New year – new blog!

Hello everyone, and happy New Year! As I noted in my most recent post, I have been thinking what to do about this blog, and suggested that that might be the end of that particular blog. I was right, as a few days later I started a new blog in my own name (!), which has allowed me to write on different topics, using my own name, something I very much wanted to do here from the outset.

Although I haven’t yet answered the question of “what to do the books,” I can say that I don’t think I’ll be getting rid of very many. I might box a few of my less-than-favorite ones up, in order to make room for new books, but for the time being, I’m just not able to get rid of many of them! Part of that might be because I find myself still operating in a religious studies/religious milieu, and am still interested in the content of many of those books. Regardless, though, what to do with them will remain an ongoing question.

If you’ve been following this blog and would like to follow along, please visit my new blog, www.emilyrmace.com, where I offer a few thoughts on 2014, in an alt-ac year-in-review. Thanks for following, commenting, and being part of my alt-ac life thus far; I hope to see you at the new website!

Returning to a big conference and the place from which I started

This past weekend before Thanksgiving, I attended the main conference of religious studies academics, the AAR’s annual meeting. I actually enjoyed myself tremendously. Conferences are great fun when you’re not looking for a job, or giving a talk on which you think the rest of your career might depend.

Given that we were in San Diego, the weather was incredible (remember: I flew in from a polar vortex). I saw many old friends, some with whom I had good long conversations that remind you of why you like that person in the first place, and some with whom I had those awkward conversations with acquaintances that last about two minutes. I saw former professors I’d worked with, including my dissertation advisor, and again, had some nice casual conversations. I talked to publishers about my still-unpublished dissertation, and I talked to them about other ideas I have, and got some useful suggestions on how to proceed.

After the conference, we headed to where my mother and her husband live for Thanksgiving, and my mom asked the question I’d dodged at the beginning of the conference: how’s the career coaching going? What are you thinking about, now?

We were standing by the kitchen chopping onions and measuring ingredients for Thanksgiving. It wasn’t like I’d pictured coming back to the topic. I always figured it would be in the evening, after the kids were in bed, a glass of wine in our hands. We’d sit on the couch and it would be time to talk. I’d take a deep breath and tell her that I’m not exactly job-searching yet.

In retrospect, the less-formal way we talked, standing by the sink, probably made the conversation easier. I didn’t have to look at her. I didn’t have a blanket on my head, but I could focus on where the knife went, on the measuring cups, and not on her reaction. I think I expected that she expected me to describe the kind of job (you know, like, higher ed administrator, or something) I’m supposedly searching for now, but the truth is not that simple, so I was worried. I’d wanted it to be simple: “no, you’re more inclined towards librarianship than towards higher ed administration,” or vice-versa, or something else.

But from the moment I opened my mouth in a coaching call goodness-knows-when ago, and blurted out the truth with a hesitant voice breaking with emotion, it’s been nowhere near that simple. The decision to work with a coach, I now think, was a way that long-quieted inclinations found a way out, a little space in the silence through which they could be heard, and maybe this time I would listen, maybe it would be the right time, just maybe. Or not, but it had my attention.

I explained how my coach got me thinking about things that mattered to me on an almost spiritual level. My mom knew what I meant: she was the one who suggested to me in a middle-school chat that an emotion I eventually learned to identify as “the numinous” might actually have religious import. Standing there in the kitchen, the sky didn’t fall. I even went so far as to mention the parts that have kept me from the blog for almost a month, the weird uncertain tugs whenever my friends mentioned words like ordination or ministry, which I had felt at the other religious studies conference a month ago. I still don’t quite know what I will do about those words, and I’m okay with that. Strangely enough, my mom seemed okay with the continued uncertainty. The sky didn’t fall, and that in itself seemed kind of amazing. We went on chopping onions.

I told her I wasn’t sure about what those words implied: ministry, but in a parish?, or in some other arena, like writing? (The words that have echoed in my mind the past few weeks echo in my mind: Tell your stories of this joy.) I explained that more than one religious studies academic I’d spoken with had both 1. been asked by unknowing strangers if a Ph.D. in religious studies was training for the ministry/priesthood/rabbinate/etc. as well as 2. had in actuality thought either seriously or fleetingly about whether their interest in religion lay more on the knowledge/academic side, or the experiential/practical side. Some people try to balance both, like a good number of the academics-in-training at the conference of a month ago. I think I’ve spent my time shoving the latter aside, vehemently protesting too much that no, I’m just in this for the academy. Hah. There’s a voice in my head that knows better, that knows where this path started.

