Work as Pilgrimage

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“Work…like life, is a pilgrimage, a journey in which we progress not only through the world but through stages of understanding.” David Whyte

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A friend who knows I write this blog recently gave me David Whyte’s book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. “Work,” writes Whyte, is “an opportunity for discovering and shaping the place where the self meets the world.” Even as we are shaping the work we do, he says, our work is shaping us.

I’ve always thought I should separate who I am from what I am, always disliked the fact that when I meet people for the first time, one of their first questions is invariably, “What do you do?” (Or now, “What did you do?) But this book has me pondering how much the work I’ve done has made me—shaped me, if you will—into the person I am today.

For most of my working life, I’ve been, in one form or another, a teacher—a vocation, I now see, I was cut out for. I still remember the jolt of energy I felt my first day of teaching, when I overheard a kid whisper to another: “Hey, he’s pretty cool!” And for the next thirty years, seeing faces light up after I’d shown kids something in a Hemingway short story, a Frost poem, or a Shakespearean play was one of the greatest feelings in the world. Right up there with sex.

I can certainly see how I shaped my work, especially during the first half of my teaching career. As head of the English Department at Mount Desert Island High School on the coast of Maine, I helped instigate and administer a new English curriculum, which included two Advanced Placement English programs that, one state evaluator said, rivaled the curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy.

But I’ve never realized before now that at the same time I was shaping the curriculum, this curriculum was shaping me. During those years, I created a persona based on the college professors I admired. Driven by the shame of growing up in an alcoholic family, teaching at MDIHS gave me the respect I craved, even to the point of becoming intimidating. At a time when teachers were dressing more and more informally, I wore suits and vests and ties with matching pocket-handkerchiefs. I assigned abstruse literary works by William Faulkner and James Joyce; I covered student compositions with acerbic comments, which more than once reduced school valedictorians to tears.

I became a local legend at MDIHS. And, for a while, I loved it.

Then suddenly I was suffocating. “I have become everything I hate,” I wrote in my journal. My teaching persona felt more and more like a body bag. This urge to break out of what seemed like prison led to the break up of my marriage, which, ironically, had been weakened over the years by the amount of time I’d spend preparing lessons, correcting compositions, and designing English programs.

Finally, I left MDIHS in the middle of the school year to marry another woman and live in southern Maine.

Since then, I’ve looked back at those fifteen years as misspent, seen myself as phony, blamed myself for hiding behind walls. Overlooking the students from those years who still write to me, I’ve focused only on the students I failed by not taking into account a horrific home life or a major learning disability.

Whyte’s book is helping me understand those years differently: “…often it is simply the nature of things that walls that once served and sheltered us…only imprison us when we have remained within their confines for too long.”

The book also shows me how I broke out of that prison. Whyte talks about our need for “an outlaw figure,” an image from our youth to emulate of someone who represented freedom, who seemed to live outside society’s walls. I see now that for me that figure was a composite of the writers I’d been teaching—Hemingway, the Romantic poets, Thoreau—and whom I began to understand not as puzzles to be solved, but as writers, seeking to understand the world around them. At MDIHS, remembering my own high school dreams of being the next Ernest Hemingway, I’d started a creative writing elective, which became the one place I could catch my breath. After I remarried and found a new teaching position at Brunswick High School, I created another creative writing class, open to all students, so that I had “special needs” kids sitting next to the advanced placement students. When offered the chance to teach senior A.P. English again and become English Department head, I turned both offers down. “We must,” writes Whyte, “give up exactly what we thought was necessary to protect us from further harm.” Whether by accident or grace or something, I realized that to put on my old persona would like sentencing myself to life a behind bars.

After the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter from cancer, it was impossible for me not to look at some of my more unpleasant students and think, “Why the hell are you alive when my daughter is dead?” I found it harder and harder to teach at the high school level. Driven also by my own need to write, I took early retirement from public education, thinking that my teaching days were over. But to bring in money while I went back to school, I started working in a writing center at Bates College. I soon came to enjoy working with college students, not seeing myself as a font of wisdom standing in front of a classroom, but as a pair of ears sitting beside them.

Even after receiving my MFA, I continued at Bates for another ten years. During that time I began facilitating spiritual writing groups at my church, which I continue to do. Then after leaving Bates, I started volunteering at the Gathering Place, a day shelter for the homeless and materially poor in Brunswick. After a month or so there, I was sitting with a guy and we started shooting the breeze. He told me he’d lost his construction job and was living in the homeless shelter. I said I’d been a teacher.

“What’d you teach?” he asked.

“English,” I said. “Literature and writing. I really liked teaching creative writing.”

“Why don’t you offer something like that here?” he said. “I’ve got a lot I’d like to say.”

And I’ve been doing “something like that” now for over five years.

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Looking back on my career as a pilgrimage, I see that I began teaching by working my damnedest to appear powerful, wise, and in control, and that I’m ending it sitting with others in my various writing groups, all of us “writing to discover” some of this mystery we call life.

So maybe Whyte is right when he says that we shape our work, and are in turned shaped by the work we have done. If so, I count myself fortunate to have spent my life working at a job I’ve almost always enjoyed, work which may have shaped me to become more vulnerable and more open, even though I have a long way to go.

But hell, that’s what a pilgrimage is for, isn’t it?

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