community, Love, spirit

Welcoming September

The Sun will rise and set regardless. What we choose to do with the light while it’s here is up to us.

Alexandra Elle

peg green flaming chalice

Barely a month has passed since the Board of Directors at my UU church welcomed me into my new role as the Lay Minister for Membership and Outreach. I could just as easily say they approved or endorsed or just plain voted. Yet none of those words capture the experience of stepping into this world of Unitarian Universalist leadership as much as “welcome.”

My family only began attending the local church in July 2015. Many of my fellow congregants carry much more history and knowledge about the workings of the community. I have to admit, when the Reverend suggested I consider lay ministry, I laughed out loud. Little old me? Newcomer? Someone who should rightfully still use a green mug during coffee hour?

Continue reading “Welcoming September”

activism, gender, race, Relationships

To The Good-Hearted White Dudes Who Want To Fraternize

(c) Peter Copley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Ethel Leontine Gabain, 1883-1950

I’m parked in the lobby assembling bookcases. Even though we have a facilities staff and work study employees, somehow this falls to me. My students’ dissertations will live on these shelves, so okay. I’m assembling bookcases.

Earlier this morning, I moved another set of bookcases along with their assorted contents. My lovely gay co-worker joined me in hauling this stuff across the suite into the file room because. . . Does there need to be a because? It needs to get done. Tracking down the people whose jobs involve moving furniture – to say nothing of the negotiation this would entail – demands a far greater expenditure of effort than simply doing it ourselves.

Parked in the lobby assembling bookcases means an hour at least erased from the projects my mind and hands could be serving. The article that needs to be written on the relationship between race and the completion rates of doctoral students? Not getting done. The accompanying literature review and data collection to write the article? Ditto. Following up with PhD student leaders on their 9/11 day of service plans? Updating materials that more broadly distribute the cultural capital needed for navigating a PhD? Developing a panel on graduate funding opportunities?

None of it getting done. Because I’m parked in the lobby assembling bookcases.

So when you, Good-Hearted White Dude, wander by, I’m less disposed to chat.

Continue reading “To The Good-Hearted White Dudes Who Want To Fraternize”

Art, body, Creativity, Writing

Bowl Cut


“Can bowls swim?”  a question asked.  I knew the answer they wanted was No.  But bowls could float, even heavy bowls, if flat and large enough. The large, flat-bottomed bowl of an ocean liner, for instance.  If Paul thought like that, too, he’d give the wrong answer.  They meant small inanimate household bowls.  Not the bowl of the deep ocean, say, holding currents, coral, plants, and creatures — itself floating on the earth’s liquid core of iron and nickel, whose swaying produces Earth’s magnetic field. Not the bowl of the earth floating — or, with so many life forms, was it swimming? — in space.

— Diane Ackerman, One Hundred Names for Love

It is all okay, just the way they say it is.  By every measure, it is fine.

Rise weary.  Shower off the animal, dress in unremarkable cloth.  Speak in operation manual dialect.  Meet only the eyes of the bus driver and snap straight the helicoid moment as you stride to claim your seat.

Write like a man, the librarian says.  She scrubs her emails now.  Each is an écorché peeled free of padding.  Each correspondence a naked, muscled machine, its purpose laid bare.

Maybe we danced before.

Maybe we pretend we haven’t forgotten the petronella turn.  Continue reading “Bowl Cut”

community, Growing Up, Purpose


umbrella house

It was easier when the heroes were prophets. They stood just far enough forward that we had to keep moving to keep up. We had to lean in to hear. That was when tyrants wore names like uniforms. Good and evil faced off across chasms and we knew better than to tumble between. We stood firm on our side. Myth grew us a chorus of muses. They sang in every shade of green.

