chicken and waterer

On a plane flying west today, shoehorned into seat 25C, I read:

“Be bold. Be brave. Be true to your birthright, what you recognize in your heart.”

(That’s author Terry Tempest Williams, imagining what the great writer and teacher Wallace Stegner – whom she knew as Wally – would say to her about her own writing, and her life.)

A little further down the page, Williams quotes Stegner:

“Largeness is a lifelong matter…. You grow because you are not content not to. You are like a beaver that chews constantly because if it doesn’t, its teeth grow long and lock. You grow because you’re a grower; you’re large because you can’t stand to be small.”

With the necessary caveat about not knowing the original context of these words, or what Stegner might have intended, here’s what they say to me: It’s not about striving to be (steroidally or radiation-accidentally, super-heroically) larger-than-life, or about making an impression, or about being what used to be called the Big Man on Campus. Rather, “largeness” is about living wholeheartedly into the life that wants to live itself through you. It’s about not turning away from the invitation, the summons, the calling to be truly and fully who you are. It’s about coming to “fit” the person the world needed you to become when you arrived on the planet.

I think of my parents. Soft-spoken, necessarily inventive, early rising, hard-working, gentle people. Donald and Elsie (Anderson) Johnson. Shy, rural Minnesota Swedish-Lutheran dairy farmers. Their “largeness” never had anything to do with status or stuff; they never were nor never will be famous. Now buried side-by-side in the Beckville Lutheran Church cemetery, in the country nine miles south of town, it won’t be all that many more years before they’ll be lost to memory – as certainly true as that will be for each one of us. Their lives were as ordinary – and as sacred – as, well, dirt: the dark, clay/loam, rocky humus that gave our farm family its bountiful, hardscrabble living, the adamah from which God formed the adam, the earth-creature, and breathed into it the wind, breath, spirit of life.

They showed me that “largeness” is the shape of integrity, contribution, forgiveness. It’s the stature that comes from living a life of gratitude, awe and wonder, of seeing a need and doing what you can, and then doing a little more. Largeness is the girth of compassion, the inescapable gravity well of authenticity, the vastness of a present and listening heart, the expanse of imagination that’s willing to plant seeds for trees in whose shade it will never be able to sit. Largeness is the immensity of love, the spaciousness of hospitality to the stranger, the inexorability of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the arc of the universe that bends toward justice.

By those measures, my parents were giants. Their sacred ordinary lives showed me what each of us can be when we are true to our birthright gifts, courageous enough to honor the self we recognize in our hearts.

As we celebrate the launch of this new endeavor, The Milkweed Group, we invite you to consider: What is calling you to live boldly? Toward what “largeness” is your heart prodding you? Who do you need to be if only because “you can’t stand to be small?”

Chris Johnson

Photo by Chris Johnson

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