Tuesday, December 25, 2007

All I Want for Christmas is a Working Sump Pump

Merry Christmas!

This morning, I was working on the soup I was planning to take to the potluck I was going to, when I noticed strange sounds coming from the basement. I opened the basement door, turned on the light, looked down, and my worst fears were realized: the basement was flooding. The strange noises were my sump pump trying to turn on.

Yes, it was warm today (34 degrees, just above freezing), and so all of that snow was melting and seeping into my basement. (We've still had a white Christmas -- there's lots of snow still left!)

So, bravely I went down and poked at the sump pump a bit, but to no avail. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. I tried to call for help, but (not surprisingly) had a hard time finding someone. After assessing that the basement was not flooding that quickly, I decided to go to my friends' potluck and deal with it later.

So I went, and had a nice time, but remained preoccupied with worry. Finally I left.

When I returned, the water had advanced enough that I became really worried. Finally, I got hold of the emergency technician on call from the company that usually helps me with these kinds of problems. He was very cheerful, came over, and told me that I was "only" his second call of the day. "I thought I'd get a lot more," he said. "The other was a sump pump too. With all the snow we've had, I thought there'd be a lot more with this problem today."

I really appreciated his cheerful attitude.

Happy is the sound of a working sump pump!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Quakers and Christmas

There was an article in today's paper on Christians who do not celebrate Christmas. Briefly, the reasons some Christians do not celebrate Christmas include: it's now a secular holiday; it has become too commercial; there is not really a Biblical basis for believing we have the right calendar date or that Jesus wanted us to celebrate his earthly birth.

The article listed some Protestant denominations that have had times, at least in the past, of not officially celebrating Christmas, and the Quakers were listed.

While recognizing that the questions of whether Quakers are Christians or are Protestants are themselves contested questions (but let's not get sidetracked with these questions for the moment...): The reason that Quakers didn't/don't officially celebrate Christmas may not be so much for reasons like those summarized above, but probably has to do more with the fact that (most) Quaker Meetings don't "officially" recognize any holidays.

Yet I know that many (most?) Quaker families do celebrate Christmas at home. And some Meetings do mark the occasion in a number of ways (singing Christmas hymns, having a special potluck, maybe having a special Meeting for Worship on Christmas day, though I have seldom seen the latter during my many years among Friends).

So I am curious about Friends' thoughts on this. If you feel so moved, please consider responding to some or all of the following:

  • Does your Meeting do anything special for Christmas? (Any other holidays?) Why or why not?
  • Do you celebrate Christmas at home?
  • If so, do you regard it as a secular/cultural holiday or a religious one? That is, does your way of celebrating it come more from family traditions than from your Quakerism, or vice versa? (I know that Quakers want to say that there is no distinction between their Quaker life and the rest of their life, but those who do not come from Quaker families may engage in Christmas traditions inherited from their non-Quaker families even if they now infuse them with Quakerly meanings).
  • Do any of you hold strictly to a Quaker-inspired practice of not honoring any holidays in any special way, including Christmas? If so, how do you communicate this to family and friends who may expect some participation?
  • If you do celebrate Christmas, what about the way that you celebrate it is most meaningful to you? Or, if you could celebrate Christmas any way you wanted, how would you?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

More Snow, and Huge Piles of Grading!

We've had yet more snow. Some of the Ridges have collapsed into the sidewalks. Since my car is still in the shop getting fixed, I've been doing lots of walking around town, and so I've seen (and walked through) lots of these mini-avalanches.

Meanwhile, we had final exam week this past week. Now I have lots and lots of grading to do.

I'm astonished to realize that Christmas is just three days away!

Needless to say, I'm not ready for it! But I am keeping things simple this year. (I've been forced to, by my busy life, and my having to get along without a car for the past week.)

It's strange how different life feels when I know that the semester is over and the students are gone. A lot of faculty disappear too. Our work is not over -- we have all this grading to do. Nevertheless, everyone suddenly is just gone. Our university shuts down completely for the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. I think they even turn the heat way down! Our grades are due just after the new year begins.

I'm seriously considering ignoring grading completely until after Christmas. That will give me a little time to get ready for Christmas, which would be nice.

In case I don't get a chance to write again, I wish my readers Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Lots and Lots of Snow

Yes, sure enough, we have been having a snowstorm. I've lived in northern snowy lands for quite a few years now, but I do not think I have ever seen this much snow fall all at once.

As I walked home this evening, I was knee-deep in snow (even though the sidewalks had in fact been plowed several times), and the ridges on the edges of the road were sometimes up to my shoulders (usually 3-4 feet high; sometimes 5 feet).

People were out in the middle of the day trying to make a start on clearing driveways and such. My neighbor had a snow-blower, and came over and did my driveway. With my shovel, I did what snow-blowers cannot handle for both of us (front and back steps). It took me as long to clear the steps and back walk as it took him to use his snow-blower on my driveway! I was really grateful for his help.

But coming home this evening, there was almost no sign of all of our work. Yet it would be so much worse if we had not done what we did then!

We'll see what the official amount turns out to be. It's still snowing.

Tomorrow Final Exams begin. I will walk to work. (Anyway, I already took my car to the shop to get it fixed -- I knew that if I waited until tomorrow morning it might be a real challenge just to get it out!) It's hard to focus on normal life and act as if our dramatically changed landscape of Enormous Snow Mountains is nothing out of the ordinary. But that's how things will be tomorrow. Our students will be exclaiming and we professors will smile at their excitement but give those exams anyway... Our attitudes will say, "this is just how it is here." Life must keep trudging forward at its same relentless pace no matter what! (Sigh.)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Another Snowstorm Coming

We are due for a big snowstorm this weekend.

As long as it is light, fluffy snow, I'll be happy.

The only problem is that it may dump two feet by exactly the time I am due to take my car in to finally get all fixed up again.

Well, I can really test my snow tires! And if anything further bad happens, better for it to happen on the way to the shop instead of coming back from its being all spiffed up! (The weather forecast for when I am due to pick it up again is snowless -- at the moment, anyway. These things can change...)

I was wrong about the local newspaper reporting our latest two inches as "trace." It actually said, "none." But I say, "if you can shovel it, it exists."

I did get the Ridge cleared from my friend's driveway. We had warmer temps yesterday, so I took time in the middle of the day to tackle the 2x3 ft ridge of slightly softened icy rocks. First I took a heavy metal garden shovel and broke it all up. Then I shoveled the broken ice chunks away. It took almost an hour.

You know all of that helpful advice to "push not lift" when shoveling snow? Whoever puts out that advice doesn't know what they are talking about. You run out of room to push show aside. You have no choice but to lift it up over the 2-3 ft high snow walls that form along the edge of your driveway, or the 3-4 ft high towers that form at the foot of your driveway.

I really am getting quite the workout! My snow shoveling muscles are, surprisingly, not sore at all any more -- even after yesterday's heavy ice hauling.

When I was in the thick of it, I saw two joggers run past, and I could not help but wonder if they hired people to clear their driveways, or if they used snow blowers. I don't know, of course. And even if so, I don't really blame them.

But even though there are times that my commitment to doing my shoveling myself brings me to tears, and it would be easy for me to hire out this chore, I stick with it for the spiritual and physical value of this kind of honest hard work. If I hired someone to do it, that person would probably use a snow blower. My using my own muscles and effort to do it seems a good way to get exercise. My exercise serves a practical purpose that benefits others besides me. And my doing it this way expends energy in a way that is not contributing to global warming.

What I am also appreciating is the way that I am feeling more in relationship with nature. The demands of the weather carry their own necessity that is indifferent to the other kinds of urgencies that drive my life. I must be more aware of nature. I must try to anticipate and plan for the complexities that the weather may bring.

This is true every winter, but I am more aware this year, in part because we are getting more snow, earlier, and in part because I was already behind in important dimensions of my work, for other reasons, and so the unusual amount of snow has felt like more of a burden than I've let on so far in my postings (in my attempt through writing to cast a positive spin on this dimension of the endless complexity of my life)

So it is nature that determines my exercise schedule now. And I like this. Nature is my coach, giving me different kinds of workouts each time. The onset of cold weather is initially hard to bear, but there is nothing like getting out in it and working hard to help you to reckon with it, adjust to it, make peace with it. My spirit rises to the challenge, and I am starting to feel like a better person: more aligned with the simple but compelling realities of nature and weather.

This is why I love living in a cold northern land. Life really does get harder in the winter, but reckoning with this is good for me.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I know it's not officially winter yet, but nevertheless, winter is the theme of today's posting.

Like I mentioned last time, my winter exercise program is in full swing. Never mind that slippery sidewalks make walking and running treacherous -- no need for them anyway, because it is snow shoveling season, off to an early and impressive start this year! Nearly every day I go out at least once to work on the fine artistry of maintaining the clearness of my driveway (and this week, the driveway of a friend as well who is away for the week).

So, since I wrote last time: first we had wet heavy snow.

