Friday, October 24, 2014

done not done

Recently, a friend mentioned that he was dissatisfied with his work, that his job no longer made him happy, that he was done with it. I was floored. This friend is excellent at his job, and I love my job so much that I can't imagine ever being done with it.

I've heard other friends express the same sentiment: that they wanted to move up, they wanted more, their company had no place for them to go. This craving has always baffled me. There's only so far up one can go before moving from doing a job to management or administration, and those roles require vastly different skills. For days I've been wondering if I'm just weird. I've been teaching for ten years now, and I really just want to keep teaching forever. Maybe I'm just wired wrong.

It occurred to me yesterday, though, as I was mulling over the game plan for getting through another Michigan winter in the country, that I can relate to being done. I am done living forty-five minutes from almost everything. I am done constantly dealing with mice. I am done with drafty windows and insufficiently insulated walls. I am done thinking about gutters and leaves and appliances. I'm so ready to move on that it's easy to resent the things keeping me here. It's so easy to descend into a spiral of complaints and shake my fist at the responsibilities I no longer want.

Just as I was warming up for a solid session of fist-shaking, however, the words 'weed where you're planted' popped into my head. Because Rambling Farmhouse and Rustic Lakehouse have not sold, they remain my responsibility, like it or not, and these responsibilities tie me to this place. If I want to live well as long as I live here, I have to think about mice and windows and walls and gutters and leaves and appliances. In truth if I have any hope of walking away from closings in the black, I need to think about more than just those things. Even while planning for future change, it's critical to be a good steward of the things within reach and to do so with more joy than resentment.

It's a difficult position to be in, done yet not done.


Friday, September 26, 2014

breadwinner

Two Mays ago Old Cat's death was hard on all of us. It was especially hard for me to watch our younger cat Jack wonder where she had gone.  When Jack came into our lives as a strapping young boy, Old Cat was already old, and, although smaller than he was, she boxed his ears and told him in no uncertain terms that she was #1 Cat. She had first claim to my lap, to my bed, to any open doors, and to the food. For weeks after she died, when I set the food down Jack looked around to see if she was coming before he started to eat. He looked at me with disbelief that it could be just for him. This past January when Buttercup came into our lives, Jack went into a tailspin again. He knew he didn't want to be #2 Cat to this young brat, but he didn't know how to be #1 Cat.

As I've been working on job applications these past couple of weeks, it occurs to me that I'm a little bit like Jack. While I wouldn't say that I was subordinate to my late husband, I had settled into my role as the trailing spouse, the one whose career would always happen in the space around the breadwinner's career. There were a lot of practical reasons that Adam would always be the breadwinner: Because his age and his co-op experience put him ten years ahead of me in career development, because he was an engineer, and I am a language teacher, because he was a man, and I am a woman, his salary would always have outstripped mine. For most of our marriage, in fact, my contribution to the family's income was ten percent of his.

When I started my PhD, the desired plan was that I would find work within daily or weekly commuting distance from Rambling Farmhouse, working as an adjunct until something full-time or tenure track came up. As things got worse for Adam at his workplace here, we started talking about my doing a national search for full-time work and moving the whole family to whatever I found, but it still had to be a geographic area within a daily or weekly commute to something for Adam.

My trailing spouse status was not only a result of our relative earning potentials, though. It was also about the difference in how driven we were. Adam always wanted to reach higher; he wanted to manage a group of engineers, to run a multi-million dollar project, to move the company from good to great, to start his own business, to work at the cutting edge. Me? I don't crave leadership. I don't burn to see my name on a publication. I don't aspire to eminent scholar status. I don't settle for shoddy, but I'll never be a rock star researcher. My elbows aren't sharp enough, and I don't own brass knuckles. I want to do what I love and do it well, and really, that's the perfect attitude for a trailing spouse.

I don't get to have that attitude anymore.

Insurance settlements and Social Security payments buy me some time retool the plan, but they will not last forever. As they cease to fill the coffers each month, I have to take this career that was intended to be secondary and find a way to support myself, my children, and our critters in the present while also preparing for college and retirement in the future. All of a sudden, I'm the #1 Cat, but no one is offering me first choice of the food each night.

I have to be the breadwinner, and it frightens me.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

still in love

This student meditation was delivered in the fall of 2000 at the Protestant Community worship in The American University's Kay Spiritual Life Center. The student meditation was then a new practice, and I was then a graduating senior. This text is almost arrogant in its simplicity, but when I found this brief meditation, the first sermon-like thing I had ever done, in a file recently, I was struck by the way it foreshadows much of what I have written since then. I am eternally grateful to the Reverend Joe Eldridge for the challenge and the inspiration. 

Nearly two years ago, my fiancé asked me to marry him, and I said yes. Shortly thereafter Joe got into the habit of saying, "So, are you still in love?" every time I saw him. This, of course, got me thinking about what love is. I searched out definitions and descriptions of love, and I found many:

God is love.
Love is one who lays down his life for his friends.
Love is patient and kind.
Love never fails.
Love makes the world go round.
Love means never having to say you're sorry.
Love is blind.
Love is when you care more about someone else's happiness than your own.
Love grows by works of love.

