Motherhood as Visionary

“True visionaries are true believers.They have the courage of their convictions because they have convictions. They transform others only because they themselves have been transformed by the power and majesty of their beliefs.And steeled by their beliefs, they can willingly persevere in seemingly impossible quests to repair the world.” — Chris Lowney, HEROIC LIVING:DISCOVER YOUR PURPOSE AND CHANGE THE WORLD

I’ve been feeling my age lately — for several years, actually. I don’t have the energy I once had, need more sleep, need more time to sit quietly and reflect, am less  willing to exhaust myself by multi-tasking. Even working full-time seems onerous some days.

Sometimes I tell myself I’m just exhausted. It’s been a long and lonely life. I’ve worked hard but have little to show for it — in terms that our society sees and values. I have to remind myself that what I accomplished is significant, if not entirely tangible. I raised two girls by myself, with no child support and little family support. By myself, despite being deeply wounded by life, I  gave them healthy enough roots and strong enough wings for them to grow into remarkable young women. By myself.

I did this because Ioving them transformed me. At 60, I can still remember seeing my oldest for the first time and wanting to give her the world. I knew that I could only do this if I went before her and set an example, created a trail that she could follow. She was born on February 18; I started college in June. I was going to teach her the importance of education by getting a college education myself. I was not going to be a do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do parent.

Of course, having had a mother with an eighth-grade education and a dad whose educational endeavors didn’t extend past high school, I didn’t understand a great deal about the college experience. I’ve heard that studies have been done on the challenges faced by first-generation college students, but they didn’t exist when I was young. I just bumbled into the experience, learning as I went. I didn’t realize, for example, that I should not accept a financial aid package that included three different student loans because repaying them concurrently would  be impossible. I simply trusted the financial aid folks knew what they were doing and were doing what they could to help me. I didn’t realize that a college education only leads to a higher-paying job if you prepare for a profession that garners a decent income. I trusted advisers who  assured me that just getting a degree would make a difference in my earning ability.

The lessons were hard ones, and ones for which I’ve paid dearly. But, I don’t regret learning them. I’ve seen both of my daughters graduate from college with honors, and build careers. They’ve had other lessons to learn, but my desire to teach them the importance of education gave them a foothold to go further than I found possible.

And I stopped the cycle of violence in my family, which I consider to be especially remarkable because, in addition to the physical violence I experienced at home, I was sexually molested when I was 12, and wakened in my bed by a couple drunken strangers who took my virginity when I was 18. Today, domestic violence is a crime and rape crisis centers exist to help women whose sexual encounters are not consensual, but I grew up in a different world — one that didn’t acknowledge the toll those experiences could take on a women’s heart or psyche.

The world was starting to change when I was a young mother. One day, when I went to class with a choker of bruises that I hadn’t been able to hide with clothing accessories and make-up, a classmate who was earning a degree in counseling took me to the women’s crisis center. There I learned that (a) the abysmal mess I kept making of my life was an expression of my woundedness, and (b) my girls would repeat the same patterns if I didn’t address those issues in order to provide them with an emotionally stable home and to set a better example than my mother had set for me.

Because I did not want my girls to face the same demons that terrorized me, I worked with a gifted counselor for nearly five years. I faced with as much courage as I could muster all of the experiences I had locked in boxes and tried to shove to the back of my emotional closet. There were many nights, after my girls went to bed, when I would pull out my journal and write until the pain was so visceral, I thought I would die. I would rock and cry and rock and cry until I was too exhausted to do more than sleep. I will always love my counselor for walking  through those dark years with me, and I will always be grateful to her for helping me to find my way to a place where I could function with some degree of wholeness.

Her work enabled me to raise girls whose lives reflect none of the self-destructive patterns that characterize the lives of those of us who have been wounded by violence. While one of my daughters remains single, I have watched the other marry a truly good man and I have seen the way in which their relationship continues to grow. I see his commitment to her and to their marriage, and my heart aches with joy because she experiences every day something I have never known and will never know — love. She has no idea how hard I worked to do what I could to ensure her heart and mind were not scarred in ways that would make it difficult to have a healthy relationship.

I wonder sometimes how I managed to juggle the life I lived while raising those girls. I often worked two jobs in addition to cooking, caring for our home, going to the laudromat weekly with five or six loads of dirty clothes, and trying to carve out time to paint, an activity necessary for me to keep body and soul together. In reading Chris  Lowney’s book, I remember. I wanted to build a better life for my girls than I had, and that vision strengthened me. I may not have repaired the world, but I did persevere in what I believed was important.