Then we had medium consistency snow, but I couldn't get to it right away (except I had the amazing foresight to at least clear the Snowplow Ridges before work), and it melted a bit during the day and then refroze. So it was a two-inch-thick slab that I had to deal with when I came home from work that day (yesterday? Yes, yesterday). It wasn't rock-solid, thank goodness. It had kind of a porous texture. It broke in chunks and was modestly heavy but not as bad as it could have been. It was very good that I had cleared the Snowplow Ridges because they would have been really bad. This I know experimentally, because today I tried to tackle the Ridges in my friend's driveway and finally gave up. (I'll try again tomorrow.)

Today we had another two inches of light fluffy snow! After struggling with my friend's Ridges and giving up (I did clear the driveway, just not the Ridges), it was a joy to come home to my own driveway because all I had to deal with here was the two new inches of light fluffy snow.

According to today's local paper, our total snowfall this season has been 22.5 inches already (not counting today's 2 inches, which they will probably record as "trace").

Meanwhile, I've been trying to finish grading one more set of papers (before finals), and really want to get them back to the students tomorrow (the last day of classes). I imagine myself facing my class and saying, "I tried, but it was the shoveling of driveways that defeated me." But that would be pathetic, so I'll probably be up late tonight...

Meanwhile, I got my new snow tires put on my car today. When they were ready, it had started to snow again, so I got to test them and see if they really make a difference. I think they do. I did feel a bit more secure. And it wasn't as expensive as I had thought, because there was a special sale: buy three, get one free (I'm not kidding)!

These happy surprises are so nice! I've been finding life very hard lately, for a lot of reasons, and so I find myself appreciating such happy surprises even more than usual.

I'm gaining insight into my main spiritual struggle, and so I probably will be writing more about that soon.

But for now, I have papers to grade and snow to shovel!

Thursday, December 06, 2007


The after-effects of my mishap on Friday have been interesting. Physically, I have felt fine; psychologically I have felt far more shaken up than I expected to feel.

Lots of people have suggested I get snow tires. I've gotten along for years living in snowy lands without them, but this is a different car, and maybe it just doesn't handle as well on snow as my previous one did. So I do have snow tires on order.

And meanwhile my life has been further complicated now by all that is involved with trying to get my car fixed up again.

And we have gotten a lot of snow. So my winter exercise program of shoveling my driveway has begun! It's a 30-60 minute workout, depending on the amount and consistency of the snow. Monday's snow was heavy "igloo-building" snow -- the kind you can carve into blocks. It's a fun consistency, but heavy to dig out. Plus we got a lot that day.

Then I had two follow-up powdery snowfalls to shovel. Those are downright fun. When the snow is light and fluffy, you almost can dance while you shovel.

The shoveling, oddly, has been about all that I have been able to handle lately. Oh, and I have been going to class and teaching, and doing a surprisingly fine job, mostly. And I've kept up with quiz grading and the bare minimum of absolutely urgent tasks.

Then I come home with great ambitions to practice music and then put in a few more hours of grading and other catching up before going to bed, but last night I suddenly could not do anything.

So I told myself I had to do something frivolous and fun at least, to cheer myself up.

So I pulled out a book from my childhood: on string figures. And I ended up staying up much too late training myself to do again all of these string figures I used to be able to make as a child.

Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, I was in a much better mood today and got a lot done.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bad Faith, or Bad Luck?

My latest adventure: driving back from a performance on a snowy night (Friday night), my car hit a patch of ice and went spinning off the road, and into a ditch. I live where it snows a lot, and so I am used to driving in these conditions. I was going slowly and carefully. It is probably because I was going slowly and carefully that things were not worse. As it was, I was not injured, and the car was just dented and scratched up a bit.

It could have been much worse. If there had been other traffic, cars most likely would have hit each other. If other traffic had been going too fast, there surely would have been injuries. If I had been going faster, my car would have rolled instead of just slid into the rather steep and deep ditch I slid into. In retrospect, I realize that I am very lucky.

But at the time, during that split second when I was watching disaster coming straight at me, and I didn't know how exactly this all was going to end, and there was absolutely nothing more I could do but wait for the rest of the story to play out, my life didn't flash before my eyes. Instead, I found myself (a quiet, gentle soul, usually) yelling "No!" in fierce protestation, with an emotion more like anger than anything else.

Here was what I was feeling: I try so hard to do the right thing. I try to live with awareness, compassion, respect, and care. So why does my life feel like it is spinning out of control? It was an existential moment.

Referring back to a comment on one of my recent posts, am I living in Sartre's "bad faith"?

Or was this just a moment of bad luck? (It does bring new problems that I do not feel I have chosen.)

Or was this a moment of good luck? (It could have been so much worse! As it is now, the problems this creates for me are all solvable and finite in duration. I was not injured, and some day my car will be all fixed up again -- this was not an event that would leave lasting bad effects. In fact, having this story in my history will help me respond with more effective compassion and reassurance to others who experience similar situations.)

Most haunting to me is this: sometimes I have powerful dreams, and those dreams reflect, in highly symbolic form, aspects of my normal waking life. Reflecting on those dreams gives me insight into my life.

This is the reason this was such an existential experience for me. It is soul-shaking to find a kind of metaphor my dreams often employ suddenly erupting into real life. So I want to read the symbolism of this event like I read dreams. But its happening in real life makes it seem more urgent than ever.

What message am I to take from this?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Work and Togetherness

I really love this posting on chores from Robin M's blog, What Canst Thou Say? There is a lot of wisdom here. One part that especially struck me was this:

"Another Quaker family I know with three boys, ages 10-15, has instituted a policy that no one should do a chore alone. Then everyone knows how much work there is and none of it takes as long or feels as thankless."

This way of explicitly connecting work with togetherness, helpfulness, and mutual appreciation is brilliant.

Much of the work that academics do is done in solitude. While being in the classroom is a communal experience, the hours we spend actually in the classroom are few in relation to the rest of our work. It takes hours to prepare for every hour in the classroom, and those hours are spent reading and thinking and taking notes, and grading student work. It is necessarily solitary work, in a certain kind of way.

But there is another way that this is not solitary work. The time spent grading student papers is time spent in a kind of dialogue with those students. The time spent reading for class is time spent in dialogue with famous philosophers of the past.

And yet, it is still not the same as scrubbing the floor with a friend or family member.

I have been fortunate enough to have frequent opportunities to co-teach courses. While some would think that this reduces the work, it does not. You have to put as much time into preparing as when you solo-teach, and then add in time to meet to plan together. So there is still the same time spent in solitary work, but added on is a little extra time of togetherness that I really treasure and value. There really is something wonderful about witnessing to the normally invisible, behind-the-scenes hard work that each other does. And being able to work together to solve the problems that come up is invaluable. My load does feel lighter, even if, in this example, the time spent working is not actually reduced but may in fact be increased a bit.

So, even though Robin's posting was focused mostly on the tedium and strenuous nature of manual work, I find that the ideas she shares are somewhat applicable to what is "hard" about aspects of the kind of work that I do, too. I have new ways of thinking about how to approach my work.

For example, while I like the solitude of preparing for class, I do not like the solitude of grading. Even though I know that I am not really alone, but am in dialogue with students, I still find doing this by myself to be hard.

When I was in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for a large Introduction to Philosophy course. At the end of the semester, we had a very short time frame for doing the final grading for the course, and the professor had the teaching assistants gather together with him in the seminar room to grade together. We divided up all of the papers, and while we did each work separately, there was something wonderfully supportive about being in the same room together. Occasionally one of us would have a question about one of the papers, and we all appreciated the break from our solitary work to think together for a moment about the question at hand. Then we would refill our cups of coffee and resume our work.

Maybe I need to try instituting "grading parties" among my colleagues who feel as oppressed by grading as I do. Maybe the togetherness and mutual appreciation of each other's hard work would help us approach this work with more cheerfulness, and would help us all to stay focused enough to finish more efficiently.

I am going to keep meditating on Robin's posting, and on the nature and meaning of work.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Complexity of Call

A new crisis appeared last week in my ever exciting life as Department Chair. When I received notice of this, I was strongly "tempted to despair" (to quote George Fox). But then, miraculously, I rose to the challenge and I think things are going to be all right.

Dealing with this crisis totally sabotaged my efforts to catch up on grading last week. So instead of having this week (Thanksgiving Break) as a chance to work on research, I have felt under pressure to catch up on grading. I have made pretty good progress. I did take one day as a research day, and that was really good for my soul.

But, back to last week: towards the end of the week, my one other department colleague who is eligible to become chair, and who I was hoping would take over being chair next year, came in to talk to me about how this might not be possible for at least two more years. I could not help but think that this colleague, who was witness to last week's crisis, was getting cold feet upon realizing some of what being departmental chair entails.

I was so upset that I knew it was better for me not to respond at all yet. I knew that I needed time to process this before it would be fair for me to respond.

