Archive for May, 2018

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

amywink May 31st, 2018

In this place of presence,
I stand remembering,
church to the right
cemetery to the left,
thinking of the walk
between the two,
and I, instead, looking across
and into the memory
of wide fields and the horizon
east, when the sky filled
with billowing storms
and trains passed
north and south.

Standing here
in this thin, quiet place
between now and then
where once the favorite home
of my memory stood,
I returned to the porch
and steps and swing,
returned to when
I sat listening, at six or seven,
slowly opening to the way
I would learn to tell
the beauty of this
difficult world,
a gift arriving
on a whisper

“See? Here it is.

Here. . . here. . . here.

Tell it.”

and I began.

Sent to Chairs

amywink May 29th, 2018

Several weeks ago, I signed up for FUMC’s Saturday Work Day because I had the time and I enjoy the company of the people I knew would also be serving. I have also fallen hard for the beautiful, stately old church and wanted to show my care for the building that has offered me sanctuary and the creative spirit that has opened me again since I walked in after a 40+ year absence from church. I had no ambitions or designs for the day, I just showed up to serve. And when I arrived, I had no assignment so, as with all other unassigned, I was “Sent to Chairs.”

It sounded more like a sentence than a task: “Those found wanting will be Sent to Chairs.” I laughed.

Because I’m also am recovering academic, it also made me think of Chairs of committees, Chairs of departments and the deifying honors: “Holder of The Famous Name Endowed Chair of . . . ” and again, I was amused that I was “Sent to Chairs”, which actually meant I was sent to clean the chairs in the Great Hall of Family Life Center —which serves also as a basketball court, music venue, meeting room, and the Feed my People Breakfast for the Homeless. A Great Hall indeed, which serves in many different ways, great and humble.

I accepted my modest assignment, cleaning the chairs with the very loud carpet/upholstery cleaner, of which there were 4 in employment. Since chatting with people was impossible in the cacophony of the machines, I put in my ear buds and listened to music and began to practice the presence of God that Brother Lawrence so highly recommends (also recommended by the book Sweeping Changes as a meditative Buddhist practice of mindfulness).

Here I was, Dr. Wink, contemplating the humble task of cleaning our chairs, which also humbly served so many experiencing homelessness who come to eat breakfast each Tuesday and Thursday morning. I smiled because I knew some would find the task beneath me and I knew people who would definitely think it was beneath them!

I contemplated this idea of rank and hierarchy, pondering what it meant that Dr. Wink, Full Professor (Adjunct), Published Author of 2 Books and Presenter of Papers at Professional Conferences might also be Amy, cleaner of chairs, teacher, writer, poet, gardener, friend, carriage driver, and the countless other human things I am that people forget when they see the title.

My title sometimes precedes me and more than once, people say “but you’re a professor!” having set me up in a pretty small box of their making, as if I cannot also be a human being. Yes, I am a professor, which in the simplest terms means “I profess” a particular thing, in my case, I profess literature and writing. I love literature and writing. I have become a professional because of my love for words. It is not a love that is financially rewarded in our culture. My diploma declares that I have been “admitted to that Degree with all the honors, rights, and privileges belonging thereto.” Some days, those are many; some days, they are all quite elusive.

But the image of The Professor is also one that limits me and I don’t always like to announce my degree because it divides me from people in a way that I did not imagine when I pursued it. Sometimes people announce me before I have a chance to say “Wait! Don’t!” And suddenly I am Dr. Wink when I’d rather just be Amy.

People often assume that because I earned a PhD (and I earned it with blood, sweat, toil, tears and blinding panic attacks so I also own it when it’s important) that I look down on people who do not have this terminal degree (and it is *terminal* in more ways than one). I don’t. I didn’t pursue my degree thinking of what others might think. Those who start the degree with this idea will soon find that this will never get you through the lion’s den that is graduate school or the fiery furnace of the dissertation, or the forty years in the desert of the job search and tenure process —and most never reach the promised land (if you don’t think the Biblical metaphors are appropriate, ask an academic).

