In the hotel room last Thursday morning, I felt ill knowing what lay before me at noon. An editing conference had sounded like a good idea, but only after registering did I notice that “network” was one of the events on the daily schedule. I’m not uncomfortable with conversation in general, but when it’s penciled in on my agenda I’m downright terrified.
To combat my fear, I googled “how to network.” The web articles said, “Act confident. Call names. Give business cards.” That I could do. The websites also advised, “Make sure you know what you want to get out of a conference before you go.”
This suggestion made me nervous because direction—knowing the way forward—has been hard to come by lately. Do I want to build a freelance business? Do I want to meet lots of people, win friends, influence people? Is it OK that I don’t have a five-year plan? Do I need to write a book? Do I need to just keep my blog? Is that enough?
Direction—knowing the way forward—has been hard to come by lately.
Networking, turns out, was easier than I’d expected. For the next two and a half days, I introduced myself dozens of times and wrote down details about the people I met so that I could remember their names.
For those days, I sat through lectures on copyediting, style sheets, fiction editing, marketing, Chicago Manual of Style, and building a freelance business. Through each lecture, I felt aimless because I’m an in-house editor while most of these people were talking about growing their freelance editing business. To be honest, I was a bit envious of their focused pursuits. At least they had a concrete goal to work toward. More clients. More income. More opportunities. I have a stable job.
Halfway through the conference, I had reached the sort of conclusion that you wouldn’t expect to reach in the middle of an editing conference. Though I was grateful to learn more about editing, I found myself wishing for more discussion about writing. At the end of each session, I returned to work on an essay in my room. And it became particularly clear to me that I’m not called to be an editor. I’m called to be a writer.
I was excited to have at least that much decided. It seemed like a step forward.
I like to stick my nose in corners of the world that other people might not think to snoop in. My guide is Atlas Obscura, a website that lists obscure landmarks across the country and around the world. When I typed in Grand Rapids, the pickin’s were slim for destinations. The world’s once-premiere fly paper factory. A gypsum mine. A hot dog hall of fame.
Two attractions seemed promising: the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum and the fish ladder.
The thought of watching fish jump their way upstream interested me even more than a museum dedicated to a forgotten president. Gerald Ford? What was Ford known for?
But when in Grand Rapids, do as the Grand Rapidians do, which is apparently—by the name of the airport, the highways, the government buildings—to revere Gerald Ford.
The Accidental President
From the first signs in the museum, I saw the story of a man whose life seemed to set him up for the great task that would be thrust upon him. Because his father was abusive, his mother divorced him when Ford was only a few months old. However, his mother and stepfather were principled people who instilled principles in Ford. He had a temper, which his mother helped him control by learning discipline, reading scripture, and memorizing the poem If by Rudyard Kipling.
During the Great Depression, his stepfather, who owned a hardware store, chose not to lay off his workers but simply to reduce their salaries, including his own. This taught Ford the importance of taking care of others even at sacrifice of his own. In high school, he had the choice to attend an elite school or a school with immigrants, minorities, and the working class. His parents chose the latter where he would “learn more about living.”
In Boy Scouts he earned the rank of Eagle Scout, and at the University of Michigan he balanced the books of his fraternity during the Depression. All this, to say nothing of his military and political service after college.
After Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned, Ford, who had only ever wanted to be speaker of the house, was appointed vice president. Only months later, after Nixon resigned, he found himself promoted to president. Ford is the only man in American history to have been appointed vice president and president without being voted in.
I know exactly how I would have handled the news that I’d just been appointed the most powerful political position in the world. “You’ve got the wrong person for the job,” I’d have squeaked. “Surely there’s someone else—anyone else—who could rise to this challenge better than me.”
I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it. . . .
But that’s not what Gerald Ford said in his inauguration address. To a distrustful, bitter, divided nation, he confessed,
“I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers. . . . I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it. . . .
“I now solemnly reaffirm my promise I made to you . . . to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right as God gives me to see the right, and to do the very best I can for America.”
Some people called him the “accidental president.” But in his biography of Ford, James Cannon said, “He was the right man for this country at the right time at the most extraordinary crisis in our constitutional system since the civil war.” Gerald Ford had been prepared along the way, always taking the next right step until it, surprisingly, led him to the White House.
Ford faced the opposite struggle that I face. He had his way laid before him, not necessarily a way he wanted, but he took it—though not without fear and doubt. In the book The Right Words at the Right Time, Betty Ford said, “There had never been a time in our lives when we so much needed a source of strength beyond ourselves.” During that time her husband reminded her of Proverbs 3:5–6, verses that she said “became our prayer.”
I glimpsed this passage on a plaque near the Fords’ tombs as we headed to the fish ladder down the street.
The Fish Ladder
In 1974, Grand Rapids built the series of concrete steps with water flowing over them, as a sort of apology for constructing the Sixth Street Dam and thereby inhibiting salmon and other fish from making their fabled trek upstream.
The ladder simultaneously created a popular destination where people can peer over the concrete wall surrounding the ladder, keen to see the dark splashes of breaching fish, fighting their way against the current.
Watching their struggle felt like inspecting a metaphor under a microscope. Why do fish do it, do you suppose? Why swim upstream? Why flap against rocks? Why fight the current, the natural flow of things, simply to return to where they started?
I guess that if we could ask them, if they were very articulate fish, they might say, “I don’t know. There is something inside me, like a magnet, pulling me toward the old place. I move forward until I come to a wall and press against it, unsure for a moment how to proceed. But here is a ladder the city has built for me. Here is a way forward. And so I splash and jump and beat myself against the concrete.”
The Way Forward
Passing Ford’s museum on our way back to the hotel, I thought of all I’d learned about this president that only hours ago I had hardly known of.
And I recalled one of the most poignant signs in the whole museum. “[Ford] began his first day as president in his usual manner. Following a morning swim, he gathered his newspaper and made his own breakfast. Then his motorcade drove him the eight miles from his Virginia home to the White House.”
Time buries some of history’s best men and women who, with no promise of renown or regard, occupy their space, fill holes left by the unfaithful, match responsibility with love, and, when there is no joy, eke by on duty. They are people who get up to make their own breakfast on both the ordinary days and days of note. And with no direction but forward, they press on an unlit path to a chartless destination. They just do the next thing as well as they can.
Sometimes the way forward means looking for the next thing and being ready to embrace it when it comes. For now, for me, it’s overcoming my fear of networking, it’s listening to my intuition, it’s writing every chance I get, it’s pressing against the obstacles and looking for a ladder. It’s trusting and leaning and acknowledging and waiting for God to direct my path—the way forward.