path.
Then will I hear your voice again. Will I hear your voice again?

What Harry Potter means to me

My experience with Harry Potter last summer got me thinking about how far I’ve come since I read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”over Christmas 2001.

The movie by the same name came out the fall of my senior year in college. Having been  too old and studying abroad for most of the Harry Potter mania, I had to take a crash course in the spelling of Dumbledore and Expelliarmus before covering the movie’s opening for the university newspaper. My roommate gifted me with the first three books in the series.

In one of my favorite interactions in the first book, the wise old headmaster Dumbledore advises Harry that “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” In the final installment of the series, which came more than ten years after the first, Harry meets Dumbledore in a dream-like state. “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry,” Dumbledore responds to a question. “But why should that mean it’s not real?”

One of “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling’s great gifts is understanding and describing the process of growing up. Our heads when we are children are filled with wonder and wishes and dreams, and we are subtly taught, or at least I was, that dreams are little more than an escape from reality and we should remember to stay grounded.

Over the past semester, my first in seminary, I have come to realize that my normal mode of existence is inside my head. I forget to express in words and actions my innermost emotions, feelings and reactions to the world around me. Somehow this makes the emotions seem unreal or unimportant, and if I think my emotions and experiences are unimportant, then I think others’ emotions and experiences are unimportant — that’s not good.

My practice for the semester has been to dwell on dreams — and feelings and intangible thoughts — and embody them. Say them, act on them, claim them, without fear. They’re real! Dumbledore told me so.