Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Selling Myself

If I never write another statement of purpose (aka "personal statement" or "statement of intent") it will be too soon. Unfortunately, I still have three SoPs left, and that's assuming this is the only time I'll be applying to graduate school.

A statement of purpose is a 500-word summary of where you've been, where you are, how you got there, and where you're planning to go. It is also a summary of who you are, what you've achieved, why you matter, and how you plan to affect change in the world. I've had to sell myself before in job interviews and on cover letters and scholarship applications. I've never been very good at it. I attribute it to my Lutheran background. Something about confessing every Sunday that I am a poor miserable sinner who deserves only death and punishment makes me doubt that I really have the ability to change anything, much less the world. For years Luther has been telling me that there is no worthiness or merit in me and that any good that comes from me is a sheer miracle of God, a miracle for which I take no credit.

To counter my guilt and shame, I have been reading other people's SoPs, feeding my pride, and convincing myself that "Hey, I could do that." I don't know how "Christian" this is of me, but I've yet to see the fallout. In fact, I think God might be rather proud of me for claiming the gifts that I've  been developing and discovering since I was four years old. He may even be disappointed in me for not being more diligent in pursuing them.

Eight years ago I was a senior in high school. I was a good student, a fair speaker, a decent writer, and a "super Christian." I wasn't more holy, sanctified, or redeemed than anyone else. I wasn't particularly positive, kind, or happy, but I read Christian books, wore Christian shirts, listened to Christian music, and led Christian study groups. I chose a Christian college to which I received a Christian leadership scholarship. During a campus visit, I had met with one of the English faculty. He taught literature courses and we discussed Willa Cather and Nebraska authors and I was utterly enthralled with the thought of reading and studying books for the next four years. But I was a slow reader, with little knowledge of the literary canon. I feared falling behing my peers, and decided instead to enter the Christian education program and pursue a degree in counseling. I learned that counseling required seven years of grad school and switched to youth ministry. I wasn't particularly engaging. I didn't have a passion for kids or spiritual formation or recreational activities. I found it all interesting, but, well, I don't play dodgeball.

Meanwhile, I also entertained this idea of being a writer. I engrossed myself in books and words and  went to poetry readings and plays. I paired youth ministry with a writing major, reasoning that I could write Bible studies or work at Brio magazine (which was discontinued in 2009, but was similar to Susie). I was as if I had to "Christianize" my vocation, as if a sense of vocation (a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action; especially : a divine call) wasn't enough. 

I was in the second half of my junior year before I realized what I had been doing, how I had been trying to prove myself and live up to my own ideas of what it meant to be called by God. Ironically, it was when I left the church that I began to discover my real interests and develop my natural gifts. 

By that time it was too late to switch majors and too soon for me to commit to a graduate program. I hadn't spent enough time pursuing my literary enthusiasm. I tried writing a statement of purpose--describing my writing background, my passions, my inspirations, my plans for the future--but I couldn't, because I didn't have any. I didn't know why I wanted to be a writer or what I wanted to do with a writing degree. I just knew that I wanted it. Essentially, I wanted to get a Master's in English because I'd spent most of my college career pursuing a Bachelor's in "Christianity."

But going to school because you "like to learn" doesn't really cut it with acceptance committees. So I graduated, and left college, and worked odd jobs and started blogging and writing and traveling and writing and then looking for any job that would give me experience as a writer. But the economy tanked and I moved to a new place and the only job I was really qualified for was in youth ministry. So I did that for two years. And here I am, trying to sell myself as a writer once again. But this time it feels different. I haven't read scads of books or acquired remarkable skills, but I have started to pay attention to myself, to the things that excite me and move me and affect me, the things that I've always loved, even when I didn't realize it.

I think of what God would say if he were to read through my statement of purpose, and for the most part I think he would smile (which is something I don't often say about God). I think God would be glad to see me finally doing the things that he made me to do, know that I've gotten the "parent-pleasing" out of my system. He might be disappointed by the little white lies I tell regarding the excellence of the university's faculty and my enthusiasm to work with professors whose bios I found online and whose works I've barely skimmed, but for the most part I think God would be okay.

It is difficult to get someone else to believe in you when you don't really believe in yourself. And it is difficult to believe in yourself when you are constantly being told that you don't measure up. The words I need to hear are not "You need Jesus," but "You are enough. You are gifted and talented and you are free to pursue those desires. You and your talents can meet the world's needs in a way no one else can." It's a bit lofty, I know, but it's a truth I need to claim if I am ever to write with conviction. What good is a statement of purpose if you don't believe it yourself?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Thank you and Goodbye

"You have a restless spirit" he typed.

(I have this addiction to gmail chat that I don't like to admit, but that is true nonetheless)

"Well, I suppose so..." I responded, "BUT..."

There's always a "but" when it comes to claiming my personal propensities, especially the ones that are so subjective. I guess I wasn't really claiming my restless spirit so much as I was defending it, as if I know there is something wrong with being restless, as if I want to be more settled and stable, but I just can't help myself and my perpetual need for change.

