By Laura Hernandez Ehrisman
I Go Down to the Shore
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.-Mary Oliver
On my home altar I have a small box where I put all of my expired identity cards—student IDs from high school through graduate school, my old driver’s licenses. The box is illustrated with the “anima sola,” a popular image in Latin American devotional art representing a lonely soul in purgatory. For me, this image represents the process of shedding former selves, a necessary cleansing fire releasing me from identities that I no longer inhabit. This week I finally placed an ID in the box connected to an institution where I had worked for over fifteen years.
In May I was laid off, one of many people who lost their jobs due to COVID. As many of you may know, being laid off is different from the chosen job change (though this too, has its painful transitions). Being laid off is abrupt, often unexpected, and most of the time lacks the usual rituals that honor the transitions when one chooses to leave a place of work. There are no parties or receptions, and in the context of social distancing, this leaving was particularly lonely. I had two weeks’ notice, and in that time I downloaded files and took screenshots of digitized tributes, knowing that my access to these words would disappear when my email was deactivated. I took four carloads of things out of my office. This wasn’t like the cinematic job ending, when people exit with a single cardboard box. I had been there for a long while; stuff accumulates, and things hold memories; they store experiences.
For months I have struggled with the loss of this job that I loved, and I wondered how I could define my new identity. Who am I, outside of this work that has been so important to me?
I am also confronted with the many ways that our society defines us by our place of employment. Why do I have to name my occupation when I go to the doctor’s office, or when I fill out my children’s school forms? Why are so many of the resources that we need tied to our job—our healthcare, our social security. No wonder I had connected so much of my identity to my work; our entire society is built around the idea that we earn our place based on our labor. Yet the labor that is considered in these calculations is very partial. Where, in all of those forms, do I name the labor of caretaking—of children, of parents, of friends and neighbors. The labor of service to community. How much of our collective labor goes unrecognized?
As an American cultural historian, I love to teach about the experimental utopian societies of the nineteenth century, because the residents of these communities these questions—why are things as they are? Is the world as it is really inevitable, and who told us that this is so? I like to discuss the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, also known as the Shakers. They are most well known for their celibacy, but what I found most interesting was their concept of labor. For them, all labor was a form of worship, and no labor was menial. They worked all the time, but their work was for the common good, and it was joyful.
I take this to heart, as I consider the question, what is my vocation? I realize that institutional affiliations are very limited descriptors of the work that we are called to do. St. Catherine of Siena wrote “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the whole world on fire.” Vocation is not about a particular job, but an expression of identity. What work am I called to do? Who am I called to be? And if I can no longer call myself “professor,” how do I name this labor? I’ve turned to simpler expressions: I am a teacher, a writer, a scholar. I am called to work that fulfills a mission that is beyond myself.
During the summer we watched a movie called Troop Zero, about a group of outcast girls who enter a contest to be part of a NASA recording that they believe will be heard by life in outer space. The scene that stayed with me was at the end of the movie. The troop had put on a wonderful performance, but they lost the contest, something they had worked long and hard for, something important. But as they stand outside in the dark watching a meteor shower, they each shout out to the sky: “I am here.” Their cries are not sad, but joyful exclamations. An affirmation of personhood, of being recognized by some entity outside of the limits of this world. I was so moved by this moment because it resonated with my own desire to be known in a great, interstellar beloved community.
I am ready for the work. I am here.