To leave on a trip is a kind of dying. In fact, it may be the closest to death a person can come while still alive and well. The plans for all I will finish before walking out the front door and boarding the plane are sweeping; it is not enough that my suitcase is packed. I habitually regard these moments of leaving as due dates by which time my life will be in order, a goal that is, of course, never met. The life that must be ordered rolls forward quickly in those pre-travel days, and the minute arrives after which nothing more can be done.
More minutes please.
No, the minutes granted must be enough, whether or not they are.
I sit in seat 18C on a morning flight from Minneapolis to Albuquerque. From there I’ll take a shuttle van to Santa Fe, this journey’s final destination. Ten days away from paid work and at a different kind of work, a graduate school residency, an interlude and expense any financial planner would tell us we could ill afford. My luggage is stowed away in the plane’s cargo hold. The packed clothes were washed: one checkmark off my pre-travel to-do list. I sewed three buttons on two blouses and repaired a dropped hem: three more checkmarks. I bought toothpaste and dental floss, granola bars and almonds.
“Just under the wire before I leave, here is the first draft manuscript,” I wrote in an e-mail to a client late the night before. “Now to finish packing,” the sign-off.
I printed out two copies of my itinerary and placed one in my purse and the other on the kitchen table. I asked my husband to water the geranium by the back door and the impatiens by the front door. I kissed him good-bye and hugged my sons.
Crumbs are on the kitchen floor, however. Stacks of papers cover the dining room table and the floor around it. The refrigerator shelters unpleasant developments in clear plastic containers with blue lids. My underwear drawer is a mess. Three baskets of laundry hold unfolded clothes and unmatched socks. At least ten people didn’t receive their expected email or returned telephone call. My youngest son is two days out of a second wrist surgery with eight days left to go on antibiotics, eight days until his follow-up visit with the surgeon when we learn whether the surgery worked. My oldest son will move out to start his real adult life before I return. There are invoices I have not mailed; receipts not recorded; prayers not prayed; groceries not purchased. An idea for a book is scribbled somewhere and buried at the same depth as notes about alternate careers I maybe should have pursued or might yet someday.
What comprises the life ready for death? Surely crumbs and unmatched socks are not mortal sins of commission or omission and would not be held against me if this plane went down. Neglect of sons or husband would not be so equivocal. But what of a disregarded career interest or the seed of a creative project abandoned without water or light? On one of those points will God note a hole in the universe, however tiny, and thereafter regard me with a tone of disappointment? Have I done the work I was made for? I wonder these things even as I pray for divine guidance, even as I believe in guidance, even as I fear a misread or withheld sign.
A friend of mine died in ten weeks time. I often think of her in these moments of departure. An aggressive cancer ravaged her body, and a hospital bed was moved into her living room before she even had time to put away the laundry or straighten her dresser. “Time’s up” was called, and that was that: turn your paper over and put your pencil down. A couple weeks before she died, I spent an afternoon helping at her house. Signs of her works-in-progress—a grocery list, stacks of paperwork, a basket of unfolded clothes, framed photographs of three daughters—lay halted on tabletops and the floor like a display of artifacts from Pompeii.
At her funeral, her memorial card bore a verse she chose from Micah: And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. I know this is the bottom line, the question worth the most points on the final vocational exam, yet it begs the corollary questions: How and when and where? The acting and loving and walking can’t be in the abstract, but must be anchored in time and place—moving arms and legs, fingertips and brain. And hopefully a paycheck is earned in the process.
There are moments that are like lines in the sand. The storage bins latch; the external doors close. “At this time, please turn off all cellular appliances, including cell phones.” The plane backs away from the gate and taxis along the asphalt labyrinth that leads to the runway. There is nothing more to be done.
It is finished.
Twice before I’ve been to Santa Fe, the land that points to the sky. About Santa Fe, Willa Cather wrote, “Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” On my first visit under this infinite vault, I made my way to the center of town where artists display their handcrafted jewelry: the Native Americans with their goods spread on blankets beneath the portal of the Palace of the Governors, and the artists who lack such a pedigree with theirs on tables along the perimeter of the center Plaza. I wanted turquoise earrings and found a pair that was exactly right on one of the Plaza tables. Dangling polished turquoise cut to ovals the size of grapes, with the right combination of iron and copper to make them not too blue and not too green, and encircled by a sterling silver band. Turquoise, I’ve read, is the color of yearning.