This might also be where this blog ends, with this uncertainty and these questions. In his famous poem “Little Gidding” — famous for the lines that come after this one — T. S. Eliot called it “the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling.” This is hardly an alt-ac blog anymore, as it’s more about what has come to be my search to articulate this vocation in the world, and I think that the average alt-ac job-seeker isn’t struggling with how to reconcile a childhood call to deep religious experience with making a living in the world.

But there you have it. Elsewhere in “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot said:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Well, that is as clear as mud and makes total sense. In some ways I have come full circle to where this story starts (a beginning which includes details that didn’t make it onto the blog). Just a little while later that the poem utters its most famous lines:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It’s been a lot of exploration, but I’m back where I started, haltingly and a bit uncertain of where exactly that is, but I’m there, and if I can’t say I know it for the first time, I know I’m learning about it from a whole new angle, which might as well be the first time. I don’t want to leave again. I know I will: I have done so before. But perhaps I can linger longer this time, with greater intentionality. Only time shall tell.

Vocation is not the same as vacation

As I’ve been working on this post, half of the times I try to write the word “vocation,” I end up typing “vacation” instead. This is almost as funny a slip as when I told people at the conference that I was letting the dissertation “lie foul” for a while, when what I meant was I was letting it “lie fallow”! They had a good laugh at that.

Vacation implies time spent away from one’s regular life, and I wonder if subliminally, I realize that thinking about vocation is not unlike a vacation, in that it implies luxury, an opportunity that one is lucky enough to have. In my small group discussion about “scholarship as vocation,” one theme that emerged out of the disparate stories of a management consultant, a former singer, and a mom in a transitional relationship to academia is that we’re all in a privileged enough place that we get to think about vocation.

Last week, in preparation for the weekend’s conversation, I found myself reading Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. In between nodding my head in agreement at his words, I spent the other moments trying not to throw my iPad across the room and holler, “I don’t have time for silence! I don’t have time to listen to the voice of vocation! I have diapers to change, a kid who I’m late picking up from school, and… and … ARGH!”

Yet despite the luxury I have to entertain thoughts of vocation, Palmer is right that it’s not a vacation in another sense: finding one’s path requires dark nights of the soul, and in his case, a crushing depression as he let the truth of his self catch up with the realities of his life.

Palmer quotes repeatedly from May Sarton’s poem “Now I Become Myself,” but I have a different one I want to share, to wrestle with, William Stafford’s “The Way It Is.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

I first encountered this poem a few years ago, when I thought the thread was heading towards a particular conflation of my academic and outside interests, but those didn’t come to fruition. A year ago, I could have sworn there was a thread about libraries and books. What I can’t decide, and the book group in which I heard this first couldn’t decide either, whether the thread is something you follow whether or not you’re aware of it, like an unconscious pattern or stream running through your life. Alternatively, is the thread something you’re aware of as you go through your life? Is it conscious or unconscious? That much is not clear to me, but that uncertainty might be part of the point. Sometimes you’re aware, sometimes not.

As I’ve mentioned, this past weekend we had a session on “scholarship as vocation.” And what became immediately, sadly clear, was the extent to which I was no longer sure if scholarship was my vocation. All I felt was muddle. I once was a part of this group, and could be again, if I wanted to – but did I want to?

I wanted bells, I wanted physical gates, or at least the music of French horns, something symbolic to see or hear that told me I’d arrived, that my vacation was over and the time of vocation had begun. Either I’m not there yet, or I’m still in the dark nights of the soul, the part where vocation is very unlike vacation.

In writing this post, I came across a poem by another poet I like, Mary Oliver, who writes of “The Journey.”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I don’t know yet what I need to do, but the house is trembling around me and tugs at my ankles. Wade in the water. I’m still looking for my own voice, for the only thing I can do. I hope if I ever find it, I recognize it for what it is, with or without bells, trumpets, or clearly market gates.

Hide it under a bushel? Yes! or No?