Over across the way, it was hard to make out anything but ruin. Rumor had it someone had salted the earth. The restoration was a long way off. We knew we could only build a bridge after the villains had been vanquished. Even if we could arrive sooner to begin the purge and planting, would our comrades welcome us? Would they even recognize us? Continue reading “Resonate”


Fight, Flight, Freak

One of my coworkers just told me I should go somewhere to hide. Security has been called.

I ducked into my office. Now here I sit, perched on the quiet, stiff chair (not the squeaky roller one) under doused lights behind a locked the door. On my credenza under two years of accumulated, unfiled papers is the list of steps for how to respond to a campus active shooter.

Someone is looking for me. Not the general Director-me, but the specific Name-me.

She’s unarmed (they think) but how would we know?

Digging through papers makes noise. The active shooter list stays buried. I remember it says we’re supposed to silence our phones. Keep the room dark. Tapping on a computer keyboard makes noise, so don’t be tempted.

Deep breathing makes noise too, I now discover.

A heartbeat is deafening.

They told me we need to make her think I’m not here.

If only I wasn’t.

This piece would make great fiction.

If only it were.

Sometime when the threat has passed and my pulse slows, I’ll write about what it’s like to be a student advisor in the age of VA Tech and the Oregon community college. I’ll describe the trainings we receive, the offices we have to call, the way skittish professors will invoke feeling “threatened” by emotional students, and the chilling consequences such a claim can have. I’ll explain how, just when you decide it’s all a little too much paranoia, a student walks into a law school class right next door and attacks an instructor with a box cutter.

Someday I’ll write that. Another day when my keyboard’s noise is no longer a danger.

This is not supposed to be the trenches. But I sit here in paralyzed silence hearing only the throb of my own blood against my skull as it primes me for attack. I know, of course, that this is the real gritty world as much as the busy street 5 stories below. All of my community is here. All the financial stressors, the diminishing mental health support, the demands for excellence in a context of dwindling resources, and the social isolation that plagues every overcrowded city. It’s all here, inside this not-so-ivory tower. The students carry enormous burdens. Which means we do too. This is the trenches after all.

I hunker down wait for someone to come for me, to tell me it’s safe now.

If only.

Career, Mindfulness

Leap Frog

The Provost’s office announced it is offering up to half million dollars to a lucky PhD program at our university. My team received the news with a collective wave of nausea. Great prize, slim odds. A seventeen page proposal would be due in less than a month.

We’ve hacked through the dense foliage of earlier iterations of the RFP for three years running, and the only thing to show for our noble effort has been “great language we can use elsewhere.”

We accept the challenge this fourth time. Despite unfilled positions, anemic staff, maternity leave, and faculty stretched to breaking (or maybe because of all these things), we have to try. We tell each other to phone it in because other programs always win anyway. We say it knowing the idea is absurd, knowing we will give it our all. Because this is us, an earnest clutch of A+ students.

Also, $475,000.

My first impulse is approach-avoid this the way I do so many other tasks I despise: evade, excuse, put off, then CRAM. My rather irritating Better Self reminds me that as appealing as procrastination is, a more effective tactic might be to eat the frog. So I carve out half a day from my overtaxed schedule, shove everything else to the side, and start working.

A few hours in, I realize something marvelous.

This is a blast!

How lucky can a girl-writer get? The boss decrees that I ignore all my other business and spend my workday drafting and reworking a writing project — one whose goal is to land cash for my students. It’s a pain in the ass but it’s total flow. Challenge, creativity, reaching past my abilities to generate something meaningful. It’s a test.

A game.

So I play.

Only when I look up at the clock, close out, and plunge back into my burgeoning to-do list does the sickening stink of workplace misery engulf me.

And right there as I descend into the morass, I understand the mistake of my perception.

It’s not the task that sucks.

It’s all the tasks.

It’s the clutter, the questions with their missing answers, the half-complete puzzles waiting for someone else’s missing piece.

The desk-turned-junk drawer.

The “Do you have a quick minute?”

It’s the persistent drumbeat of financial crisis, and the knowledge that piles are growing while help is shrinking.

