(via Country Marketplace)

Another pointer from Maria Popova, this time to a piece that I found in Robert Bringhurst's The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, from a 1998 lecture at University of Victoria, British Columbia: one of the most eloquent and sublime distillations I've encountered, alive with ideas I have thought since forever, but never articulated so elegantly. That's me he's describing, or at the very least, that to which I aspire. The bolding may seem excessive, but the passage will reward multiple readings, and I see no wasted words. You may find your own parts to render as bold.

Vocation means, of course a call. Diplomas are written, vocations are spoken. To find a vocation means to be summoned: called to exceed your qualifications, whatever they may be; called to explore and to fulfill your capabilities. Those who have vocations inhabit a world where doing and being are one and the same because continuous learning unites them. I have learned, as a frequent visitor to universities, that the university itself is often such a world, for its students as much as for its faculty — and that one of the greater challenges of life in North America today is not so much to find as to maintain one's vocation after leaving university.

All the outside world seems to offer nowadays is a job — if it even offers that. But a job is not a vocation. A vocation won't fit within the confines of a job. And the wealth that vocations generate is not the kind of wealth you can measure in money. A vocation is work instead of a job. Hunting, fishing, farming, cooking, healing, nursing, mothering, fathering, painting, writing, teaching, composing, performing, watching the sky, talking to plants, talking to animals ... All these ancient and recent vocations — some of them much older than the species Homo sapiens, and some of them much younger — are facets or forms or corollaries of the one fundamental vocation, which is learning — and maintaining and refining and protecting and sharing whatever we can of what we have learned. Some of these ancient vocations have impressive modern names — agriculture, medicine, astronomy, botany, zoology, pedagogy and so on. And all of these domains are now encrusted with institutions. Institutions — including universities, when managers get hold of them — have a strange way of smothering and muffling vocations and reducing them to fragments. Those fragments of vocations are called jobs.

In the beginning, a vocation isn't much. Just perhaps a nagging interest that blossoms as habitual attention. It matures into continuous, compassionate, active, multivalent curiosity. Curiosity like that has a peculiar side effect. It produces, over time, a sense of intellectual responsibility. And that produces in its turn a nonconforming and nonconfining sense of identity. In other words, it is whole. A job is always a fragment. Vocation is whole.

A Douglas-fir's vocation is to be a Douglas-fir. A trout's vocation is to be a trout. The vocation of every human is to be a human being — and that would be the full text of this lecture if humans were summoned into being on the same terms as the Doug-fir or the trout. If humans had no driving need to manufacture stories, clothes, and houses, and if humans turned their offspring loose in the form of fertilized eggs or seeds, then the task of being human would be out of our control. The genes would be in charge. But we as human beings take delivery of ourselves in a state of natural and perpetual incompleteness, for which culture is the one imperfect cure. That built-in incompleteness is the biological price and the foundation of free will. We are born questions. Culture is the thin but sometimes lovely web of answers we keep spinning for ourselves. Yet the questions are still there — and when we start to hear them clearly, what we hear is our vocation. A vocation is a call, but the call is not a command; it is a question.


and here's John's Question:

...do we have, or have we ever had, a calling, a vocation. Not a job, per se, but something beyond working for the man, making a living. Instead, something that we are, or have been, asked to do, and in doing it, fulfilling ourselves...

I'll add another bit from Bringhurst:

Vocation is fascination, not ambition; it is work emancipated from time: a dialogue with being, not a program of predation and control... (pg 52)

Speaking for myself: I was especially fortunate to discover vocation early on, and to have had the freedom and the support to grow into and develop the germ once discovered. It continues to unfold and wax and complexify as a continuous process of self-directed learning, and I relish the opportunity to think it through during the next few days.

(I first encountered Bringhurst via his The Elements of Typographic Style Version 4.0: 20th Anniversary Edition, which Kate pointed me to. She said that it changed her life, made her see and think about books completely differently... and I'll say the same about it. It led me to Paul McNeil's The Visual History of Type: A visual survey of 320 typefaces, Keith Smith's Structure of the Visual Book, and Keith Houston's The Book: A Cover-To-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time ... and others. See Wikipedia and this marvelous summary of Bringhurst's broad influence).

Here's what I wrote on the yellow pad yesterday, after discovering the Bringhurst passage that started all this:

So what's my vocation, or how can it be epitomised? Is there anything more apposite/accurate than

"Informing others against their will" ?

In fact the outward appearances of a vocation are likely to change over time, and likewise the inner workings. A vocation is less a confining box (perhaps adorned by the raiments of roles: professor, librarian) than an expanding horizon, and the exponent of that vocation is best imagined as an explorer venturing into the Landscape in prospect of what there may be out there.

An Archetype? Perhaps the Questor (there's a niche for the Questor in most mythologies, I'd guess), but not necessarily confined to the search for any particular Grail. The Questor isn't simply a Hero, just as a Trickster isn't just a Villain... (Folklore rabbit hole on the left... and maybe the Golux lurking behind a bush just over there on the right...)

For many years I thought that my vocation was 'teaching' but in fact that was mostly my job, and when (around 1990) the role became too confining, I jumped ship and became a Librarian, freeing myself of the trammels of departments and grading and courses and disciplinary definitional matters. I was hired for the job of being a Reference Librarian, but I had complete freedom to broaden the mandate however I wanted, and so to follow my nose and to pursue the vocation beyond the job.

I'm tempted to a digression on compulsion, and the delicious obscurity of Geas:

Wikipedia tells us that a geas is "...an idiosyncratic taboo, whether of obligation or prohibition, similar to being under a vow or curse, yet the observance of which can also bring power and blessings..." (see also the Discworld variant). Did some faery visit my cradle and place upon me the geas to inform others? Or did I assign myself the task? Inquiring minds want to know...

