Let’s go back to middle school! That was always fun, says no one ever

Sixth grade, Catholic Schools Week: My 29 classmates interpreted the “Hero Day” challenge to mean Michael Jordan, doctors, teachers, or dancers. Who would your sixth-grade self have chosen?

I chose a priest. Specifically, my uncle, missionary priest, writer and teacher Roger Schroeder, SVD. He’s amazing; I hope you meet him someday. Etc.

But this was middle school, and my run of bad hair, inability to play sports, my braces, the hand-me-downs, divorced parents — I’m not sure why I didn’t choose something that would’ve made me blend a bit. These were not years I embraced being weird, but there it was: I wore a paper collar over an all-black outfit. A safe Laura Ingalls Wilder would’ve been nice; maybe even Joan of Arc. Making a statement about masculine versus feminine gifts in the church wasn’t part of my idea. I just wanted to wear pants, actually; Joan of Arc would’ve required accessories. And Uncle Roger and I were pretty close; we still are. He indulges my infrequent handwritten letters peppered with theological or life questions with the same iron stomach he’s had since I first wrote when my 10-year-old world was falling apart.

Uncle Roger’s no Joan of Arc. He’s better — he’s accessible; alive.

My essay about my hero choice ended on the last line of the notebook paper; I almost didn’t include my kicker: “I think I might be a nun.” Scribbled furiously under bent head, I finished just in time to pass it to Becky in front of me. The regret sank to my stomach as I watched my paper join with others’, flurrying over classmates’ heads toward the front row. Mrs. S., frowning, harvested all our sixth-grade hopes and aspirations with the indifference and judgment of a teacher who’d heard 30 years’ worth of sorry, misguided hero stories. She knew we’d never be heroes in the sense we hoped. My heart sank. I wouldn’t be a nun. I have no idea what even made me write it; I hadn’t given a whole lot of consideration to this. I think … I think I was being more honest than I realized: I pray a lot, is all I meant, I think. I have questions in this vein, probably.

But looking at my teacher — and the way no one ever made any reference to that lob of a sentence there — confirmed it was a no … That very day, that idea morphed into a question of options, or the lack thereof in that church. I knew that: Adam and Aaron sneered at my outfit, “Hey, Erin, you’re a girl,” and it infuriated me. That morning, Mom had taken my picture in the living room to send to Uncle Roger, and I’d smiled. But by noon, now, I was ready to tear off the collar and abandon that. I was a girl, in italics. I resented the use of those italics. I know being a nun is a special privilege; but there it is. I married, had babies, a career. I wear jeans and walked to the other side of the aisle.

And still, this God thing pursues me. Thank you, God. I still talk to God a lot. I still have questions in that vein.

I believe the nun ship has sailed. I believe I’m a little too Protestant now, a little too Methodist now; a little to wordy and a little too happily free. I’m about to give a message at a church; the other side of the aisle just fits me better; I’m not saying it’ll be fantastic — only that it’s possible. I love Catholicism and Catholics, we’re fine; I could’ve been a nun and that would’ve been fine, but this freedom is pretty rich, too.

Lately, though, I’ve been coming back to this question of calling.

{First, what a ridiculous privilege to even consider this while friends and family are searching for jobs with paychecks, basic health care, and retirement options. As I pray and edit cover letters and resumes for three of them specifically, I know this vocation thing isn’t even part of their lexicon. They just need jobs, dude. God’s in the middle of that, too. God loves us to work in ways that fill our bellies and bring us some joy.}

But I’ve been thinking about it, is all. I’ve never had a job that brought me joy. Writing does, this does; but no paycheck’s ever given me back what the job required from me. And it’s foolish to think being home or homeschooling or anything will do it, either.

I know what this is a reaction to, in part: two things. One, the parenthood or homeschooling culture that says “this is the most important thing I’ll ever do in my whole life; this defines me,” to which that voice inside me recoils like I’ve encountered a den of snakes: “No, it’s not” (because parenthood is a God-given gift; it’s beautiful, crucial, life-giving, rewarding, frustrating, ripe for spiritual maturity lessons, and totally worth every sleepless night, every wrinkle, every forsaken hobby — but parenthood is not the sum total of our existence).

Secondly, watching the joy bubble up and over in friends’ lives who are doing what they say they’re just meant to do. I feel a little like I arrived at a party late, and I didn’t even know it was a costume party – but there are all my friends wearing beautiful costumes, radiating joy. I must’ve missed the cups of joy at the door, I think, as I’m wearing jeans. Oops.

I’ve got a few ideas of where this is going next for me, on a vocational level, though I don’t know how I’m getting there, except by the grace of the God who loves me even though I was mortified at my Catholic-school peers’ reactions to my holy-ish costume. Ha. God’s generous.

But I think the tension in this space is to force me to stop defining myself, period; even by those holy dreams and silly costumes.

Jesus asks “Who do you say I am,” but He doesn’t really have to ask “Who do you think you are?” because He knows, and He’s laughing at our paper collars.  I’ve really been asking the wrong question for a long time, I think.

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