Years ago, Chuck and I went to a theological conference in Florida. He’d been invited to speak on creativity and the Christian faith, and I was happy to go along, notebook in hand, eager to learn from teachers I respected. We’d lived in Nashville for a year or so, just long enough to buy an old country church on a wing and a prayer, name it The Art House, and begin to make sense of what we were supposed to do there. We were at the beginning of something, the creation of a gathering place. We were also well into the flow of our life as it looked in the early 90s: musician husband pounding it out on the road and in the studio, wife/mother taking care of the rest of life.
As we sat together in one of the plenary sessions at the conference, the speaker asked the audience to quickly exchange our coming-to-follow Jesus history with someone sitting nearby. It was an odd request to make of a crowd that large and it felt awkward. Like anyone’s, our story is intimate and involved, with a timeline of details not easily summarized for a complete stranger. But we were lucky that day. The man who turned to us was the legendary theologian, J.I. Packer. After listening kindly to my rambling, he responded with this nugget, “Well then, it’s all of grace, isn’t it?”
We’ve never forgotten his words. They were simply and profoundly true of the story we told him that day. Many years later, I know those words are true of life itself. It is a gift, given, not deserved.
In my office, there’s a quote pinned to the bulletin board. It says, “If you want to know who a person is, ask them what they love.” The piece of paper it’s written on has been in the same place for so long I no longer remember the source. But in the days since we sat with Mr. Packer in Florida, this question and others like it have been essential guides in helping me understand our life, who I am, and what I’m called to do and not do. My answers have changed with the decades, but the main themes have traveled with me through the years.
When Chuck and I started our lives together in 1975, I was an unfocused 19-year old woman with many interests and little self-knowledge. With my mom’s help, I did the best I could with what I knew and entered nursing school shortly after our marriage. In my young life, I already had a history of spending time in nursing homes and doing hospital volunteer work. I was inclined towards caregiving, so nursing school was a good guess. But after a few months of memorizing human anatomy, giving bed baths, and learning to take blood pressure the old fashioned way, I dropped out. I wasn’t made of the right stuff after all.
Afterward, I took classes wherever the wind of my interest blew and found jobs to help pay the rent. I worked as a nurse’s aide, cleaned hotel rooms, and sorted mail at Weinstock’s. A few months after our first baby was born, I took more classes and found more jobs. As my belly grew with our second child, I was waiting tables and serving up whiskey shots at Maurice’s American Bar in Sacramento.
Had I known what to look for in those days, I might have seen tiny seeds of my future life present in my childhood. Like all young people, there were clues to the complexity of my gifts and desires, even in their highly undeveloped and immature state. They were mixed up in how I felt about the sheltering presence of my grandmother’s house and the relationships I had with my three best friends. There were signals in my bookish ways, the diaries I filled, and my attraction to Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls. That kind of insight only comes when you look backward to find the threads that were there all along. But the reality of learning who I was and who I wasn’t, who I am and who I’m not, has happened at the slow pace of ordinary days and years.
When our children were growing up, I craved the stability my own childhood lacked. I wanted a home with substance and found the routines of family life both anchoring and creative. When we moved from California to Nashville, I joined a book club with like-minded women who cared about good literature. I made friends with my neighbors, planted shrubs and flowers, and studied the Bible for long hours.
After building a studio at the Art House and hosting gatherings for a few years, we moved our family in to make it our home. As we responded to life in a century-old place, I found I had a taste for vintage tablecloths, pottery from the 40s and 50s, and chenille bedspreads. The timeless comfort of my grandmother’s house was always at the back of my mind.
I worked hard in the kitchen, poring over cookbooks and dreaming up menus, my imagination lit up by the creation of food and the needs of hungry people. I planted gardens everywhere, the gardener in me coming fully to life with the blank canvas of outdoor space but also driven by something that flowed through my veins, passed down through my mother and my paternal grandfather. My mother grew cactus gardens, and my grandfather was a rancher. He was also a soil conservationist, and later in life, a man with a beautiful backyard garden.
In our years at the Art House, I learned the hard way that I’m an introvert. With endless amounts of people and no privacy, I will internally combust. But I’m deeply relational. I prize conversation and friendships. Relationship is the currency that matters most to me.
I began to write in places other than my journals after a few wise people advised me to pay attention to that part of myself and let some other things go. That was years ago, but it was the first time I’d thought about my life with an awareness of God’s design. What do you love, what matters most? Everything else, looking backward and forward, makes sense in light of those questions.
In the mix of what we love and what we do out of love, we find our life.