I’ve been working on a post about vocation, but I think I will save that one for next week, because this weekend I will be at a conference where one of the topics under discussion will be “scholarship as vocation.” I’m also presenting on the alt-ac part of a panel on the job search, which should be interesting. I’m very much looking forward to all of it!

I’ve also been thinking about African-American spirituals again, or rather, letting their lyrics be a reflection of what I’ve been thinking about. Some of you might know “This Little Light of Mine.”

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. … 
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine!
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine!

When I was a kid, the answer to whether I’d let my light shine or hide it under a bushel. Yes, please, hand that bushel over! Quickly! At night before bed, I’d sometimes invite my mother for what we called a “chat.” Usually this meant not just a five-minute, how-are-you sort of thing, but something much more long-winded, usually about whatever was running around in my head at the time. If I had something particularly weighty to share, I’d put my favorite blanket over my head before proceeding to discuss whatever it was I need to share.

At the public library, of which I was a frequent and enthusiastic patron, I was terrified to ask for help from the librarians, for fear that they would judge me for being interested in whatever it was. The more interested I was, the more terrified I felt. I know now that librarians are some of the most helpful people on earth; helping others find information is one of their reasons for existing. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for advice on how to find books about archaeology, or film-making, or Robin-Hood, or fantasy literature, or what-have-you. Consequently, I became a very good user of card catalogs. My strongest memory is of the old microfilm catalog, where you had to choose if you wanted to search by title, author, or subject, and then sit in front of what, to a 10- or 12-year-old girl must have been an very imposingly sized machine, in order to find those precious call numbers. Once I had the call numbers, I was good to go. I’d see what else was on the shelf and pick up a few more titles, all the while eyeing the librarian to see if she (or he, but usually she) was spying on me or judging me.

In retrospect, this sounds paranoid. What librarian wouldn’t have loved to help a kid eager to learn? I’m glad of my auto-didactic skills in the library (they certainly served me in good stead in graduate school!) but I wonder what it would have been like to trust people a little more. To choose a bushel a little less dark in which to hide, so that maybe some light would shine through.

Light seeped out. It seeped onto the pages of my dozens of little 3″x5″ journals that I’d buy at the local Hallmark store next to our grocery store. Light poured into the warmth of my favorite reading nook in the public library, a window seat in the back corner, as I eagerly read the books I’d discovered.

Open the bushel, close it. Throw the blanket over my head, remove it. One summer, one of those glorious summers in high school that you look back on for the rest of your life as an irrecoverable moment to which you’d gladly return, the light came pouring out. I was at a summer music camp, Tanglewood, where I listened to awe-inspiring music nearly every night. Ironically, I was there to study my instrument, and I did, but half-way through, sitting on a bench in a cozy bookstore in downtown Lenox, MA, I realized I wasn’t going to pursue the French horn in a professional capacity, but probably wanted to do something more intellectual, using my head.

(I may have been under the mistaken impression that it would be easier to get a job as a philosopher than a French horn player. After all, my second cousin was married to a philosopher, and as I’d found out at a family reunion, was getting paid to be in graduate school. What on earth could be better! I think that, the summer after 10th grade, was the most likely start point of this particular career trajectory. I didn’t ask them about what happened after graduate school, of course, but I was 14, doing quite well at school – thankyouverymuch – and the idea that I could get paid to do just that probably left a powerful impression on my young mind.  But I digress.)

At the end of that summer (the summer after 11th grade), I had one of those dreams that changed everything, at least for a little while. I don’t recall the specifics, but upshot was that I raised my hand in class, a philosophy class with my favorite teacher, said my piece, and the sky didn’t fall. I went back to school a different person than the smart, but quiet, person I’d been before. I raised my hand in class, especially humanities classes, and the sky didn’t fall. A little light was shining, and my teachers noticed, wrote glowing recommendations, and I got into a most awesome small liberal arts college.

Eventually stress, or college, or life–I’ll brush past whatever it might have been–got in the way, and things became less shiny again, and the cycle repeated itself a few more times. These things do run in cycles. What’s clear to me now is that I’m at a place in a cycle where I am no longer willing to hide under a bushel.

What that will mean, practically speaking, I’m not sure. I will likely be rearranging this website at some point in the future, or starting a new one (and I hope those of you that are following me here, will follow me there as well!) — all of this remains to be determined.  For now, though, I’m getting ready to take that blanket off my head once again.