When I returned to Santa Fe the following summer I had in my mind to get a ring to match the earrings. Back to the Plaza and to the middle of the square’s east side, back to the same table from the year before. The same artist. She wore a gray tank top and her long dark-blonde hair lay kinked and matted down her neck and shoulders, her skin leathered from the sun.
“I bought these earrings from you last year,” I said, pointing to the turquoise ovals that hung from my ears. “Do you have a ring to match?” I expected a smile, her gratified acceptance of my implicit compliment, her eagerness to please me, the customer.
“I don’t do rings. Never have,” she said, her face an unmoving matrix of self-knowledge and mission. Without even a sympathetic pause, she turned away. Three words in red lettering stared at me from the back of her shirt:
I returned her dismissal with envy. Oh to be so clear on what you do and what you don’t do, so unmoved by flattery or suggestion, so untempted by money ready to be placed in your hand.
A Vocation Primer, Part 1
God to Adam
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.
God to Moses
What is in your hand?
Moses to God
Establish Thou the work of our hands.
Mordecai to Queen Esther
Who knows but you have been placed here for such a time as this?
Samuel to Saul
Once these signs have been fulfilled, whatever your hands find to do, do it.
Work to live.
Let it be to me as you have said.
If it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.
Painting is not my profession.
. . . obedience . . .
One paints what is around.
I always watch when a flight attendant gives the safety demonstration: click and tighten your seat belt; place your own oxygen mask first; the seat is a flotation device. We all know these things and don’t need to watch. Few do. Gripping tickets freely and willfully purchased, most, if not all, of the passengers have buckled themselves in, unaided, and don’t care that the attendant prepares us to take turns no one either expects or would choose to take. Like the Philosophy 101 question about the tree that falls that no one hears, if no one looks up from their magazines, will the attendant’s action have meaning? Must offered work also be received? I wonder these things and so in flight after flight keep my eyes on hands pointing out nearest restrooms and call buttons.
Seated in 18C, I watch the recitation given by this flight’s designated attendant, a middle-aged man, balding with a slight comb-over hairstyle. His white shirt appears worn and a bit yellowed. His pants are pleated and belted under a slight paunch. He seems a bit rattled, lacking that all-is-in-control veneer of the typical flight attendant.
I can’t be sure of course, but I suspect he was called at the last minute to report for duty, to fill in for a sick crewmember. I imagine his phone rang and awakened him on his day off. He groggily said yes to the call, Can you come? His wife got out of bed and made him coffee. He pulled the shirt out of the dirty clothes hamper and tried to shake out the wrinkles. He held it up under the light looking for overt stains that might give his away his laundering shortcut. Later today, if he’d had the day off, he’d planned to get a hair cut, planned to sign up at his local gym, planned to take his wife out for dinner, planned all sorts of things. But here he is, back at work for another day of pay and doing his job well but for the portion of himself he is holding in reserve, as if by holding something back he can get his personal day after all, as if he can have his job and life too.
His arms pivot toward the exit doors as he reminds us, “The nearest exit may be behind you.” On this day of his frazzle, maybe one set of eyes on him as he clicks the seat belt buckle for the three thousandth time will be sufficient reward that he picked up his phone and said yes.
“Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff,” says the pilot over the PA. All seats are in an upright position. The nose of the plane turns toward the runway and the engines fire. Rows and rows of passengers face forward; the steady acceleration pushes our backs against our seats and in unison we tilt back and are carried upward into the sky.
That summer day on my second time in Santa Fe, I found and bought a turquoise ring elsewhere. Leaving the table of the artist who doesn’t do rings, I crossed the street to the Palace of the Governors. Blue, green, and burgundy blankets laid side to side in a row the length of a city block as if ready for a picnic if the goods don’t sell. On the blankets were pendants and necklaces, earrings, rings, and guitar picks, barrettes and brooches made of silver, copper, turquoise, coral, and lapis. Each Native American artist or artist’s representative presided over his or her wares from the head of the blanket, seated either on a chair, a low stool, or the veranda floor.
