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!