I recently gobbled down the new “authorized biography” of Eugene Peterson, A Burning in My Bones, by Winn Collier. It was superb; everyone who has ever appreciated the voice of The Message should read this book. One of the themes that Collier tracks was Peterson’s choice of a professional career. He started his working days at 5 years of age in his father’s butcher shop where he polished the glass cases, swept sawdust from the floor, carried out the trash, and pushed chunks of beef into the big meat grinder. Several years later he was given a razor sharp knife and learned to carve meat. As a grown man, Peterson debated back and forth between being “an academic,” a pastor, or a writer. Eventually after his retirement from the first two, he spent his days writing – including The Message – and talking and listening to people from everywhere and from all walks of life.
The story of Peterson’s life-long choices of vocation prompted my reminiscing about my own work journey. Like Peterson, I had jobs when I was still in elementary school or teen-ager, the first of which was picking blueberries. I was a rank amateur compared to the migrants I was working with (even the 10 and 12 year-olds) who were faster pickers than I was). But I learned the value of working as hard as I could all day long. I prided myself on a “clean” bucket – meaning no leaves or green berries. If I couldn’t be the fastest picker, I could at least deliver a bucket of fresh blue berries. My second job as an early teen was as a summer baby-sitter for two young cousins all day five days a week. To be honest, I was not ready for such a responsibility, but we all survived.
Like Peterson who as a child and teen idolized his preacher mother and dreamed of following in her footsteps, I began thinking early about what I would do when I grew up. When I was about 8, my parents got tickets to “Beat the Clock” a popular TV game show in New York City. We were chosen to be contestants, probably because, my parents said, I was the only child in the audience. When the host “interviewed” me, he complimented my red purse and then asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I looked up solemnly at him and said, “A missionary.” He almost dropped the microphone. The audience applauded which gave him time to recover his composure
In 8th grade civics we were given the assignment to research three careers we were interested in. I chose teacher, librarian, and, again, missionary. In the summer between my junior and senior year as a member of Future Teachers of America, I spent 6 weeks on the campus of Northwestern University learning and practicing what it meant to be a teacher. By the time I started college, my future occupation was a foregone conclusion. My grandmother and my mother were teachers; all three sisters and my brother eventually became teachers or trainers.
BEGINNING A CAREER
My first and last public school teaching job was about 30 miles from my home, I was hired to teach grammar and writing to 7th and 8th graders. A college classmate was hired to teach literature, so we spent three years commuting together. As the youngest and newest teachers, we joined the new social studies teacher (also a first year teacher) in experimenting with what years later was called “team teaching.” I was only 20 and an easy mark for 14-year-olds who once put a dead gopher in my desk drawer, but I loved the work the three of us did together. Unfortunately, the older teachers thought that combining a reading assignment in Literature about an event that was being taught in Social Studies and writing about it in English class was pretty ridiculous. All three of us got M.A. degrees during those three year, but we were pretty soured on teaching. The literature teacher got a job in a community college and eventually became a college president, the social studies teacher got a job in the newly forming teacher’s union in Michigan, and I joined The Church Herald, the denominational magazine of the Reformed Church in America as the “rewrite editor.” None of us taught in public schools again
MOVING AND GROWING
So began 45 years of wandering from job to job – most of them very new to me – and learning something from each of them. After three years on the editorial staff, I resigned to stay home with two small children until I needed something more. That something ended up being the assistant to the director of a brand new mission in Holland, the Good Samaritan Center (which still exists and does wonderful work in the community). I eventually headed up an adult literacy program and spent summers in migrant camps directing English as a Second Language classes and supervising activities for migrant children. I became very interested in Adult Literacy and began a Laubach Literacy Program training adults to teach reading and speaking English to other adults.
Soon my first husband became interested in being a high school principal and we moved to two different cities in southern Michigan for his job. In Imlay City, I volunteered to begin a volunteer program that tutored children. In Lapeer, I was hired to teach Reading in an adult high school. This program allowed adults of all reading levels to study reading for high school credit. I soon learned that many of them were not even close to reading on a high school level. So I began recruiting and training volunteers to come in to the class and help those who were reading under the sixth grade level.
Eventually I saw that this approach produced much better results. I resigned my teaching position, took all my volunteers, and started the Lapeer County Volunteer Tutors Association, an adult literacy program which eventually became the Family Literacy Center which still exists. I left after 20 years of learning how to raise money including writing applications for local, state and federal grants, how to do promotion and publicity including public speaking, how to work with a board of directors, how to test and diagnosis reading problems, how to motivate tutors and learners – and on and on.
DESPERATION: FROM JOB TO JOB
Now began a period of time when jobs were sought out of financial desperation – and each of them taught me something valuable. Several months after I quit the Family Literacy Center, my new husband had to leave his computer job because of illness. Suddenly I had to be the sole earner. I was attempting to start a business called Terra Nova with a partner. We were training people (particularly in government agencies) in the leadership principles of Stephen Covey, as expressed in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People which had been extremely helpful to me. That business was growing and well supported in by the community, but it wasn’t making enough money to support me and my partner. So we closed down the business.
My next job was filling in as a church secretary for several months, I hated it, especially typing church bulletins! But it brought in steady money.
