Where I am now, almost six years after my father’s final words to me. A continuation of the story begun in my first post, “My Father’s Final Words,” (posted Sept. 22), and further thoughts on loving God over loving success…
Sometimes, when I’m sweeping the floor at the university’s food court, I wonder whether any of the students know that, like them, I went to college once upon a time. That I have both a college degree and a master’s degree. That I worked as a journalist and a novelist and taught creative writing on a university level. They probably think I barely made it through high school, if they think of me at all. Aren’t most cashiers invisible? Secretly, I’m simply amused. I’m content to be there among them, if not as a professor of literature, then as a sweeper of floors.
I was 20-something and working as an editor for “Decision” magazine when I first met Brother Lawrence. He was a long-dead Carmelite monk who had spent much of his life toiling in the monastery’s kitchen, but whose letters posthumously ended up in a book titled The Practice of the Presence of God. He was an author but didn’t know it, which would have suited him just fine.
What Brother Lawrence really wanted was to live every moment of his life as a love affair with God. When I read his book I was most struck by these words: “I turn over my little omelet in the frying pan for the love of God…. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have picked up a straw from the ground for the love of God.”*
His seemed to me a noble lifestyle, and I wanted to live like that. But as I looked around I didn’t see many people picking up straw for the love of God. Instead, I saw a massive stampede toward achievement, attainment and success.
And so one starts running too because everyone else is, and apparently this is what life is all about. Soon, though, one discovers that even doing her best isn’t good enough. A person has to do her best plus be better than everyone else. I may be wrong, but as I looked around, it seemed to me that the human race was indeed in something of a race, with everyone pitted against everyone else, clamoring not toward some finish line but upward to the top of the heap. It was a race to out-smart, out-perform, out-do, and out-wit everyone else to become number one, the winner, the champion of champions.
I wanted to be a novelist and, after 13 years of effort, I finally did get published. I released 11 novels, got some good reviews, won a few awards. I ran and ran, but I didn’t fully understand why I was running and I always felt a little lost. Somehow I had started out believing that the purpose of literature was to share ideas, to help others make sense of life, to create something beautiful and offer it as a gift. And to a certain extent, it is. But to a greater extent, it’s something else.
It took me years to understand that the publishing industry is not so much about words as it is about numbers. It has to be. I entered the industry a naïve romanticist (not in the sense of a romance writer, but as one who is a lover of beauty, poetry, art, ideas), and took not a single thought to the fact that the industry has to make money to survive. It is a business for profit before it is a place for the exchange of ideas and the offering of beauty. Because—as much as it hurts my artistic sensibilities—money makes the world go ’round and beauty is a luxury that is secondary to survival.
(And God knows that we all have to be financially successful to a certain extent simply to stay alive. Sadly, though, no matter one’s profession, all human industry bows down to the Almighty Dollar, as opposed to Heaven, where everything bows down to the Almighty Himself.)
So instead of “What words of hope do you have to offer?” and “What ideas do you have to share?” the primary questions in publishing are “How many books have you sold?” and “What’s your ranking on Amazon?”
Though I was good with words, I was never very good with numbers, and so by industry standards I was not successful. Sales of my books were low, translating into very little money for my publisher, my agent, and myself. After several years of coasting, this lover of words was at length defeated by numbers, and I was at the end of the road.
But God didn’t leave me there, and maybe it wasn’t so much the end of the road as a shift to a different path. Because right about the time I realized I had fallen hopelessly behind in this human race, God began telling me that the story I’m living is far more important that any story I had written or could ever hope to write because my story was never meant to be a success story in the first place, it was meant to be a love story with him.
That changed everything, and what might have been a soul-crushing encounter with despair became a life-giving encounter with the Lover of my soul.
In 2016, to help pay our bills, I took the only work I could find at my age which, believe me, is no longer 20-something. Though I tried for professional positions, I was offered only one job: as a cashier. I now work seven hours a day at a university food court—oddly enough, a job not all that different from what Brother Lawrence did in the monastery kitchen—so that even while my mornings are spent freelance editing for a small publishing house, the majority of my day is devoted to ringing up food sales, stocking cups and lids, and sweeping up waffle fries.
And yet, for the first time in my life, I’m at peace about my life. And that’s the amazing thing because joy and peace were largely elusive during those treadmill years of chasing after numbers. But that’s the difference between living for success and living for the love of God. I finally understand Brother Lawrence and can make his words my own: “I run my little cash register for the love of God…. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough to sweep up waffle fries from the floor for the love of God.”
I’m dropping out of the human race not because I’m giving up on life, on myself, or my dreams, but because I’m giving in to God’s call to make my life not a success story, but a love story with him.
* Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Orleans MA: Paraclete Press, 1985, p. 146.