Further reflections on my personal experience at the Connect Conference in Thailand. This might be an extended reprise of an earlier blog, I forget and I’m too lazy, uh.
Chase was giving me photography tips.
“Whenever possible,” he said, “zoom with your feet.”
That’s why we went all the way to Thailand, to the Connect Conference: to zoom with our feet. Sure, we could have sent the artwork with our blessings (like the Reuels did this year, we may have to do in future years). The best way to get a picture of people far away, to see them better, is not to use a telescopic lens, but to walk up close to them.
The thing about the Connect Conference that makes it difficult to write about from a journalist’s perspective is the way that even (especially) visitors are invited to participate. There is no dispassionate position you can take when the boundaries of a division of the Company are so generous as to include you in such an open way, once you have chosen to accept that invitation. Anyway I’ve never really been a journalist; besides, from reading Thoreau I came to an understanding that journalists say very little that is new. I started out the week trying to write a few blogs as a reporter, but as the week progressed I turned toward poetry to express what was happening. There are four poems in my blog’s archives in February.
I have been comfortable for some time calling myself a writer. Now, as I discovered a non-journalistic role I could only describe as “poet in residence”, I came to terms with myself as a writer on a new level. The term “poet” was as intimidating to me as the term “artist” is for many people. Our Dandelion Seed Company Conferences have often functioned as the catalyst for people to allow themselves to claim the term “artist”. Before, they may have said, “I sometimes make paintings”. In the same way, before the Connect conference, I might have admitted that, once in a long while, I write poems. Maybe, in my head, calling myself a poet was a sort of arrogance, not too different from calling myself a “prophet”. In fact, the two terms might be a lot more interchangeable than I ever imagined, and a lot more effective as a role when embraced and engaged with intentionality by those of us who are called to it. The Connect Conference, to my surprise, did this for me: Yes, I am a poet. Yes, I am a prophet. Oh, I have (and continue to be) a life coach. That’s a huge part of who I am, but it’s never been, never been, me being fully me. A life coach listens, but a prophet speaks and a poet writes. A prophet performs art. A life coach and poet, like the Dude in The Big Lebowski, abides.
In Lebowski, Jeff Bridges plays the title role. Only he doesn’t. In this story with a case of mistaken identity, Bridges’ character, the Dude, whose formal name is (coincidentally) Lebowski, never refers to himself as the Big Lebowski. In fact, without his namesake’s interference there would be no story, because the Dude abides (does nothing) and there isn’t a story in that. His friends know what his real name is, but they never call him by it. As he explains to his namesake (the real title character, the real Big Lebowski)
“Look. Let me explain something. I’m not Mr. Lebowski; you’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. That, or Duder. His Dudeness. Or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing—“
The point I’m making is, even in our own lives, at our best, we’re not really the title character. At our best, we just abide. If we just abide, then what makes life interesting? Two things: first, the thing that can happen which provides conflict, the thing that pushes us over the edge into living at least a mildly interesting story, is when we are involved in something against our will and assumed or expected to be someone we aren’t. In the Dude’s case, someone urinated on his rug. And it tied the whole room together, and since it messed up his feng shui, (uh, which is never identified as such) it created enough of a problem to drive him to act. Something, in other words, has to push us out of our comfort zone to make life interesting. Or, we live for something bigger than ourselves, and we abide in a Vine where we are rather prune-able, a certain sort of disposable, but not in a bad way, just the kind of way that’s annoying to our friends, like Donny, if we are dust in a coffee can which then blows into their faces; I mean, once we are gone, we are going to continue to abide. Poor Donny, his heart couldn’t bear being outside his comfort zone; and yet… uh.
What I mean is that when Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches and to abide in him, as he abides in the Creator, is, uh.
But it does drive us to do something about the rug.
The thing is, living out our place in the Company is the kind of thing that flies under the radar all day long, until we encounter resistance. And the only reason we encounter resistance is because we’re not the title character others think we’re supposed to be. It’s not about us.
This is how I know I’m beginning to learn to abide: The day after I got home from Thailand, I took a walk through Goshen, feeling that the best time to truly see your home is the day after you get home from a voyage abroad, and while walking I took some pictures. Comfortable, now, saying that I’m a poet, I might as well say that I’m a photographer, too, though very much more the amateur at that in terms of a developed skill set, uh. I have no clue, just a poet’s eye for moments. So as I walked and thought about this article, I shot pictures of this beautiful, stark place where I live. I found to my surprise that my shot of the day captured two geese in flight, perfectly framed in a space between the trees. I was holding the camera in my pocket to keep it dry when I saw them come honking their way up the millrace, then veer to the west. I drew the apparatus like a cowboy and fired three times, pow-pow-pow, missing the geese completely each time, or so I thought. I didn’t even know if I’d gotten them in the viewfinder at all when I was shooting, there was so much snow in my face.