Post-by-numbers

1. It’s been a few days since I’ve posted anything, or written, so rather than expecting something brilliant, I’m at least putting my fingers on the keyboard, and offering what I think I’ve seen called a “post by numbers,” but I think I might be making that up.

2. My life is very busy right now, with both kids working on therapy of one sort or another (PT for the infant, speech for her sister) and my own work with my career coach, not to mention two part-time jobs.

3. It’s been a few days since I’ve exercised. Probably since last Thursday. (See #2 about being busy). The rain we’ve been having since Sunday hasn’t really helped with that. In desperation, I took the baby out for a stroller walk when Accuweather said “rain will end in 7 minutes,” and we were lucky for the first 18 minutes, when it started to sprinkle again (despite Accuweather’s claim it would hold off).

4. I submitted something entirely non-academic to be published somewhere both non-academic, and relatively prominent. I haven’t heard back. I’ve never done this before.

5. I had a stomach virus for much of the previous week, or maybe it was just psychosomatic. It made me lie down on the couch for several evenings in a row after the kids were in bed. My husband thought it was psychosomatic. After all, I was bringing up all sorts of childhood hopes and dreams as part of working on a “mission statement” with my coach, and Professor Spouse knows well how my stomach can sometimes act up from emotional activity.  However, this week our baby seems to have a stomach virus as well, so now my guess is that my own ailment was actually an ailment, and not just a creation of my mind. This has me somewhat relieved.

6. I had two phone interviews recently. Neither one sounded very exciting once I was on the phone and talking to some of the people involved in the hiring. For this reason, it has actually been a relief that I didn’t receive a call-back for either one. As we talked, I could feel my excitement draining away, and couldn’t quite keep up the pretense of being more excited. (It didn’t help that the Early Intervention people — 5 of them! — were in my living room, seeing if my baby qualifies for the program due to her prematurity. Professor Spouse was with them, of course, but instead of having a longer time to psych myself up, prep, get ready, etc. for the one phone interview, I dashed upstairs just a few minutes beforehand and really wasn’t as well-focused as I would have been otherwise.) The only reason I might feel a bit sad at these interviews not progressing is that means I’m still working at night. I’d been hoping I might have a different job by the end of the semester, so that I don’t have to do the 2AM finals shifts again, but that’s looking less and less likely.

7. I am giving a workshop in a week and a half about alt-ac job searching to a group of graduate students and recent grads, many of whom were my peers and cohorts at a conference a few years ago, when I was one of the ones further along in my program (and therefore seemed to have my act together). I’m a little nervous about appearing in public as an alt-ac, much less one who offers advice, especially when I’m still searching for the right post-ac “fit.” I know, it’s ok to say I’m still in transition, but it sure would be easier if I could say, “I have this awesome job now, and here’s how you can too!”

8. I’ll end this on a happier note. Fall has finally been in full swing here. The maples are turning. I love maples. I love how light filters through their leaves. Maybe they become more transparent as they change color.  We’re baking pumpkin bread, going apple-picking, and we’ve had a couple of fires in our fireplace (a benefit of an older home). I can wear boots and scarves again, and that is always fun!

9. With luck, I will come up with a more unified post in the near future, but for now, I hope you all are doing well.

Wade in the water

I wouldn’t normally say that I know a lot of songs, but somehow a song still seems to set the tone for a day, a moment, a week. Today it started with Mahler, specifically the 5th movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, but that eventually gave way to the old spiritual “Wade in the water.” The latter is more approachable and singable, at any rate, than the 5th movement of Mahler’s Second “Resurrection” Symphony, which really works best either sung in German in the shower, or with the stereo on full blast, if you can’t actually find a full orchestra and chorus to back you up!

So, having given up temporarily on Mahler, I switched unconsciously to the much more singable and soulful genre of spirituals, namely, “Wade in the water.” I know the tune, and I know the main line (of course), and all I can think is that one day I’m thinking about this sort of job, the next another sort, and the third day, it’s “what on earth, how could that be possible!”  In other words, I’m in the middle of figuring this post-academic transition out, as helpful commenter professornever noted in response to “Don’t follow in my footsteps.” My tuneful response to the state of being in the middle and figuring it out brings this melody to mind:

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water
God’s a-going to trouble the water

I didn’t know that last line until I looked it up just now.  Well, I shouldn’t be surprised. Psychologist C. J. Jung will always be reminding us that water is a symbol for the unconscious, or as the spiritual implies, it’s a place of trouble, of things getting shaken up, regardless whether you believe in, or what you believe of, the force doing the troubling.