Fortunately, I had a counseling session that very afternoon. After I updated my counselor on all that has been happening, he surprised me by being totally outraged. He understands why everyone around me has responded to these events the ways they have, and knows that no one is out to get me. The "problem" is that I deal with all of these kinds of things too well. Nothing is going to change while I continue to handle everything responsibly.

And he doesn't want to discourage me from handling things responsibly -- he knows that my sense of responsibility is grounded in genuine caring, and he also realizes that this is a case where even if I could let go of my sense of responsibility, the bad effects of my doing so would ricochet right back to me. If I am the main one holding my little department together, and I let go of this responsibility, my own departmental home would collapse around me. How is that helpful to me or anyone else?

He said he is really worried about me though, because it is hard to see how it is possible for me to gain any relief from all of the pressures I am under.

So, if gaining relief from the pressures is not possible (at least not in the near future), maybe I need to change my question: How can I deal well with the pressures that I find in my life right now?

Back when I started this blog, I gave it the title "Embracing Complexity" under the optimistic theory that if I try to step fully into this complex life I find myself in, I can learn to cope with it well. I was hopeful that in the midst of complexity and sometimes a sense of chaos are the seeds of the kind of creativity that might have the power to change the world. I needed to stop shrinking away from this challenge; but also, I needed to stop wasting effort by attempting to solve the wrong problem: trying to tame, organize, or control the complexity. Can I learn instead to live in and with the complexity, with a trust that transcends the messiness of the day-to-day? With a faith that transcends the unpredictable emotional trajectory of exhilaration, anxiety, outrage, hope, peace, satisfaction, weariness, etc.?

Looking back, I see two patterns.

The subjective picture is that I've had momentary success "embracing complexity," and at those moments I have been hopeful that I could grow into accepting the kind of life I seem to have acquired. Yet, over time I have felt increasingly worn down, until a pattern of bona fide depressive symptoms became dominant enough that I've sought help. After my initial optimism that "help" could bring "cure," that I could make a few key decisions to change my life and then finally I would start to be able to feel that I was able to use my life to bring about positive change at some level (instead of just feeling in battle against being overwhelmed with my life), now I feel on the verge of some sobering new realization about how these things work. I'm starting to doubt that my life will ever feel like that.

This brings me to the second pattern. The objective picture looks very different. In a recent conversation with a friend, I found myself saying, "Someday I'll fix my life. I am working on it." And this friend looked at me with what seemed to be genuine surprise and said, "From the outside, it doesn't look like your life needs fixing. You seem to be doing very well!" When I then watched myself deal with the crisis I had to deal with last week, I realized that this person may have a point. Despite all of my recent words on this blog about my not really being leadership material (really just because it continues to feel hard to me), in fact this may not be true at all. The me who dealt with last week's crisis was calm, efficient, creative, and reassuring to all involved, and had a solution in place in less than a week. This was not just a "let's desperately patch things together!" solution, but a good solution. Luck played a big hand in this (and for that I was immensely grateful), but my own role was not insignificant. I had to nurture things along, and my ability to stay positive, treat everyone with unfailing respect despite all of the background stress, and mediate two conflicting points of view (both of which I had sympathy for) were decisive factors in bringing about the successful solution.

People do see this about me and are amazed. This is why they keep trying to push me towards new leadership opportunities when they open up. It is really hard to find people who are capable of grace under pressure.

It's difficult for me to confess this positive quality I have, because I am ambivalent about it! While I want to be a strong and good person like this, precisely because these qualities can be so effective in bringing about positive transformation, as indeed I witnessed last week, I am also daunted by the responsibility this brings. "Your problem is that you handle things too well." In this, I become a magnet for unusual and difficult problems.

I am almost ready to accept that this just is the way life is. I'm almost ready to accept: (a) life doesn't always have to feel good to be doing good; (b) out of a sense of chaos, world-transforming innovation can arise; (c) the world leans heavily on those who prove themselves responsible and capable, and such people largely lose the ability to choose which problems to take on: instead, problems will choose them.

Right now it is especially the last one, c, that I do not like at all. I hope it is not really true. I want to get to a place where I have real choice again. That is what seems most hopeless to me, and is at the root of my current depression. Lately I have not been liking the problems that choose me (except in retrospect, if I feel they were successfully resolved -- then I don't mind so much).

But what if I could get to such strong faith that I really could accept c fully? What if I could regard each new problem with cheerful interest, trusting that meeting its challenges would bring gifts not only to everyone else involved, but also to me?

What makes this hard for me to accept is that I also wrestle with another sense of call that finds little room for expression in my life when my life is like this. The day-to-day crises that emerge keep pushing it out. Living in the tension of this paradox is what I have found most hard. How do I honor this sense of call when it feels so consistently frustrated?

The real complexity is in my own soul: my sense of responsibility feels like one important part of my call, and it manifests itself as a "problem magnet" in my life. But my being a contemplative scholar is another important part of my call. It is this part of me that feels closest to the core of my identity, and yet is what is most challenged and pushed aside in my busy life.

I realize that I've thought that the two were incompatible, and seeing one sacrificed in favor of the other, I've wanted to find a way to trade the sacrifices! But now I'm starting to wonder if perhaps I must accept both as two aspects of my call, and so my real challenge is to find the right balance. Is this really possible?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Spontaneous Sabbath Moments

This semester, I have not been as intentional about taking sabbath time as I tried to be last year. This semester, my life has been such that I feel less able to predict when I will be in a productive working mood, and when I will need a sabbath-like break. And so I have felt the need to take full advantage of good working moods when they come, but, to balance that out, I have also been alert for spontaneous sabbath moments, and I have been letting myself take them when they come. So instead of taking a whole sabbath day each week, I let small spaces open up every few days or so. I may take an hour here, a half-hour there. Sometimes on weekends, I may even take a 2- or 3-hour block.

This is sort of working. But I'm writing about it to be more intentional and aware of this change. If I didn't mark this change and describe what it is, I would become vulnerable to lapsing into an undisciplined life, characterized by a half-asleep consciousness. Strangely enough, if I did allow this, my "productivity" might increase in a certain kind of way, but it wouldn't really be a high-quality productivity. It would be an obedient productivity. It would be the kind of productivity that helps keep the world humming nicely (and blindly) along its self-destructive path.

But I prefer to lend my energies to a more transformative productivity -- the kind of productivity that builds a sustainable, peaceful, and creative world. A person's ability to be productive in this way requires awareness and reflection. And some form of sabbath is very helpful to cultivating awareness and providing time for reflection.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Something Else Hard About Grading

Since I'm preoccupied about grading these days, I thought I would note something else that I find hard about grading: giving bad grades to students I like.

Since I like all of my students, this means that giving bad grades at all is always painful to me.

Depression and Energy

I was talking with a friend today who was advocating the use of medication in treating depression, even "situational" depression, as opposed to "biologically based" depression (if such a distinction is meaningful, which is disputed among the experts). This friend was saying that IF this distinction has meaning, she thinks that medication can be helpful not only to those with biologically-based depression, but even to those whose depression is caused by difficult life circumstances. Here is why she thinks so. Difficult life circumstances can cause depressive symptoms. While the ultimate "cure" for this kind of depression is to deal well with the difficult life circumstances, medication can still be helpful as part of the process. One common depressive symptom is lowered energy. Medication can raise energy levels, which in turn can help the person deal with their difficult life situation better.

I found myself liking aspects of her theory very much, but still resisting her conclusion. But rather than write about the pros and cons of medication for different kinds of depression, I would like to highlight what I like about her theory.

I do think that there is a strong relationship between (certain kinds of?) depression and energy levels. I've long been fascinated by human energy. There's a certain kind of physical energy we have that is strongly affected by our physical health and fitness, but it seems to me that there is another kind of energy as well: psychological energy? spiritual energy? psycho-spiritual energy?

The reason I believe this is because I notice when the two do not coincide. There are times when I am physically very tired, but through a strong sense of determination I push on through that physical fatigue. This can be quite an exhilarating state of being. But there are other times when I can tell that physically I really am fine -- well-rested, not ill -- and yet my overall sense of energy feels low. In fact, this can be quite a miserable state, because physical rest is not helpful for this kind of tiredness at all. It can be a weariness of soul. It can be a sense of being tired of having to make hard decisions. This is the kind of low energy that can be a depressive symptom.

The two are not completely unrelated. Over time, the one can affect the other. Getting physical exercise can revive sagging spirits (low psycho-spiritual energy). Pushing one's physical energy too relentlessly, too long, can eventually cause high spirits to droop again. But high spirits can recharge physical energy (if you are just tired and not exhausted), and low spirits may, over long periods of time, cause physical health to deteriorate.

What I find especially helpful about my friend's theory is that if a boost in energy can help one get through trying situations better, there may be other ways than antidepressant medication to gain this boost of energy. Exercise, in fact, is known to help alleviate depressive symptoms. There are meditation practices as well that can help boost overall energy.

