The old man had an impenetrable Southern accent that was thickened and garbled with age. I could barely make out his words. Leaning against the counter in his tire shop, he told us that he was mayor of the tiny mountain town. His name was Clyde, and he gave my daughter a tootsie roll. He told us how his dog, Sandy, had saved his life in the river. He’d written a song about it. We could buy the CD, which was propped up on the counter, for eight dollars. We were preoccupied buying water bottles and snacks for the road, half listening to him. But he pressed on with his stories, undeterred. When the clerk went to ring us up, I impulsively bought one of his CDs. It occurred to me that he might be Jesus in disguise or his CD might contain prophetic wisdom. Either way, eight dollars seemed like a good deal.
The ground outside the tire shop was covered with litter. The soda cans, sandwich wrappers, and cigarette boxes lay like a carpet at the foot of the mountain in the Virginia state park that is home to the renowned fairy stones. Legend has it that fairies used to cavort happily around the mountain where my family was camping that weekend. When an elfin messenger brought news of Jesus' death, the fairies wept. Their tears fell to the ground and formed little crosses out of rock. A mixture of silica, iron and aluminum, the tiny stones can be found at several locations within the large state part. You don’t usually hear about fairies from Virginia and Christ’s death mixed into a single story, but it appealed somehow to the postmodern sensibility. We were eager to see if we could find any for ourselves that day.
Hiking up the mountain, we discovered that the forest floor was fairly denuded, thoroughly picked over after countless tourist visits. It was hard to locate any rocks, much less a legendary cross-shaped stone. But there must have been some kind of magic in that place because as I picked my way through the scrubby bushes, I met myself up there on that mountain.
Listening to my stepson and daughter laughing together a few yards away, I had a powerful recognition wash through me—a feeling that I had often yearned for but which had been elusive for many years. I felt a deep contentment with the configuration of our little family. We were enough, and that enoughness was a balm. For a long time, I’d been tortured by a relentless desire for another baby. When my husband remained steadfast that he did not want another child, we’d come to a place of uneasy agreement that we wouldn't expand our family. But I’d still struggled with the decision. Yet this four-day camping trip brought it home to me: our family worked. There were connections between each of us as individuals and as a group that thrummed like taut guitar strings; the music between us was sweet.
As I continued up the trail, I had a second, unexpected realization: I was in the midst of becoming a Christian writer. It seemed a strange time and place to get a vocational affirmation, but I wasn’t going to complain. Perhaps it was a “thin place,” as the Celtics would say, a holy setting where the Spirit could be heard and felt more easily, despite the abundance of litter and tourists.
The two insights—one about our family and the other about the writing—felt interrelated. Several years before, as I described my anguished desire for another baby to a mentor, she’d responded, “It’s clear that something is going to be born in you. I’m not sure what. But something is waiting to be born.” Since then, I’d found religion—or rather Jesus had found me—and I had been reborn in Christ. It’s a phrase laden with a lot of baggage given the current American religious landscape, but it described well the death of an old self and a rebirth into an utterly new life that continued to remake me in unexpected ways.
One of these unanticipated twists was that I'd begun writing about my spiritual journey with a startling and voracious gusto. The growing sense of identity as a “Christian writer” had nothing to do with commercial success. I hadn’t even had anything published yet. I just knew in that moment, it was simply, truthfully, becoming a part of me. Just as Mother was an identity that was created in me with my daughter’s arrival and as my relationship with my stepson deepened into a true owning of one another. Perhaps the spiritual writing was the something that had been waiting to be born.
Squatting down, I pushed aside a clump of dried grass and picked up a stone from the mountain side. I squinted and could just make out the sharp corners of a tiny cross. It was half-formed in the rock, like it was struggling to get out. It reminded me of Han Solo’s face in the Star Wars movie when he is frozen in carbonite, face and hands extended as he tries to escape. It was a cross trying to be released from the stone, its shape barely recognizable.
It wasn't that I'd just happened to pick up a dud. In the corner of Clyde’s tire shop dedicated to tourist trinkets—including his box of CDs—a display case showed “Hall of Fame” samples of the famous fairy stones, and they were all pretty rough around the edges. It seemed that all of the crosses were half-formed in the rock, as if the transformation of the fairies’ tears was only partially complete.
It felt like a fitting metaphor. I, too, am trying to be born out of stone. A new identity as a Christian writer is being born out of the confines of the normal world that have left me anxious, uptight, and immediately preoccupied with whether this new thing might lead to Something Big. When I started writing, my thoughts became crowded with obsessive fantasies about the potential for commercial success or public recognition. The sirens of External Validation, Ambition, and Accomplishment immediately fill my ears with their alluring promises. The Christian path tells us that these are the temptations that will bite you on the rear end every time. Jesus said us that we must leave behind the ways of the world, abandon the trappings that leave us a in whirlpool of self-concern. This total reorientation, it seems, is the challenge of a lifetime.
One of my best friends from college is an artist. Unlike me, who did not have a creative calling emerge until my mid-thirties, she knew she was meant to paint since she was a teenager. She has true, honest-to-goodness talent, which is a rare thing. As a twenty-year old art student, my friend painted beautiful faces. A Ghanaian woman buying fruit in the market, an old man with laughing eyes, her own face staring from the canvass with a solemn, penetrating gaze. For the past ten years, she’s tried to ‘make it’ in New York. I've watched her and worried as she's tied herself up in anxious knots in her pursuit of Success. Her aunt is a well-known museum curator; her father a successful academic and writer. She feels she has big shoes to fill. Their success hangs above her head like a cat toy; she’s ready and waiting to pounce.
