Has a key breadwinner in your family lost their job with no prospects in sight? Or have you ever felt trapped in a job by your need to earn an income?
I suspect few of us have been lucky enough to not feel these pressures at one point in our lives. If you're among the unlucky, then you know that these uncertain periods often can be as stressful and fearful as a dread disease. When you’re stranded like that, you’re often left wondering: Is there any meaning to all this? If so, where is it?
Nancy Nordenson was confronted by such questions nearly a decade ago. She was a freelance medical writer from Minneapolis who felt an inner desire, a deep calling if you will, to a more spiritual form of literary work. But just as she began that transition her husband lost his job. Their two sons were still in college, and she had started a two-year program to earn a Master’s of Fine Art in Creative Writing.
“Should I quit school and postpone this perceived calling?” Nancy asks, reflecting back on that period. “Or stay in school and continue my full-time job of medical writing?” Did she even have a choice?
Nancy decided to do both. “It was a complex time,” she says simply.
It was during this period, when her husband needed space at home for his job search, that her office and worktable sharply symbolized the degree of that complexity, as Nancy portrays in her book, Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure.
She writes in the essay ‘A Place at the Table’: “Sometimes I walk past the door, see the lamp’s glow cast across the desk, and miss sitting there so badly. I glimpse my husband’s white coffee cup and long to throw it away and replace it with the cup of my choosing. I see the worktable covered with his stacks and want to clear them off with a single defiant sweep of my arm. I’d pull my chair up to the table and reclaim it. Toss his notes of false leads and plate of leftover lunch. Hang a NO TRESPASSING sign on the door.”
“I was angry,” Nancy says today. “When I started writing that particular essay, it was a kind of vent.”
Writing about that job loss and consequent financial pressure turned out to be the seed crystal from which her book sprang.
Her book is not a memoir. And it’s certainly not a self-help guide book. Instead, Nancy’s book is a deep, and at times humorous, exploration into our working lives. Her book asks: How and where do I find meaning in my work, no matter what I’m doing?
And yet there’s something more. Intentionally or otherwise, Nancy uses work as a metaphor for a deeper probe into the realm of life itself: How do I find meaning in my life, regardless of my circumstance?
That’s exactly the question that pressed on Martha and me after her diagnosis in 1997. I just didn’t know it at the time. Only through wrestling with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s for 17 years did this question come clear. Its answers, too.
Nancy’s initial essay and resultant book was “a cleansing process.” It was difficult to sense any meaning, she says, when it felt like “God had pulled a bait-and-switch.”
Eventually, though, her anger and fear subsided. “Our guiding principle,” she says of her husband, “was to stay committed to each other, to stay committed to God, and to stay committed to our sons. I don’t remember one big meeting between my husband and me; we just kept confirming we’re in this together.”
The meaning of it all didn’t unfold instantaneously. Eight years transpired from that first essay to the publication of her book in early 2015. Says Nancy: “As the shaping and re-shaping of my book moved forward, I saw that God’s call is not for just one aspect of my life. You can’t pick apart your life. Meaning has to work for the whole package.”
“I really came to realize that without periods of contemplation and prayer (individually and as a couple), I couldn’t see the wholeness in all we were doing.” She couldn’t fathom the mystery of it all, she adds. “It’s all part of that spiritual journey.”
What would have been the fallout, if any, had Nancy not searched for the meaning underlying their circumstance?
“I think you would fall into this trap of ‘Is this all there is?’” she says. “If you don’t look for that transcendent reality, there’s little or no joy, no hope. There’s a hole of bitterness that would make it hard to stay together.”
Nancy continues today with her full-time medical writing. “It’s good work for which I’m grateful, and I’ve never doubted that it’s meaningful work,” she says, even though she would have liked to divide her time more evenly between it and spiritual creative writing.
In writing Finding Livelihood, she wanted to “push back” at the directives that “impress on us to follow our passion and our desires as the way to meaningful work.” That’s what a number of life coaches and teachers, secular as well as Christian, are telling us today, she says.
“These principles of ‘common wisdom’ are not universal truths at all,” she says. “They’re not even biblical. They leave out people who choose to stay in a paying job to earn needed money. They leave out those who do everything they can to do the work they think God wants them to do, but hit a dead end. They leave out everyone whose work life is less than ideal.”
Nancy closes our conversation: “Surely we all have access to meaning regardless of our jobs or our place in life or our situation. We all can be in the flow of God’s grace.”
“We all have God's call on us in all kinds of different and mysterious ways that not even we can know the specifics of for ourselves, and sometimes all we can do is stay in relationship through prayer and Scripture and other kinds of devotion and trust that our path is his.”
Thank you, Nancy. These insights are good regardless of our crisis. You can find Nancy's website here.
Since starting this blog last September, I’ve written largely about how our family was forced to contend with Alzheimer’s. But I’ve tried to be clear: The focus of our story is the spiritual path that unfolded before my wife Martha and me. Alzheimer’s happens to have been the context of our story, not its focus. So on occasion I am broadening my posts to include others—like Nancy and Dr. David Compton—who are willing to share how they’ve dealt with life-changing crises, regardless of the issue.
Thanks for tuning in. Carlen.
P.S. Those of you from St. Petersburg might be interested to know that Nancy (Erickson) Nordenson grew up here and graduated from Northeast High in 1975. One of her first paying jobs was as a teen model with the now defunct downtown Maas Brothers department store.
P.P.S. You can read my future posts, and my past ones, by signing up for my free newsletter here.