Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why do we need spiritual leaders?

In a team building exercise at work today, we were given fifteen people and a life raft that only holds nine. The Titanic is sinking, basically, so who gets in and who stays behind? My team kept Obama but dumped Jay-Z, we kept the carpenter but dumped the line cook at Denny’s, we kept the pregnant lady but dumped Meryl Streep, we kept the stay-at-home mom but dumped John Boehner. At the end of the discussion, we had a priest and a rabbi in the boat with us and Oprah Winfrey in the ocean. My teammates wondered, why are we keeping the priest and the rabbi? “I suppose maybe someone might take comfort in a spiritual leader,” someone said. “I’m agnostic, so…” someone else said. “If we dump the priest, I’ll feel guilty about it,” someone else said, crossing herself simultaneously, “and have to go to church.”

I didn’t know how to answer. Why should the priest and the rabbi get a spot in our hypothetical life raft? What do they have to offer?

I had just brought up my come-to-faith college experience during the earlier ice breaker, so one colleague asked, “Are you still religious?”

I process my thoughts so much better with a keyboard and a backspace button, so when these kinds of conversations happen, I get a little nervous. I always work up in my head this big deal about how I love Jesus but I’m not that kind of Christian, you know, that kind, and I’m not that other kind either, I’m serious but not legalistic, saved but not a six-day Creationist, deeply interested and educated in the history of religion and a lover of the word of God that I really believe is the word of God but also believe that all truth is God’s truth so I also like science and math and philosophy and the advancement of new ideas and the realization of wonder and awe in nature and the power of mystery and miracle and relationship and love, love, love, so you see I’ve really thought a lot about all of this so please don’t think I’m crazy. That’s what happens in my head.

“Uhh, yeah… well… yes, but not in a ritualistic way…” I stuttered, “I care very much about faith, still.”

“Oh, okay,” she said.

She really doesn’t care about all of that. All she really wants to know is if I’m going to be offended because we are thinking about saving Oprah and ditching either the rabbi or the priest.

So I offered the priest up to the sharks. After all, I said, he’s a man of God. He’d do that kind of thing to save someone else. Plus, if he’s Catholic, he doesn’t have a family waiting for him at home, and he’s on good terms with God, soooo… pull Oprah back into the boat.

The question bothered me all day long—why should we keep the priest and rabbi in the boat—all through the afternoon trust equation discussion, through happy hour, on my drive home, and even through our Friday night house church meeting.

We studied the first part of James 3 tonight, which is all about the power of the tongue. How does bad language and our speech affect our behavior and attitude? How do words impact our children, our neighbors? How should we speak? What should we expose our kids to?

And in the midst of all of this I thought—all of the people I work with, all of the people I’ve interacted with year after year, they are all trying to be good people. They generally know the difference between right and wrong. They have their own moral codes, adopted from their parents or from their culture or reshaped and redefined along the way, and they are all not perfect. They try to watch their language and speak kindly to other people and encourage their children and spouses. They are all trying to be better. My office and school and higher education is filled with people who are generally good human beings trying to be better at something, trying to succeed.

The conversation tonight wasn’t just morality, but isn’t that what you hear most days from spiritual leaders? Do this. Don’t do that. Be kind. Follow the golden rule. Do better. Be better. Even corporate America and business educators are suggesting that businesses flourish by becoming agents of world benefit. World benefit – isn’t that what Christians aspire to? Do good? Serve the poor? Care for the earth? Treat each other with kindness (it was, after all, World Kindness Day yesterday)?

Which brings me back to an even bigger question than why spiritual leaders… why God? Who needs him, anyway, now that world leaders and business educators and philosophers have reasoned out the best ways to live? They are preaching the same gospel, aren’t they?

As we hashed out the ways our words affect other people tonight at house church I imagined the same conversation taking place in my secular work environment. It was nearly the same, minus a few Bible verse references.

Except for this one thing: Grace.

