vocation

Row for Your Life

West Wind #2
by Mary Oliver, from West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems

You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rockswhen you hear that unmistakable
poundingwhen you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steamingthen row, row for your life
toward it.

Not Pretending

The Vintage Life by Mikela Prevost

The Mother of the Poet
by Matt Cook, from The Unreasonable Slug

The other of the poet is probably tired
Of explaining to people that her son is a poet.
Her son probably should have made more of an effort
To be involved in something that was simple to brag about.
The mother of the heating contractor does not
Have the same problem as the mother of the poet.
When the mother of the heating contractor talks about her son
It's usually understood, from the beginning, that her son, 
The heating contractor, is not pretending to be a heating contractor. 
When the mother of the poet talks, the listener will
Begin with the assumption that her son is pretending to be a poet.
The mother of the poet spends a good deal of energy justifying her son.
The poet, of course, did not mean
To put his mother in this difficult position.
Or did he?  

Follow Matt Cook on Twitter: @mattcookpoet

How Would You Really Enjoy Spending Your Life?

Excerpt from Do You Do It, or Does It Do You? by Alan Watts:

What do you desire?

What makes you itch?

What sort of a situation would you like?

I do this often in vocational guidance of students… They come to me and say, "We’re getting out of college and we haven’t the faintest idea what we want to do.”  So I always ask the question, “What would you like to do if money were no object?”

How would you really enjoy spending your life?

Well, it’s so amazing as a result of our kind of eduational system crowds of students say well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way.  Or another person says I’d like to live an out of doors life and ride horses.

When we finally got down to something, which the individual says he really wants to do I will say to him, “You do that. And forget the money.  Because, if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time.  You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing!  Which is stupid!”

Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.

And after all, if you do really like what it is you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is, you can eventually become a master of it.  And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is.  So don’t worry too much.  Somebody is interested in everything.  And anything you can be interested in you can find others interested in.

But it is absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on spending your time doing things that you don’t like and to teach your children to follow in the same track!  See what we are doing, is we’re bring up children, educating them, to live the same sort of lives we are living.  In order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children, to bring up their children to do the same thing!

Therefore it is so important to consider this question, “What do I desire?”


See also: Sing and Dance While the Music Plays

Unsung Courage

Nicolson’s Café was a first floor restaurant on the corner of Nicolson and Drummond Street famous for being the location where J.K. Rowling worked on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Excerpt from The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship by David Whyte:

There are two possibilities, perhaps we can call them necessities, for keeping the marriage with work alive through the difficult years of childbearing and child rearing. The first is to reimagine the way we have named our work and defined its success. We may find that our priorities have been erased and redrawn by a birth or an adoption; that we don't care for the corporate world's priorities anymore and that mothering or indeed fathering is now our central work.

We may come to the reimagination of our work through the gladly received, genuine revelations of parenting or especially for women, with difficulty, through a rueful acceptance that the months or years with a child have taken us off the career track and that the sacrifices needed to get back on that moving stair are not worth what it would take. Even if we find that circumstances allow us both to be a good parent and to follow a brilliant career, the moral basis of the brilliant career hinges on not neglecting or abandoning our children at crucial times in their growing, and demands that we reexamine the basis of our marriage with work and many of the outer rewards of prestige we demanded up to the moment we became parents. 

The second necessity is to find a rhythm, often with the help of our partner or our family or our friends that enables us to make short visits to that kingdom of silence and creativity. These short visits on a regular, rhythmical basis may not further the work very much in the early days, but they are essential to keeping it alive in the heart and mind of the struggling parent until time begins to open up as the child grows and goes off to school. As this window begins to widen and allow fresh air into the life of the besieged parent, the work also slowly begins to resuscitate itself and come back to life. Our vocation starts to pick its feet out of the mud and move onto higher, drier ground. 

J.K. Rowling famously wrote large portions of the first Harry Potter book in the midst of this caked, slow-moving, mud-walking, desperate parent stage. "There was a point where I really felt I had 'penniless divorcée, lone parent' tattooed on my head," she said in one interview (Seaton, 2001). Living alone with her infant daughter, Jessica, in an unheated Edinburgh flat, she would trudge through the streets wheeling Jessica to a local café and snatch moments at her writing between feeding and comforting her child. It's a help to know that Rowling felt a general hopelessness during much of that time, and a further encouragement to know that she kept on moving through the mud, kept on writing despite her quiet, private despair. 

The café in Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling wrote now has a small plaque on the wall outside to explain who sat there with such private, unsung courage. Most likely the place in which we sit and struggle to bring our work back to life will have nothing to commemorate it except a little window in our own memory that opens onto the small stage on which we appeared during difficult times. 

