Wednesday, March 13, 2019

investing in friendship

Sometimes I feel like I have three full-time jobs. My visiting assistant professorship with a 4/4 load plus research and service, the search for a new job to pick up when my current contract reaches its agreed-upon expiration date this summer, and being the sole parent of teenagers each demand my full attention. There are not enough hours in the day to do all of these jobs well, and I am not performing to my potential at any of them.

Given that reality, it's always tempting to use university breaks as an opportunity to catch up--to knock down the pile of grading, to write more cover letters, to revamp my professional website, to deep clean the apartment, to fill the freezer with meals for the coming weeks.

This spring break, I am not.

Today, day five of my break is the first day I have touched my laptop, and it feels decadent.

Instead of working on my jobs, in the first four days of my break, I traveled to Savannah, which is a beautiful city. They do squares better than DC does circles, for sure. And Spanish moss is both super weird and super interesting.

But really, this felt like a vacation in which I explored friendships.

Savannah is an eight-and-a-half hour drive from DC. Road trips require the assertiveness to make your needs known and the flexibility to meet everyone's needs efficiently, patience with one another and with the conditions outside the vehicle. But they also make space for sharing deep conversation and singing along with lighthearted music. Two entire days in the car was a new way of relating to each other for Jeff & Sarah, my road trip companions, and me.

Jeff & Sarah were going to visit his grandparents, and I was going to visit Brea, my oldest best friend, whom I met in the fifth grade. Our teacher, frustrated with each of us for constantly reading in the classroom, seated us in the same group, hoping we would engage with each other instead of with our books. For the first while, we just kept reading in tandem, but now we have the kind of friendship that   stretches over great distances and blooms when we're together.

We spent two days rambling over the city, filling my camera with pictures, and catching up on each other's lives. Kathleen & Steven, friends of mine from Atlanta, briefly joined us in our rambling, as did a Brea's friend Lisa. I love being part of an interconnected web, and my favorite is when my people get to meet my people, and I get to meet theirs.

In the evenings, we filled our glasses and dove deeply into life, the universe, and everything. Brea's partner Chris excels at asking the hard questions, so  this conversation wasn't always comfortable, but it was important, and I return to my regular life with a different vision. I feel like my self is a different shape.

My plans continue in a similar vein now that I'm back home--writing today with Carl, hiking with Jim tomorrow. This spring break, I am prioritizing time with friends. There are jobs I won't apply for because the letter won't be done. My students will be grumbly about waiting too long for grades. The book proposal I intended to send in January will be delayed yet another week. And I have no regrets.

Monday, February 11, 2019

color, revisited

Five years ago, in the winter of 2014, I was dipping my toes back into the world of color after having spent six months wearing only black.

I still wear a lot of black.
Photo credit me.
It's easy and convenient and camouflages flaws. (Also, in those six months, I invested in some really nice clothes, and it only makes sense to keep wearing them. )

This winter, though, I've been noticing just how much color has found its way into my wardrobe.
Photo credit me.
Those are the shiny blue inner lining of my dress coat, the green leather of my purse, the rainbow of my mittens, the blues of my hat, the red paisley of my skirt, and the purples of my scarf on the most frigid teaching day of the semester to date. 

All my warmest things are colorful things, so the chilliest, and often grayest, days are also, for me, the most colorful.

Even in moderate weather, though, the colors remain.
Photo credit Taylor.
Here are the same mittens and scarf with a raspberry jacket and many-flowered hat

Photo credit Jim.
And the same scarf and jacket plus a deep teal skirt. (I also had the mittens, the flowered hat, and the green bag this day, you just can't see them in this photo.)

Unlike five years ago, I don't have anything deep to say about my relationship with color these days, but I am enjoying color in all its forms--soft colors in the sunrise, 

Photo credit me.
the sharp colors in the landscape,
Photo credit me.
 and the riot of color in my closet.

Friday, January 25, 2019


Four days from now is my fortieth birthday, and I feel.....several ways about that.