And Kate points out "Um, avocation vs. vocation. Totally different things", prompting me to note that I've enjoyed a number of avocations (which I invoke to avoid that nasty demeaning term "hobbies") that are maybe ancillary to vocation, and include photography and music and the gustatory arts...

So my vocation requires that I be ready at any time to learn new things, which may come from any direction. Just now I had 20 minutes or so of education by Kate on the subject of thread, not a subject I had ever had occasion to know or wonder about. What will I ever do with that? Hmmm... connects up to history of technology re: machines to sew with and their development, which is sort of next door to the history of technology re: typewriters, which links to my nephew-in-law Rob Lawson's large collection of typewriters ...and so it goes. Outward, onward, circling back to the library shelves, writing stuff down on yellow pads... as I observed today while walking to Marshall Point, I have more fun than anybody...


On this snowy Saturday morning I want to explore geas with more examples; geas as compulsion, as the seed and foundation of virtuosity, as an inescapable once it has latched on. It occurred to me that I can make a long and interesting LIST of examples of people whose vocation is to entertain, and a gallery of YouTube examples would be diverting (I may get to assembling such a thing).

Back in the day (1960-1961) I was in frequent proximity to Liza Minnelli (she was maybe 3 years younger, classmate of Brookie, my agemate and close friend David Hutchinson's sister Brookie... a thread by which hang several tales...). Daughter of Judy Garland. Even at 14 or so Liza manifested the vocation to entertain. How could she not? Nature? Nurture? [yes...]. And that got me into a cascade (drawn from the capacious mental catalog) of performers whose lives exemplify vocation and fairly scream "geas!!!". In the order that they fell onto the page: Robin Williams, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye... Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker... Bach, Mozart, Liszt... Keith Jarrett, Hiromi Uehara, Gabriela Montero... Yamandu Costa, Billy Strings, Tommy Emmanuel, Molly Tuttle... Don't get me started...

It's what they DO, it's who they ARE. And many of them didn't live easy lives in their particular vocation: being a Performer/Entertainer is really demanding, taxing, wrenching, full of temptations, hell of a life ... and not the skittles-and-beer luxury enjoyed by, say, an Informer-Against-Will.

Watching (in the rear-view mirror of the mind) the process of unfurling/evolving of one's own sense of vocation is pretty much endlessly fascinating to oneself, but probably not to others, unless the narrative thereof is very cleverly woven and ummm... performed.


...and Kate contributes this:


I should have started out with the etymology of vocation, from Oxford Etymology dictionary:

vocation (n.) early 15c., "spiritual calling," from Old French vocacion "call, consecration; calling, profession" (13c.) or directly from Latin vocationem (nominative vocatio), literally "a calling, a being called" from vocatus "called," past participle of vocare "to call," which is related to vox (genitive vocis) "voice" (from PIE root *wekw- "to speak"). Sense of "one's occupation or profession" is first attested 1550s.

And I'm interested in the secular sense of vocation, not so much in the "divine call to the religious life" sense:

"how God calls you to serve Him in the world", or "a firm resolution by the help of God to serve Him in the ecclesiastical or religious state..."


The more I think about vocation, the more it seems interwoven with Identity, both internal Identity and as it is presented to the external world. Internal Identity is a story one tells oneself, an imaginative construction of meaning-making and shaping and working with Memory. External Identity takes many forms, and is an outward projection ... which can be managed as a role and/or a mask, and can be decorated with shibboleths that announce who you wish to be taken for by others...

Vocation is something that may arise and build and emerge from that inner Identity, and seems to be a product of lots of time and energies in the head, in the Mind, working on the emergent story/Narrative. Some people (persons of commitment, or compulsion...) find an outlet into the waking world for their newly-discovered vocation, and some of those become Heroes. I think here of people like Daniel Ellsberg, Randy Kehler, David Harris as instances of conscious decision to enact something that's larger than one's own comfort and complacency, to put themselves on the line for principle and exemplify a fearlessness that can inspire others.

...and the ideal of a spiritual vocation is really much the same, where the focus of enactment is service to an abstract Something.
Enactment puts the meat-body into directed and principled motion. A Writer or an Artist (as an enactor of a vocation) does exactly these things...
So I imagine an Inner Virginia Woolf, somewhat traceable through her writings, and the work of her biographers and interpreters. Her vocation was surely to Write...

Interior Identity is deliciously complex territory, and everybody manages their own (some manage well, others disastrously; some are more aware of the managing, others clueless). Learning to /manage/ is a lifelong process, and requires input from the senses, vastness of memory, and Ego sitting at the controls of the Analyzer-Integrator-Distributron... and starting with trial-and-error, and copying what others do, and making it up as you go along. In some people vocation coalesces and learns to stand on its own, and emerges from the Interior...

When I ask my Interior Identity about vocation, I discover an ever-expanding territory of interests and curiosities and discoveries that I've been curating ever since ...birth?... and have tools at hand to continue to construct and elaborate. And that seems to have been my life's work, though for what beyond my own pleasure, I know not.

This Question of Vocation has helped me realize (or at least consider) myself as Collector, Informinger, and Curator: a broad-spectrum Information Specialist, an emergent External Identity that I've been at work upon as far back as I can remember. Somewhere back in the Internal Identity is /circuitry/ for irony and polymorphy and serendipity...

I have never known another exponent of what I take to be my vocation, though there must be others touched by the same geas. If we did meet, how likely is it that we would dislike or disparage one another, rather than uniting in a common enthusiasm for a life of Self-Directed Self-Indulgent Learning?


The cartoon gallery seems an appropriate epitome of my vocation, and especially