(Thomas Froese photo)
A student walks along a footpath at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday September 15, 2019)

He’s a painter, a tradesman, who never went to university because he started painting early in life and it made no sense to stop. He had steady money while his friends, after graduating from schools of higher learning, struggled as much as they saw any benefits of their money spent. He told me about it recently. He was painting my house. I listened.

Not to deny the benefits of a university education. I myself have a new university teaching assignment this semester. And you can look up the lifetime payback, monetarily and otherwise, of post-secondary schooling. It can be significant. It is to say, however, that, we each have our vocational stories even as we each have times and seasons and rhythms to our lives.

There is a time to be born even as there’s a time to die is how Solomon, apparently stating the obvious, put it. A time to cry and a time to laugh, also. A time to plant. A time to uproot. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to paint a home, it seems, even as there’s a time to go to university, or, maybe, instead, go into your closet, so to speak, to listen to your life.

Your life. Not your parent’s life. Not your neighbour’s life. Your life. Listen to its moments, both the remarkable and the common. Sometimes I go literally into my closet to listen. When I write. (More on this behaviour some other time.) But when I was university entry age, the closet was a garden. That’s right, with vegetables: potatoes and beans and cabbage and carrots and such.

The garden was not only a hopelessly, unpromising place, but a rather horrible place because of its sheer size. A handful of detached homes now sit on the land, where, for the family business of that time, I helped grow what needed growing. Even when things were in hand, more or less, when weeds weren’t growing like Douglas Firs and plants were coming nicely row by row, when my peers trotted off to university, to me, they might as well have been heading to the beach.

My story, woven and weaved here and there, worked itself out in time. The prize, after all, doesn’t always go to the swiftest horse, just the one that keeps running in the right direction. Even so, when you’re hoeing hard ground summer after summer, you do learn to listen.

(Funny enough, I’ve since learned that life is still full of hard ground that needs breaking and softening and tending. The curse and blessing of the garden, apparently, lives on.)

Of course, listening to your life in our distracted time is especially bloody hard work. And if you’re in university when you’re too inexperienced, it’s even harder to hear much amidst the cacophony of voices and ideas that can easily bypass your heart and fill your head with one foolish notion or another.

So, as about four million Canadians have in recent weeks re-filled the nation’s universities and community colleges, if you find yourself outside the herd, if you’re taking time in the school of life to practice this art of listening, then do know that this too is good and worthwhile. I call it getting farmer’s perspective. Whether it’s at Coconut College or Harvard University, there’s still time for that other school.

Because school, and your ensuing vocation, contrary to one foolish notion, is more than a means to an end: a decent job and nice home and food in the fridge, maybe even a satisfying relationship. These are all good and necessary, of course, but, in themselves, they’re unable to satisfy the deeper desires of the human spirit.

No, your vocation is meant to be more holy. More sacred. More of a service. So whether you learn a skilled trade with your hands, or instead throw yourself into the world of art or literature or music or business or science or law or whatever else turns you on, it’s all a form of gardening, anyway. At least, at its best it is.

Yes, at its best, in your vocational joy the world gets a little more cultivated and renewed. God knows it’s needed. And isn’t this not unlike that first gardening job given us in the beginning?