During this blog series on Work Stories, here’s some stream-of-consciousness reflections about our journey of calling/work/vocation. These are reflections in the rough and subject to change as I continue to grow up to be more like Christ and more like the Tamara he’s always intended for me
On a recent visit from my parents, over soup and sandwiches at a local cafe, we reminisced about the job my mother worked as a waitress when I was in elementary school. It’s one of those stories that’s become a matter-of-fact part of our family history, but deserves more than just a footnote. For a short period of time when I was in fourth grade, my mom served barbecue chicken to hungry diners. She was a waitress. At the time, she was pregnant with her fourth child. She gave up the job when her manager was nervous she’d slip on the greasy diner floor.
My mom’s college degree is in English. It’s a degree that’s helped her in various work positions over the years, not to mention in the significant role she’s played in teaching each of her six children to love reading. (She’s been a little less successful in teaching all of us to love proper grammar. But she keeps trying!) She used that degree to teach school for a few years, substitute teach a few years, write free-lance magazine articles now and again. Her last job before officially retiring was teaching English as a Second Language to immigrants and refugees in my hometown.
Still, there was a season when the family budget required her to pick up work at a chicken barbecue joint. When that time came, that’s what she did.
I’d like to think that I learned this kind of scrappy work ethic from her. I could also have learned it from my father who pastored for years without a salary and patched in the budget holes by driving school bus, picking apples, and painting houses. My parents tell us the stories of times the budget gap threatened to outsize the various income streams my parents brought in. Like the time it was the middle of winter and we ran out of heating fuel. My dad kept the wood stove stocked with wood and we all slept in the living room to stay warm. One story includes the details that we were also sick and had no money for medicine and no money for gas for the car to drive to the store to get the medicine. That’s the kind of story a kid like me remembers. As it turns out, it’s also memorable because the story concludes with a man from church randomly calling my parents to say God told him to give us money, and by any chance did we need anything?
That’s the sort of story a kid like me remembers.
My own work stories include all sorts of scrappy problem-solving. I’ve mentioned it before, but want to say again that I’m grateful for every job I’ve ever worked - from cleaning offices at a convenience store to washing other people’s laundry to learning code in the nick of time to make good on a client’s project to typing newspaper articles for the teeny-tiny town we lived in when my kids were babies. On more than one occasion I cleaned houses and worked retail hours in maternity clothes - just like my mom.
Along the way, thinking on my feet and being willing to learn whatever I needed landed me a couple corporate jobs that put me in the breadwinner’s seat for a short time. It’s a work history impossible to fit on a resume or plot on a budget spreadsheet. I’m grateful for every single opportunity, and not afraid to say I’m a little bit proud of the grit and gumption each position represents.
Unlike my parents, siblings, or husband, I don’t hold a college degree. This is not something I think about consciously, but it is a storyline that runs through the foundation of my work history. No one kept me from getting a degree. I did that all by myself and with a sort of naive abandon. I really, really, really wanted to be married and have children more than any other option I could imagine. Lots of people can do both of these things, but the trajectory of our life made it feel (almost) impossible for me.
My shortened college years actually began my senior year of high school when I just couldn’t wait one more year to accelerate my learning. When I was a junior in high school, my mother read a book about autodidactic learning and it sparked a little fire in me. This is another foundational storyline undergirding my work history. While I don’t have a college degree to hang on my wall (and, technically, only a GED for my high school years) I have never - not even for a day - stopped studying and applying what I learn to my everyday, real life.
I’m grateful for this opportunity as well. What a privilege to have the opportunity, resources, and ability to learn whatever I want whenever I want. I’ve been wealthy in opportunities to learn. I’ve learned job skills, yes, but also deep truths and invaluable lessons learned only in the school of life. For me this meant the lessons imprinted on my heart by the Holy Spirit as I pursued living from my truest self within every context - home, job(s), church, relationships, health, parenting, blogging, reading, writing, recreation, and marriage. I collected highlights from many of these lessons on this blog and in the journals I store underneath my bed. Each celebration and crisis, and all the mundane moments in between, offered me opportunities to grow up into my truest self. That is, if I had eyes to see. Sometimes I just got grumpy from all the unconnected dots of my journey and watched television instead.
As each of our four children left home to enter into their own vocational pilgrimage, I began to fret more and more the lack of college degree on my wall. I felt that the work I’d done for a quarter-of-a-century deserved the kind of recognition that could be framed on the wall or highlighted in a resume. But, alas, no matter how many times I tried no one would give me a plaque for being a mom and wife and all-around-decent human. I began researching what it would take for me to finish my journalism degree and tried to figure out how we’d pay for yet another tuition. I’d worked for several years accumulating publishing credits to help me write free-lance, but if I wanted any sort of salaried writing job it seems I’d need a degree (and probably a graduate degree after that).
