I’M WAITING for the 6:40 am train to take me to Boston. It’s a forty-five minute ride that I use to read “inspirational” works. What’s inspirational? Anything that helps get me through the day with some kind of inner peace, with a sense that what I’m doing is worthwhile. I take a deep breath as I hear the rumbling of the locomotive. There is a curve right before the train approaches the station, and you hear the train before you can see it. The sound for some reason always reminds me of Annie Dillard’s words: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I try to shake off the feeling that I am about to spend another day.
After I flash the conductor my monthly pass, I close my eyes and say my morning prayer.
My Jesus, I give you my hands that they may do your work.
I give you my legs that they may walk your way.
I give you my tongue that it may speak your words.
I give you my mind that you may think in me.
I give you my eyes that I may see as you do.
Most of all, I give you my heart that you may love through me.
Why is it so hard to connect what I am about to do for the next ten hours with the hope of this prayer? It shouldn’t be so hard. I am an in-house attorney for a state agency whose goal is to increase the quantity and quality of affordable housing. We lend money to developers at low interest rates and allow their rich investors to lower their taxes, and in return they agree to rent at least twenty percent of their units to low-income households. There’s a social benefit to what I do. The mortgage that I draft today, the negotiation with the borrower’s attorney, the reading and re-reading of the dense partnership agreement, will result in someone having a home they couldn’t otherwise afford. Why can’t I feel that this is what I am called to do?
Frederick Buechner said, “Vocation is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” For a while now I’ve been telling myself that my vocation is writing young-adult novels and lawyering is my job. The distinction seems to follow Buechner’s definition. There is something like “deep gladness” in one and not the other. Not that “deep gladness” always feels good. I’m working on my sixth novel now. It is the story of Vicky, a sixteen-year-old girl recovering from depression and an attempted suicide. I started the book almost two years ago and am on my third draft. I’m struggling. At the suggestion of my editor, I need to have Vicky express more of her inner pain. I’m trying to do this without making the book depressing, but every line I write seems to miss the mark. Where’s the deep gladness? I don’t feel it. I feel stuck and frustrated. It is there nevertheless. It is there in the willingness, in the knowledge that this book is something only I can do. There is deep gladness in the acceptance that what I do, poor as it is, will be my best.
Sometimes it helps to call writing a vocation and sometimes it helps to call it a hobby. I like the lack of pressure and pretentiousness of a hobby. A hobby is a thing you do for yourself, for fun, in your spare time. That’s what I do when I write. I come home from my day job, have dinner with my wife, and if my brain is not completely fried, I’ll work for an hour or two before I go to bed. On weekends, I can write for four or so hours on Saturday and on Sunday. It’s a hobby. I don’t make a living from it. I don’t try to. But writing is also a vocation. I hear an urgent call to write. So much depends on my response to the call—my sense of purpose and meaning. “Why don’t you write a book about Mexican vampires?” my daughter asked me once. “Just so you can get enough money to retire. Then you can write your serious books.”
Maybe I could, if it were just a hobby. But, does the world have a deep need for Mexican vampires?
I am sixty years old and have been making a living as a lawyer for the past thirty-one years. I’ve been at my current job with the affordable housing agency for thirteen years. It is the longest time I’ve ever spent in one job and the only job where I have felt at times that maybe, just maybe, this is precisely where God wants me to be. Before this one, my longest job lasted three years. All told I’ve worked in eight different places—a mixture of small and large private law firms and public sector jobs. Some jobs I left because I was slowly atrophying; some because my brain was not agile enough, could not adequately function under the constant pressure.
When the real estate economy tanked, I was unemployed for six months. But otherwise I somehow managed to make it through many lawyering days. When I think about some of my jobs, the first thing that comes to mind is waiting for that early-morning train or getting in the car to drive to work. For many years, when I was afflicted with colitis, that hour of travel required careful planning. If driving, I’d take the back roads into town rather than the highway, always aware of the office building and the gas station where I could make emergency stops. Knowing when to have the first cup of coffee, when to leave the house, those things required careful consideration. Timing is everything with colitis. To this day, whenever I get into a shiny chrome elevator, I remember the job with a high-powered real estate firm—the weight of dread that descended upon me as I ascended to my designated floor.