As I walked, I thought about zooming with my feet, and I thought about how a picture is worth a thousand words, and it occurred to me that if you are a poet your job is to zoom with your feet and then give people a picture in fewer words than a thousand. That is very hard to do. That takes a deep knowledge of your mother tongue. Most of us give it little thought past ninth grade English; I think about it daily. Even so, I am glad I have a camera for the times when I can’t seem to cowboy-quick-draw a poem, when I fail to capture the essence of a moment or a day in the viewfinder of my words.
My colleague Michael Pollock, son of David C. Pollock, who was instrumental in coining the term and defining the sociological concept “third-culture kid”, once told me that 3CKs often report they are most at home in airports. Wow, that described me.
But nobody really abides in airports. Think about this: There is no duty-free life.
To be so much at home in transition is a blessing, to be sure, but it has downsides.
Truly abiding is not needing to be in chaotic transition to feel comfortable. Poets keep it simple, stay home and plow one patch of ground year after year, or, like the Dude, they do nothing, and do it with excellence. Plowmen have been poets over hundreds of years, from Robert Burns of Scotland to Wendell Berry of Kentucky. Burns’ famous poem To a Mouse recognizes even this small creature’s need for a stable home and laments that it was turned over by the poet’s (Burns’) plow. They’re steady and sloe-eyed as an ox. You’d think they’re comfortable in their little acreage, but read Berry’s Men Untrained to Comfort and you’ll see these mens’ entire lives are physically spent, their mental energies, too, on making the load lighter for others, including their own animals. This is what I sense when I coach, alongside my “Big Bro”. He is taking the weight off. He is asking me only to be who I am, not more, not less, and to abide in him.
Some notes in my journal from Thailand as I thought about plowing side by side with my Bro and discussed it with Mariella:
Oxen – field. Straight line wide open field. It’ll be just fine. We can do this all day.
And from Dan Baumann, speaking of my Brother:
He likes ordinary days.
Which reminded me of Ps. 118:24, I think it speaks of ordinariness, too, and the simplicity of abiding.
This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
The poet does not need to zip about the world from stage to stage (but can zoom with his feet when it’s called for). The poet, like a caretaker of orphans in Mongolia, sees the value of waking up every day to do the same thing, to provide stability and bear weight for others, and thus to translate the mundane, through languages both spoken and unspoken, into beauty, that beauty of hard ground turned over in a simple straight furrow. The poet may find his most valuable moment that moment of return, because although a poet abides, he does so in a way that offers new perspectives. The moment of return: the moment when you’ve reached the end of the field and swing around to work the opposite direction. You were facing the sun, now you move away from it; your field is the same length, but your perspective changes completely in that moment. You’ve traveled all the way to the opposite side of your known world, and you’re ready to go back again.
We don’t live for the transitional moment at the end of the row, though it is glamorous and mysterious as an airport’s first-class lounge (to a 3CK, who travels economy, whose luxury is a pair of really good headphones he uses for Skype meetings doubling as airline movie-goer’s best-seat-in-the-house apparatus). The oxen live for the middle of the row, pulling. The noon heat and the pleasure of a good sweat, of taking the weight off others’ shoulders.
To my surprise, I discovered that I am a poet. This is the kind of thing that happens at a DSC gathering, and so, an obvious kinship becomes apparent. The result was that rather than chafing at being somewhere less exotic, I was pleased to see the beauty of my home and to be back to a place where I too can provide middle-of-the-row stability and end-of-the-row perspective for my own children. And when I’m talking about rows here I mean plowing, not airlines, uh.
I did ask where I should go next, because there will be other travels. Dad said, “When you get home, send in your passport for renewal right away [it expires in November]. When it comes back, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, here’s more of my love.”
PS what I love as I’ve read through the Big Lebowski script recently is the half-completed thoughts, which typically end with an inarticulate “uh” while other characters pick up on the general drift of meaning and add their piece on top of it, ending their thoughts in the same way. So if you want to respond to this blog in half-thought out, semi-articulate pieces, just end with “uh” and I’ll be, uh.