A sip of wine and a bite of food—when matched in a complementary way—dance in my mouth, the liquid and the morsel swaying in rhythm. Each is enhanced by the other, and the two together create a new pleasure—the perfect pairing. I discovered a similar delight last week when I dipped into Dave Isay’s new book Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. In my view, Callings pairs perfectly with Hands at Work, the book I collaborated on with photographer Summer Moon Scriver in 2009.
Dave Isay is the creator and president of StoryCorps, the nation’s largest oral history project. Founded in 2003 with the idea that everyone has an important story to tell, StoryCorps’ approach is elegantly simple.
Two people sit in a soundproof recording booth in Chicago, San Francisco, or Atlanta, or in mobile storybooths that travel the country, and for 40 minutes they ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask each other. So far the organization has recorded 60,000 stories, all archived at the Library of Congress. Many of them also end up in the Storycorps podcast.
Callings is the fifth book from the organization. For this one, Isay narrowed the focus to stories that celebrate the passion, determination, and courage it takes to pursue work that’s about more than just making a living. He heard in these stories the same sense of being called to work that I saw in a 2004 exhibit of Summer Moon Scriver’s black-and-white photographs of people’s hands. I was particularly drawn to the images of strong, weathered, and muscled hands engaged in the work of knitting, kneading dough, digging potatoes, and spinning wool. They suggested to me that these people were not only willing to labor with their hands, they were nourished by those acts. As a writer, I immediately wanted to give voice to their stories.
Summer and I had no difficulty finding a cross-section of people who rely on their hands for their work in our small, rural community in northwest Washington, though we did venture beyond our home for a few profiles. Most people were humble when asked to participate, doubting that their work, their stories, and their hands could be of any interest or importance. Yet as we talked with and photographed them at work, their fervor for painting, weaving, fishing, cooking, quilting, sculpting, boat-building, puppeteering, and even car repair was palpable and exhilarating.
As in Callings, some of the people we interviewed came to their work early in life and had a sense of finding their right place; others were on second or third careers, having found their current work later. Some were nudged into their work by someone else or were caught up in an element of romance and mystery.
Both books include stories of people stumbling into their work, responding to a strong pull to do something other than what they’d planned. For many, this clarity came in an instant as in one of my favorite pieces in Callings. An ink (as in tattoo ink) removal specialist named Dawn described it this way:
I went to school for laser tattoo removal, and the moment that I put the laser in my hands, I had one of those aha moments that you hear about but you wonder if they’ll ever happen to you. I just knew this was going to be my career. It felt so right.
Dawn’s feeling of rightness takes on deep poignancy in her Storycorps conversation with one of her clients who, like Dawn, had been in an abusive relationship. Dawn tells that she removes those women’s tattoos free of charge.
Even though none of the people in Hands at Work used the term “calling,” many of them expressed a sense of guidance for their work coming from something outside of themselves. Here’s how vibraphonist Hawk Arps described it:
When I make music, it’s not about me. It’s something grander, a beauty out there to be witnessed through the senses. That’s why I play music – to open people to that beauty.
Every one of the thirty-five people I interviewed for Hands at Work expressed thanks for being watched and listened to as they went about the work that feeds their souls. Their gratitude was a surprise; I had underestimated how rare it is for people to really listen as we talk about our work. The power of being listened to, particularly about work, is equally evident in Callings.
I learned the lesson about listening again this past year as I interviewed twenty-eight farmers for the BOUNTY project. When the stories, photographs, and recipes from those farms and farmers come out in a book this fall, I think they’ll also pair perfectly with Callings.