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Filtering by Category: Vocation

The Shape of Humility

Jean Hoefling

I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well.
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

A few years ago, in the interest of honing a short story that I considered decent (which it turned out not to be, particularly), I attended the legendary Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico—that annual summer gathering at St. John’s College of Christian (or not) poets, painters, musicians, and budding screenplay and fiction writers. That year, prolific novelist Bret Lott facilitated the fiction workshop. Every morning before our class began the round of shock therapy euphemistically called “peer critique,” Professor Lott offered short, helpful lectures on writing while we all drank coffee and breathed in the signature Santa Fe scent of burnt brick and piñon that wafted through the open windows of our classroom. All his teaching was good, but these years later I don’t remember much of what the good professor said.  

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Creativity Connects

Joy and Matthew Steem

Suzanne Szasz, 1915-1997, Photographer I was in a porn film. The previous sentence is actually factually incorrect, but it’s an attention grabbing introductory line, right? Where substance doesn’t grab us, spectacle usually does the trick. I seem to recall coming across a McSweeny’s Internet Tendency entry that suggested a simple fail proof way of attracting (and keeping) more readers: insert GIFs of jiggling breasts throughout the text. For those of us who laugh, is there a ring of fatigued disillusionment in it? As song writers or poets or visual artists or composers our creations feel sterile without some type of social interaction, or at least recognition. Having an audience is nice.

We yearn to connect. It chafes the less mature of us when we see mere scandal and spectacle reap a harvest of readers/watchers/listeners that objects of genuine artistry are likely to never see. Ever. The mean-well people (often non-creatives) who empathetically suggest a genuinely creative spirit doesn’t need any sort of audience because the joy rests in the act of creation are, well, wrong. (In part, Jacque Maritan’s reminder that true creativity is not mere self-expression or cathartic release of personal feelings; rather, it is the building of something for its own good, seems to make sense here.)

We are an interactive people. It’s not mere egotism which drives our desire for communicating our work; it’s the desire to connect, to grow, to truly communicate. This impulse to share is not one that should be repressed or bemoaned, but rather one to be celebrated because it reflects the desire for communion with others. In God Has A Dream, Desmond Tutu relates the concept of ubuntu beautifully: “[ubuntu] does not say, ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: 'I am human because I belong. I participate I share.’” This insight is especially pertinent for us in a culture that, despite all our communication technologies, urges us towards isolation and the tendency to see success as the achievement of ultimate independence.

In a lecture on virtue based ethics, Bill Dejong suggested that there can be a sinful element in the “in the comfort of your own home” culture. (I.E “Enjoy theatre or gormeau cooking or symphony or whatever in your own home” that we hear from the advertisers of giant television screens etc.) He suggests that to deliberately participate in practices of isolation is to indulge pride: pride that we can be happy and fulfilled only with ourselves—that we don’t need the participation of others in our emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps even physically, isolated lives.

I’ve been thinking that creativity, with its deep longing for resonance, perhaps, could be part of a solution for the dehumanizing idealization of the isolated hero. After all, creativity yearns for relationship, for response, for connection: for the acknowledgement that we are human and that we belong.

Space for Affection

Christina Lee

7140209563_cb9bc71f5e_z I’m armed with 409 and paper towels, wiping down the desks in my classroom. A few have accumulated clandestine graffiti, the kind made by etching the top layer of wood laminate with the metal tip of a mechanical pencil.

It’s very polite graffiti. So far, I’ve found and excised the following: “I love me.” “Tim is fat.” “The end.” “Andrew + ---” (the name is scratched out).

As I scrub, I remember the students who’ve filled these desks—growing so fast, full of so much, trying their best (usually) to pay attention to my lessons while also trying to make sense of their emotions and their bodies and their world.

(I worry for whoever carved “The End.” It seems so ominous. But who knows? Maybe it’s a ska band.)

Near the back of the room, I find another one: a heart tucked into a desk’s inner edge. This one is deeper, more visible. It must have taken weeks to carve. I know I should be annoyed, but as I wipe out the graphite, I feel an overwhelming sense of affection for my students.