I held onto the idea loosely in between celebrating my kids’ graduations and my husband’s seminary graduation, I tucked away potential course descriptions and program requirements. At about the moment I was ready to re-apply with my alma mater, I lost heart. I didn’t want to go that road, partly because I no longer respected the institution that held a couple of years of my college transcripts. I got stuck with no other ideas.
My time then was filled working for a digital ad agency in downtown Austin and helping my husband apply for job positions in the southwest and northeast. (These were the two locations I was willing to live plus one potential mid-south location that we eventually turned down because I didn’t think I could handle learning another sub-culture of the U.S. My learning has limits when it comes to making a home.) When Brian accepted the call to serve as Rector at Church of the Apostles in Fairfield, Connecticut, we began preparing for a move that included me not looking for a new job. We didn’t know exactly how that would work financially, but we knew that the new chapter of our life would be the time to reopen the unfinished story of my own work and calling.
In the mayhem of moving cross-country and setting up home and community in Connecticut, I almost didn’t notice a digital invitation land in my inbox from a woman I respected, but barely knew. She said I came to mind as someone “who might be interested in participating in the Spiritual Direction program” she’d attended several years ago. I sort of inhaled the rest of her note to the closing sentence: “feel free to take a look and see if something stirs in you”.
Something did, in fact, stir in me. I can’t quite describe it, but I knew it was something beyond my self-perceived ideas of what to do with my life. I experienced an inner, quiet confidence that I was being invited to something that my heart longed for, my experience had primed me for, and my life was ready to explore, but that I’d been totally unaware of before that moment. I didn’t know it before I read the email. I knew it after I read the email. For most of my life, I’ve entered new experiences after frenzied periods of study and sometimes scrappy, sometimes just ignorant “fake it till you make it” game plans. This opportunity came to me with zero effort on my part. Like the way people describe love at first sight, I knew immediately this invitation was just right for me.
I still had to go through the formalities of applying and being interviewed and figuring out how to pay to accept the invitation, but I knew it was the path I was supposed to take. Very, very few times in my life have been this certain for me. I suspect very few will ever be again. In all the years of stumbling along, putting one foot in front of the other I rejoice in this one moment I feel like our Creator let the road I’m to take rise up to meet me.
For the past year-and-a-half I’ve been telling people “I feel like God whispered this call to me years ago, and then kept track of what I’d totally forgotten”.
I don’t think of this opportunity as a reward for good behavior, or even as a “good things come to those who wait” sort of thing (which is true, but not what this is). I believe that God held everything in my life together - all the unfinished sentences and unread books and incomplete degrees - to form a new chapter. As my friend likes to say “He wrote straight with the crooked lines” in my life. Even though I’ve experienced minor marginalization for my lack of academic pedigree, I have no idea what it means to make a life in an environment of oppression, devastating poverty, and systemic prejudice. I almost didn’t want to tell this story out of reverence for the majority of the world who have not experienced even a day in a work environment that honors their unique giftedness and dignity.
There’s been a cost. I can’t live in a house with enough bedrooms for my kids to visit and pay for this course at the same time. For now, I can’t continue using time and creative energy to pursue free-lance publication. I had to let go of some of the things I thought I knew about God and people and myself, in order to make space for all that I don’t know (and maybe never will). I’ve had to allow what I thought were assets from my gifting and experience to feel like liabilities as I’m re-formed by what I’m learning in this new chapter. It doesn’t feel like an expense, though. It feels like a luxury. I get to respond to an invitation from the Creator. And you do, too.
I don’t know when you’ll hear the next step, the one that takes you deeper into what is true about who God is and who you are made to be in HIm. I don’t know what the invitation will cost you or what you’re likely investing right now with the work you do today. I don’t know who the Caller will enlist to help get your attention, but I know that He knows. He is magnificently efficient in letting no part of your life go to waste to accomplish His purposes in us and through us. He’s also wildly (and sometimes a bit aggravatingly) unpredictable in the paths He allows us to pursue - and the ones He doesn’t. I have an entire scrapbook full of the plans I’d set up for myself and the six-figure income I was on track to earn with one company. I don’t even know where that scrapbook is right now. It’ll be good for my grandkids to pass around and laugh about at some distant family reunion.
For now, I am basking in the long-awaited epiphany that God sees me. He sees us. He knows us. He knows the number of our days and the number of all the days left before He sends Jesus to once and for all invite all of us into the fully-restored peaceable kingdom. In that day, I fully expect to be waiting tables for those who’ve never been served a meal they did not suffer to obtain. (Every time I have the opportunity now to serve the oppressed, I’m just practicing for that day.)Until that day, God sees each one of us. He knows us better than we know ourselves and He keeps track of every unfinished part of the story He’s writing. For now, He keeps inviting us to become who we will be forever.
I’m doing it right now.
And so are you.
You can read more about what spiritual direction is and what I’m offering as a director here.