Unplugging, ‘the call’ and Amanda Palmer: explaining the silence

sunsetfarm

About this radio silence.

Apparently, it’s what happens when God slaps up a big ol’ “Work in Progress” sign and starts tinkering. Add to that an Empire State Building-sized case of writer’s block, with a healthy dose of Waldenesque communing with 350 sheep, a donkey named Sarah, two dogs and myriad cats, and all you get for 10 months are pictures of lambs and kittens.

Sure, I had a lot of time to think. I’ve written a lot of things, in my head. They never made it here. Coincidentally, this post started writing itself in my head during a trail run. I say coincidentally, because it’s not.

That writer’s block? Yeah, it came crashing down. Buckle up.

Unplugged

Here’s the thing: If I was writing my story, this would not have been the time for my come-to-Thoreau moment. This would have been the time for profound posts about financial provision and that final “huzzah” when I booked my plane ticket for a two-and-a-half year term back in East Africa.

Instead, it’s been a year in which almost everything I’d hoped would happen didn’t and almost everything I’d hoped wouldn’t happen did. It has been a lot to take in.

So, I unplugged.

Believe me. I appreciate, dare I say … the irony? Curse you, Alanis. You’ve made me second-guess the appropriate use of irony since the ’90s.

Here I am, writing about unplugging, on a blog. On the Internets. For the world to read. Once I finish this post, I’ll splash it on various social media sites so more people will read it.

When I left Bozeman last year, that punch in the gut? Yeah, it hit me at 80 miles an hour, heading west on Interstate 90, the Bridger Mountains still looming in my rear view mirror and I cried — but not too much. Because, you know, highway driving.

As the last golden weeks of fall faded into the first tinges of winter, I wandered the West. I saw a few friends, reconnecting with people I’d hadn’t seen in a long time. I saw mountains and ocean shores I’d never seen before. I explored.

Which begs the question, I suppose, if a 5,000-mile road trip from Montana to British Columbia to Oregon to Colorado to Ohio passed by without one Instagram photo or Facebook post or tweet, did it really happen?

It’s the tree-falling-forest-no-sound conundrum. Am I living life if it’s not documented for everyone else to applaud or question?

I unplugged, and I tried to heal, again, for what felt like the 306th time in the past few years. I’ve had a hard time plugging back in ever since.

It’s a hard place to be as a missionary, especially one raising money to return for another assignment.

Yeah, about that newsletter …

Sheep skins and feral cats

Right about the time I was wrestling with whether or not I should even be going back to Kenya — my support wasn’t coming in and my assignment had changed drastically — Rachel Pieh Jones posted “6 Ways To Be Certain of the Call.”

There is much debate and discussion around The Call. Mysterious, spiritual, dreamy. Everyone else’s Call story is better. The Call is supposed to come in a flash and be so powerful that it under girds every decision and emotion and experience for the rest of your life, no questions asked, no doubts ever encountered.

She lists six tongue-in-cheek ways you know you’re called, using Old Testament stories of people who asked God to show his will through signs. The list includes references to feral cats, snakes, sheep skins, crawling inside black Action Packers (it’s a missionary thing) at airports — and my favorite: “listen to your as*, ahem, your donkey.”

In a moment of wry amusement, I commented on the post and Jones responded. It’s linked below (click on it to make it larger).

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Rachel, you asked for clarification. Here it is. Four months later.

It was the first time I’d really admitted what I was thinking: that maybe, just maybe, I’m not supposed to do missions long-term. And maybe, just maybe, that’s not such a bad thing.

Years ago, when I first approached my pastor seeking advice about missions, he told me: “Rebecca, if you’re not supposed to go, you won’t raise the money. If you are supposed to go, you will raise what you need.” (Yes, we’re Presbyterians.)

I’ve been reminded of his words a lot over the past year.

I am not downplaying the journey other missionaries have. Some spend far longer raising support and navigating the twists and turns of transition limbo, because that’s what they are supposed to do. But as a single woman with no steady income and with older parents who live on a working farm, there are other factors I need to consider.

Sometimes, it’s not about what I want.

While I didn’t want to leave Montana and return to Ohio, it has given me a rare chance to spend more time with my parents, something I haven’t done much of over the past 10 years. It has solidified my conviction that office jobs make me want to shrivel up and die. Why would you want to cooped up inside when you can work outside?!

Of course, I may revisit this again in a few months when that quixotic mantra is obscured by chattering teeth as I chip ice out of water containers. (See photo below. Looks pristine, right? Pristine — and frigid.)

farmwinter1As much as I want to return to East Africa for a longer term, it’s appears it’s not what I’m supposed to do. For now.

Oh yeah, I’ve had many a heated moment with God about this turn of events. After all, I love storytelling. I love Africa. I love what God is doing there. I love using the gifts he’s given me in a unique, powerful, necessary way.

But, God, I’m willing to go back to Africa. I want to go back. Why isn’t that enough?

BECAUSE IT’S NOT.

I AM ENOUGH.

Expect the unexpected

I did a double-take as I passed the construction zone sign.

After thousands of miles driven over the past couple of years and hundreds of construction zones navigated, there wasn’t much I hadn’t seen. This sign though? I gave a rueful laugh.

“In work zones, expect the unexpected.”

I half-expected a Spanish-language-soap-opera worthy “dun dun DUN” to punctuate the moment.

It was March. I was in Tennessee, on my way to see a former missionary friend who lives in Nashville. Oh yeah, she said, the department of transportation likes to post clever witticisms.

