When I was a senior in college, I played Emily in Our Town. You may recall that the play treats its audience to a few days in the lives of two families in a small New Hampshire town at the turn of the last century. The first two acts are a long, loving look at the ordinary, but the third act takes place in the town cemetery, where Emily (having just died in childbirth) has been laid to rest, but is not yet restful. Venerable English professor Frank Olley was directing Our Town at St. Joseph’s University for the third time in as many decades. Asked how it was different this time, he pondered for a moment, then said simply, “The third act looms larger.”
In October of 2016–almost thirty years after Doc Olley uttered that line–I began working on an essay called Act III, reflecting on the ways that the untimely deaths in my own life had caused me to reevaluate my priorities. I wrote:
I find myself less willing to store my dreams in the “someday” column. And so I have to ask: when am I going to stop gazing longingly at every RV that I pass on the highway, ante up, and hit the road? When am I going to bear down and actually write the book that’s been noodling around in my head for a decade? When am I going to quit my day job and become the “freelance me” that I’ve spent the last 15 years telling people I want to be when I grow up? Although I don’t know when the curtain will rise on my own Act III, it is starting to loom larger. It’s time to take more risks.
The RV purchase remains a question. (Where would I park it?) But I did indeed bear down on the book. Less than four months after committing that question to paper, I was curled up on a sofa at When Words Count, writing Finding God in Ordinary Time. And now I have an answer to the third question as well. When am I going to quit my day job and become the “freelance me” I’ve talked about forever? July 31.
That’s right . . . after twenty-six years as a campus minister, I am stepping down from my position at Gwynedd Mercy University at the end of this month. I am leaving a field I have loved extravagantly, peeling off a label I’ve used to identify myself for almost half my life. People keep asking me if I’m sad, or scared, and the answer really is no to both. This is what God is calling me to at this point in my life. It’s time.
Shortly after writing the essay about Act III, I started a file on my computer called “Plan 54.” I was 51 years old at the time, and figured it would take me about three years to lay the groundwork for the future I was dreaming of. With no clear idea how to get from there to here, I named the file aspirationally, and got to work.
Today is my 54th birthday.
In the final chapter of Finding God, I wrote about my cousin Susan, whose death (seven years ago yesterday) at age 46 was one of the losses that inspired my soul-searching about priorities. I closed the chapter by saying:
Will I take a risk to pursue a dream?
It is, as they say, a matter of life and death.
That is exactly what I’m doing now: taking a risk to pursue a dream. It may look fanciful, but deep down, it is highly practical.
When I talk about time management at work, I often say this: do what only you can do. If you’re up against a deadline on a report that only you can write, and the copier’s out of toner, ask someone else to change the toner; sometimes it really is that simple. This life change is based on a similar principle: someone else can take the helm of Gwynedd’s campus ministry quite capably; only I can offer the retreats I want to give, talk about the topics I’m passionate about, and write my next book.
The details are still a bit fuzzy. I have a slate of speaking engagements lined up throughout the fall and well into winter. But first, I’ll be spending three weeks in September at a cottage in Maine. I want to give myself a definitive break. At the time of year ordinarily reserved for countless back-to-school activities, I plan to go for long walks, cook leisurely meals, and watch the ebb and flow of the harbor tide as I ponder the ebb and flow of prayer and productivity that will anchor my new life. It is something I must discover and decide as I go. I look forward to sharing the fruits of this adventure with you here.
If you, too, have a dream that requires some risk, may I suggest this: go ahead and give it a name.
Who knows what could happen?