This birthday looms larger on the horizon than past birthdays. I suppose that's true for many people, but I have not generally been fazed by the numbers on the calendar, so it feels weird to be fretting about it.

Part of the weird is that Adam was forty when he died. Forty feels dangerous. Like standing close to the cliff edge. Like my past proximity to catastrophe makes me a likelier target. Like unexpected tragedy could strike my forty because it struck his. I know it's not rational, but some friends have said they felt a similar disorientation when they reached the age at which a parent had died in the prime of life, so I also know it's normal.

Part of the weird is that forty seems like a Decidedly Adult Age, and I still don't have a Real Job. It is a known fact that a year from now I will not have the job I currently have because my non-renewable contract will have ended. Given the job market in my chosen field I may not even have the same career a year from now. So I feel definitely Not Yet Adult. I crave the stability rejected by the stereo-typical mid-life crisis.

I crave stability because I've done that reinvention already. My mid-life crisis came with widowhood at thirty-four, when circumstances forced me to make all the choices again.

I wish to be done radically reinventing my life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019


When we left Michigan in 2015, we made a lot of decisions about what to take and what to leave behind. Some of the decisions were really straightforward--giant pink velvet couch, no; cello and violins, yes; toaster oven, no; cast iron skillet, yes. Others were much more difficult.

Will we use this? Do we love it even if we won't use it? Will it even fit in our apartment?

We brought a lot of things just in case we might be able to find space for them in our new life--bicycles, camping gear, cross country skis.

Bringing the bicycles was definitely the right choice. At this point, we've all upgraded, and none of us is riding the bike she brought from Rambling Farmhouse, but that first summer, those old and ill-fitting cycles let us explore this new region enough to know we wanted to keep on riding.

The camping gear has been used once in the last three years, and it takes up enough space that I'm starting to think about what else I could be using the space for. But someday we won't have a rabbit who needs a petsitter when we're gone overnight, and someday the kids won't have Saturday activities anymore, and some of our camping gear is really quite nice, so it stays, despite the square footage it consumes.

The cross country skis fall between these other two. It rarely snows enough here to ski, and the snow that does fall melts quickly, so there are no parks or golf courses where a ski club grooms trails over the course of the winter. We have used them but rarely--several times in one week the first winter and once each subsequent winter. Sofia has outgrown her original equipment. She can use Anna's but Anna can't use mine, and this is a point of much consternation. I have promised Anna new kit if she goes to college in the land of snow and winter.

Why do I keep the skis and the camping gear? I've been thinking about that a lot this winter as we put down ever deeper roots in an apartment we all initially thought of as temporary.

It's a little bit nostalgia. These objects connect us to our former life, to the friends we left behind, to Adam.

But it's also a little bit hope for the future. Hope that we'll figure out how to get to the woods again. How to make time in the wild part of our lives.

And it's also an awareness that our lives could again change as drastically as they already have. We might all three of us return to the land of snow and winter--for education, for work, for family.

Two Saturdays ago, we got serious snow. Shut down the city snow. French toast and hot chocolate snow.

And I pulled out my skis.

On Monday morning when the busses were running again, my skis and I hopped on the 16A headed west. The driver was incredulous, 'Are you going skiing?'

me: yes!

her: Where you going?

me: The W&OD.

her: Yeah, I guess that works! *shakes head*

Then I had a lovely chat with a rider who had lived for a while in Wisconsin and was feeling nostalgic for his land of snow and winter.

The trail had been plowed--it's a major thoroughfare for bicycle commuters and fitness runners--but there was ample snow along the edge for me to ski, and mine were not the first skis on the trail that day.

Conditions were beautiful. The snow was neither too wet nor to powdery. The air was still and warm from the sunshine. And the snow on the trees and the river rocks was picturesque.

Gliding along, I missed Adam, who taught me to ski cross-country, and Rachel and Clover who were my ski buddies that last winter in Jones. But I remembered the joys of being outside in the winter--the crispness of the air and the cleanness of new snow and the way that sound is different. 

