The Why that Drives

Recently a friend invited me to lead a training on vocation for young adults.  “Thanks for thinking of me,” I accepted the invite, “I’d love to.”

Love to?  Maybe.

For me, vocation–the why that drives what I do — is a word full of shifting shadows.  It’s a relentless companion that plucks at my elbow, eats at my board, sleeps when I sleep, rises when I rise.  It’s alternately the draft upon which my heart soars and the hollowing wind that scours me empty.  It’s a prize and a punishment.

Nearly eighteen years ago, Tim and I moved to Montana from the Boston area.  We wanted to start our marriage on our own terms, away from the pace and pressures of the east coast.  Though we’d never stepped foot in the state, we’d gathered ideas about Montana like wild yeasts caught from the air.  Two weeks after our wedding, we packed a moving truck and drove across the country.

In those first years, we rented a small house on the Flathead Reservation, started making soap in the basement as a lark, and completed graduate degrees for our inevitable decampment back East. “Come visit us,” we widely broadcast to friends and family, “this is our last year here.”

Then our first son came.  Still, we reasoned, after one more year, we would go.  Then our second son arrived.  A family now, we considered where we wanted to raise children.  Montana’s rivers and mountains, its famous big sky and slow drifting days had gotten ahold of us.  How could we leave?

We didn’t.  Tim threw himself into turning our basement soap-making operation into a business that could sustain our family.  And to support the eighty-hour weeks those early years of building a business demanded, I stayed home with our boys.

One day, shortly after the birth of our second son, I wove through the grocery store, pushing both boys in the cart.  I bumped into one of my philosophy professors–a brilliant, hard-driven man– with whom Tim and I had both taken classes.  We had loved every minute of his seminars, picking over the bones of modernity.  He’d championed our plans to head back East for more grad school.  That day, in the grocery store, as I tried to keep my toddler from climbing out of the cart, he asked me, “Why are you still in Montana? You’re wasting yourself here.”

The truth of those words struck me.  I’d fallen out of the sphere where my mind could maintain the iron-sharpening-iron edge of academics.  At home with two young children, I was out of the camaraderie and sense of accomplishment of the workforce.  The losses were real.

But in another — equally true — sense, I was gaining myself, gaining myself in a quieter, harder way.  We’d moved to Montana to live on our own terms, and now I was going to have to dig deep and lean into those terms.  I couldn’t use the ready-made handhold of a career to lift my life.

Researcher and storyteller Brene Brown often talks about our tendency to “hustle for our worthiness.”  Through pleasing and performing, we chase a sense of self.  Even though I know in my bones that as a child of God, no amount of “doing” can add to my essential worthiness, I still find myself trying to earn this inheritance.

I believe we each live our own variants of the basic question: What am I here for?  Entangled with ancillary issues like ego, status, failure, fulfillment, shame, hope, becoming, I find this question impossible to get a hold of; one bit snakes out just as I get the lid on the opposite corner.

“Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.”  Parker Palmer writes in his book, Let Your Life Speak.  My years in Montana, my years of “wasting myself” and gaining myself have been a decades-long lesson in learning not to scramble.

“Love, share, engage,” Kim writes in this week’s Consider. “These are the superhero tasks of our lives.”  Egos scramble.  True selves love, share, engage.  Indeed this is hard and heroic work.

There is an old Hasidic tale that Martin Buber records in this way, “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: “Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusya?”’

In the shifting shadows and lights of my life, I’m discovering what it is to be me.  Not Moses, not Zusya, just me.

The Limits of Your Longing

20150710_201308High on the cliffs of Rosario Point above Puget Sound, Ko-Kwal-alwoot stretches out strong arms to hold a salmon against the sky.  Her story pole, carved from a hulking 30’ X 5’ cedar log, tells the Samish Indian myth of a maiden who agrees to marry The Sea to save her people from starvation. Despite her father’s objections, she walks wholeheartedly into the cold salt water, and The Sea–honoring his promise–releases salmon the Samish so desperately depend on.   