Grace—an undeserved gift that releases us from slavery to “do good things” and delivers us into “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” This love frees the spirit from the burden to perform, the burden of guilt, the burden of fear. It is rooted in relationship. It filters the muddy waters. It strengthens and encourages and emboldens because we know there is a force that is stronger than our imperfections who is working in and through us for wholeness, for completeness. It is compassion in a hurricane of brokenness and disease. It is freedom from the hells we have been given and the hells we’ve made for ourselves, in addictions, in poverty, in selfishness, in greed. It illuminates so we can see how we have been fearfully and wonderfully made. It resides in us through the Holy Spirit as compass. It clarifies, purifies, mends, heals, hones, hammers, and polishes. Because it is unearned by definition it does not consider your qualifications or your past failures; grace loves and loves and loves, all day long, whether I take it or not, whether I recognize it or not, whether I call it “Jesus” or “God” or not, it shows up in truth, it shows up in beauty, it shows up as forgiveness, it shows up all over the place.

Spiritual leaders, then, shouldn’t be morality instructors. Even though the internet loves the “ten ways” lists, and people love to know how to become better people, the priests and rabbis might do better to stop telling people how to be better. Spiritual leaders should be more like scientists who observe and announce, “Look! Look what I found!” or maybe like poets who ponder and write, “I saw this small thing in the world and look how full of meaning it is,” or maybe they should be like stargazers who point to the heavens and declare, “There, isn’t that marvelous?” Spiritual leaders should say, “Let me show you grace. Here it is. Here it is. Here it is again. This is grace. This is love. This is Christ. This is God. Here is the Father. Here is the Son. Here is the Holy Spirit. Here they are again, ever-present, everlasting, loving you forever and ever and ever, loving you even after you screwed up, even after you’ve been ‘saved,’ even in your attempts to earn it, loving you, beautiful you, stunning you, masterpiece you, God loves you. That’s it. That’s all.”

Maybe I’ll grant the spiritual leader this one final benediction, “Now act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.” We don’t need the priest who preaches morality. We need the priest who points to the heavens and says, “God. Have you seen this? Have you seen this grace? Have you seen this love?”

Friday, November 7, 2014

Things Beyond My Control

I am writing this in Word on my laptop in the living room because of things that are beyond my immediate control.

A week or so ago, the buzzing from the doorbell xylophone in the hallway at our new home began buzzing so persistently and at a gradually increasing buzz rate that Brandon decided to flip the breaker for the hallway, disconnect the doorbell, cap the electric wires, and screw a plastic cap over the top. This was all completed without any electric shock and with my flashlight holding assistance, and we are all a hair less insane for it. Not to mention quite impressed with Brandon’s handy-man-ness.

However, the cable internet box is on the same electric line, apparently, and when it turned back on, something happened. I don’t know what. Something. I can no longer connect to the wireless on this laptop. Don’t start with your internet-guru recommendations for powering down the box and counting to five and then to ten and then if that doesn’t work, 30, or removing the saved network and resetting the blah-dee-blah so that the yippity-do can reset… I tried all of that already. And, it’s only this computer. This network. My phone, the other wireless devices in the house, other laptops in the house, they all connect. And, I took this wireless-less laptop with me out of town last weekend and guess what. It connected to THAT wireless network.

Now, back on my home turf, there it is. The “wireless networks are available” signal with the optimistic gold star over a gray set of internet connectivity stairs. But, no.

My husband found this little thing called an “Ethernet” cord that connects the computer to the router. Ta-da! Wired network. Except that the router or modem or whatever is sitting on our piano and the cord is only three feet long, so in order to connect to the internet I have to sit on the floor by the piano. This is what the internet calls a first-world problem.

So I am sitting on the couch in the family room without internet access writing this blog post in Microsoft Word, because of things beyond my immediate control.

I like control. I like to do things a certain way because I know I will do things right and efficiently and in the time I want to have them done. I’m not sure you are aware, but this is not the best attribute for team building in a workplace (or family or marriage or church or friendship or life), and I’ve fought this personality trait for years. The “I’ll just do it myself” mentality is a dripping poison toward breakdown with a possible side effect of insanity and in some cases, a slow and lonesome death. It’s best to monitor yourself for symptoms daily in order to avoid the onset of a serious episode.