Small crowds gather at each blanket, and so you often wait for a turn to get to the front, look down, crouch, pick up, and try on. I saw a ring but couldn’t reach it. The young woman with long black hair seated on a stool smiled and reached out with a long narrow stick she kept on the floor next to her. She slid one end of the stick through the ring’s opening, lifted it from its black velvet display box, and glided it dangling from the stick to my hand. I slid off the ring and put it on my finger.
“Did you make this?” I asked.
“Yes,” the woman said, and she showed me where the band bore her maker’s mark.
It was a split ring, open in the middle—for design purposes, of course, but also conveniently accommodating the changing ring size of women throughout a lifetime or the month, like elastic in a pair of durable pants. On one side of the split is an oval turquoise, more blue than the earrings and with fewer veins, and along its perimeter a hefty sterling silver band that curves ever so slightly over its surface as if the stone were floating on hidden water and would bounce right up without the metal’s angled hold. The other side of the split is a vertical silver bar. Engraved in the silver of the bar and around the band is a zigzag design. A mountain range, the woman told me; it means journey.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep your eyes off the fiercely progressive right tail of a bell-shaped curve. The man across the aisle in 18D bows his head with such intensity toward his laptop, screen glowing, and toward his papers, marked with yellow highlighting and scribbles of black ink, that I could be easily convinced he answers a jealous and demanding call: cure cancer, erase the national deficit, put a man on Mars, satiate hunger on any and every level. There’s a woman just like him seated right behind. And the man next to her. Later, jolting down the aisle toward the restroom, I see open books, their covers glossy, many adorned with a famous portrait, a queen or a general, an adventurer or a painter, at this seat and the next a biography of a heroic man or woman who saved a civilization or a city block or a child or the soul of a people. Surrounded by all this heroism and destiny, you start to wonder if the rest of us—mingled together in the bell’s dome, in the vicinity of the mean or median or any other word for ordinary—should have listened harder to the still small voice calling in the night or were just a bit too hasty when signing up for an unremarkable life.
I have two vocations, no three, maybe four; or is one—or two?—of them just a job—or a career?—and the rest vocations? Or maybe one is a call and the rest are vocations? Or roles? Who knows how many of what I have, and I grow weary of trying to sort them, rank them, judge them; negotiate their spats; document their origins; appease the one or two temporarily neglected, humble the one or two attended. I walk over and around multiple mountains; I don’t aim for a single peak. The writings of some experts who claim to know about these things tell me that I have failed, with my life’s single purpose—some call it one’s cross, others call it one’s bliss—undiscovered and unclaimed. The writings of other experts tell me this is the way of a pilgrim. I know I am tired much of the time.
When I arrive at my destination I will call my husband for news of his latest job interview. DÃ©jÃ vu and he is in another round of unemployment, and so here I am again in another season of super-employment, giving long hours to work that is at once a gift and a curse. I am also one year into a graduate program, a yes to a whisper, an obedient step, playing my hand. Like a trapeze artist who lets go of one support before grabbing hold of the next, I had hoped to do this without the pressure or time constraints of earning a full-time income. Instead, I dangle suspended between the chosen life and the given life, sometimes losing track of which is which. I think about the flight attendant with the yellowed shirt who looks like he’s supposed to be someplace else and see me in him.
During the first week of college, I took a career aptitude test to learn what I’d be good at, or at least, what I might like being. A series of preference questions (Which of the following would you rather do?) claims to translate the mystery formed in the womb into an alpha-numeric code of blackened a, b, c, and d’s for questions numbered 1 and beyond, like a knitting pattern that could never describe how the finished cashmere scarf will wrap around your neck just so, cradling and warming and soothing, and last for a hundred years, or catch on a nail tomorrow and unravel, or give you a rash out of the blue.
