Summer Lughnasa Moon
I remember, back in the early, heady days after leaving the Presbytery, I calculated how I might earn an income. An income that would be equivalent to the one I made there. It would come through an advance on royalties each year on books I would write at so many words a day. This seemed straightforward to me. And, it was the expectation which I carried into this sudden change in vocation; or, as others said at the time of their own career changes, my reinvention.
Ah. There it is. That small nugget of information unearthed in the process of writing. Vocation. Yes. I have always viewed my life and work from the vantage point of vocation, and not a secular view of vocation, but rather a sense of vocation derived from its Latin root, a calling.
Yes. And I can trace its roots back, not to a moment of quiet prayer, but to a moment of rejection, quite specific, and one I’ve mentioned here before. After two years as a management apprentice at Johns-Manville corporation’s factory in my home town of Alexandria, I turned down an offer of a scholarship. It would have entailed my working a certain number of years for the corporation. No thank you, I said.
I was not clear then why, just that I would never do work that conflicted with my values. And I never have. This mysterious sense of a calling, a vocation, came from a voice that has never been still, not once over the years of my life so far. Yet, I cannot identify its source.
It received amplification, I think, during my recovery from polio and my parents understandable conviction that I had been saved for remarkable things. But just what remarkable things and saved by whom or what was never clear.
The remarkable thing took some shape, I’m sure, from my father’s work, especially his work as a newspaper editor, where he laid out his opinions for the whole town to read, and my mother’s compassion, for us and for others. It took some shape from the labor politics of my blue collar hometown, a place shaped by the strong labor movement of the United Auto Workers.
And, yes, it took some shape, too, at Alexandria First Methodist Church. The church exposed me to urban poverty, to the United Nations and to national politics in Washington, D.C. It convinced me, in a deep way, that each of us have a responsibility to the larger whole, a conviction reinforced by Alexandria’s political labor movement and somewhat reinforced by my father’s own liberal political positions.
The school system, too, had its impact. In this small town where immigrants from the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, the poorer states of Arkansas and Mississippi, found a middle class life possible, the son of two college educated parents had an unearned advantage. There, too, I was groomed for remarkable things. Just what those would be were again, not clear.
Naturally, all of these various streams of influence were at their peak in 1964, my senior year of high school. This was the launching year, my class would head off to its various fates. It was then that mom died. Again, I’m not sure how this impacted my strong sense of vocation, but it probably put a certain emotional motive force behind it that could not, by definition, mature.
After that came the 60’s. The radical politics of the era took my sense of vocation and did give it shape and focus. Initially, civil rights work, but in quick succession after that the Vietnam War and student rights. After that feminism. And after that neighborhood empowerment. Following all those more traditional political work and then, lately, work on environmental matters.
Ah. Another point of clarity. Since high school and most emphatically since those years of the 1960’s, my declared or daily work has always had a secondary place to politics. In college, though I enjoyed my studies and did well academically, I spent the bulk of my energy organizing and working for change. Once in seminary my primary work was still anti-war though, again, I did well academically. It was there that a secondary interest from college, the arts, began to take more and more of my attention.
Once I got into the ministry the ministry itself was never my primary focus, rather I managed a facility for developmentally disabled adults, then worked on the West Bank where my energy went into affordable housing, economic development and economic justice organizing of many kinds. When I became a church executive, even then my primary work remained political.
As then, so over the last twenty years with the writing. Writing was the work I did, but it was never the primary focus of my life. Rather, Kate and Joseph and Jon. The dogs. Unitarian-Universalism for a time. Regular politics in the 6th congressional district, before the Bachmann era. Then the MIA and the Sierra Club. Those were where my calling expressed itself.
It has never been about work, rather my vocation has been about those things that my work supported, seemingly ancillary, but in fact primary: politics, family, art, sustainable horticulture.
In other words I’ve treated writing in the same way I have every other “job” I’ve ever had. I engaged it, but only to a certain extent, only to the extent necessary to validate the “working” part of my life so I could engage all these other activities. This is not an excuse or a reason for not publishing, but it is an explanation, I believe, for the conflicted feelings I’ve had about writing from the beginning. They were the same conflicted feelings I had about the institutional work for the church, about my academic work in college, feelings conflicted because, to state that long ago negative as a positive, I wanted to work on projects congruent with my values and those values involved change, change in this world.
Why I never put that work in the true center of my working life, I may never know. I think it’s because it never occurred to me.