Perhaps each of us should go back with actual plaques and place them in cafés, on walls or in office cubicles with little notes of private courage for the inspiration of others. "This is where I kept my faith alive during very dark days," "This is where I found the courage to leave my marriage," or "This is where I realized that I couldn't have everything I wanted and so felt the freedom to request what I needed." Such puzzling, intriguing and inspirational signs everywhere might bring us to an understanding of the constant enacted dramas occurring around us. How every chair and every corner holds a possibility for redemption. The plaques that said things such as "This is the table where I gave up on my ideals and took the very large bribe" would be equally instructive for the reader. 

A Marriage of Marriages

Un mundo (A World), Ángeles Santos Torroella, 1911

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way. These hidden human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment.

Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness. Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self, and Other. 

A word about this word marriage: Despite our use of the word only for a committed relationship between two people, in reality this book looks at the way everyone is committed, consciously or unconsciously, to three marriages. There is that first marriage, the one we usually mean, to another; that second marriage, which can so often seem like a burden, to a work or vocation; and that third and most likely hidden marriage to a core conversation inside ourselves. We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and, as I wish to illustrate, they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously. 

Why put them together? To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.

This book looks at the dynamics common to all three marriages: first the recognition of what an individual wants, then a pursuit, then the hope to circumvent the difficult but necessary disappointments, and ultimately, in the face of that disappointment, the full recommitment to the vows we have made in each of the three areas, spoken or unspoken.

The Three Marriages looks at the way each marriage involves a separate form of courtship and commitment, each almost a world unto itself that then must be rejoined together. The end goal: In these pages I am looking for a marriage of marriages.

The main premise of the book becomes also its final conclusion: We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

I especially want to look at the way that each of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable; that we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two. As we discover, through the lives and biographies I follow in this book, how each one of the three marriages is nonnegotiable at its core, we can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.

The understanding of this book is that the deeper, unspoken realms of the human psyche, work and life are not separate things and therefore cannot be balanced against each other except to create further trouble. The book most especially tries to dispel the myth that we are predominantly thinking creatures, who can, if we put our feet in all the right places, develop strategies that will make us the paragon of perfection we want to be, and instead, looks to a deeper, almost poetic perspective, a moving, more untouchable identity, a slightly more dangerous but more satisfying sense of self than one defined by ideas of balance.

The Three Marriages looks at the way we actually seem to function – as a kind of movable conversational frontier, an edge between what we think is us and what we think is not us…it tries to illustrate the way we can still make a real life even when crowded by other identities, or even when unbalanced and intoxicated with desire, or even when we are disappointed in work or love, and perhaps the way, at the center of all this deep love of belonging and this deep exhaustion of belonging, we may have waiting for us, at the end of the tunnel, a marriage of marriages, a life worth living, and one we can call, despite all the difficulties and imperfections, our very own.

~ David Whyte, from The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship

See also:

There is a Boundary to Looking

Full moon rise over Woody Mountain.

photo by Pez Owen

Turning-Point
by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

The road from intensity to greatness
passes through sacrifice.         —Kassner

For a long time he attained it in looking.
Stars would fall to their knees
beneath his compelling vision.
Or as he looked on, kneeling,
his urgency's fragrance
tired out a god until
it smiled at him in its sleep.

Towers he would gaze at so
that they were terrified:
building them up again, suddenly, in an instant!
But how often the landscape,
overburdened by day,
came to rest in his silent awareness, at nightfall.

Animals trusted him, stepped
into his open look, grazing,
and the imprisoned lions
stared in as if into an incomprehensible freedom;
birds, as it felt them, flew headlong
through it; and flowers, as enormous
as they are to children, gazed back
into it, on and on.

And the rumor that there was someone
who knew how to look,
stirred those less
visible creatures:
stirred the women.

Looking how long?
For how long now, deeply deprived,
beseeching in the depths of his glance?

When he, whose vocation was Waiting, sat far from home—
the hotel's distracted unnoticing bedroom
moody around him, and in the avoided mirror
once more the room, and later
from the tormenting bed
once more:
then in the air the voices
discussed, beyond comprehension,
his heart, which could still be felt;
debated what through the painfully buried body
could somehow be felt—his heart;
debated and passed their judgment:
that it did not have love.

(And denied him further communions.)

For there is a boundary to looking.
And the world that is looked at so deeply
wants to flourish in love.

Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you; for you
overpowered them: but even now you don't know them.
Learn, inner man, to look at your inner woman,
the one attained from a thousand
natures, the merely attained but
not yet beloved form.

[Thanks, Ryan!]