The souls of men have been fed with indigestibles, but the soul could make use of beer.
“So what do you do?”
The inevitable question threads in and out of countless conversations sparked around tables at creative retreats and workshops. It changes its face, but the words are always some variation of, “What kind of stuff do you make?”
I was at Laity Lodge, where heaven meets earth along the banks of the Frio River somewhere southwest of Austin, Texas. Early in the week I settled at a long plank table, with a huddle of new friends, and began dinner with our shared appreciation for U2. An acclaimed poet, an accomplished singer/songwriter, a published illustrator, and an MFA student were sitting at the table. And then there was me. The question was asked, and all eyes looked in my direction.
I shuffled my feet under the table and fidgeted with my napkin. My response was dawdling, as though revelation would fall from the dining hall ceiling before the sentence reached its conclusion.
“I kinda . . . dabble.”
When one is standing in the presence of folks who immerse themselves in a creative path and choose daily to do the hard work of perfecting it, one does not generally shout from the rooftops that one is neither focused nor decisive enough to pick one thing and stay with it. I dabble.
Later in the week, as we bid farewell to kindred souls, Doug Hanks, one of the friends at the table when I’d been prompted to confess, said something that I will never forget. It has changed me: “Keep dabbling, Barbara. Just keep dabbling.” He said it like it was the answer to life.
So I have. I’m still a dabbler. There are some things I dabble in that stay with me and others I enjoy for a while that float away on some odd current of inattention. Some of them come and go, and then come and go again and again. Writing sticks around. Bread-baking seems to be hanging in there. Knitting disappears but also returns. There’s also photography, drawing, guitar, painting, and songwriting. I’ve recently started brewing beer, and I’d like for that to linger. I hope to God I never pick up scrapbooking (no offense to you scrapbookers, but Instagram works for me).
I dabble. This is partly to do with a lack of focus and, at times, plain old laziness. But sheer curiosity holds the lion’s share of this scattershot creativity. It’s not enough to enjoy a good book — I want to write good words. To drop five bucks on the counter for an artisan loaf of bread or to savor a craft brew and not experience the process is to leave something incomplete. A question remains unvoiced.
* * *
I had my first beer the summer before last around a campfire. My mom was there — she had a Sam Adams in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. She barely touched the beer, and she slowly sipped the glass of wine, but the standing joke is that she is quite adept at double-fisting. I finished my beer and enjoyed it. It was a Sam Adams Summer Ale. With traces of alcoholism on both sides of the family tree and a deeply conservative upbringing, I remember wondering if this was the beginning of my downfall. The first of many drinks to eventually land me in an apartment alone and smelling like the drunks who would sometimes stumble into church and kindly attempt to help collect the offering.
In the year and a half following that first drink, I am happy to say that I did not become a raging alcoholic. Instead, I began to explore the endless varieties of color, aroma, and flavor in this age-old world of beer. It started with Sam Adams, Leinie’s, and others of the mass-marketed-but-good variety. Then I discovered New Holland Brewing Company, just down the road in Holland, Michigan. Soon after, craft brews like Bell’s, Founders, and Brewery Vivant — all breweries local to my new home state — began to appear in my fridge.
I really like good beer. I like the way the slightly viscous liquid swishes over my tongue, splashes a complexity of flavor in layers, and warms my throat on its way down. I like the brooding nature of a porter with smoky grains and caramel-coffee malts, the aroma and hoppy attitude of an IPA, the good-ole-boy stance of a Belgian white that goes well with practically anything. But being a connoisseur of beer ultimately holds little interest for me. There is a process behind it all, a history, full of words like grist and sparge and wort.
So another round of dabbling has begun. I discovered that a friend (appreciatively nicknamed the Beer Jedi) who had been brewing for a while was willing to show me the ropes. I watched him brew a batch, and he made it look so easy. At home in the privacy of my own kitchen, the process humbled me. The kitchen warmed with the aroma of grain and malt and hops, and I pulled out my iPhone to Instagram the moment. Somewhere in the three seconds between putting down my wooden spoon and snapping a photo, the wort (liquid contents of my borrowed brew kettle) boiled over. I pulled the kettle off the burner and stirred the furious liquid to a calm. My iPhone crept back into my pocket for a good long rest after that. I cooled the wort and transferred it into the primary fermenter (a big plastic bucket with a tight lid) and pitched the yeast (added it to the wort). Then I waited . . . for days. Nothing happened. The airlock on top of the fermenter was supposed to indicate something, but it was silent. I was certain I’d killed my beer. Talk about a crisis of conscience.
Weeks later, the bottled result of my first attempt was a rather hoppy brown ale that I barely had the nerve to share with anyone. There are still several bottles sitting in the back of my fridge. Thankfully, subsequent batches have yielded tastier results.
* * *
I seemed to have been provided with answers
to questions I had yet to ask, questions that God had sensed
or had even instilled in the lower reaches of my soul.
Beauty, stupidity, compassion, brutality, depth, and complexity — oh, the vastness of human existence. And at the center of it all, or somewhere close to it, there are questions. Questions about how the world works and why, questions about who and if God is and what that means to humanity, questions about the meaning of life and how it might come to be.
I don’t think we are very good at living the questions. I know I’m not. The American culture I have experienced seems largely populated with voices of entertainment to take my mind off the questions. Or self-help to make me feel like I have the answer to unlock every question. Or religion to convince me that the questions don’t really matter in the first place. The Church as I have experienced specializes more in bandaging the open wounds of the questions than in debriding the wounds, embracing mystery, and teaching me how to live my questions. And I get it. Questions can be irksome. They are a painful reminder of my limitation. But there they are.
I like the questions I can locate. Those are the ones I can hang words on that make me feel intelligent and insightful. I don’t like the ones that play hard to get. The questions I have not asked — that my voice may never find — make me feel small. Try as I might, they refuse to be pinned down. These are the ones I want to let live, to find their voice in flesh and blood. I want to get my hands dirty, to find and create beauty in the world. So . . . I dabble. And somewhere in the dabbling I hear the questions and hints of what might be answers.
* * *
I remember that table at Laity Lodge — the people there, that huddle of friends. We were— we are— strangers with a common call. We are poets and illustrators, students and homemakers, musicians, storytellers, brewmeisters, scrapbookers, and all-around dabblers. We are not mere connoisseurs of beauty. We are wanderers with questions that refuse to be pinned down.
So . . . what do you do? Ask questions and immerse your hands in creative ventures that give voice to questions beyond your ability to articulate. The act of creation itself gives voice to the questions deep in your heart. Answers to the questions hide somewhere in the open hands of your own beauty-making. Work at your craft. Whatever you do, keep dabbling.
Barbara Lane is an editorial intern for the Art House America Blog and otherwise blogs at Lost Arrivals. She earned a degree in Spiritual Formation and Leadership in 2011 and has since gone about the story of rediscovering what she learned there. Her home is a basement apartment in Fremont, Michigan, where she is learning the arts of writing, homemaking, and beer brewing. She dreams of one day sharing her loves with a family.