Thursday, November 30, 2006

Report on my Presentation

I gave my presentation on Quakerism and Science yesterday. It went well.

Several people told me that they would not be able to come because of meetings scheduled during the time of my presentation. So I expected about three people.

But it turned out a good number of people came, including Friends from my Meeting, a lot of my students, a number of my faculty colleagues from a variety of academic disciplines, some other staff members, and some community members. Then the president of my university came in too! Only then did a wave of nervousness break over me. But it didn't undo me.

The organizer of the series introduced me.

I got up and read my paper that I had only really finished about an hour before the presentation.

We tell our students when they prepare for oral presentations that it is really better to speak from notes than to read. In my teaching, I do this all the time. Very often I don't even have to refer to the notes. For many other kinds of presentations as well I often speak from an outline.

But when I present more historical work, I do write it out, in part in order to ensure that the sequence of events lines up correctly, and in part because I include more quotations in historical writing and it is important to think carefully about the wording in setting up (and of course in presenting) the quotations.

Besides, in watching many presentations over time, I have come to see that while the common wisdom is true enough, there are also exceptions. When people do a good job of speaking from notes, that is certainly more effective than when people mumble through reading a paper. But some people do not do a terribly good job of speaking from notes, and those occasions can be painful to watch! And others are just fabulous at reading papers. If the papers are written to be spoken, and if the speaker knows how to read well out loud, those can be the very best talks of all.

I gave a fifteen-minute talk a few weeks ago as part of a Teach-In my university held, and I was last on the last panel, and for that occasion, I had simply three items on an outline. I listened to all the presentations before me, and took mental notes about how to make connections with what I planned to say. Everyone else read from written-out papers (and did a nice job, but oddly , almost everyone went over time!). When my turn came up, I took a deep breath, said to myself "gee, I hope I can pull this off!" looked out at the audience, and spoke. I never glanced down at my notes. And I ended exactly 15 minutes later. It was an amazing experience. I felt centered, focused, gathered. I felt connected to the audience, trying to end the series of presentations with tangible hope that everyone could participate in.

But yesterday's talk was a very different kind of setting. It was just me, to speak for an hour and then field questions for another half-hour. I teach all the time in hour-and-a-half blocks. This shouldn't be so hard then, should it? But it felt very different: much more formal; much more pressure.

So I got up there, and looked at the audience, and thanked them for coming, and started reading. Really, my task was simple: trust in this paper I so loved writing, and just focus on reading it to communicate. Emphasize what needed emphasizing. Slow down for the more important parts -- maybe even repeat them. Pause just before dramatic moments. Pause just after the funny bits to give people a moment to "get it" and laugh. (And they did laugh!)

It was fun.

Everyone seemed tuned in throughout.

A lot of people asked questions, excellent questions. They kept going for the full half-hour, and when the person who introduced me closed things, lots of people came up afterwards to continue the conversation. Clearly I had succeeded in getting people to think about things in new and exciting ways.

To be honest, I was amazed.

But best of all was how many people commented to me how impressed they were that (a) so many of my students came (and brought friends), (b) how tuned in they were throughout, and (c) what excellent questions they asked.

And the president, who also asked excellent questions during the question and answer period, wrote me a wonderful follow-up e-mail saying that he really appreciates how I zero in on the really important questions and problems and propose striking and bold solutions. He invited me to have a follow-up discussion with him about these ideas.

I feel very fortunate to be at such a wonderful university. To be supported in coming out with bold ideas is really wonderful.

For so much of my life, I have felt alone and misunderstood. Then I found the Quakers, and felt I had found a community that was supportive, but my work "in the world" was still meeting with a lot of resistance.

This talk was a turning point for me, because I was bringing Quaker ideas more explicitly to a non-Quaker school, expecting to be regarded with some suspicion -- but was met instead with enthusiasm and support!

So, I think I am finally finding my way to language that works, language that connects. (This too was why I had to write out this paper -- I knew that how I put things mattered very much.) I think I am succeeding in thinking my way past the patterned uses of language that reinforce problematic dichotomies, and speaking a new language that catches people by surprise, holds their attention, and gets them thinking. Speaking in new ways runs the risk of losing people -- and I used to lose people all the time -- but my years of teaching have taught me how to connect just well enough with how most people think and speak that I've gotten better at not losing people so much any more.

Yet I've been struggling mightily in my personal life, still going through something like the dark night of the soul I wrote about last summer. So I've picked up Thomas Moore's book, Dark Nights of the Soul, again, especially this afternoon when the glow of happiness wore off and I lapsed into the fatigue of post-high let-down. Picking up that book was exactly the right thing to do. I found his reassuring advice: the dark night of the soul is a time of transformation. I used to be shy and fearful; now I'm coming out as an effective speaker. Moments like yesterday show me glimpses of the transformation that is underway.

I must continue to have faith.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Caught in the Undertow

Hello to my faithful readers!