You have to do it because you love it, because you can’t not do it, because you are compelled to do it, as if it were a calling you cannot refuse. And you have to love the work, not the rewards of the work and the work is the joyous pursuit and sharing of knowledge, something that is more and more elusive in higher education today. And I know people who very wisely chose mental health over the degree, who may have felt the calling and said “you know, no thanks.” I respect that. Part of me wishes I could have done that, but the degree has brought me here and here I am, despite my complicated relationship to the doctorate.

So as I sat cleaning chairs, I thought of my “academic” work, teaching students as an adjunct at a community college, which is worthy but financially unrewarded work. I am a working-class academic with the highest professional title and experience that “should” warrant a different position. It “should” and yet it didn’t. I “should” and yet, I can’t because I am entirely broken because of my experiences. I was reminded how broken this week, when I attended a reading by an academic and found myself collapsing inward and looking for the door by the time the reading was over. This was not the reaction I anticipated but it was a very important warning about the new directions I am considering and the broken self I will need to tend while I travel them.

This is an interesting place to be, this new place where experience and education do not lead to profession “success” in the way that professional success has been defined. I also have to remind people that “adjunct” does not mean unqualified and categorizing those of us who remain in these positions, are not the “great unwashed” or unqualified to do the work. I have, in my long journey, gratefully set aside ambition and chosen to value the work I have because I value learning and love teaching. I want my students, who often come with terrible educational experiences, to know that I value them and they deserve a professor who has earned the highest degree and still happily serves those entering college at this humble point of entry.

And as I sat cleaning chairs, thinking of our homeless guests who come to eat breakfast every week, thinking of how devalued and demeaned they are in our culture, how we do not know the stories of how they arrived at this place because of what happened to them, whether because of their own mistakes or the mistakes of others, or simply the things that happened over which they had no control. We do not like to think of them not only as our neighbors because that would mean they are also ourselves and that is terrifying. What if all the work we do to “be successful” means nothing in the end? What if everything we work to “achieve” does not keep us from being afraid? What if no matter what we’ve tried to do, we are suddenly homeless? What if we are no longer seen?

It doesn’t seem like much to give, a clean chair on which to sit while eating a warm breakfast. And yet, here is a chair on which someone may rest for a short time. A clean chair of which we believe any one is worthy and also food we think everyone deserves because they are human beings. We, also human beings, are here to help, no matter how ranked we are by the worldly ideas of culture. Here is a chair that I, Dr. Wink, cleaned so someone I do not know may sit for breakfast. Here is the chair that I, Amy, cleaned so someone might rest. I think of my no-longer homeless friend returned now to her home in another state, who sat in these chairs for breakfast, who attended the First Steps class with me when I decided to join First, who I made sure to see and always made sure to remind that she was brave.

Because we are all one in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

What Would Stacey Think?

amywink May 16th, 2018

The Sunday after my birthday, I told the story of my faith journey with the Creating Spirit to my Sunday school class at First. I was nervous but some people knew I could do it and I felt their support as I talked. It was the first time I’d narrated my experience this way, but I had thought about it for a long time. I closed my talk by saying that I had come to church in March the year after Stacey’s and my mother’s deaths to grieve and I spent a lot of time crying in the balcony until by September I started laughing again.

Though I am still in such deep grief some days, I am laughing so much more than I ever expected to be, just 2 years into this new life, and every time I laugh, I know Stacey is with me. She worked so hard to make me laugh sometimes, and she usually succeeded because she was very funny. And we had laughed a lot together in our last months, when we knew the end was coming. Even when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we fell back on our sense of humor after our initial shock. She had spent a lot of time worrying about having an old age like her mother, who had several major health issues and had been on the brink of death many times, and also, ironically, outliving her money because her grandmother had lived to be 92. When Stacey was diagnosed, it was clear she wasn’t going to make 92, or even 52, so she could start spending the carefully gathered hoard of money she had meant to use to get to her old age. As we talked about the 3-year-deadline she’d been given, she said, “I guess I’m not going to have to worry about being old either.” I replied “yeah, I guess you should have been more specific when you said you didn’t want to be old like your mother.” And we laughed. All the times we laughed are what I hold dear now, and what I remember most fondly. I can make myself laugh by thinking of those moments, even the ones when we joked about death, because what else is there to do?