When I graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, with a Danforth Fellowship that paid tuition and living expenses to any graduate school that accepted me, I told myself I would use the next four years to learn how to write. But the writing and scholarship that Harvard wanted from me was not the kind of writing I had in my mind. The research requested, the topics acceptable for a dissertation, seemed so irrelevant, so silly almost. I stayed four years, took courses from Octavio Paz, got a master of arts in Latin American literature and then headed off to Columbia Law School. I thought I had a better chance at writing while being a lawyer. Fifteen years later I wrote my first novel.
I started writing it a few months before I got laid off. I had seen work come in only to see the partners give it to other associates. My billable hours were embarrassing. I was doing the pro bono work that no one else wanted and the small real estate transactions where the client could only afford to pay a couple of thousand dollars—a day of work, at the rate the firm was billing my time. Is there anything more humiliating than being passed over for work? Is there anything more depressing than knowing you are not pulling your weight? Yes, of course there is. But at the time it didn’t feel like that. I sat there, waiting for the managing partner to call me into his office. My days were numbered.
I wrote a novel about a man on death row who is told he has to write for two hours every day or else lose his meager prison privileges. And so I too, like the prisoner in my novel, wrote for two hours every day. I said to God: “If you want me to do this, help me.” After that I woke up without an alarm clock at 4:00 am. Not 3:59 am or 4:01 am. 4:00 am exactly. I had two hours of writing before work. I kept at it after I got laid off, during the six months I was unemployed, and after I found a new job. Five years later, after many rejections and many revisions, a small university press accepted the book for publication. The prisoner in my novel, Ismael Diaz, was a prominent real estate attorney in a prestigious Boston law firm who loses his job and all he holds dear, including life’s meaning, and returns to El Paso, Texas, in search of Amanda, the love of his youth. The novel is only partially autobiographical.
The death-row novel was an adult novel. I didn’t know there was such a thing as “young adult” until I wrote my second book. It was the story of a young, smart boy who lives in the housing projects of El Paso, just like I did. Unlike me, however, Hector gets into trouble with the local gang and is sent to reform school. I wrote the book for my son and daughter, who were teenagers at the time. I wanted them to see another side of life. Now I wonder whether there was not something in me that wanted recognition for the sacrifice I made every time I took that morning commuter train, rode up that elevator.
The death-row novel received a national award and good reviews, and on the basis of that a young agent contacted me and offered to represent the next book. She sent it out to publishers, but no one was interested. Then, because the main character was young, she thought of sending it to publishers who specialized in children’s and young-adult literature, and the book was immediately accepted.
Sometimes, the call of vocation is something you discover slowly. It is revealed to you by coincidences and chance encounters, by the ease with which certain things happen. There was something about writing books about young people that felt right, that attracted me, that was a fit—a deep gladness of the heart.
Every once in a while I get an e-mail from an old El Paso friend. He doesn’t say anything. He simply attaches a funny story, usually involving lawyers. There was one about a burglar who got trapped in the garage of a house he had just robbed and was stuck for three days surviving on dog food and Diet Pepsi. He sued the owners of the house for negligence and won a million dollar judgment. Those kinds of stories. But the last one he sent was not about lawyers. It was about engineers. A group of engineers from MIT were asked to design a windshield for airplanes that could withstand the impact of geese crashing into it. When they finally invented what they thought was the right kind of glass, they had to devise a realistic method for testing it. So they came up with the plan of installing the new windshield on a train and then shooting a dead turkey, the kind you get at a supermarket, onto the moving train through a bazooka-like device. The speed of the moving train and the speed and weight of the turkey reproduced perfectly the impact of a goose on a flying airplane’s windshield. The experiment was so successful that a group of engineers, this time from Harvard, sought to reproduce it. This time, however, the windshield shattered and the rushing turkey almost decapitated the train’s driver. When the MIT engineers heard of this, they asked the Harvard engineers to describe exactly what they had done. After reading the description of the Harvard experiment, the MIT engineers sent back a single sentence message: “Defrost the turkey!”