I raised two amazing women by myself.

Numinous Improvisation

“You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31, GNTD)

That’s straightforward enough. An angel comes; an angel says, “This is what you will do and this is how it will happen;” and that’s what happens.

Kind of. Her betrothed almost set her aside — though he did plan to do it quietly and, hopefully, avoid the stoning which was the penalty for adultery. She gave birth in a barn — though Bethlehem would have been full of relatives at the time, which demonstrates how hardened most hearts were toward her among family members. Then, because her husband had a dream, she found herself traveling to Egypt with a newborn, possibly before she had recovered from the birthing experience, which may have been accomplished without the help of a skilled midwife.

Two thousand years have done a great job of wiping away the sweat and tears of what must have been a difficult lived experience. But stories always do that — even the stories we tell ourselves, especially the stories we tell ourselves about others. Their lives never seem to have the muck and chaos of our own.

This morning, as I sat down to prayer, which is how I start every morning when I am on my own, the daily readings included the gospel story of the Annunciation, and I found myself envying the way God clearly indicated to Mary his will for her life. I’ve not had that clarity for a very long time — since 1998, to be exact. In truth, I only had clarity in my life for one short period of time — from 1990 – 1998. I had gone to the Chicago Institute of Art with a dear friend, saw one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s cloud paintings; thought, “I could do that;” and walked out of the museum knowing in my bones that my life would be wasted if I didn’t paint. So, creating art; motherhood, the deep call of my heart; and personal/spiritual growth formed the triad that shaped my life during that period of my life.

It might be more accurate to say creating art, motherhood and personal/spiritual growth shaped me during that time, but I did not allow them to be enough. Who knows why? In a meditation published in December in a devotional called The Magnificat, Ann Voskamp, writing about The Fall in the Garden of Eden, says, “Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what he gives.” Perhaps, unintentionally, I did allow myself to be tempted away from the grace-filled gifts that God had given me.

Sister Joan Chittister, in her book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy, writes, “People who are unusually gifted in something often tend to take it for granted. … In fact, they are often inclined not only to discount the gift itself as commonplace or even worthless, but to doubt their own abilities in anything else.” While it may be arrogant to claim unusual giftedness in any of the areas indicated, it might be fair to wonder if I didn’t try to prove myself in other areas — grant writing, non-profit management, mentoring — because of self-doubt. It might also be fair to wonder if I failed to recognize the deep stirring of my heart in the areas of motherhood, art and personal/spiritual growth because I was so engaged in trying to prove myself.

I’ve been spending several evenings a week throughout Lent in prayer and in reflecting on God’s call for me at this juncture in my life. I’m turning 60 this year, and am acutely aware of time’s winged chariots. During the past 17 years, I’ve moved seven times and held nine different jobs. I was not carried on the wings of a dream or driven by burning ambition. At best, it might be said, I was a pilgrim seeking the Holy Grail of destiny or clarity or God’s will or something. I wanted to know again the passion that allowed me to balance two jobs, an art career, raising children, caring for a household, and prolific, self-reflective journal writing.

What I’ve come to realize is this — for me it comes down to three things: my relationship with God, creative expression  and — yes — motherhood. A life shaped around that sacred-in-my-life triad is deeply authentic and has the potential of becoming deeply rooted. Because I failed to value what mattered most — going so far as to set painting aside for at least five years, maybe longer — I don’t know what that life will look like. I know that I’m a deeply contemplative person, so it probably won’t be a busy life. I know that these authentic expressions of myself will have to be balanced with activities that enable me to be financially self-sufficient. I know that I will have to be flexible in exploring what all of this means, in imagining what it will look like.

Over the weekend, when I was writing in my journal, I found a phrase to describe this phase in my pilgrimage — numinous improvisation. I like the sound of that. I like the way it characterizes this time as sacred. I like the way it alludes to music and theater and other performing arts. I like the dignity it accords this shaping period of uncertainty.

I also like being old enough to appreciate a simple truth: Mary’s clear instructions didn’t reveal how difficult God’s promise unfolding in her life would be. Maybe all these years of drifting through myriad life experiences has been God’s promise unfolding my my life. Maybe, I’ve been collecting material which will provide rich earth for the seeds of creative self to grow through this numinous improvisation and  bloom. I hope so.

I switched metaphors there, didn’t I? Hopefully, you get the picture anyway.