You don’t need to search far to find them: myths of the eternal calling to the temporal, divine spirits falling in love with the mortal, and the mortal responding with abandon.  I thought of this as I read Lindsay’s last Consider, as she described the way her spirit swelled and leapt out into the wild waters of the Atlantic.  All ancient cultures bear witness to this longing.

20160621_165438In Cornwall the rugged coastal trail winds into the tiny village of Zennor, where 6th Century Christians established the St. Senara church. Past needlepoint kneelers an ancient wooden chair depicts a mermaid lifting her bare arms.  Legend has it that she wandered from the wild turquoise sea in search of chorister Matthew Trewhellen, whose voice had been borne to her by the wind.  Trewhellen left the familiar–friends and hearth and garden–and dove beneath the waves forever. The call: Come.  The response: I abandon myself completely.

Who among us have not felt this keening?  Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.  All your waves and breakers have swept over me.  This Psalm has captured me since I was a child.  The eternal calls my name and I long to throw myself off the edge into something greater.

It’s not a call to comfort and easy solace.  Summers at the Atlantic, I remember being caught by a wave, rolled into a swirl of green, pulled by the current, pounded by the surf.  The ocean spat me onto the sand; I gasped for breath.  Then I wiped the salt from my eyes and went back in.

This is a dangerous summons.  Jump in knowing there’s no guarantee you won’t be destroyed.  But you will be remade.

Ko-Kwal-alwoot walks out over smooth stones.   Above her head, osprey call, scanning the water for their next meal.  Behind her, cedars, hemlocks, madrones rise; at her feet, spreading out cold and grey, the waters of Puget Sound.  As she reaches to draw out a shellfish, a hand grasps hers.  “Don’t be afraid,” a voice says.  She must join the Spirit, for her people are starving.  She must plunge into the freezing depths, for there is no other way.  When she visits her family again, she will be changed–damp air will linger in her wake, her hair will wave like kelp.  She will miss the sea; back to the sea she will return; her home will never again be what it once was.

With all our great poetry, music, art, we are no nearer to adequately finding the words to domesticate this longing.  Perhaps few writers have done so well as Rilke:  “God speaks to each of us as he makes us,” he writes, “then walks silently out of the night./These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like a flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Ko-Kwal-alwoot extends her hand, sinks into the slate-grey waters.  The young chorister scrambles through thrift and foxgloves, his back to the dark sleeping village, throws himself from the cliffs.  From the wild depths, a summons.  Go to the limits of your longing.  Nearby is the country they call life.  Give me your hand.



-Please check out the beautiful story of the Samish Maiden for yourself, as told by Charlie Edwards to Martin Sampson in 1938.  And if you ever find yourself at Deception Pass near Whidby Island, WA, don’t miss the story pole at Rosario Point.

-Keep stopping by The Back Page for more behind-the-scenes.  Thank you!

Photo Credits:  Martin Cockroft

What Remains

Seventeen years ago, as Tim and I returned from our honeymoon in Maine, we spent the drive memorizing a W.H. Auden poem.  In Camden, I’d picked up a hardcover collection of Auden’s work and, as we drove, I leafed through its pages until coming to “As I Walked Out One Evening.”  The poem – fitting it seemed for a honeymoon – begins with two lovers strolling along the Thames.  Reaching a bridge, the lovers linger (as lovers do) to pledge and proclaim their undying love.

Sweet, sentimental stuff, these words, and on-point for two kids driving through coastal Maine with the “Just Married” paint still visible on our car’s rear window.

Then without warning, Auden’s poem veers sharply.

Into the midst of the lovers’ disclaiming, suddenly “all the clocks in the city/ Began to whirr and chime. ”  On and on the clocks go with their tolling, gainsaying the lover’s optimism.  Through the next several stanzas, Auden relentlessly compiles the ways time works its many disappointments, piling up losses in its wake.  “Into many a green valley,” he notes, “drifts the appalling snow.”

