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 I talked to publishers about my still-unpublished dissertation, and I talked to them about other ideas I have, and got some useful suggestions on how to proceed.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.


Glass half full

The first thing my mother … yes, she reads this blog … noticed about my previous post was that I started on a happy note. I laughed. I told her I did that because I was aware of how the post would sound if I didn’t include a happy note.

What is perhaps more telling, though, is that once again, after feeling pretty down-in-the-dumps about how things were going in terms of my professional life, I decided to do something positive — to connect with a career coach. I already knew the name of someone who came highly recommended, reached out to her, and found she was taking new clients. Within days, I had signed on to work with her. Her description of what she might be able to do for me – sort through the messy thoughts, get me unstuck from what had become a very stuck feeling – seemed to match exactly what I needed and where I was at that moment.

I find myself thinking of a song by the singer-songwriter Christine Kane, a song I first listened to when I was, ironically, working on my dissertation. I hadn’t thought of the song in ages, but late this summer, shortly before the semester started, my family visited the town we used to live in, which was an area deeply influenced by singer-songwriters and folk traditions, including this one.  On a rare quiet moment in our road trip, with both kids dozing in the back seat and even my husband getting a chance to get some precious shut-eye in the front, I had the even more precious opportunity to listen to whatever I wanted, and I chose Christine Kane.

I shuffled through my phone to the first album of hers I’d listened to, Right Outta Nowhere, and listened to the title song. One verse in particular is somewhat telling:

A summer night
The soft smell of seashore
All the deadheads dancing
Out on the beach
He’s got a ten-year tan
And his own little junk store
He says, some people got a lot to prove
And that’s the way I used to be
Now I’m just an old hippie
With a half a dozen PhDs
Some choices hold you down
Some chances set you free


Right outta nowhere
You open your heart
And let go of everything
You’re going somewhere
And all you need to know
Is that you’re free to go

Now, I don’t have a ten-year tan (never well, never could), or junk store (same sentiment), and I don’t dance with deadheads on a beach, but I probably have a lot to prove, and some people might see a small bit of hippie in me, somewhere. Nor do I have a half-a-dozen PhDs (god forbid!), but I have one, and that’s enough.

I remember listening to this song in my car, back when I actually took the time to put a CD in its CD player, and trying to decide whether to sing along with it, and at what level of car-privacy-induced belting-it-out. Could I, enmeshed in a dissertation, really sing lustily about giving it up and being free?  If people with even one Ph.D. have a lot to prove and a lot of that is holding them down, could I be free? What would that even mean? Wasn’t I free enough, writing a dissertation on a topic that really did interest me?

Not willing to wake my sleeping family, I chose not to belt out the song, but hummed along with a mounting sense of irony. After all, I am still not sure what it would mean to be free. But after even just a couple of conversations with this new career coach, she’s encouraging me to think “glass half full,” and to think outside the boxes I might have built around my life, and around what I think I can do.  Could I really let myself be free of  at least some of the baggage and the boxes?  I don’t know, and where it might lead seems exciting, strange, and as can only be expected, a little bit scary.

Right outta nowhere
You open your heart
And believe in everything
You’re going somewhere
And all you need to know
Is that you’re free
Right outta nowhere
You open your heart
And have faith in everything
You’re going somewhere
And all you need to know
Is that you’re free to go