In the nineties, the two television shows that reigned supreme among teenagers like me were Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. The two soap operas—one with high school protagonists, one with a twenty-something ensemble—aired back to back on Wednesday nights. Dylan and Brandon vied for the same girls, and Heather Locklear backstabbed and sexed men up on her office desk like a vixen champ.
My father called the shows by other names: Beverly Hills Seventy-Eleven (seventy-eleven, in Texas-speak, just means lots and lots of ridiculous numbers) and Putrid Place. At the end of the night, he’d always say, “Sis, the problem with all these people is that they have no sense of vocation.”
I would giggle. I didn’t know exactly what he meant by that, but it tickled me, his response.
Modern vernacular interchanges “career” and “vocation”, but the word vocation comes from Catholicism and has a distinctly religious connotation. The priesthood is a vocation—a call from God to lifetime service. So are marriage and parenthood. Looking back, I think my father used the word in the religious sense to imply that the characters on Beverly Hills Seventy-Eleven and Putrid Place did not have meaningful, dignified, and difficult work in which to pour themselves; therefore, they poured themselves into frivolous drama. He was teasing me each Wednesday, but also offering the serious advice of Paul in Corinthians, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.”
Of course Heather Locklear had a career on the show, although that job mostly provided the desk over which various men bent her week after week. The Peach Pit offered Brandon Walsh paid work. But not all careers are callings.
I return to school next week like many teachers, and I’ve been thinking about vocation. All week I’ve had anxiety dreams about school: dreams in which my alarm doesn’t go off, dreams in which a student complains about me because my syllabus isn’t up to date, dreams in which I never finish writing a book. These dreams occur every August, and every August I go through a very real, deep grieving process. August asks me to put aside one vocation for another, to give up meaningful time with my own writing to enter another creative, soul-consuming endeavor, one that I could no more do half-heartedly than breathing. My writing feels like a baby I must put into daycare. I know I won’t see it as much, that I’ll have to reorient myself to it when I come home, that I’ll have to apologize again and again to it for the time I’ve left it alone.
In my life, writing and teaching are antagonistic, but similar, vocations. They both require soul work—creative energy, sacrifice, struggle, patience, humility, and bravery—as I imagine motherhood will as well. Many of my writer friends who do not teach full-time in a high school don’t get it. I don’t teach to pay for my writing life. It’s not something I do during the day and then can turn off at night like a light switch. I teach because the world called me to do so. Trust me, I refused the call for a long, long time. Nobody who teaches in earnest finds it easy. We teach because young people carry great quantities of hope in their awkward bodies and voracious minds, because they break us open, break our hearts, and occasionally save us, because they are the ambassadors to our future. I teach because my grandmother and my mother taught–it’s practically coded into my DNA, and because I believe–even if it sounds self-aggrandizing–that literacy frees people from the bondage of the various pharaohs in their lives.
Likewise, my teacher friends often don’t get my vocation as a writer. I do not “get to think about my writing all the time since I teach writing” as one colleague suggested. (That same colleague suggested that by teaching yoga, I get to work out at the same time—only no good yoga instructor is “working out” while she’s teaching). And writing is not a hobby. Nobody who writes in earnest does it for “fun” or renown. We write because the page sits on the horizon of our lives like a great and immeasurable land waiting to be discovered, beckoning, always beckoning—we have no choice but to set sail.
Today I was reminded that when Jesus walks on water he calls Peter to him. Peter answers Jesus’ call, although he falters and Jesus saves him from drowning. Many people read the “walking on water” story as one of faith, of Jesus proving himself as the Son of God. But a better reading, I think, is that Jesus calls Peter into the rough waves and dark brine of life, the hard work. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus has just fed the disciples loaves of bread and fish, and it is as though he is saying to us that it is not enough to sit, satiated, inside the safety of our comfortable boats. We must step into the water.
I am also reminded of a hobbit. In J.R. R. Tolkien’s epic salvation narrative, he writes about Frodo’s decision to carry the Ring:
“A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.
“I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”
It’s August again. I feel a great dread. I never know the way. But I hear my father’s voice in my head. Like some other will using my small voice, the word repeats itself: vocation, vocation. I refuse to be putrid. I have the privilege of dignified, meaningful, paid work that feeds me.
We have no choice, fellow teachers, but to sigh and buck up.
We must take the ring.
We must step into the water.
Or, as W.H. Auden once wrote, “You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at.”