Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ray's Festival diary

Since all of the best quotes are taken, I thought I'd take another tack and offer up some of my impressions of our trip to Calvin College's Faith and Writing Conference.

Getting up a little bit earlier than I would like to, I join the as yet unnamed "Lightning Bug Club" which leaves Kingston at 7:30 soon to be refueled with good Canadian Tim Horton's coffee (and some gasoline too).

Since I have been appointed DJ for the trip, I come fully prepared with road trip music. Alas, no one remembers any of the Cars music, so the moment is lost. I share some more of my music mix which includes Donovan, Cat Stevens, Creedence Clearwater Revival and other nostalgia fit for us old timers whose average age is over 50 (without naming any specific individuals).

We break for lunch and get our monthly fastfoodfix (well maybe just me--the others have salads) from one of our more ubiquitous restaurants (thanks Irwin for introducing that big word into my vocabulary).

The border guard is chatty (he finds out our predilection (my word) toward teaching English (four out of five of us) and goes on and on about how English ain't never been his favourite subject...

More great music by DJ Ray passes the time almost as well as great conversations. I've always thought that road trips are a great way to really get to know someone, provided that bathroom breaks are allowed when required.

Sue Caldwell checks the new schedule of speakers and realizes that one of her favourite children's authors is speaking at 4:30 only. Should we break all speeding laws and push to arrive on time? What would Buddha do? Fortunately everyone else is speeding and we make it exactly on time without bothering to register. Because we don't get caught, we briefly wonder about attending the conference anyway and getting a refund. These Dutch people are always thinking about money.
Speaking of Dutch people (I'm mostly proud of my heritage), I find myself saying (and because I'm Dutch, I can): the Dutch tend to be extremely thrifty and yet when something is important, they can be incredibly generous. I know this personally, and the campus reflects this value. I am surrounded by a beautiful, well-kept campus that speaks of care and stability. The sense of space is not lost, but rather emphasized with the well-manicured lawns and gardens. In contrast with Kingston's Queen's University, which is full of old limestone heritage buildings, Calvin feels modern and warm. The inviting orange (what's with the Dutch and the colour orange?) brick buildings contrast with Queen's coldly beautiful grey limestone edifaces. I feel at home here in spite of attending Calvin more than 33 years ago. My impression of the last conference was that the healthy balance of head and heart is maintained here. It has been something I have sought after in my own faith journey. This feels like home.

So Avi is wonderful. Although I haven't read any of his children's literature, I am impressed by the man himself. He tells us that often he will be approached by someone after his talks and be asked "are you a Baptist" or "are you Jewish"? He maintains that even though he is of Jewish extraction, he considers himself an Atheist. However, he loves truth and this is what audiences are responding to.

Dinner is on the run since we (actually do) register and are off early to get good seats to hear the evening speaker Wally Lamb. He's the author of "She's Come Undone," "I Know This Much Is True", and "The Hour I first Believed"-- the book we are planning to study next in our book study group (of which we are all members--even our "interloper" Irwin). As expected, Wally is humble, gracious and compassionate. Several years ago, he left full-time teaching in order to write. Shortly thereafter, he was invited to give a writing workshop in a women's prison. That was a few years ago and he still gives classes there every two weeks. Recently he published two books of short stories by female inmates. Wally says that he needs to be in the classroom to keep his own stories authentic.

What a first day! We all go off on our separate ways. Some return to the hotel to R&R, or off to visit friends and relatives for late night rendezvous.

I am up earlier than I would choose. I think that having kids changes (or wrecks) one's internal alarm clock by setting it several hours earlier than absolutely necessary. We all go to the speaker of our choice. Except me -- I bump into writer Hugh Cook and have a nice "get to know you" chat. Then I have breakfast with a friend I haven't seen for over thirty years. Visiting Grand Rapids is a bit like a homecoming for me, as I spent my first four years here, and another three years after high school. Visiting the people I lived with in Christian Community is another reason for my time here. I balance speakers' workshops with visits to old friends and family.