When it became clear that the experimental drug (the one that worked for Jimmy Carter) was not working (Why not Stacey, Lord?) and she felt she had been betrayed by her doctor who had not really informed her of rules of the study she’d agreed to enter, she sat in her own darkness but I could not leave her there, just like she never left me. I texted her “your mind is a dangerous neighborhood right now, and you know how I feel about leaving people alone in bad neighborhoods” and we sat together, via our phones, in that dangerous neighborhood until I said the right thing and she laughed. Then she thanked me for making her laugh and we walked out of that bad neighborhood together. I am grateful I was able to do that. Thank you, God, for a sense of humor.

Recently, BFF Caroline asked what I thought Stacey would think about my return to the Methodist church, (and becoming so religious) and I have thought about that for a long time. My answer at that moment was she would be ecstatic about my writing, having walked with me through my long darkness as well as some of my most creative times. But I imagine she’d have been taken aback by the startling depth of my faith, something we never talked about specifically–preferring the “spiritual” not “religious” discussion. She had been similarly surprised when I mentioned a desire for chickens, a hereditary craving that I wrote about for our City Ancestor/Country Ancestor project, and just like she had been floored when I decided to buy a horse, something she never knew because she’d come into my life in the middle, when I had almost put that dream away for good.

But early in our friendship, I had mentioned that I didn’t think I was very good at being Christian (given public perceptions of what is deemed Christian, re: Baptist, and I was a free-range, unchurched person-of-faith), to which she, my Jewish-turned-atheist friend who had read the entire Bible on her own, had replied, “Oh, no, I think you are exactly what a Christian is supposed to be. You do all the right things, you just don’t talk about them.” Once, much later, after a moment in which I ranted against some public idiocy I can’t recall and wrote a rather fiery response in an email about how we are saved by grace, she had carefully asked “so, what is your religion?” (after 20 years, she asked!) and I replied “ecumenical Zen-influenced Christian” and she said “well, I thought so.” I should have just said Methodist.

So, what would Stacey think? I don’t think she’d be surprised for long, having known I had a deep but private faith– though an equally deep lack of faith in myself– and I know she’d be very happy that I am so deeply happy and creative again. And I have made myself laugh by thinking about her arrival in Heaven, because I know that after her surprise wore off, she’d have marched right up to Jesus and threatened to break his arm if he didn’t help me after all I had done for her and everyone else in my life. I imagine He said “It will be all right. Don’t worry. I have my best people working on it.” And He would laugh.

Thinking about Scout

amywink May 7th, 2018

This weekend, I found myself talking about Harper Lee and Emily Dickinson, two singular writers and icons of literary difference both of whom our culture would like to make much more manageable and comfortably definable than either wanted to be. Saturday, as I sat with friends, I told a little story to the child who had climbed onto my lap about Harper Lee and her great book, To Kill a Mockingbird. When one friend brought up Lee’s second book, I explained I had not read that to my surprised audience (among whom I am notorious for reading). So I continued, saying that I was disturbed by what happened to Harper Lee and the push for the publication of her “second” book, which was clearly an early draft of her original masterpiece and one which she had not published without significant pressure from others who desperately wanted to make her into a different writer than she was (and cash in her reputation as well)–I may not have explained all of that because the 4 year old sitting with me might have found it all quite dull and I am pretty sure if she wants to know, she’ll ask me again some time. I know she was listening.

Sunday, I spent some time explaining how I came to be who I am now and how I discovered the route by which I would eventually come to know myself as writer and autobiography scholar. In the context of my narrative, I talked about how I had finally found the cache of women writers culture had hidden when I took the first Literature By Women class at Southwestern University (now famed in song and story) and was introduced to writers I had not known (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, etc, etc, etc.) and writers I had been looking for: Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronte, whose novel Jane Eyre I had read when I was in 8th grade (by myself, not in school). At the moment of those revelations, I had only known Emily Dickinson as “the” woman poet who in my education had only been described in terms of her oddity: how she was weird, how she never married, how she only wore white, how everyone wondered what was “wrong” with her, how she may have had epilepsy, or migraines, or agoraphobia, or. . . .(and the other woman poet I knew of in high school, Sylvia Plath? Crazy.)

