One Gift Your Right-Now Work Is Giving You, Even If You Smell Like Marinara Sauce

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The perks of my long-ago waitressing job were free family-style feasts before the dinner shift and leftover focaccia bread to take home. The non-perks of the job were sore feet and the smell of garlic and marinara sauce that seemed to linger on my skin even after I showered.

I was 25 years old and three years married. Instead of attending law school after college, something I’d planned since I was 10 years old when I aspired to be the next Sandra Day O’Connor, I got married and recovered from four years of self-induced exhaustion. I also reevaluated everything I thought I wanted and ultimately chose college teaching over a career in law.

The road to my revised career wasn’t tidy. When my husband and I both began grad school three years into our marriage, we’d already trudged through more vocational trial and error than we’d expected to in our young marriage.

When we moved to a new state, him to pursue an advanced degree in Economics, me to pursue the same in American History, we were excited and hopeful. And also broke.

He went to school full-time. I’d applied to the program late so I took just one class while I waited for in-state tuition and hoped for a teaching assistantship. I spent the rest of my time greeting hungry customers with “Buonasera! Welcome to Bella Notte.” I was no stranger to humbling jobs but this felt extra-humbling. Not because it was waiting tables, a job I sometimes actually liked, but because of the timing. There I was, full of eagerness and enthusiasm, on the cusp of finally knowing and pursuing what I really wanted

And I could only afford to take one class.

Instead of running headlong into the rest of my life, I was mostly rattling off the nightly specials and refilling the drinks of strangers.

But I had that one course. Week after week, I sat with a mix of students held captive by a quirky and brilliant professor who wore plaid sport-coats, walked with a limp, and challenged every notion I held about the American South. I instantly adored him. And I was hungry for all that academia had to offer, voraciously devouring each book and article, writing my heart out, and becoming deeply engaged in discussions.

I knew this was where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. What I didn’t know was that this particular professor was an Endowed Chair at the university. And that he was one of most famous historians in his field. And that it was a ridiculous honor to sit in one of his classes.

His class was simply my happy place in the midst of unhappy work. Had I known who he was, I would have curbed my enthusiasm like any reserved history student with half a clue.


Dr. Freehling took notice of my enthusiasm, cluelessness and all. Unbeknownst to me, he’d spoken to the Director of Graduate Studies. So when a position for funding and a teaching assistantship opened up in January of 1999, I got a call. Out of the blue. The position was all mine because you don’t argue with an Endowed Chair. I still cry just remembering this story.

Dr. Freehling went on to become my major professor as well as a father figure to me over the next four years. He had a daughter exactly my age who lived far away. In a way, we became surrogates for one another. He believed in me, made me a better writer, and saw potential that I didn’t see in myself.

When my husband and I found out we were going to have a baby during my last year of coursework, I was overcome with angst about the future of my PhD. Instead of hammering home the importance of my work and the privilege I’d be giving up, Dr. Freehling gave me the permission and encouragement I needed to embrace the fleeting season of motherhood and all that it would demand. The PhD would always be there; a baby would not.

And that’s how God used a loving atheist historian to provide me opportunity when none existed, to hold my hand as I stepped into courage, and to gently guide me off that same path when it was time to close one chapter and begin a new one.

It would be the first of many reminders that I am only so much in control of my story.


Those four years in graduate school were a roller-coaster in every way. If I think of that time as a book, it would look something like this:

  • Ch. 1: Obscurity and Nightly Specials
  • Ch. 2: Opportunity knocks.
  • Ch. 3: School is hard and awesome. I love my professors + friends + classes + all the books.
  • Ch. 4: The neighbors beneath our apartment are growing weed. And there are roaches here.
  • Ch. 5: Let’s move.
  • Ch. 6: I don’t believe in God anymore.
  • Ch. 7: Maybe I do.
  • Ch. 8: We are so freaking broke.
  • Ch. 9: Yay! I’m finishing my coursework!
  • Ch. 10: We’re having a baby?!?
  • Ch. 11: I quit.

What can I say, we packed a lot of crazy into four short years. Those days of smelling like marinara sauce were short-lived in the whole scheme of things. But it didn’t seem that way at the time. I fought for my perspective on the nights when the shifts were long and the tips were bad. I didn’t think in terms of “hope” and “possibility.”

Thankfully, they hunted me down anyway. That’s because our stories intersect with others’ stories and with an ultimate story, like a divine matrix.

I see how every one of those chapters shaped me invaluably. How hope kept showing up even when life felt like it wasn’t working out. I wouldn’t change the person who came out on the other side.


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So what’s the one gift your right-now work is giving you? A story. A story in which you, the main character, perseveres and comes out changed on the other side. 

I already know that’s not what you want to hear. Story doesn’t make your right-now work go away. I’m not even providing you with a three-part action plan. What kind of a helpful blogger am I?

Also? I just used the “p” word — perseverance. What is happening? I’m the gal who writes about grace! And rest! And letting go!

