I’m always struck how our artificial human constructions, a state line, a new year, reflect deeper, less explicit, but more persistent realities. Driving west on US Route 412, leaving Arkansas into Oklahoma, within the space of 20 or 30 miles, you go from the Ozarks Mountains to the Great Plains. One day on that route, I crested a rise and for the first time could see for miles. It was a clear blue day, but the horizon was so far away that I thought I could see the curve of the earth.
Maybe I could, maybe I couldn’t, but I remember the feeling of getting a hint of something larger than myself, a world beyond my momentary perception of reality. I was 22 at the time, just about done with Grad School and it was the summer before I embarked on a 38-year professional journey in IT. That moment, at the side of the road, being surprised I could still breathe, comes back to me at the other end of that career journey. I am again feeling a hint of something larger than myself, feeling on the cusp of something, some change imperfectly understood, but irresistible, rooted beyond time and perception.
This may well be what more religious folks than I, are talking about when they talk about getting a call. I know it’s happened to me only a few times in my life, but each one is etched in me deeper than DNA or memory. Those moments are the illuminations of my soul, informing my loves and cares, nourishing my heart and resolve, and refining my intellect and perceptions.
Being in the middle of a career is a little like being in the middle of a mountain range. There are obvious challenges, horizons near at hand and well-defined if a little intimidating to cross. At some point though, if one keeps moving forward, you come out of the mountains and can see further, get a sense of a world bigger than you can see.
Those professional mountain ranges gave a kind of order to my days, a focus for my attention, a purpose, even if it was just paying the rent and being able to buy groceries. I was fortunate that my mountain range provided experiences higher up on Maslow’s Hierarchy, so moving beyond them means finding new orders, new ways to focus, a new purpose. Standing here, on the cusp of something that only time and experience will more fully reveal, I am choosing three elements to bring order to my days, to focus on, to be my purpose. They are story telling, path finding, and peace making.
Story telling is pretty obvious. I’ve always written to make sense of the world I encounter. I get a little crazy when I don’t write enough so this isn’t a big sacrifice. That’s not to say writing is easy. It creates a kind of vulnerability, making visible those things that were unseen and unspoken. To do it with integrity is to open oneself up to inspection, challenge and change. More than once, writing a poem, a story, a proposal, I’ve had an “Oh crap” moment of illumination that forced me down a different path than I had imagined. I remember how shocked and a bit terrified I was when one of the characters in my first novel did something I had not expected. “Can they really do that?” I asked myself, meaning, of course, could I really do that. There is the perception that writing is a solitary activity, and I guess that’s true for part of the process. On the other hand, writing always has an audience, even if it’s just one’s self and so any writing is a partnership between writer and reader. Another vector of vulnerability as we must give up some control if we want real partnership. In any event, almost from my first moments of self-awareness I have felt a personal resonance with language that seems to be different from those around me.
Photography is another story teller’s tool that calls my name. First in college and then after a long hiatus, about five years ago, I picked up the camera again. Working with Michele Gast, we founded Prairie Star Studios, our photographic and literary collaboration. As I journey out into the plain in front of me, writing and photography will be part of how I make sense of what I find, a censer I swing to bless myself and my world with words and pictures.
Path finding doesn’t have quite the long history with me that language does. It has only been in the last 10 or 15 years that I’ve begun to see myself as a path finder, that member of a travelling party who forges out ahead into unknown territory and finds a way forward. It’s a role that requires significant optimism and faith to strike out into the unknown, a healthy dose of patience and leadership to bring less adventurous folks along the found path, and finally more than a little dumb luck to not get stuck in some deadly dead end. As with writing, there is some vulnerability in that a pathfinder takes on the aspirations of his or her charges and is often held accountable for any shortfall regardless of the reasonability of the initial expectations. Playing the role with integrity requires attention to those expectations but also to the outcomes. It can be pretty easy for a pathfinder to stumble across the line to Judas Goat. None the less, especially in times of trouble or great change, finding effective ways forward is an almost sacred obligation for those who can do it.
Newest to my stable is peace-making. I guess it could be argued that this actually has the longest arc into my consciousness given my Mennonite up-bringing and the associated pacifist convictions. That said, it is only recently, as I’ve been trying to make sense of things with my story telling and path finding, that I have come to see both activities as sub-categories of peace making, part of the price of entry into a state of grace, acceptance and resolution. Peace making is not something well understood, readily recognized, or widely accepted in our urgent, competitive, consumable modern world. And somewhat paradoxically, being fully committed to peace making will certainly require me to be present in those many places in need of more peace, places full of chaos, stewing in animosity, darkened by ignorance (I’m looking at you Social Media!). To become more peaceful, to help others become more peaceful, I must be peaceful even when my surroundings are not. Yeah. A chicken and egg thing I do not fully understand. My new journey will be one of discovery, especially when it comes to peace-making.
So, I’m on a crest, looking out over a great distance to a fuzzy horizon. Surprised, again, that I can still breathe but pulled forward, mysteriously drawn to take that next step.