So I’ve been watching for things beyond my immediate control lately, things like the slowdown at the same places on Interstate 77 every morning, or where the lane ends heading southbound every evening, also the on-ramp at I-90 and Chester, and the driver(s) in the left-hand lane that belong in the right-hand lane. They are all beyond my control. The slowdowns, the traffic jams, the crawl toward home, the turn signal driver sitting in the ended-lane after whizzing by at 90… all beyond my control.

And then there’s the late meeting, the pack of undergrads walking slow in front of me, the cars that breeze through the crosswalk, all beyond my control, there’s the rain and the time change and the sudden virus attack and the fever and the chills, there’s the husband who has other priorities than laundry, there’s the children with their homework and their reading and their games and their practices, the children who want me always, the car that needs gas to go on the highway, the child who is not sleepy and is singing, all beyond my control.

When things are beyond my control, my instinct is to wrestle them into submission. “I’ll just do it,” I think, and I finagle maneuvers that will advance me through rush-hour traffic at the expense of my nerves and possibly someone’s fender (or middle finger). I rearrange traffic patterns. I consider edging my front end out into lane-ending traffic so to block the cheaters. I pray for the souls of the sinning Honda drivers of the world with their inconsiderate attempts to bypass the rest of us—graceful and humble—who have all waited our turn to get on the southbound ramp like good citizens of traffic land.

You wouldn’t believe how effective this is(n’t).

I was reminded last week that when we are so focused on the problem, we often miss the more creative solution and innovative opportunity that exist beyond the box. Focusing on the things that are beyond my control only reminds me over and over again how out of control I am. I have no control. Almost all of the time circumstances are beyond my control.

I think I spent most of last week staring at this problem: things are out of my control. I cannot see my old friends. I cannot go on a date with my husband. I cannot make the traffic go faster. I cannot make new friends because I do not have time to see my children. I cannot write because I need to read. I cannot read because I need to see my husband. I cannot see my husband because he is working. I am working. I am driving a long way to work. I am stuck in traffic. I am stuck in traffic. My wireless internet is not working on my laptop. Things are beyond my immediate control.

Sigh. This is a lousy place to stay. This loop, this constant hamster wheel, this anxiety spinning circus, I’m pretty sure that short-circuited my immune system and landed me in bed Saturday night for fifteen hours after two days at a writers conference. I could hear God saying, “How’s that ‘I’ll just do it’ attitude working for you now?” as I texted my mom and mother-in-law to watch the kids for one more night, as I pulled off the highway to park in a rest area and sleep for twenty minutes before finishing my drive. How’s that working for ya?

Once you stop staring at the problem and accept these circumstances—these completely immediately uncontrollable circumstances—real-life solutions start to materialize. Hey, did you know that time actually speeds up when you talk to your mom on the phone for your morning commute, and it works going home, too, with a friend you haven’t spoken with in months? Did you know that the other drivers on the road kind of disappear when you are so engrossed in a phone conversation or radio show, and you drive and drive and suddenly, you are pressing the garage door opener and saying, “Hey, I gotta run, I’m home already”? Did you know that when the time is compressed with your family into two-and-a-half hour blocks it distills stronger, its quality is sometimes better, purer under pressure, each second of Sorry or dinner or living room yoga or Harry Potter kind of sacred, kind of holy?

I wouldn’t have known these things except that I stopped staring at the problem. Do you know what looped in my head most of last week as well? I-miss-Brandon-I-miss-Brandon-I-miss-Brandon with a side dose of Why-doesn’t-he-do-this-Why-won’t-he-say-that? You can guess how productive those two navel-gazing loops were. But when I stepped out of the hamster wheel and said, “I miss you,” when we started to communicate again about date night and commiserating schedules and began to plan for the future (see “possibilities,” see “innovation,” see “creativity”), suddenly there was love again.

Staring at the problem breeds despair. Looking beyond the problem fosters hope.

