Finding the Grain beneath the Paint 3: Feeling for the Grain


As I said in the first blog in this series, finding out who we really are is a lot like the process of finding the natural grain of this chair that was hidden underneath red tractor paint. And in the second post, I suggested that you remember who you were and what your dreams were before you were painted over.

There is a second way.

Get a feel for the grain under the paint.

A couple of years ago, we attended the Key West Literary Seminar. For some reason, the organizers are able to attract big name writers to Key West in January to speak to other people, many of them writers themselves, who also are willing to pay well to come to Key West in January. I just don’t know how they do it.

One way to make small talk between sessions is to ask the person next to you, “Are you a writer?”

Someone asked me that the first day and I said, “no”.

The second day, I said, “Well, I write a lot for my work, but I’m not a ‘Writer’”.

The third day, I said, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

The first day, I was just looking at the paint – in my case, clergy paint. I wasn’t a writer, I was a Protestant minister.

The second day, I noticed a pattern underneath the paint. I DID do a lot of writing in my job: fifty-plus sermons a year are equal to a 250-page book and that wasn’t all the writing that I was doing.

The third day, I realized that I was willing to put up with parts of my job that I never exactly loved (going to meetings, for example), in order to get paid to write every week. I also used writing to raise money, do pastoral care, organize programs – things more extroverted  pastors would do through personal contacts. I realized that, underneath the identity of “minister” was my deeper identity as a writer.

What persists through life’s changes?


Moses, you may remember, had been herding sheep and/or goats for about 40 years before the LORD called him to free the Hebrew slaves. It doesn’t take a degree in Biblical Studies to see that Moses went from herding sheep to herding people. As someone who herded cows before I herded congregations, I can tell you that the tasks are very similar. You have to get the leaders going in the right direction and you also have to be sure that no one is left behind. You have to be prepared to deal with those who head the wrong way — or just stop. You also have to know where your destination is and how to get there while constantly removing the obstacles that are in the way right now. Herding cud chewers or people requires patience, perseverance and perspicacity.   *

To be honest, I didn’t  like herding cows and herding people was only bearable because I got to use writing in order to do it. Come to think of it, most of the time when I was herding cows, I was thinking of things I’d like to say or write someday.

But maybe Moses DID like herding sheep and people. He certainly spent a lot of time doing it. Maybe, in the end, he felt that he was born to do it – that it was the hidden grain of his life. He certainly believed that he had been chosen to do it.


The same is true in our work.

For example, all pastors write sermons, visit the sick and shut-ins, go to meetings,counsel people who are troubled, and plan events – like Christmas Eve services. Like me, they may find all of this work meaningful and become competent at it. But over and over again, I see clergy coming to the end of their working days and choosing, as one pastor said, “to only do the things I like doing.”

Some hire themselves out to big churches to do pastoral care or they volunteer for a hospice. A retired rabbi friend teaches a course at his local Jewish Community Center. I know one retired pastor who raises money – for fun, I guess. Or at least because he believes teaching people generosity is meaningful and satisfying.

I knew dairy farmers who were good at animal husbandry, carpentry, or fixing tractors and equipment who continued to pursue some of those passions even after they sold their farms and retired to town.

Sometimes we are not aware that we have  passions that come out of our fundamental character – the grain of our lives – because they are integrated into our life and work. A couple of friends – women – commented on my previous posts that they had spent much of their lives taking care of others – both in traditional roles as daughters, mothers, and wives and in professions often dominated by women, like nursing. Now, when retirement, an empty nest — even widowhood — have relieved them of the necessity  of taking care of people, they volunteer to help others because it is meaningful. Well, why shouldn’t it be?

The trick is finding that thing that makes your heart sing underneath and within your current work and life. Then you can sand away at the paint that covers it – and do more of what you love.

What in your life and work makes your heart sing?

Where is the grain of your life hidden in your everyday routine?

Next post: What do you find when the paint dissolves?

* Had to choose between alliteration or clarity here. I chose alliteration because I can’t help myself.



11 thoughts on “Finding the Grain beneath the Paint 3: Feeling for the Grain

  1. After years of being a Nanny, I went back to college and obtained my degree and my MBA. (at age 70)

    How do I apply that knowledge and ability to my life now. ( I am 73)

    Well, I know that I have the unique talent of seeing what isn’t shown and hearing what isn’t said- (pretty much like mom knowing that if all is quiet in the house, check on the kids!) stumped as to what that means- I read people, their tone, their actions, their voice, their choice of words and posture.