Joe's repeated questions made me think a lot, especially at a time when Adam and I were having problems, but my answer to Joe's question has always been yes.

I realized that the key to love is commitment. Love is commitment to being patient and kind, a commitment to persevering. A commitment to grow together rather than growing apart. This is the love we see in  lifelong friendships and successful marriages.

I think that I have this kind of committed love not only with my fiancé, but also with my friends, with many of the people here tonight. I only hope each of you can have it, too.

Joe continued to ask me the question in the years after I graduated when I visited campus first by myself, then with an infant Anna, then much later with Adam and both girls. The answer was always yes.

The last time I visited, Joe didn't ask. The answer would have been a complicated one. It is impossible to love an absence, and yet, it is out of love for the person who was that I care for his affairs and effects. 

So, no, I am not still in love with my late husband; I am, however, still in love with love.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

chalk

I have a classroom again, and the happiness I derive from this is perhaps bordering on the ridiculous.

The job of a professor is generally described as having three parts: the teaching part, the research and publication part, and the service to the university and to the profession part. While most professors do each part, rare is the person who excels at all three.

Me? I excel at the teaching part, and that's the part I love.

It's also the part that I was forced to give up when I became a widow, and I have resented that. A lot.

Having a classroom, I feel like a professional again. Feeling like a professional, I feel like a whole person.

It's only two classes and only for this semester, but I don't think I've ever been this excited about chalk.




Sunday, August 24, 2014

a glimpse of majesty

so. much. water.

The American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls from just below the Hurricane Deck.


So much water that it roars. So much water that it penetrates every surface. So much water that one feels privileged to stand so close to it.


So much water that it's hard to imagine the drought on the other side of the country.

There’s Power in the Word

This sermon was presented at Marcellus and Wakelee United Methodist Churches (Kalamazoo District, West Michigan Conference) on Sunday, August 24, 2014. The revised common lectionary texts for Year A, Proper 16, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost were Psalm 138Romans 12:1-8Matthew 16:13-20. 

I think sometimes we underestimate the power of words. We teach our children to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” To tell someone to “put your money where your mouth is” is to say that financial support is more useful than spoken support.  To say that someone is “all bark and no bite” is to say that that person only talks, but never acts. To say that someone talks the talk but doubt that person can walk the walk is to doubt that person’s ability to act.  
It’s funny, though. The very existence of phrases like these, the way that we repeat them over and over until they accrue meaning greater than the sum of their parts is evidence of the power of words.  Repetition of the sticks and stones expression can bolster the confidence of a child being teased. All bark and no bite diffuses the power of someone else’s aggressive speech. Put your money where your mouth is and walk the walk challenge someone else to act directly. And really, if you’ve ever been bullied with words, you know that words have the power to inflict pain. They can leave lasting scars on our souls that inform the way we see ourselves, the way we interact with the people closest to us, and the way we live in the world.
            When I was looking over the lectionary scriptures for today, I was struck by two things. The first was the sheer quantity of references to speech acts via forms of the verbs say, sing, call and answer. The second thing that struck me was what speech acts accomplish. They create relationships, and they guide the way we inhabit those relationships
            In verse three of Psalm 138, the psalmist says, “On the day I called, you answered me” and this answer had the power to bolster the psalmist’s “strength of soul.” Throughout this psalm, speech creates a relationship between God and the people as speech and song connect the earthly and the divine. And in this psalm, the speech is reciprocal. God answers, the kings of the earth hear the words of God’s mouth, God’s name and word are exalted. In the same way that relationships among people depend on communication, our relationship with God depends on speaking and listening in prayer and meditation.
            In the passage from Romans, verses six through eight list eight gifts: prophesy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, diligence, and cheerfulness.  While each of these eight can make use of speech, three of them (prophesy, teaching, and exhortation) depend on speech to be accomplished. More than just valuing the power of speech in the work of the church, though, Paul puts words to work for him. With a particular sort of speech act, an extended metaphor, he shapes the way that members of the church interact with one another. We are, he says, members of one body, and each member has its function. This passage is reminiscent of first Corinthians chapter twelve in which Paul gives this body metaphor greater depth. “If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?” Human beings are often challenged by difference. We don’t know what to do with it; it makes us uncomfortable. This metaphor teaches us to value the contribution of each member of the community as we value the contribution of each part of the body.
In the gospel passage this morning, Jesus challenges the disciples to think about the power of words, names in particular. He asks, ‘Whom do you say that I am?’ And they answer, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Now, Jesus, of course, knows exactly who he is, but in this conversation with the disciples, he is checking on whether what they say aligns with what he knows. Because Jesus knows that what people are saying about him shapes their relationship with him. To identify Jesus with John the Baptist or one of the prophets is to connect him to the past. To name Jesus as one of the prophets is to affirm the status quo, to continue an ongoing cycle of prophesy about a future not-yet-arrived. Peter’s answer that Jesus is the messiah, however, identifies him not as a reincarnation of one who has come before, but as the incarnation of Old Testament prophesy.  A prophet is not the messiah. To name Jesus as the messiah is a radical act that announces that the future is now. 
            All this thinking about the power of words has been timely for me. A friend and I have been engaged in a good-natured ongoing debate about the relationship of language and thought. Namely, whether our words and grammar inform the way we think or whether the way that we think informs the words that we have and the grammar that organizes those words. It’s been a lively debate for us and a sometimes contentious one among professional linguists. I come down somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that language is a rigid structure that prevents us from contemplating ideas for which we have no words, but I do think that our habits of speech become habits of thought, and habits, I’m sure we can all agree, once established, are difficult to change.
            Change is possible, though. As with Peter’s radical act of naming Jesus as the messiah in the gospel today, our speech acts can shape the way we experience relationships in our world. The passage from Romans uses beautiful words to create a vision of a harmonious body of different people, and this is a vision we are familiar with within the church. When we are doing well as a church, the body welcomes a variety of members and values their individual contributions.
            Words, however, also have the power to devalue the people with whom we come in contact. One only has to listen to the news to hear this in action. Conflict and violence can on occur when the aggressor views the victim as less than human. This is true in cases of personal violence like assault, murder, and rape; in cases of ritualized violence like political campaigns; and in cases of armed conflict like those in Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, and Iraq right now.
            I’m not going to make any judgments about who is right and who is wrong in any of these conflicts. I am going to challenge you to pay closer attention to the way you hear them described, though. Language that compares people to animals, language that labels people evil or bad, language that treats people as objects dehumanizes those people.

