Monday, August 16, 2010

When You Don't Know What's Next

Last week I went to one of my favorite stores, Barnes & Noble, to get a birthday gift for my brother. While I was there, I found a small sale book ($5 is about what I can these days) from Ann Patchett (author of Bel Canto and several other books). The book was based on Patchett’s graduation speech to her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence. The title is What’s Next?

I remember the questions I used to get as a college student that really had no answer, which were variations of “What next?” What was I going to do with an English degree? I had the answer once upon a time. I was going to teach. Looking back, I’m grateful I had an answer for so many years, even if that answer wasn’t in fact, “the answer,” since after one year of teaching high school, I decided I wanted to do something else. So for a few years I worked different jobs and tried to figure out “What next?” Then, in one day, I had the answer, I was going back to school. It felt right and also good: it was completely paid for.

As a graduate student, the question came again, “What next?” and like the majority of students, I had no idea what I would do next. More college for a Ph.D. is a nice answer, but I didn’t think I wanted to do that. One friend finally asked in exasperation, “Do you even know what you’re doing?” Well, now, that question I had an answer to. I didn’t know what I was going to do NEXT, but I knew what I was doing right at that time. I was taking one step at a time, doing whatever was next in front of my face. An assignment, a work project, whatever needed to be done, that’s what I was doing.

In the 20 or so years since then I've had times when I knew both what I was doing and what I would be doing next; I’ve also had plenty of the other when I had no idea what I was going to do, what I should be doing, how I was going to support myself, what was next. Right now I have what I see as the luxury of knowing what I’m going to do from September to December. I have two classes to teach; the money isn’t fabulous but I can mostly live on it. After that, who knows? Maybe I’ll have a better idea as we get closer to December. Or maybe I’ll finish up and have no idea until January. In the meantime, I found some comfort from Ann Patchett’s experience (which included a lot of waitressing, even after she earned a graduate degree, which makes me feel better). She says:

Sometimes we don't realize what we've learned until we've already known it for a very long time.

Receiving an education is a little bit like a garden snake swallowing a chicken egg: it's in you but it takes a while to digest.

If you're trying to find out what's coming next, turn off everything you own that has an OFF switch and listen.

I guess it’s time to turn off my computer and listen for while. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.

1 comment:

Lynn Gardner said...

Something great will come to you because you are so great yourself. All in the Lord's time table - which is hard for us mortals, isn't it? Hugs, Lynn