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 I talked to publishers about my still-unpublished dissertation, and I talked to them about other ideas I have, and got some useful suggestions on how to proceed.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

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