So, when feeling overwhelmed by life's events, to the extent that you feel yourself lapsing into depressive low-energy, it can be helpful to shift attention away from what is overwhelming you and focus on your energy level itself, and consider what you might do to re-charge that energy. Exercise or some form of meditation may help. Or sometimes what we need is something to recharge our enthusiasm for life. We need to try to reconnect with who we really are, what we most value, and what brings us joy.

I think that depressive low energy comes about when we are feeling particularly ineffective: when we have put forth a great deal of effort to deal with life's challenges, but things don't get better, or they even get worse. We experience low energy because something is trying to tell us to slow down, quit wasting our effort: it's obviously not working. It may in fact be important to slow down and reconsider our approach. But if we decide or realize that we must press on, and yet continue to find it difficult to summon new energy, remembering that we are more than how this situation characterizes us, and our life is more than this challenging event, can be a way of finding new energy.

Even so, there still may be times when it is very hard to do that: very hard to get back in touch with enthusiasm, joy, and a positive sense of self. Nevertheless, our failure to make ourselves feel better does not cause us just to vanish. There is still something that holds us up, and holds us together, even though we may be feeling profoundly lost. If we just let it hold us, there will come a time when a sense of the meaningfulness of life will start to flow back into our awareness.

This miracle too is why I believe in God.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Stuck at the Bottom of the Grading Vortex

Having gotten partially through the grading over the weekend, I now find myself in that most horrible place of being well into the grading, but life's busyness keeps intervening and not letting me finish! Today, for example, students came to talk to me during office hours! Can you imagine?! Of course it was actually wonderful. I love talking with students one on one.

Then we had faculty meeting. I took some logic quizzes to try to furtively work on grading those when things got a little dull, but things didn't get dull. Besides, someone sat directly behind me -- intrigued, I think, at watching me grade just before the meeting got rolling. "What is she grading?" he may have wondered. (Indirect truth tables.) There I am pointing seemingly at random to little Ts and Fs -- suddenly I circle one and draw a line and write something cryptic like, "when trying to prove validity you should set this one up as F." It was fun to think I might be amusing my colleagues, but in actual fact I am sure that no one was really paying any attention to me at all.

Our faculty meeting was actually very interesting, because we were making changes to some academic policies that I was pleased we were changing. We were making our grading practices a little more forgiving.

Now I must plunge back into the grading and see if I can finish the quizzes and a batch of papers tonight. I will be very happy if I can accomplish at least this much.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

About to Be Caught in a Grading Vortex

I have a lot of grading of student papers to get caught up on. Finally I had managed to clear a complete weekend to try to get caught up -- and then found myself crippled yesterday by a fierce headache. It came back this morning. Coincidence? Bad luck? Or did I create the headache as an excuse to keep postponing this difficult task?

Why do I have such a block about grading? Why is it a task that has become harder over time instead of easier?

At the beginning of the semester I resolved to grade each set of papers at once and get it over with -- but that noble plan has long ago collapsed into dust.

Part of the problem is that it takes such time and energy that I feel I need big blocks of time to do it and get it done. There is nothing more frustrating than to do three or four papers and then have to put it aside, so that when I come back to it, I have to re-read those papers to ensure that my grading standards are consistent across the batch of papers. So I tend not to grade in small doses like that. I wait for big chunks of time (which are very hard to find in my complicated life) -- and then get so overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before me that it's hard to get into it when I do have the time -- or a fierce headache suddenly attacks me, like this weekend.

There are other factors that make the task difficult too. I think I've written about this before. But I bring it up again simply to ask for help. Do other teachers out there have this problem? Have other teachers found a way to deal with this better than I have? Are there any secrets to how to just grade a batch of papers immediately when they come in, efficiently and effectively, without a lot of angst?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Selfishness and Integrity

Sometimes people have encouraged me to be more "selfish." But whenever anyone says this, I resist. When pushed, I grudgingly admit that we do have some responsibility to take care of ourselves. But still, when I am in situations in which I have to choose between some kind of self-care and what someone else wants from me, I have a strong tendency to act in favor of what someone else wants from me, thereby sacrificing or postponing self-care. Only when pushed to situations of utter desperation will I finally say, "I just can't" to someone else, and even so, I still feel bad about it.

But today, I finally realized something. When people challenge me to adopt a more positive attitude towards "selfishness," I think they are really trying to say something about integrity. There's an important relationship between integrity and self. The opposite of integrity is being a divided self, or an ill-defined self. Integrity is about wholeness, and integration. Having integrity includes knowing who you really are, and having a clear sense of your moral boundaries. Integrity is tied to self-care, and self-respect. It includes not being easily manipulated by others. And so a person who has a hard time taking care of herself or himself, and always wants to please others, can actually be a person of questionable integrity!

I prize integrity immensely. So it is a bit of a surprise to me to realize that I am not as much as person of integrity as I really want to be. My habit of putting others' requests ahead of my own sense of what I feel called to do betrays my own integrity. I have generally been pretty good at not letting others pressure me to do things that I know are outright wrong -- and I implicitly thought that that was all that integrity requires! But until recently I thought that letting people pressure me to do things that I know are "good" (even if doing so undermines or postpones what I really feel called to do) is okay, maybe even nobly self-sacrificial. Now I understand that doing this is actually a violation of integrity too.

I remain uneasy about the word "selfishness," however. It still seems to me that this was a word coined to express the negative extreme of a person who is in the habit of not giving others enough consideration.

But it is good for me to consider the value of attending to self, and to acknowledge that recognizing one's own inherent value is at the core of the concept of integrity.

If we want to bring our best selves more fully into the world, which is what integrity is all about, this requires attending to self to some extent. I think that is what wise people in my life have been trying to tell me lately!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Catching Up a Bit

Hello Friends, and sorry I haven't written in a while! I thought I would write today and share a few updates.

1. I got a new car, a Yaris. I had written about wanting one in some earlier posting. It felt a bit extravagant, but I did need a car, and it is hard to find a good used car where I live -- many of the better ones where I live cost more than this new one did! I got my previous car used, and it had a lot of miles on it. The day I traded it in, the brakes went out on it! A friend and I drove it very carefully to the car dealership (it has manual transmission), confessed the problem to the salesman right away, and offered to pay for the repair. He appreciated our honesty and said that he would take care of it. "It could have happened tomorrow," he said. That was nice of him. I like the new car a lot. Of course, it would be better not to have a car at all, but this country we call "civilized" (the U.S.) in fact is not as civilized as some other countries. The transportation system is not well-developed at all! There is hardly any public transportation available except in urban areas.

2. This semester has not been as ridiculously busy as last semester, but it is busy enough.

3. I have a student who is very sick. She almost died. She is still vulnerable to falling through the cracks due to a combination of (a) her family just not getting how serious this is (and erroneously thinking that she brought it on herself in some way, but it is not an illness that is contagious or caused by lifestyle choices), and (b) our ridiculous medical system. We call our country a "civilized" country (the U.S.), but in fact it is not as civilized as some other countries. (Do you detect a theme developing here?) For example, our health care system is not a caring system. It is a system that too many people are trying to make big money from. When money becomes more important than people, sometimes it is "better" (i.e., makes more money) just to let certain people die. Fortunately, there are still people who can transcend our flawed system. The people who have helped prevent this young woman from falling through the cracks are her professors, friends, family of friends, the college's health center, and a local doctor. I hope she makes it.

4. We've had a lot of unseasonably warm weather. On the news, I hear about fires, and polar ice caps melting, Ph levels in the oceans changing, New Orleans having some flooding, and Atlanta at risk of running out of water. It's hard not to be terribly worried about the state of the world.

5. While my administrative role is lighter than last year, I am still chair of my department and chair of a couple of committees. I sent out a reminder notice of a meeting for one of the committees last week. A few people sent understandable regrets. I spent all afternoon preparing for this meeting. Then I went -- and no one showed up. (There were three people I had not heard from, and I thought at least two of them would show up.) I spent some time working further on the work of this committee myself, then wrote up joke "minutes" for the meeting. In these minutes, I wrote about a "concerned discussion" among "all present" about the efficacy of their chair. ("She can't even get people to do the work they promised to do, or even come to meetings, one voice pointed out...") While I laughed a little doing this, those minutes are too edged with bitterness to actually show anyone, and I left the "meeting" feeling seriously depressed.

6. Related to the above, I have decided that I'm not really "leadership material," as they say. I have good ideas. I'm organized. I'm good at planning processes for getting things done. I'm willing to work hard. But I'm absolutely no good at all at motivating others to follow through with things they have said they would do. I can't wait until my current terms of office of my "leadership" positions all end -- I've decided I'm letting them all expire without extending any of them, and I am even going to resign from one big one early (my being chair of my department. I've just started the second four-year term of this, although I've actually been at it for longer than four years because I had to step in early due to an emergency situation. Anyway, I agreed to be chair this year rather than another full four-year term, and our new Dean now knows this and is agreeable to my plan). While I am a little sad to admit to myself that I'm not really "leadership material," I know that I have given this a good try, and have learned a lot. And there's a way I am relieved to finally admit this to myself. Like I've been saying a lot lately, I really need to focus my life better on what I know I really am called to do: write! I am actually really happy to let go of something that stresses me out terribly in order to make room for writing.