            When we use dehumanizing language we participate in the violence, we perpetuate the conflicts and we are complicit in the tragic piles of bodies that result. What would happen, though, if we took a radical step like Peter and changed the way we talk? When we change our language, we expand Paul’s metaphor from the church family to the human family. When we change our language, we recognize that all the people we share the earth with are members of the body and each of them has a contribution. When we change our language, we take the fist step toward beating our swords into ploughshares.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

perspective

I've been thinking a lot about perspective lately, about how the position (physical or mental) from which we view something influences not only the way we see it, but the way we understand it and the way we talk about it.

For example, I've wanted to knit an Umaro blanket since Jared Flood first published the pattern years ago.
Photo Credi: Original pattern image ©Jared Flood
http://brooklyntweed.net/blog/?p=471

I've been waiting for the right time to cast on a project of this size (blankets are big, yo) but also waiting for the right yarn to cross my path. Some of this yarn was an impulse purchase when one of the yarn shops in Lafayette was closing. It's the right weight for the blanket, but I bought small amounts of three colors rather than enough of one color for the whole blanket.

For more than a year, I pondered how to introduce color work into this pattern. Horizontal or vertical stripes would be at odds with the lines created by the motifs. I like the idea of diagonal stripes of color, and over the holidays I pulled out the pattern chart to decide where it would be feasible to change colors.

None of the possibilities I came up with excited me because I was seeing this as a variant of tumbling blocks. One day while staring at the pattern, my focus shifted and I saw it in a new way: as cables on a seed stitch ground rather than a field of cubes.  I have a much better plan now, and all I had to do was look long enough and let my eyes relax.

Shifting perspective can be hard, though.

My grief counselor and I have a recurring conversation that goes something like this:

Kitty: So, how was your week?
me: I did a hard thing this week. I submitted the final stuff for estate task of the week.
Kitty: That must feel good. What did you do to celebrate?
me: Well, I checked it off on my list. ...hmmm... Then I did some knitting with Netflix. But now I'm thinking about next estate task. I'm really not looking forward to that one because reasons.
Kitty: Kate, you've accomplished so much, you need to pause and celebrate. You deserve the rest.
me: Yeah, I guess, but there's so much more to do. The list is still so long!

Kitty wants me to see the accomplishments behind me, but all I can see are the things ahead, the obstacles between me and beginning.

On the one hand, the fact that I see all the tasks ahead keeps me moving forward.

On the other hand, sometimes their sheer quantity and complexity is paralyzing. At those times, I remember Anne Lamott's advice to take it bird by bird.

On the one hand, pausing my relentless march forward to look back and celebrate accomplishments reinforces confidence in my ability to do things myself and to gather the right help.

On the other hand, inertia. (A well-intentioned pause is still a pause.)

So, although I am usually the sort of person who sits on the fence seeing both sides of any given question  (blessed are the peacemakers!), in the case of my own life this last year, I have kept my face  firmly pointed forward, focusing on the story of the tasks ahead.  Although this discipline has been useful, I am beginning to remember the danger of a single story, and I am beginning to really hear Kitty's call to pause and celebrate.

When I've settled in to this new perspective, I'll let you know what I see.