I can’t be sure about this either, but I suspect that when the flight attendant took the career aptitude test his freshman year of college, his current career was not among those recommended to him. About my age, he seems an unlikely candidate for the job title “stewardess” in the mid-1970s. I would bet this is not his first career, but a person has to choose a place to start. Even no decision is a decision, my father used to tell me. You plant your flag somewhere and begin. But where you start and where you end up and where you go in between are all very different places. Or so it would seem. If I remember right, two of the careers the test findings suggested for me were lawyer and librarian, neither of which I became, although it is not lost on me that in my work I daily sort through online holdings of the National Library of Medicine to find relevant evidence for claims made, and even now on this page, here I am testing truth, or at least looking for it, with words.
If any of us on this Airbus A320 get cold or tired while flying southwest through the sky, all we have to do is push the call button located above our seat, next to the light, and the flight attendant will come. “How can I help you?” he’ll ask. Then nodding he’ll say, “Of course,” and hurry away, only to return with a blanket and a pillow. If the oxygen masks were ever to come down, he would be one of the few to keep his head on his shoulders. If he had been born in another time and place he would be the one risking his life to guide the pulling up of the drawbridge to the walled city as the invaders approached. He would be giving juice and sandwiches to the tired and weary at Ellis Island or announcing air raid instructions in London during World War II. His eye may have been on roles with kings or presidents or boards of directors, but his hand would be offering something to someone, or his firm voice showing them the way.
There are moments that are like lines in the sand. Human agency and circumstance—whether divine will or chance or some Job-like backstory—crash or embrace along the line’s infinite points. Here is the mystery of what becomes of us. Here is where five-year plans morph like holograms and arms trained to sculpt are twisted to paint frescoes. Here is where the cup is lifted, the head bows in the active passivity of let it be, the hands dig and pick hoping for the right blend of metal and mineral to reflect the ethereal vault in stone.
“There is no need to bother about what has been told to others; there are words for you alone,” wrote Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a Jesuit priest born in Toulouise, France in 1675. Ever since I read The Sacrament of the Present Moment, de Caussade’s collected talks and letters to the nuns in Nancy, France, it has been the Gordian knot in my brain. Divine action shapes every moment, suggests the priest. I want to say in response that reasonable people could argue the origin of any moment; who can know? It doesn’t matter, de Caussade would say, because all you can do is respond. Our task is to do our duty to God according to Scripture and submit to the present moment by responding according to felt impulse, which should be shaped by the divine if we are being faithful to the aforementioned duty. Trust the felt impulse at every step: to pick up the phone, or not; to say yes, or not; to get up and go, or not; to discern the authority behind the call and yield to it the authority in the soul, or not.
His thesis sounds well and good, but I remind myself that it is never this easy. One thousand and one impulses to do this and do that flood my mind everyday. Which are of God? Which are of me? Likewise every task, obstacle, burden carries choices at every turn. Like the Amazing Labyrinth game my children used to play, which path to take at any given moment is the looming question, answered without foresight, but gut or reason or fear or peace or any other inner guides for action or inaction. “All we need to know is how to recognize his will in the present moment,” wrote de Caussade. Ah, there’s the rub! My current impulse may or may not equal God’s will, to which de Caussade would object by challenging my degree of self-surrender, trust, and faith, or the degree to which I’ve accomplished the aforementioned pre-requisite duty. This challenge I must sustain.
I look back and could fall on my knees right here and now in gratitude for the currents that seemed to carry me—yes, this is the man; yes, this is the house; yes, this is the job ad to answer, the number to write down, the time to make the call; no, look away, pass by. A book jumps off the shelf in front of my eyes, and I know it is for me and life is never the same. The moment at hand brings an impulse of joy or action or warning and I am all for de Caussade’s sacrament nomenclature. Yes, yes, yes; come, present moment, come. God with us. But darken the moment with tragedy or disappointment or even the shadow of cons across the pros, and my impulse is to not trust in divine impulse, to reject the moment.
