Recently I spent time with someone who is younger than I am, had a comparable education, and now runs a large organization. Thinking about how his career path has been different than mine raises a host of conflicting feelings in me: gratitude for the richness of the life I’ve experienced so far and frustration that I haven’t accomplished more by what is quite optimistically the middle of my life; an un-Quakerly pride that I never put career ambitions ahead of following a leading, mixed with a desire to be better compensated for work I think is important; an appreciation for the things I’ve learned on this circuitous path, as well as a sense that I want to focus my energy more in the future.
It’s the question of focus that makes this a current issue, not just a reflection on the past. When I look at how I’ve spent my time since my college graduation in 1984, I’ve had at least four different careers, served in the Peace Corps, visited fourteen countries, raised two children as far as middle school, took care of two elderly relatives during the last years of their lives, settled two estates, volunteered extensively on three elections and one national march, showed up to countless marches and vigils, served on two school boards and in two Quaker meetings (currently as assistant clerk), baked a lot of cookies for a range of organizations, organized MLK Day projects, weeded a community garden on Saturdays, and had a host of odd jobs, here and there, that helped pay the bills but not build a career. I arguably have three careers now, though two of them (writing and teaching about spiritual topics) feel pretty compatible and integrated. University teaching has been rewarding (emotionally and intellectually, not monetarily), but it feels like a different life, one I thought about pursuing whole-heartedly in my twenties, but instead decided only to dabble in. And so even though my children are at a relatively easy age and I am no longer caring for aging relatives, I feel my energy is spread thin, diffused in a way that dilutes the influence I might have if I actually focused on one thing. Even allowing for the time I’ve spent caring for family, if I had focused my work outside the home, I think, I could be running a big organization by now, damn it.
Part of what brought this up this semester has been the increased volunteer demands at school. My daughter’s class is currently in Costa Rica, which has meant we’ve been doing a lot of fundraising. I have done much less than others, though I’ve been trying to hold up my end, occasionally taking off work an hour early to supervise the snack stand. Lately I’ve been noticing how much of this work has been carried by mothers and how when there is a need for someone to fill in, it is mostly mothers who get the emails, especially the ones who have volunteered before. At the same time, I’ve been a driver for the 5/6 basketball games where I have come to feel taken for granted, as if it is just assumed that I can take off work at any time to drive to a game because my work must not be that important. I confess this has made me crabby.
It is clear to me that parenting is still one of the primary leadings in my life and that driving to some basketball games is part of that. It’s also clear that I’m lead to work outside of the home, both to use the gifts I’ve been given and to help support the children that are heading with alarming speed toward high school and presumably college. My questions are about balance and focus, particularly in terms of professional and volunteer work. The need to focus more was a big part of what led me to say no to the South Africa trip, the sense that it would be a distraction, another thing diffusing my energy. I’m wondering now what else I might need to say no to, or let go of, in order to focus my energy on what is most essential.