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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Monday, January 09, 2012

Stuck in Trauma Thinking

"The voice of the perpetrator says it is all your fault and you should give up in despair because what you did was so awful," my spiritual counselor said, "Believing you are hopeless and stuck is trauma thinking."

"What would happen if you dismissed the voice listing all the things you've done wrong and just let yourself feel the feelings?" she asked. "Describe the feelings. Where in your body are they? What texture do they have? How old were you the first time you felt those feelings? Just stay with the feelings and see what emerges."

I tried that this morning. The voice started in on all the ways I've messed up: hiring a bad contractor who wrecked the floors - that I can not afford to fix, buying the wrong house, deciding it was a good idea to take my uncle out of the nursing home in the first place, not applying for a full-time job the minute I was out of the monastery, not doing whatever it took so the sisters would keep me in the monastery, throwing over my tenure-track position at DePaul, not...

You get the picture. Starting with the most recent, a long litany of every major decision I've ever made, or had made for me, marched accusingly through my brain. All bad. All wrong. All adding up to why I was now lost in a morass of despair.

All to say I wouldn't have these feelings if only I was good enough.

I let the list of bads go and watched what emerged.

A little girl was crying in wrenching, gasping hopelessness. She had just been shut behind the gates of Hell with no recourse and no way out. A little girl, no more than three. What was she doing there? How could she possibly have done anything worthy of eternal damnation? That makes no sense. My stomach hurt.

So I held her. She cuddled up on my breast until her sobs were exausted.

"I love you, sweetheart. You are wonderful. It wasn't your fault. I love you," I said.

It still took me awhile to get my taking-refuge-in-freeze-response body out of bed, but my sense of upwelling trauma went from an 8 to a 3 (on a 1 to 10 scale).

"Just be with the feelings" is the most common thing my spiritual adviser says. "They've come for a reason, to bring you information. Let yourself receive the information. The only way out is through."

Not sure if I went very far through today, but at least I opened the door and went in.

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

Simplicity is a Struggle-some Dance

I don't like buying & owning & taking care of excess property, but go where things are sold & I get the twitchy desire to buy something. Anything. Even in the monastery, avarice constantly whispered in my ear, just like it does with everyone everywhere else. It really helped to have a tiny, monastic allowance to cover all my personal care products, clothes, etc (I entered seriously lacking in black garments and we were required to dress well). My desire might twitch, but my purse, being empty, could not answer.

Of course, one of the big disjunctions between the older sisters' words & deeds was their attachment to property. It was easy to dismiss, though. We were all there to struggle with our ego issues, I thought. If that was theirs, it was none of my business. Eventually, I understood that they were not kidding when calling themselves "free of ego" (to quote the oldest sister). Being "free of ego" they had no issues to struggle with. Their love of property was, therefore, a monastic value - as was every other personality foible & ego-attachment. Still, I could swim in the freedom of not owning stuff - 'though it  was a grind that we were required to pour our life energy into care of the monastery's excess property.

Now I am poor-ish, but have some cash, not to mention the need to fill the material needs of myself & my dependent uncle. Buying & owning still feel uggy, but not feeding the desire to buy is a bigger problem.


Seven years post monastery, I constantly struggle to find balance. It is necessary to own some stuff - in & out of the monastery. It is convenient to own other stuff. 

An incessant, judgmental, inner dialog creates just as much mental fog as being pulled hither & yon by freewheeling indulgence in desire. Clarity lets the light in. Space for breath lets the wind blow through. Taking things easy opens a silence where still, small voices can be heard. So where is the balance? Not attaching is one thing. Not attaching to the desire not to attach is another.

double sigh.

What if this struggle for balance is all that our job entails? What if we are not here to achieve some angelic freedom from ego so we can coast through earthly life until our spirit is ready to give this body up?  Perhaps instead, our job is only to knowingly engage in the struggle. I hope this is so 'cause "engage in the struggle" is the one thing I can actually do.


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