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The Wonder Report: April 9, 2021
Life as a Journey
Happy Friday! Here in Central Indiana, the sun is shining, the trees are budding, and I’m feeling like the new life outside is sparking new life inside.
This week, I want to talk about road trips. After the year we’ve had, doesn’t a long road trip sound nice? We could pack light, pick up what we need on the way, and just leave all of “this” behind—”this” being fourth waves, pandemic burn out, ongoing anxiety, herd immunity, loneliness, isolation, fear.
In fact, Steve and I did take a little road trip a couple weeks back, piled in the car with snacks, music, and our high hopes of seeing some family members we hadn’t seen in more than a year. These kinds of reunions are happening now, especially since we and lots of people we know are vaccinated. I envision lots of road trips ahead this summer.
We wound our way through the country and hopped on U.S. 74 going West through Illinois. We made two stops: one at a Starbucks and the other at a Taco Bell. By the time we picked up Interstate 80, crossed over the Mighty Mississippi, and made it to our destination in Iowa City, Iowa, we were ready to stretch our legs. Road trips at 50 are different than at 22, though the need to get out and away sometimes feel even more overpowering.
We stayed just a few hours, kept our distance, and still somehow shared a meal and a walk. Then Steve and I folded ourselves back into the car for five and a half hours back the way we’d come, heading east this time with the sun setting over our shoulders. When we rolled in just before midnight, we played with the dogs, dressed for bed, and called it a day. After 11 hours in the car and four hours with family, we were glad to be home.
The trope of life as a journey is old and familiar and maybe a little tired, and yet we continue to pack our bags and head for the road, because we've convinced ourselves that "the road is life," says James K.A. Smith, quoting Kerouac for his book On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Whatever life is, it's gotta be anything but this. Wherever life is, it's gotta be anywhere but here.
For years now, I've described my own life in terms of the road, telling people about my “journey” with cancer, using phrases like “what a trip” or “along for the ride” to describe my family, and often talking about turns and distances and someday "arriving" to answer questions about my writing career.
But somehow, I never actually get there. I never find myself showing up for my own life and thinking, “This is it. This feels like home.” In fact, it’s more like Smith describes, that somehow "the road has a strange way of showing what looks like a destination in the distance that, when you get there, points to another destination beyond it.” No matter how far I go, I never get there. And no matter how many times I end up exactly where I set out for, it almost seems like I will never be satisfied.
I love the question Smith asks early on in the book: "What if being human means being a cosmic emigre--vulnerable, exposed, unsettled, desperate, looking for a home I've never been to before?"
The very notion leaves me a little unsettled, but it also feels like a truth I've known throughout my whole journey: In this life, I'll never find what I'm looking for, because what I'm looking for can only be found in the next.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t keep looking and don’t keep expecting little glimpses of the next life along the way. Over on Instagram today, my friend Sally reminded me that our English word journey is derived from the French word jour, or day (as in the greeting bon jour, which translates '“good day”). The Old French journée meant "a day's length or a day's work or travel" and eventually became our journey, which can mean both a defined plan of travel or, more broadly, one's path in life. A path that involves a string of many days— some good, some not so good—that often leads us to place we never actually expected. Because even if we arrive, we ourselves have changed along the way.
That’s not to say that we worship the journey either, though, or that we believe that “the road is life,” from Kerouac again. We can find satisfaction, or even joy, “in the journey precisely when we don’t try to make a home out of our car, so to speak. There is love on the road when we stop loving the road. There are myriad gifts along the way when we remember it’s a way. There is delight in the sojourn when we know where home is,” Smith writes. And it’s not where we think it is.
“We are not just pilgrims on a sacred march to a religious site; we are migrants, strangers, resident aliens en route to a patria, a homeland we’ve never been to. God is the country we’re looking for, ‘that place where true consolation of our migration is found.’”
So, we’ll spend our next few weeks in this space talking about what it means to be travelers, sojourners, refugees even. If you haven’t noticed, the next book on my slow-reading “journey” this year is James K.A. Smith’s On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Using themes from this book, we’ll talk about the allure of freedom and the paralysis of being between two places. We may cover friendship and enlightenment, or we might dive into ambition and justice. However we talk about life on the road, we’ll do it together as fellow pilgrims. And though I’m not exactly sure where we’re going, when we do arrive, we’ll be different for having traveled together on this journey.
Are you longing to get away?
Is the allure of hitting the road and going somewhere new tempting you?
Here’s the challenge: Follow that urge. Even if just for an afternoon, let the road have you. But notice how you feel when you get back home, too. Are you relieved? What is the true longing behind the need to get away? What do you think you’re looking for? And what did you actually find?