The hissing awareness that the only way out of a slow but steady downhill career grade is to eject from the vehicle and get behind the wheel of something else going somewhere else.

It’s the anxiety.

I carry the burden of all the tasks all the time, keeping myself frantically aware of everything un-done even while in the midst of doing. The irony? Evidence suggests this is a totally pointless expenditure of effort. All the things I set aside while tackling the Provost Award waited patiently enough. When my attention returned to those tasks, I took care of them just fine.

The world continued to turn. I continued to do my work.

As for the Provost Award? We wrote a fabulous proposal.

Our jobs are tangled up with so much of who we are. Work is values and perceptions. Work is what we believe to be real, and it holds so many of our wishes for ourselves, our families, the world. How is our performance? Are we making a contribution that matters? Can we afford the mortgage or will we find ourselves sick, broke, and homeless? Is there any joy in the work? Are we filling gaps and creating new paths?

Our livelihood is means and end simultaneously, existing in a thicket of uncertainty. Does protecting time for our families threaten our ability to support our families? Are we making a positive impact or making enemies? During the day-to-day minutiae, can we tell if our chosen methods are effective? How, under so much pressure, do we learn to do things differently?

Anxiety grabs all these drifting questions and presses them into one dense, throbbing, mass. What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t cut it? These __________ (vague but terrible) things will happen to my family and me if I fail.

I can see the bold edges now of the lines that hitch anxiety to controlling behavior. It’s a comforting illusion. If I can clean up this mess or present this shiny object as an example of my capabilities or get this person to fall in line with my clearly superior M.O., then the giant black hole of chaos seems a little less threatening. The world feels safe (for the moment).

The problem, of course, is that this constant vigilance about every possible danger fails to keep that danger at bay. It also makes for a wretched existence, and it turns a person into rather miserable company for everyone in (her) orbit.

Life IS uncertainty and chaos. We know this. I know this.

Every so often, like when an award application turns a bright light on the flaws in my perception, I remember again that only one thing matters: This thing right here.

Like paragraph 3 of the Provost Award. Or composing this outline of a presentation. Or winding my way through one maze of inquiries that leads me to an answer a student needs.

Or sitting in the other room petting the dog while my son turns the kitchen inside-out so he can make his own eggs for dinner.

Or holding still the slack thread between my love and me.

Because I know the reel in my hands is a stage prop, and the only way to capture the shape of my longing is to let go.

When I keep such painstaking track of all things that need doing, and catalog all the possible disastrous outcomes if they are bungled or forgotten, then every single moment of my life is toil. Carrying around all that responsibility means that my feet are too heavy for skipping, my neck to bent for lifting, my eyes too fogged for seeing the wash of morning light on the willow branch across from the bus stop.

The only control I have is to give my full attention to what’s unfolding right here, engaging it as it is and freeing it from all the hooks of what it might cause or become. When I am here, I can do a much better job assessing what is effective. I can sense what brings value to my life and to the lives of the folks around me. When I see how we are faring right here, right now, I can choose my next move.

Keeping my head in the game means admitting it’s only a game.

Choosing a play.

And then leaping in.

Creativity, Things I Can

65. Things I Can Enter: The Flow


We sprawl on the living room floor alongside the dog. Damp from our run, we stretch in the low light and work our hands down under the stubborn weight of our shared lassitude. They call it Weltschmerz. I call it unwelcome. I angle myself against it. Endorphins are my lever; grit, my fulcrum. It barely moves.

In the hours preceding this moment, in all the hours in all the days that fasten together like chain link, we work. In our respective offices in the company of our respective bands of fools, we grind upward and forward against a blind rock face. Tasks, demands, questions whose only answers we must hand-stitch from materials stashed in unmarked cabinets. The stone there is as unyielding as the mood seeping into us as we strain against it.

The dog licks and licks, rolling over and nipping at the back of his shirt, hoping to avoid a scolding.

