There’s a broken suitcase on the floor of my room.
In the last 6 weeks I’ve travelled to Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee, Atlanta, New York, Minneapolis. Google says 9,519 miles. I’ve kept rickety luggage partially packed on the clothing-strewn floor of my Green Bay, Wisconsin home for weeks, packing and repacking for different ventures — waking at 3 am and driving towards airports while everyone else is sleeping, everyone else is being still. I am not still.
The suitcase handle no longer works. Last month it got stuck in a turnstile in Manhattan as I sweated my way from subway to bus to plane. Departures and arrivals, leaving and returning. But never staying.
My latest trip was last week — to a retreat center outside of Atlanta, where I was one of 32 participants meeting from across the world at co-founder Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage & Renewal “Courage to Lead for Young Leaders & Activists” retreat. We were given journals, poetry, comrades. We were given time to be still, to be quiet and attentive — to let the wisdom of our internal teacher find its voice, thinking about how our inner lives and outer lives could meet; how our “on-stage” and “back stage” selves could live in close proximity. I was not accustomed to the stillness, the staying. I thought of myself as wild, free. In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer speaks of stillness, of deep listening:
“If we want to see and hear a person’s soul, there is another truth we must remember: the soul is like a wild animal: tough, resilient, and yet shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself,” (157).
In the first session, we were asked to reflect on three questions to begin the retreat:
- What memory do you have of listening to yourself describe something that you really loved, cared about, or mattered most to you?
- When have you heard the sound of the genuine in yourself but did not follow it?
- If you were to act on your genuine voice, what might you say or do?
The third question tumbled, crashed, splashed over my mind. Even before the journaling, before we broke for reflection, a word rushed into my head, an image of a hand coming up like a crossing guard motioning toward moving vehicles. STOP. Verbatim, here’s what is free-written, scratched furiously into my journal just 2 hours after we arrived:
stop moving. stop pressure.
stop comparing. stop bugging me.
stop the pressure. stop coming at me.
stop doubting. stop not being yourself.
stop doubting that this is right. stop worrying.
stop false or “should” expectations. stop feeling guilty for being home, feeling how you feel.
stop leaving mentally.
stop interrupting. stop feeling sorry for self.
stop the should. stop pretending to be different- use gut.
and slow. down.”
The paradox of a vocational calling is that it also inherently conjures images of movement: emotionally moved, spiritually swept up, holy current, change.
I lived for two years in a place where people were constantly leaving. In a Christian intentional community with temporary volunteers and guests, it was a rhythm of unending departures and arrivals featuring deep ritual and songs and prayers that kept us long-termers sane among the emotional weight of staying while others came and went. This place, Holden Village, is a small intentional community and retreat center in the North Cascades of Washington State. I came with the plan to leave after a few months. That didn’t happen. I extended my time to three years. The irony is that I left before my time, because of a call — back to the Midwest, back to justice work, back to cultural institutions I grew up with: small towns, whiteness, football, higher education, Wisconsin politics, family, Christianity.
The notion that a call is beyond our control — that we could never have planned it, that we get swept up in the flow of God’s play — indicates a certain lack of agency and control. I did feel out of control, that I had not chosen this.
But once we’ve answered a call, is it possible everyday to continue choosing that call?
It’s not only possible, it’s essential.
On the last day of our Courage & Renewal retreat, in the final large group time before closing, I sat next to Parker Palmer, 6 inches away from his hand that held a theory devised with others doing courage work. They had recently revised it to include experiences of young activists:
“A Movement Model of Social Change: Four Stages
Stage 1: Divided No More
Isolated individuals reach a point where the gap between their inner and outer lives becomes so painful that they resolve to live “divided no more.” These people may leave or remain within institutions, but they abandon the logic of institutions and find an alternative center for their lives. These people do not hate institutions — they love them too much to allow them to sink to their lowest form…”
We were nearing the end of the retreat, and I was prepared to passively receive a few more resources, then depart. I was prepared to hear the remaining stages and go use them. But as Palmer started to read, all eyes on him, I started to leak.
As his kind, deep voice steadily flowed, chronicling the further stages, I steadily lost my grip. I didn’t hear much of anything else. As he spoke, Parker placed his water bottle on the floor next to me and it tipped, liquid overflowing onto my backpack. I did not notice. When a group member passed toilet paper to sop up the spill, I thought they were passing it to me to sop up my spilling emotions. All faces in the large group circle were turned towards this teacher and I sat right next to him within their gaze — embarrassed, weeping silently, snot and tears flowing onto the page of theory, feeling like a sad toddler who has no concept of Kleenex or public composure. My friend Joelle, who had been part of my first group where I expressed the need to stop, sat next to me and silently placed a box of tissues at my side.
We broke to journal then met in triads for what Parker called “15 clear minutes each.” Clear meaning speaking with no interruption, tapping into conversation with our inner teacher, then accepting open & honest questions and mirroring from others to help us in this dialogue with ourselves.
I sat in the triad with two almost-strangers who I now loved. I divulged through tears the difficulty of choosing to stay put as a millennial doing work for which I felt too young, amidst competing regional norms to settle and marry, pressures to have children and build my retirement, gritting against generational alternative scripts to always be moving, to land in big cities, to never settle, to act out frenetic adventures of owning no furniture, flitting from deep experience to deep experience, sleeping on couches and instagramming all the beauty while moving, untethered, through relationships and metropoles and part-time work. This alternative is not freedom, as I had thought.
I told my group, now. I’ve made the choice to stay. To stay in these institutions I love too much to let them sink to their lowest form. Stay in Wisconsin, which at worst can look like xenophobic refugee denial, union busting, downtrodden teachers, suffocating whiteness, brutal chill — but at its best can look like my home of summer camps, family gatherings, of Aldo Leopold, warm fires, Georgia O’Keeffe, UW-Madison, swing state that embodies what philosophy professor & friend Dr. Benjamin Chan calls “myriad lives, lived in myriad ways, shared openly.”
Further, I’ve chosen to stay in Christianity, which at its worst looks like abortion clinic bombings, rationalized racial violence, and anti-Muslim extremism — but at its best looks like welcoming the stranger, healing song and ritual, assurance of new life and belief that light overcomes darkness. I’ve chosen to stay in higher education which at its worst looks like perpetual discontent, corrosive cynicism disguised as critical thinking, resume touting, pretentious specialists — but at its best looks like tireless betterment, freedom from ignorance traps, theories and vocabulary that liberate, shields against stagnation, propellant toward community and enlightenment. I even choose to stay in football culture, which at its worst looks like hypermasculinity, senseless concussions, church cancelled for games, domestic violence after losses — at best it is open homes and weekly ritual, cross-class/ cross-racial involvement, local ownership, small town economic development, shared joy and celebration.
Vocation is a call, true — bringing more than we can imagine for ourselves, life different than we dreamt or planned. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to choose our vocation everyday amidst the pull towards alternatives that seem more typical, more normative, more understandable, more common, more safe.
But I’ve made a choice. A conscious, active decision to stay. If you’re a person of new year’s resolutions, call it resolve. If you’re a person of theory adoption, call it praxis. If you’re a person of religion, call it faith. If you’re a follower of seasons and cycle, call it solstice, which is derived from the Latin sistere:
To stand still.
Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer is the assistant director and chief of staff at St. Norbert College’s Cassandra Voss Center (CVC), which focuses on transformation through initiatives related to race, class, gender and identity. Daughter of a camp director, Anna grew up living and working at camps for 22 years before becoming the national events coordinator at Holden Village, an ecumenical learning and retreat center in the Cascade Mountains. She lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and loves to thrift.