Weaknesses and Deficiencies

“It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves, but for others. When we do this, we will be able to face, and accept, our own limitations. … We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.” (Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island)

Thomas Merton wrote this in his Prologue to the book, No Man Is An Island, which was published the year I was born. I  discovered it about the time I turned 45 — the book with its prologue.

Thomas Merton, who died in 1968, is one of those men who truly changed the world, and continues to change the world, though non-Catholics may be entirely unfamiliar with him or with any of his work. Merton was a Trappist monk, whose autobiography revealed how God can touch even the most unchurched of us. I’ve read that a whole generation of seekers was inspired by The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography, and it has never gone out of print.

He is known in Catholic circles for taking contemplative prayer out of the monastery and into the lives of the laity. (That’s what the average church-goer is called in Catholic circles.) However, he was also a behind-the-scenes peace activist, encouraging those on the front lines, like Dorothy Day. As a monk in a religious order where speech is strongly discouraged, he was remarkably vocal, writing numerous books and innumerable letters which continue to impact people today. One of my favorite authors, James Martin, SJ, speaks and writes often about the impact of Thomas Merton on his life.

But I will, possibly forever, remember Thomas Merton for the lines quotes above. When I first read them, I could not continue with the book. Night after night, I would crawl into my bed, grab No Man is an Island, open it to that page and reread the section of which that is a part. That passage called for a radical shift in the way I thought about myself and about my relationships with others.

Merton went on to write, “My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others…. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore, the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation…. It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ.”

Thomas Merton introduced me to the concept of our inter-relatedness. Americans glorify the rugged individual and we idolize those who rise to the top of the heap, regardless of how they got there. They have money and therefore they are successful. That is why our nation has none of the programs which support the health of the family found in other industrialized nations, and why we have the appalling tendency to denigrate the poor, regardless of how hard they work and regardless of how much their quality of life was created by the greed of those at the top.

(Lost a lot of you there, didn’t I? You don’t agree. You like the way you think. You’ve worked hard for what you have achieved and to hell with everyone else. Yep! I can hear one of my brothers from here — and he hasn’t even read this yet.)

I didn’t function well within the average American mindset. I was always getting sidetracked by someone  in need — the single mom who grew up in the foster care system and had no real concept of family though she was desperate for love, the recovering drug addict I met while selling Avon products, the unemployed teacher who ended up delivering newspapers and working as a motel housekeeper to keep a roof over her head. I simply could not fail to offer assistance, though more often than not the only assistance I could provide was my time and a compassionate ear.

But time, as every American knows, is money and money is the measure of success. Right? Merton said, “No, it’s not.” Merton said our lives are inter-related, that my strength meets your need and, in that, Christ is present.

For the first time, I didn’t feel like such a loser. For the first time, I thought, “OK, I can live this.” It took a seven-day silent retreat five years later and a little (well, more than a little) adversity to fully appreciate what Merton was saying, though. I was comfortable in being the one with strengths who could help others. I could accept not rising to the top of the great American heap, but I was not equally comfortable with the whole weakness component. It always humiliated me to the bone to ask for assistance. I felt like the animal excrement a farmer scrapes off his boots every time I had to ask, every time I had to accept assistance.

But, the year I turned 50, I gave myself the gift of a seven-day silent retreat during which I came to understand that to be whole in Christ, we have to accept the whole Christ; we must be willing to receive as well as give. Yes, Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick. But Jesus also said he was found in the hungry who were fed and the homeless who were given shelter and the prisoner who was visited (cf. Matt.25:34-40). It’s OK to be strong, I came to understand, but it OK to be weak sometimes, too.”

Even today, I can’t say I am at home with weakness and with receiving, but I have learned to accept gifts with a little more grace as a result of  learning about this idea of wholeness that Merton introduced and long hours of prayer affirmed. And, as a result, I’ve come to see God in unexpected places. My daughter and her husband, for example, will undoubtedly be on the right-hand when the day of judgment comes for they feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless month after month. Although they don’t attend church with same regularity that I do, they open themselves to be God’s hands in this world as though it were the most natural thing  in the world.

I wonder if most of those on the right at the last judgment won’t be just like them. After all, according to Jesus, those on the right didn’t even know they were caring for him by their actions in this world. “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?” they asked. When? When? When? (Matt. 25:37-39) It’s a sobering thought.

What’s Up, Doc?

I know I am not Bugs Bunny. I doubt if I have much in common with the Looney Tunes character who munched on his carrot with such insouciance. And yet, as Lent draws its mantle around me, something within looks forward with nearly the same cavalier abandon.

