when a calling comes full circle
Mama, do the Our Father in French tonight.
He whispers his request as he burrows under the comforter, eyes flashing bright in the dim of his bedroom draped in night. Of course, I agree. And in an instant we’re off. I close my eyes and start to sing, and for a moment I drift back.
The cold stone church, frigid even in summer. The rows of plain wooden chairs with ancient woven seats. The prayers of the Mass turned to poetry in another tongue, the words I committed to heart to keep from flipping through my missal every moment like the obvious outsider that I was, even after a year.
I’ve forgotten so many words from that time – the names of strange vegetables at the market, the polite way to ask for directions, the slang on the corner store magazines. But still the language lingers, if not on my lips then deeper.
Even when I thought I’d left it behind.
. . .
Some choices seem definitive. I dropped the journalism minor when I fell hard for the humanities. I left the English major behind when art history flared its passion. But I could never quit the French. Even when it was impractical, indulgent, unemployable, save for the doctorate too many professors tried to push me towards.
So when I finally had to admit to myself that there was a turning, that the longing was no longer for language, that the tug was towards theology – the deepest of the humanities, the heart of the cultures I loved, the Word before all other words – I had to grieve the loss.
There were dreams – of a Parisian address, of doctoral programs abroad, of years spent pouring through poetry – that I had to let slip away.
Maybe somewhere deep down I wondered if it might bubble up again, if I could come back to the conjugations and the circumflexes and pick back up where I’d left off.
But I never really thought it would happen.
. . .
People would ask sometimes: you’re teaching the boys French, right?
And I’d look up at them with dark circles under my eyes from bedtime battles and mid-night nursing and early morning rising to tug soaked sheets off the crib again, and I’d think to myself: you’re kidding, right?
But then little by little, it started to creep back in.
A nursery rhyme here, a church hymn there. A few cooking words in the kitchen while we’d bake. A simple grace before meals. Then one rainy afternoon I taught the oldest Notre Père and we were off.
Suddenly he was digging out the children’s dictionaries and asking me to tell him words-in-French from his favorite books and correcting his little brother’s toddler version of Frère Jacques.
How did we get here? I’d wonder.
. . .
I’d only grabbed the church bulletin out of habit, something to read for the thirty seconds between strapping the last kid in a car seat and starting the car to drive home. But that Sunday a small notice in the corner caught my eye: French translators needed.
Turns out our sister parish in Haiti was sending a team to visit us this fall. Since they didn’t speak English and our folks didn’t know Creole, everyone’s non-native tongue was the only way to email back and forth.
You’re kidding. I thought to myself. I could actually help them with this from home?
So here I am now, the giant black French dictionary back on the desk, the dusty Micro Robert off the shelf to check verb tenses, even the Google Translate cheat to look up words that didn’t exist a decade ago in my college texts. I’m back in the world of delighting at what translates well and laughing at what’s impossible to culturally correspond, back in the world where we reach across differences through the power of language, back in the world where words matter deeply.
And with each email request that pops in my inbox, I remember how much I love this world.
Would I have had the courage, the confidence, even the chutzpah to blow off the dust and start the rusty wheels squeaking again, if it hadn’t been for these little boys who dragged me back first? It’s a terribly humbling thing, to spend years of your life perfecting a language and then fumble for the most basic turns of phrase years later.
But my son’s Montessori teacher talks over and over about synapses, about stretching out the tiny tendrils of a preschooler’s mind so that years from now, when he comes across rhombus or ovoid or quadratic equation, the synapses will already be reaching out across the divide to let the spark jump that much quicker.
Maybe callings run across these same impulses and energies. When we spend years chasing one dream, plowing into the work and sacrifice it takes to strive for a worthy goal, then even when we turn and take up another direction, the pathways do not close completely behind us. There’s still electricity waiting to leap across the now-dark abyss.
In all my work on vocation, these are my favorite stories. Not I knew I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was 5 years old. Not I stumbled into this work, though looking back I can see God’s hand.
But I had this dream once, and I thought I let it go, I thought my life turned in a very different direction, but then it turned out that years later, I did get to follow that dream after all.
So when he cuddles under the quilt and asks me to sing Je vous salue Marie again, I always say Yes.
You never know where Yes will lead.
Another here with a deep love of the French language. When I went to Paris for a week in 2012, the words came back to me so easily – even though I hadn’t studied French in at least 17 years. It was such a comfort that it was still there – buried deep in the recesses of my brain.
This is the first (and, so far but not for long, only post) of yours that I have read, but I’m already convinced you might be my long-lost twin.
Who can explain the strange desire to learn and speak French? I’ve been learning off and on for several years, and given the longevity of this urge that has (to my mind) no utilitarian purpose, I can’t help but think it’s a prompting of the Holy Spirit. So I’ve given it back to Him, with the hopes that He will a) grant me words and b) reveal, in His good time, why it is that I spend the time I do studying this particular language.
I’m so glad you found my blog so that I could find yours!
Thank you, Rhonda! So glad we could connect and discover each other’s work across this blogging world! I completely agree – the Spirit’s ways are mysterious but you can’t ignore such nudges. Who knows what lies ahead, or what paths will emerge that we can’t yet see…
Laura, This was a wonderful post! I think one of your best. Sincerely, Tressa
still, always dreaming…
This is so beautiful, Laura. And I’m reading this while at our Motherhouse in Paris….close to Compiegne where you spent that ama-zing AMA year….all part of that crazy, wonderful, glorious journey that is Life. God bless you.
Goosebumps! Please send my love to the sisters there…my thoughts are transported back to Compiegne. What a gift that year was, and continues to be. Blessings on all your work.
I love this. And I am with you, Laura — my favorite stories are those that say “it turned out I followed my dream after all.” We are always dreaming. We are always becoming.
“We are always becoming” – yes. Isn’t that comforting and sometimes maddening all at once? But I love those stories. I hope life always continues to surprise me, and I find myself in my elder years returning to parts of my life I thought I had set aside. Always dreaming.
What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing…with us, with your children, and with those whom you’ve found need you.
Thank you, Julie!