A is for Arrival

During the month of April, I’ll be blogging as part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge. Each day of April (minus Sundays) will bring you one post related to a corresponding letter of the alphabet. This year I’m presenting reflections on the year I spent walking cemeteries.  I’ll also talk about how those walks inspired my writing. There will also be pictures. Lots of ’em. So many that I was almost tempted to simply post pics from cemeteries with no text, but that seemed contrary to the spirit of the challenge. Anyway, here we go!

A is for Arrival

I started my year of cemetery walks in the fall of 2013. I had been newly tenured the previous January. I had slogged through the senoritis of spring semester and started my 15-month sabbatical in June. I had achieved professional success. I had climbed the academic ladder, proven my worth, gained complete (for the most part) career stability.

And the rest of life was pretty good, too. I had (and still have) a loving and supportive spouse, two healthy & happy children, a house with an actual picket fence, health insurance. All the things. I had arrived.

And yet I was at loose ends. Was this what I wanted to do with my life? Was this where I wanted to be? I had arrived at a pinnacle of professional and personal success…yet what lay beyond the horizon? What was around the bend in the road? Barring tragedy and loss, was there even going to be another bend in the road?

When I was younger, the question was, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Now at 38, question became, “What else do I want to do before I die?”

A quick caveat: This isn’t going to be the kind of blog where a white woman whines about her perfect life. At least I hope not. I recognize my privilege, the advantages I’ve been given because of the color of my skin, because of my straightness, because of when and where I was born. A big part of my cemetery walks involved recognizing those advantages. Those walks were also about listening, trying to discern not only where I’d come from, but where I was going.

So I’d arrived, not at the end of a journey, as expected, but at the start of a new one.

Y is for…Yes

While I was on sabbatical – and especially after I returned to work – I started saying no a lot. No to excessive service commitments, no to a stack of research ideas, no to projects that eat into time when I’m not under contract.  I wanted to set up patterns that were different that the ones I had prior to tenure. The pre-tenure blitz can be overwhelming. You’re trying to do all you can in order to build a record for tenure. You worry that if you say no to something, it might hurt your chances.

After you get to the place where you can pretty much only be fired if the institution is going under or for “moral turpitude” (I love that phrase), there’s an opportunity to focus. In my case, I’m most interested in issues of discernment, diversity and helping students develop sophisticated research habits of mind. Whenever I’m asked to take on a new commitment, I evaluate it in terms of my priorities and then decide whether or not to pursue it.

I did this a little bit before tenure, but I’m doing it more now. I’m also evaluating my obligations in terms of time. I didn’t do this very well before tenure. I kept adding things – in part because I was interested in them and also in part because I wanted to make sure I had as strong a case as possible for tenure. I was never particularly honest with myself about how much time various commitments would take, so I’d end up frazzled and tired.

I now have practices and priorities in place for deciding when to say no. I also have a sense of how much is enough for me to do at this stage in my career and in light of my contractual obligations. I am not interested in shorting my institution or “getting away” with doing less work. But why am I saying no?

I say no in order to say yes. I say yes for the sake of my mental, emotional and physical health. I say yes so I have a more flexible schedule that can adapt better to changes (like accommodating occasional sick kid days or extra swim lessons). I say yes so I have more time to reflect on life. And let’s be honest – I say no so I can say yes to my writing. As often and as much as possible.

My very wise friend Sara wrote a line in an email that has stuck with me. We’ve been talking about careers and choices and vocation a lot. She wrote that at this stage in her life, she knows the kind of life she wants and it’s more about the bigger picture, rather than “what am I doing to make money.” I think about her words every day – the bigger picture is what’s important to me, too. I have a good job that I like. I have a writing career that I love. I say no in order to say yes to a life I enjoy.

W is for…Work

I was intending to write about how taking walks helps support my writing, but I covered that already in my post about the outdoors. Instead I’m writing about how work supports my writing.

Balancing work and writing has been a struggle after coming back from sabbatical. Starting in June 2013, I had 15 months away from my job (as an associate professor in the campus library), where I spent almost all of that time writing. I’ve been back to work at the library since this past September, and I’m just getting to the point now where I’m starting to feel comfortable heading into the office every day. (Just in time for summer vacation!) Such is the nature of sabbaticals.

Sabbatical was amazing. It was wonderful. I wish everyone could experience it. It helped me see how I’m not essential to the work of the library. The library can get along just fine without me.  I value my work as a librarian, helping students connect with and critically use information, but that work will continue with or without me. I am an important part of that work but again, I am not essential.

On sabbatical, I learned that writing is my career. It may never support me with a full time income, but it is my career, my passion, my vocation. While I think carefully about the ways in which I fulfill my commitments to my institution – I do not want to shortchange the library, the institution or my students – it is my day job.

Work supports my writing by giving me time. I have a flexible schedule, I have sabbaticals, I have a tremendous amount of autonomy. It may not be my ideal career, but for now it gives me the stability, especially through health insurance and income, that frees up time to write.