This morning on the way to school, my son Noah, who is a senior and deep into the college application process, mentioned he might want to attend the University of Nebraska here in Lincoln. “That way,” he said, “even if I live on campus, I can still come home to take care of my plants.”
I bit my tongue to keep from blurting, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” I mean, really — who selects a college based on its proximity to their houseplants?
Well, the answer is: Noah does. Because plants are Noah’s passion.
Noah started collecting plants almost before he could speak in complete sentences. This is the kid who, when he was a preschooler, sat on Santa’s lap at the mall and asked for the book Designing with Succulents for Christmas. I’ve never seen a Santa Claus look so utterly baffled as I shouted out from behind the velvet rope, “It’s a gardening book!”
The shelves in Noah’s room are lined with succulents and cactus. A rubber tree is staked near the window, and a dracaena marginata sits adjacent to his nightstand. In the early mornings, a fuchsia glow seeps from the crack beneath his bedroom door, light from the “grow lamp” he bought for his candelabra cactus. When I went to Honduras this summer, I texted him photos of giant agave clinging to the rocky hillside. I know my son; he prefers pictures of plants over people.
I thought about all this in the car this morning after Noah made his declaration about choosing a college that’s close to his houseplants. “That’s fine; I get that,” I finally said (diplomatically). “But you know,” I added, “I’m surprised, given how much you’ve always loved plants, that you don’t want to major in botany or horticulture. Plants are your passion, so why wouldn’t you want to major in something that would lead to a career working with plants?”
Noah has told us that he wants to pursue a major in the humanities. He’s mentioned English, German and history as possibilities; he insists he’s not interested in science, in spite of his obvious proclivity toward plants, the environment and nature.
“What about botany? What about forestry? What about environmental studies?” my husband and I ask from time to time. We’ve always expected, assumed, Noah would pursue something planty, something sciencey. Which is why I asked him this morning, “Why? Why wouldn’t you pursue something that is so obviously your passion?”
Noah shrugged. “Your passion doesn’t always have to be your job,” he answered.
I wrote my first book, Spiritual Misfit, 12 years ago (it was published in 2014, but it was written long before that). It took me two years to write the first draft of that book, during which time I would awaken before dawn, pull on my red fleece robe and a warm pair of socks and traipse down to the basement, where I hunched over the keyboard for an hour or two while my preschooler and toddler slept.
During those early mornings, tapping out words on the basement computer, I lost all track of time. The world did not exist during those hours. Time did not exist. My responsibilities and the demands of my daily life did not exist.
There was no blog (that came later). I didn’t have a Facebook account, Twitter hadn’t gone mainstream and Instagram didn’t yet exist. I didn’t know what a “platform” was. I wasn’t thinking about “felt need” or audience. I didn’t know anything about proposals or querying or agents. Sure, I had dreamy hopes that maybe someday I would publish whatever it was I was writing, but that all seemed very vague and very distant.
Mostly I wrote because both the process itself and what it revealed was intriguing to me. I wrote because through the process of writing, I discovered important things about myself, and I was curious to uncover more. I wrote because writing revealed myself to me. And because it was fun. Writing the first draft of Spiritual Misfit was a pure, undiluted pursuit of passion.
“Creative fields make crap for careers, but creative living can be an amazing vocation,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic.
This may not be true for everyone. I’m sure there are plenty of people, Gilbert herself included, who are able to successfully meld their passion and their career into one fulfilling, delightful pursuit. I have learned, though, that I am not one of these people.
Over the last ten years, writing morphed from my play and passion into my profession. It was a slow change, so slow I didn’t even recognize what was happening. I think maybe for a little while I was able to have it both ways — a passion that was also my profession. But over time, the demands of my profession — platform-building, meeting a “felt need,” mainaining social media, growing an audience, tracking sales, speaking, attending conferences, managing launch teams, writing book proposals and articles — edged out my passion bit by bit, until finally, like the moon covering the sun in a total solar eclipse, it obliterated it entirely.
Today I find myself in a different place. I have a job that I like and find fulfilling but is not my passion. The professional demands that strangled my passion for writing have fallen away. I am not building a platform or writing for a particular audience or striving to address a “felt need.” I do not feel the need to be productive with my writing. I’m not thinking about branding or messaging. I deleted my professional Facebook page, and I post on Instagram when I feel like it. I’m writing what I want to write about — and when I hear myself saying, “That’s selfish,” I tell myself, gently, “No, it’s not.”
Once again, I am remembering why I like to write. I am remembering that writing is fun and helps me feel more deeply alive. Most of all, I am remembering what I knew 12 years ago when I wrote the first draft of Spiritual Misfit in my basement, which is exactly what Noah clarified for me in the car on the way to school this morning.
I am remembering that my passion doesn’t have to be my job.