7. I may yet have promise as a teacher, though. One of my classes entered a kind of crisis stage, and I think I've successfully intervened in a way that moves things forward. Sometimes professors respond to this kind of crisis by shaming the students as a way of putting pressure on them to work harder. They may, for example, hand back a set of papers with very low grades and announce to the class that they've never seen such a pathetic batch of papers. What I like about what I've just done is that I didn't take this approach! I think I succeeded in not making anyone feel bad at all. After all, I fully accept that a lot, if not all, of the responsibility really lies with me. But I didn't punish myself for that either. I just took a long hard look at what I've tried to do in relation to what they have given back to me, and totally reworked the next class session to try again to bring them to where I want them to be. Then I gave back a set of papers without grades (but lots of comments) and simply asked the students to rewrite them. To my surprise, they didn't actually complain ("What! You're giving us more work that's not in the syllabus!?" They didn't say this!) They are smart enough to read between the lines. I think they know full well that I just didn't have the heart to give them the low grades that these papers deserved. But they also saw from the tone of my comments that I was accepting where they were and trying respectfully to move them to better understanding and higher standards in their reasoning. We will see what their rewrites look like -- that will be the real test.

There's more, but this is all I can write about at the moment.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Levels of Busyness

Here is something I was thinking of on my walk today. There's not just one kind of "being busy." There are at least four levels of busyness. Before I define them, I need to define a few other key terms:

A "reasonable workweek" - In academia, this tends to be about 60 hours a week, but for some it may be more, and for others less, depending both on one's "work stamina" and one's "home demands."

"Work stamina" - How many hours per week you can put into work on a regular basis without risking burnout or other stress-induced health issues. This is a function of a combination of your overall psychological/emotional well-being, the healthiness of your work environment, the nature of the stresses of your work in relation to your own psychology, and the satisfaction you derive from your work.

"Home demands" - how much time and attention your family, friends, and home responsibilities require of you in order to function reasonably smoothly.

Level I: Busy Enough

At this level, about 80% of whatever you deem a reasonable workweek is spent on scheduled events (including classes and meetings) and deadline-driven tasks (including preparing for classes, grading student work, getting reports in, preparing conference proposals and papers, proofreading manuscripts, etc.). This gives you 20% for more proactive instead of reactive work: planning new projects (e.g., research projects or new courses); going above and beyond what is minimally expected (e.g., helping start a student club in your department, above and beyond merely keeping your student honorary society going).

Level II: Too Busy

100% of a reasonable workweek is spent on scheduled events and deadline-driven tasks. To do more requires exceeding what works for you as a reasonable workweek. Thus, it cuts in on home time, which may begin to erode your own well-being and/or create stress and tension in family relationships and friendships. Still, it is reasonable to expect that we can tolerate this level for short periods of time. But if work demands settle into this pattern for the long-term, we are tempted to begin to sacrifice the (formerly 20%) proactive kind of work in favor of well-being and relational harmony.

Level III: Way Too Busy

Scheduled events and deadline-driven tasks now require more than 100% of a reasonable workweek. Now it is impossible to complete the minimally necessary work tasks within what is for us a reasonable workweek, and so even with the sacrifice of the proactive kind of work, we must push our working hours higher. Again, we can sustain this for short periods, but if it becomes more long-term, our well-being, relationships, and ability to take care of other home responsibilities become seriously strained. The mildest form of this is when necessary work pushes just a little over 100% of a reasonable workweek. But the most severe form is when every waking hour is spent either on work or the minimum absolutely necessary home chores. But at this level, at least you are not required to cut back on sleep.

Level IV: Impossibly Busy

Like Level III, except that now you do have to cut back on sleep in order to keep up. While not technically "impossible," because this is something that we can do for short periods of time, it really is impossible to sustain for any length of time without seriously beginning to break down our health and well-being.

My life last spring was at the high end of Level III, breaking occasionally into Level IV. Wait, let me rephrase that last phrase: breaking as much into Level IV as I could tolerate.

Happily, my life this semester started off at Level II but last week actually settled back to Level I. It's picking up again, inching back to Level II -- which still feels refreshingly easy after last spring, so I'm not complaining. Most of my life here has been towards the high end of Level III during the academic year.

Also happily, I have pretty high "work stamina," because my work environment is pretty healthy overall (except for the constant pressure always to do more) and my satisfaction with most dimensions of my work is very high.

But still, Level I is "busy enough." And Level I is required as the norm if you want to have time to be proactive in your work: thinking creatively, initiating new projects, revising your courses, developing new courses, etc. Level I is required also to have a balanced and sustainable life, conducive to mental and physical health, and embedded in relationships that are mutually-supporting.

Now I have a goal. I aspire to Level I busyness. If I reach it, I want to live true to it unapologetically. I will try not to become seduced by (or infected by?) the competitive busyness game (or disease?) that my colleagues seem to engage in.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Grading to Roaring Applause

Accidentally, I happen upon a way to work on grading that makes it kind of fun. My office is in a building across from the football field, and there is a home game there this afternoon. It's a warm day, and I have my window open. So, here I am, grading, and just after I write a brilliant comment on a student paper, the crowd erupts into enthusiastic applause!

Very gratifying.

(A little later): Alas, they are booing me now... Hmm, this is not going as well as I thought. Now there is even chanting and a drumming of feet. Maybe I am being a little hard on the student whose paper I am currently reading...?

Some Success in Schedule Refinements

Last time, I wrote about my difficulty in establishing time in my schedule for exercise and for research, and so I thought I should write an update (that may be helpful to others trying to work out how to construct daily schedules that help them to manage their busy lives effectively).


I decided that trying to go running in the early morning was just not going to work for me, and committed instead to walking for 30-40 minutes every day whenever I could fit it in. "Just an experiment!" I told myself. "Just see if I can do this for one week!" It's almost been a week -- and it is working! One day I almost gave it a miss -- I felt too pressed by too much to do. But once I realized that I really wanted to, I gave myself permission to go ahead and do it. And then I was really really glad that I did.

Just this much exercise has already done wonders to help stabilize my emotions and my energy flow, and to help me feel better about myself and in more control of my life. And it carves out at least a little genuine contemplative space in every day, which I very much value. It helps me to put everything (back) in perspective.

Then I was talking about this with someone, whose response was to say, "You are not a morning person." I tried to protest, but he pointed to the pattern (I tend to drift to a later schedule in the summer), and then said, "People who are not morning people will never succeed in establishing an early-morning exercise schedule (or at least won't be able to maintain it very long). You have to find another way to fit exercise in."

The definite way he said this took me by surprise, but then I realized he was right. The time I kept the running going the longest in my life was when I was a graduate student and was doing my running at around 4:00 in the afternoon.

I cannot carve out that time (or any time!) with perfect reliability in my life now. But I can generally count on finding some space between the end of the time I spend in the office, and my returning to my work at home in the evening. It is in that space that I have been doing my walks. I'm almost ready to start adding some running too again.

General Lesson to All: Be honest with yourself about whether you are a morning person or not. Don't try to schedule exercise time during a time you know does not really work for you. If you schedule it for a time and spend a whole week (or so) still managing not to do it, give up on that time and try a different time instead! But don't give up on the idea of exercise altogether -- we all need real exercise on a regular basis!


I have also picked up on research again. But the way I have done this is a bit devious. Student work is rolling in, and I need to be reading it and grading it and giving feedback. But, well, this is something I have a hard time with. So in procrastinating from this, I have been working on my research again!

Is this an accomplishment I should celebrate, or a failure I should chastise myself for?

I used to think that I didn't like grading because I didn't like playing the evaluative role we teachers are called upon to play in this way of structuring education. I tried to convince myself that I did like reading student work and giving feedback.

But this week I finally admitted that I was just fooling myself. Sometimes I like it. But usually it is just plain painful. Many students cannot write very well. And trying to get how they are thinking through the complex ideas they are studying is really hard work. To really do their work justice, I have to read their papers at least three times (once for grammar, once quickly to get an overview of the shape of their [attempted] argument, and then a third time to examine their thought-process more closely and write strategic comments that will help them move forward in their understanding and in the development of their reasoning abilities).

I do this with compassion. They are students. They are in the process of coming to terms with new ways of thinking. It's not going to be pretty. My job is to help them find their way forward to improved understanding and improved use of the power of their minds.

It is a noble undertaking.

But it is also hard and time-consuming work.

I state this as a simple fact: not to complain. It just is that way.

But back to the question at hand: I really do have to do this grading. I also want to keep momentum going on my research. Can I succeed in both?

Maybe after another week I will be able to report back, "Yes!" We shall see...

