Friday, June 01, 2007

Hello? Summer?

So, my semester is supposed to be over, no? So, where am I? Why haven't I been posting?

Strangely enough, the pace of my life does not feel it has lifted much. I has merely shifted from being almost-impossibly busy to just being like having a normal full-time job. Instead of working all my waking hours, I can finally get away with putting in an 8-hour day -- but without getting to my writing yet!!!

The reason is that, being chair of my department, I have had a continuing stream of deadlines, the last (?!?) being today.

Today I felt like I was in one of those cartoons of hot thirsty people clawing their way desperately across a desert towards what they hope is not just another mirage but an actual oasis. I dragged myself with great effort over to my office. With another enormous effort, I got myself to turn on my computer. With another huge effort, I found and opened the report I've been working on. With another immense effort, I stared all over again at the first two sentences of the 10-page (single-spaced) draft I had pieced together yesterday, and realized with dismay that I had to rework the whole thing.

As I worked away, I meanwhile tried to ignore the steady stream of e-mail coming in asking me all sorts of questions about the upcoming conference I've been involved in planning. I'll get back to that on Monday.

But when I finished today's report, I felt pretty good about it and all that it symbolizes about my role as chair. And, to tell the truth, I am looking forward to focusing my attention undistractedly on final details about the conference, which is coming together quite well (I think).

Ok, I say these optimistic things, but the real truth is that I am tired beyond belief and don't trust that I am seeing anything very clearly now.

I left my office at exactly 4:30 this afternoon, which is the time that offices officially close on our campus, but it felt way early to me. I walked home. I lay down on the couch and went out like a light for a modestly refreshing one-hour nap. When I woke up, I was very disoriented to find the slanting afternoon sun shining in my face.

Since I haven't been putting in extraordinarily long days at work, and I also confess to not having picked up my writing again, what have I been doing with my spare time?

I've gotten totally obsessed with family history and genealogy.

I discovered over the weekend and pulled out the folders of family information my mother had given me a few years ago, and began constructing my family tree. It has really been a remarkable experience.

I think my obsessive zeal in this reflects a kind of desperation to find myself again.

This past academic year (especially last semester) turned me into a Machine. I became an astonishingly (frighteningly) efficient Deadline-Meeter. I was a force to be reckoned with. Get between me and a deadline and watch out! That's what it will say on my tombstone: "She Met All Her Deadlines." Yet, sadly enough, it will be an exaggeration. Some less-important ones now and then I did not quite meet. Despite all of my effort, I have not been perfect.

But even if I was perfect at meeting all deadlines, this is not what I want as a claim to fame. My reputation for responsibility and efficiency actually get me into trouble. People have no qualms continuing to ask me to do things. Not only am I responsible and reasonably efficient, I remain cheerful, for the most part, in public. Cheerful, calm, reassuring.

Bad idea. Slowly I begin to learn the advantages of a little strategic grouchiness and ... and, yes, unpredictability! I fantasize about cultivating these qualities of character a bit, to see if that might help. Is there something I could spectacularly let drop? Hmm...

But I know this is just a fantasy. Anything I might drop would only end up hurting or inconveniencing the wrong people.

So, back to the story...

My resolve for the end of the academic year had been to re-establish a healthy lifestyle. First I was going to start the day after the last day of classes; then the day after my last final; then the day after I got grades in; then after graduation; then after our end-of-year faculty development workshops; and then, finally, after this June 1 deadline.

I was going to get enough sleep, pick up the running again, do stretching exercises on a daily basis, make sure I eat enough veggies and fruit, and fix my life.

Instead I have poured myself intensely into genealogy until the wee hours of the morning.

But what am I looking for? I don't even really know. It is the little mysteries that keep catching my attention. I see unanswered questions in my mother's notes, and I try to answer them. I see discrepancies, and I try to sort out which version is true.

Part of what prompted this is that it was my father's birthday over the weekend, and I tried to call him, but did not reach him. I have not seen my father in about 25 years. (My parents are divorced.) The last time I called him was about 8 years ago. It was good to talk. He expressed interest in keeping in touch. But the truth is, aside from once or twice when I was very young, he has never himself initiated contact. He is appreciative when I manage to reach him, but he never tries to be in touch with me. And I don't really know why.

Finding the family history he told me 8 years ago corroborated as I put together my family tree has been a moving experience for me. It has made that whole half of my background come alive in a way that it has not been in my life. I made a connection that suddenly added a branch to my tree that goes back to the 1400s, to Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. I had not fully grasped how solidly Scandinavian this branch of my family was.

But, even so, what does this mean, and why does this matter?

I feel at the focal point of a kind of magnifying glass. All of these people, scattered around the world and through time, have contributed to my own existence. I catch glimpses of their lives. A great-grandmother had 6 children, 5 of whom survived -- the event of the death of the 6th was a real event in her life, but remains a mystery to me. I trace their movements through the generations: Sweden, Utah, California. Ireland, Canada, Michigan, Ohio, California, Maryland, New York. I see occupations: farmer, carpenter, blacksmith, a turner of wood, proprietor of a printing shop. I watch their children (who turn out to be my grandparents, etc.) age in 10-year intervals through census reports. I marvel at how many children they had! I marvel at how common it seemed to be for families to live together for multiple generations in the same house. I wonder whether they got along well.

And then I wonder how much they thought ahead into the future, and what those who knew me as a small child thought of me, how they pictured my own future might be.

Would they be surprised?

It's hard not to get nostalgic about a simpler time. And yet I know that such nostalgia is an illusion. Was any time ever simple?

I feel more connected to history. I feel a strange sense of responsibility to my dead ancestors: to live a life that fulfills the promise they may have seen in me, or, if they never did meet me (as most of them did not), the promise they might have hoped for in a general sort of way for their family. Their family, of whom I am a part. Our family. My family too.

They were once vibrantly alive; now they are gone. Flickering shadows of their impact ripple across time.

I feel it as an honor and a privilege to be one of the living members.

Life is a gift.

Here I am. Here you are. What are we doing?

What we do is real. We leave our ripples as well, and if the world and human life survive, when we are long gone, maybe a family member on a spiritual quest will probe family history and find tantalizing signs of what our lives were like. Maybe they will read these very words, surprised to find me here (or you if you post a comment) waving to them across time, saying "hello."

And what I would like to say to that person is that some of us were trying really hard to grapple with the overwhelming problems that seem to face us now, hoping and praying that we human beings will collectively manage to steer human society onto a more sustainable course.

But right now, I really don't know what the future holds.

What I do know is that we still here now, alive together on this beautiful, amazing planet. We have created much that is remarkable. But there are problems too, and those problems are serious. And life is challenging. And I am tired.

But we are here now, and even in my present fatigue, I distinctly feel a flame of hope flickering in my soul, and there is strength in this flame. Flames seem fragile and intangible, but reach your hand out to touch one you soon discover it has its own kind of power.

Yes, I feel the strength of this flame of hope in my soul.

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