Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Identity and Calling: Your Place at the Table

August 9, 2022

Then the old man put on Sir Galahad (for it was he) a crimson robe trimmed with fine ermine, and took him by the hand and led him to the Perilous Seat, and lifting up the silken cloth which hung upon it, read these words written in gold letters, “This is the seat of Sir Galahad, the good knight.”

“Sir,” said the old man, “this place is thine.”

— Sir Galahad and the Quest for the Holy Grail

Do you remember that first day in middle school when you felt completely lost in the crowd, just hoping for a friendly smile? 

I remember walking into algebra and scanning the eager or grumpy or pensive faces. I was desperate to find a familiar person. This awkward, tardy-to-class moment was usually prefaced by wrestling with the combination at my new locker that stubbornly wouldn’t open, and located on the other side of the building. I hoped to quietly slip into a seat, but found only one desk remaining — in the front and center row. Ugh.

Then came lunch. I’d queue up in the long line, my stomach in knots. With three possible lunch hours, would I get a seat with someone I knew and could commiserate with? I’d look over shoulders and around the moving throng and pray I’d find a seat in the rapidly filling cafeteria. Would there be a friend to sit with? And horror of horrors, what if they were SITTING WITH OTHER KIDS? 

Adults think that it’s mathematics that crushes the average middle school student; honestly, it’s the shark tank of Cafeteria 101.

But then that moment comes. I’d see someone who shared a class with me, someone to laugh with. We would have common ground, even if a very limited plot of ground. Our eyes would meet as she’d pat the space next to her and wave me over. I would start breathing again. I’d have my place at the table.

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” 

— C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Does this very natural, but undue, panic ever fade away? If we are honest, no. That eighth-grade girl reveals herself all over again as I attend conferences, classes, or church socials. I’ll joke about the ‘existential crisis’ of finding where I fit into the grand scheme of the event, but that adolescent awkwardness is still there.

Part of that angst probably stems from my early efforts to be as athletic as some of my friends. One would think that out of years as the last kid chosen for every team in elementary school, I would get it. After failed tryouts for softball and volleyball in high school, three visits to the emergency room due to great expectations for skiing, biking, and judo — I would’ve figured out that my gifting was not in the sports realm. That wasn’t my place, but I made myself crazy (and injured) trying to become someone else, instead of finding contentment in who I was and what I loved – an adventurous bookworm whose middle-school English teacher told me and my parents that I should pursue writing. 

But I thought, The cool people are in sports! I want to be THAT. Now, delete the word sports and fill in your own activity that you may long for. What is that thing that you want? Then comes the difficult part — self-reflection time. “You were made for a specific purpose” is the line that is gallantly trotted out as encouragement when we are floundering around and trying to find our place. Seldom do we heed that advice.

Choosing a college major was also misguided. I love art and creating beautiful things. Back in the day, people saw the Christmas cards I’d draw for my parents or the painting in the living room I had gifted upon them. Did I enjoy creating? Yes! Was I good at it? Passable. Did it feel like a good fit? Meh. But I proclaimed graphic design as my major of choice and blazed ahead. 

I spent the next four years stumbling through the art courses and again, forcing myself into a seat at someone else’s table. I received good marks in the art courses, but what did I excel at and find joy in? The writing and literature electives and endless art history papers. The seat at the table that I overlooked because I’d rather sit somewhere else. The journey from aspiring athlete (which nearly killed me) to graphic artist (which nearly killed my love of creating) provided a very long and valuable lesson.

Recently, I was invited to speak at a conference, and the middle-school angst bubbled up once again. My topic focused on George MacDonald’s fairy tale Phantastes, and I was thrilled. This story is a brilliant, imaginative escape into make-believe, embedded with beauty and symbolism, which is everything wonderful in a book. So why was I in a panic over talking about one of my favorites? I knew why; because I imagined that what I would share with my audience would sound awful, clumsy, and boring. I didn’t start writing my talk because I had no idea where to start. So, I didn’t start. A good friend who is well-versed in public speaking came over for lunch. I regaled him with my tales of woe and self-doubt: “What can I offer that will be intellectually engaging? I’m just talking about a book and my topic is a fairy tale. I love it, but will anyone else?” 

He said, Be yourself and tell them a story. Everyone, no matter how old and intellectual they are, loves a story. And that was my place — with classic tales that needed to be told.

The attendees gathered into the room and settled in. I pulled out my book, MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, and began.

Chapter 1 Why the Princess has a Story About Her

There was once a little princess who—

But, Mr. Author, why do you always write about princesses?

Because every little girl is a princess.

You will make them vain if you tell them that.

Not if they understand what I mean.

Then what do you mean?

What do you mean by a princess?

The daughter of a king.

Very well, then every little girl is a princess, and there would be no need to say anything about it except that she is always in danger of forgetting her rank, and behaving as if she had grown out of the mud. I have seen little princesses behave like the children of thieves and lying beggars, and that is why they need to be told they are princesses. And that is why, when i tell a story of this kind, I like to tell it about a princess. Then I can say better what I mean, because I can then give her every beautiful thing I want her to have.

Please go on.

There was once a little princess whose father was king over a great country full of mountains and valleys… *

After my presentation, several orders were placed for Phantastes and The Princess and the Goblin. A young lady enthusiastically shared with me her rough draft of the trilogy she was writing and asked about MacDonald’s fairy tale themes to include in her own work. That is what I had hoped and prayed for — to remind everyone that there is hope, truth, and beauty found in classic stories.

When you find yourself looking at someone else’s accomplishment and saying, I wish I could do that. I want to be that, remember, you have a place at the table. Your name is emblazoned in gold on the chair made just for you. Where you fit. Take your seat because there are so many people who are waiting for the marvelous gift you have to share.

“The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become – because He made us. He invented us. He invented all the different people that you and I were intended to be. . .It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.”
― C.S. Lewis

*The passage included is from George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, David McKay Company Publishers, illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1920.



Image courtesy of Michael Fousert via Unsplash. We are grateful for his generosity.



 

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  1. Kathleen Dunsavage says:

    This is beautiful, Annie. I carry the eighth-grade girl with me as well, even to Oxford! (And it was at Oxford that I finally read George MacDonald. I absolutely love The History of Photogen and Nycteris: A Day and Night Mahrchen.)

  2. Annie Nardone says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Kathleen! I know that we all feel that clammy-hand, heart-racing panic at some point, even as adults. Just remember that you have a place and that you are a delight to all who find you there! Your story speaks to someone who needs to hear it!

  3. Amy Lee says:

    Annie, this is *exactly* what I needed this day, this week. Thank you so much.

  4. Terri Moon says:

    Annie, I would love to be a student in any class that you are teaching! Your infectious enthusiasm is such a gift, and I’m so glad that you decided to heed the call to become a writer and teacher who shares your love of literature and the imaginative arts. Reading this essay today was such an encouragement. I really appreciate your writing and the heart behind it! Bless you.

  5. Annie Nardone says:

    Thank you, Amy and Terri! It’s so good to remember that we are all on a journey and we don’t always have to put on a brave face, but we should persevere together! We all have a similar story of that middle-school-student moment. Be kind, take the hand of that person, and encourage them forward.

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