In 2001, Wendell Berry gave an NEA lecture called “It Turns on Affection.” In his own quiet, thoughtful way, Berry wages war on “the industrialization of everything” and on corporations seeking “the highest possible profit, ignoring the side effects,” devastating the land and the farming industry.

Instead of simply seeking profit, he argues, we must cultivate affection for the land and those who farm it. Affection, in his mind, is a powerful tool, one we discount too quickly.  “Affection can teach us,” he writes, “if we grant appropriate standing to affection.”

I’m not a farmer (in fact, I’m shocked my grocery-store basil plant has made it through the week), but as a teacher, Berry’s words resonate with me.

My first day back at school, our staff is trained to use a program that promises to produce “data-driven lessons.”

We’re told that after we administer a two-hour, web-based assessment, we’ll be able to generate dozens of reports displaying our students’ deficiencies. Our trainer suggests—straight faced— that if we’re not happy with a student’s performance, we should tell our junior highers, “I just don’t think your data is reflective of your ability.”

As Berry says, “Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time.”

Berry’s lecture calls attention to the great harm done when “people of land economies are reduced to statistical numerals,” and I see the same danger in our schools, which often default to a corporate model, merely dubbing “test scores” over the word “profit.”

Remember “No Child Left Behind,” the law mandating that 100% of students score grade-level-proficient on state tests by 2014—even students with learning disabilities, even non-English-speaking students, even students grappling with severe trauma or family dysfunction? Schools were told that if they didn’t reach that 100% mark, they’d face restructuring and loss of funding.

What a perfect illustration of Berry’s words: “They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line.”

Even after NCLB failed, data is still revered in school settings. It’s universally understood that data finishes conversations, and data definitely trumps affection. Go against this norm and you’ll only embarrass yourself.

It’s right after our data-driven training that I end up cleaning the desks. After I’m done, I sit down to rest in the one marked “The End.” I try to imagine who will fill this seat tomorrow and how that student is feeling about school right now. I try to remember how I felt starting junior high.

"By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members…with whom we share our place," says Berry. "By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection."

I know it’s necessary to assess my students’ skill levels. And I know I will work very hard every day this year to ensure that my students reach their data-driven goals.

But to have any real impact on my students’ lives (measurable or otherwise), I must leave space beside the data for “informed, practical, and practiced affection.” As Berry says, “It is by imagination that knowledge is carried to the heart.” 

What Do You Say

Aaron Guest

party conversation wineI tag along with my wife to her work functions, mingle with people whom I am trying desperately to assign names to faces. I get the question often enough. And it’s begun to rattle me like empty dinner glasses.

So, what do you do?

I infer that “what do you do” is really “how do you make money”. For a long while my answer was simple and I gave it without thinking: I work in television. But these days I don’t get a paycheck. In The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a visiting parent to a university in Wisconsin observes that “it’s only Americans who insist on asking everyone what they do.” Perhaps because we are a country obsessed with wealth.

Maybe it sounds like I’m offended by the question? Resentful because I’m a man and I don’t make any money? I’m not. I see and know the value in being a stay-at-home father homeschooling three kids. And I love doing it. So this has become my polite response. After all, it adheres to the social mores of the casual conversation of the dinner party. And this way I can wrap it up and get on with enjoying my steak.

But my answer bothers me like a hangover.

In the Episode 3 of the Relief Podcast, D.L. Mayfield speaks about her hesitancy to call herself a writer. I don’t hesitate to call myself a writer. But I hesitate to say that writing is what I do.

The main character of The Art of Fielding is Henry Skrimshander. Without a doubt he is a baseball player with a work ethic not merely American, it’s near Herculean. I’m an athlete—or was until Howard proved me otherwise—and I can’t even fathom the lengths to which Skrimshander subjects his body. By the end it’s his singular determination to ‘doing what he does’ that becomes his undoing.

Maybe this is why I don’t want to say writing is something I do. I don’t do writing and then not do writing. It’s more than something I do. It’s who I am.