Most of go to Kate DiCamillo's talk on the craft of writing. She's the author of "The Tale of Despereaux" (which we also read for the book study) and find her an absolute delight. Listening to her is one of the highlights of my time. She tests the microphone by saying "nothing of consequence, nothing of consequence, nothing of consequence" which is so completely far from the truth. She has an astonishing sense of humour--mostly self-deprecating. We are struck by her quest for truth in story-telling that transcends any personal religious belief. "We find the ability to walk through pain through story," she says. She graciously signs a book for Sue who is giving it as a present to one of her students. We are enriched.

I have lunch with the former assistant pastor of Logos Community, who is a kind of father figure to me, and am reminded that anything worth doing involves our relationship with God.

Part Two: And now we go to hear Parker Palmer. This is the highlight of the trip for most of us. I am listening to a podcast of his talk as I write this. The wisdom and humility of this man feeds our souls and spirits like few speakers can. His motto (and bumper sticker) is "Born Baffled," which indicates to all of us his awareness of his dependence on God in matters of faith and wisdom. He often "writes himself into a corner" in his search for truth. This comes from a man with astute intelligence and ability. His self-deprecating humour is illustrated in how he describes the lunch his wife has made and how she labels all of his clothing. "It's like all of life is summer camp!"

Next we go to a performance by Capella--Calvin's concert choir. In the round auditorium they stand in a circle behind us and we hear music that seems to come from a different sphere. It is a transcendent experience. They sing:
silence my soul
these trees are prayers
I asked a tree tell me about God
then it blossomed

Lori and I then meet my sister for the evening. We meet her new partner who is completely enthralled with her. Her son, Austin, is mercilessly punished by all of the (some people say bad) jokes in my repertoire. Ahh, so much fun. We all bond well and the evening is over far too quickly.

The next morning I am so emotionally exhausted that I stare into space for almost an hour, occasionally taking sips of my coffee. I am replenished and go hear Parker Palmer for a second time in the main auditorium. He begins by saying "One of my marks of being at a really good conference is that I have to sit and look at the program and decide if I want to come to my own session: that was a really hard call this morning." Then he proceeds to share hard-won insights by reading from his new book: "The Politics of the Brokenhearted" and talking about his writing experience. He says there really is a connection between faith and writing--writing is like prayer....we are challenged...

"Show, don't tell" is Hugh Cook's maxim at the next session. Jeannie and Lori have used his talents as an editor for their own writing. It is good to meet this man they have correspondence with. He is full of practical writing knowledge. I had just finished his first collection of short stories "Cracked Wheat" that tell many stories about the Dutch immigration experience. I relate powerfully and emotionally to his tales.

Most of us need a break from all of the stimulating imput of the sessions. I, however, meet with another friend I haven't seen in over 30 years. He drives me to the "Teerling Compound" where his Mother, brothers and sisters live. I am embraced warmly and feel part of the family immediately. We share our common experience living at "Logos Christian Community Farm" in the 1970's. I brought a cd with old photos that I took from that time and we enjoy the images projected onto the tv that bring back fond memories.

Hours later, David brings me back to Calvin for another appointment with Jim Lucas, a former Pastor from Christ's Community--the other community I lived in. He shows me Newberry House--a new concept of community living. I think people are still craving intimacy through community. These committed people are making it happen. My cousin and her family live there and soon my uncle and aunt will, too.

The last time we were in G.R. we found this magical Italian restaurant and poured copious stories, laughter and wine into our last evening. Alas, as we search for this wonderful place, it eludes us. We settle for appetizers until after the final session. Mary Karr shares from her past about being a "Black Belt Sinner". Our mixed reactions to her talk question whether the experience was primarily for her or our benefit. It is still good, though, that she feels embraced by our community.

Disappointment renews our quest for the holy grail of Italian restaurants. But soon it is found and we are reminiscing about a conference that has gone by far too quickly. Great food, and even better vino help bond us together as we make plans for the next conference. "Maybe we should go in two cars next time and ask so and so and so". The time at Calvin's Faith and Writing Festival 2010 has added a positive experience to our collective memories. We are all feeling "full" as we make our way home the next morning...

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