I stopped at the Dollar General Store the other day and Clara was behind the counter.
I love Clara. She only works part-time but she always seems to be there when I show up and over the years we’ve developed a friendship. She’s 85, spry and wiry, always smiling and has positive words for everyone.
How does she do this at her age, I often ask myself. And she’s happy at it, too.
I sometimes joke with her: “I want to be you when I grow up.” She laughs it off and keeps talking about her grandkids or how she’ll have tomorrow off as she rings up my laundry detergent and dishwashing liquid.
So it got me to thinking about that old axiom that our parents, an aunt or neighbor asked us when we were kids: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
My goals weren’t lofty at six or seven. I thought a ballerina might be fun. Then the idea of a tightrope walker seemed thrilling. From there it was a short trip to lion tamer and clown. I look back with amazement at how anything seemed possible at that age, along with the idea of being able to do it.
What we want to be when we “grow up,” I believe, is related to a deeper question: What is our purpose? Our calling?
I think we all want to use our talents or gifts in some way. Our souls are hard-wired to want to better the planet and ourselves and leave behind something meaningful.
But most times, the reality of being a grown up doesn’t allow that. We take jobs we don’t like because we have to pay the bills. We are stuck in cubicles or in endless meetings asking ourselves, like the old Peggy Lee song, “Is that all there is?”
I was fortunate to use the gift of writing to support myself. Barely. But I did. It’s been my career over the decades. Still, that’s never felt like my true purpose.
So what is it I’m seeking — what we all yearn for?
JOB: A job is vital, she writes, but don’t make it YOUR LIFE. It’s not that big a deal. It’s just a job — a very important and also not-at-all important thing. “We need a job to pay the bills. But a job doesn’t have to define who we are,” she says. So, I could have had a job as a lion tamer, and if I had excelled at it over the years then I might have made it my ….
CAREER: A job is just a task that you do for money, Gilbert writes. But a career is something that you build over the years with energy, passion, and commitment. Um, no. Lion taming did not call me, which leads to ….
VOCATION: The word “vocation” comes to us from the Latin verb “vocare” — meaning “to call”. Your vocation is your calling. Gilbert writes: “Your vocation is a summons that comes directly from the universe, and is communicated through the yearnings of your soul.
“While your career is about a relationship between you and the world, your vocation is about the relationship between you and God. Vocation is a private vow. Your career is dependent upon other people, but your vocation belongs only to you.”
Writing and creativity have always called me. Sometimes it’s been work and just a job. Over a lifetime it’s been a career. But my calling?
I’m still scratching beneath the surface of my life — even at this age — and asking what tugs at my soul. I ask how I can best use the gifts I’ve been given to serve. And the truth is, I don’t know. Other than writing, are there other talents waiting to be claimed?
I do know this, however — as writer Wayne Dyer has said — I don’t want to die with my music still in me.
Then again, perhaps I’m making it too complicated. After all, look at Clara. She’s content in the moment with her job as a cashier. She doesn’t ask about her purpose in life.
When she was a child and people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, I’m almost sure she didn’t say “cashier.” But it’s her job. It gives her spending money. Her family, most likely, has been her career.
Her calling, however, is being present to those who stand on the other side of the counter. Her vocation is bringing joy and love to the space she inhabits.
Perhaps, in the end, that’s what we are all called to do. Whether we’re a cashier, taming a lion or writing — our ultimate calling is to be love. To be in the moment and pay attention, as Mary Oliver writes so gracefully in The Summer Day.
Whatever we choose to do with our one, wild and precious life, let us do it with love. This, I believe, is our ultimate work, today, when we grow up … and forever.
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?