published Sunday, May 18th, 2014

Shavin: When your life's work isn't your whole life work

By Dana Shavin

Last September, I did something I thought I would never do. I took a job. With a boss. And a desk. And the unspoken requirement that I show up for work wearing something other than ripped jeans, a hoodie and pink flowered footies.

For the last 15 years, I've had the great fortune to be able to make my living as a painter. Before that, I was a mental health clinician for 10 years. By the time I left the mental health job, I was deeply unhappy. Nothing about it -- not my responsibilities, my hours, my boss, nor every piece of work-appropriate clothing I owned -- seemed to fit the person I was or the vision I had for myself and my life. Which was shocking to me because, ever since college, I'd wanted nothing more than to work in the helping profession.

Leaving my job was scary and confusing. I knew very few people who had left a solid career to do something as financially risky as painting. It was also a little sad because I realized that the thing I'd felt called to do -- be a therapist -- no longer suited me.

At the time, it hadn't occurred to me that callings, like people, evolve. I hadn't read Henry David Thoreau's treatise on discovering our life's purpose ("One should always be on the trail of one's own deepest nature," he wrote, and to that end he followed a number of trails that did and didn't pan out). All I knew was that I'd spent time and money in graduate school to prepare me for what would be my life's work -- my whole life's work -- and there I was, in my mid-30s, leaving it behind.

But I was so discontented I couldn't not leave. And so, for the next 15 years, I focused on the new thing I was doing that I loved: Making art and figuring out how to sell it. There were lean years and fat years, fun years and years when almost every outdoor art fair I set up at ended in a tornado and seemingly every gallery that took my work went out of business. But for all the ups and downs, I was happy. Because it was my calling.

And then it wasn't my calling, and the whole cycle of discontent started again. More and more I didn't like leaving my aging dogs to go out of town to art shows. Because I didn't want to go to shows, I wasn't putting my all into my work. In fact, most days at the studio, I had a hard time making myself paint.

What I really wanted to do was to work on a book I'd started, and so, as my paints dried in their tubes and my brushes stiffened with neglect, that's what I did. I still went to a handful of shows and painted dog portraits when customers requested. But when my husband and I moved into our new house a year and a half ago, I didn't re-establish a studio. A writing room, yes.

Which brings me back to the job I took last September, for which I must dress like an adult. I took over as communications director and editor of the Chattanooga Jewish Federation newspaper, The Shofar. It's a part-time gig that combines desktop publishing with writing and editing. It allows me to merge my creative side with the side of me that is ridiculously enthralled with punctuation and sentence structure. It's a marriage of playfulness and precision, and it's a perfect fit for who and what I am becoming: less painterly and more writerly; less jeans and footies and more skirts and booties.

Of course, I have feelings about no longer painting. When I look in the rearview mirror of my working life, I now see two careers disappearing in the distance. I sometimes wonder if I shouldn't have held on. But I go back to Thoreau who, having failed to make a place for himself in the New York literary world, returned to Vermont to pursue a more fitting life of solitary writing and contemplation.

"Be resolutely and faithfully who you are, " he wrote, upon his return. "A man's own calling ought not to be forsaken."

Wise words, I think, to work and live by.

Contact Dana Shavin at Danalise@juno.com.

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