My friend describes the constant tension she feels between choosing the art she wants to make and the art that is likely to be commercially successful. She loves to paint huge, oversized canvasses, dripping with bold and extravagant colors. But smaller, tighter, tidier paintings are more likely to sell. Since she moved to New York, she stopped painting faces. It makes me sad.
Recently, my friend was blessed with a rare opportunity: an all-expenses paid month away at an artist's retreat center, funded by a grant. My fervent prayer was that while she was away she would be able to abandon those voices of Ambition, chuck out all her preconceptions of what is commercially viable, and perhaps rediscover what it is she loves most about making art. I sense that her time away is like her half-formed cross, with something new and beautiful ready to be formed from the stone.
Saint Augustine tells us that our hearts will find no rest until we rest in God. It sounds incredibly appealing, but in practice, where do we encounter God, and how do we find this promised rest? Barbara Ueland writes that inside our creative impulse, we can find God. She says that the “creative force is life itself. It is the Spirit.” Feeling the truth of these words in my own life, I recognize that the task is to unhinge ourselves from our typical compulsivity. Unselfconscious creativity can be both the result of and a path to a direct connection with the Holy Spirit. Instead, what usually happens is we get stymied and brittle with our egoism. Our creative spark is “inhibited and dried up by many things,” Ueland aptly points out. “Criticism, self-doubt, duty, nervous fear, anxiety about making a living and fear of not excelling" suck the joy and light and power out of us. The times when I’m able to access something “true and good” are those moments when I can abandon the obsessive fantasies of worldly success and come to rest in God through my writing.
It’s okay to begin with a desire to “dazzle the public,” if it’s the thing that gets you going, Ueland says. Ambition can be motivating, like the jolt of espresso that jumpstarts us in the morning. But just as we can’t survive on a diet of caffeine, we quickly require a heartier meal—a more nourishing spiritual diet. To pursue art—or anything we truly love—out of a motivation for external validation is like trying to drive your car on fumes. Sooner or later, you’re going to run out of gas.
Hank Aaron, the first baseball player to break Babe Ruth’s home run record and an African-American who challenged racial barriers throughout his career, described in an interview what kept him going as he received huge volumes of racist hate mail during in the early 1970s. He said he would think to himself, “Just go out there and do what God has given you the permission and the strength to do. Play baseball.” The word “permission” struck me. It's not a word I would typically use. Yet, it gets right to the question of what is the source of our creative power, how we honor and respond to the callings we receive, and where the credit ultimately lies. It is not just about achieving “flow” or pursuing some other popular psychological strategy. It is about welcoming the Holy Spirit in to help you stretch and crack open those stony confines of egoism, self-doubt, and fear a little bit more at a time. In my life, I can feel the stone cross inside of me like a little lump, full of promise yet frozen half-way in the process of change. We can’t let our hearts be like this. We must complete the transformation.
I drove up to visit my friend one afternoon during her artist’s retreat. She had been given her own studio to use during her month there, a sixteen-by-sixteen square foot room with white walls and high ceilings. During her time away, she’d made a single large painting on a canvas in the center of the wall that had been stretched tight with just a few nails. The landscape was a contradiction: a serene countryside with a sinister bulge folding the scene in on itself from the center. It was striking. Nothing about it was tight or tidy.
Over coffee, I asked my friend if she would still paint if she knew she would never earn a cent on her work or if no one ever saw it. She replied without hesitation, “It’s not about the money. It never has been. I just really want to be part of a dialogue. I want to be part of the conversation with other artists and the world that is going on around me all the time.”
I heard a deep hunger and humility in her response. She wasn’t saying she wanted to be a Unique, Bold voice. (I could just imagine an art critic writing, “She paints with a Unique, Bold voice!”) She was saying she wanted to be part of a conversation, to make a small, iterative contribution to an ongoing dialogue. This is how it is with me. There’s not much new to say about God. Not much that hasn’t been said before. But I feel called to join the conversation. To share my amazement. To add my drop to the pool of discussion and reflection about how God has touched my life and continues to knock my socks off everyday.
On the day we left the mountain, I slipped in Clyde’s CD into the car player. The first track began with a dog barking and then a twangy, off-key country drawl filled the car. My husband and the kids groaned and made me turn it off. A few days later, when I was alone, I put the CD in again. The last track was an interview with the musicians. Clyde, the mayor of the little town that is home to the fairy rocks, talks about why he loves to make music. “I’m a Gospel singer and songwriter. I love to sing about God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I also on occasion write songs about dogs, and trains, and being on the road. Love stories and comedies. And once in awhile, even songs about moonshine.” I smiled to myself. Through his thick accent, I understood his words perfectly. These were the moments when he encounters God, in that music, in those moments lived, remembered and sung about. This is where he rests. May we all find our way out of the stone.
Ueland, Barbara. If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. Graywolf Press. 1938.
Kate Rademacher is the author of Following the Red Bird, available online and from local booksellers.