Lunch today was remarkably mundane: a hefty helping of meatballs, rusty tomato sauce, slick tubes of pasta, and a makeshift salad. The climax of it all was a perfect square of caramel-drenched bread pudding, complete with a dollop of whipped cream. I probably should have skipped the sweet indulgence; it brought to mind a whole host of weaknesses I would rather not have thought about.
Cozied up against the window, a once-was professor of mine joined me for rushed conversation over a panache-less meal. It was catch-up time, really—explanation and justification for the happenings in our respective lives, punctuated by cumbersome bites of pasta and slobbery misses to the mouth. If anything, the silence that conducted the crawl of questions and answers gave us sufficient time to eat.
She’s an amazing person, this professor. Clearly, though, she’s been dogged by demons for sometime. Colluding internally against her, she often seems worn down by them. And yet, try as her colleagues might, she will not talk about them. But I’m not a colleague.
“It’s difficult,” she confessed with a deep sigh and a flick of her fork. “I see all of my colleagues pleased with their position in life. They’re happy. But I don’t know really know if this is what I want to do when I grow up.” Rightly confused, she went back to the protracted silence that was quickly filled with nibbles and crunches.
“What’s happening in your life?” was her next—and far more enthusiastic—entrée into conversation. I told her about my decision to re-apply for graduate school, the impetus that drove it, and my feelings about what I’ve experienced since I’ve been in Denver. “I’ve just seen so much of the underside of the culinary world,” I explained apologetically. “There’s so much ego, so much greed, so much that I cannot swallow. I just can’t do this.” She nodded.
“Are you surprised?” I added after a pause unfilled with bites of any kind.
“No,” she said without hesitation. “Not surprised at all, really. What you write is so much deeper than people your age; and I know you’re a very spiritual person.” She didn’t smile, but spoke firmly. Her eyes were intensely serious, as I was used to seeing when she offered votes of confidence to myself and others.
“You know,” she continued, looking back at her muddled cottage cheese, now oozing over into her grapes, “I got a tap on the shoulder a long time ago and I ignored it.” I asked her what she meant. “I’m pretty sure that tap was a call to missionary work.” Taken aback but meaning to be supportive, I quickly asserted, “Teaching is a form of missionary work.”
“That’s what I try to tell myself,” she said. But then, there’s only so much convincing and justifying before the truth can’t be hidden anymore. It’s there—bald, naked, open, and unbearably real. In those moments, we only hope we have the courage to listen.
We walked back to her office shortly afterwards, talking about how we could help each other out. I offered to talk to her and other professors’ classes about my experiences. She openly offered any help she could possibly give to help me get back to school, to follow my passion, my call. I couldn’t help but feel bad—not because I had wronged her, but because I could feel her fear that the chance to follow her own call had passed her by. Afraid to face it and realize it’s too late, we sometimes plod along on our course and make the most of the lives we have already made.
I see these things, marked by the irony of mediocre food and clumsy conversation, and I wonder about my call. I wonder about it everyday, but moments like these don’t happen frequently. And while my professor might not be able to pursue her call to the degree she would like, it is comforting to know that they opportunity is still out there for me—and for many people. Maybe, in fact, it’s never too late to follow it.
In the end, I have a wealth of people who enlighten me everyday. How can I say thank you for what I see and hear over a mediocre meal? Maybe there is no way—except to be who I am, who I am called to be, and listen to my call. Scary as hell though it may be.