To paraphrase de Caussade: calm, calm; there is a hiding place where silk is spun in secret. “Everything leads to union with him; everything brings about perfection excepting sin and what is not our duty,” wrote de Caussade. “Only take things as they come without interfering. Everything guides, purifies and sustains you, carrying you along, so to speak, under God’s banner by whose hand earth, air and water are made divine.”
I believe; help my unbelief.
A Vocation Primer, Part 2
There is a scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander that is worth the whole film to me. It is Christmas Eve and the Ekdahl family’s theatre group has just given a performance of the nativity story. The patriarchal son gathers together his maids and servants, their arms laden with baskets of gifts and the filled silver platters and bowls of a feast. He reminds them to be gracious to the theatre staff, “a mixed lot,” and then lifts a flaming silver bowl and leads the parade down the stairs to the theatre stage. Everyone sings and those with free hands clap. Musicians on strings and horns accompany them as they sashay around the spent performers before finally placing the beverages, food, and gifts on the candle-studded serving table. “Help yourselves, everybody,” says the son, “Step forward; don’t be shy.”
In the next frame, the theater manager, another of the Ekdahl sons and an actor in the group, steps up on a small platform. His face is flushed and exhausted. The feast—consumed or waiting, we can’t be sure—edges his peripheral vision as he looks into the faces of the 30 or 40 members of the theatre staff gathered around him. He played the part of Joseph and only now removes his wig. He looks to be about 55 years old. He tells us that he has stepped up on this platform as the theatre manager for 22 years “without really having any talent.” He laughs; they laugh. He removes the fake moustache and then the beard. His hair is plastered to his head from sweat.
“My only talent,” he continues, “is that I love this little world.” His eyes are bordered by lines and deep circles. He looks down more than up. His eyes glisten. He hesitates and swallows hard and talks again. He sighs with a quiver, trying not to cry, like a new mother exhausted from labor, like a creator letting go of his created. His audience is silent. All eyes meet his. No one rustles; no one moves; no ones flips the pages of a magazine. Like a hen he would gather his chicks and the whole barnyard under his wings if he could. God’s presence expanded yet again from temple to person and now to this theatre with its tired huddled mass.
I want to freeze that frame and study that face of love. I want to magnify every pixel and look for evidence of causation. Which came first: the job or the vocation? The chosen or the given, the creator or the created, the moment or the response, the call or the love? I want to unlock Oscar Ekdahl from the film, escort him down from the platform, and ask him to teach me.
Do I give away too much if I tell now that this man dies before many more scenes have played out? Do I give away too much if I tell I envy the catch in his throat?
Midway through the flight to Albuquerque and somewhere over Nebraska, the man in seat 18B and I start talking. Seated he looms more than a head above me, a large man, not in weight, but in frame. He wears glasses, has thinning white hair, and is dressed in khakis and a sport shirt. He tells me he is in his eighties. I note his tight and vibrant skin and conclude he is active and well. As we talk we reach for pouches of trail mix and cans of Sierra Mist on the pull-down trays in front of us.
“Are you from Minneapolis?” I ask.
“No, just changed planes there this morning,” he replies.
“Is Albuquerque your final destination?”
“Yes, I’m going to see my daughter.”
“No, she’s in the hospital, dying.”
He tells me that his daughter’s cancer has spread. They will be saying their good-byes. He tells me his wife also died of cancer and at the same age his daughter is now. He tells me another daughter is only a year behind this one in age. “Of course she is afraid,” he says. I ask the dying daughter’s name and say I will pray for her, and him.
We munch and sip and then talk of things other than death. The plane is at its cruising altitude, above all possibility of clouds and where the sky is perpetually clear, robin’s-egg blue in the daytime, coal black in the night. Now, just past noon, the sun shines brightly through the airplane windows, so brightly that some people in surrounding rows have lowered the shades. The man tells me he looks forward to getting on the plane at the end of it all and going back home, back to his fishing boat.
Our legs are in need of a stretch and our backs long to lengthen and stand. His arms fidget, and I bend my neck this way and that to relieve a kink. The flight attendant comes by and clears our wrappers and napkins, our empty aluminum cans, our plastic cups holding the dregs of melted ice. He’ll come by again later, holding a full tray, and offer us water.