For some reason, many of the major transitions in my life have occurred at this time of year.  In 1998, after months of nagging phone calls from someone who did not have my best interests at heart, from someone who imagined — fool that she was — that I could be manipulated like a marionette, I acquiesced and accepted a job I did not want. I — fool that I was — imagined I could balance the job with my dream as I had done with other positions.

Seventeen years later, I still have not recovered from that error in judgment. The art career I had built through hard work and sacrifice while working (sometimes two jobs) and raising two children without a dime of child support is just a halcyon memory. The joy of walking into an exhibit space and being surrounded by the work of my hands — gone. The pleasure of hugs from and animated conversation with other artists at opening receptions — gone.

In 2006, Lent brought another leave-taking. With my art career in ashes, I rose like a phoenix to become a respected journalist, winning awards, watching my stories cross the wire, enjoying every day of work as though I had been created for that life. And then, in 2004, a short leave of absence from the newspaper became a resignation when the board of a nonprofit I sought to help irresponsibly failed to fulfill their part in the verbal agreement we had made. I could have walked away and let them deal with the mess they had made, but I did not. I shouldered the burden right up to the day that same board decided to relieve me of it — during Holy Week.

That experience cost me my home. I was so deeply wounded by the board’s betrayal and that breach of trust, that I had a difficult time getting on my feet again. I tried to retreat back into the profession which had given me so much pleasure, but we can’t go home again. With no local jobs, I was forced to move in order to find work — to move away from the river which was the subject of so many acrylic sketches, to move away from the view out my window that filled me with joy in all seasons, to move away from the friends and life I had built for myself.

I have turned over that sequence of events so many times the edges have become smooth. Thy will be done, I learned to pray. Thy will be done. Over and over. Over and over. Thy will be done. The prayer and the desire to submit myself to the will of our Father in Heaven led me into an ever deepening prayer life and an ever deepening trust in God. So, when the newspaper for which I worked experienced financial difficulties, and the publisher decided, during Lent in 2011, to save money by replacing me with someone less experienced — God bless those employment-at-will states which are an employer’s delight — I was shocked, but not unduly disheartened.

This year, I go into Lent feeling change is imminent. At the very least, my status with the nonprofit where I have been in training will change. But it’s possible other change may come as well. To prepare, I have given up fiction for Lent. (I have also given up sweets and snacks, but giving up fiction is the more difficult fast.) Usually, when I walk to work or take care of chores around the apartment, I listen to an audio book. And when I crawl into bed at night, I grab a mystery to distract me from the concerns of the day.

While this habit of escaping into fiction is not nearly as destructive as drinking myself into oblivion or drugging myself to the gills, the effect isn’t terribly different. Instead of embracing the gift of the day, instead being open to the blessings and challenges that make life rich with experience, I’m turning away. That’s no way to prepare for change. Change should be met with an open heart and an open mind. Change should be met with joy as a resurrection experience. Change should be cherished as a gift and grace.

I know this. I know it in my head. Now I cultivate the ground of my heart with prayer and reflection to receive whatever comes, using mindfully the time previously given over to fiction with plots, endings and closure. It’s an adventure, which today took an unexpected twist. For some odd reason, a phrase popped into my head when I grabbed a carrot for lunch, a phrase I haven’t heard in more than 40 years. “What’s up, Doc?”

I laughed with confusion, but couldn’t put it out of my mind. I begin to suspect that whatever comes, I’ll face it with grace and resilience. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even have a little of that rabbit’s arrogant confidence.

 

Last Call

Scenes unroll this morning like a spool of ribbon dropped to the floor. Verdant fields. The shadow of mountains. Small worn-out houses with fenced yards abutting the tracks. Mile after mile of groves neatly aligned. Vineyards stretching like corduroy as far as the eye can see. The shabby side of businesses and towns.

Raindrops crawl sideways across the windows as I watch it all. I am doing something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child — traveling by train.

I don’t know when passenger trains ceased to run in South Dakota, but they were a thing of the past by the time I started school. However, according to reports from older students, my first grade teacher always arranged a field trip for her class — students rode to the neighboring town in the caboose of one of the freight trains that still traversed the state. All year I waited to climb aboard. And then the school year ended and I hadn’t had the adventure for which I longed.

Eventually, that disappointment faded, as childhood experiences do. I even forgot until my dad’s sister brought her family to visit. Part of their journey from Oregon to South Dakota had been made by train. At that point in my life, the longest trip I had made was to a music camp my freshman year in high school — 165 miles. My parents had taken me by car, and it was a one-time experience. I was wonderstruck by the idea of crossing the country by train, and fantasized about places I would go.

