Growing up In Between: Some Thoughts on Formative Tensions and Vocational Discernment

In an essay entitled “Place and Displacement: Reflections on Some Recent Poetry from Northern Ireland,” Seamus Heaney observes of the people of Ulster that they live in two places: “Each person in Ulster lives first in the Ulster of the actual present, and then in one or other Ulster of the mind.” Just as the two-mindedness of Northern Ireland shaped Heaney’s vocation as a poet, so the conflicts inherent in my native place and upbringing—a tension between the Trailer Park and the Ivory Tower—have fundamentally shaped my vocation and its trajectory. Indeed, my life could well be encapsulated by the only two diplomas I’d ever hang on my office wall if I ever got around to decorating my office, my GED and my PhD. Between these two lie my vocation.

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“Make a living… not a killing”

James Michener’s epic novel on the settlement of Hawaii contains an ominous warning for would-be settlers planning to scratch out a living on some of the world’s youngest, still-forming land.  Just before telling the story of the first Polynesians and their unprecedented sea voyage in the 700’s to discover the Hawaiian Islands, Michener sets the stage for his entire book with two brilliant paragraphs:

Image result for michener hawaii imagesTherefore, men of Polynesia and Boston and China and Mount Fuji and the barrios of the Phillippines, do not come to these islands empty-handed, or craven in spirit, or afraid to starve.  There is no food here.  In these islands there is no certainty.  Bring your own food, your own gods, your own flowers and fruits and concepts.  For if you come without resources to these islands you will perish.

But if you come with growing things, and good foods and better ideas, if you come with gods that will sustain you, and if you are willing to work until the swimming head and aching arms can stand no more, then you can gain entrance into this miraculous crucible where the units of nature are free to develop according to their own capacities and desires.

On these harsh terms the islands waited.

Harsh terms, indeed!  But as I was reading this book during a recent two-week family vacation to Hawaii, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how easy our own journey had been compared to those endured by Michener’s characters.  Delta’s non-stop flight from Atlanta to Honolulu isn’t quite the same as doubling Cape Horn on a six-month journey from Boston in the 1820’s on an 80-foot brig.  And the thought of leaping from the “miraculous crucible” of the academy into any other sort of crucible wasn’t resonating either.  All I wanted to do was catch a few waves on Waikiki Beach and spend some unhurried time with my family.  Continue reading