Four days after I turned three, my sister was born. I was young enough to be confused and anxious about what was going on. My mother had grown large and then abruptly disappeared from our apartment, where I was left with a sitter. This all took place in the days when hyper-sensitivity about germs and infections kept small children out of hospitals. A couple of days later my father drove me to the back of the hospital in his 1957 Thunderbird convertible, the car my mother would make him relinquish in favor of a sedan that would accommodate two growing children.
Standing on a thin strip of grass between the parking lot and the hospital wall, I looked up and saw my mother leaning out of a second-story window, assuring me with a smile that she was well and that she would soon return home with my sister. Then she dropped a brightly wrapped package out of the window. In my memory it seems to tumble through the air in slow motion. Opening it, I discovered a Popeye Printing Set, complete with orange rubber stamps, an inkpad, and paper. The next thing I recall is playing with it in the bathroom of our apartment. Because it involved ink, I was only allowed to play with it there. Even now I see myself balancing the whole kit precariously on the edge of the sink, fearing that at any moment it would slip and skitter across the room.
There were stamps with crude pictures of Popeye, Olive Oyl, and the other characters from the cartoon strip along with letters and numbers. A strange joy crept over me as I arranged them in pleasing patterns on sheet after sheet of paper.
Not long after that, we moved to New York City. When she needed to shop or have a little time to herself, my mother would bring me to my father’s office in the Pan Am (now Met Life) building. For hours on end I would watch him sit at a light table and create print advertisements using rubber cement and X-acto knives, arranging pictures and text on stiff boards. I wasn’t allowed near the X-acto blades, but I would dip my finger in the rubber cement, twiddling the sticky stuff in my fingers until it made miniature balls that I could ricochet off the office walls.
When my father wasn’t doing layout, he’d sit at his IBM Selectric typewriter, a technological wonder that reminded me of the sleek, streamlined gadgets I’d seen at the 1964 World’s Fair. The Selectric was light-years beyond conventional typewriters. It was a humming, magical trapezoid, with a red matte finish and a silver globe of type in the center that would rotate at high speed to place letters and numbers on the page. My father’s hands flew over the keyboard as if he were Van Cliburn at the piano.
A decade later, on a warm summer day, not long after I had been liberated from school and the rigors of a New England winter and its chilly spring, my father took me aside and made a startling request. He told me how proud he was of the writing assignments I’d done in school. Then came the bombshell. He told me that he thought it would be a terrific idea if I’d continue writing over the summer, working with him on a number of topics. He thought it would be fun.
I thought otherwise. What he had proposed went against all the laws of nature. Summers were for play, not work, I protested. He cajoled. I dug in.
As I search my memory today, I cannot recall if I ever wrote any of those essays. But it hardly matters, because when he issued that friendly challenge something deep inside me resonated with the idea. In a subconscious way, with a mixture of dread, guilt, and excitement, I knew he was right. I could write, even in the summertime.
Within a year or two I was writing poetry and op-ed pieces for the high school literary magazine and newspaper, soliciting articles and doing layout. My first publications were printed in purple, toxic ink on rotating mimeograph machines. When I went to college, I inherited the Selectric.
I’ve never stopped. And though Selectrics and rubber cement have been replaced by word processors and layout software, I continue to feel the same churning mixture of dread, guilt, and excitement every time I sit down to write or edit.
Vocation is a mysterious thing. It seems to come to us both from without—as a call from someone or something—and from within, as an inexplicable compulsion. It is at once a burden and a release, a responsibility and a wild, secret joy. It cannot be willed into existence and yet it demands strenuous acts of will to live out.
Simone Weil, writing about the nature of education, said that the highest virtue of learning is attention, which she likened to prayer. “Attention is an effort, the greatest of all efforts perhaps, but it is a negative effort.... Above all, our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it.”
Weil’s comment brought to my mind some lines from Over the Rhine’s song “Latter Days,” staking out a similar vision: “What a beautiful piece of heartache this has all turned out to be. / Lord knows we’ve learned the hard way all about healthy apathy.”
The process of finding one’s vocation is often fraught with fear, but that is often because we too readily equate vocation with career, with something willed, planned, chosen. It is hard to wait, to hollow out the self and thus become an echo chamber in which to hear, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, the voice of one’s calling.
I recently came across a story from the desert fathers that may seem to extol the opposite of attention, and yet it somehow seems to be of a piece with Weil’s insight. An old hermit who lived near Scetis suffered from forgetfulness. He went to see Abba John to seek a word of wisdom about how to be less forgetful. But by the time he made it back to his cell he had forgotten what Abba John had told him. This happened many times. Eventually the old man apologized to Abba John for taking so much of his time. The holy man replied with a question: Does a lamp suffer diminution when other lamps are lit from it? The old man said no. Abba John said that even if the whole population of the area came to him constantly, it could not diminish the flame that originates with Christ.
I’d like to think that those who follow their vocation are like that old man: always forgetting and always coming back for a word of wisdom. We may not be able to live in a perfect state of attention but we can always return and listen for wisdom. In the early years of Image’s history, when we only had a single pilot issue to show others as we sought the support we’d need to become a full-time publication, we often thought of quitting. We’d set a deadline, determined to give up after, say, six months. A year later we’d realize that we had forgotten the deadline. We kept right on forgetting until the journal became a reality.
Much has been made of the vocation of the artist, perhaps too much. Since the Romantic era there has been a tendency to elevate the artist’s calling above other, supposedly more mundane vocations. But in a commodified culture, which values productivity over nearly everything else, it’s a different story. The artist fares well in theory, but she faces an uphill battle in practice—struggling to make a living and justifying the time spent on her work.
The artist is first an observer, someone who stands apart and then re-shapes experience. The products of art are, in a sense, “nothings”—gratuitous objects that serve no immediate utilitarian purpose. That they in fact serve one of the highest purposes—helping us to understand what it means to be human—often fails to impress.
Oddly, some of the most utilitarian thinking seems to take place within religious communities, where artists are frequently regarded with suspicion. I have met pious artists who have given up their vocations because, they argued, art had become an idol. But a vocation is not an idol. The self-destructive gnosticism behind such renunciations arises when people of faith come to regard desire itself as evil. But the saints and doctors of the church have always stressed that desire is the impelling force through which we return to God. “Desire alone draws God down,” Weil wrote. The demands of an artistic vocation can become forms of spiritual, as well as aesthetic, disciplines.
Secularists have also done damage to a proper understanding of the artist’s vocation. In attempting to make art a substitute for religion and the artist a substitute for the priest, the secular mind has forged the myth of the artist as self-creator, autonomous and sovereign.
There may have been an air of exhilaration when artists first took on the role of shaman; the glow has long since worn off. When the artist attempts to generate his own calling, he becomes Narcissus transfixed by his own image. When art is made not in answer to a call from outside the self but as its own call, the voice loses authority, becomes shrill and assertive. So much of the art that is made today is either mere virtuosity or strident propaganda.
Jacques Maritain once wrote:
Religion alone can help the art of our epoch to keep the best of its promises, I do not say by clothing it in gaudy devotion or applying it directly to the apostolate, but by putting it in a position to respect its own nature and to take its true place. For it is only in the light of theology that art today can achieve self-knowledge and cure itself of the false systems of metaphysics which plague it. By showing us where moral truth and the genuine supernatural are situate, religion saves poetry from the absurdity of believing itself destined to transform ethics and life, saves it from overweening arrogance.
The artist’s calling is not in the wind, earthquake, and fire of human activity, but in the still, small voice that speaks through our human experience. That voice may be quiet, but it is insistent, and while it places burdens upon us, it also liberates.