Right now I have some grading I really have to catch up on!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Schedule Refinements

Now that the semester is fully underway, I spent some time yesterday rethinking the schedule for myself I had set up just before the semester started. It is not working as well as I had hoped, and so I am trying to discern whether I need to rework it, or whether I just need to rededicate myself to it. The reason the latter is a possibility is that it is so easy to fall into a state of being of feeling driven by the steady stream of deadlines that emerges -- and here at the early stages of this, I can catch it and regard it critically. I can admit to myself that I disapprove of my falling into this state of consciousness.

Strangely, this state of being is seductive. The reason it is seductive is because when you surrender to its demands, you do become very "productive," and productivity is both satisfying and gains the admiration of your colleagues. Surrender is also to let go of your rebellious stubbornness, and letting go of this is a relief. All that energy previously tied up in your self-righteous struggle now becomes released for other purposes: such as more productivity. Finally, it is seductive because you are no longer under the burden of hard decision-making. The schedule of deadlines tells you what to do from moment to moment.

I use terms like "seduction" and "surrender" to cast doubt on the acceptability of this state of being, to give voice to my disapproval; but maybe my criticism is more ambivalent than disapproving. There is a way that all of this can be good. If you have chosen to abide by a structure you trust, and if the productivity it yields is a kind of productivity you value, I think that maybe there really is nothing wrong with this.

But I still have two nagging worries for myself in this right now:

1. The kind of productivity it yields is valuable, but is not expressive of my full calling. It still is now pushing out a major dimension of my full calling, and I don't like watching this happen. My research is getting sidelined again (despite my earlier determination to place it firmly within my schedule).

2. There's a way that the sense of "surrender" I am experiencing now does feel like a cop-out rather than some morally-commendable version of humility.

So, I broke with my schedule in two important respects early on under the theory that I needed to make exceptions in order to pour full energy into starting off the semester well. But what I forgot was that things do not then lighten up a bit after the initial start-up energy. If things had lightened up a bit by now, then I could put my "exercise schedule" and "research schedule" fully into place now and there we would have it. But the reality of our life here where I teach is that, after the initial start-up energy, things get busier and busier!

The other thing that has been harder for me than I expected was switching back to an early-to-bed, early-to-rise schedule. In the summer I drift later and later. Trying to reset this has proved physically exhausting. I wake up early, intending to go for a walk/run, but it is dark and cold out and I am terribly tired. Furthermore, I am preoccupied by my rapidly-approaching early-morning teaching schedule. So I delay and then scramble to get ready.

So, what I need to figure out is how to re-adjust my schedule to ensure that I do make time for exercise and regular attention to my research.

The rest is off to a solid and good start, I am glad to report. But if I remain unable to construct a well-balanced life within the semester: a life grounded in healthiness and attention to the most important part of my calling (my research and writing), why then, then... (I don't know what, then)!

I think I need to be patient with myself this year. One reason is that I still am chair of my department, and it has finally dawned on me how enormously this complicates my life. I became chair before tenure (not a good idea!) and so have actually been chair for most of my academic life! I can scarcely remember what it was like not to be chair. But now that I am anticipating this being my last year as chair, I think more concretely about what my life would be like not being chair, and am amazed to catch glimpses of how much this will simplify my life! As each chairly responsibility comes up, when I consider what life will be like when I don't have to do this any more, my heart leaps with new hopefulness.

So, while I don't like surrendering to a kind of "survival mode" (just get through this year and then at last things will get better!), if that's what ends up happening, it's understandable and forgivable.

But right now it is still early enough for me to hope that I can do better than this.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Some Random Notes from the First Week of Classes

The semester is really and truly underway now. Here are some scattered thoughts and impressions:

1. One day, coming back happy from a class, I was thinking about why I like teaching so much. "When I'm in the classroom, I feel like a magician," I found myself thinking. I say some magic words, and if I put them in the right order, and wave my hands a certain way, I can summon certain Energies. It really is quite amazing. But it is a subtle art. A spell cast in one class may not work in another. You have to Discern. You have to gain a good sense of the Energies already present in the room to know how to evoke from them the kind of spirit you wish to evoke. It doesn't always work very well.

So, a teacher really does have a special kind of power. Like all power, it can be used for good or ill. But even at its best, what does it really do? Oddly, this is the one thing the teacher never can fully see, feel, or know.

I work hard to evoke positive energies: energies of surprise, insight, inspiration; energies that help students feel empowered by what they are learning: empowered to strive for excellence, to live their lives well, and to have a positive effect on the world. But I know that I am met sometimes by dubiousness, even cynicism. Sometimes I sense that I do transform the negative energies that meet me. But what effect does that have long-term? That I do not know.

So I live in a special kind of faith in this respect. I keep doing my best, and I live in and enjoy the moment. I have goals and hopes, but I resign myself to the realization that, to a certain extent (and despite "Assessment Plans"), there is no way that I will ever really know the effect that I have. I must just trust. Even when the effect is sometimes negative despite my good intentions, I must trust that too. After all, in the long run I did benefit from processing the negative experiences I had with some of my professors in the past. The value of the positive experiences I had with my professors was immediately visible, but even the few negative experiences I had did have value too, that I often did not realize until much later.

2. Because I teach philosophy of science, I sometimes get in my campus mail science supply catalogs. Usually those catalogs relate to physics. I enjoy looking at them. But this week I got a catalog of various dead animals and embryos students can dissect in laboratory sessions. There were fetal pigs, and a stretched out "skinned cat." There were also various pig organs, and models of every human organ imaginable, including diseased versions. I did not enjoy looking at this catalog. I threw it away, remembering to myself that this is a major part of the reason why I switched from being a student of science to becoming a student of philosophy of science. I am curious about the mysteries of life, but wish to explore these mysteries in a somewhat different way.

3. There are four colleges in the area where I live. I was talking with someone who interacts a lot with faculty from all four of these colleges, and he observed that it is the faculty at my college who work hardest and seem most stressed. Meanwhile, the faculty at my college have revived an AAUP chapter (American Association of University Professors) and met yesterday to organize for an improved faculty salary policy, to help us catch up with our competitor schools. While I like the fact that we are organizing for change, I'm not so concerned about our salaries as I am about figuring out what it is that makes us unusually busy and stressed. I'd rather have the same salary and be less stressed than be as stressed but get paid more. I think for a lot of faculty the salary issue is more symbolic than pragmatic. Working hard, they think that higher salaries signal appropriate respect. I prefer the kind of respect that manifests itself as interest, attention, and kindness.

Friday, August 31, 2007

It Has Begun and I'm Not Calm Anymore!

Need I say more? (Not really, but I will.)

Classes started on Thursday. Normally I kind of have fun on the first few days of a new academic year. This time I have had flashes of the kind of fun I normally have, but interlaced with that have been other moments of a different sense. That other sense is difficult to describe: not jadedness, but wariness maybe.

I realize now that for years when the painful things happened in my work I thought if I learned well from them then I could prevent them from ever happening again. Gradually, I'd eliminate them one by one until finally achieving Perfection, and nothing painful would ever happen again! (Well, put like that I would have known better than to believe this, but there's a way that this unarticulated assumption pervaded my outlook and my approach to my work.)

Now I know I cannot prevent painful things from happening. Some painful things that have happened in the past will happen again. And some new and unpredicted painful things will happen too! So instead of trying to prevent painful things from happening, my orientation has shifted to trying to become a stronger person who deals well with the pain that comes my way.

This is just part of some deeper change I sense happening in my soul. As I go through the now-familiar start of semester rituals, what I am most aware of is how much I feel like a different person this year. I'm not sure I fully understand yet why I have changed, or what exactly those changes are.

Despite the title of this posting, I still do feel mostly calm. But when my energy rises, it rises more quickly and takes clearer shape than it used to (this is part of my change). I used to be slow to anger (taking a winding path through self-flagellation first), and hesitant even to move fully into joy. Yesterday I found myself quick to anger in two situations that in fact warranted anger (but I think I handled those situations well). And today I was quick to joy: I headed for class initially with a little trepidation, but then instantly changed into Cheerful First Day Prof as soon as I entered the classroom.

So, yes, it has begun. And I'm giddy and unsettled and have flashes of panic but also flashes of hopeful joy. It will be interesting to see what this year brings.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

It's About to Begin and I'm Oddly Calm

Well, it's happened again -- another summer has fled by in a flash, and a new semester is about to begin. Classes start on Thursday where I teach, but the festivities begin tomorrow with a welcome celebration for the new students. I'll get to get decked out in academic regalia and parade in with the other faculty to the astonished (I like to think awestruck) gaze of new students and their parents. I must confess I do like this moment. I like this reminder of the monastic roots of higher education. I like the dignity, and the connection with history. I like the colorfulness. I like the way that this moment expresses to the new students: "education is serious, and grand, and you are about to embark on something totally new and different in ways you cannot yet imagine."