Did you know that you can write a lot more with a lot less distractions when you are writing on a computer that doesn’t have an internet connection?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Breaking the Workaholic

It's the first TGIF of my first week at a new job, and because the week was so full, here is the amplified version: the (awesomely delicious) tortellini soup my (amazingly productive and generous) mother-in-law made while watching my three (exuberant, exhausting, active, loud, snuggly) children has cooled and is stored in the fridge along with the (requisite saucy Fat Boy's) Friday night pizza, we've watched (zoned out to, fell asleep during) Hotel Transylvania and an episode of Phineas and Ferb and an episode of Girl Meets World, and now the (bouncy but exhausted) children are asleep (sprawled under and between blankets, one asleep since Hotel Transylvania on my lap and carried to bed conked out, one hugging a polar bear, the other with a leg draped over the edge of the bed), asleep, and the house has settled (silent, dark, fridge turning off and on, heat turning off and on, computer humming, couch comfy, quiet), and I have settled (cross-legged, contacts removed, sweat pants donned, glasses on) to contemplate (consider, ponder, ruminate over) the aftereffects of the fault-line quake (earth shake, lightning strike, whiplash) that is changing jobs.

It's a tricky thing, leaving a job and starting a new one. I lean toward (darn near walk with the peg leg of) workaholism. I know this about myself, and I also know that sometimes you need a complete change of environment in order to change habits. Habit changing is difficult, but here's your chance to establish new patterns of behavior. Here's your chance to create boundaries. Here's your chance to break the workaholic.

Burning Bridges, aka Removing Yourself from Admin Status on Social Media Accounts
If it isn't evident by my 6,909 tweets on Twitter, let me be clear: I have a thing for social media. I love the little chirp my phone makes when I've sent out my latest clever-ism into the world. Until yesterday, I had six Twitter accounts logged in on my phone so that at any moment in time, I could share with any of those audiences some tidbit, some link, some quote, some rumination, some witticism, or some photo. I loooooooove social media.

However, it isn't good for anybody but especially me to keep my nosy nose in all of my old business. Every time I opened Twitter on my phone this week (and it was often), I had to look at those accounts. Just look at them. Sitting there. Waiting for me to send something out. It was actually quite difficult and time consuming for me to figure out how to get those Twitter accounts off of my phone. (Note to those who may need to know: Log off. ... Mmm hmm. It was that easy.)

But when I did finally master the art of logging off...ahhh, freeeeee!

This might seem like a strange problem-- not doing a job you aren't paid to do-- but some habits are hard to break, and I'm telling you as a borderline (darn near erase the line altogether) workaholic that it is a tic, an itch, an impulse, to unlock my phone and check those social media accounts. With them off of my phone, they are happily out of sight and thus somewhat out of mind. It's much more involved to check social media when you have to track down a wireless signal and a laptop and log in and start an internet browser and cue up Twitter and log out of your personal account just so you can log in to your old job's Twitter account.

All addictions are kind of stupid when you think about them. But this one? Silly.

Other Nonsense That Shouldn't Be On Your Phone
Do you guys sync your work email to your mobile device? How about to your personal computer? Do you use your work email for personal communications?

Another habit of the casual (darn near hardcore) workaholic I am trying to break is being distracted when I am at home. For the past seven years, I have been terrible at creating separation between work life and home life. This week I spent at least 10 hours in my car and around 40 hours at my desk. I spent 20-30 minutes walking to and from my office each day (depending on the type of shoes I had on). This left around 3 to 4 hours each day with my husband and children. What does it say to my family members about my priorities if I spend dinner scrolling through email messages and Twitter feeds instead of actively engaging them? With all of that time spent on work, there's just not that much time left to spend with my family, and those are the hours that return the highest yield.

Let's be honest: How many of us are critical employees at our workplaces that we must be on-call during all waking hours? How many of us who are considered critical employees would be contacted via email in the event of an emergency?

I edit people's writing. I write essays and poems. I used to send out tweets promoting someone's latest publication. What ignored email received at eight p.m. on a Friday night ever resulted in a major crisis? What publication credit ever disappeared over the weekend because I didn't share it on Facebook?