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
1. These Precious Days by Ann Patchett for Harpers Magazine. There’s so much I want to say about this essay, but at the same time, I want you to experience it as I did: without the burden of someone else’s expectations guiding you to think a certain way about. I will say this: it’s long. Really, really long. But it took my breath away in a few places, and when I finished, I cried. So much about this article feels like a journey, like life. And Patchett, being the master writer that she is, takes you through the events of the past year like you weren’t just there living them. She makes them extraordinary when they felt otherwise ordinary.
From the essay: “Before I can start writing a novel, I have to know how it ends. I have to know where I’m going, otherwise I spend my days walking in circles. Not everyone is like this. I’ve heard writers say that they write in order to discover how the story ends, and if they knew the ending in advance there wouldn’t be any point in writing. For them the mystery is solved by the act, and I understand that; it’s just not the way I work. I knew I would write about Sooki eventually, I had told her so, but I had no idea what I’d say. I didn’t know how the story would end.”
2. National Poetry Month Reflections by Laura Boggess at Tweetspeak Poetry. I can’t write in April and not mention National Poetry Month, but out of the many articles I could have included this week, I chose this one because of the way Boggess (I’m just going to call her Laura here, because she’s my friend), the way Laura uses poetry and gardening as tropes for the iterations of becoming that life brings us. She’s not writing about life on the road here, except she is. And with every turn of the metaphorical garden spade, she could just as well be ticking off the metaphorical miles we’re traveling together this month.
From the essay: “With each passing year we hammer out rough drafts—meticulously homing in on what is best to keep and what must be cast aside, letting what is “exclusively” ours “burble up” from the moments. And just as my garden takes shape over the long stretch of years, none of these seasons we sift through are ever perfected—it’s a constantly shifting landscape. But if we are true to the draft-writing—or draft living, in this case—we keep what is best and let go of the rest. The next season may be a little better for the pruning, but chances are, it will still have its fair share of bending and tending to push through.”
3. 10 Digital Commandments from Jen Pollock Michel. After an examination of what Jen (she’s a friend too!) calls her “doubtful, digital habits,” she came up with 10 digital commandments to guide her relationship with technology. She uses “the language of ‘shall’ and ‘shall not,’ … not to channel King James but rather, to hearken back” to an idea in her new book A Habit Called Faith:
"I’m encouraged by a scholar who has noted the ‘promissory’ nature of the law. He has argued that every ‘shall’ and ‘shall not’ of God’s commands have less to do with an arm-twisting imperative and more to do with a confident promise. . . Faith shall produce deep, visible, lasting transformation in the lives of God’s people" (58).
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“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.” — Rachel Carson
Check out this new section for tips and tricks about exploring nature in this section.
As part of our journey, especially in the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic, my husband Steve and I have gone on lots of hikes. It’s not only kept us in shape physically, but also emotionally and spiritually, too. Being out in nature serves as one of many spiritual practices that help me turn my attention to the Lord and his work in the world.
While Steve and I typically hike in state parks, I recently found the online site AllTrails, which lists trails in nature preserves, local parks, botanical gardens, abandoned railway corridors, and more. There are several trails within an hour drive of my home that I never knew about.
If you’re interested in getting outside more this spring and summer and aren’t sure where to go, create a free account on AllTrails.com and get hiking!
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
As a writer, I can’t hear the word journey without thinking of the classic plot structure of the hero’s journey. This concept was first introduced by philosopher Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949.
In this three-act structure, we have a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis (or conflict) wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed. Campbell's concept included 17 stages combined into three acts:
I. Departure (also Separation)
1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. Crossing the Threshold
5. Belly of the Whale
6. The Road of Trials
7. The Meeting with the Goddess
8. Woman as Temptress
9. Atonement with the Father
11. The Ultimate Boon
12. Refusal of the Return
13. The Magic Flight
14. Rescue from Without
15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
16. Master of Two Worlds
17. Freedom to Live
In the Hero’s Journey, we see some of the basic elements of Freytag’s Triangle, the classic Conflict - Crisis - Resolution model, but it’s posed specifically as a journey and is often depicted more cyclically, as if the end of one journey is simply the beginning of the next.
While this plot structure works most naturally for novels and screenplays, it has crossover usefulness in memoir and other creative nonfiction, as well as in understanding our own writing and spiritual lives. In some ways, the hero’s journey is appealing because we all feel the call to adventure, or the call to the road, at some point in our lives. And ultimately, what we long for is transformation and atonement of our sins and errors.
Have you ever used this structure in your own plots? How could you imagine applying it to your own writing, whether fiction or nonfiction? Do you see any usefulness in exploring this theory more as a way to understand the trajectory of your own life?
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report! Thanks again for sharing this time with me. If you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
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Until next time,