These deft lines steer toward a single question: What can stand the relentless onslaught of time?  The clocks’ insistence consigns everything to dissolution.  Their tolling indicts love’s pretensions to escape unmarred.  Happy stuff for a honeymoon, yes?

In this week’s Consider, Kim writes about sorrow padding along beside her amid spring’s glories.  “How do I make peace with a reality where beauty and travesty stand shoulder-to-shoulder?” she asks.

This has been a week of devastating news.  A week in which we’ve seen another place claim its spot on the sad and terrible litany we repeat: Paris, San Bernadino, Orlando, London, Brussels, Manchester.

Of course, loss isn’t only in such epic tragedies.  As I watch the painful dissolution of a friend’s marriage, as I watch my widower neighbor try to get a handle on his days, I know we are deep in the appalling snow.  And, if we probe our own hearts, who of us cannot touch some vein that seizes with sorrow?

“Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color.  This is why, even in moments of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow,” Christian Wiman writes in his essay “Sorrow’s Flower.”

As Wiman suggests, I don’t think there is peace to be made with the reality of beauty and travesty standing shoulder-to-shoulder.  Rather this is the animating tension of our lives.  As Auden shows, even in a blessed life where things are going well, the clock is still ticking away the moments, is still stepping us closer to the tragedy that will stagger us.  The lovers’ blissful moment by the river (and indeed every moment, blissful or not) is haunted and compromised by this reality.  And isn’t that reason enough for sorrow to run its vein right through us?

What do we do with such a reality?  Despite the dismal state he has descried, Auden will not leave us comfortless.  He enjoins the reader with two incredible stanzas:

‘O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress:

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbour

With your crooked heart.'


Through the years, these words have never run dry.  The hope they contain is not starry-eyed — rather wrested from the muck, with the dirty fingerprints of that struggle still upon it.  There is no way around this place where sorrow and loss compromise your joys.  One must go through.  And as we do, we find the incredible, mysterious truth that, however compromised we are, life remains a blessing.  From this new-found place, “You shall love your crooked neighbour/ With your crooked heart.”

Late this summer, Tim and I will have our eighteenth wedding anniversary.  Like Auden’s lovers, we’ve had plenty of moments that have sung out with promise.  And we’ve had plenty which would  be better characterized by his line, “in headaches and in worry, vaguely life leaks away.”  Such are the conditions of being.  And you know what, friends?  However deep in the appalling snow, however much the clocks toll time’s passing, however crooked I find myself and my neighbour, Auden’s humble words abide.  They run on and on like the river.  “Life remains a blessing.”

Soul-building? It’s Nitty-Gritty Work.

Years ago, my husband immersed himself in the art of drystone-stacking.  To understand the romance, travel to England (or New England) and stand beside one of those ubiquitous low stone walls that ramble across fields and over hills.  The farmer who built those walls not only wanted to keep sheep from danger–the work evidences the soul of a poet.  Not one stone is out of place; the whole has stood for a century or more.  If you feel moved by this almost beyond comprehension, you may understand my husband’s obsession.

The lore surrounding this time in our family’s life is epic.  My husband constantly scanned ditches, neighbor’s yards, even graveyards, for stray stones.  Once spotted, he’d go to what I thought were ridiculously great lengths to secure them, trampling into the dense Pennsylvania woods through brush and trash to unbury stones that he would load into our old pickup truck.  At home, I watched in some consternation as he ran his hands over each stone, considering them as carefully as a parent studies her child.  Then he groaned under their weight, heaving each into place.

As each stone found its home, my consternation turned to wonder.  Morning turned to afternoon and ripened into twilight.  He seemed to be completely unaware of time passing, or of our children needing dinner–or anything.  He was locked in silent conversation with the stones.