Improbable as it seems, my friend’s e-mail got me thinking about why I write young-adult books. What if our world is such that at an early age we begin to shield ourselves from its pain and even its beauty by erecting impenetrable windshields? What if what really matters in our lives, the gladness in our heart and the world’s great need, can only be found in that pain and in that beauty, which our self-created shields now prevent us from fully perceiving? Wouldn’t one of the world’s deep needs be to create something that shatters the windshield of the banal, of all those values and worldly ambitions that keep us from experiencing the wonder of being unique and alive and burdened with purpose? And if so, how do you break through the barrier that protects us but also slowly smothers our heart’s breath? Maybe art can do that. Before the windshield fully hardens, at an age when our capacity to feel is heightened, before the numbing fully sets in, a book can break through and plant the questions that will burn and unsettle until they are answered, or at least attended to. Who am I? What am I supposed to do in this life? What matters?
How does art do that? How does it awaken us? For me it seems, the creation of that art involves tapping into the raw materials of my life, the losses and the joys, taking all that and “frosting” it with carefully and patiently constructed craft so that the end product has my flesh and blood, but it is also something more than me. It is art now, a mixture of my experience and of invention, of reality and imagination, of truth and beauty.
I wrote a novel about a young man with a condition on the autism spectrum called Asperger’s syndrome. People with Asperger’s have a unique way of thinking and of perceiving the world. I wrote the book in the first person, and when I go to conferences, people ask me how I managed to reproduce so accurately the inner life of such a person. I tell them about the research and the interviews with young people. Lately, I’ve decided that it is valuable to share something more personal because I am sure there will be a few people in the audience who will benefit from it. So I talk to them about depression. I tell them about my first episode with depression when I was thirteen years old. My adoptive father, Charlie Stork, was killed instantaneously in a car accident, and the sadness that followed continued for much, much longer than what we normally consider a healthy mourning period. I tell them how depression stayed and how sometimes depression disappeared and was replaced by an uncomfortable energy that made me act out in ways that were hurtful to myself and others. I tell them about how I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about ten years ago and how daily dosages of lithium have allowed me to function. Some days are better than others, but for the most part I function. I tell them all this, because what helped me the most in penetrating the mind of a young autistic boy was the knowledge of those depressive and manic states. There is a perception of reality, a slowing and a speeding up of the thought process that happens with depression and mania that are analogous to autism. In both autism and depression there is a sense of separation from others, a hopeless inability to connect. I took that personal experience and used it to create a young character who was a part of me but also very different from me.
Marcelo, the character in the book, is forced to spend a summer in his father’s law firm learning about the real world. On the train ride to work that first day, Marcelo decides to say the rosary. Like a lot of people with Asperger’s syndrome, he has a special interest that consumes him. Marcelo’s special interest is God. He reads religious books from all traditions. Although he has been raised Catholic, he has weekly visits with a rabbi at his mother’s insistence. When his father sees Marcelo take out a rosary, he decides it’s a good place to start the “real world” instructions. He tells Marcelo that he is going to be part of the business world now, and he needs to abide by some established customs. “People in the business world are discreet about their religion. They pray in private.” Marcelo doesn’t understand. He thinks, “If only customs were logical. If only the rules were as simple as ‘don’t do anything to hurt others.’ If that were the only rule, I’d have at least a fifty percent chance of getting it right. I would, for example, ask myself whether saying the rosary silently on the train would hurt others. The answer would be no and so I would say it.”
