When I was a little girl I loved to play in boxes. Chubby-cheeked and crawling, I nestled into the cardboard confines of the spaces that were meant to hold gifts that would hold my attention. Instead, I found entertainment in the seams of packaging and the imagination that would eventually learn to craft entire worlds and plot lines in countless games of “house” with the neighbors, the made-up identities of afternoons spent biking at high speed with knobby knees around the block, and endless evenings spent typing melodramatic pre-teen thoughts onto a typewriter from the 1950s rescued at an estate sale.
In his chapter “Now I Become Myself” from his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer talks about vocation and what it means to “find yourself.” Rather than focusing on the standard issue definition of vocation that has to do with finding what you are supposed to do, who you are supposed to be, and listening to some sort of whispering moral external voice, Palmer tells us that true vocation “comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given to me at birth” (10). In his eyes, vocation means finding the self you’ve inevitably spent your whole life obscuring–bent and hammered by the many circles of expectations that exist to fit you into well-labeled slots and set you in the “right” direction. We can spend our whole lives searching for the person we were at age 5–that wide-eyed creature with sticky fingers and no knowledge of limitations or responsibility.
As I read Parker Palmer’s article of “who am I” trajectories and explanation of the fine line where “your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,” (16) I found myself remembering that little girl. I can see those sunlit trees from afternoons spent writing in a tiny notebook about what the “perfect” life could look like 15 years down the road, and I can trace the ways that picture changed. I can see the masks I tried on and threw away across the years– the mutating answers to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I see the professional horseback rider, the pediatrician, the elementary school teacher, the therapist, the world-traveling journalist and the systems-thinking education reform versions of my future self lined up on a shelf in my mind. I can hear the quiet voice, speaking in circles that eventually began to sound like gibberish, saying “who am I, who am I, who am I?” as I fell asleep in that lavender painted room for so many years of my idyllic childhood.
I have always been fascinated by memory. Reading this chapter has me tracing the tributaries of my life all over again in many of the same ways my experience with the Leaders for Social Change program this summer has.
My journey to St. Olaf College was one of privilege. Like Palmer, I can point to the moments of darkness and human connection that stained the corners of my story and contributed to “who I am.” I can talk about the nights spent with a father made sick by chemotherapy, the pressures of academia and expectations of “success” in an upper class white community with a winning school district, the need to live up to the reputation I’ve created for myself as a “leader,” or the sinking feeling that comes with the understanding that I’m at the top of a grossly unjust ladder of economy and society and justice that is unlikely to change in my lifetime. I can describe the faces of the children I’ve tutored over the past 6 years, or the tumultuous journey of living in a foreign country for 5 months and learning to feel uncomfortable and figure things out on my own for the first time.
For much of my life I have had things handed to me. The position in this summer LSC program is not an exception to this trend. I was offered a place in this community of motivated and inspired collegiate citizens without going through the application process.
After a short Skype conversation that crossed the Atlantic to my apartment in Galway, Ireland last Spring, I was intrigued by the potential held inside 9 weeks of shared dinners, challenging conversations, and seminars that delve into the complexities of justice and identity. I did not know that these would be days and months of being lost and found. I did not expect to feel so much guilt, or the now familiar goosebumps that form at the back of my neck as I talk my way into a new idea–stringing together sentences spontaneously until they form a new possibility for what my life could mean. I did not know that I would come to feel so fiercely for the people who sit around this oversized table without edges every night. They are some of the first friends I have encountered who have forced me to question the very core of my beliefs. I have felt completely ignorant and brilliant several times within the same conversation.
Though I don’t have an internship in Northfield (working instead on research that takes place on campus,) I’ve been able to live and learn vicariously through each of my housemates and our weekly seminars.
In the past three years spent studying and soul searching at St. Olaf, I have realized my passion for community building. With my advisor Jim Farrell’s wise words, teaching style, and stories playing catalyst, I have come to see education as the space where I want to create the sort of “change” I’ve been longing for since elementary school. I have learned to think in concentric circles and to see the bigger picture. However, despite my penchant for connections and my longing to understand the networks I am a part of, I have spent my entire life perched atop a Hill–from the literal topography of St. Olaf College to the financially stable and supportive “you can do anything” hill of safety that my family has always provided.
