“Good storytellers heal the world. The stories that save us are the stories that give us what some Buddhists call a ‘bigger container.’ They open us up to new understanding and growth. Bigger container stories expand our circles of caring and ‘complexify’ the universe rather than simplify it. They encourage us to risk more for the world’s sake rather than making us cynical, cautious, and jaded…”
~ Mary Pipher – Writing to Change the World
I made an abrupt decision to apply to nursing school. It was the day forty years ago that I discovered a classmate had been accepted to a nearby hospital school of nursing. Like me, Patti hadn’t taken chemistry, a course I had assumed was a prerequisite to get into the program. Our high school’s chemistry teacher had such a reputation for being unfairly harsh with female students (a claim that baffled me since she was… a she!) that I had avoided any classes she taught. Instead, I took other challenging college prep courses, thinking I would be an English major and eventually, a teacher.
But the day I heard that Patti was going to nursing school, I knew without reservation that was the work I wanted to do as well. At the time, I wouldn’t have used the term “calling,” but I did have a sense that something beyond me had opened a door and lit a path that I felt compelled to follow. Ten years later, when I began attending Quaker meeting and learned about leadings, I had a way to talk about a variety of experiences in my life where I had felt clear guidance from the presence I call God. Abandoning teaching for nursing was one of those times.
For years I worked as a nurse with passion and gratitude that I had been called to serve in a way that fed me spiritually and also provided a livelihood. Unexpectedly, twenty years later, the zeal and satisfaction started to fade. What I had assumed was a lifelong leading no longer seemed to fit. I began to question the work I was doing as well as my understanding of calling. Was it possible Spirit was asking me to do something different?
Gregg Levoy writes in Callings—Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “…few people actually receive big calls, in visions of flaming chariots and burning bushes. Most of the calls we receive and ignore are the proverbial still, small voices…the daily calls to pay attention to our intuitions, to be authentic…”
I sensed that still, small voice on a deserted mountain highway one summer when I was feeling most distressed about my work as a public health nurse. Like the discovery twenty years earlier that I could go to nursing school even without high school chemistry credits, some barriers to a dream I had had for awhile seemed to be disappearing. As I drove back home after a family vacation in a remote mountain village, a clear plan to spend a full year there unfolded with each mile. This was a fantasy my husband and I had revisited and talked ourselves out of over ten years of vacations there; now a move seemed possible, desirable, and necessary. Responding to that voice required much more discernment and planning, but ultimately we did take what I’ve termed a family sabbatical, initially for one year, and then extended to a second.
The story of my journey during those two years is the subject of a memoir I’m writing. I know of no better way for me to understand what that time was all about for me than to write it. My hope is that this, and other writing I do, results in some of those “bigger container stories” Mary Pipher talks about in Writing to Change the World.
I know I have much to learn to be one of those good storytellers. To do this work well requires study, practice, and learning the craft of writing. Certainly I’ve been doing that over the past ten years by writing regularly, attending workshops and taking courses, and having my work critiqued. Last summer I took another step to refine my skills by attending a five-day residency that is part of a graduate program in writing.
Attending that residency was one of many actions I’ve been taking recently to discern if I’m to commit to the full graduate program. While I’ve become clear that such a program, and this one in particular, would be of great benefit to me and my work, I requested a clearness committee to help me identify how and what to cut from my already-full life in order to give and get the most from this program. We met for the first time last week.
My committee and I followed the guidelines Levoy offers for how a Quaker clearness committee works:
“Members first observe a period of silence…a sincere attempt to shift the center of gravity from the personal toward the transpersonal, toward bringing to an individual dilemma something of the divine.”
Then, we proceeded to the practice that is most effective, yet radical, in the clearness process—the members ask questions only. This allows for what Friend Jan Hoffman describes in Levoy’s book as a process, “…to engage the focus person in a way that makes hearing his or her own inner guidance more possible…”
As I listened for my own inner guidance, I heard lingering questions about whether I’m called to writing and called to further study. My concerns about saying no to other activities and fully committing to the program are intertwined with old beliefs I carry about the value of art in a hurting world and about the “right way” to respond to injustice and suffering. I spent much of my two years in the mountains wrestling with attitudes in conflict with my growing certainty that Spirit wants us to engage in work that brings us joy; this nudge to move deeper into the life of a writer is giving me more opportunities to test this understanding.
The morning after meeting with my clearness committee, during a long walk with my dog, Buddy, an insight came to me. If I felt called to advanced schooling in nursing, I suspect I wouldn’t be concerned about letting go of other activities so that I could devote my time and energy to my studies. But I’m clear that’s NOT what I’m called to. It’s time for me to give myself permission to focus on what I do feel called to—and to do so joyfully.