Charting our calling

During this blog series on Work Stories, here’s some stream-of-consciousness reflections about our journey of calling/work/vocation.

January 2010: charts representing the timeline of Brian's life and our search to know God's calling for his life..

January 2010: charts representing the timeline of Brian's life and our search to know God's calling for his life..

We’ve been talking about calling around here lately. It’s not exactly a new conversation - more like a new level of learning on a conversation we’ve been having for more than twenty-eight years we’ve been engaged and married. We tell our kids that we did everything backwards: married, had kids while Brian was working on his bachelor’s degree and not even landing his first, “real” salaried job until we had three kids (and added another within a year). Of course “backwards” is a relative term. Other than the covenant-type, “I Do” decision, who decides what order the rest is supposed to happen?

When we say backwards, we’re acknowledging that there’s some wisdom in being a bit more stable before adding children. Things like college degrees, salaried jobs with health insurance, and appropriate housing are generally a more hospitable way to welcome children into the world than the alternate. At the same time, there’s nothing like welcoming children into the world to add clarity and ambition to one’s sense of calling.

So, we started our family while Brian was a full-time college student and a full-time manual laborer at a car dealership. I worked every sort of odd job - tutoring, cleaning houses, cleaning offices, assisting in a library research room, and babysitting. We were just ignorant enough to be happy about it all. When we look back now, it totally stresses me out, and I’m guessing at the time our family and friends were freaking out a little bit. (I remember when I told my Mom Brian and I wanted to get married before we finished college and she, naturally, asked how we planned to afford it. I gushed “MOM, I could live in a cardboard box and eat Nutter Butters for the rest of my life just to be with Brian.”)

The plan had been to complete college degrees together and for six months we worked toward that goal. What we’d imagined about a cute little newlywed, college-student life got serious real quick when we discovered we were pregnant. Each weekday, we’d drive the twenty-minutes to campus trying to make 7AM classes, arriving late because we didn’t factor in enough time for morning sickness. I’d politely ask Brian to pull off the road, lean over some guardrail and lose my breakfast and then we’d hustle to class.

In addition to taking a full load of classes, we both worked jobs - me in the reference library on campus and Brian in a pharmaceutical warehouse from 4pm to midnight every day. We saw each other from midnight to 7 AM and a tiny bit on the weekends, and tried to figure out how to do things like find an OBGYN without health insurance in a fairly-rural, slightly-barbaric medicaid system. (My first appointments as a pregnant woman took place in a kind of locker room where I shivered in a paper gown in a little cubicle waiting for a nurse to open the curtain that separated me from a long row of other curtained cubicles to walk to the examining room. I’ve literally blocked out the memory of actually being examined in this cattle-call arrangement.)

I will never forget the joy of leaving our newlywed apartment near our college campus with a little U-Haul hitched to our Buick Skylark and heading back to our hometown to find an apartment near grandparents, aunts, and uncles to welcome our first child. We’d started the journey at the beginning of the semester with $200 in our pockets and no place to live. At the end of the semester, we cashed in a few savings bonds I’d been given as a kid to pay for the trailer (I’d received the savings bonds in exchange for anchoring a kids’ television news program in my hometown. A story for another day.) We headed toward New York with even less money in our pockets and still no place to live. Thankfully, my grandparents welcomed us into their home for the first couple of months while Brian found a job (cleaning cars at a dealership he’d worked at before we were married). Thanks to a wonderful Catholic hospital system, our home town also came with a much more comfortable low-income health care provider. I mean it when I say God bless Lourdes Hospital and the De Marillac and De Paul clinics.

A few weeks before Andrew was born, we moved into a second-floor apartment on Rotary Avenue in Binghamton and I hustled that little place into shape. I was also just blissfully ignorant enough to not think twice about teetering my nine-month pregnant self on a metal kitchen stool to paint our kitchen (trying to compensate for the cockroach problem we’d just discovered). While I was in the hospital recovering from the twenty-six-hour labor and delivery, my mother was in the apartment a couple blocks away painting and stenciling the nursery.

This all happened within the first year of our marriage. It was a bumpy, nonsensical way to start a life together. We don’t necessarily recommend it. At the same time as I look back from our current vantage point I don’t know how we would have gotten here any other way. To be clear, by here I mean we still have no money in our pockets, we’ve traipsed from home to home in our vocational journey, but there is a sense of having arrived into our rightful place in the world. Like a highly disorganized flow chart, we’ve adjusted each stage of our life “If this happens, then we live here”, “If that happens, then we move there”. On the one hand it’s been a messy, backwards way to live; on the other hand it’s been beautiful and full of the sort of grace and mercy that makes us feel unimaginably wealthy. You might even say lucky.

While I’m certain we didn’t plot every new iteration of the chart correctly, I do believe we’ve been following the overall direction of our Shepherd Jesus as he leads us ever nearer to the purposes of God for our lives.

Recently I was chatting with a friend during a church potluck supper. He was feeling emotionally staggered under the weight of an ill-fitting career. He’d reached the point where most of his emotional energy went into the kind of flow-chart calculations that precede a major life change. When he asked me about how Brian and I felt about the moves we’ve made from New York to Austin to Connecticut I said a sentence I didn’t even know I believed until after I heard it come out of my own mouth:

The path to discover our calling has brought us to a place better than anything we’d imagined and has cost us more than we ever expected.

I couldn’t tell if that encouraged him or not, but not long after that he left his job and he and his wife sold their house and moved a long way away. I think about them a lot and wonder if he’s thought again about the unimaginable outcomes of pursuing one’s calling.

I’ll write more on our vocational journey on another day. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about what you’re discovering as you pursue your life’s calling. Drop me a line?