Idealized Versions of Vocation

One of my favorite texts, written more than fifty years ago, is The Shape of Content (1957) by Ben Shahn (1898-1969), a Lithuanian-born American artist and a lecturer at Harvard University.  Originally presented as the annual Norton Lectures, The Shape of Content begins with this sentence: “I have come to Harvard with some very serious doubts as to whether I ought to be here at all. I am a painter; I am not a lecturer about art nor a scholar of art. It is my (calling) to paint pictures, not to talk about them.”

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Vocation was always creeping from her room

I recently purchased Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues at a discount book store. I was unfamiliar with the author and picked out the collection of essays because of my interest in topics related to virtues and character. Later, scanning the table of contents, I was pleased to find an essay titled, “My Vocation.” Written in 1949, when she was in her early 30s, the essay traces her development as a serious writer. It’s clear from Ginzburg’s biography that vocation was always creeping from her room, to borrow a phrase from a a Jeff Lynne lyric.

She was born Natalia Levi in 1916 in Sicily; her Jewish father and Catholic mother raised Natalia and her four siblings in Turin. She married Leone Ginzburg when she was 22, and they had three children. After her first husband died in the hands of Fascist torturers she remarried, to Gabriele Baldini in 1950. She moved to Rome and later served as a member of Parliament from the Left Independence Party, and she died in 1991. Her life and work have enjoyed a resurgence of critical interest outside of Italy due to new English translations of her writings.

“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time,” opens the essay. Much of the essay reflects on Ginzburg’s self-awareness of changes in her calling as a writer, as a girl who wrote poems, to an adolescent who created stories more original than her poems, and then, after her children were born, as a mature woman who wrote novels and wrestled with the inevitability of her vocation. The last half of her essay is especially rich; she describes her vocation as beautiful, restless, domineering, saving, dangerous, and finally self-consuming. Ginzburg struggled to find her voice as a woman, she recounts, until she had children, lived through a period of not writing, and then returned to her “beautiful” vocation, writing as if she had never written anything before.

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Poetry as aid to teaching vocation

“Poetry is having (its) moment,” claims Morgan Hines, in a recent USA Today feature. Her article reports the “moment” owes to the pandemic, to a racial reckoning, and to poets Amanda Gorman and Rupi Kaur. Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks poetry may be experiencing a renaissance “coming up from the char,” Hines writes.

I am grateful for a reported surge in popular interest for poetry because I have been using selected poems to teach vocation concepts for many years. Most students think they are poetry-averse, but the right poem, selected and presented as accessible entry to a vocation topic, can be an effective way to complement teaching about vocation.

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Pandemic reflection on a pin oak tree

The requirement to work and teach from home this spring afforded me close observations of goings-on in my small back yard. The daily experiences of watching nature in the yard during this time of pandemic disruption provided quiet means to think about what we can and cannot control in our lives of vocation. Another spring of harsh weather caused me to ponder whether the life of a little pin oak tree might serve as an image of vocation.

Spring 2020 has not been kind to the young pin oak tree I planted more than three years ago. One morning in March, about the time I started working from home, several birds nipped off almost all of the branch tips. I watched them do this, in a matter of minutes, and refrained from intervening because I wasn’t certain whether or not the incident was naturally beneficial to the tree. Almost two months later, in early May, a hard, overnight frost killed all of the tree’s emerging leaves. This particular tree has survived much in its short life.

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