Stones don’t want to be trapped in mortar, he told me.  As time passes, they need to be able to expand and shift.  That will make the wall stronger.  If built right, he said, it will last longer than we will.

Finding exactly the right place for each stone is crucial.  The process can’t be rushed or your wall will topple. I watched from the window as he intuited the perfect place for each stone according to their shapes.  When he was finally done–days, weeks later–the wall was beautiful and strong, and looked as if it had always been.

I feel drawn to the souls of people I love and admire, and it’s easy sometimes for me to forget that their magnetic, quiet beauty has been crafted painstakingly, stone by stone.

In this week’s Consider, Lindsay unfolded Keat’s idea of soul-making.  While the concept of soul is shot through my mystery and has much to do with gift, the actual business of soul-making is practical, everyday work.  I can take steps to build my soul into a beautiful, strong thing or I can give up and hope it will be done for me.  The choice is mine.

Like my husband’s stone-stacking, this is patient work.  It is I who must heave each stone into place in this nitty-gritty work of soul-building.  In the silence of suffering, in the greatness of joy, in every small choice I make or word I speak, I am constructing my own identity.  If the stones of my becoming are hidden, half-buried in the woods, will I have the courage to unearth them, claim them for my own?

It is comforting for me to remember that this business of soul-building is not a wholly solitary venture.  Some stones just weigh too heavy for me.  Will I have the vulnerability to ask for help from my fellow stone-builders?

For as Keats says, this world is a vale of soul-making.  I do not work alone.

Photos:  Lake District 2016.  From the hillsides (at top) to the walls (left, above).  This is one of many photos my husband took of stonewalls during our trip to England!

Plumb Line

The dog and I are just back from a midday walk.  Now, she pants out a tale of the tennis ball she pursued through thicket and grove while I sit here, trying to hold myself within the afterimage of our outing.  Mid-May in my corner of Montana means the hillsides are studded with sun-yellow balsam roots, aspens wave newborn leaves, and choke cherry bushes are top heavy with their spires of blossom.  Literally, every step is a passage into something breathtaking.

In this week’s Consider, Kim writes, “Beauty awakens questions that have been sleeping within us.”  Today, as I walked through the incredible momentary show May had conjured, I didn’t so much think about this quote, as experience it.  I had no moment of lightning insight, no one great question rising.  Rather my on-going inward conversation dropped below all the edifice upon which daily life runs (appointments and errands, chores and checklists) and touched in with deeper, foundational ground.

It’s an astonishment really, this business of being here. We are here.  And we are aware of being here.  And we continually ask questions of this awareness to plumb the meaning of our being here. This is surely the miracle and gift of consciousness.  And its weight and wound.

While I walked just now, I knew that by next week the balsam roots would pale to straw.  In another week, they’ll be memory.  And yet, I am permitted to walk through their abundance now, to send the dog tearing through them, nose to the ground, living out her singular fixation on retrieval.  All of this is, as they say, here today gone tomorrow.  Yet it bespeaks something timeless.  Despite its fleetingness (and my own) it cracks the door on eternity.

A few years ago, my husband and I drove Going to the Sun Road through Glacier National Park.  This corkscrew of a drive, hewn to the side of a plunging valley, is truly a feat of engineering.  Yet the vast expanse of human ingenuity seems but a mote in this dizzying landscape.  We’d turned off the radio, opened the windows, ceased to talk.  It felt like the air those peaks passed between them was somehow older, deeper.  As we neared Logan pass, Tim broke our silence, “This place makes me want to be a better person.”

This and feature photo by Ken Cockroft

That’s just it.  Beauty plays upon some imprint so deep inside of us, we’ve nearly kicked over its traces in all our day-to-day shamblings.  But, these fugitive encounters invite something deeper, urge a communion we perennially crave.  Each time is an opportunity to send the plumb line down and see just how deep we go.  As for me, I hope to never hit bottom.