I'm still caught in the undertow of the impossibly busy time of the semester. I have been working hard throughout this Thanksgiving break: working on my Quakerism and Science paper (that I'm presenting on Wednesday), and trying to catch up on grading. Unbelievably, classes resume tomorrow. I cannot believe that the time flew by this quickly! I thought I would have a moment to catch my breath, but not really.

Maybe I have assigned too much this semester. It looked reasonable back in August. But I've been having trouble keeping up with all the grading.

And it doesn't help that other things happen as well. Some are routine: for example, I still have classes to prepare for; meetings to attend; music to prepare for a concert (even though my group is no longer in existence, I've been asked to perform as part of another concert); etc. But in addition to the expected busyness, there are the unexpected things that happen too. I'm actually making good progress in dealing with the "normal" and expected complexity of my life more calmly and confidently than ever before, and I am happy to see this. But the unexpected can really throw off the precise (and, it turns out, precarious) balance of my complicated life.

So, maybe I haven't assigned too many assignments. Maybe that's not really what the problem has been. Or, maybe we need to "expect the unexpected," in which case, lightening up on assignments is a good way to hold space for the unexpected?

At any rate, it's not just me. Everyone at my college is stressed this time of year.

Someone recently told me that the word at the root of school, schola, means "leisure."

I laughed.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Last year, I posted a listing of some of what I am thankful for. I still agree with all of that.

I will add to that list more explicitly (even though it is already present implicitly):

  • I am thankful for God's love.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Living against One's Nature

One of the dilemmas of my life is the question of whether I am more of a contemplative or more of an activist. My actual personality and temperament indicate that I am really more of a contemplative. But my consciously adopted ethic, rooted in my sincere concern for the world, emphasizes actively trying to make a positive difference in the world. So I have tended to try to push myself more in the "activist" direction (loosely defined).

I can say a lot of things about why I have developed this strong habit of pushing against my nature, but I will refrain. I am guessing that the story of systematically pushing against one's own nature is very common; the reasons for doing so diverse and personal.

What's interesting in my case is that it is not that I haven't known that I'm really more of a contemplative at heart. Why, look at the name I give myself here, for example! Nor is it that I do not value the contemplative role. I regard it as crucially important.

Despite my long time of knowing this about myself, and my regarding it as crucially important, yet I have systematically pushed against this core quality of my nature and only now am I finally saying to myself, "Enough! This isn't working!" Only now am I finally and truly resolving to change this in my life.

The thought of what my life could be like once I fully institute this change fills me with a dramatic ray of hope like I've not seen in a very long time when I look at my life and ponder my future. That ray of hope, shining like a sunbeam through the branches of trees on my path ahead in the woods, keeps me going.

But the distance between here and there seems enormous. This is not the kind of change one can make in an instant. The attitude change is not enough. There are projects I have committed to that I must bring to completion. It will take me a while to get where I want to be. My attitude change, in a way, makes this even harder, because I now find myself a bit impatient about the distance between me and that ray of hope ahead. This challenging hiking that I'm doing used to be what I counted as the meaning and purpose of my life; now it presents itself as an obstacle to endure and survive until I can get to where I really want to be.

But my metaphors are not really fully accurate. The contrast between my "activism" and "contemplation" is overdrawn. I'm not wholly unhappy with following through on prior commitments. And I certainly do not resent my attitude change: it helps me make new decisions with a lot more clarity.

But some dimensions of the change are really really hard.

It's hard to be who you really are, unapologetically, in the world -- especially when a core part of yourself (like being contemplative) is largely underappreciated and misunderstood.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sabbath Reclaimed!

I reclaimed my sabbath: yesterday, rather than today. There has been a lot going on lately, and so I was feeling exhausted and greatly in need of pure rest, and so I took a day yesterday to simply not have an agenda. I did what I felt like doing from moment to moment.

In some ways it is easier to take Saturdays than Sundays. Saturday comes at the end of the work week, and so I am usually especially tired and in need of a break. I also feel I have time, because Monday still seems reasonably far away. By Sunday, I'm worrying about the week ahead and feel ready to attend to my work again (especially if I've taken a break on Saturday).

I've been looking a little into why (some) Christians changed the sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. It's a complex story. I was wondering too whether that change brought with it a change in attitude towards sabbath (e.g., from "rest" to "spiritual work"). I learned that some traditions distinguish between sabbath (for rest) and "The Lord's Day" (for worship).

As I've talked with others about the notion of sabbath, and as I've read others' comments on my previous postings about sabbath, I have become aware of the many different attitudes that people have about what sabbath is "supposed" to mean. Now I see that different traditions define it very differently. No wonder there is so much dispute about its meaning.

Since my decision to try to honor the sabbath, I have not been holding strictly to it. But my reclaiming it for myself this week reminded me of how powerful it really can be.

I was falling into a trance again. I was beginning to feel run by my life and by forces out of my control. This weekend, I catch a glimpse of my essential freedom again.

We know when specific spiritual disciplines are helpful to us if we find that they help us to stay Awake.