How long did it take me to get the rules right, to understand, as Marcelo’s father tells him, that in the real world of the law firm, the environment is competitive. “Competition is an attitude,” Marcelo’s father says. “It’s a way of understanding that the motive behind someone’s action may be self-interest and reacting to that accordingly…. It’s helpful to assume that most people are looking out for number one.”
I live in two worlds. One world feels like home. I wear my slippers here and pray out loud. In the other, it’s like showing up at a party in a suit and a black tie only to find out what “black tie” really means. In this other world, I compete as best I can and no one knows I pray.
Teresa of Avila once said of prayer, “when the wind blows you put up your sail, and when it doesn’t you row.” Now and then, in my legal job, I feel a breeze of energy. I will interpret a regulation in such a way as to make it possible for an officer to make a loan. I’ll surprise someone who expects weeks of bureaucracy by responding the same day. It feels good to be useful. But most of the time, when I’m at my legal job, I row. Is it any different for the vast majority of the world’s workers? Unlike many, many others, I get to sit down in the morning, make a to-do list, have a cup of coffee. I wonder if there’s a way to embody in my daily tasks the hope of that morning prayer. Can I see the lawyer across the table with Christ’s eyes? And when I sit in a meeting befuddled, trying to remember when a building is placed in service according to the tax code, can I give Christ my mind so that he thinks in me? If only Christ could think in me, he would know the answer, surely.
The one thing I know is that the legal rowing has served me well in writing young-adult books. There are days when the depression is so thick that all I can manage is a line or two. I row. I tell myself that I will spend an hour at my desk and whatever comes out comes out. It’s not the number of words that matter, it is the hour spent trying, waiting, offering. If I only write half a page a day, in two years I’ll have a book. It doesn’t matter if others are publishing three books a year and making a nice living from the royalties. It’s the rowing that matters. Yes, there are beautiful cool breezes and even gusts of wind in this world. When they come, I take out my sail joyfully and glide, my heart bursting with gladness.
Maybe inspiration and ease and gladness of heart are similar to what Teresa called “consolations” in prayer: those prayer times when God’s presence feels so present, so there. Teresa advises her nuns not to pay attention to consolations. They are meaningless and can even set you back. They can keep you from knowing that God is present always—in the rowing and in the graceful sailing. There is also this: the law firm and the writer’s desk are both great teachers of humility. And as T.S. Eliot says, “The only wisdom we can seek to acquire is humility: humility is endless.” If this world is a vale of soul-making, my soul is being made in both places. One kind of making hurts more than the other, it is true. But if you could see the state of my soul, you would understand.
I spent so many frustrated, angry days thinking that going to law school was a mistake. I should have completed the PhD. and gone into teaching. Then I see my wife, a college professor, spending her evenings reading and grading her students’ work, and I wonder if I would ever have written anything. And what would I have written about? My novels are full of smart Latino kids, kids hungering and longing for something greater, kids straddling a soft inner world and a harsh outer one. My novels have young people who are forced to compete, who suffer from the values of the marketplace, who question the arbitrary customs of the real world. Could I have created these young characters if I myself had not lived their questioning, their displacement, their failure, their depression?
Is there such a thing as making a mistake in life? Absolutely. People take the wrong jobs for the wrong reason, they squander their talents, they live lives of quiet desperation never realizing who they truly are. But mistakes can be redeemed if we are willing. The wrong turn can take you to the right door, but then you have to open it and step in. I’m beginning to think that there’s no such thing as a wasted life. In ways that I am only barely beginning to fathom, every wrong decision is salvaged and used. The work of art that is our life is constantly shifting, adapting and changing to incorporate our mistakes and in the end what seemed wrong will be right, an indispensable part of the whole.
On the train ride home from my legal job and after I finish writing for the day, I say the same prayer, silently. “My Jesus, I offer you my work today, poor as it is. I know you will put it to good use.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.