This is why I still have skis.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

lovely weather, for a duck

It was a cosmic irony of my marriage that I had all the wanderlust and Adam had the job that sent him all over the world, that I have a passion for studying languages and he had so much opportunity for immersion.

Because I love presents, he learned to bring me things back. Often they were consumable things like Swiss dark chocolate that we couldn't get in rural Michigan in the oughts, Côtes du Rhone from France, Grey Goose from duty free.

Sometimes they were tangible things like the wooden cat from Troyes that now sits on the bookcase in my office or my French copies of Jacques Prevert's poetry and Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince. Or useful things like my Russian-French, French-Russian dictionary.

Sometimes he brought me back bits of language--

"Wo ist mein Gepäck?" from the time his luggage got lost on the way to Germany.

"Ichi biru," which is not actually the best way to order a beer in Japan.

"Una cerveza por favor," which is the way to order a beer in Mexico.

"Mit senf" to get mustard on your sandwich in Germany and gross out your Czech colleague at the same time.

I don't have cause to use most of these bits of language often.

But there's one that popped into my head today. As I was was schlepping from my office to my car bundled up against the cold, it started to rain. Again. And I thought, "Schönes Wetter, für eine Ente."

"Lovely weather," Adam would say, "for a duck."

This bit of language came out of a conversation with the same Czech colleague who thought mustard was gross on sandwiches. They were working together in Germany during a prolonged spell of cold and rain, and they had very little language in common. "Schönes Wetter, für eine Ente" came out of a very human moment of solidarity across barriers of language and culture. It is both a comment on the weather and a triumph of communication, a joke in their shared foreign language.

I decided early in my widowhood that I did not want my home to be a shrine, with my dead husband's possessions on display like relics, but that I wanted to keep using the things of his that were useful to us. Like the Leatherman in my kitchen drawer and the cast iron skillet on the stove. Like the benches and the plant boxes that he built.

And like these bits of language.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

ripping back and going forward

Kathleen recently posted about ripping out a sweater on Republica Unicornia, and I saw myself in her words.

There is not a fiber arts tool that I hate more than the seam ripper. It's a nifty little gadget, really, small and sharp and perfectly suited to tearing out long swaths of stitches at a time. But I hate it.

If I have had to pick up the seam ripper, it means that I have made a mistake from which I cannot recover. It means that the time I spent getting the project to this point has to be spent over again.

I have cast about for anything I possibly could do, including reengineering the garment or object, in order to avoid ripping things out. I have one dress that has unplanned reverse box pleats so that I could leave the seam ripper in the drawer.

The problem is that reengineering sometimes takes as much time as ripping and doing over correctly, of course. And it rarely results in an improvement in the design of the object. The few times that it has, though, only encourage me to keep hating the seam ripper.

My attitude about rework started to change when I heard a talented embroiderer say that the difference between an amateur crafter and an artist is the willingness to rip out mistakes. (Not sure I agree entirely. Maybe one of the differences is the willingness to do rework. There's also creativity and skill and purpose...)

It floored me when she said it, but I can't disagree. It is, after all, what I tell my students all the time about writing.

Revision is where the magic happens.

Good writing doesn't just pour forth from the fingers to the page. First drafts are almost universally shitty. Good writing is the result of revision and once more revision and revision again. The difference between a person putting words on paper and a writer is the willingness to see the words as a draft, to come back to the draft, to see it with new eyes, to revise.

Revision is easier than rework, though. I never actually delete anything. I just move my precious words to a jettisoned text file to preserve the illusion that I will someday put them back in this or something else. The seam ripper annihilates a join--two pieces of fabric that were connected are separate again, and the thread is in shreds. Ripping out knitting unmakes the object.