But in that class, and others I took at Southwestern, Dickinson was recognized not just for her oddity but also for her poetic genius. One of my professors, herself an oddity and poetic genius, explained to us in our writing class that if we had only seen a single poem of Dickinson’s (I think it was A Narrow Fellow in the Grass), we would still have to recognize her as the poet she was, even if she never wrote another thing. Of course, Dickinson’s own poetry, bound into chapbooks for her friends, or left stuffed in her desk to be found after her death, was simply for herself and her circle, which I found out much later was quite large and she kept up correspondence with at least 90 people. That is hardly a recluse. But once her family decided to publish, they ended up wrecking what had been her unique voice in an effort to make her poetry more like other poems of the day. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I heard what I continue to think and hold as the most succinct and apt description of Dickinson: “She just didn’t like stupid people.” Amen.

I have been thinking of both these writers and how our culture likes to box them up into a nice package, surrounded by speculative questions. Harper Lee “only wrote” the one book, how sad. “If only” she had written more. And yet, To Kill a Mockingbird is an amazing autobiographical novel. If that was the only thing I had written, I’d retire quite happy thinking “my work here is done.” If the book I wrote interrupted my quiet life and forced me to be more public than I ever was comfortable being, I’d retire from public life as well with a “No, thank you.” (Anne Tyler keeps to herself and does just fine. Mary Oliver too. We are not all able to be aggressively public as publishers want us to be, jumping through hoops on command). Perhaps this is what disturbs me most about Harper Lee, that we forced her to be more public, to be the center of constant speculative demands that she perform more for her audience, that somehow we are more important than she was to the production of literary art. We would have preferred she perform for us, instead of listening to her own still voice and choosing the life she wanted. But she gave us the amazing story of a little girl, suddenly coming into understanding of the world around her and remembering what her life had been like because of that moment. That’s plenty.

Dickinson chose the life she wanted and seemed quite happy at it–she wrote over 2000 poems. I have no demand for “if only” from her– but our culture continues to wonder about her, particularly speculating on her relations with others: Was she a virgin? Did she have an affair? Was she a lesbian? Was she a pawn in hiding the affairs of others?

Seriously. What is wrong with us? Did we never graduate from junior high school? The woman wrote 2000 poems!!

What is wrong with us, of course, is sexism. That we view writers who are women through a different kind of lens than we do writers who are men. It’s the lens that Joanna Russ explained in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, first published in 1983, the year I graduated from high school, and a book that continues to be relevant to this day.


But I am glad the book is still out there and is now being discussed in my broader circles than the graduate class on Feminist Theory in which I read the book in 1988, though I do have to keep reminding myself that this is a good thing.

I have been thinking of these two scouts, Lee and Dickinson, lately because I have lived unconventionally as well and recently someone tried to put me into a nice conventional box. It is an odd feeling, that unintentional boxing, and one I had not run up against in a long time (not since my mother finally gave up trying to do it after I turned 40). I bucked against it instantly because I am allowed to live my life to the contrary. I cannot be put in a box. I will keep living and working to make sure no one else has to live in the box that someone else decided was the better fit. And I will keep telling the stories of my resistance.

We can all tell how we lived our own lives differently; how we enjoyed our time on this earth; how we came to know ourselves in new ways so that everyone who listens can think of their lives and how to live despite what the world may tell them is the “right” way to do so. Our lives are far more complicated and interesting than convention allows them to be. Sharing the stories of how we dared greatly ourselves, especially if our own daring is not what others might understand, makes daring greatly even more possible.

The story I want to tell the four-year-old about Harper Lee is not the story of Lee’s “failure” to write more, or the crappy first draft her public demanded to see and claimed was her second novel. I want this child, this scout who climbed into my lap, to hear the beautiful story of someone who wrote an amazing and wonderful book about a little girl named coming to understand her world and that one beautiful book keeps making a difference for those who read it, and that one book was enough to set in motion an enormous change in a world deeply reluctant to shift. I want to let her know that Harper Lee was enough and what she did, in her own quiet and unconventional way, was plenty.