Sunday, April 11, 2010

In the Birdcage, part 1

"The way to open the door of the birdcage is to affirm yourself as an artist and a writer," the vocational counselor offered as we sat in his wide-roomed old farmhouse in central Massachusetts.

The birdcage image was mine, and when I consider that this meeting took place in 1997 I am a bit stunned to realize that it was firmly in place even that far back.  Clearly I had mentioned it to Bill, the counselor. For at least ten years, it seems, it was the dominant metaphor I used to describe how I felt about my professional life. Over time the metaphor got more and more elaborate, which might suggest that my stuckness was bordering on the pathological.

I was a bird in a birdcage (as best I could tell, the cage was parish ministry) desperately trying to get out. I was spending a lot of energy flapping against the bars of the cage getting battered and bruised and never quite getting out. From time to time I would be inspired by some new interest that helped me forget my entrapment (a new approach to Sunday School, or a new book by my favorite spiritual writer, or the whole intriguing realm of historical Jesus research--these come to mind).

In the midst of whatever new passion or interest had captured my attention, I would flap happily in the cage, even launching myself into flight, flying higher and higher until . . . WHAM! I would reach the upper limits of my caged space, hit the bars, and land with a flop on the bottom on the cage. Dazed and discouraged, I would resettle my feathers, pick myself up, and eventually start the cycle again.

For five months in 1997 David and I enjoyed the gift of a four month sabbatical and our annual one month of vacation from parish ministry. That made a total of five consecutive months off during which we would continue to be paid our modest shared salary while we pursued refreshing activities (sabbaticals are related to the idea of sabbath rest).

Before we started, my official sabbatical plan was to finish up the long distance Montessori teacher training that I had begun the previous fall but had gotten bogged down in almost immediately. My progress had been really slow. My initial interest had been piqued by the enjoyment and fascination I always felt when visiting the "modified" Montessori preschool that my daughters had attended (Anna was still there). When the parish had undertaken a new approach to children's Christian education that was based on the work of Maria Montessori, I saw a way to make a connection between the two (and maybe also to pave the way for another kind of "ministry" in the world?).

On the first night of our sabbatical, a Sunday evening, as David and I had settled into our reading in bed ritual, I began a book that had been loaned to us at the last minute by a parishioner who thought we would enjoy it--Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I was hooked by the end of the first page of the introduction, and by the next morning I had decided to ditch the Montessori sabbatical project and see what would happen if I wrote for at least an hour every day, except on weekends.  By day five of the sabbatical, I had received a flyer in the mail for a drawing class called "Learning to See," using exercises from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and signed myself up right away.

But there was another "project" going on behind all of this, one that felt really essential to my being. In anticipation of the sabbatical, I had knowingly defied all customary wisdom against doing such things during a sabbatical and engaged the services of a seasoned vocational counselor well before the start of our five month leave.

Bill (not his real name) sent me a battery of tests to be taken at home, then mailed back for scoring and analysis; after reading through and responding to the hefty booklet of test results and narrative reports, I was to make a date to meet with him in the Massachusetts farmhouse where he lived with his wife, who bred and raised English Bull Mastiffs.

I attacked the taking of those tests with zeal and curiosity. All those possibilities! There were so many kinds of work that seemed to appeal to me--for instance, nearly everything art or creativity related: graphic design, architecture, fine art, singing, composing music, conducting an orchestra, journalism, writing almost anything.  And there were plenty of occupations that did not appeal to me at all.

From the reports and analysis of my test results I learned, among other things, that I had a lot of "vocational energy". I think that means that I was very restless and probably also quite confused, neither of which was exactly news to me. More than anything, my zeal reflected a lively (desperate?) hope that I would learn something new, that something would become clear about another way of being in the world, especially another way of earning a living, and that I would find the practical way forward.

Unfortunately, Bill was at a point in his career when he was no longer doing that practical way forward part; he would do the testing and give his best considered and intuitive response, then send me on my way and retire to his study to write. I knew that when I started and decided it was worth the risk. He came highly recommended.

When I finally drove to central Massachusetts, it felt rather like a journey to a wise guru of some sort--I was a pilgrim in search of a teacher or a shrine, maybe the Holy Grail, and of course the grail was buried somewhere in myself. But I really wished hard that my guide and guru could make the search a little easier for me. Or maybe even a lot!

