As part of my research about Callings, I visited the StoryCorps website and found this video introduction for the project.
I was struck especially by this comment, “When you listen, great things are going to happen.” StoryCorps has some facts to support that claim. In 2015, the project surveyed listeners and found out some great things have happened as people have listened. Here are a few:
Increased understanding of people with a disability or serious illness
Increased understanding of immigrants, Latinos, and African Americans
Feeling connected to people with different backgrounds
Reminded listeners of their shared humanity
Helped them see the value in everyone’s life story and experience
Became interested in thinking about how society could be improved
Of course, I also was delighted with Isay’s answer to Krista’s question that she opens each interview with about his religious or spiritual background in childhood: “I went to Hebrew school when I was a kid. And I didn’t connect at all. I went to a Friends school for high school. I think I’m culturally Jewish—and maybe a little more spiritually Quaker.”
On the heels of that interview came this QuakerSpeak video.
In this conversation, a Quaker named O talks about the role of listening in healing our humanity. She also offered thoughts on what happens when we don’t listen:
My concern is that we don’t listen to each other, and it creates the world we see… People not being heard, not being seen, not being appreciated, not being valued, not being recognized. People not being recognized for that of God that dwells within them… And so we fragment… We become broken because we are not seen for who we really are.
O refers to the Quaker practice of listening each other into wholeness… to the place “where our heart is actually touched.”
My heart has been touched by all of this listening.
*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.
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 bookCallings: 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.
I read the last word in my memoir manuscript, Hiking Naked, and shut the lid of my laptop. That day, the document was twenty pages shorter than when my publisher offered me a contract—and requested some cuts. I hoped my trimming and editing resulted in a tighter story with stronger verbs and fewer adjectives. More showing, less telling.
A little over a week remained until the deadline for me to send the revision to my editor. I decided I had one more task to do—read all 225 pages out loud. It seemed a daunting undertaking, but the next day, in the quiet of my writing office, my yellow lab/shepherd curled at my feet, I began.
I hadn’t anticipated how many times my reading voice would crack and tears would lodge in my throat, even though I know this story of my family’s two-year sojourn in a remote mountain village so well. The reading aloud revealed not only some overworked words and bits of stilted dialogue, but also the heartache of my struggle for clarity about work, my yearning for control, and the grief of losses that followed me to the Stehekin Valley.
Perhaps some of the tears were for the end of the writing process as well. For twenty years I’d worked to put this story on the page. I had re-read journal pages filled with questions —Am I good enough? Can I accept that I’m not in control? Is it okay to tend to my inner life? Is it possible to experience joy fearlessly? I tapped out words on my keyboard, trying to make sense of how those two years in a different place and a different way of life brought me to the balance and clearness I sought.
My creative writing development showed in the variety of ways I wrote about those questions, doubts, and fears. But as I spoke the text, I realized the questions persist, the doubts still surface, the desire for control and certainty remains. Once I reached the manuscript end, imagining it being out in the world for others to read, a single word hovered at my ear—fraud.
That label weighed on me, prompting me to seek counsel from my husband, a longtime spiritual friend, and a trusted writing friend. It faded for a few days, then resurfaced and lodged in the suitcase I packed to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing last week.
After Tobias Wolff’s opening keynote, “Some Doubts About Certainty,” I made my way to a session led by writer Dani Shapiro. I’d slid Dani’s memoir/writing book, Still Writing – The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, into my backpack in the hope she’d sign it. I settled in to hear her discuss her daily practice of attempting to make art out of a chaotic childhood and a painful early adulthood marked by profound loss.
“When I begin to write, it’s an act of faith,” Dani said as she talked about her three memoirs (a fourth, Hourglass, is due out in spring 2017). “I feel profound uncertainty. I don’t write what I know, I write to discover what I know.”
Evidently the judgment of myself as a fraud had wedged itself into my backpack, too. When it came time for questions, I asked Dani if, when she completes a book, she feels she has the answers. “No,” she replied, “I’m just better able to articulate the questions I started with.”
Dani went on to explain that, before an interview on the “Today Show,” she called a spiritual friend for help to calm her jitters about explaining the uncertainties that compelled her to write her first memoir, Devotion. Her friend suggested, “You’ve written a book about what you know now.” For Dani, implicit in that wisdom was, “You’ll know more, later.”
Until I read that last word in my own memoir manuscript, it seems I’d expected that I had figured it all out, had answered all those questions that sent me to my writing desk. “The book ends, but the journey doesn’t,” Dani said. I’m holding on to those final words.
Recently, a woman browsed in our local bookstore, Lopez Bookshop, and after a few minutes, she approached Karen, the co-owner who was staffing the counter that day. The woman introduced herself as Jessica Gigot, and she had kind words to say about the store and the island. She also had a book in her hand to buy. Then Jessica explained she had her own poetry book and wondered if the bookshop would carry it. Karen was impressed with Jessica’s sensitive approach and then was even more impressed with the poetry collection, Flood Patterns.
I was drawn in immediately by the title and the book cover and by the setting in the nearby Skagit River Valley. Many of the poems touched me with their sensual, honest, and clear descriptions of—among many themes—land, farm life, family life, and the fickleness of April. I was stopped in my tracks, though, with one of the poems near the end of the book.
Making Ceremony by the Sea
by Jessica Gigot
A fan of light straddles
Open water and rocky slopes.
A marriage of a Mexican
And a Greek on a
Moss covered island.
She is married by
Her brother who announces
“You may now kiss my sister.”
We chant sea air vows
Into September’s elusive swales
And clink to a blue moon toast.
