January 29, 2014

What Happens Next?

Yesterday I described my road to choice. A road (sometimes rocky) that eventually led me away from academia. This past autumn was the first time in my life I didn't go back to school. Those initial months were magical. My creativity exploded: writing, photography, cooking, and exploring. I felt fully awake. I had extra capacity. I was connected to myself, loved ones, and nature.

Now I see more clearly the divided life I was living. I loved teaching, but I didn't love statistics. I enjoyed talking with students, but I didn't like selling the subject matter. My inner-life had blossomed. I knew myself, my emotions, my worthiness. I valued quiet time for reflection. I prioritized people and relationships over all else. I lived from my heart. But academia is head-centered, not heart-centered. And academia (most institutions?) think more is better, even if everyone is spread too thin. So this was the divide. My inner-life and outer-life were opposites. And I couldn't hold that inside any longer. I'm just glad I noticed before everyone else.

So I wonder: how do I merge these inner- and outer-worlds? I allowed space for art (writing + photography), but now I understand that's not my next path. I write and shoot, just as a breathe--to stay alive. To feed my soul. I don't want to sell my art. I want to do my art. (And if someone pays me for it, that's awesome.)

I do love to teach. I like organizing a course so people understand (even difficult ideas). I like holding a space where everyone is heard. I care about people. 

These months without a job deepened my mindfulness practice. I meditate daily. I sit weekend retreats. I notice. In fact, writing and photography are both about noticing. Noticing details, light, beauty, and emotion. My year has been about noticing. 

How do I merge my inner- and outer-worlds? By teaching mindfulness. By providing a safe space where people experience life--their breath, their bodies, their emotions; where people stay with themselves and the present moment. And I hope to do this in the workplace (an I'll-come-to-you mindfulness class). Because mindfulness is wellness. Mindfulness is so many things. It changed my life in dramatic and positive ways.

Friends, this is all very new. I'm baring myself to you. This is an idea, not yet put into practice. Yet I'm far enough along to share my intention. I know I'll make mistakes (how else will I learn?). But I also have faith. Faith in this wholeness of my inner- and outer-lives. 

January 28, 2014

My Road to Choice

I wrote this essay last fall. I lived this essay the year before, as I processed my choice to leave academia. It was a story I needed to tell; the words poured from me. I thought it might get published elsewhere. But it didn't. So I'm happy to share these words on my blog. In fact, this feels just right. If you read my story and think it might touch another, please pass it on. Pass the word (choices surround us). And stay tuned. Tomorrow I'll share the current state of my professional path. [Special thanks to Pam for her keen editorial eye and kind heart.]

"Is this your mid-life crisis?" my husband wondered. I clarified, "It's not a crisis; it's more like mid-life deep reflection." He smiled. I understood. My rewording changed nothing. It was the first week of classes and I was in crisis. 

Thirteen years earlier I came to Lawrence University, wide-eyed and eager. I welcomed September and thrived in the classroom. The community embraced me; I belonged. Though I worked long hours, I couldn't imagine a more fulfilling career. No surprise: I was asked to participate all over campus. Naively (and, at first, genuinely), I said yes—yes to everything. I wanted to be seen and appreciated, liked and respected.

I also had a tenure decision looming. In year six, my work would be critically judged by a committee of peers. I felt thick anxiety about this process. Anxiety that shook me awake at night: Am I smart enough? Am I dedicated enough? More must be better. More articles, teaching overloads, and service to bolster my tenure file. I was firmly on the academic treadmill—point of view straight ahead, uphill.

My decisions arose from a distorted reality: if one person didn't really like me, I worried the world would see my unworthiness. If I didn't publish enough papers, I thought the world would see I'm a fraud. I hosted parties, made sure not to offend, did backflips for my students, and gave until depleted. In moments when I spoke freely and honestly, I was quickly filled with doubt. None of this was obvious to others. Since childhood, I learned to hide my insecurities. I achieved while maintaining a positive, happy exterior—it just made things easier.

After I earned tenure, I felt the physical effects of my long, hard push. My digestive tract rebelled and my heart raced. As a life-long athlete, I respected my body. I valued health over work—a realization that motivated my "Year of No." I needed room to breathe. With every new request I kindly said no, honestly explaining my code-red status.

I attended a student art exhibit, where a postcard shared nine important words: saying no is a big part of saying yes. Indeed, if I didn't say no enough, I wouldn't have room to fully say yes—to passionately work on interesting projects. So I selectively said yes, reduced my work hours, and reclaimed my personal life. And the sky didn't fall. My inner-critic warns that I have no choices: "horrible things will happen if you stop incessantly doing." A vital piece of my understanding was to notice what occurs when I make an intentional change. I became mindful of my actions—what stemmed from my inner-critic versus the actual constraints of my job? How could I better align my inner-life with my work life?

To organize my thoughts, I wrote a work mission statement. My primary intention was clear: teach and mentor students about statistics and about life. This brought my focus back to the students and away from distractions; it influenced my choices. Campus politics didn't interest me. The decisions of administrators didn't affect my daily life with students. The students were my compass. If a work activity didn't directly impact them, it fell to the bottom of my to-do list. This helped in the short-term, but I still felt depleted. No longer did I welcome September.

I found new creative outlets: gardening, writing, cooking, and visual arts. I took photography classes and carried my camera everywhere. I made time for my photos and blog, even at the end of a long work day. It was the creative heat I needed to survive. Interestingly, the hours I spent with my hobbies, ostensibly to keep me sane, changed my view of myself—I eventually saw outside my academic identity. I remember a particular August day: while watering the plants, I resigned myself to soul-filling work only in the summer; I resigned myself to gutting through the academic year. The no-choice credo: I earned tenure; Lawrence is a special place; I’m excellent at my job; I will retire in this career, regardless of my contentment level.

