When Home is a Vocation

One year ago, I decided I needed to give my ‘career’ one more shot. Do something of value. Something I could be proud of. Something I could throw myself into for the next five years and then move to Italy. Something where I made decent money and could save for that dream while also using my decades of experience in nonprofit management and development.

My career in nonprofits began when I was twenty-four and my father was dying of AIDS. I didn’t know that was the beginning. I started as a volunteer. I was required to do community service after being arrested for blockading the Pacific Stock Exchange while protesting corporate greed after the Exxon Valdez crashed in Prince William Sound. Sadly, those kinds of disasters are all too common now. But then, well, the world seemed different then.

I moved back to Chicago to take care of my father and was introduced to Angelika, who founded a nonprofit to provide services to people with AIDS. That meeting changed my life.

One of the first things Angelika asked me to do was balance the checkbook. When I brought it back and admitted it was balanced with the exception of four cents, she said, “Find the four cents.” That was powerful. It was, after all, only four cents. But she was right. On so many levels, she was right. I found the four cents and I have never forgotten that lesson.

In time I went from answering phones to helping produce events and then training volunteers. Eventually, I grew the volunteer program to a force of approximately 250 people. Next, I managed all our support services including transportation, meal delivery, and even a food pantry. I did outreach, I asked for contributions, I made alliances, I ran support groups, and I sat with clients and their families- as they lived, as they died, as they mourned. My years at Community  Response were profound. My work was a calling, a vocation. So much more than a job. That work was my life.

At my desk in 1993, before everyone had computers. In front of me is the Desiderata poem and above me is the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Everything I’ve done since then has been an attempt to fill that same sense of purpose. And while I have truly believed in the other nonprofit work I’ve done, nothing has come close to my time at Community Response.  Still, over the years I gained a lot of experience, I raised a lot of money for great causes, and, I believe, I made an impact.

I was really good in nonprofits. I know my stuff. But like the mandarin slice in the garlic bulb, just because I can still fit in that job doesn’t mean I belong there.

I went back to school with the dream of becoming a Humanities professor. But after earning my PhD and several years of teaching adjunct, I couldn’t land a full-time college gig. And I couldn’t live off an adjunct’s wages and still pay my college loans. When I was heavily pursued for another high-level fundraising position, I relinquished my conviction of a new career and accepted the offer.

Sometimes the universe tests you to see if you’ve learned your lesson. It tempts you with something that looks familiar but better. Underneath it is the same hole you’ve fallen into time and time again. If you’ve learned your lesson, you acknowledge the opportunity and walk away. If you haven’t learned, you embrace the “opportunity” and fall back into the hole.

I fell back into the hole.

Two fundraising jobs later, I was determined never to do that again. Instead, I went to Italy. I pursued a different dream. That dream led to another life-changing event: three months in Sicily during Covid lockdown. While there, every sign seemed to tell me to write.

So I started a blog: this blog. In those first months, almost 4,500 visitors in 41 countries read my work. Then I came back to the States and my readership fell. I adopted a new website combining the blog with my consulting and it was a disaster. I had no income. I questioned my purpose.

This time last year I bucked up. I threw myself into looking for that one last meaningful career job. And the positions looked promising. Recruiters started calling. I only pursued those that were philosophically and emotionally a good fit.  But the universe was teasing, testing me again. One by one the doors closed.

It hasn’t been quite a year since I decided to give writing a real chance. I doubt my abilities all the time. I’m barely paying my bills with a low-stress side job. But when I think of where I was a year ago—throwing myself into the job hunt, ready to plunge back into nonprofit leadership—I recoil. That is no longer my life. I’m amazed, relieved, and deeply grateful.

People think I’m courageous. It doesn’t feel that way to me.  Instead, I think it’s just that I can’t stand the pain of slamming into a wall or pounding my head against a door that doesn’t open. My personality is not one to bust through barriers but rather to walk around them. And that’s when I discover a new path.  A path that carries me home, even if that home is temporary.

I am a writer.  I’m still struggling with this, though.  Still trying to silence the voice that says it is pretentious to claim such a thing, the voice that says writing is not as noble or selfless as working in nonprofits. And I’m still learning the craft.  Like a volunteer before my responsibilities ramp up, my confidence is hampered by the limited time I’ve been at it. But here I am. Doing my best and striving to do better.

Thank you for joining me on my writing journey. My journey to finding home. You make me better.

This sentiment aligns with my last two posts, Letting Go… Again and Cleaning House. As a number of readers pointed out, letting go of old beliefs is just as important as letting go of material things.

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