Last night we watched parts of the PBS special on the Freedom Riders, which I first wrote about here. It's the kind of show that makes me say, "I have done nothing with my life." Later, I tried to console myself: "Well, at least I haven't been a Bull Connor."
My hyper-critical self, whom I call my inner 19 year old, is especially judgmental. She does not think about all the students, thousands of them, whom I've helped through my teaching. She does not care about faculty members who live better lives because I'm the head of a department. She dismisses my charitable giving of money and time and possessions.
My inner 19 year old says, "What exactly have you done to bring racial justice to the world?"
And even if I could offer something, she'd say, "I'm still noticing a lot of world hunger. What are you doing about that?"
I'm more susceptible to this kind of despair during a work week like the past one. I've had to redo the Fall schedule, a schedule that I turned in months ago. And I had 48 hours to do that. I wanted to stomp my feet and say, "You mean you've had this schedule for months, and you're only just now thinking about these changes?" I wanted to weep at the thought of the part-timers who would bear the burden of the schedule reductions required.
Unlike our leaders in Washington, I did not throw a hissy fit. I did not stomp away and refuse to get the work done. I have accepted that to be an administrator is to embrace the Penelope aspect of existence: some days we weave a tapestry, and some days we unweave the work we've done.
I'm trying to remember the good work of the week. I'm trying to remember the gifts. For example, we've been weeding out the bookcases of old textbooks, which are not worth money and libraries don't want them. What to do with them?
I put them in boxes and put them in a lobby with a sign that told people to help themselves to free books. And in three days, most of them were gone. In fact, the only remains in the box were videotapes, which I can throw away without feeling bad.
I had many gifts of literacy this week. My campus book club met yesterday, and some part of me feels sad as I hear book club members enthusiastically talking about what they're reading--in the past few weeks, I've barely managed to read at all. But more, I feel happy about this book club, where we make time for each other and bring each other treats and enjoy a good chat about books.
I've tried to focus on the good aspects of my job, of the good that I can do in my position. I've tried to convince myself that making faculty lives easier (and protecting full-time jobs) enough. My inner 19 year old is not convinced.
I think back to when I was really 19. I remember being disgusted with my parents' suburban church. I went into downtown DC on a regular basis to do all sorts of social justice work. I longed to belong to a church like Luther Place, right in the heart of downtown D.C., a church which transformed itself into a shelter for homeless women each and every night. They had a strip of row houses, which they could have sold. Instead they transformed them into a medical clinic, a thrift store, and low-cost housing.
At a workshop for church people who worked with illegal immigrants, I marched up to the pastor of Luther Place and announced my intentions to join his church. He said, "Where do you worship now?"
With shame, I told him the name of my parents' suburban church.
He said, "You know, we wouldn't be able to run any of the programs that we run without the financial help that they give us." And then, in that precise moment, my perspective shifted. I started to move away from being a self-righteous, know-it-all 19 year old towards being someone who sees life as more complex.
My inner 19 year old will never go away completely, and I don't want her to disappear. She keeps me honest. She tries to help me make sure that the life I'm living is in synch with my values.
During weeks like the past one, she's got a lot to reconcile.
Everyday Poetry at Radio Free Nashville
3 weeks ago