I know that George Fox and other early Friends were dubious about higher education, and for good reasons that are still relevant today. But even though Fox was critical of what was actually happening in Universities in his day, he did value education. He thought it was very important. In his writing and speaking and ministering, he was constantly intellectually engaged with important philosophical and theological ideas being debated during his time. I think that the way I and many other Quakers in higher education are engaged in our work harmonizes with his own ideals about education and ministry.

Am I ready for the start of a new year? Not quite, but I'm strangely calm about it. I feel confident that I will be ready when I must be. My progress so far in getting ready has been slow and calm, and I've let it be slow and calm. The pace will pick up soon all of its own accord -- no need for me to force it.

There are several new faculty members in my building, and I just love their enthusiasm and excitement. I've been enjoying meeting them and telling them with warm sincerity how much I have loved teaching here. I see them take this in with gratitude, maybe even a little amazement. I remember how, just before I started here, as I was leaving another college where I had taught a course, a professor there was so pleased that I had landed a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college, and said, "you are going to love it even more than you yet can realize." What a great gift he gave me in saying that (because he could already see that I was quite happy!) -- he set me up with the expectation to be on the alert for happy surprises as I settled into a new life. He was telling me not to be afraid of my joy, and in fact to expect more. I have treasured these words over the past eight years, and will treasure them forever. At the end of my first year here, a senior faculty member commented to me that she had never seen anyone so consistently happy in their first year of full-time teaching before.

Even though I have had my share of difficulties and get ground down by how busy the academic year gets, it is true that I have really loved this, and that it has been better than I was able to imagine back before it all began.

I wish this for my new colleagues, and for the new students as well. And so I am happy in this shining energy of new beginnings.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Unprogrammed Quaker Living a Highly Programmed Life

As I posted yesterday's thoughts, I laughed at myself for being an unprogrammed Quaker living a highly programmed life. Ironic.

What I have been learning, though, is that you can program or schedule your life in a way that helps keep the spirit flowing effectively through all that you do, if you approach the scheduling process with proper discernment.

First of all, you do have to believe in what you are doing. The act of scheduling is an act of holding spaces in your schedule to give proper time to the work you believe is important. To honor your schedule is then an act of faith. You trust that even if you do not feel "in the mood," that work still deserves attention -- and you trust that in fact the right spirit will come as you get into the work. This usually does in fact happen (especially if your original discernment was done well, and you correctly identified this as work you feel called to do, and you have found the right times of the week to attend to it).

Secondly, you ironically have to schedule in times to be unscheduled! You have to make sure that there are protected times in your otherwise busy schedule for not pressing yourself to do anything in particular, in order to open up fully to the spirit. This is what "sabbath" has come to mean to me. This is also why I do value unprogrammed worship.

Thirdly, you have to be flexible enough to be willing to revise your schedule, should you find this schedule not working. If your schedule beats you up, makes you tired or depressed, ties up the flow of work or joy into painful knots, or otherwise strangles the spirit, it is crucial to make radical changes. Look at it all again, and try to figure out what has gone wrong. As much as you can, try living without without the schedule for a week or two, and see what patterns naturally assert themselves. Or seek help from someone wise who can help you re-think it all.

The ideal is a schedule that liberates you -- a schedule that gives the gift of time to all that you find important in your life. The ideal is a schedule that you largely enjoy, that has you dancing from one meaningful and fun (or satisfyingly challenging) task or meeting to the next.

I also find it helpful to approach scheduling, and adhering to my schedule, not in terms of forcing myself like a machine to be productive. The metaphors of tending a garden, or producing a work of art, work better for me.

In gardening, there are things that you need to do on a regular basis to ensure good growth -- planting, harvesting, watering, weeding, tending the soil. Thinking of work as a way of tending the growth of one's soul and the growth of goodness in the world lends itself well then to this gardening metaphor. The work can sometimes feel satisfying, other times tedious. But you know that when it is time to do one of these things, then doing it is good, regardless of how you may happen to feel about it at the moment.

But I also like to think of my life as a work of art. There is an art to creating a good day. What does a good day look like to you? We are taught to think that good days just happen to us, occasionally, and for reasons beyond our control. But the truth is, our days are mostly shaped by our own actions. Yes, other things happen to us, but it is our own responses to the unpredictable events in our lives that really makes a difference. It is possible to deal with good fortune badly; but it is also possible to deal with tragedy well.

Much in our lives is beyond our control, but what is within our control matters enormously. No matter how much our lives feel driven by the unpredictables of life, or by our own demanding schedules, at every moment there is a "space" of choices, and in this space we can always find the Spirit if we look.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On Scheduling One's Days and Shaping One's Week

I liked what I said in a recent posting about the importance of making time every day for writing, in order to keep the momentum going. Robert Boice, author of Professors as Writers, makes the argument that even spending a half hour every day when life is busy is enough to keep the momentum going.

When I realized that I needed to reorganize my files, I knew even then that I must not let this take over my summer research time. I wrote a note to myself to continue to preserve mornings for research and writing, and then spend afternoons continuing to organize my papers.

But I did not follow my own advice. I stepped up my efforts to get better organized, in part because I wanted to get it done before my surgery, knowing that facing that mess afterwards would be daunting (and physically difficult, for a while). So I lost the momentum for writing. But also, I did not finish getting organized either.

So, now I'm in the worst of all possible worlds, in this respect. I still have piles of papers all over the floor. I've lost my momentum for writing. I also have been forced to stop running for a while (but can probably pick that back up in a couple of weeks).

Yet, in a way, I don't mind. I rather appreciate the radical disruption of all of this, as it provides me with an opportunity to regard my life from a very basic level and see what's what.

And here's what I see: I find myself surprisingly, and wonderfully, restless. I feel a deep energy stirring, wanting the restoration of my health so that I can pick all of this up again. I have needed a deep and total rest. I have needed to attend to nagging health worries that I had been denying or putting off. I feel re-made from a basic, physical level, and ready from there to re-make my life.

One of the things I have done lately is to put together my fall schedule in a new way. As usual, I put in my class times, meeting times, office hours, and such, but then I also scheduled in daily times for writing that I vow to hold as sacred as class time. I gave a lot of thought to where in my days to schedule these times -- where will my energy be fresh, and my motivation high? Most of my classes are in the mornings, and so I scheduled this time to follow my classes, because I do come out of classes on a kind of high, filled with ideas I'd like to develop more fully.

So, after every morning class, I am going to give myself a half-hour to check e-mail for anything urgent, and get a cup of tea, and then I will go to my library carrel to work on writing for an hour or an hour and a half (2 hours on Fridays, when I have no afternoon classes). I will restrict administrative work to the afternoons.

Key to this plan is to regard these times as inflexibly fixed as class times. Professors do not skip out on classes to attend committee meetings or catch up on administrative work. Class times are the most solidly fixed features of a professors' schedule. So, why not regard writing time the same way?

I anticipate that there will be pressure to sacrifice these time periods now and then, and so my rule for such occasions is that if I must change one of them, I can do so only if I also reschedule the writing time to another time that same day.

But I actually think it may not really be too much of a problem. Most committee meetings are in the afternoons, because the morning times are popular times for teaching. One of my writing times, for example, is Tuesday, 10:30-noon. If someone is trying to schedule a committee meeting, it is highly likely that someone else involved teaches during that time.

So, the art of scheduling in time for writing involves (1) choosing a time that does work well in terms of your own energy flow, and (2) finding a time that also is not likely to be a prime time that others will want to use to schedule meetings.

Another new scheduling experiment: I'm going to try to adopt the practice of spending one hour every weekday evening on grading or otherwise attending to student work, instead of bunching it up for marathon sessions on weekends.

And I will leave weekends completely open, letting myself spend some time on Saturdays catching up on whatever needs catching up on, or working further on writing. Sundays I will try to keep as "sabbath" days again -- this worked for a while last fall, but fell apart towards the end and was hopeless in my ultra-busy spring (but I have good reason to think that this year won't be that ridiculously busy again).

My rule for sabbath is really pretty simple: I ignore anything anxiety-producing but otherwise do whatever I want. Ignoring all "work" altogether is the ideal, but I do not make this a hard and fast rule. It can be hard to precisely define what counts and what does not count as "work." And sometimes what technically counts as "work" can be fun and soul-restoring for me. But more to the point, what the sabbath is for me is especially a time for reorienting myself to being guided by the Spirit. I try to live like this all the time, of course, but my busy and highly-scheduled life can erode that sense over time, especially when things get really frantic. And so I find it helpful to have sabbath days as weekly times to "reset" how I orient my life, in case that is necessary.

Having thought through a schedule for my days and weeks, based on past experience of what tends to work well for me, makes me very optimistic about the start of a new school year! I have a feeling that this will really work for me. We shall see...!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Me and My Dramatic Life

The latest gap in my writing is because I had surgery. In the grand scheme of things, it was minor surgery -- "ambulatory surgery" as they say, which means you can walk out afterwards. In the small scheme of my own tiny life, it was a Great Big Deal because I've never had anything medically this dramatic in my whole entire life (which makes me very fortunate, actually)! What it was was that I had a lump removed from my back -- they thought it was likely to be harmless, but it had been slowly growing over the years and they wanted to test it to be sure. And, happily, there are no signs of cancer or anything else scary.

