Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Vignettes from What Should I Do With My Life book

I have been reading What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Bronson. It is a series of stories of different people's career paths, people whose paths were not a straight line. It's the kind of book that is good to read just a little at a time, because each story has its own pearl of wisdom, and you need time to digest each one. I just read a few from the beginning of the third section. (There are 8 sections total.) The section starts off with Bronson telling about a particular time in his life. For the past 5 years, he had been working toward an MFA and trying to get his short stories published. One day, he wrote a story that was very different from the stories he usually wrote. It was not about the things serious writers were supposed to write about, but was written from his experience. For years, writing had been laborious. This story flowed quickly from him and was fun to write. He decided he wanted to make it into a novel. Everyone whose opinion he respected told him that this was not the right direction, that his other stories were better. However, it was what he wanted to do, and he pursued it. He got a new agent, finished writing the novel much sooner than he expected, and got it published. It became an international bestseller.

But does it always happen that way? What if the people who gave him advice had been right? Isn't it the case that sometimes the thing that you want to do is not something that anyone else will be interested in paying for?

And is there anything that I love doing the way he loved that kind of writing?

Of the question that is the title of the book, he writes, "Asking the question aspires to end the conflict between who you are and what you do. Answering the question is the way to protect yourself from being lathed into someone you're not."

There's also the story of a young man named Anthony. When he graduated from college, he thought he'd like to be a teacher, but he had a contact in the British Foreign Office, and he chose to take the more prestigious job there, thinking he could always do teaching later. When he was 30, he got sick. Of his illness, Bronson wrote, "His doctor diagnosed him with the Epstein-Barr virus....not a virus that wins the patient much sympathy. It stays dormant in the blood forever, occasionally reactivating in times of stress." This part of course interested me, because it's the same thing that I may have.

Anthony's college friend and his father had both died, so he had experienced the fact that lives can end unexpectedly. While he was sick, the question that he asked himself was, "If I were to make an early exit from this world, what will I feel worst about not getting done?" For him, the answer was to go home to Britain and become a teacher at a school attended by children from low income families. What would my answer be? The first thing would be spending more time with my family. Other things would be compiling the family history information I have, meeting some of the distant relatives whom I don't know (mainly the descendents of Philip Bailey), visiting the places my ancestors lived in Maine, and spending more time outside.


On the way to and from work, I walk past the hydrangeas. At this time of year, the green leaves are growing, but there are no flowers. As I see how the leaves have been growing, it makes me happy, because I know flowers on the way. Sometimes the anticipation of something brings happiness as much as the thing itself.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Parker Palmer interview

In an interview with Chel Avery, Parker Palmer says, "no matter what punishments come down on you for living out your own identity and integrity, and punishments do come, you have to understand eventually that no punishment could be worse than the punishment you lay on yourself by conspiring in your own diminishment." He also describes Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet as saying, "Keep asking your questions but don't expect to get answers to them. Because the questions are too big. Live those questions. The point is to live everything, and one distant day without even knowing it, you may find that you've lived your way into an answer."