Sitting on hay bales
We look out at the Sound,
The Olympics and
A Haida button blanket
Is draped over cedar logs
Laid between a vibraphone
And a stone-rimmed fire pit.
His wife, an old student
And a men’s club friend
Speak their respects
Before we all stand
To send his bear spirit
Beyond a new moon sunset.
I re-read the poem, then read again, and again, the section titled Pacific, certain that the poet was writing about the memorial service for my dear friend, Greg Ewert. I emailed Greg’s wife to ask if she knew Jessica and this poem; she didn’t. Soon I was combing Jessica’s website for confirmation that she had attended this ceremony on Lopez Island. I learned that Jessica is a poet, teacher and musician whose small farm—Harmony Fields—in Bow, WA grows herbs, lamb and specialty produce. But, still a mystery about the poem, until I sent Jessica an email and received this explanation:
The poem “Making Ceremony by the Sea” was inspired by a wedding and a funeral that I attended within the same week on two distant but similar islands–Monhegan and Lopez. I was so struck by the different ways these ceremonies were created, and I was so moved by both of them even though they were quite different. I did not know Greg, but I was accompanying a friend who had been his student. It was an honor to have witnessed that event.
With the puzzle solved, I was touched by its example of how lives can intertwine and connect through words. I wanted to know more about Jessica and how she came to be a poet on a farm. The following interview answers that and much more about this poet-to-watch.
Iris: You have a diverse combination of skills and interests—farming, science, poetry. Which came first for you?
Jessica: I wrote a lot of poems when I was younger. I was very inspired by Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop—I appreciated their strong voices and wit especially. I also loved Ogden Nash’s poems, and I used to write a lot of short and light rhyming poems about people I knew and the world around.
In college I started out in a freshman poetry seminar with the thought of getting an English degree. However, I was quickly drawn into the wonder of the natural world through an ecology class and decided to be a biology major. All of our labs were out in the field (streams, forests, meadows) and I felt very strongly that I wanted to work outside and develop a better understanding for myself of the natural world. Plant biology was my main focus and I worked with a evolutionary biologist on nectar-robbing studies in bumblebees, and I helped organize the college’s herbarium.
My interest in farming came later, after I graduated from college. I did not grow up on a farm. The more I understood the science behind our pressing environmental issues, like climate change, biodiversity and water quality, it all seemed to relate to food at a fundamental level and human dissociation from the land. I also felt drawn to rural and remote places. So, after I finished college in 2001 I worked on a large medicinal herb farm in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon and then I went to Lopez Island for a summer and worked at S&S Homestead. Both experiences had a profound effect on me, and I learned about commercial agriculture, animal husbandry and self-sufficiency.
At the time I wanted to start my own farm, but didn’t have the means. While on Lopez I serendipitously met a WSU professor and fell into the world of agricultural research which brought me to the Skagit Valley for graduate school in 2004. For many years I studied the microbes in soil and was fascinated by the intricacies of agroecosystems. This fascination, however, brought me back to poetry. I needed the language of poetry to express the beauty I saw everyday in this unique, working landscape.
Iris:How do these roles fit together?
Jessica: I officially decided to settle in the Skagit Valley about five years ago as I finished graduate school, and I have since started my own farm. At the time I also started a writing group and have been trying to write down all that I learn on the farm as I dig in to this place. Farming is a nice marriage of science and art for me. I find a lot of creative inspiration from farm work and, conversely, writing helps me to stay motivated when I get overwhelmed (which is often). You surely don’t need a PhD to be a farmer, but the background in science helps me with managing plant varieties and soil health on the farm.
In the winter, I also teach food sovereignty and soil related classes at the Northwest Indian College in their Native Environmental Studies program. Science has given me good tools for observation, and I rely on this daily. I don’t try to romanticize farming in my writing or science, but I do think that a healthy blend of appreciation for the landscape, as well as the work, is what we need to make a long-lasting and resilient food system.
Iris: What drew you to write poetry?
Jessica: I often equate poetry with healing, and I have written poetry on and off for my entire life. It is both a way that I process the world as well as weft that helps me weave the parts of my life together and find meaning in the things that happen to and around me.
Attending and participating in literary readings builds great community, and I enjoy meeting more and more Northwest writers and poets. As a young graduate student in La Conner, I discovered the Skagit River Poetry Festival. It brings in some wonderful national poets to our little corner of the world, which is motivating and educational. I first attended in 2006, and after hearing great poets like Billy Collins, Linda Hogan and Tess Gallagher, I felt motivated to write more deliberately.
Iris: Please describe your writing process.
Jessica: My writing process is a bit scattered and definitely seasonal. I journal every day (sometimes for hours, sometimes for ten minutes, depending on the day) and often times I find pieces of a poem in a paragraph I’ve written. However, when I’m working on the farm or taking a walk to the river, I will see a beautiful image in nature, or a random line drops into my head, and I build a poem around it when I have time later on….I have lots of lines scribbled all over the place.
Many of my poems stay as one or two lines for several years until I am really ready to build a poem around them. I also write songs, and the process for both songs and poetry is similar for me in that there is usually a rhythm or cadence to a line that keeps it looped in my head.
Sometime I go on poetry benders. Last April I participated in the Tupelo Press 30/30Project. I find that forcing myself to write a poem a day for a set period is useful.
Finally, a poetry teacher that I had once said that a poem is not done until it is read out loud in public. I find that very useful and try to sample new work when I have the opportunity.
Lopez Islanders will have the opportunity to hear Jessica read her poetry out loud at Lopez Island Library on Saturday, March 12th at 1:00 PM. Undoubtedly, Jessica will feel right at home here.