My dislike of the seam ripper persists, but I'm getting better about being willing to revise my textile production. When I get that sick feeling in my stomach that signals the suspicion that things are not going to work out, I short circuit my instinct to reengineer. First, I decide how much more work I need to do before I can make a decision. (In sewing often the answer is none, in knitting sometimes I need to work a couple more inches before I know for sure.) Then, once I know, I put the project away at least overnight. Fresh eyes on a new day make it easier to undo the work and see the path forward, which might include abandoning the project entirely. Finally, in the morning, I make a decision and take the first step.

These days, I have that sick feeling in my stomach about my career. There is no pattern for success in academia, but I'm working really hard, and I think I'm staying inside the guidelines, such as they are. Sadly, hundreds of early career researchers working similarly hard within the guidelines are pushed out of academia each year by the dearth of full-time, non-contingent jobs that pay a living wage. Submitting my book proposal to academic publishers this summer was a Hail Mary pass. Having a book contract should help my CV rise to the top of the stack among all the other brilliant and qualified applicants in this year's job cycle, but it may not. Doing everything right in grad school and in the job market is not a guarantee of success at finding a job.

For the last six months, I've been looking at non-academic jobs in my region, and there are lots of things where my skills would be an asset. I've started applying for the ones that would require top secret security clearance, because that takes a while, and as the end of my current contract in June of 2019 looms closer, I'll start applying to more and more.

It's almost like I'm revising my career, pulling out the seam ripper to separate myself from academia. Except that I'm not. I'm also still working on my scholarly monograph, still laying the groundwork for future research, still trying new things in the classroom. Still behaving like a person who will be in academia three years from now.

I can't quite bring myself to give it up entirely, so I'm continuing on two paths. It is exhausting.

Monday, July 16, 2018

To Thine Own Self Be True, Said Jesus Never

This sermon was part of the "Said Jesus Never" sermon series at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church. It was preached in The Way on July 15, 2018.

Genesis 1:27 Common English Bible (CEB)
God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

Romans 12:1-2 Common English Bible (CEB)
Living sacrifice and transformed lives
So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