I spent my time thus far as an undergraduate trying to bridge gaps–getting out into Northfield to work with kids in the local school district and throwing myself into the Activism for Social Change Network on campus. I created my own major and worked hard to brainstorm how the fruits of my own labor could eventually mean something to other people (a task I’m still working on, and one that will probably never end.) I performed research and wrote papers and gave presentations that allowed me to listen and be heard. I continued to develop the manifesto of my life. However, despite all of the good that has come from my exploration, I have never felt like it was enough. This sentiment is one I share with my housemates. We are all working for something more, but we are stuck between cliche understandings of what that means and the childlike shoot for the stars versions that we’ve spent so long stifling.
The first night I met the 9 people whose intimate daily habits and thoughts I’ve come to know over the past 7 weeks, I was incredibly intimidated. I worried about not stacking up. They had already done so much, and I felt like I was losing in the race to do something “significant” with my time. I was forced to consider the possibility that everything I’ve been doing has been superficial and misled.
As we became more comfortable with one another and began to have conversations that I will one day tell my children about, I opened my mind in ways I never have before. In the weaving lines of dialogue that stretched from poverty to feminism to the conflicted stories that unfold from the simple question “how was your day?,” I have found pieces of myself.
Last week, we had a 3 hour long conversation about poverty that left me filled with adrenaline. I felt more judged than I ever have in my life, and it made me writhe. I had to grapple with what I’ve been given and how to use it in the future. I had to deal with the fact that some people don’t want my help.
One day later and I found myself worrying that the smile I’d plastered on as I served dinner at the Community Action Center was “fake.” Being around those who are visibly struggling to make ends meet makes me nervous. In many ways, this summer has been a crash course on what it feels like to be “different” and ashamed. Inspired by those around me so fearlessly diving into internships that focus on those marginalized, I’ve come to reassess my sense of place. I have put faces to the people I’ve written about in so many academic papers and theories about what it will take to overthrow oppressive systems.
The major I created is about American identity, but the lens through which I approached my studies was nowhere near wide enough. I had not considered the Somalian immigrants whose children I spent pushing on the swings last Monday night at a park in Minnesota, or the elderly couple who spent thirty minutes telling me about their RV adventures across the US. I hadn’t realized the depth of my own assumptions and stereotypes until I faced them head on–walking the halls of the Food Shelf and keeping track of unfiltered thoughts. I hadn’t taken the time to go through each of the Palmer’s “masks”–the versions of myself I’ve tried on and taken off over the years, all informed by the way I want other people to see me. It wasn’t until our trip to Open Book that I felt a prickling in my skin I now dare to call “vocation.”
I’ve been writing now for nearly 100 minutes, and I’m not sure exactly where I’ve ended up. This is how I believe it should be. There is no neat way to end these musings or to spell out exactly what I’ve gleaned from several weeks of co-habitation with extraordinary citizens who will do things they haven’t imagined yet. I only know that they have brought me one step closer to the place where my ego gives way to my purest motivations–that space inside of a cardboard box where I don’t have to get credit for my work or explain how I’ve decided to best use my “gifts.”
The guidelines I’ve come to lay out for my future vocation this summer are loose. I am on the precipice of having to decide “what to do with the rest of my life,” and I’ve opted not to. I don’t want to tie myself down to something that promises “success,” I want to find it in something unexpected. This might be naive, but I’m going with it. I will keep my options open, and apply to a variety of things that give me the same feeling that emerges when we sit down together in this house to work through the complexities of themes like “What is the cause of poverty in America?,” or “When is a life significant?” I will continue to be okay with the fact that most of the time there is no answer. I will find a career that allows me to lay the groundwork for future generations and stop comparing myself to others. I will do something that lets me share my story, listen to others, and connect the dots.
This summer I have learned to cook for ten, ask questions that lead to many more questions, assess the moods of those around me, communicate my values and why they exist, and expect the unexpected. I have become more flexible as I learn to navigate the chaotic schedules of a new extended family, and I have learned to love people who were strangers only two months ago. I have learned about organizations I never knew existed, and attended events and volunteered–interacting with individuals and ideas in ways that were outside of my comfort zone. These skills (and many more that I’m forgetting to list) will be key pieces of the tool box I take with me into whatever vocation I eventually choose.
“Now I become myself, it’s taken time, many years and places. I have been dissolved and shaken, Work other people’s faces…” (May Sarton)
I know that in the coming years I will be tossed in all directions. I will try on dozens more masks only to remove them again. I will face trials and triumphs. I can only imagine the story I’ll tell in 5 or 10 or 50 years’ time, but I have no doubt that this humid summer of 2012 will carry the weight of more than a few footnotes.