Recall Jesus with his disciples. The men and women who hung out with him. Followed him for years. Christ did a lot of things: healer, reformer, prophesier, miracle-worker, comedian, storyteller, etc. But it wasn’t a question of wondering what he did.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.

Imagine the eyes if I were to posit that question at a party: “Who do you say that you are?” I’d follow it up by finding another bottle of wine, or beer, and quoting Over The Rhine:

Come on lighten up Let me fill your cup I’m just trying to imagine a situation Where we might have a real conversation.

But I think it’s the better question. Because there’s a spark of being human we are snuffing out with innocuous questions about how we make money that waste, as Mary Oliver opines, “this one wild and precious life”.

You Learned What You Were Ready To Learn

Christina Lee

The Sower - Van Gogh Of all the pranks I’ve ever pulled, my favorite remains convincing every guy in my music theory class to dress up like our professor.

We loved Dr. Clemmons. He was kind, funny, patient and generally excellent. He was also sartorially predictable.

Stonewash tapered jeans, sneakers, white tucked-in button-down, red tie, brown belt, wire-rim glasses. This was his daily uniform. And the night before the final, I called every guy I knew on campus to rustle up 15 identical outfits. The next morning, the guys paraded in one by one.

Surrounded by his clones, Dr. Clemmons laughed, high-fived, and took time to pose for plenty of pictures before he settled us down and passed out our final exam.

I was so proud of myself. It didn’t really occur to me that he might have preferred I spend finals eve studying for his test. I don’t remember my exact grade in the class, but it’s safe to say it was less impressive than my costuming skills.

Years later, we ended up attending the same church, and I worked up the courage to ask him, “How did you put up with all of us? I wish I could go back and take your class now. I’d be such a good student!”

My former professor laughed and said, "Well, you learned as much as you were ready to learn.” 

This spring, I’m teaching poetry, and I think about those words most every day. Seventh grade brains are all over the map, developmentally. While one girl is crafting an iambic treatise on good and evil, the chick beside her is writing a rambling declaration of war against the girl who stole her boyfriend, and the boy behind them is writing a very descriptive piece re: failing to hold in a fart.

And I swear to you, these students are all doing their best.

I can get disheartened, bringing my students everything I know about poetry in the best way I know how, and getting back poems about farts and hot dogs.

Henri Nouwen said that when serving others, he was always fighting “fear of rejection, hunger for affirmation, and a never-decreasing search for affection.” And I notice this neediness in myself sometimes.

I can still remember one student from last year (we’ll call him Jake) standing before the class, intoning his poem about chips in a mortified monotone, “So crunchy /so crisp / the salty surface / I lick.” As he spoke, his eyes blazed with the injustice of my assignment.

This year, we held a school-wide poetry slam, and I got to see many former students perform. This slam was voluntary; so imagine my surprise when chip-boy bounded up to the podium. As he introduced himself, I steeled myself for a rough few minutes.

But his poem was incredible. It was clear and vivid and powerful, and he spoke with pride and confidence. As he strode off stage, I hooted and hollered with the crowd, but I felt a little twinge behind my smile. What had I done wrong last year? How had his current teacher helped him unleash this masterpiece? Why had I ended up with a listless ode to Hot Cheetos?

Breakthrough moments like this are a teacher’s version of a bonus check, so it makes sense that sometimes we’d be a little greedy for them. But these moments belong to our students, not to us.

Don’t get me wrong: a good teacher never stops asking a student for his best. She gives feedback and sets high expectations. But she also knows how to release control, to trust her students, and to allow them to develop at their own pace.

When we release our students from our own “hunger for affirmation,” ironically, that’s when we teach best.

Rilke says, “In spite of all the farmer’s work and worry, he can’t reach down to where the seed is slowly transmuted into summer. The earth bestows.”

As I prepare to say goodbye to this year’s group, I hope I have taught them well. I hope I’ve helped them understand a little more about writing, literature and poetry. Yes, I even hope they did well on their state testing.

