Vocation is not the same as vacation

As I’ve been working on this post, half of the times I try to write the word “vocation,” I end up typing “vacation” instead. This is almost as funny a slip as when I told people at the conference that I was letting the dissertation “lie foul” for a while, when what I meant was I was letting it “lie fallow”! They had a good laugh at that.

Vacation implies time spent away from one’s regular life, and I wonder if subliminally, I realize that thinking about vocation is not unlike a vacation, in that it implies luxury, an opportunity that one is lucky enough to have. In my small group discussion about “scholarship as vocation,” one theme that emerged out of the disparate stories of a management consultant, a former singer, and a mom in a transitional relationship to academia is that we’re all in a privileged enough place that we get to think about vocation.

Last week, in preparation for the weekend’s conversation, I found myself reading Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. In between nodding my head in agreement at his words, I spent the other moments trying not to throw my iPad across the room and holler, “I don’t have time for silence! I don’t have time to listen to the voice of vocation! I have diapers to change, a kid who I’m late picking up from school, and… and … ARGH!”

Yet despite the luxury I have to entertain thoughts of vocation, Palmer is right that it’s not a vacation in another sense: finding one’s path requires dark nights of the soul, and in his case, a crushing depression as he let the truth of his self catch up with the realities of his life.

Palmer quotes repeatedly from May Sarton’s poem “Now I Become Myself,” but I have a different one I want to share, to wrestle with, William Stafford’s “The Way It Is.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

I first encountered this poem a few years ago, when I thought the thread was heading towards a particular conflation of my academic and outside interests, but those didn’t come to fruition. A year ago, I could have sworn there was a thread about libraries and books. What I can’t decide, and the book group in which I heard this first couldn’t decide either, whether the thread is something you follow whether or not you’re aware of it, like an unconscious pattern or stream running through your life. Alternatively, is the thread something you’re aware of as you go through your life? Is it conscious or unconscious? That much is not clear to me, but that uncertainty might be part of the point. Sometimes you’re aware, sometimes not.

As I’ve mentioned, this past weekend we had a session on “scholarship as vocation.” And what became immediately, sadly clear, was the extent to which I was no longer sure if scholarship was my vocation. All I felt was muddle. I once was a part of this group, and could be again, if I wanted to – but did I want to?

I wanted bells, I wanted physical gates, or at least the music of French horns, something symbolic to see or hear that told me I’d arrived, that my vacation was over and the time of vocation had begun. Either I’m not there yet, or I’m still in the dark nights of the soul, the part where vocation is very unlike vacation.

In writing this post, I came across a poem by another poet I like, Mary Oliver, who writes of “The Journey.”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I don’t know yet what I need to do, but the house is trembling around me and tugs at my ankles. Wade in the water. I’m still looking for my own voice, for the only thing I can do. I hope if I ever find it, I recognize it for what it is, with or without bells, trumpets, or clearly market gates.

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One thought on “Vocation is not the same as vacation

  1. We need another long night talk, one in which I learn from you as much as you from me. You are wise. And a thought–I find that my vocation taps me on the shoulder when I’m not paying attention to it. In my case, I use the ‘I’m an angel’ theme, and in the middle of something I’ll suddenly realize who it is I am supposed to be paying attention to, while I have been looking another way. Same idea, different string. Whatever it is, if it is vocation, it will be quietly, gently, lovingly insistent.

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