“In work zones, expect the unexpected” seemed like an understatement. After months of unplugging, I was trying to plug back in, traveling down to North Carolina and Tennessee to meet with friends, supporters and churches about returning to Kenya.

The trip was wonderful in a lot of ways. It also ended with more questions than answers. Nutshell? I found out the assignment I’d been working toward wasn’t going to be the same. (Welcome to life as a missionary, right?)

It changed the complexion of what I was going to do, pretty drastically. Add that to the fact that I was not going to be able to raise the amount needed for a longer term, and I was officially confused by what God was doing.

When Christians talk about God’s will, they like to talk about doors opening and closing. Well, the door seem to be cracked open just enough to make it seem like it was open, but still closed enough that try as I might, I couldn’t squeeze through.

To heck with plugging back in. Plugging back in stinks. Let me go back to my monastic sheep farming existence.

Vulnerability, courtesy of Amanda Palmer

theartofasking_image_grande_9958499e-bd00-4cb9-9cc6-816341440adeAs much as the detours of this past year have pushed me to run as far as I could from people, God hasn’t let me get too far. And I believe he used Amanda Palmer to prod me back to civilization.

Disclaimer: You do not have to read her book, “The Art of Asking.” But you should.

Palmer is a punk cabaret rocker/piano- and ukulele-playing songwriter/former living statue/former coffee barista/former stripper/TED talker etc. She’s not, um, typical required reading for missionaries. But her book resonates with so many experiences I’ve had as a professional storyteller and as a missionary storyteller.

I have done two big road trips since March — down to North Carolina and Tennessee, and just now, back out to Bozeman.

Yes, I appreciate the symmetry, after a year-long hiatus, of writing my everything-and-the-kitchen-sink blog post in the same place where I wrote my last one. With almost 10,000 miles traveled in between. It’s a literal manifestation of going where the story goes, I suppose.

In the run-up to my North Carolina-Tennessee road trip, I decided to purchase Palmer’s book — and David Platt’s “Radical.” (Awesome combination, right?)

Several years ago, Palmer gave a powerful TED talk with the same title. I was struck by how intrinsic vulnerability was to connection in her presentation. It was geared toward artists. But the gist of her talk wasn’t far from what missionaries wrestle with as they embark on fundraising.

Bottom line: it’s not about the money, it’s about the people and the connections you make with them. Asking for support is one of the most common obstacles for Western missionaries, and I think it has a lot to do with our skewed view of vulnerability.

Her book fleshes out what she has learned about the art of asking and being vulnerable with … everyone. There’s language in the book. Palmer is very open about her life, which could be a bit much for some. But, oh, how I wish more missionaries would read it. I’ve listened to it twice now on my road trips. (Side note: the audio book is delightful, because Palmer narrates it herself. It’s like having a good, deep conversation with her over 10-plus hours.)

Palmer’s thoughts on the value of being an artist — a creative — was a much-needed affirmation.

When artists work well, they connect people to themselves, and they stitch people to one another, through this shared experience of discovering a connection that wasn’t visible before. Have you ever noticed that this looks like this? (italics added)

I’m known as that crazy distance-running, occasionally sheep farming, single, female journalist who gallivants off to Africa and random spots out West — as a missionary friend said once, it’s kind of like being a unicorn. Unique and a bit strange.

To say I’ve honed the art of independence would be an understatement. Which is why I needed Palmer’s passage on Thoreau:

Thoreau wrote in painstaking detail about how he chose to remove himself from society to live “by his own means” in a little 10-foot x 15-foot hand-hewn cabin on the side of a pond. What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.

The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him of a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk-hero.

Sure, it resonates with my current back-to-nature existence, and I love donuts. But it’s her conclusion that nails it.

Taking the donuts is hard for a lot of people.

It’s not the act of taking that’s so difficult, it’s more the fear of what other people are going to think when they see us slaving away at our manuscript about the pure transcendence of nature and the importance of self-reliance and simplicity. While munching on someone else’s donut.

Maybe it comes back to that same old issue: we just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.

Try to picture getting angry at Einstein devouring a donut brought to him by his assistant, while he sat slaving on the theory of relativity. Try to picture getting angry at Florence Nightingale for snacking on a donut while taking a break from tirelessly helping the sick.

To the artists, creators, scientists, non-profit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept the help, in whatever form it’s appearing,

Please, take the donuts.

So, I’m trying to take the donuts. What next?

My visit to Bozeman has been an amazing time drinking in the mountain views, hiking, catching up with good friends over coffee and, you guessed it, donuts. It has also scraped me raw — after a year unplugged, I’ve unloaded all of it, in a week.

In the rawness is catharsis. I hope.

The other day, a friend and I explored Yellowstone National Park. We climbed mountains, laughed, talked about life decisions until our voices were hoarse and marveled at the beauty — “It’s not even real!” (see the photo below)

I could have gone alone, as I have often done on trail runs and other excursions. But it wouldn’t have been the same. Part of the immense enjoyment I got from that day trip was because I shared it with someone else.

There is a teachable moment in there somewhere. I just know it.

If Amanda Palmer’s take on vulnerability isn’t your cup of tea, try this, from Romans 5:1-5:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Faith. It’s the ultimate picture of vulnerability. But the rewards? Breathtaking.

As I wrap up my visit, I’m still facing a lot of unknowns. A few more months on the farm and then a year in Kenya. And then … who knows?

Well, I mean, God does.

For now, that needs to be enough.

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