They put me under general anesthesia for this -- also something I have never experienced before. So, I was nervous enough before all of this, but also the recovery process was stranger and more difficult than I expected it to be. Especially hard has been trying to hold my arms, shoulder, and back in optimal positions for the scar to heal well. What with flute playing and liking to pull books off shelves and cart them to and fro, this has been harder for me than I thought. It's even hard to find the right position for sleeping! But the healing is finally well enough underway that I no longer have to be quite as painstakingly careful, though I still must be somewhat careful.

So, what has all of this taught me spiritually?

It taught me about trust: trusting other people (especially the anesthesiologist and the surgeon, and the rest of the medical staff); trusting the natural healing process; trusting the friends who helped me afterwards; trusting myself; trusting God in and through, and above and beyond, all of these other kinds of trust.

It brought home to me in an especially vivid way that people around us can look perfectly okay, but may be nursing hidden wounds that require loving care. One day, too soon after the surgery, actually, I went to a play, and as we all filed out at the end, I was keenly aware of jostling and was especially sensitive to people not holding doors open for me. I could not reach out quickly to catch heavy doors that were about to slam onto me. None of those doors came at me quite quickly enough to cause me to pull all of my stitches out, and I knew that I looked reasonably young and healthy and perfectly capable of managing heavy doors by myself, so I didn't take it personally. But it gave me pause. The rules of etiquette are in place for a reason: you should be kind and thoughtful towards those around you because you just never know what hidden wounds they may be nursing.

On a funny note, I could not watch some of the actors doing acrobatics on stage without wincing. I couldn't help but project how my own body felt onto them as I was watching! This has spiritual significance too: in this, I realized how we project a lot more than we may realize we do (physically as well as psychologically)!

And especially I appreciated my general good health. I have not had to suffer something like this very often. Even with this, my general good health has enabled me to recover quickly. It is a miraculous feeling to experience oneself feeling noticeably better every day. Truly the body's healing power is a kind of magic. This too is why I believe in God. To think that living things have this inherent power to mend themselves -- how amazing!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Getting Organized

I've been trying to get better organized. My major sources of help include:

Pat Dorff's File...Don't Pile, plus File...Don't Pile for People Who Write.

David Allen's Getting Things Done.

Robert Boice's Professors as Writers.

I'm reworking my filing system according to Pat Dorff's principles to keep my paperwork better organized.

I'm using David Allen's principles to design a way to handle the flow of paperwork connected with the things I have to do. "Active" papers have to be dealt with differently from "reference" papers, and I find Pat Dorff's system most helpful for keeping the reference materials well-organized, but Allen's system helpful for dealing with the more dynamic "active" papers.

Then, Robert Boice's system is excellent for designing a system for busy professors to keep space in their life for writing.

Pat Dorff has helped me to understand why, as an INFP (in some modes, but INFJ in other modes) I do have a hard time getting organized, and yet people tend to perceive me as organized (until they see the corners of my office!). I have trouble getting fully organized because I see the complex interconnections among the projects and ideas (and associated paperwork) I work with, and I am reluctant to "freeze" one possible organizing scheme in place. And I have not been terribly motivated to get organized because I tend to remember where things are. But not always -- hence my new resolve to get things better organized. I know I will be happier if I can do this. And the exercising of my "J" tendencies is good for me.

I have already been familiar with David Allen's principles, and have applied them to my life ever since I became Chair. My present system is a modification of his recommendations. My success in managing the immediate flow of tasks pretty well also explains why people perceive me as well-organized and why they like to ask me to do administrative-type things.

But what I need to give more priority to, because I love it and feel called to spend more time on this again, is write.

It was not good for me, actually, that I became chair of my department so early in my career. I took it seriously and have managed to keep our small department intact and moving forward reasonably well (given my inexperience and the extraordinary circumstances I have had to face), but all of the attention this has taken really did undermine my progress in my writing.

Still, I am glad for what I have learned, and I think we are now in a calmer, stabler state, and so I am optimistic that I can at last turn my attention more fully back to my writing.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I have received is to schedule time on a daily basis for writing, holding this time as sacred as time in the classroom. I have already factored this into my fall schedule.

I used to be one of those people who thought I needed large chunks of time to make progress in my writing, and not being able to find those large chunks of time meant that I kept putting this off. I also like writing, and so putting off what I love oddly felt virtuous, in that painful sort of way that delaying gratification feels virtuous. But writing is part of my job responsibility, and so it is not really responsible to keep putting it off! This is why hearing this bit of advice was such a revelation to me. I am allowed to hold writing time as sacred as class time! In fact, I must! It is irresponsible not to!

It was Robert Boice's book that convinced me that even small chunks of time on a daily basis can be highly productive: if you do it daily, you maintain instead of lose momentum. People who've put it off too long feel the need for large chunks of time because they know that it will take a lot of energy to get things going again. But the truth is, if you have a daily momentum going, the daily start-up no longer requires huge effort. I've had fleeting glimpses of the truth of this.

But now it is time for me to really put this into practice in a real and permanent sort of way.

I had started to do that a couple of weeks ago, but got thwarted at having lost track of where some of my key research-related papers were. This is why I have shifted my attention towards getting better organized.

But I am making real progress on that, and so I am feeling that by the time the school year gets started, I will finally be in a position to turn over a new leaf, and institute new habits that will move my research and writing finally to the center of my work, where I have always wanted it to be.

This has been my summer of reworking my life from the inside out. I'm halfway through the process. Things feel quite messy and chaotic now, but if I keep working at it, that will soon turn around.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Well, after yesterday's posting, ironically enough, I'm suddenly feeling interested in my academic writing again and have been very productive the last two days.

If I had planned on this as the hoped-for result of my vacation declaration yesterday, it would not have happened.

But I didn't plan on it. I was sincere about letting go of my expectations and focusing my energy differently. The sincerity was key, I think. It allowed my energy to reconfigure itself in new ways I could not have imagined.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

On Being an Animal

As a human being, I am an animal too. And so are you.

This summer I am feeling moved not to travel much. While my main plan had been to get back into my academic writing, I'm having a really hard time with that. I think I am just profoundly tired. Plus, my support system has been seriously diminished over the past year: from the ending of my music group, to the departure of two people in my life who have been really important mentors and guides.

After my busy year and these important losses, I'm now mostly focused on trying to reestablish a basic discipline of taking good care of myself. No one else can do that for me anyway. More and more I realize that this is a deep and fundamental animal responsibility we each have. It is exactly for ourselves, but not selfish. We are not just our own private property. We matter to others in the world. And so if we don't take good care of ourselves, we can bring considerable grief into others' lives, because they can do little to restore health and well-being if we are not ourselves cooperating.

I have come to realize this in myself, but I also see it from another perspective in my relationships with others. Those who are good at taking care of themselves are happy and healthy and their lives are in balance, which means that they have lots of energy to attend to others as well.

As philosopher Immanuel Kant points out, we have a basic duty to be happy, so that we are not so distracted by our unhappiness that we fail to attend to our other moral duties!

The key marker for my own self care is exercise. Happily, I am running again. This is a very good sign. This year, I will place this as one of my highest priorities. No matter how busy my life gets, I will try to regard this as essential as eating and sleeping and going to Meeting! (Hold me too this, my faithful readers!)

So I've made the radical decision not to worry about how "productive" my summer is. I'm going to live my days as aimlessly as I need to. I'll attend to anything urgent that crosses my desk. But other than that, I'll just do what I feel moved to do from moment to moment. I haven't had a real vacation as such in a long time. I hereby declare the rest of this summer to be the first really extended vacation I have ever in my whole life let myself have.

I feel open and in a data-gathering mode. What gives me life? I want to experience the world in a new way. I want to let the world fill me with healing and renewing energy. I want to pay full attention to everyone I see, but refrain from agreeing to anything that establishes a controlling dynamic in our relationships. I refuse to expect anyone to do anything for me in particular; and I refuse to agree to anything that means that others expect something of me.

(I must emphasize that this is purely temporary. When the academic year begins again, I will have no choice but to enter back into that complex network of relationships dominated by controlling dynamics going in both directions.)

But for now, I just want to be a wild animal, quiet and shy, alert and tuned mostly into the pure present moment. I want to eat and sleep and run in the woods. I want to watch beautiful sunsets and let them work their magic on my soul.

The summer, after all, is beautiful. The sun. The breezes. The freedom to walk straight outside without the fanfare of coats and hats and scarves and gloves and complicated shoes slipping on icy walks. This is the time store up health and hope.

The other things I care about will come to fruition in their own good time. Let me finally honor the wisdom of the structure of the academic year. Let me finally trust in the natural rhythms of life and nature.