But when I hit crisis mode within the first week of classes, I questioned the life-long academic path. A phone conversation with a former student brought clarity to my feelings. Steph began as my advisee; now she's a close friend. She asked probing questions: "Imagine you are part-time, teaching no introductory stats, how does that feel?" (It still feels empty, not heart-filled.) "What if you had paid time to learn new statistical methods?" (Ugh.) "Do you even like statistics anymore?" (I don't know.) Our discussion held pauses when my tears flowed. Identities to which I clung were stripped away. I grieved those identities. And I also saw how painful I'd let my work life become—I was inured to the disconnect between my daily actions and activities that filled my soul. Who was I?

After that phone conversation, I knew I would resign. To many, it seemed a quick decision. To me, it was the answer to years of questions. I was trying to solve my discontent puzzle by moving around pieces within my job. Once I understood I didn't have to be an academic my whole life, my choice was obvious. I could drop the academic identity and still have plenty to give the world.

When I shared my decision with the Lawrence community (a community I cherish), I received two common responses: "I’m really sad for Lawrence, but happy for you" and "I admire your honesty and bravery." I didn't expect the latter reaction, yet it poured in from people—from very different people. A friend recently asked how I came to such peace with the decision. My answer: I accrued enough self-awareness and fully trusted myself. Before I could see my choices, I had to clearly see myself. And this is where my bravery began, in looking.

It took courage to explore layers of myself in therapy. It took courage to sit for weekends in silent meditation—alone with my thoughts and feelings. It took courage to make different life choices from those of my colleagues and to try new creative outlets—to put forth my artistic work in the beginning stages when I was most vulnerable. It took courage to love myself, as is. And I drew from these experiences when I mindfully considered a career change.

For many years I resisted an empowering truth: we all have choices—even when, especially when, it feels like we don't. Our culture encourages us to mistake wants for needs. Our busy schedules convince us that choices are actually must-dos. Some of our well-grooved habits, roles, and assumptions no longer feed us, yet it takes awareness to recognize when this happens, and it's vital to know we have a choice. Once accessed, we can see these wide-ranging choices (from saying a simple no to quitting a job), even when external forces push us in different directions. It's not an easy path, but it's the path to freedom.

The month is September and for the first time in years, I feel an absence of dread. My creative ideas flow, no longer chained to the school schedule. Every day I write, take photographs, connect with people, and fully experience life. Can I make a living through these daily pursuits? That’s an open question. And even we non-academics appreciate the richness of an open question.

January 23, 2014

Beautiful People

Images surround us. Magazines, movies, and billboards teem with blemish-free faces and sculpted bodies. They harshly whisper: purchase products, lose weight, and physically change. But that's not real beauty. Beauty works its way inside out. Beauty finds itself in kindness, imperfection, vulnerability, and presence. 

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross keenly describes this idea: "The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen."

The darkness adds to our light. The pain makes more visceral our freedom. Our sadness is a sign of great love. There is beauty in us all. But it doesn't just happen (and it doesn't come in a bottle). When we honor the struggle, we more clearly see our own unique light. We more clearly see our beauty and the beauty of others.

January 22, 2014

Be the Change

In his poem "Being a Person," William Stafford writes: "How you stand here is important. How you listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe." Stand. Listen. Breathe.

We get immersed in the doing. Do. Strive. Achieve. Yet what is the state of our being (individually and as a collective)?  

The phrase, "be the change you want to see in the world," comes to mind. In particular, I like the word choice: be the change. Inhabit the qualities you want to see. Start with yourself. Not by doing. Not by thinking. Not by talking. By being.

We can stop the busyness, say for ten minutes, and sit quietly with ourselves. To be with our breath. To be with our experience, as is. Actions on autopilot don't lead to change. Being with ourselves and those we love--that can bring powerful change.

When I remember, I ask myself: Right now, do I fully inhabit my body (or am I lost in thoughts)? In conversation, does the other person have my full attention (or am I lost in thoughts)? In this moment, what is the quality of my heart (open, closed, numb)?

We can't just think our way to positive change or do our way to positive change. Ultimately, we must be the change. We must stand, listen, and breathe.

January 14, 2014

Turn the Lens Around

Included in the first version of my Life Menu: take a photograph of myself everyday for a year. This wasn't about inner-exploration or art. It was about documentation. How do my features change daily? This life-menu item sat dormant. Until I found 52-of-You. Then my idea morphed: take a photograph of myself every week for a year. Not as documentation. As creativity, as self-love, as therapy, as art.

"Selfie" is Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013. According to Oxford, a selfie is "a photograph one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website." It's wonderful when people put themselves in the frame--when they declare their place. But Oxford's definition of a "selfie" is pure documentation. There's no deep dive inward.

Last year, as I turned the lens on myself, I found light, depth, play, love, edges, and acceptance. Through self-portraits I uncovered new layers of myself. I faced self-judgment. I found beauty.  And ultimately I realized that I am worthy. 

Taking photographs of myself is not only therapy,  it's practice. Practice with light, composition, perspective, and expressiveness. Being my own subject (day after day) provides endless opportunity, which has improved my art. And opened my heart. And stimulated my sense of wonder.

It saddens me when people say, "self-portraits indicate self-absorption" or "self-care is selfish." If we don't water seeds of joy in ourselves, we can't fully attend to others. If we don't see the beauty in ourselves, we can't fully see beauty in others. Self-reflection (both honest and kind) is essential for a sustainable, well-lived life.

So, my friends, I encourage you to turn the lens around. If not the actual camera lens, then the lens of your loving heart. Look inward. Be honest, yet gentle. There's beauty in the most unexpected places.