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?

Sharing Power: Buffy, Birthdays and Books

Mom in the hospital a few months before she died. She is wearing her favorite orange "Cuffed and Stuffed" t-shirt and using her grabber as if it is a rifle.

Mom in the hospital a few months before she died. She is wearing her favorite orange “Cuffed and Stuffed” t-shirt and using her grabber as if it is a rifle.

Yesterday Sophie Gilbert published an essay at TheAtlantic.com celebrating the 18th anniversary of the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She describes the ways in which Buffy represented a conventional teen hero (pretty, blond, athletic), and then all the many ways in which Buffy the character and Buffy the television show were subversive in the sheer joy they took in displays of female power.

Today a friend posted a quote on Facebook by a different Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert, memoirist and adventurer – surely another powerful woman. In the post my friend shared, Gilbert is credited with saying “The women I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong and they handled it. They handled it a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it. Those women are my superheroes.”

How cool to read these two very different reflections on female power, one day after the other, and at a time when I’ve been working on my own memoir about women, power, and, to quote Elizabeth Gilbert, “handling shit.” Continue reading