Stumbling onto My Calling

I always envied my second husband, Gary, and my sister, Marylyn, because they each had a clear vocational calling. In eighth grade, Gary had to write a report about a career. As he loved to tell it, “I chose city planner because it had the word ‘city’ in it, and I wanted out of Danville, Iowa so badly.” He went on to a successful and driven career in city planning and urban development. Marylyn’s first job was shelving books at the Racine Public Library.  Within a few months of starting the job, she announced that she wanted to be a librarian. She worked summers full time at Western Printing, saving her money to go to the University of Wisconsin and become a librarian.  She reluctantly retired at age 76 from her job as head librarian at the veteran’s hospital in Florida.

          When I read Karen Rose’s piece If I Don’t Know My Purpose, Am I a Retirement Failure?I began sorting for myself the difference between purpose and calling, words that are bandied about in the retirement literature along with reinvention—all of which I believe are related. Purpose has always been nebulous to me. It’s some big thing out there that others have but I don’t.  I always wonder when I try to ascertain my purpose, isn’t it enough to keep living? But a calling is quite like it sounds, a sense, an intuition, or voice—you know, that call from the great beyond—that compels us to do something, like be a city planner or librarian or take quiche to a friend (A Soul on the Move). It might compel us to be something, more compassionate, more frugal, more generous. A call might move us towards something or away; it might ask us to commit.  A calling can also evoke a feeling of being led, being drawn ahead in some way.

I must admit that I’ve never felt a vocational calling, I definitely stumbled into becoming a teacher. After changing majors every semester in college, all the while playing as much golf as possible, I realized that if I wanted to spend my summers golfing, then being a teacher was the way to go. So I became a teacher almost by default, but the minute I stepped into a classroom, I knew I was where I belonged. You might say I “stumbled” into where I belonged.

I didn’t worry too much about having a calling after that, but when I became an assistant professor, that’s when I really wanted a calling, what the associate and full professors, who’d arrived in my estimation, said was a “research agenda,” something every professor needed to be successful. I wanted to be like them and like Gary and Marylyn. But I could never fix on either a calling or research agenda that carried me more than a few months, even though I prayed, searched, journaled about finding one, and read everything I could about careers and callings. Then I remembered advice that Gary used to give me: “When you’re stuck, throw stuff out, and see what sticks.” He had a talent for “throwing stuff out and seeing what stuck.” I eventually stopped searching and went with what showed up and seemed to stick. Stumbling along but still listening for that big voice from the sky. Looking back, I landed on meaningful projects, projects that “stuck,” with passion growing along the way.

          Then, as I’ve keened and wailed about before in this blog, along came retirement and what I call its stages:

Karen Martha’s Retirement Stages

  • Panic;   What have I done?
  • Denial     As in get re-involved in work, be a consultant;
  • Flight    There’s always travel;
  • Acceptance    See it with a new lens, and . . . dare I say;
  • Transformation   Away I go!

Right now I’m in the acceptance stage, looking at the days ahead with a new lens, a different lens than that of work, a lens that focuses on what’s going on inside me. Nevertheless, even with my new lens, I’ve not experienced a “calling” for how to use this incredible gift of time, reasonable security, and health.

In response to Karen Rose’s blog about purpose, one of the respondents wrote: we can think not just of ourselves and what gives us pleasure in retirement, but of what the world demands of us.  Many of us have the luxury of time—and perhaps we can use this luxury on behalf of something larger than personal satisfaction in retirement. She’s talking about calling with a capital C—the big call to change the world. Most of our calls, however, are as Greg Levoy notes: the daily calls to pay attention to our intuitions, to be authentic, to live by our own codes of honor (p.5). I believe Levoy is right, at least in my case, most callings are in the everyday of my life. I tutor math at the local middle school. No one asked me, I sought it out because it seemed I might be helpful—it came from within. I am learning rosemaling—I’ve always liked to make things. Now I have time, and I’m writing, this blog and other pieces. Not the big C, but it all feels right.

In a way it goes to purpose, because I’ve come to see purpose, at least for me, about living as authentically as I can and doing the soul work that supports an authentic life. Purpose notwithstanding, I’ll never stop hoping for a big C calling. Meanwhile, I’m stumbling—no, that’s not fair—lightly tripping along in the acceptance stage, seeing my days and life with a new lens, open to “what shows up.”

I don’t ask for the full ringing of the bell. I don’t ask for a clap of thunder. A scrawny cry will do. —Wallace Stevens