None. Nunofem.

There will be no syncing of the work account on my phone. There will be no checking of the work email at night and on the weekends. There will be no using the work email account for personal communications... that's what my personal gmail account is for, and that one won't bombard me with a mildly annoying alert about a task I won't get to until Monday anyway.

And last, but certainly not least....

Stop Doing Other People's Jobs
Working at Ashland, I had the sincere privilege of wearing about a dozen hats and keeping my fingers in every tangle of fun I could get my hands on. I loved that about my job - the breadth of it - being involved in some aspect of social media and marketing and admissions and recruitment and retention and registration and publications and promotion and alumni relations.

But now, I'm just the managing editor. "So... you want me to just write. And edit. And write. And edit?" Yup. That's it. That's all. And I guess that's plenty.

The impulse of the dabbling (darn near drowning) workaholic isn't to just do one's job. Healthy ambition pushes a person to try her hardest to be the best at her job, innovate within her job, and look for opportunities to improve her workplace and organization from within her job; unhealthy ambition, as far as I can see, takes a glance around and thinks (then jumps in) about how it can perform that other person's job as well or better. It looks like the Right Thing To Do in the moment -- what does it hurt to have one other person tweeting on behalf of the program? what does it hurt to have one other person overseeing the electronic newsletters? -- but it's the Wrong Thing To Do! Stop it! Stop it now!

The trouble with doing other people's jobs is that you are DOING OTHER PEOPLE'S JOBS. FOR FREE. WITHOUT PAY. WITHOUT SOMEONE ASKING YOU. So stop it.

I am used to doing all sorts of different things in my last position, some within my job description and some I invited into my job description and others that arrived uninvited but I let them stay and drink anyway. The workaholic's virtue and vice is that she wants to remain productive and effective, even at the detriment of the self and the family. Productivity and effectiveness gradually gain weight until they are so morbidly obese they can't budge off of their mobile devices because they're so attached to those gigabyte calories that stream in nonstop, telling them what they need to know in order to keep being effective and productive. Feed the machine. Feed the machine.

Confession: I added my new job's Twitter account to my phone this week, even though my job title has nothing to do with social media. In fact, there's this whole other guy whose job is interactive marketing. In my department. What will he do if I go stomping around in his office with my Twitter account and web access? Twiddle his thumbs all day? And why should I do both of our jobs? Because I can? Who cares?

Hey Sarah, remember when you were having a mental breakdown about trying to do everything and be everything to everyone a few springs back? People think you're crazy because YOU ARE.

So stop it. Disconnect from the workplace Twitter account.

Break the workaholic. She's no occasional abuser; she's weak, she's addicted, and she needs to be stopped.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The In-Between

I spent today in the in-between, standing on the bridge that connects where I've been and where I'm going. We moved into Brandon's grandma's house in Copley this past weekend, and although it's now our brown couches we sit on in the living room, our photos propped up on our bookshelf, our candles lit and lamps aglow, it still feels like vacation, like transition, like unknown.

I know that this feeling will fade as our stuff settles and collects our own dust, as novelty and newness becomes regular and routine. Right now, in the in-between, I am celebrating so many possibilities, so many new hopes for the future right as the future begins to unfold.

From this high ground-- because the in-between somehow always comes with altitude and vision-- I can glimpse what the future looks like. In quiet moments looking out over our new backyard, I have witnessed the spirits of distant backyard gatherings. As I sit back in one of the lounge chairs in the living room, I can imagine the Christmas tree twinkling in the window, a fire roaring, friends and relatives laughing and eating. As I climbed the bleachers at the Copley homecoming game last Friday night with the kids, I could feel the rapid pace of seasons on the breeze until ten years away arrived and it was my children I watched march down the field, my children on the defensive line, my children in the high school student section, my children cheering on the track.

But today, Lyd and Elvis got on the school bus and went off to Arrowhead Primary. Henry "helped" us around the house as we did laundry and cleaned, prepped for painting more in the basement, and put away more boxes. And this afternoon, I picked out some new artwork for the living room, blending the old with some new. House, house, house, someday soon home.

