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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Exporting Vocation

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What messages are we exporting?

Several months ago I had lunch with a former student who was in the process of looking for work, having been downsized out of a position as content-creator for an online journal. She was weighing the merits of moving to a larger city against staying in the mid-sized town she loves, while saving costs by splitting her time (and living arrangements) between her parents’ home and a friend’s apartment where she helped with utility bills.  As it happens, we were sitting in a small restaurant in a beautiful, economically fragile, small city in Eastern Europe, but our conversation could have occurred in the United States. In fact, it could have occurred anywhere that a country or a region of a country (the Midwest of the United States, let’s say) has been hit by the Great Recession and a weak recovery, by the loss of jobs, by the departure of college-age and professional people for better work opportunities and social infrastructure elsewhere, and by a sense among those who remain that the past was better than the present and that opportunities for meaningful work are rare.  Opportunities for work, meaningful or not, were, in fact, what my friend was seeking.

And this leads me to the conversation that sits at the heart of this post.  My young friend, who had kindly met me at a little restaurant near my hostel before catching a bus to her family home, told me that she had been moved by my enthusiasm and obvious love for teaching when we had shared a classroom years earlier, she as a student and I as a Fulbright Scholar. At that time, I had expressed gratitude for and joy in the work I did in a way that so struck her that it remained a memory when the particulars of our classroom discussions had faded. She said to me over our hot and staggeringly intense coffees, “I want to find work that means as much to me as your work does to you.” Continue reading