Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Feeling Gravity's Pull

There is a great scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the astronauts and Houston realize that they can use the gravitational momentum provided by going around the moon to propel themselves back through the void of space and on toward Earth. Without the extra burst of momentum gained from a close pass of the moon it is unlikely the astronauts would have made it back to Earth.
While running this morning the image of that little module using the invisible but powerful force of gravity to its advantage struck me as a great and guiding image for this part of my life. While having dinner with new friends last night we each took a turn telling how we had chosen our career paths. One said he had no choice—music has been his calling since he was young and nothing else has ever felt right. The other spoke in different terms of the same idea—singing is a calling for her, a vocation about which she does not have much of a choice.
When it was my turn to spill, I told them that I had not felt anything as clear and defining as a calling. After college I had many jobs. In most of those jobs, I was teaching somebody about something. The “somebodies” and the “somethings” changed from job to job, but the fact that I was teaching remained constant. There were sixth graders in Massachusetts learning about the environment, high schoolers in Montana learning how to dig fence post holes and pack for a three-day hike in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Yemenis learning English, ninth graders learning how to read Shakespeare, and pre-schoolers learning the alphabet and where not to wipe their boogers.
When I hit thirty and felt like I needed to choose a path of some sort, I naturally settled on teaching. It was a calling I came to in retrospect. As I took stock and looked at what I had done with myself after college, I saw a narrative thread that I hadn’t even realized was there. Noticing that thread and then following it through all my experiences suddenly turned a seemingly-directionless stretch of ten years into a cohesive series of jobs and opportunities leading inexorably toward getting certified to teach. Turned out I was on a path and didn’t even know it.
But the patterns that work in the past aren’t always the most helpful in the future. In the past, my decision-making process has been instinctive, emotional, and haphazard. And it has led me to some amazingly rich experiences. But at 42 years old, I feel like I have a choice to make. So far I have been cruising through life without a lot of agency in my own life. After college I leapt out into the world by joining the Peace Corps and going to Yemen. This set me in motion through a particular part of the solar system where I was pulled by the gravity of some pretty amazing people, places, and opportunities, subtly altering my course in response to their influences.

But now I feel like those astronauts on Apollo 13. I want to claim some measure of control over my direction of travel. I want and need to become more conscious about how I use the influence of the people and experiences in my life. I want to do the math and pick an angle of approach to the rest of my life and make some things happen rather than simply responding to what happens. It feels like a time for some changes and I want to have a say in what those changes are. I want to take the accumulated gravity of everything I have learned and use it to consciously aim myself at my future. Here’s hoping it is a wild ride.

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