But I was not raised to follow the allure of the road. I was raised to believe opportunities were gifts given to others, to believe that I needed to learn how to be content with what I had instead of longing for more. Since my mother died more than 40 years ago and my dad wasn’t inclined to talk about the decisions he made as a parent, I don’t know why I was taught to limit my dreams rather than to pursue them. I just know it created in me a dissonant dichotomy.

On one hand, my world became small; I took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves rather than explored paths that excited my imagination. On the other hand, I was plagued with an inner restlessness; I rarely stuck with a job more than three or four years, and have moved more often than I care to remember. Only my inner journey has been unencumbered by artificial barriers. I’ve studied human development and spiritual development and shied away from nothing.

As I sit here now though, watching the world go by, watching passengers come and go, I find myself wondering if it’s not time to explore the final frontier — not space, but the wonderful world in which I live. I wonder if it’s not time to see how I might be shaped by a broader range of experiences.
I find myself wondering if this morning’s cry of “All aboard” might not become one of many I hear in my lifetime.

I wonder.

I AM Somebody

Recently I was told I could have been “Somebody” if I had tried. It’s not the first time I’ve heard a comment like that. Family members have been expressing that sentiment for years. This time, though, I had an answer.

I AM somebody, I said with quiet dignity.

Strangely enough, I believe it. Yes, I am currently unemployed, and since the Internet has adversely affected the newspaper business, as well as opened up the world of social media in ways that are foreign to me, my professional career is also in abeyance. But, I do not define my worth as a person by the income I draw or by the money I have collected in a bank.

Not anymore, at least. God, in his infinite wisdom, did not give me great ambition or a strong desire for wealth. Those gifts were given to other members of the human family, though when I was young I attempted time and time again to pursue goals which required those gifts — while simultaneously pursuing goals that used the gifts I have been given. That kind of double life is not a formula for success.

Christ said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mark 3:25), and bitter experience has shown me that statement’s full truth. Unfortunately, 20/20 hindsight does little more than help us learn; it does not rectify our errors. It can, however, help us grow in compassion toward others, if we allow it to do so. If we can look at ourselves and say, “I did the best I could, but I can see now why that decision was a poor one,” we can look at others whose decisions we question and appreciate that they are doing the best they can under the circumstances of their lives.

My errors have also led me to a deep appreciation of the diversity of the human family. The first book of Genesis reveals God’s passion for diversity. Waters teemed with “an abundance of living creatures” (v. 20), the skies were filled with “all kinds of winged birds” (v.21), and the earth was filled with “all kinds of living creatures” (v.24). And St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about diversity in the Body of Christ: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all  of them in everyone” (I Cor.12:4-7).

However, we do not live in a society that embraces the value of all. We reward some generously for their work while depriving others of the basic necessities of life, justifying the inequities in ways that make sense only to those on the top — and to those who want to climb to the top. As devastating as this is economically, the way this mindset affects our relationships with others is even more devastating.

We have become a society that values only those who are monetarily reimbursed for their efforts — and then, only to the extent that they are reimbursed. But there are gifts which enhance the quality of life for all, gifts which sadly do not generate a stable and generous income: creating and caring for a home, mentoring young people who need support and guidance, creating art and poetry and music, loving unconditionally. These gifts contribute to stronger communities and more beauty in the world, but generally don’t pay a dime.

To live authentically with these gifts, to live without the monetary compensation that will garner the respect of others, individuals need a strong support system, a deep faith with a clear sense of God’s call to use those gifts — or a very thick skin. I know, because those are the gifts God has given me. Yes, if I had been gifted with the desire for wealth and great ambition, I could probably have become “Somebody” because I’m also bright and have a strong work ethic.

But I am not one who can turn my back when God calls. I can only say what she for whom I was named said: “I am the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). And, as far as I am concerned, that makes me somebody.

Puzzle

Some days I feel like a jigsaw puzzle, a thousand-piece puzzle dumped in a plastic bag because the box was tossed out. In other words, I don’t know how I am supposed to look when the pieces are assembled.

Once in a while, though, a few pieces slip together and I feel like celebrating. This morning is one of those mornings. As part of my search for employment, I have been reading books which I hope will help me to succeed — not just succeed at finding work, but succeed in ways which are meaningful for me, personally.

I learned long ago that I am not motivated by money; I am motivated by a need to help others, to make a difference, and I carry that sensibility into most jobs. The only job I ever held which was soulless for me was telemarketing because I could not make a difference; I could not help anyone. I was good at it, and won numerous sales prizes, but I died a little each time I stepped inside the door of that workplace.