In a favorite moment from my days standing in front of undergrads trying to help them learn something new, we’d discuss a scene from that wonderful movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou!, when the three men on the run (Everett, Pete, and Delmar) come to a baptism ceremony in the woods. Figures clad in white are walking slowly down to a river, singing ethereally. Delmar, the one who might score lowest on an intelligence test, is completely taken in by what he sees, jumps in line, and is plunged under water by the preacher.  He pops up spluttering, renewed, refreshed, calling to his his agog friends on the shore, “All my sins are done warshed away! Come on in boys, the water’s fine!”

My point here is merely to say even if waters are troubling and troubled, the water might in fact be fine, and that is enough for me right now.

Wade in the water!
Come on it, the water’s fine.

Acorns in the grass

This isn’t really about anything explicitly post-ac, unless you count the fleeting reference to cover letters, but as it happened, I found myself thinking about it as I’d write it, so a day later, with the baby asleep and Professor Spouse and Older Daughter out on an errand, I’m writing it down. 

Oftentimes these days, my 15-month-old falls asleep in the car on the way home. Lately I’ve taken to bringing my computer with me when I think she’ll do this, so I can type crooked-handedly on the keyboard, trying to answer an email, post to Facebook, or in one case, finish a cover letter.

Yesterday, though, instead of poking on my phone or using my computer (which was far away inside the house, anyways), I slipped out of the car and sat down in the grass. Professor Spouse was inside, feeding our elder daughter lunch, and the baby seemed in a deep sleep. The day was warm, in the low-seveties Fahrenheit, with a light wind and generous sunshine.  We’d already had some early fall cool days, so I wanted to enjoy this moment of sunshine. I chose a spot in the sun where the grass didn’t look so wet, and sat down, half expecting to hear the cry of my daughter any minute. She didn’t cry, so I started to look at the acorns.

We are lucky enough to have our front yard, and the yards of our neighbors, graced by old maple and oak trees that have been cared for the college for a very long time, but no longer than a hundred-odd years. Every time I’m outside these days, I hear the “plonk” of an acorn as it falls off of a tree and hits a car.  Now, my car is not so nice that I worry about this at all, so I actually enjoy the funny sound. Who know that something as small as an acorn could make such a large “plonk”?  Or that squirrels, running up and down the trees gathering food for the winter, could make such loud chattering, squirrelly noises?

Every day, I hear the squirrels as they chatter, and the acorns as they fall, but I don’t usually take time to stop and look at the acorns. Sometimes my older daughter brings me acorns as presents, especially if they’re twin acorns still linked together, or more rarely and much more fun, a bouquet of three acorns still linked together. But I myself don’t spend that much time just looking at them.

With a few spare moments to sit in the grass, though, I started looking at acorns. I picked one up. It was green, and it had lost its little cap. Another one was brown.  Many were half-open, brown and mealy on the inside, as if the squirrels had already started their feast. I tried different caps on the acorns as I sat there, realizing how each acorn’s “hat” was uniquely suited to its own small head. I felt the warmth of the acorns, warm like the sunlight in which I sat. I’d never thought of acorns as being warm before. I felt their smooth skin and wondered what an acorn tasted like to a squirrel. It felt heavy in my hand, heavy enough to “plonk” as it fell on to the roof or hood of a car.

I remembered moments spent like this as a child, looking a single rock and feeling its warmth, or its coolness, or how sometimes, I’d lie down in the grass and shape it back into a little half-egg shaped hole, and marvel at the insects scurrying about. I’ve always loved nature, taken note of it, but I realized that I usually go for the big, pretty picture these days — a field of wildflowers in a forest preserve, a sunset over the tops of the buildings around me. It was strangely refreshing to pick this quiet moment when the baby slept, the computer was away, my phone wasn’t even buzzing or beeping, to just look closely at something and see it in a new light.

Eventually, though, my stomach rumbled and I picked up my phone, texted Professor Spouse, and we switched shifts. I went inside to have my lunch, the acorn lying where I’d found it in the grass, and he came outside to take over watching for our baby’s wakings.