But I also hope I’ve helped them feel permission to be themselves, and gracefully accepted the gifts they have brought me, even if they weren’t the ones I asked for. I hope that I’ve let them to learn as much as they were ready to learn.


Howard Schaap

typewriter-1227357_1920 Just last week, during prayers at bedtime, my youngest son thanked God that piano lessons were over for the summer. I’m not sure when it became law for upright pianos to be stationed in every household, to break the backs of the fathers who move them there and to break the minds of children who, coming home daily from school, find not freedom but piano lessons, but it’s a law I resent even as I continue to abide by it. In one corner we, too, have a breaking-down piano like a hulking mushroom.

I took piano lessons from third to sixth grade—until I broke my arm, thank God—and honestly never played one song that had life or actual music in it. For me, the piano was a parallel art: it was an art that ran parallel to my life and never once broke into my own playing. One night, after I tearfully struggled through my lesson, going through the motions, I got out our old typewriter and began happily copying encyclopedia entries. First, I did “Temperate Forest” followed by “Desert.” Climate descriptions, animal lists, whatever. I plunked them out and felt every one of the clicks and thunks, felt the energy transferred from my fingers to the simple levers of the keys that punished the paper with staccato precision, marking it with elegant letter after elegant letter. That rhythmic mechanical process clicked off something in my brain. I loved it.

Dad was a musician, or rather a musician turned farmer, with short muscular fingers at least a key-and-a-half wide from milking cows for forty years. The night of the plunking typewriter, he scolded me sharply for my miserable attempt at the piano while I could type out meaningless stuff easily enough. He was right. There was certainly no music to the words, nothing like he could do on the old upright. He’d modeled what music might sound like, playing from memory an old ditty in which his hands jumped from the keys with life and verve, his thick torso swaying back and forth, a conduit of emotion and energy even if he didn’t hit all the right notes. In a man of his size, it was something to behold.

As I sit this morning and wonder what it is I’m doing at this keyboard, I can’t conjure as much emotion as he did for those little ditties. It wouldn’t be safe. Or sustainable. And yet it’s exactly what I want in a way—to grasp and hold lightning for a minute like he did, for meaning to flow through the conduit of my body and out these ten tangled fingers.

So I get up morning after morning, sit before the keyboard, and bend myself to the lessons, waiting for lightning to strike.

Finding Livelihood: An Interview with Nancy J. Nordenson

Lisa Ohlen Harris

livelihood smallI first read Nancy’s work in 2006 when one of her essays, “Nothing Can Separate,” was published in Relief’s inaugural issue. My friend Karen Miedrich-Luo, Relief’s first creative nonfiction editor, recruited me to come on first as reader, and then as nonfiction editor. In 2007, Karen and I formed an online critique group along with Nancy and another Relief essayist, Jill Kandel. Karen, Nancy, Jill, and I now count five published books between the four of us – including Jill’s prizewinning memoir, So Many Africas: Six Years in an African Village. The four of us continue to challenge and encourage one another nearly ten years later via the online group.

Back in 2010, after more than three years of online friendship, I met Nancy in the flesh at NonfictioNow in Iowa City. I immediately liked her as much in person as I had online. Nancy is humble in all the best ways, considerate of others, wise and careful when she speaks, insightful, deep, and brilliant. And her writing is the same.

In 2013, Nancy and I both applied and were accepted for a weeklong summer writing residency with the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Minnesota. In our application materials, we hadn’t revealed that we already knew each other, and yet we were paired as roommates, writing all morning, lunching together, reading or writing until late afternoon. With the day’s work behind us and the evening gathering still an hour or so ahead, Nancy and I would sit together and talk about our writing and our lives over slices of Dubliner cheddar and a glass of red wine. I vividly remember reviewing Nancy’s manuscript for Finding Livelihood (tentatively titled A Work in Progress) and earnestly discussing structure and treatment. “This is an important book,” I assured Nancy. “You will find a publisher.” But Nancy wasn’t as certain, and I’m no prophet. It’s hard to get a book published traditionally, and for most of us it takes a long time, with lots of perseverance and plenty of rejection along the way. Nancy came close a couple of times with agents and publishers, and she used those rejections to rework and strengthen aspects of her book and proposal until finally she landed the manuscript with Kalos Press.


Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure was published in spring 2015. Read this book! Finding Livelihood finds beauty in both blessed and difficult circumstances as Nancy examines employment and unemployment, labor and rest, hardship and security, and the (for me) nebulous concept of vocational calling –  all without glossing over the pain that undergirds so much of life. The book is honest, artful, and lyric.  


Lisa Ohlen Harris: First off, Nancy, please tell us about Kalos Press.

Nancy J. Nordenson: I’m thrilled that Finding Livelihood landed at Kalos Press. Kalos is a small press with a name rooted in the Greek word for beauty. It aims to give voice to literary fiction, memoir, essays, and Christian reflection that are outside the mainstream Christian publishing industry and are “beautiful in their literary form, and also excellent in their fulfillment of purpose.” I feel honored to be part of that vision and am so thankful for their kind and talented team.

LOH: At the end of 2008, I had the honor of editing your second publication in Relief, an essay titled, “A Place at the Table.” And that was the essay that launched Finding Livelihood. How did the essay – and the entire book project – come to be?

NJN: A year before I wrote that essay my husband had come home from work late one night, holding a cardboard box filled with his stuff, and told me he’d lost his job. I had recently started graduate school in the Seattle Pacific University (SPU) MFA program, a long-held dream of mine, and was on the verge of cutting back on my full-time medical writing work in order to give this graduate work my fullest attention. But this job loss changed everything and there was no easy answer. I needed to keep working more while going to school. The alternative was to drop out, which I didn't want to do. He felt “called” to his work; I felt “called” to the program; we were absolutely committed to our two sons in college, our mortgage, to putting food on the table, paying for health insurance, and so on. It all became very complex and difficult. While I had long been pondering the topic of work, and doing some writing about it, this time of his job loss is where all the experiences became a critical mass and said, “You need to look at me.” The many workplace stories that Dave and I had shared with each other during our decades-long marriage and now this new story we were living of a slashed income and mutually frustrated “calls” raised complex questions about the nature and experience of work. I wrote the essay “A Place at the Table” to deal with his job loss, to make peace with it, but it became the crystal for the book. I pulled in earlier writing about work and kept writing in order to make peace with work, to explore where it fit in a lifelong spiritual journey.

LOH: Finding Livelihood isn’t really a memoir. I suppose I would call it a themed essay collection – is that fair? How would you describe the structure of the book and its purpose?

NJN: I think of it more as a book-length essay, or idea-driven linked essays. From a book publishing perspective, I realize we are cautioned about calling anything an essay, lest readers get scared away, but essays have always had an important place in literature; consider, for example, the work of Annie Dillard or Joan Didion, two of my perennial favorites. Finding Livelihood has more structure than a collection of essays all on the same topic, so that’s why I don’t think of it as a collection. While the style is lyric, making the structure a little less obvious than a straight-forward book, there is a rationale for the way the essays are placed, how one leads to another, and how by the end, there is movement toward a changed way of looking at the questions triggered by work.

LOH: I had the privilege of watching this book form over the months and years and many drafts and revisions of essays compiled in these pages. When did you know you had completed the manuscript? How much restructuring and revising did you do for the book as a whole?

