Thursday, January 12, 2012

Back to School Simply?

I left full-time academics in 1999. It took a year of exploring the idea before I handed in my resignation, and another year and a half before I finally left. Academic institutions have a year-long hiring cycle and so it was professional to hand in a year's notice. Yet also, when it came down to it, I didn't want to go. My dean would ask me to stay for another term and I'd say yes. I might still be there if I hadn't been scheduled to go to Siberia to look at schools and talk to teachers. I could ease myself out by moving right after my return.

That was my first step in simplicity. A three bedroom flat full of furniture, all full of stuff, got pared down to an 8x15 U-Haul's worth. I sold a few things, but gave most away - to friends and to a resale shop that supported people living with AIDS.

I didn't miss the professorial 60-80 hour work weeks, but I did miss the work, itself. I loved most aspects of academic life - even committee meetings. This was helped by the fact that I was in a collegial department with an interesting student population. But still, there is something about that life that suits me, no matter what the department or who the students.

Two years later, I was back in academics - working part-time on an education evaluation project. It was a temporary position and as it ended, I took the next great leap in simplicity. I got rid of my remaining stuff in order to go into a monastery. 

This was a physically and emotionally wrenching task. Most of the stuff I shucked on leaving DePaul was the unnecessary detritus of your typical middle-class life - like fancy, never-used dishes from Grandma. Now I was dumping stuff that mattered. There were my brother’s sculptures and my mother’s photographs, a closet full of colorful, eclectic clothes, gold earrings I bought in Ethiopia, an amber necklace from Siberia, and a string of ivory elephants my dad brought back from his first trip to Nigeria in 1963. There were read and re-read science fiction and children’s books, travel guides, world music CDs, the Madame Alexander doll my mom gave me for my fifth Christmas so I wouldn’t ask for a Barbie, and the so-o-o comfy, blue armchair I bought with my first paycheck from Arco Alaska.  My car, my computer, my blankets: the list was daunting. But of course, it wasn't really the giving up of objects that hurt. It was the releasing of what those objects symbolized - the self I had spent 50 years creating, getting to know, grieving over, and finally loving. Yet, I did it. I let go of the objects and the memories those objects represented.

When I left the monastery, I thought, "That was way too hard to do in the first place to turn around and undo it now. I'm not getting the job, the house, and the possessions back again."

Fast forward half a decade, and I want to do just that - if I can - well, not the objects, but the rest of it. I already have the house. Now I am applying for jobs. 

I still miss the dynamics of academic life. I miss going to an office and being part of a work group. I miss students. I miss tussling with intellectual challenges. I have all these skills that I rarely use. So I want to return. Maybe that is impossible after such a long hiatus... in this economy... in a town full of young, under-employed academics, but I am going to try.

So we'll see. In my semi-employed/self-employed state, it was a struggle not to accrue stuff. I wonder how that struggle will play out if (when) I get that academic position.

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  1. Your courage is remarkable. As I ponder what seems to be a reality— that our place defines us as we define our place—I find Wendell Berry helpful. Perhaps an "anchorite" is a label that suits you better. -Dan Thompson

  2. Thank you. The longer I write, the easier it becomes to be honest. Of course, persisting illusions and delusions mean there is always a deeper layer of honesty to be found. ;-)

    The role of "place" (geographic, cultural, economic, family, etc.) in the role of identity is very interesting. Cool idea to look at it the other way around - that "place" could actually be a function of the identities of a group of related individuals.

    Hmmmm... Traditionally, an anchorite lives in a very constrained physical place (1 or 2 rooms) - once interned, never leaving until death. Their spirituality anchors the place for the rest of people who come and go. So unless this were the inner, spiritual location, I don't think my lifestyle qualifies. In fact, I'll probably write a post about the spiritual toll of driving some day soon. :-D