Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
T.S. Eliot, from “East Coker”
On the first day of no school, my daughter and I walk into town for a cupcake. Actually, the cupcake is an afterthought, a postscript at the end of our to-do list. We have a letter to mail, and we’re looking for a short list of odd items: a frame for the llama picture we bought last week at a Caspar Babypants concert in the park, super glue to fix a broken jewelry box, and various groceries. For these items we walk the mile or so down our hill to “the Junction,” a collection of shops, big and small, that form the backbone along the ridge of our West Seattle neighborhood. The street is new to me, but it feels pleasantly comfortable, a cousin of the ridge under whose protective shade I grew up, the place where I’d walk for eye exams or haircuts or hamburgers.
This familiarity is comforting, because we’re still new here. We peer into various coffeeshops and bakeries, still searching, like Goldilocks, for the one that feels “just right.” Not too cool—like the aloof place around the corner that is filled with professional wear and laptops—and not too hot, like the French bakery further down, whose line for the perfect chocolate croissant stretches down the sidewalk, with no available seats in sight. The perfect coffeeshop for a very pregnant mother and her two-year-old daughter is an elusive quarry, but there are few things more fun than sharing a pastry with a toddler in just the right setting. We’ll keep looking.
Our errands completed with mixed success, we end up, against my better judgment, inside the cupcake shop. Though the room is airy and welcoming, down-to-earth enough to accommodate our stroller and its occupant, in the end they really just sell expensive cupcakes and so-so coffee. Still, in the spirit of exploration we sit down to share one. I’m disappointed, though Luci declares, “I liked the chocolate part,” about the frosting at least seven times, lest I be tempted to give up on cupcakes altogether.
“I miss BFA,” Luci says out of the blue.
“Me too, Lu,” I reply.
For a moment, I allow myself to think about the pictures and videos that I encountered first thing this morning, from the first day of school at Black Forest Academy. I saw videos of students that I just finished teaching—it can’t be more than a week ago, can it?—carrying flags in for Opening Ceremony, just like they always do. I saw photos of thrilled hugs after summers away, the tearful goodbyes with parents as some students leave home for the first time. A read the hopeful, joyful, even gleeful posts of returning staff members, thrilled to go back to work after summers that, though restful, meant a period of dormancy from their primary callings in the classroom. It was a celebratory outburst of social media, the way it always is, really.
Except this year, we’re not there.
I read an article last week in the New York Times that encouraged readers to take the time and emotional energy to mourn career changes. The author seemed to think this was a revolutionary notion, that most people are gleefully hopping from job to job, so excited to for the next glowing opportunity that they never look back. It is important, he wrote, to spend time preparing for the changes ahead, getting ready for the feelings of loss that will inevitably occur after you leave behind the relationships and expertise that you’ve cultivated at a job. Even if you’re thrilled with your new position, he seemed to say, take a moment to bid your old one a proper farewell.
I agree, but rather think the article didn’t go far enough. How many people leave their jobs for reasons other than the rosy upward mobility assumed by this article? Sometimes people need to move away from a dream job, or get laid off, or undergo a career change that, though voluntary, is still a huge leap of faith away from familiarity. And sometimes a career change means leaving the work force entirely.
The latter position is where I find myself today, the first First Day of School that I haven’t been a teacher (or a teacher on a year’s leave) in the last twelve years. Sometimes a career change means leaving something that you love, that you’re good at, that you could imagine doing forever, simply because you feel called, at your very core, to do something else for a while. And, though I tremble sometimes to admit it, the fact that my current calling is full-time motherhood—a position full of privilege and goodness in its own right—shouldn’t make the mourning any less real or necessary.
I loved teaching. I’m not doing it now. And that makes me sad sometimes, especially on crisp September days when everything in me feels like getting to know a bunch of teenagers and beginning to read books and write essays again. Not teaching, for the moment, is like a perpetual August.
After the disappointing cupcake, we head back towards home. Luci wants to walk, so I let her trot gaily along the sidewalks—the familiar rows of cement squares, three wide, that could have been plucked straight out of my own Greenlake childhood—while I push the stroller full of groceries up the hill. She weaves back and forth, motivated more by curiosity than efficiency, and for once I’m not in a hurry. We take our time, meandering back, now through the neighborhoods, and commenting on houses and yards that we like.
Time is the real gift of this season, really. We have time, all the time we want, to learn our new roles. Stay-at-home-mom, mother of two, big sister, Seattle resident—it’s all new to us. The learning curve might be continuous, I’m realizing, as I teach two little people who will change immeasurably every day, but the reward is even greater, the beauty even richer, the love even stronger than that I’ve had with several hundred teenagers over the past decade or so.
So, like one of the upwardly-mobile New York Times readers, I’m mourning a career I’ve loved, picking up my filing box and heading, wide-eyed and excited and a little nervous, into a new one. There is much to learn, every day. And thank goodness I love learning.