In my wife’s favorite film, On Golden Pond, an elderly couple comes to their summer home on the lake. Norman is a perpetual grouch and Ethel is a perpetual ray of sunshine. He doesn’t know what to do with himself so he’s talking about getting a job. He’s not serious about it, he’s just being a grump. So Ethel sends him off to the woods to gather strawberries for a pie.
Ethel: Take these buckets and pick us another quart of strawberries.
And I’ll fix us up a scrumptious strawberry shortcake for lunch. Go on.
Norman: You want me to pick strawberries?
Ethel: Yep. Do I have to put an ad in the paper?
Norman: I’m not sure I know how.
Ethel: It’s really very simple. You bend over and pick ’em.
Norman: Bend over? Where are they?
Ethel: On the ground, where they belong.
Norman: Last time we picked blueberries they were on a bush. Didn’t have to bend over at all.
Ethel: These are strawberries, and they grow on the ground.
Norman: Here comes what’s-his-name. He’ll have the paper. I don’t want to miss any career opportunities off lookin’ for strawberries.
Ethel: I’ll pay you. It may be the beginning of something big.
You may become a major strawberry picker.
Jenn and I have seen it together many times, and this scene has come to represent something for us. There is something about the absurdity of looking for a job opportunity in something that will come of nothing. So, when I get all intense and grandiose about something that I can’t make a job out of my wife will say, “You might become a major strawberry picker!” Or sometimes I’ll recognize the situation and say it to myself. We laugh about it, and I generally take the cue to chill out.
You see, this is what I do! I find something that I’m good at, and I throw myself into it, perhaps ignoring other important things in my life! I start making plans and having fantasies in the hopes of becoming a major singer, major cook, major tuba player, major writer; a major strawberry picker. I go overboard!
I’m learning through this phrase to accept my limitations; to have no illusions about my abilities. It is true that I’m pretty good at a number of things, and i work very hard to get better. But the truth is, if I were good enough to go pro on anything but music education and software development, I feel that I would know by now. Someone would have noticed and encouraged me to make a move.
When you’re young, you dream about having a career in something that you love, and don’t get me wrong, I love my career, but it’s disappointing when you learn that something you love will be an avocation instead of a vocation. My voice teacher in college tried to let me down easy on singing.
He took me to lunch on campus one day. Where Cafe Plaid used to be, there was once a lovely shop with greeting cards in the front and a little cafe in the back. It served great burgers and the best beef stew in town. I felt privileged to get this kind of attention from a professor whom I loved.
As we ate, he asked “David, do you know the difference between a vocation and an avocation?”
I said that I wasn’t sure.
He said, “A vocation is when someone does something professionally for a living. An avocation is something that you do just because you love it. It’s not a career. You know, most singers will never have singing as a vocation, but many sing because they love it.”
Although, I didn’t realize it at the time, he was telling me that in his estimation, I would not realize my dreams of becoming a professional singer. It’s not the only time he tried to tell me, but I refused to accept it. I am a good singer, it is true. I have worked very hard to be able to do what I can do, but it will never reach the level required to be a full-time opera singer. If I were going to be a pro, then people would have said so. People would be urging me on. It may sound cruel of him, but if I would have trusted him on it, it would have saved me years of misery.
So, many things I do will always be strawberry picking. And if I don’t recognize it, I am setting myself up for disappointment and frustration. It doesn’t mean that I quit. It means that I do it because I love it. It’s a tough lesson to learn and it runs counter to the American notion that you should never give up on your dreams, but I haven’t really given up any dreams. I’ve merely adjusted them for the sake of my happiness. I’ve adjusted them to be in line with reality. I feel lucky to have so many wonderful berries to pick in my life. And at the end to all of this picking there may even be a delicious strawberry pie.