What do you hold onto? Where do you land when you fall?
I’ve noticed more and more how images of God’s presence that once spoke to me will empty out over time. New ways of thinking and feeling take their place. Even the most meaningful language can wear out with use, after all, and we ourselves experience the world differently as our lives shift and change.
I suspect this is why I resonated so much when a writing workshop I’m taking asked us to consider poetry that approached God from an unexpected angle. The shift or redirection of familiar imagery for the divine can confront us with new perspectives. For instance, Jacqueline Osherow’s reworking of imagery from the Psalms in her poem “III (Thrones and Psalms)” (from Dead Men’s Praise) pictures God not “on Ezekiel’s throne of sapphires” but, rather, “held aloft by the religious ladies” who recite Psalms daily. I found myself puzzling over this one but a little charmed, too. Suffice it to say, unexpected ways of envisioning the divine leave us with things to think about.
Jumping off a psalm in my own homework for this workshop, I tried writing the poem below called “Present Help.” It’s brief, as I experimented with something approaching the Japanese poetic form known as the “Mondo” (two stanzas of 5-7-7 syllables each). Within that form, I took the language of refuge and strength from Psalm 46 and reacted to it, reflecting on the tumbles of life and what a divine presence has meant to me then.
God is our refuge and strength. – Psalm 46:1
I think of Her as the last thing I’d grab when grounds shift and crack, and I stumble.
She’s then like nowhere further down to go and not much left to know but here, now.
– Callie J. Smith
What about you? Where and how do you experience divine presence these days?
I’ve been feeling the need to explain myself lately. Aware that I’ve put inordinate amounts of time into a hobby that I do (admittedly) love, I’ve felt the urge to defend myself (even if only to myself) about what I’ve been doing.
What have I been doing? I’ve been writing a novel. In the dark before winter dawns this past year, I was brainstorming in a little brown notebook, wondering what I’d get to vicariously experience through these characters and who, in fact, they might become. By spring, I was spending what morning time I could holed up at a computer desk by my back window, geeking out over how to cobble together a flow of scenes that felt satisfying. Now that summer’s almost past, those hours have added up to a lot of enjoyment, a manuscript draft finished, and – when I’m honest with myself – a lingering unease about how much time I’ve given to a “mere” hobby.
Do you ever do that? Do you pour time into a hobby or other interest and feel a tiny bit guilty at the thought that you could have done many other more sensible, productive, profitable, resume-worthy, socially conscious, or otherwise obviously valuable things with your time?
I do. Perhaps I’ve moved in one too many workaholic circles. Perhaps I’m facing realities that most of us face, knowing how these days our families must come up with way more money to even begin to afford the same basic things as before. For many reasons – I’m sure – I’ve felt a growing need to explain my use of valuable time for a “mere” hobby.
I’ve tried to articulate the value of what I’ve been doing by talking about it with friends and colleagues. I’ve brought it up boldly over lunch. I’ve admitted it off-handedly in a parking lot. I’ve named it quietly inside a car, staring ahead out the windshield and listening for what tone of voice would respond to break the silence. At each opportunity, I’ve taken the risk of sharing with another human being the fact that I’ve finished writing a novel manuscript.
I’ve explained the value of it in various ways. I’ve floated the idea of fiction allowing us to dip into different, more experiential ways of knowing than intellectual reflections and news reporting often allow. I’ve emphasized the importance of exploring underrepresented perspectives, noting how a main character in my novel agonizes over what to do with her experience of sexual harassment in the church. I’ve spoken of my writing again and again with an eye towards what meaningfulness it could hold for readers. In none of these conversations, I assure you, have I said anything that I did not believe to be entirely true.
The problem is that summer has nearly passed, and none of my conversations have fully represented, either to others or to myself, why I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing. I sense there’s so much more to why I’ve spent all the time I could immersed in this hobby.
What is the value of joy? I still don’t have the elevator speech or blog post to get at that. Not really.
I have to hand it to my conversation partners: when learning that I’ve poured enough time into a novel-writing hobby that I’ve actually completed a manuscript, not a single one of them has asked me why I’ve done it. Bless them for responding as if they assume value in how I spent that time. Perhaps they noticed something in my face or voice. It strikes me all the more, though, what unease I feel at spending time doing something whose value I haven’t fully defined for myself. Yes, I relish the process of doing it, but how well does that justify the time spent?
Where have you landed with the value of your own hobbies or non-professional interests? How have they been speaking to you lately?
As I sit with these questions, I’m sitting with my unease of not precisely knowing answers. Perhaps I’m taking this opportunity to practice lacking clarity and finding ways to do that with grace. Perhaps I’m toying with the idea that explanations, especially for things like enjoyment or gladness, are not always required. Perhaps I’m noticing how many people and pursuits can call out to us, as it were, for reasons that we don’t totally understand. I suspect human beings are always encountering the voice of God in new ways, and certainly, learning new ways of hearing (or seeing, or knowing, or evaluating) just downright takes time and practice.
For now, daylight hours in the midwestern United States are lessening again with the waning of summer. I’m once again taking moments in the dark before dawn to sip coffee and see what happens in the pages of that little brown notebook. I’m working on a second manuscript. I’m also keeping an eye on my text messages, knowing that a friend who communicates by text is reading my first novel manuscript even now. I’m really curious what he’ll say.
I feel a little scared, but I feel excited, too. I’m practicing, both with how to write fiction and with how to balance a life. Both fumbling and feedback provide chances to learn. In fact, I feel hopeful to be catching glimpses of myself in these moments of not needing to know or understand the why/when/what/how of everything. That means I’m open, and I trust that time spent opening oneself up to the not-yet-knowns of life will indeed hold a special kind of value.
I’m also trusting that one way or another I’ll be sharing with you some part of what I’ve been working on. Time will tell, of course, but I look forward to knowing what it tells.