Rocking The Boat

photo by Will Van Dorp

photo of Tug Hackensack by Will Van Dorp

My partner Will has a thing for boats. In fact, we lived on a boat for the first three years of our relationship. It was beautiful, and challenging. One of the beauties of boat life was that we were tied to a dock but we floated up and down with the tide. I’ve never been so tuned in to natural rhythms. No matter how much stress there was in my day or how chaotic the world seemed (and given that we’re talking 2000-2003 there was a lot of chaos), there was a regularity and a rhythm to my immediate environment. No matter what else was happening, the tide came in and the tide went out two times a day. Just like the tide marked daily rhythms, phases of the moon marked monthly rhythms, and bird migrations marked annual ones. All of this was visible, tangible, and inextricably woven through our everyday lives. There were beautiful sunrises.

I’m thinking about this because I’m planning for a transition in my own life, and it’s one that will require me to give up quite a bit of something that I’ve been holding on to tightly for the last 15 years: stability. I had very little stability growing up, and so creating stability as an adult is something I’ve prized more than just about anything else. I am proud of the fact that I pushed through college and graduate school and had my Ph.D and a tenure-track job before I was 30. I had tenure by 34, and along with that came a lot of security: a solid career path, good pay, excellent health insurance, a retirement savings plan, and work that combines intellectualism and social justice in a way that I think truly improves my students lives and their communities.

But it’s time to rock the boat, and thinking about boats is really helping me see that giving up some stability is not necessarily as scary as I thought. Boats are designed to move through water, unattached to the earth. They pitch and roll with the waves, an experience that can be terrifying and yet relatively safe at the same time. A sailboat flies through the water heeled way over on its side and then returns to its upright position when its sails are pulled in. A boat can’t balance itself on stable ground, but put it in the dynamic environment of the water and it’s resilience is immediately apparent. I remember being surprised during Hurricane Sandy when Will blogged about the large boats and ships that were staying safe by staying away from the piers and docks. Even during a storm, the resilience of a boat is greatest when it is not tied to a stationary point.

That’s what I’m holding dear right now: resilience. I’m going to focus on the strength of rolling with the waves instead of the stability of maintaining position. When I took my current teaching job sixteen years ago and we lived on our boat, I used to joke with colleagues that if the job didn’t work out I could just “cut the lines and go.” I never did, and that’s not what I’m contemplating now. But I’m definitely planning for a life with more fluidity, one that requires putting more emphasis on resilience than on stability. I will find new rhythms, and perhaps some beautiful sunrises!

Why Now?

live-511566_1280Four years ago at Christmas, my sister treated us both to an aerial yoga class. At the end of the class we were instructed to wrap ourselves in our hammocks for a suspended relaxation exercise. It was blissful. The instructor asked us to think about one thing that we needed to add or subtract from our lives in order to feel happier in the coming year. As I floated in my hammock, and tried to clear my mind, two things happened. First, tears came to my eyes. Thinking intentionally about happiness was a very moving experience. Second, the phrase “one-on-one” floated into my mind. The phrase was accompanied by a deeply felt need to do more direct helping work.

At the time I was teaching full time, working as the treasurer of my faculty union, volunteering as a strategist for Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, and of course navigating my own personal life. Each of those activities brought satisfaction, but each also came with its own peculiar frustrations. Over the course of the winter break I thought a lot about that moment in the hammock and as I did, it became less and less surprising. I love working with students in the classroom, but what I love even more about teaching is the one-on-one work I do when a student needs advising or individual help with course material. I loved my work with the union, but the things I loved most about it were our small executive committee meetings, where we’d solve problems and plan for the future, and the times I’d be able to sit with an individual faculty member to address a troubling workplace issue. And I love just about everything about working with Woodhull, but what I love most are my one-on-one strategy calls and meetings with Ricci Levy, our Executive Director.

About six months after that Christmas, my mother got sick and I took time off from work to help take care of her. I learned a lot during the last months of my mother’s life. There were lessons in the importance of love, the intensity of caregiving, in the complexity of health care and in the vagaries of mortality. And there was a radical break from my everyday life during which, out of necessity, I stepped away from the classroom, the union, and even to some degree from Woodhull.

After my mother’s death at the end of 2012, I began to slowly reassemble my routines. I went back to the classroom, but not back to the union. I picked my Woodhull work back up with a renewed passion. I noticed where I was feeling the most fulfillment and where I was experiencing the greatest frustrations. I started to wonder about a life beyond full-time teaching. Then I was awarded a year-long sabbatical to write a book about my mother, and in the process of writing that book I thought more and more about how to shape my life so that I can have more of what I wanted all those years ago in that hammock.

And slowly, that is what I’m building towards. This launch is not a sudden change, but rather an outgrowth of deliberate and strategic thinking. My intent is to build slowly, thoughtfully, and carefully while opening myself to the risks of starting something new. If it surprises me and grows like a proverbial weed, I’m confident that I can keep up with it. It will mean that I focus less on stability and more on resilience, something I’ll write more about in my next post. And it means that while the future looks less certain than it once did, it also looks brighter and happier.

Close your eyes. Quiet your mind. Let yourself think of one thing you need to add or subtract from your life in order to feel happier. What do you see? What will it take? Is there anything I can do to help?

Asking for help

Yesterday I was on the phone with a friend who was feeling paralyzed about a project he’s working on. It was one of those things that happens to me sometimes. I have a task to do that I don’t want to do. I make it much bigger in my head than it really is. I avoid it, and then I feel guilty about avoiding it. Then I can’t get anything else done  because I know I should be working on the original task.

In my friend’s case, it was a matter of writing a proposal for a job, and there were good reasons why the proposal was daunting: the job involved a some variables that would be hard to control, and the working relationships of the people involved were strained. Every time he sat down to work on it, he said, he’d get paralyzed and end up on Facebook. He also said that he knew he could explain the project to someone else, but he was just having trouble writing it down. He hates paperwork, and doesn’t work well alone, he said. My friend was so self-aware that he understood all the parts of the problem he was having. He just didn’t see the solution: Ask someone to help. I offered to spend an hour on the phone so he could talk out the project and get it out of his head and onto paper. Today he’s going to get that proposal done!

Asking for help can be hard for a lot of reasons. Sometimes we think we shouldn’t need the help or that we don’t deserve it. Other times we think that the help we need is too much to ask someone to give. Sometimes we forget that there are people we can actually ask. This is especially true for those of us who work alone.

Who can you ask for help when you need it? It’s easier to ask for help when you know who you can count on. Which friends or coworkers or family members are good at the kinds of things you might need help with? Who do you trust?

Another thing that can make it easier is to be able to offer something in return. When we pay for help we don’t think twice about reciprocity. The cash exchange makes it unnecessary. Social relationships, though, are built on reciprocity.

Helping one another strengthens relationships, and the strongest of those relationships are generally the ones where the help flows in both directions. Know who you can reach out to. Know what you can offer to others. And most of all, know that you deserve the help you need and that you are not alone in needing it.