Every day, we hear a “call” to do something that requires us to push beyond our normal boundaries and risk striking into new and alluring territory. The inclination to respond to that Call with a No is actually the next step toward saying Yes to it!
This weekend I took part in a wonderful event, The Gathering, at Keystone College here in northeastern Pennsylvania. Each summer for 12 years, the organizers have developed thought-provoking themes and invited a variety of authors and thinkers (Salman Rushdie, Anita Hill, Diane Ackerman, Tracy K. Smith, Mara Liasson) to speak about and teach variations on it.
This year’s theme was “The Myth of Truth,” and as soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to do a workshop called “The Truth of Myth.” I love how the myths of the world reveal themes and lessons that can guide us in our own personal lives. In my book, The World Is a Waiting Lover, which traces desire from the physical to the spiritual (interwoven with a personal story), I used a myth at the beginning of each chapter as a way of pointing out a particular aspect of love and longing. When I was guiding wilderness rites of passage journeys, I often used myth to help questers view their experience as part of a great cosmic pattern.
In my workshop at The Gathering, I described the heroic journey, as defined by Joseph Campbell, the first step of which is The Call. I invited the participants to identify a current Call in their own lives and to feel within themselves both the strong Yes to it and the sometimes even stronger No. They were to choose the Yes before stepping over the threshold of the classroom into their journey. Outside on the campus grounds, they then “journeyed” through other aspects of the mythic pattern, such as confronting monsters, meeting allies, and finding their superpower. When they returned to the workshop, they shared their stories with a partner, as if they had already triumphantly returned from the journey prompted by this call and had achieved the final step—sharing the treasure with the people.
We are all constantly receiving these “calls” in our lives. We are called to a new career; to a new love; to finally decide, after years of longing to do so, to take cello lessons; to contact someone we admire but don’t know personally. (One man at the workshop said he had already answered the Call not only to speak to Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith after her reading, but to give her a copy of his own self-published book.) These calls beckon in small ways and large.
Often we let the big No prevent us from saying Yes to the call. We think: Who am I to try that? I’m not ready. Maybe later.
What I love about seeing the Call as part of the mythic pattern is that, by recognizing its timid counterpoint, the Refusal of the Call, as a normal and natural part of the pattern, we aren’t so likely to be held back by it. Then we can leap ahead and practice being our epic selves.
What I’m Reading
Violet Clay by Gail Godwin. I spend a lot of time journeying with books that I’m drawn to because they’ll inform a project I’m working on or give me insight about life, humans and nature, the cosmos. Every now and then I just want to read a really good novel. One of my favorite authors is Gail Godwin, now in her 80s and still writing books. Violent Clay, published in 1978, is the story of an artist who got a lot of praise in art school, but in her early 30s is more interested in being a famous painter than she is in the drive to paint. She wastes a lot of time and then makes up for it after a crisis and a few months of determined application to her work. All Godwin’s novels are engrossing and very well written, but the end of this one is disappointingly easy.
A Savory Moment
The Gathering (see above) ended yesterday with a brunch. At my table, we got into a conversation about our first memories. The memories ranged from the wistful to the startling to the traumatic. One woman recalled sitting in the kitchen when she was two years old and petting the dog. In the other room, the family was gathered, listening to the radio. Suddenly the child heard a gasp, and people cried out. She got up and went to the doorway to see what was wrong. Years later she understood that what her family had been reacting to was the news that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.