Discovering My Vocation

Many, many years ago, I was a part-time faculty member in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at SDSU. It was my dream job – or rather, it was the job I dreamed of having, when having a job was just a dream.

At twenty-one, I was finishing up my B.A., applying to grad school, and engaged to be married to the man I loved. Tim and I went back and forth about whether I would get my doctorate and take a tenure track position wherever it was offered, or whether we would put down roots in San Diego and open a surf shop. Obviously, the surf shop won. One of the deciding factors was that I wanted to be a full-time mom to the kids we would have someday. While doing my research, I didn’t get the feeling that a university professor could take years off to lie on the floor and read board books and push around wooden trains.

So I dreamed of a part-time position, teaching and mothering in tandem, and my dream came true. From the time I got my master’s degree until I became pregnant with our third child, I had steady and regular employment at several different campuses around Southern California. And when I finally left, it wasn’t because things weren’t working out the way I hoped they would.

I left, because I wasn’t who I thought I was.

I had always loved to read and write. At twenty-one, I couldn’t imagine that wouldn’t always be the most important skill I had to share with my students and if I couldn’t teach them how to love reading and writing, then at least I could teach them how to do it well. So I taught them how to read critically, how to say what they meant, and sometimes even how to find something meaningful to say.

But after a few years of teaching, of watching students come in and out of my classroom, becoming better readers and writers, I realized that it wasn’t actually what I wanted to teach them any more. I realized that there were more important things I wanted them to know. I was teaching them how to write, but I wanted to teach them how to be.

Does that sound arrogant to you? Pompous? Conceited? If it does, you’re right and unfortunately, those words describe most of the college professors I had ever met, or at least the ones I disliked the most and I DIDN’T WANT TO BECOME ONE OF THEM. I didn’t want to be another authority figure, who ostensibly taught their subject matter, but in reality, filled lectures with their own personal philosophies. It didn’t matter if it was communism, atheism, socialism, patriotism, Catholicism, or simply hedonism. Although I couldn’t have named my ‘ism’ at the time, I knew I was struggling to teach without it.

And so, uneasy in my professional life, I carried on for another year or two, until I stumbled across an essay in an Oprah magazine from January, 2001. I still have the original page, tucked away in a file. It was written by Parker Palmer, someone I had never heard of at that point and it was called, “Are You Listening to Your Life?” Palmer’s words resonated with something deep inside me.

He said, “I was in my early 30s when I first began to question my calling, teaching at a university and doing it reasonably well, but I felt stifled by the confines of academic life. A small voice inside was calling me toward something unknown and risky, yet more congruent with my own truth.” He admired Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. He had read their work and allowed it to change him. He went on to admit that “Clinging fearfully to my academic job even though it was a bad fit, I tried to teach the way I imagined my heroes would. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable and sometimes grotesque, as when I caught myself preaching to students instead of teaching them. I had simply found a ‘noble’ way to live a false life, imitating my heroes instead of listening to my heart.”

And as I read those words, curled up on my couch with a cup of tea on a January afternoon, he spoke to my heart and he broke my heart. I remember the tears streaming down my face and my heart beating faster. Becoming a college professor was all I had ever wanted to do professionally. I had never conceived of a time when I would not want to read literature, write about literature and teach literature. I didn’t even know what else I could do. I just knew what I had to do, even though it seemed impossible. I knew it was possible, because I saw him do it first.

Frederick Buechner, an author and theologian, defined vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I knew that there was a deep need for good writing instruction – any school principal, college dean, or business leader will tell you that, and I knew that I could meet that need; I was good at it. I had the reviews and renewed teaching contracts to prove it. But after my many years of teaching, I also knew that I would not find my deep gladness there.

I couldn’t teach, or preach in my classroom any more – it just didn’t matter enough to me if they knew how to write a thesis, organize an essay, or correctly punctuate a sentence. I still loved literature. I still loved being around young people. I still wanted to influence their lives. I just knew that my vocation was not teaching. I felt that staying in the profession was a disservice to my students and myself. It was no longer an authentic way of communicating who I was and what mattered to me. Maybe it was naïve to quit and get out of the work force, but I wasn’t able to see another way to listen to my heart and I had the privilege of making that choice.

For the next ten years, I found my “deep gladness” being a mother. As a bonus, nothing about that career choice kept me from sharing my “isms.” I didn’t have to hide my personal philosophy from “my students.” I was and still am allowed to teach, preach and even screech what I believe. As a matter of fact, it’s my responsibility to teach them how to be and as a bonus, I get to teach them how to write as well. It is one of the perks of my job, but as a full-time position, it’s rapidly coming to an end. They are all proficient writers, but even more importantly, they are beyond-proficient, decent human beings and so once again I have become uneasy in my “professional” life. While it has brought me “deep gladness,” I believe I can do more to “meet the world’s deep need.”

Though I wasn’t sure what I was “supposed” to do, a few years ago I started to write for an educational non-profit.  I began to speak to different groups when invited and last year, I started this blog. I hear from time to time that it has helped someone to think about how to be in this world and those comments always make me smile, because deep down I know I am still teaching, though maybe not in the traditional sense.

Ironically enough, I recently came across Parker Palmer again, this time in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Though I got it at the library, it is covered in my sticky notes, of different sizes and colors, some for me, some for Tim, and some for my friend T, who reads every great book with me. She already has her own copy on order from Amazon.

In the very first chapter, he lays out a problem many of people face, myself among them.

Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished, or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the ‘integrity that comes from being what you are.

At twenty, I pursued a career in good faith, thinking I knew who I was. At thirty, I took a leap and fully embraced it, but in the smallest terms possible, within the four walls of my home and the four people who lived there. At forty, I am knocking those walls down again, while trying to remain faithful to who I am and the truth I hold within. It is the truth I have learned over the last twenty years of teaching and writing, parenthood and marriage, business and friendship.

I am here to love. I am here to be with people, to support, and to serve them. In my best moments, when I am patient and humble and kind, I am here to help people see for themselves who they are and what they are capable of.

And it doesn’t matter whether I do it in a classroom, or a conference room, on paper, or in person. It is my vocation, “where my deepest gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

What is your vocation? What are you called to do in the biggest terms possible? How are you living it out?

That isn’t a loaded question. I think we all live out our vocation in at least some small way in our lives. It’s what gives us the ability to find joy, to smile and love and ultimately, to carry on, each and every day. 


Leave a Comment

  1. Ali, Ali, Ali…how is it that you express so well what my heart feels? Beautifully written. You just started my Family camp groove with that! See you tomorrow!


  2. So interesting to learn more of your background, Ali. You renew my own sense of vocation after a day in the swimming pool with our daughter and four year old grandson. That is where the call is being lived today. Love, Bev


  3. ALI, I love that you are always open and searching to listen to your heart and soul. It is incredible to observe the ways our lives morph. We can be doing exactly what we wanted to be doing and know we were on our true path and then wake up feeling unsettled and find it is time to take another path. Scary and exciting and what makes our lives rich and unexpected.


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