            To thine own self be true. Sounds pretty biblical, right? That use of thine and the inverted sentence structure is pretty King James-y. It’s probably somewhere in all that small-print, red-letter text. Yeah, well, it’s not actually in the Bible, like at all. 
            It sounds King James-y because it’s Shakespeare. (You think the pastoral team assigned this sermon topic to the literature professor on purpose? Yeah, me, too.) Anyway, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Polonius, the father of Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia, says this to his son Laertes as he sends him off to France (Hamlet I.iii.55-81). Bummer that it was Polonius and not Jesus. It’s still good advice, though, right? Yeah, wrong. 
            Jesus never said this because it’s terrible advice, and if we consider the context, if we look at the rest of Polonius speech, the reason becomes clear. Among the other pieces of sage wisdom this father has to offer are: neither a borrower nor a lender be; give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. There are further warnings against seeking out new friends and against making one’s thoughts known too soon.  If Laertes follows this advice, he’s going to come back from his study-abroad year in Paris without having expereinced much of anything.
            The person who follows this advice, be they Laertes or one of us, will find themselves disconnected from the community. This advice creates people who exist in isolation from one another. Neither a borrower nor a lender be—do not admit when your resources fall short and you need help, do not offer your bounty to neighbors who are in need. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice—listen even when you disagree, don’t let anyone know what you think. Don’t let yourself be vulnerable to the potential of new relationships. To thine own self be true—put yourself first, look out for number one, take what you can get. 
            Let’s also remember that Polonius’s story does not end well. ***spoiler alert*** He fails to follow his own advice, involves himself in the queen’s business, and is killed by Hamlet while hiding behind a tapestry in the royal bedchamber. And then Hamlet is like “sorry not sorry.”
            To thine own self be true, said Jesus never. 
            What does our scripture say then? Like so many of the rebuttals to ‘said Jesus never’ phrases in this sermon series—it’s complicated. 
            On the one hand, we have the passage you heard from Romans this morning. “Do not conform to the ways of the world.” On its surface, this advice from Paul to the church at Rome might seem to suggest the sort of independent individuality that Polonius is talking about when he—not  Jesus—says, “to thine own self be true.” But Paul also says that we are to be transformed as living sacrifices to God. 
            As Christians, we are not called to reject the values of the world in order to be true to something that is interal to each of us as individuals. That way lies hedonism and egoism and narcissism, self-righteousness and neo-liberal exploitation of the other. Rather, we are called to reject the individualistic values of a broken world in order to turn our faces to the image of God. Which leads us to the other scripture you heard this morning—“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” God created all of us, collectively, in God’s own image. No single one of us alone can be the image of God. Our ability to embody the image of God is predicated on our connection to the community. 
            As Christians, we are not called to the sort of rugged individualism that Polonius’s ‘to thine own self be true’ speech recommends for Laertes. We arehowever, called to be in community with one another, to allow our minds to be transformed in the pursuit of God’s vision for the kingdom here on earth, to be God’s partners in the continuing project of the creation. 
            What does that even look like, though? Well, it looks an awful lot like Jesus. When he was ready to begin his ministry, Jesus did not strike out like a rugged individualist to go it alone—he found the twelve disciples plus a lot of friends to do the work with him. Notably, the people with whom he chose to assiciate were not the most powerful. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He healed outcasts—lepers, women, Samaritans. Jesus dedicated himself to that vision from the Genesis creation story that all of humanity is created in God’s image. 
            Our call, like Jesus’s call, places us in tension between the recognition that each of us individually have been created by God as unique persons. We have a variety of life experiences. We have a variety of gifts and talents. We do not all contribute to the ongoing work of creation in the same way, and we do need to recognize the value of our variety. However, we also need to recognize that these individual gifts, talents, and experiences do their best work in concert with one another. It takes all of our talents, all of our skils, all of our life experiences to embody the image of God. 
            The thing of it is, though, it’s really really hard to work together with all sorts of different people and respect all their different sorts of talents. Our very human egos get in the way, our very American values of independence and self-sufficiency get in the way. I’m going to tell you a hard truth about myself. I don’t always like all of the people I interact with. I don’t like some of the people I interact with here at Mount Olivet. That’s a hard thing to say out loud looking at all of your faces. I’m sure there are some of you in this room who don’t particularly like me. Or maybe you’re thinking of someone else in the congregation whom you don’t particularly like. I’m going to tell you that it’s okay to feel that way. The dislike we feel for our fellow congregants might be specific—related to some past harm—or it might be a general pet peeve. The challenge we face, our call as followers of Christ, is to love each other anyway. To look at that person whom we don’t enjoy and recognize that, like us, they are a piece of the image of God. They are our partner in God’s ongoing project of creation. We have little control over our feelings, but love is an action. The kind of love that God calls us to is a choice to act for the benefit of those around us. Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus says. And also, love your enemy, do good to those who hate. And, I would add, also to those whom you don’t particularly like, regardless of how they may feel about you. Love them, too. 
            In here we have rituals that help us to love each other no matter how else we might feel. In a few moments, we’re going to celebrate one of them. Jeff is going to lead us in the communion liturgy and then we are going to break bread together. This ritual of eating from the same loaf and dipping in the same cups, and, I would add, partaking from our hospitality ministry, means that for this one day each week our many individual bodies share the same fuel. The very stuff that keeps us going we hold in common. 
            Outside of these walls, it gets even harder. Most of us don’t share communion with our coworkers or with our classmates or with the people who live in our neighborhoods. When we have to interact with people who are not like us, who don’t pray like us, who don’t speak our language, who don’t look like use, who don’t vote like us, our insticnt is to be true to our own selves, to look our for number one. Our call as Christians is to love them anyway. Our challenge is to discern what love looks like. That process of discernment is a topic for another whole sermon, but for today I’ll just say that it starts with listening humbly and without judgement or rebuttal as people who are not like us tell us the stories of their lived experience. 
            To thine own self be true, said...Jesus...never. 
            What Jesus did say was to be love, to be true to our individual contributions to our collective embodiment of the image of God.