I also learned long ago that I am multi-faceted; I can do just about anything that doesn’t require specific physical skills. When I was young and searching for a career path, I would ask people how they chose their professions (or major field of study in college). Invariably, people said, “I was good at it,” or “It interested me.”

That did not help me; as I said, I can do just about anything, and I have a magpie mind — anything about which another is passionate interests me for a while. That’s actually what made me a good newspaper person; every story fascinated me. The only abiding personal interests I’ve had are art, writing, spiritual development and people. I love getting to know people, watching the narratives of their lives unfold, and mentoring the lost souls who need someone to have faith in them.

One of the books I’ve read (and am rereading) is Sister Joan Chittister’s FOLLOWING THE PATH: THE SEARCH FOR A LIFE OF PASSION, PURPOSE AND JOY. Because I want a life of passion, purpose and joy, choosing to read this book was a bit of a no-brainer. (Besides, I’ve read a number of Sr. Joan’s books and like her God — or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say her understanding of God.) Understanding the book on a deep and personal level is surprisingly challenging.

The first time I read it, I was simply inspired, not only by her prose — her sensitivity to language calls to the writer in me — but by her ideas. “The path to wholeness of the self commonly leads through a labyrinth of possibilities, a maze of gifts. The fact is that coming to fullness of life is seldom a straight line. It is a matter of learning to listen to the call — to the magnet of the heart within us — to assess our own gifts, to follow our own passions, and to find, through them, the fit between passion and purpose.” Beautiful! Offering such hope to someone like me, seeking at mid-life greater authenticity, more meaning in the daily business of life!

Phrase after phrase, passage after passage, moved me. “We need, like raindrops in the river, to lose ourselves in what we were made to do.” “The important thing to understand is that when we are doing what we love doing, we are making the world around us a happier place for everyone.” “The song of life is born in every soul. But the song we are meant to sing does not come to us whole…. Learning to hear the song within us, finding the call within us, and then bending our lives to follow it to the fullness of ourselves is the key to happiness, to meaning, to fullness of life.”

Unfortunately, when I got to the end, I was not one iota closer to finding direction for my life than when I began. And so, I began again. This time, I am journaling about some of the passages, and making notes to consider my life in light of others — when I can set aside a day for prayerful reflection, because I know some of it will be painful and must not to be entered into casually.

However, this morning, my reflections on one passage began to bear fruit. Sister Joan had written, “Real passion focuses our efforts. It becomes the compass needle of the heart which presented with multiple options becomes the direction we take at every fork in the road.” I found myself recalling decisions I’ve made and could see the pattern, the direction I have taken at every fork in the road. I live for others.

I put aside my art career because I was persuaded that accepting a position for which I had not applied would benefit artists across the state. I put aside a professional career I enjoyed because I was persuaded I could strengthen an at-risk organization that helped abused and neglected children. In small ways, too, I have made sacrifices for others.

This morning, that insight slid into place beside two other pieces. The first was a quotation from GOD’S VOICE WITHIN by Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ: “God has a particular calling for each person; we are not called to do every holy action that comes to mind or to respond to every good opportunity” (emphasis added). I’ve been mulling that over for months, asking, “What does this mean in terms of my life?” Obviously, it means I need to be selective, to discern when I am called and when to allow another to respond to a situation. But how am I to know the difference?

The second piece was from this morning’s gospel. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field'” (Matthew 13:44). Out of joy — that is the key. The desire to live for others — the compass needle of my heart — needs to be expressed in ways which lead to joy, to that spontaneous outpouring of praise which is the most authentic expression of joy we can know. Choosing to sacrifice activities to which I actually feel called does not lead to joy, only despair — as I well know.

Telling myself that my sacrifice is for the greater good, when it is not an expression of my particular calling, does not lead to joy either. I can name each and every decision I have made which was not an expression of my particular calling, because I can recall so vividly the weight of obligation I carried with me day after day as I executed my job responsibilities, a weight which felt like a knot in the pit of my stomach. I can contrast those memories with others, with sacrifices that brought joy — not because they were easier to live (sacrifice involves a degree of difficulty), but because the inner peace and the outcomes were so good, so sweet, I would make no other decision if faced with the same situation again.

So, am I closer to getting a job? Yes and no. No, I do not know what career field to pursue. After all, I’ve only identified a small section of the puzzle. However, I do know how to assess whether a position is the right fit, and that seems like progress to me.