Tomorrow is my last day at Ashland University as administrative director and managing editor, after seven years with the MFA program, Ashland Poetry Press, and River Teeth. In a week and a half, I will begin my new position at Case Western Reserve University as managing editor in the marketing office of the Weatherhead School of Management.

Here in the in-between, I straddle the pivot point of a teeter-totter, balancing the love I have for a place I must leave and the excitement I have about a place that is yet unknown. How do you stay in this place for long, straining your hamstrings and calf muscles as the two by eight quivers and wavers?

It's coming. The moment when the in-between closes and the gap between the past and future shrinks back down to the plain old present. But the present, wow, what a place to be!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

You're Going the Wrong Way: God's Plan and Purpose

I spent most of my late teens and early twenties trying to discern God's will for my life. Does God want me to be a creative writing major or a religion major, or an English teacher, or should I do all three? Should I keep going to Ashland or should I transfer to another school? Which school? Is this guy the man I should marry? Is this guy? Is this guy? Does God want me to go to graduate school for writing or should I go to graduate school for Christian ministries or should I go to graduate school to be a teacher? How does God feel about birth control? Did God will for me to miscarry? Is this God's plan? What is God's plan for me?

As a zealous follower of Christ, I plastered verses about God's plan for me all over: "I know the plans I have for you... plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future," "I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, down unfamiliar paths, I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them," "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight," "We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose."

I worried over God's plan and God's will constantly. When I didn't get a job I applied for, I thought, "It must not have been God's plan." When God isn't the one you look to in order to dictate your life's path, you might say, "It wasn't in the cards," as in Fate and Random Chance did not deal you the ace, or "It wasn't meant to be," as in the gray fog of Destiny did not align with what you thought should happen.

And then I miscarried. And then I miscarried again. "I guess it wasn't meant to be."

It wasn't meant to be? Did God mean for this to happen to me? Am I supposed to learn some kind of lesson from this? Does God cause bad things to happen in order to make good? Were these things in God's plan?

I still believe those verses. In this current season, I'm seeking out God's plan and God's will all over again, trying to discern whether to turn left or to turn right.

I still believe God has a plan and a purpose for my life, but not in a Magic 8-ball, "Should I ask Chris on a date," way. I still believe that God intimately cares about the details of our lives. I don't believe that he's micromanaging the details.

The trouble with "It must not have been God's plan" is that we screw up "God's plan" all of the time. "God's plan" looks like this:

"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

As a species, we're almost always doing it wrong. The abuse, the cheating, the lying, the selfishness, the pride, the arrogance, the hatred, the prejudice, the stealing, the killing, all of the sneaky ways we try to manipulate circumstances to keep ourselves comfortable... they all contradict God's plan. Even nature has its ways of stepping out of bounds, in cancer, disease, abnormalities, all challenging what we might call "the natural order."

If I'm not offered a job that I thought I should get, shrugging my shoulders and saying, "It must not have been God's plan," just doesn't work. I didn't get offered that job because some other candidate seemed like a better fit than me, and the hiring committee might have been right. They also might have been wrong.

God, from what I can tell, has left a lot of the daily grind up to us. He has given lots of control over to us through the whole free-will business. Bad things happen. Good things happen. His concern seems to be about how I respond in situations rather than the situation itself. When bad things happen, he grieves with me. When good things happen, he celebrates with me. He is present in it.

If we combine what is said of who we're created and called to be, "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus," "You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb," and more, then part of God's plan is identifying who we are, what our strengths are, and what we are passionate about individually. Then, as we make or discover opportunities to exercise those talents in the broader world, we must apply part two of God's plan - to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him.

"Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'"

Part two of God's plan is harvesting the fruit of the Spirit in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, exercising love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

When new opportunities or challenges present themselves, it would be great if someone would just say, "Nope. Wrong." or "Yup. Do that." Where is my bright red, flashing God sign? Sometimes it is not clear whether one thing or the other is the better choice, and possibly even God doesn't care one way or the other. You might be equally effective whether you stay or go.

