“They told us that in the 90s that thousands of professors would be retiring, so anthropology would be a good field,” Ken told me the other day after he ran into a good friend from his anthropology days at K.U.
“Same thing for English too,” I told him, then we started laughing, so lucky that neither of us had bought that line, despite it being the common thinking of the day. As many of us know, especially people who spent seven, eight, ten years getting doctorates in fields like anthropology and English, herds of professors did retire, only to be largely replaced with adjuncts who now, according to common statistics of the day, compose up to 75% of many university’s faculty while often living on poverty-level wages.
Our conversation made me think of how the common thinking of the day, what “they” say about what will happen, sometimes can lead us down the rabbit hole to a whole lot of nothing. Because of such thinking, I went to journalism school in 1979, convinced by my father and many other people that the only choice I had as a poet was to go into advertising or journalism. It turns out that I didn’t go for journalism (I got thrown out of the school with only one course to go for my degree and left instead with a history degree), but to land in the Midwest, where I found my true home, community, future husband and close friends. I think I was following an instinct beneath what I thought were my plans, which were to simply get a journalism degree, return to Jersey, and live near the shore while writing for a local newspaper by day, for myself by night.
Other experiences of following what people say didn’t always turn out as well. When, from 1983-85, I was coordinator of a non-profit in trying to coordinate and advocate for all the social service agencies in Lawrence, I listened to what people said about our funding, supported by a government grant program, drying up soon. Our board decided that we needed to take the risk of not applying for that grant, and instead, work with the city and county to fund us. Everything was lined up — we had the support of most of the city and county commissioners at the time — and the county quickly approved its half of the funding. Then something happened — a backroom deal to purposely collapse us, I suppose (I never found out for sure) — and funding vanished. Our group ended, I was out of a job, and that government grant program that was supposed to end in 1985? It’s still going.
I’ve had myriad other such experiences, all of which show me how what people say is going to happen often doesn’t happen or happen the way we think it will. Grabbing hold of the future is like trying to catch a greased fish. In the end, and the beginning and middle too, what keeps coming back to me is how important is to talk to ourselves, to actually converse with our whims, notions and inklings, particularly the ones that won’t go away no matter how much logic we throw at them. Altogether, I consider these to be callings, what we are meant to do, and what we can divine by listening hard, talking back, finding where we’re led by taking the next step.
Ken didn’t go to graduate school for anthropology no matter how much he loved the field. Because he planned to not leave the area, and being an academic means traveling the university freak show to find a tenure-track place, if you’re lucky, to settle, he instead ran a lawn service, made tofu for a living, and when we decided to have children, went back to school for a degree in occupational therapy. He spends his days building and modifying wheelchairs for people, and helping those with developmental disabilities live with greater meaning and dignity. In his own way, he lives anthropology.
I did go for the doctorate in English, but not because I planned to throw myself on the academic job market afterwards. I just kept feeling, even when I failed my comps and needed to take some time out, that I was supposed to do this. When I asked myself why, I only got this animal sense that this way. It was. Had I not gotten the Ph.D., I would have never been able to teach at Goddard College, where I’ve found my people, deepened my calling, and learned so much working intensively with passionate people working to change the world. Had I not landed at Goddard, it’s doubtful I would have helped found Transformative Language Arts, which brings me into community with so many inspiring and wise people and communities who use the arts for healing, growth, connection, and social change. I was following a whim, and it led to some of my life’s work.
When people ask me if they should go to graduate school, move across the country for a job, have a baby, leave a relationship, I try to remember that conventional wisdom often has little to do with our callings. “What is your life asking you to do?” I might say, remembering the value of simply talking to ourselves as well as listening.