When that ended, I pitched a book title to a religious publishing company which had a line of books for new adult readers. (I had already written two novels for adult new readers for New Reader’s Press.) The editor loved it and bought the rights to it for $500; I wrote the book in a month – just in time to pay the next month’s rent. Then I got a third-shift stocking job at Meijer which lasted for about 4 months; I couldn’t stand the irregular schedule of the night shift. Next I did a garage sale that brought in $500 because we sold one of my husband’s old computers.
Now what? Fred was still sick and was beginning the process of applying for SSI (Supplemental Security Income) but that looked like a long process. I needed something permanent. I started looking at want ads in the Flint Journal. I found a job with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society as a volunteer administrator. The base of the Michigan MS Society was in Southfield, MI, but this was a part time opening that covered Flint, Saginaw, Bay City, and as far north as Alpena. I could work from my home in Lapeer. In that position, I supervised educational programming and self-help groups for people with MS and their families and trained volunteers for a variety of programming positions.
Unfortunately, this part-time job did not pay enough, so I went back to the Flint Journal Help Wanted ads and found a position with the U of M Social Research Center interviewing welfare mothers as part of a three-year study which I could do on my own time (mostly nights and weekends). In this job, I learned about implicit bias, about flawed welfare programs, about the strength of welfare mothers. I also learned how to supervise other interviewers on long-distance conference calls – harder than ZOOM calls. I also worked on a mental health study which required driving to suburbs of Detroit for interviews. This gave me a whole new understanding of how poor women are treated (or not) by mental health laws and organizations.
Eventually we left Flint and went back to Holland where I commuted to Grand Rapids now as a full-time as a Senior Manager for the MS Society in the West Michigan area. Of course I needed a second job, so I found a job at Hope College (my alma mater) supervising college students who were calling high school seniors who had showed interest in Hope College to promote the college. I worked in Grand Rapids until about 4:30 and then drove back to Holland and supervised the calling program.
At this point in my life, I had become totally fascinated with and absorbed by the principles of spiritual formation. I decided to retire from the MS Society at age 64 and 1/2 and apply for a Master’s of Spiritual Formation Program at Spring Arbor College. The program was informally affiliated with Richard Foster and the Renovare Program which made it very enticing. Of course, I had no money, but members of my spiritual formation group funded my first life-changing year. When it became clear at the end of the first year that I could not financially continue the program, I met with the Adult Discipleship director at my church and we began a process of revitalizing that program. I eventually began working part-time as a volunteer and when he retired I became the Director of Spiritual Formation for about three years. My last job!
I learned a lot from reading about Eugene Peterson’s tussle with careers. He loved being a pastor but didn’t always agree with church administration priorities and certainly did not want to spend his time on “church growth.” He loved teaching, but it didn’t leave him time for writing. While he was writing, he missed the stimulation of the academic world. When he was employed by a university, he missed the pastoring – sitting and listening to his congregation members. Eventually a longing for home (Montana) and a quieter life . . . and the desire to complete his book ideas . . . and the possibility of writing The Message! led him to settle on a career of writing and some speaking which he pursed until his death.
My path was full of twists and turns that I really didn’t see as related, until I wrote this very long (probably too long) summary of my career. My biggest take-away is that God was always in and around and above and below and opposite me -leading me, giving me empathy and teaching me hope and helping me recognizing that nothing he gave me or taught me was wasted.
Here are some specifics about what I learned:
As difficult as it was to support myself and my husband for nearly 30 years, God always provided. I didn’t like working third shift or keeping church attendance or driving to Warren for an interview or trying to keep college-level readers motivated in a class full of elementary level reading students, or asking companies or foundations for money, or speaking to Rotary groups. But it was work. And it paid. And we survived.
Every job I had required me to use all my skills, to pray for bravery, to adapt my teaching style, to get along with people from all backgrounds, of all races, of all levels of leadership and all personality strengths and weaknesses. I used my interest and skills in writing in every job I ever had: newsletters, board reports, promotional articles, newspaper articles, books for new adult readers, grant writing and on and on.
Every job I had required interaction with people, my worst nightmare as an introvert. But I was able to enjoy almost every interaction I had with young and old and especially connected with “the least of these.” When I let go of my fear and nerves, the Holy Spirit stepped in.
I was nervous and afraid while looking for all these jobs and in the learning processes of tasks beyond my experience for most of these 45 years. I was often stymied, but I l could learn way more than I expected from myself. And there was always someone who could teach me, if I just asked. All of my gifts for organizing and teaching and writing and goal setting were useful in any job I had. I taught junior high English in public schools and reading and GED material to jail inmates, and the seven habits of successful people to Department of Social Services staff and how to deal with dyslexia to volunteer tutors. I led board members through goal setting sessions and tutors through workshops on teaching reading skills, and church members through numerous spiritual formation classes and retreats.
I am now a still-sad widow who has multiple health issues and a limited income. I doubt if I will have another job; sometimes it’s too tiring to even write a post like this. But I have learned in 78 years of living that with God’s help and guidance and the support of friends, and with a personality that has learned to adapt and accept and try harder and forgive more easily, that each day’s challenges can be met and life in God’s kingdom on earth will go on until I am called to “slip these earthly bonds” and move into the eternal Kingdom.