‘Mike, Where Have You Been?’

1 Nov


faculty show 2014_postcardOne of the more comic aspects of writing a book – a story that you hope, if you’re lucky, will be first published and then read by thousands of strangers in some distant future – is that you’re tempted to neglect people you actually know in the here and now.

Fortunately, The Whole Service Trip focuses on a journey in which I recorded 139 interviews with people about their causes, including the value of the connections they formed through their altruistic efforts – as well as the spiritual takeaways for how to live the rest of my life.

So this summer, even as the work of revision was receding like the ocean before a tsunami, the wave of irony that was slowly accumulating for the last two years of writing was now cresting in the distance and rumbling toward shore. It was high time for me to heed the lessons of my own book and make a more intentional effort to get to know some of my favorite people better.

One of the first people I called was Lynn Simmons. A sculptor and art teacher, she’s also a good-hearted person who helps brings people together, making her a model of someone who’s at once artistic and altruistic – a good friend to have a beer with and process how to shift my energy into a broader social realm without losing my center in the process.

What happened next shouldn’t have surprised me. After an hour of reflective and fun lunch-time conversation, Lynn delicately proffered an invitation that was both flattering and terrifying. How would I – a words person who hasn’t done visual art since sixth grade – like to be part of an art show?

She explained that even though everyone else in the show was part of the Art department at our college, they were all doing something outside their normal “comfort zone.” Which, of course, is where Lynn had me dead to rights. “Getting outside your comfort zone” was one of the community service “terms of faith” I was exploring in my book. As was the notion of acting in faith by putting yourself out into the world, trusting that good things would happen.


Lynn Simmons shaking things up at Kaboom!

She didn’t have to articulate these arguments – the logic was irresistible. And, like so many people I’d met on the road, I had to respond to its call. The call, in this case, to create art to be exhibited next to the work of professionals in the library of the college where I work – so that colleagues and students alike could marvel with each other how effectively I’d dramatized how, having seen my work, they appreciate the work of Real Artists that much more.

Whatever doubts remained were set aside once Lynn named the show “Kaboom!”, with the slogan, “Shaking things up!” Which was just what happened to my writerly imagination. I began seeing The Whole Service Trip in a different way. The premise of my exhibit was to superimpose images on passages from my book, highlighting key phrases in larger type. Lynn helped me loosen up and let go of my obsessions with chronology, character and context. Instead, she helped me focus on the images, and the phrases, that would “pop” visually and imaginatively – and work together to tell their own story about The Whole Service Trip?

Today I mark my return to this blog – another form of communicating I’ve neglected during my book-related labors – with the first of several posts inspired by those posters. Today’s exhibit is built on a photo was taken by my father in June 2011, in the early months of debris removal after a killer tornado had ravaged my hometown of Tuscaloosa.

The night of the actual tornado, I was busy emceeing a dinner event on campus – my only anxiety  the minor terrors of public speaking. Meanwhile, my hometown was facing fears far more primal. By the time I got home and checked my messages, hours had passed since the tornado struck – and the twister itself came only after an entire day of my parents watching the TV in anticipation of the predicted storm. When I finally got Mom on the phone, she had just been outside, immersed in conversation about the all-consuming Major Topic of The Day … The Year … The Decade.

So it was understandable that the first words out of her mouth, said with innocent amazement, were: “Mike, where have you been?

She didn’t mean anything by it. But later I would. First I would quote her question as part of a prologue about the tornado cleanup – an experience that planted the seed for the whole trip two years later. But it took “Kaboom!” to help me see that “where have you been?” could be the question hanging over everyone’s “service trip” – over both the times we volunteer and the times we wish we had.

At least, in my case, every time I choose to leave my own world for help someone else in theirs, I come face to face with the question of where I’ve been, and how I’ve been wasting, the rest of my time. I’m a man of modest material means in my world, but I have a wealth of time and energy I could be investing in someone else’s. All I have to do is acknowledge that their world is connected to my own – and shed my own inhibitions enough to go to their world and work alongside them.

So many good things happen when we all do just that.

One example, of course, being “Kaboom!”


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