NJN: My Relief essay, “A Place at the Table,” was written in 2007 – with some of the writing from other essays dating back further than that – and the manuscript was accepted for publication by Kalos Press in 2014. The process took a long time, as you’ve noted, not only because I work full-time at another job, but also because the issues at stake took a long time to think through, work through, and find ways to write about. I was writing it organically and not from a pre-project outline. I haven’t even kept track of how many times each essay was rewritten or revised. There were two milestone moments that are worth mentioning here. The first was about mid-way through the project when I figured out the over-riding three-part structure. That helped me see the movement or trajectory of the book but also helped me see where there were gaps that needed more thought and writing. The second milestone moment came at the project’s final step. I had thought the book done, but something still didn’t seem right. At a writing friend’s recommendation, I hired an editorial consultant to read through the manuscript and give me her opinion. To sum up her response: the reader needed more help; the leaps I took may have been obvious to me, but the reader needed more landmarks, more pass-offs. I followed her advice. I checked into a hotel in the Mill district of Minneapolis and worked for 4 days. After that – but for a few more reader helps added a couple months later – I knew the manuscript was complete. The book still relies on the reader’s ability and willingness to take imaginative leaps, but I hope the reader senses that during those leaps, I’m there holding a hand.

LOH: Do you have any advice for writers who have themed essays or meditations – something that’s not a didactic treatment or straightforward memoir?

NJN: From my experience with this project, the advice I’d give to a writer of essays or meditations is to write broadly, deeply, and organically for a long time – be patient with yourself and the project – but then at some point, submit to a guiding structure. In revision, respectfully help the reader follow your thought train but do so in keeping with the project’s voice.  

LOH: And when an essay is complete, send it off to a literary journal! Essays from Finding Livelihood have appeared in both spiritual and secular journals, including Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Relief, Comment, Under the Sun, and Indiana Review. Did you consciously write for a Christian audience, or did you temper your writing to speak to a broad audience? How aware were you of audience or market as you were writing? What would you have to say to a Christian writer who is interested in publishing broadly for a religious and secular audience?

NJN: I didn’t set out to write for either a Christian or non-Christian audience; I set out to write something that would help me, and later readers, to explore this complex issue of work. Since I’m a Christian, that faith is at the core of what and how I write, but holding that faith in common is not a pre-requisite for a reader to join me on the page to ponder work, as evidenced by the secular journals that printed essays from the book. When editing and revising the book, I very much wanted the book to be accessible to readers who may not share my faith and so I made choices in favor of on-the-page hospitality. Those choices typically involved a check of voice and tone as well as quality improvements, rather than compromises of belief. I also wrote with the assumption that despite our culture’s religious diversity and the large numbers of people who claim no faith, Christianity is an ancient religion that continues to have an active place in the world today; therefore, its tenets and practices are still a kind of cultural currency and are not foreign to most readers.

LOH: After nearly ten years of friendship focused around writing and faith, I want to publicly express my gratitude for you, Karen, and Jill, and for what our critique and support group has meant over the years. We formed out of a far-flung handful of writers who connected via this startup literary journal and a Yahoo listserv. I’m honestly not sure I would have kept writing through the months and years of rejection and discouragement if I hadn’t had the three of you in my corner.

NJN: Writing is such a solitary endeavor, and there are so many rejections along the way, that there is something nearly miraculous that happens when you are connected with other writers who only want to further each other’s work and together you are a community. I think back to the week you and I were roommates, a pairing we did not orchestrate, at that summer writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute. The most important part about that week in the story of this book is that it gave me a place to talk about it with people who were writers and thinkers and who cared about this topic of work. I remember talking with you about my new table of contents when we were roommates, and your response assured me the book was now more whole and unified. What a gift and relief that was. What a gift our email-based writing group has been. What a gift the community that has grown up around the Glen workshop and the SPU MFA program has been. What a gift the community around Relief has been. Back in 2006, I read about the launch of Relief in a post on someone’s blog (I think it was J. Mark Bertrand’s blog) and submitted an essay, “Nothing Can Separate,” for its inaugural issue. It was accepted – my first ever published creative nonfiction essay – and received the Editor’s Choice award. I later served as a nonfiction reader for a little more than a year. The vision of Coach and Kimberly Culbertson to create Relief opened the opportunity for a community of writers and readers to meet together on the page, as well as in person and online. I'm excited for the future of Relief with Daniel Bowman at the helm as editor-in-chief. I know Daniel through SPU and have long admired his great passion for connecting art and faith and for connecting people to create community. That is what Relief has always been about.