Do not be afraid … of the word ‘calling’

We wore our winter hats and our spring jackets to the playground yesterday. I carried a thick book about callings, whatever that means, and sat on the merry-go-round to read a few sentences between the girls hollering for me to watch this, look at that. I chose a Dorothy Sayers piece about artists being the closest to understanding vocation; it was a good choice. Artists make money so we can create, she writes, and in that, we’re doing holy work. Others earn a paycheck so they can live, she writes. Yes, yes, I nodded. “For the artist there is no distinction between work and living. His work is his life, and the whole of his life …” Yes, Dorothy, I’m an artist.

After about an hour of this mental exercise of counting children from where I sat and molding my interpretation of vocation two or three sentences at a time, dirty-mouthed teenagers drove us into the woods.

“Look! Trout lily leaves!” I cried, peeling some autumnal leaves from the wildflower’s spotted ones. “Just like Mary in Secret Garden,” Alice piped in.

We walked toward the pond under the scolding of a bird. “Oh, Redwing, stop. We’re not going to hurt you,” Alice called up to the blackbird in a barren tree.

When we left, I did the survival-of-the-species dance away from a snake inches in front of the white Easter shoes Louisa was wearing, pulling her by the hand toward me, too. “No! I’m not afraid. I’m just giving Buddy some room,” I laughed, my heart pounding in my ears.

What’s it all for, I wondered.

What’s all this for? Why did we spend two years all together like this, knowing our birds and the woods around us? Why did I ever hear of Charlotte Mason; why did we homeschool? Why do I wish by 8:15 in the morning to be writing, instead of ready to be diving into books with my girls?

Or, more accurately, why is the passion gone for it, even as I enjoy its fruits? And will I just grow tired of the next thing, too?

****

“I have a problem with that word,” I told my friend, who happens to be my pastor. “What does it even mean, ‘calling’? ‘To be called’?”

He shrugged and a week or two later handed me a tome of essays, Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. 

{{Well, if you can’t afford seminary, you should have a friend who’s been, I guess.}}

So slowly I’ve been picking through it, hoping for a thread I can pick up and trace to now, where I stand with wordless questions, yearnings, and dreams, and impatience.

In that book, I’ve read Augustine’s Confessions and my beloved Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker essays, still no closer to settling that question of calling: why do I become passionately engaged in something for a brief moment, a nanosecond in the spectrum of time on this planet?

What good can possibly come of something akin to a sparkler held between the fingers of a first-grader in the grass? 

This isn’t a question of regrets, only how far to follow the next things. Quitting homeschooling in four-and-a-half weeks will be a gift. Like a dog who’s heard the word “walk,” I’m at the door, waiting to be let outside, tail wagging.

Like the flower on the park trail, I’m all leaves, ready to bloom if the sun only shines this way. (And by sun, I mean child care and answers to questions I have about ministries that interest me.)

But the nagging doubt in my mind remains that I know these rays of sunlight won’t settle the restlessness. I’ve got a history of it, evidenced by a string of journals written with cramped hands. I’ve kept a journal since they came with locks on the outside of their pink cardboard covers. Most, maybe all, of what I wrote while sitting on my pink bedroom carpet was garbage: I’d write about liking one boy on Monday and another by Friday. I’d write manifestos on teenage independence and injustices, then flit to the next thing.

When I flipped through these preteen and teenage-authored pages while in college, my face contorted to a cringe. I imagined dying an early, tragic death and some emotionally sensitive soul finding the stash of a decade of drivel and having to read them. Oh, horror of horrors, what if they felt compelled to keep them — what if, ugh, they reminded them of me? Noooo: so, a sympathetic friend tossed them into a dumpster behind my apartment complex and I sleep better knowing the words, always dust, are to dust again returning, amen.

But what tossing the physical books away couldn’t do, though, was erase the patterns I still see in myself, in the adulthood journals I’ve kept in the last few years.

I am still dust.

I am still the ten-year-old, writing quotes I don’t live up to, only maybe more so now. I’m still fickle. I still write earnestly, my pen digging into the pages enough to curl them at the edges. I still struggle with guilt, fear, and textbook humanity stuff. I suspect those’ll always be there, in one shade or another.

So: what of “callings,” and what of all these things I want to do next? If this is one of those “what does it all mean” things, as I suspect, then perhaps it’s circumstantial.

Perhaps, as I also see from the evidence in those journals, I’ve got a string of God showing up with the right thing at the right time, and my “calling,” as it were, were less Samuel (a clear voice in the night, “Here I am, Lord”) and more ordinary — and thus all I have to do is show up and assent.

Which is what I do.

Perhaps, as John Henry Newman’s selection in Callings tells me, “There is nothing miraculous or extraordinary in His dealings with us. He works through our natural faculties and circumstances of life.”

And what that means is, I can’t be afraid that all my dreams will go bust. I must remember I haul wet towels from the depths of the washer to heave into the dryer three times a week: I already know to do the things in front of me. I also always write, always and always, and sometimes I speak. I may already know calling: maybe mine is telling stories, and helping people understand their own. Maybe.

So I say yes to things like guest preaching and learning how to perform funerals, because these things remind me of storytelling. And maybe all my dreams related to that are just saying yes to those, too.

Do not be afraid, God says hundreds of times to people like me. Do not be afraid. 

So this becomes the narrative of the woman who says yes, and keeps saying yes, and in these yeses finds God and good things, loosely related to each other perhaps.

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