Bill ushered me into the farmhouse parlor, wearing a beat up old sweater and scuffing along in slippers. From his days as a career counselor at Harvard assisting students seeking conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, he had developed a system in which he kept no written notes (nothing to be subpoenaed by the authorities that way), but he seemed to have retained strong impressions about me in his memory, which he set into action by asking to glance briefly over my booklet of test results when we first sat down.

First question: "How comfortable are you owning your rather considerable intellectual capacities?"

I squirmed in my seat before answering sheepishly, "Not very."

We talked about that a while, and then he launched his next line of inquiry: "I want to underscore how essential it is to your well being to honor the fact that you are such a strong introvert. How well do you do with honoring that?" (On the Myers-Briggs typology, I'm almost off the chart on the introvert side of the line, and this has been true every one of the gazillion or so times I've taken the "inventory".)

Me, squirming more: "Um, well, I try but I'm probably not all that successful."

He: "Someone as strongly introverted as you probably needs a minimum of an hour of uninterrupted silence every day, like silent meditation or something like that, or you will be living with seriously high stress. And you would probably be happier if more of your work were done alone." And a while later he volunteered: "I can understand why parish ministry would not feel very well suited to who you are."

We talked easily for ninety minutes or more--it's amazing how fascinating it can be to hear someone speak about your very own self with so much insight!--and when I glimpsed the time on my watch, I wondered when he would deliver his "verdict" and hand me his vocational prescription for what I should do with my life from here.

When he finally started in, I was on full alert.

"Here are the top three things I think you would be wise to pursue, in descending order:

"First, I think you would enjoy and do well teaching in a seminary." (I noted a flutter of excitement and genuine intrigue rise in my chest. We discussed the slight hurdle of my not having a PhD that would qualify me to do so, almost as if it were no big deal or easy enough to find some way around.)

"Second, I could imagine you teaching religion at the college level." (Some excitement and intrigue, though a little less, and still there was the PhD thing to consider.)

"Third, you and David could relocate to a new parish in a university town or some other more stimulating intellectual and cultural area." (This did not feel very life-giving to me at all, more like a lead weight in my gut.)

"And finally," he began (Wait! I thought he was only giving three recommendations; I was confused.), "if you should win the lottery, I think you should write."

Fireworks of joy exploded in my chest! Somehow I managed to contain myself to listen while he continued.

"I think you should try to give yourself an apprenticeship of sorts, maybe find a writing mentor to work with. Really hone your craft. And I think you'd be great at spiritual writing."

I admit that not all of that sounded exciting to me--finding a mentor, honing my craft-- but overall when I said goodbye and drove my way back to Maine, I was ecstatic! I should write! I should write! He thinks I should write!

And I had his advice about liberation from the birdcage ringing in my ears: "The way to open the door of the birdcage is to affirm yourself as an artist and a writer."


Connie said...

That bird in the cage is both artist and writer and is flying free--yea!

Sukie Curtis said...

Yeah, indeed! It only took me about 13 years to get there! :)

Cori Lynn Berg said...

Sukie, you know when you have a serendipitous moment where the arm on your arms raises? That was reading this post today. First, I was excited to see more writing about your change in vocation. After leaving church work a year ago.. it's still always on my mind.. I'm still finding my way.. still confused. Glad that you are still thinking after 13 years! Secondly..I just recommended Bird by Bird to someone a few minutes ago. Thirdly, I'm assuming you were referring to the Godly Play children's ministry? I was an early childhood educator... Fourth.. i remember reading the Betty Edwards book too...
Can't wait to read the second half of this story...

Sukie Curtis said...

Wow, Cori Lynn, that is a LOT of threads in common! How amazing...

Yes, it was Godly Play (though I started with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd by reading The Religious Potential of the Child)!

And Betty Edwards.

What I remember most that first time reading Bird by Bird, as David and I were reading side by side in bed (he another book), is that I kept interrupting him with my chortles and out and out laughter, and sometimes really interrupting him to say, "I've got to read this page to you!"

THanks for commenting. And by the way, I don't think part 2 is necessarily the completion of the birdcage. Just where I decided to stop along the way!