In childhood I flirted briefly with thoughts of becoming a nurse (like Cherry Ames, Student Nurse) or a hockey player. By eighth grade, I wanted to be a cross between Louisa May Alcott and Sylvia Plath, writing my days away and experiencing delicious forms of torment that I could spin into saleable words like some literary Rumplestiltskin. My parents were both teachers, they loved their respective jobs, and it seemed that it would be a fairly natural process to grow older, get into college, and receive some sign (via registered letter or mysterious apparition) of my Right Vocation
Starting in high school, there were many paying jobs. I worked as a cello teacher, a waitress, a retail salesperson and manager, a telephone solicitor, a musician, a law clerk, a lawyer, a temp, a ghostwriter, a caterer, a campaign media liaison, a work study dishwasher, a Montessori classroom aide, a law school tutor, and probably some things I’ve forgotten about. I bailed on the Major Careers. I hated practicing law because of the mountains of deadlines and details and forms, and long after I had left the office I was haunted by the possibility that I had forgotten to file something or missed a point in a brief. Anxiety put paid to my life as a musician; I loved the cello, but became (literally and mortifyingly) sick with fear before every audition and solo performance.
On the other hand, I deeply enjoyed working retail, which was a technically a “filler” job. When I managed a beautiful, upscale store in Boston, the contours of a day were much like those of a protracted dinner party – we chose music from the catalogue of an unbearably hip, gay Dominican employee, spent a half an hour polishing, rearranging, vacuuming and tweaking, and then opened the doors to our “guests,” hoping to beguile them into staying to sample the hand-stuffed blue cheese cocktail olives and admire the Rosenthal “Magic Flute” place settings.
Jobs ended because I moved, started school or got a better position. I was fired only once. Sometimes I had to work, and was obligated to take whatever I could get, and other times I had the luxury of being more selective. Questions persisted: how did people find the right thing to do? How could I struggle to “find myself,” vocationally, when so many millions of people were lucky to find any job at all? Did it matter if the work felt good ethically or if it made the world a better place? Was there some kind of pattern in what felt right to me and what didn’t? Personality and aptitude testing didn’t help; I was alternately an “introvert” and an “extrovert,” split evenly between right and left brainedness, likely to excel as a tax accountant or a poet. Approaching fifty, I felt like an overeducated flake, able to earn money, but unable, ever, to answer the question “what do you do?”
Four months ago I took a leap of faith and accepted a job as Hospitality Coordinator at what used to be “our” church before I went all Buddhist. I am now responsible for a weekly “Wednesday Night Live”dinner for 100 plus members of the Congregation ranging in age from two to ninety, as well as the annual Chicken Dinner, corn dogs for the Carnival, the Ladies’ Advent Tea, stocking bread and grape juice for communion, and, of course, the funerals. I am not a trained cook, just a pretty good home cook, but they trust me with an industrial kitchen with three ovens and pots the size of my Hyundai.
I am constantly planning menus, and poring over cookbooks looking for dishes that will please toddlers and their grandparents, have an easy vegetarian alternative, and don’t cost too much to make. I am becoming a master of recipe multiplication, and skilled at buying enormous bags and boxes of food, ferrying them to the church in my tiny car, and unloading them. I open the doors to the perpetually hot kitchen, turn on the ancient box fans, set up my iPod boom box to blast a steady stream of mood music and I peel, chop, boil, stir, crumble, poach and bake. I take pride in clean counters and tidy rows of pots and spatulas. Before every event I am incredibly nervous, making lists, double checking, doing triage on the ziti that isn’t quite cooked in time, or the sandwiches that got soggy during the extra five speakers at the funeral. I supervise my motley crew of volunteers, giving 5-year-old Stephanie a bag of paper leaves to sprinkle onto the dining tables, and watching Mrs. Wright as she meticulously cuts and plates brownies with her age-raddled hands. They are my people, and I love them.
At every event there is a sweet spot when the food has been served, and I stop to survey the big room full of round, sensible tables with plastic chairs. Everyone is eating, reminiscing, laughing, planning, and finding both literal and figurative nourishment. There are piles of dishes waiting for me, I still need to arrange for leftovers to go to a local shelter, and I’m always sweating and disheveled, but in that moment I know that I have done something good. I have used my intellect, I have used my hands, and I have used my imagination. I have served, I have created pleasure and comfort, and I am fairly tingling with the warmth and kindness of my helpers and “guests.” I am an honest, deep, physical kind of tired, and I can go home to savor a shower and a good night’s sleep. I know that life has led me to that basement kitchen, unplanned, unbidden, but with certainty and grace. It is, after all these years, the work I was meant to do.