Once upon a time, we lived in that cloud-furred treehouse Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. Maybe it was only for an evening, or the length of a paddle stroke through churning river, or the width of a felt line across the blank page. We have lived there.

It has been so long.

We stand up together, the dog stretching upright and nosing our shins. We consider the easel, we take the measure of a bucket of markers.

We remember.

As we edge our way back to that recollection, we lean into its threshold and touch our fingers to the empty place where the door should be.

He removes the red cap. I, the blue.

Like Harold with his purple crayon, we draw the door open.

It has a sound.

The dog with her ears cocked hears it too.

It is the way you know in the forest that water is near.

It is the way you move towards it.

It sounds like sighs. It sounds like Here.

Come here.



Choices, Things I Can

38. Things I Can Entwine: Tendril, Light

This time in 2014, our faculty voted to merge with another university department. So began the Year of Pain. We forced ourselves together, cracking open cultures, grafting extremities onto an unformed core.

The fertilization plucked a thread in me. A quickening pulse, a sudden expansion (which, from another angle, is simply an unraveling).

Into that opening bloomed one opportunity after another. Phototropic absent intention, each one reached towards fervor and fed on indiscriminate impulse.

I invited them all in.

When someone needed to design and lead a graduate policy writing seminar, I drafted a syllabus.

When someone needed to mentor two doctoral TAs in teaching practice, I took them on.

When someone needed to contribute an academic affairs article for the October issue, I  sharpened my pencil.

When someone needed to present at the conference, I submitted the proposal.

When someone needed to teach a semester-long course in pedagogy to visiting Chinese professors, I rearranged my fall schedule.

When someone needed to administer a dean search, I opened the hood.

When someone needed to support all the students from two additional PhD programs because mergers mean more, I signed the job description.

Twelve months. All of this in one cycle around the sun.

This week, my supervisor handed me a piece of paper. A note. A pay increase. She also copied me on the discussion of which office I’ll be using when I work half of each week from the campus that is 12 minutes from my house rather than 45.

With all of this dizzying good news, you’d think when they let us out at 2:00pm on the Friday of a holiday weekend, I’d skip off to happy hour with friends.

Instead, I sag against my kitchen counter and burst into tears.

So weary. My everything — spinning head and sleep-starved body and stretched-thin days with my boy — all of it worn out. Yes, shorter commute, larger paycheck. Also yes, more learning, more pivoting, more work, more life.

More life indeed.

My only life.

I push off from the counter and throw back a glass of cold water. All that need is still gunning for me on the other side of the door. Its knock is insistent. No, it will not come in. I walk from the kitchen and turn Blues BBQ up loud enough to drown out the drumbeat of 40 years of mistakes.

And one year of overcorrecting. One Year of Pain.

I fit the battery into the drill and open holes in the bottoms of half a dozen plastic containers.

Then I step onto the balcony and plunge my hands into the soil.

The sage seedlings have started to unfurl, as have tiny pops of mint. The dill fans its lace as the sky moves. I lift them all into larger pots, deadhead the geraniums, pull feathery spiderwebs from cilantro already gone to seed.

Everything leans in one direction. The sun, such a piper. I rotate buckets and wedge the smaller ones in up front. The spinach is almost too leafy now and will need to go either into a larger pot or into my breakfast. As I water the hanging boxes, the clean scent of lemon verbena wraps itself around the Thai basil’s purple spines.

The lavender is the only seed that hasn’t taken. A mold furs black soil in two tiny pudding cups.That flower decided against trying in a climate too alien.

Maybe it lacked the strength to emerge from a wish for its remembered home.

The snow peas and sugar snaps are lush now, their tresses spilling over the concrete lip of the balcony. I bend and tear the creepers from one another as gently as I can. I wind them around the railing and hope the wind leaves them be.

What must they make of this strange place, up so far from the earth? Do they know this is it?

Do they understand that from here, they grow?

From here, and nowhere else?