    Now I am a volunteer in Cuyahoga county for CASA (court appointed special advocate for neglected and abused children)

    While this organization is new to Cuyahoga county – it is not new to Lorain county.

    You are correct in knowing that it takes time to hone and to recognize a desire or ability and to find a fit for your talents.

  2. Having a son with schizophrenia and living this life with him for over 20 years- I am wondering how I can apply and give people hope that sticking with your loved one is worth it. I am so blessed to have my son in my life and see him be who he can be and accept that.

    1. I am so glad it turned out well in the end. Your story is one I hold on to. Thanks. I love that you seem to have found a whole new life.

  3. early on I found that I loved both music and dogs. my band director encouraged my to pursue a career in music but I wanted to be more practical, as well as to find a career that would allow me to help people, to which I wont even print what he said ( he was not exactly professional all the time) as far as the pups, my mother told me I could have as many as I wanted when I grew up :). I ended up being an occupational therapist and then specializing in hand therapy. although I do feel I have helped some people it has never been my passion. I have however been able to sing in the choir, play bells in church and encourage my sons love of music ( now he is the band director) as far as the pups I have spent lots of time fostering, walking rescued dogs and now raising pups for guiding eyes of the blind. Due to retire in 4 months, I cannot wait to pursue my passions without the interference of “work” Since I am on the young age for retirement (59) people just cant believe that I don’t plan to work in some capacity. there are also health issues involved, but being able to spend full time with my passions while I still can is exciting, and with the work with guiding eyes and rescue I still feel I can make a difference.

    1. Sorry to take so long to reply. This is exactly what I mean by finding the grain. A wonderful example. Thanks for sharing it, Kim.

  4. Roger,,, I am relatively new to you [catch the pun?] but already I love you. To paraphrase a line from the movie “Titanic” … “You had me from our first funeral.” What insight you have and what a down-to-earth way you have of sharing it. Those who have had the opportunity to know you for years I envy to no end. Being a “Roger Talbott neophyte” I give thanks to the Lord for you always. Keep writing. Keep encouraging us. My best to you and Jacquie today and every day. 😉

  5. I’ve been reading your retirement blog using the metaphor of a chair that has been painted many times and what it means to strip the layers of paint and find out what is really underneath it all. The idea seems to be that if you scrap away all the layers of stuff that have been put on you throughout your professional life, you will discover again who you really are.
    While your writing is always enjoyable and insightful, there is something about using this image that didn’t sit quite right with me. I think I have discovered why. In your image, all your experiences, the layers of paint, are covering up who you really are. Why can’t your experiences and the way you deal with them add new dimensions to whom you are meant to become.
    I’m going to risk suggesting a different metaphor for you to explore. Now you are much better, with a great deal of experience in using metaphors, so you may very well have come up with a better one. Nevertheless I would suggest the metaphor of seeing your life as doing/making a painting. I’d call the painting: “The Expression of The Spirit through My Life.”
    I would suggest that each set of experiences might be like adding a color to the painting. When you find yourself faced with different experiences and you have to find a way to respond, see that as adding a new color. At any time in our life, it would be a good time to look at the overall painting. Maybe you added too much of one color or not enough of another and so you might go back add some more of one color or cover up some of another. But you never totally eliminate a color because all of them are needed to express how The Spirit is leading you through your life. The primary question should always be what should be the next color that would complement and bring out the meaning of all the colors that are already there. Or when I’m quietly listening to that small but insistent voice from within that is also somehow coming from beyond – listening for where it is now leading or directing me. What color can I now add that would make the painting more coherent, meaningful and beautiful? How do I take what I have learned from perhaps painful as well as fulfilling experiences and add thoughts and experiences that help reveal where God/Spirit now wants to lead you?
    If I understand the creation of paintings, the painter may have a notion of what the painting is going to look like but at each stage, each addition of a color, something is discovered that they couldn’t have anticipated ahead of time. So the addition of each new color is a creative discovery of something you didn’t know was possible before you got to that point in your painting or your life.
    Retirement provides a great time to review you life but also to meditate how God/Spirit wants/encourages you to put it all together so you can rejoice in the abundance of what your life has provided and will continue to give.

    1. Duane, what a great response! Switching the metaphor changes so much. The painter’s discovery is similar to the writer’s discovery. I may know what I want to say, but as I find the words and craft the sentences, unexpected meanings arise.
      Would you be willing to be a “guest blogger” and let me publish this?

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