And yet, we can ask God for wisdom and discernment to figure out the costs and the benefits, to weigh the opportunity against the challenges, and to be aware when intuition and spirit are shouting, "You're going the wrong way!" These gifts will help us come to a decision free of anxiety, resting in the peace that whatever direction we decide to turn, God's way along the path is filled with both justice and mercy. Now walk in it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What are we going to do today?

We are going to do nothing. Nothing at all, nothing planned, nothing scheduled, no agenda, no calendar items, no outings, no play dates, not even laundry. We are doing nothing.

I am out of the office (again) after the two-week summer residency. Because I worked so much during the last two weeks, I've been itching to schedule out all kinds of fun during this week of vacation, this final week of honest-to-goodness summer before I go back to regular hours and they get ready for school. It has taken me a few days to feel like a thinking human being instead of a gray lump of motionless clay, but now, there are plenty of things-to-do on our things-to-do calendar, like the zoo, a Rubber Ducks ballgame, a wedding, a birthday party.

But TODAY, there is nothing. I laughed at Lydia and Elvis as they whined, "There's nothing to doooo," creating two syllables where there's only supposed to be one. Yes, there's nothing!

I feel a certain mix of guilt and delight knowing that my kids have to figure out for themselves what to do to keep entertained without the default television or video game. I have to resist the urge to monologue, "When I was your age..." but in my head, I remember it being just me and my brothers, or me and my cousins, inventing games and playing for hours. Or reading, how many hours did I sit and just... read?

Today, the kids have thirteen potential playmates within 500 feet of our house. It is a rare occasion when none of them are home, but it does happen, like this morning, when some are off to camp and others off to daycare and others still off to dentist appointments. It takes a little perseverance to break through the whining, but sooner rather than later, the default settings of boredom are overridden by creativity, and now they play Spy or build castles in the sand, or, like right this minute, they go to the pound and bark like dogs.

Meanwhile, my "nothing" is reading The Circus Train by Judith Kitchen, a novella-length essay that turns inward and outward, tracing trains of thought and circus trains and memory itself the way that one can only do when sitting still. Paused. Besides following Henry from the front of the house to the back and then to the front again in some subconscious attempts by him to keep me from being productive, I have wandered with her through memory and into my own past, where cousins counted different colored cars as they passed, where we stretched out on a blanket and stared up at the clouds, making shapes and figures out of vapors.

Now, I have sat here long enough to hear the dozen honey bees humming in the Russian sage. I have sat here long enough to watch a monarch butterfly dart from flower to flower, its lemon wings folding and unfolding. I have sat here long enough to watch a hundred cars accelerate and brake up and down our street, darting along their roads between somewhere and somewhere else, off to do something, and I have done nothing except observe and travel through Judith Kitchen's memory into my own and back again, back to the monarch on the flower, back to the buzz of cars and bees and children, back to the nothingness of activity.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Holiday Greetings from Nine-Month-Contract Land

I'm a Donkey on the edge!
Back in November, I surveyed the approach of the holidays, the onset of bowl season, the ramping up of my husband's travel season, and the end to my four-day work-week on an 11-month contract. With all of the calm and clarity of a person anticipating the possibility of another mental breakdown, I sent an email off to my boss and the chair of the department declaring my desire, the necessity of a modification to my contract. Either I work less or I look for another job. Boom.

If life was organized into collections of photo albums like it is on Facebook, then for me, the Spring of 2013 is the cardboard box of photos and negatives that got dropped in a mud puddle and then a toddler crawled inside and crinkled them all up. Every single thing was difficult. A quick peek back around February/March 2013 is funny-sad-bad.

I wasn't positive that this spring would be different, but I knew one thing. I didn't want to do that again.

It turned out that Spring 2014 was not the same soggy cardboard box of photos that Spring 2013 was, though when May ended I stumbled out of it feeling a little shocked and surprised.