"I'd like to think of it more as wanderlust," I continued. "BUT...I suppose you're right."

I am restless. My spirit doesn't just occasionally stir, it shifts uncomfortably and continually, like a thirteen-year-old boy in the middle of an 8th hour English class. Mondays are the worst. I haven't gone to work on a Monday morning since September, maybe August. It's supposed to be my sabbath--the day I don't drive to Liberty or answer my work e-mails or worry about finding chaperones for the next middle school retreat--but it often ends up feeling quite the opposite. Last Monday was fairly productive--I worked on a writing sample and did my dishes and went to the gym and made phone calls. I did some reading. Today I slept in until 8:45, made breakfast, answered some e-mails, and realized yet again how fitful I become without a schedule.

Then I thought about the "Thank you and Goodbye" reception that was held for me at St. Stephen yesterday. It strikes me as somewhat absurd that you wouldn't thank someone for their work until they are about to leave. A "thank you" reception would have been really helpful about 12 months into my job, when I started each morning re-thinking whether or not I should have taken it. "Thank you" would have been a great thing to say when I was in the throws of organizing a service event, planning a confirmation service, or finishing a weekend with a dozen middle school girls. But waiting until I leave to tell that my work is appreciated is almost cruel. I'm sure it was meant to give me a case of the "warm fuzzies," but instead it made me feel empty and hollow. If I had known that I was appreciated, that people noticed and even liked what I was doing, maybe I wouldn't have been so restless, so ready to move on.

Leaving a job, I have decided, is a lot like breaking up with someone. I've never really been on this side of that equation before (i.e., the "dumper"), but I imagine I would probably have similar second thoughts and misgivings about leaving another entity to whom I had previously committed myself. Maybe that's part of the reason I haven't ever ended a relationship. Because I just don't end things. I fight the end, sometimes fiercely. I didn't end my relationship with high school, college, or any of the half a dozen internships that I've had. They were only temporary in the first place.

The only time I've ever really left a place was when I moved from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Kansas City. My waitressing gig at Tandoor wasn't bringing in much money, so that was a pretty painless and mutual decision. But I nearly cried when I left the HyVee bakery. When my manager asked if I wanted to stay in the system I replied, "Well, you never know." They were happy to see me move onto bigger things, but I was still sad to go.

This is the first time a job has ever pursued me. We sort of pursued each other really. It didn't seem like a perfect fit, at least not from my perspective, but they seemed so very eager to make it work. So I thought I'd have a go and see what happened. It was blissful for a while. I was surrounded by preschool students singing Christmas songs and coloring gingerbread men. I got paid to go camping and canoeing and to talk to high school students about the importance of prayer and the beauty of community. It was good stuff. But then, about a year in, I wasn't really sure about it anymore. I wasn't sure if this could be a more permanent thing, if I could see myself as a youth director for the rest of my life. I wasn't being affirmed in my work and didn't feel able to freely use my gifts. It wasn't what I expected from a youth position and it didn't satisfy me the way I thought a career should. I was young. I had other ideas. I had the freedom to pursue them. So I decided I would. I put in my two years and I began dreaming of other things.

I suppose it isn't unlike my current relationship with David. He was the first person to really pursue me, and I suppose I pursued back as well. It didn't seem like a perfect fit, at least not from my perspective, but he seemed so very eager for things to work. So I thought I would have a go and see what would happen. It was blissful at first. We began dating in December, surrounded by Christmas lights and holiday parties, and those sort of "early relationship" conversations. There was someone else paying for me to go to movies and taste delicious things and cook amazing food and meet his wonderful friends. It was good stuff. But then, about a year in, I wasn't really sure about it anymore. I wasn't sure if this could become a more permanent thing, if I could see myself with David for the rest of my life. We talked about it and got passed it and then he moved to California. Eight months later I began applying for graduate schools, mostly in the Bay Area. Up until November I was pretty sure about moving to California next summer. But then I was encouraged to apply elsewhere. I developed other ideas. I have the freedom to pursue them. But I am at a complete loss as to whether or not I should.

I wonder if some relationships (certainly not all of them, but some) would benefit from a "Thank You and Goodbye" ritual, only without the goodbye part. In fact, long before the goodbye happened. If we spent more time appreciating each other and affirming the roles that we play in one another's lives (romantic or otherwise) maybe there wouldn't be as much dissatisfaction and doubt and questioning. Maybe it would hamper some of that longing for something better, the restlessness that I so often seem to experience.

It's unfortunate that the catalyst for gratitude is so often the real or perceived risk of loss. When someone threatens to leave we suddenly realize how valuable they were or are or could be if only they weren't going away. But by that point it is often too late to say "thank you" without also saying "goodbye." And "goodbye" just seems like such a terribly cold thing to follow a heartfelt word of appreciation.

I'm not sure that appreciation would do anything to tame the restlessness of my spirit, but perhaps I would feel a bit more at home, a bit more welcome to rest in its acceptance.