Travel Log

This morning I said goodbye to the girls and my husband, Martin, and I drove through rare and welcome midmorning sunshine to the ferry dock.  After a peaceful hour’s ride, we exited the mouth of the ferry, whisked through the bustle of Seattle, wound up the still-snowy mountain pass, and rocketed out into the vast, desolate rolling hills.  No kids in the back seat, a podcast murmuring quiet wisdom, and a hot cup of coffee: bliss.  A chance at last to cultivate what Lindsay talked about so well in her Consider this week: the art of inwardness.

Now I sit alone in the hotel room with the hum of the air-conditioning and congestive rattle of the mini fridge.  As soon as Martin left to see colleagues (this is work trip), I fought the urge to flip on the T.V.  Instead, I sat down with a glass of wine to mull over what Martin said after I got off the phone with Lindsay this afternoon.  “You’re so busy,” he said, “I wonder if you’ve taken time to slow down and reflect on the process of launching Each Holy Hour?”  You mean like metacognition, I answered, using a word educators love.  He smiled.

Metacognition is about thinking and talking honestly about your own learning process.  So as I begin to narrate the process of building Each Holy Hour, a project for wonder, I admit to myself that my recent preoccupation with the many “ticks on the to-do list” that Lindsay described in her meditation has had nothing to do with encountering wonder.  It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed moments of loveliness as I’ve waded through a thick morass of details of building a new website and content.  Even in the thicket of logistics, even as I clawed my way up the steep learning-curve of technology, I’ve found time to hug my kids, take in our blooming cherry tree, stand hushed and awed over a nest of newly hatched chickadees.

But I’ve reflected very little.  I’ve been glued to my phone and my computer so much that my eyes have become achy and bloodshot.  I’ve been myopic and obsessed, not inward–there’s a big difference:  “Inwardness is a summons that resists stress and hustle, an orientation to the world, not something that can be gained by doing.”

I struggle with the tension of keeping my life balanced.  When you parent three kids, work a part-time job, and write to boot, getting things done is hard-won.  On launch day, all my daughters were home sick.  As I face-timed Lindsay about the first Consider, her daughter (home sick!), jostled her elbow and asked questions.

But now after two weeks of doing, I feel unmoored from the very things that Each Holy Hour is all about:  solitude, reflection, face-to-face, unhurried communion with people.

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Flashback two months ago to a walk on the beach by grey Puget Sound.  Lindsay had made the drive from Montana to visit us.  Our kids picked their way through shallow pools, collecting crabs and eels. We tiptoed through thousands of sand dollars stacked in the sand–like shingles, Lindsay observed.  We dragged sticks in the sand, bent down to pocket smooth, ancient stones, lingered over driftwood.  And we discussed our passion for contemplation and our need for silence.  We talked about Each Holy Hour.

Life is about dwelling in that tension between doing and being.  Some hours are as spacious and silent as the hilly farmland we drove through this afternoon; others are as hectic and noisy as downtown Seattle.  Sometimes we hold our breath, lower our gaze, and plow through the crowd, and other days we wander blissfully under a wide, open sky.

But finding balance demands more from me than just silencing my phone for a few moments to snap up some convenient inwardness.  Inwardness is an “orientation to the world.”  It’s a way of being, a way of breathing, if you will.  And in a culture that measures me by my productivity, I need to  exhale and open my hands.


Rilke and Each Holy Hour

If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

The phrase “Each Holy Hour” blossomed from Rilke’s poem, I am Much Too Alone in this World (from Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows & Jooana Macy).  In an August 2016 interview with Krista Tippett, Macy reflects that Rilke uses “image after image from the natural world to convey. . .both the mystery and the beauty [in] the relationship that we find in the sacred.”

Together, we hope to continue this conversation between our spirits and the wondrous material of this good world.  Whether you add your voice through comments or prefer to enter quietly and in solitude, we are so glad you are here.  Please, pour of a cup of tea and draw up a chair.

I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone


to truly consecrate the hour.  –Rilke

linds tea