Well. *Looks around at the lack of wreckage* That wasn't so bad. That actually went well. Brandon worked more local games, and I think that is the primary reason my head didn't implode.

There was also the shining beacon of The Future ahead: As of June 1, my 11-month contract at Ashland University turned into a 9-month contract.

After the first month of my new arrangement in which I had anticipated hours of free time spent with my family laughing and dancing in sunlight while Bob Marley sang "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and evenings cozied up on the couch with my man and my laptop writing the Next Best American Essay Collection, I am here to report that living in nine-month-contract land is not all that it is cracked up to be.


On Wednesday, I was off in nine-month-contract land checking email, because that's what I do from home when I'm not in the office, and Henry crawled up onto my lap between me and the computer, grabbed both of my arms and held them against his chest. He would NOT let me type. No matter how much I tried to break away, he just wouldn't let go. He thought it was SO funny, me chuckling and trying to type. 
"Now, Henry, let me just... if I can just finish this one thing... Just... Let go, Henry!" I said, for about twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes. That's how long I tried to do WORK from HOME on an UNPAID VACATION DAY while my son held my appendages hostage against his chest.

Here is the only trouble with nine-month-contract land that I can see, and it's all my fault: I still feel an obligation and necessity to work twelve months out of the year, to check my email and answer questions, even when I have a new administrative assistant I can delegate things to out of sheer necessity of NO TIME to do all the things anymore. I care a lot about my work, and I want it to be successful.

But Henry wouldn't let me work, so with a huge exasperated sigh I closed my laptop. This is where it gets really tough. Prepare yourselves for the horror of nine-month-contract land.

I took the kids to the pool.

We swam for a full hour with no pressing deadline to hurry up get out we need to go home to eat dinner and then bathe and then sleep. Normally, if I took the kids to the pool, we would go at 6 p.m. after eating the fastest dinner on earth, swim until 6:30, get out because it takes my children 30 minutes to move from the pool to our car, go home and take the baths that require 45 minutes of undressing and peeing and splashing and redressing, and then FINALLY bedtime. During that stretch from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m., I am in constant forward-thinking mode - hurry up and fill-in-the-blank so that we can hurry up and fill-in-the-blank. 
But Wednesday, in nine-month-contract land, there was no hurry up. There was only swim. Okay, you've had enough swimming? I guess we should get out then. Ho hum. Tweedle dee. Off we go. Meander and twiddle. Into the car. La dee da. Home again home again, jiggedy jig. At home, I made lunch at my leisure. 

Here, kids. Here is some food. Eat when you are hungry until you are hungry no more. The sun peeled back the clouds and the atmosphere warmed up, so, kids, why don't we go to the spray park? La la la. Off we go. Have some snacks, there's nowhere to be except here, right here, in nine-month-contract land.

On Thursday in nine-month-contract land, I worked from 7:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., and sweetheart, you ain't seen nothing until you've seen me wanting to get all the things done before needing to be out of the office in nine-month-contract land for a week and a half. I am an administrative rock star. I administrate the heck out of work. Projects were zinging back and forth off the walls and into other people's offices; proofs zooming here, final versions swooping there, to do lists shot through the heart with check marks. At the end of the day, I kicked some checklist butt.
And today in nine-month-contract land, because I have an awesome husband with some fantastic friends, I spent nine glorious hours by myself. First, I left my phone downstairs and woke up when my body was ready to wake up. Ahh, I said, rolling over and stretching, is that daylight I see? Time to wake up, tra la, tra la! 
I exercised. No need to look at the clock-- there's nowhere else to be, sister. Just lift your weights. Just run on your treadmill. Then walk back home, because no one is waiting for you, so you don't need to drive the quarter-mile to and from the gym, there's all the time in the world. Take as long as you want in the shower. Drink some coffee. Switch a load of laundry. Type a while on the computer. No hurry. No worries.

All of that anxiety back in May about whether or not we could make it on two-months-less pay, and this is what I get? Relaxation and sunshine with my family?

What a waste of emotional energy.

"There is more to life than increasing its speed." - Mahatma Gandhi