Recently, at the recommendation of a dear friend with whom I go way back (way back), I read Emily P. Freeman’s The Next Right Thing.
My friend recommended this book a few months ago, after I’d been making a little quiet fuss for a while about not being sure about my long-term plans. The book sat on my total chaos bookshelf (the one where new arrivals languish horizontally, their spines not even showing, no doubt shortening my librarian boyfriend’s lifespan every time he glances at the horror) for a month or two.
I picked it up just in time for reading it to coincide with a Big Freakout. Isn’t it funny how that often happens? The universe senses a freakout coming and throws a tiny life preserver out into it. Or maybe I was providing for myself, sensing the brewing eruption. Either way, I was tearing through it on the metro on my way to and from work, waiting for inspiration to strike, waiting for Emily to tell me what to do with my life.
Spoiler: the book doesn’t do that. If you ever find one that does, please send it to me immediately.
And don’t we all think we want that book? A recent poll I saw on Amy Young’s Instagram story had 95% of responders feeling stuck. So there’s nearly all of us in our own private occasional freakouts, wanting someone to come give us a little pull or shove, get us un-stuck.
In parachutes Emily, like a firefighter into the wildfire of my panic, bearing short chapters, each of which is a little inspiration, a little way in to the unknown. She dropped a few buckets of calm water onto me with each chapter.
One, in particular, has stuck with me. Remembering a time she was trying to zhuzh up her garden, Emily tells us her strategy: “Pick what you like, and see how it grows.” You don’t have to have the whole vision for the garden. You don’t have to have all the research done about how each plant will fare in each corner. You don’t have to know how it will work over the winter. You just have to pick what you like, and see how it grows.
Reader, that little line is part of why I’m writing this now. I’d been unsure of how to go forward in my life, how to find my vocation, as though it were some kind of prize hidden under some disguise in some unknown spot, and if I only knew how to find it it would be waiting for me. But it’s not like that. It’s all right in front of me, right in my hands and my head and my heart, because in every moment I can pick what I like and see how it grows. So in this blog, I’m picking what I like and writing about it, and we’ll see where we get.
Even at risk of beating this poor metaphor to death, I’m starting to think of everything in my life as a little seed being scattered. Every conversation, email, interaction with a stranger, passing thought, scrolled-by post, is a seed being scattered across my mind. Some seeds grow. These I chase down, researching further or noting down for future reference, or I get them stuck in my mind and can’t stop thinking or talking about them. Some don’t. These I immediately forget, even if I’d rather not, and I might require reminding. When I notice that something didn’t stick, maybe instead of worrying I’ve done something wrong, or telling myself I should buckle down and force myself to be more interested–maybe I can shift this. Maybe the seed fell on the wrong soil, or it was the wrong seed for the soil, or something. Maybe I can let it go.
And maybe I should save my attention for the seeds that did take root. Sr. Joan Chittister, who has literally written the book on vocation (well, a book on vocation), reminds us of Honoré de Balzac’s words: “Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn’t, bleed, like colors, on the whole of our existence.” Not to light a fire under planting that garden, but it’s worth considering. You may as well do the things you like. Not doing so can have disastrous results.
I’m also going to be gentle with myself about what doesn’t grow, and about what I don’t pick in the first place. For example, here I am writing about The Next Right Thing, rather than Autumn. I liked Autumn, perhaps a little less than I liked another of Ali Smith’s books, How to be Both, but I did like it. Yet as I was reading it, and especially as I thought about writing about it, there was this nagging suspicion that I was being dense, not understanding it on some level that would be obvious to most. So how do I pick what I like and see how it grows? For one thing, by not forcing myself to write about Autumn if I don’t want to. (As it happens, I’ve read more about it now and I think I do “get” it; I just don’t have anything in particular to say about it, and that’s fine.) (Another side note: is this not a terribly Enneagram-9 problem to have, worried that my very thoughts and preferences are wrong?)
Now, when you find what you like, is it guaranteed to grow? Absolutely not. Nor are my tastes guaranteed to stay the same. But just as Emily parachuted into my life with little morsels of wisdom, I’m realizing that there’s no mega-parachuter coming with All The Answers. Or, at least, it’s highly unlikely. So instead I’ll just be down here in my garden, picking what I like each day, and watering it, and seeing how it grows.
A note on the book: Emily comes from what I would call an evangelical Christian background, and the book is pretty religious in its orientation. It might not be for everyone (especially those who don’t particularly want to hear about Jesus or read gospel quotations.)