I feel and hear the contradiction between living one’s life’s purpose and earning a living as a louder and louder drumbeat in many people’s lives at this point in our society where living in a way friendlier to the earth is linked to our survival and where mechanics of working toward peaceful coexistence seem to be challenging the expensive, corporate, outdated machinery of war more and more. From a purely practical and less hug a tree standpoint, when the world’s most expensive and largest military proposes huge cuts along with the rest of the pillars of American society (education, manufacturing, medicine, etc.), then you know the top of the food chain is facing the music with everyone else – that our way of life is unsustainable.
Yesterday on my 5-mile hike at Ebey’s Landing in 40 mile per hour winds, the kind you can lean into and be supported, the kind helpful at your back when you are less than your peak shape and going uphill, I was reflecting on how to come to terms with the question I wake up with each day “what is my life purpose?” It seems precious few of us have the training, coaching, insight, opportunity to have our spirit/heart/mind intersect with earning a living, but when you see people living this way, you know it a mile away. The light that shines from them is so bright, you need shades.
The first question most life coaches ask (I can’t afford one, just read about them in library books) is: “Over your lifetime what is it you were doing that made you feel truly alive with your whole being?” And then they teach you steps toward making THAT be your path of earning a living.
When I was in college, I had a pivotal experience. I think of a pivotal experience as being one you return to again and again and learn something new from through time. I had just made the decision I did not want to spend my life alone in a practice room at a keyboard to be a performing musician, and wanted to experience all the world had to offer me outside that room/stage, so I transferred from a music conservatory to a school in Portland, Oregon with the intent of being a Biology major. I ended up becoming an English major instead, but the school had a program called College Outdoors. This allowed students to go on outdoor treks, use their financial aid/work study toward equipment and travel on Spring/Winter/Summer breaks, and have a skillful guide at the helm. The director of the program was one such guide, but sometimes guides for 2-week trips would be Sierra Club guides.
My first 2-week journey with College Outdoors was driving to Mexican Hat, Utah and rafting the length of the San Juan River, hiking side canyons from base camps. For some people, this kind of thing may have been simply an exercise in being away from “civilization,” group dynamics, and an outing. For me, this first of too many to count outdoor trips was life changing, transcendent, and empowering. I was carrying more fear with me on that first day of setting up camp than our river raft’s gear. I had spent my high school years in a back brace unable to participate in sports, had always thought of myself as so asthmatic I’d never be able to do anything physically challenging, and yet everything in me wanted to do this. When I discovered I did not need my asthma inhalers to be able to climb 6 miles up a canyon sidewall with a pack and was able to keep up with my fit fellow students, I realized my fear was the only thing truly holding me back. Hearing a canyon wren’s song ricochet off walls from the river below, watching sun rise with a range of changing sandstone colors so brilliant you can almost “see” a symphony, sleeping in a high dry river bed in full moonlight are some of the memories I still carry. That and being encouraged by 2 women in their 60s along with our student group who could see this 19-year-old struggled with self-confidence, telling me “You don’t know your own strength. You are capable of anything.”
These memories bring tears to my eyes now because I realize I have choices of how to spend my time while here on earth, and I have spent the past 17 years doing work that requires me to be alone at a keyboard in front of a computer screen. That’s my skill set: Self-discipline, listening, and accurate keyboarding with fingers that fly like the wind.
My daughter is finally at an age of self-reliance and independence where I can take a job outside the home, but as I look at my options of clerical office jobs I consider the one thing consistent with my heart/spirit involving the job I do – freedom from other people’s standards of how I dress, how I talk, how I am. For several years I bused to work in downtown Seattle, so I know the whole nylon and skirt wearing office dance. Even then I found a way to get a good walk in – I wore tennis shoes (thanks Patty Murray), carried my dress shoes, and walked from 1st Avenue up ten vertical blocks over the freeway overpass to “pill hill” to work in a medical clinic. But now that I have become accustomed for 10 of my 17 years as a medical transcriptionist to working from home, a shift to a dress and behavior code will be challenging. I will do it if I must, and maybe I must.
I pray each day for guidance toward something that would allow me to make a living being in the natural world, because when I am in solitude in nature are the times I feel the least alone, the most supported, and fully alive. I know nature is not always “supportive,” so I would like to take a course in emergency wilderness medicine before I attempt longer solo treks. That requires money, so I will wait. For now, I am grateful to live in a place that allows me to walk out my door on a daily basis and go somewhere in the woods or even a tree-lined 2-lane road. Maybe that’s the best I can do with my life purpose so far.