I had to update my passport recently, so I found myself rummaging through the files in my filebox, where I came across one labeled "Certifications." It gave me pause, partly because it seemed weird to me that we could mark our lives by little pieces of paper handed to us by some granting authority, and also because those silly pieces of stamped and signed paper tell the amusing and disjointed story of my life:
Firefighter 1, 190 hours of firefighter training
Advanced Fire Behavior, Flashover Course
Wildland Fire Control
Hazardous Materials Operations
First Aid and CPR
Therapy Dogs of Vermont
Hospice Volunteer Services training
Photographer's Forum Magazine finalist, spring photo contest
Skydiving, ground and aerial training
and two diplomas: St. Lawrence, BA, English Literature and University of Vermont, MEd., Educational Studies
Some of this stuff came about in the aftermath of 9/11 when I realized that I had no actual skills that would come in handy during a catastrophic event. I didn't even know how to help a choking person, so I set about trying to figure some things out. Some of it was motivated purely by curiosity. For years I drove past the Charlotte Volunteer Fire Department building, wondering just what the heck was going on inside. On the night I finally drew enough courage to attend a meeting, I was taken out to a very frozen Lake Champlain, suited up and persuaded, if you will, to participating in ice rescue training. I was hooked. Floating there, in that warm, buoyant suit, under a sky full of stars, I wanted to know more. I wanted to be a part of something larger than myself. And I was sick of sitting through meetings in the name of community service.
Aahhh...the examination of a life.
Earlier this fall, at the onset of my CPE work at the hospital (Clinical Pastoral Education; I'm a chaplain intern), I had to consider and write my goals for the eight months of training. I absolutely hated it. I'm not at all a goal-oriented person. And so reading my aspirations aloud to my cohort of six was a deadening experience. I was about two minutes into my presentation when it looked and felt like everyone was falling asleep. My goals sucked, and because they sucked I wasn't at all interested in them or in putting the full weight of intent behind them.
We reached the mid-point in the program recently and so it was time to reexamine those original goals, and because I have a few months of experience visiting patients under my belt now, things are much clearer. In the category of Personal Goals, I originally wrote some crap about wanting to get out into the woods more often and to eat more healthy foods. When I re-read that garbage, it hit me immediately: I don't need to eat any more fucking vegetables, I need to have more fun. I need to eat more Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk; I need to start playing hockey again; I need to kiss more often; I need to spend more time with the 9-year-old set and let myself get lost in their beautiful life of imagination and possibility. I don't need a bunch of serious-minded goals intended to make me stronger or healthier or wiser; I need to give myself and everyone I love a break. I need to take more naps; I need to open up enough space so the unexpected can creep in and take root.
Mary Pipher, in her book, Writing to Change the World, sums it up like this: "We are here to grow a soul and then use it in service to mankind." Just like that. How to grow a soul? That's the great mystery and the question you should never, ever stop asking yourself. All those things I hold certification for probably helped. Every single one of them required me to go outside my cozy zone of comfort. Try this: push yourself out a little further, take a whole bunch of risks, try it if you're curious about it and knock it off already with all the seriousness. It's just a lovely ride. James Taylor says so, and he's right. I know this now from the research I've been doing sitting with patients for the past three months: there is not a single person laying in a bed on the oncology floor at the hospital saying, "I wish I had eaten more kale."