Perseverance sounds like the business of bootstrapping our way through hard days. Not exactly a message of hope for you, my exhausted and heavy-laden friend. But what if I told you that your hard days of wiping bottoms or listening to angry customers are part of a story?

I believe they are. A story that’s situated “in between.” I believe this is where we all live out our narratives. And while I know this on the epic level of redemptive history, I forget that this reality plays out on the everyday level too.

All of life reflects the tension of living “between the now and the not yet.” Our literature, our paintings, our movies, our labor — they reveal our human frustrations and fears, as well as our hopeful longings — longings that will one day find fulfillment. Longings for beauty, for justice, for reconciliation, for rest.

We taste them now. But it’s only a crumb in comparison of what’s to come.

Work was created to be perfect. And personal. It wasn’t created as drudgery. It wasn’t supposed to encompass things like layoffs and bureaucracy and environmental destruction and rejection letters and a toddler smearing her diaper across the wall during naptime. Our work is marked by brokenness, but it’s also infused with the hope of redemption.

Sometimes our work is glorious and we feel fully alive, tasting a spoonful of what it was meant to be. {I’m sorry I just said “spoonful” after discussing poo.}

In the midst of our right-now work, we need to know we have a place in a story that’s going somewhere. And we need to know that our right-now work is just as much a part of the story as the hoped-for work. 

Perhaps we need look no further than our own stories to remind us. As I remembered that redemptive saga from 1999, I recalled many other scenes from my life, scenes in which my potential felt small and my dreams seemed ridiculous. From this vantage point, I now see what I couldn’t appreciate then. I get a glimpse of story. Perhaps you can look back and say the same thing.

Perseverance is renewed when we place our right-now and our hoped-for within a narrative — both our own narratives and the overarching narrative.


My favorite novelists are the one who produce the best characters. As we follow these characters through a story, we see that they do not return the same. They embark on a journey. They break out of prison. They stare death in the face and survive. And they come back changed. The treacherous mission, the White Which, Voldemort, the season of marinara sauce, even the seemingly endless chapters of poo and tantrums  — they do not have the last word. Hope does.

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I believe hope is the fuel of perseverance. And that perseverance is the bedrock of story. Just ask Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins or Lucy Pevensie. Ask Andy Dufresne and “Red.” Ask Jesus.

The curtain closes on disappointment, devastation, derailment, and despair.

We wait.

And we wait.

The curtain opens on redemption. And we go wild.

We’re able to keep watching, to keep reading, and even to keep working when we are buoyed by hope and possibility. And because story is both epic and everyday, we see redemption in little ways, every day, if we’re willing to look for it.

— when he finally apologizes

— when your co-worker actually thanks you

— when you’re surprised that your own feeble efforts produced dinner on the table at the end of an impossible day

Perhaps you feel like the work in this scene of your life will never end. That the curtain has closed, never to re-open on anything better.

I can’t promise that perseverance will ever land you the exact brand of your hoped-for, not in this life anyway. But I can remind you of story, promising that you’ll come out changed on the other side, perhaps even tinged with hope in some small way at the end of this very week.

When the days are long, remember that you’re writing a story with your life. You don’t have to show up with a prepared plot. You simply have to show up with hope.


You May Also Enjoy

When Hope Swoops In and Unties the Knots {Or — The Cure for a Week of Doom}

On Stories and Scars and True Transformation


This post is part of a mini-series.

“How to Pursue Your Hoped-For Work When You’re Busy With Your Right-Now Life”

How to Embrace Your Right-Now Work Even if it’s Not Your Hoped-For Work

One Gift Your Right-Now Work Is Giving You, Even If You Smell Like Marinara Sauce

4 Simple Ways to Create Time When You Don’t Have Any to Spare

4 Reasons Why Your Right-Now Work Matters to Jesus {even if it doesn’t matter to you}

2 Ways to Give Your Hoped-For Work a Voice. Right Now.

3 Ways to Avoid Despair as You Pursue Your Hoped-For Work

“Never stop starting.” And 5 Other Truths to Keep Your Hoped-For Work Alive in the Midst of Your Right-Now Life

8 Favorite Resources to Help Make Your Hoped-for Work a Possibility in Your Right-Now Life

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  1. Aunt Martha says

    Thanks so much much Marian, I needed to hear and re-read this!!! My work with my parents is valuable, and when all is said and done I can rest in fact that I was there to help them, and take great comfort in that fact! God bless you my precious niece!!

    • Marian says

      Sure! And then you can turn around and send it right back to me. When I finish this series, I’m going to make a little graphic for it and place it in the right sidebar. Easy access.

  2. Deborah says

    I just want to hug you and then have coffee with you and talk for a LONG time. Thank you for this. I need it more than I can say. This series is so where I am right now.

    The timing of your words is a gift and I’m so excited about the coming posts.

    God is using you. Thank you for letting Him!

    • Marian says

      Deborah, you know where to find me if you’ve ever down this way : ) I’m so glad that you’re finding a message of encouragement here. That’s my hope. The encouragement from those who need this series spurs me on to keep writing. So thank you so much for that!


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