Archive for the 'Encounter' Category

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)

Forty Days

amywink April 2nd, 2018

I wrote every day of Lent except two– Palm Sunday, and Holy Saturday, two days I was simply being. I do not think that is a failure of my devotion and discipline since I was not really trying to achieve a “perfect” record, but more of a mature understanding of my faith and creative practice–which did take some effort, especially at the beginning.

We think of discipline as punishment, but in this instance (and others), it’s simply the ability to keep to a task, to improve a skill or practice. I posted 37 entries here under the “Lent” category. Some days, I wrote more than a single poem, some days I wrote privately. As much as I tried to make my practice a regular timed habit, I was not able to restrict myself to a rigorous schedule because my practice actually expanded, growing into the rest of the day, beyond what I usually think of as my best writing time.

Mostly, I did write in the very early hours, in the quiet before the dawn, because that is the time I have to think without interruptions, the time to carry on this daily conversation with God. But some days, our conversation was long and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I found the idea I’d kneaded throughout the day, or sometimes, a lightening bolt would strike later in the day, after I’d written already in the morning.

Of course, I never ignore the lightening bolt. One doesn’t.

Kristi asked yesterday if I planned to keep doing this, writing every day, and I said yes. My forty days were about learning something new, changing the way I understood my relationship this specific creative gift, developing my relationship with the Divine, and learning how to answer what I have been asked to do. This gift is, of course, far greater than each individual poem or paragraph. It’s a gift of vision as well, a way of seeing the world and then, turning that insight into a living practice and then sharing the vision with others. I tell my students that poets are trying to communicate with their readers, trying to get them to see common things in an extraordinary way, or extraordinary things in a common way so that we may be changed in our vision through theirs. We may not always catch sight of what a poet is trying to divine for us at once, but we need to keep looking. Poets keep looking too.

Kathleen Norris wrote that a friend recommended she give up “anxiety” for Lent one year. I recognized the virtue in that and I believe I ended up doing a little bit of that as well–though it does linger, it’s significantly less– but I have come to understand that the thing I gave up was actually distance. I moved closer to God, moved closer to people, moved closer to understanding, and moved closer to being who I am supposed to be, so that I may do what I am for.

Lent: Witness

amywink February 23rd, 2018

I am standing
to witness his will,
this man I do not know,
simply because
I was asked
and he is clearly leaving
very soon, though he
looks into my eyes and
I into his so I see him
before he goes.

Between turning the pages
of his will, he rests, worn
from the effort of signing,
turning each page,
and answering the questions
his attorney poses
while I witness.
Then, I ask
about his name,
a long beautiful sound
I do not recognize
so I ask its origin
and he beams briefly,
breathing deep to
say proudly
“Armenian”
and we smile,
together.

Months later, when I am
called as witness
to explain what I saw,
for the legal appeal
of his will, the lawyers
ask, what I heard,
what I understood
about the scene.
Did you speak with him?
What did he say?
And I reply,
Yes, I spoke with him.

I asked him about
his beautiful name,
and he said “Armenian.”
and we were then
no longer strangers.

Lent: Be with Us on Our Journey

amywink February 22nd, 2018

“Make me to know your ways, O Lord,
teach me your paths.”
Psalm 25

I have passed the second anniversary of my mother’s heart attack. In two weeks, I will pass the second anniversary of her death. I am in the second anniversary of the weeks between, when the body does the work of grief. I have to pay attention to the feelings rising out of memory, to shadow the present and tint my current days. I know this is here. I know this is now but I respect the work of grief, accepting these tattered remnants of that passing time, the ephemera of those days between.

Time slowed down while my mother was in the hospital, as time does in hospitals, where there is so much waiting and nothing can be pinned to a specific minute. There are no appointments, just waiting. Just waiting in the unknown, even as we tried to pin what was known, like mapping our plan for a potential destination and yet having absolutely no idea of where we might be going. And so we sat, waiting, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my dear friend Sally who came for me, without my even asking and we waited.

We were not alone in our waiting, others waited in their own transitional times. One man, looking like he was straight from the ranch, in coveralls and work-boots, arrived to see his friend who had just had open-heart surgery. His nervous chatter like sandpaper against the quiet. My thoughts were not holy. I was grateful when he left to see his friend.

When he met me in the hallway after, he was filled with advice about the horror that he had seen, as if he could help me, prepare me, for what I might encounter next, and he rambled on as I stood there before him, with Sally at my back. I felt my shoulders rising, I felt the electric tension glittering in me as he so helpfully described his terrible encounter. I shouted in my head as I breathed, slow, steady, through the rising tenor of his voice, his panic. Then I moved toward him. I reached and put my hand on his arm, caught his eye and said “I will be okay. It will be okay.” And he stopped, suddenly grounded, tethered before his terror lifted him beyond my reach.

“I do not touch strangers,” I told Sally later, and I have no idea why I reached, except I had and it seemed to help. I think of that man, that moment, whatever came over me to move me toward his fear, out of my own irritation. I think of the people who were with me, friends and strangers. I think of those memories of presence, ephemera fluttering through those slowly passing days.

Lent: Redemption

amywink February 21st, 2018

“Stories are a gift to the tribe and stories have always been the best way for us to make sense of this hard world, or try to.” Greg Garrett

Reading the 19th-century diaries of Henrietta and Tennessee Embree taught me a great deal about compassion. The moment Tennessee wrote about backhanding her two-year old daughter across the face, hitting the child hard with her ringed hand and then her own horror at doing so was a moment I had to put down her journal and think hard about how I might judge her or understand her. I had liked her, felt for her, and suddenly, she struck her daughter in an unforgivable way and I could not like her.

Her fate in my writing would depend on how I responded. I could dismiss her. I could demean her. I could forget her humanity. She was racist, wealthy, abusive. What more did I need to condemn her? We are so much more evolved now, right? What value would there be in considering her humanity? Instead, I found my compassion in understanding the life she lived with her abusive husband, the fear that pervaded her life, and what must have been overwhelming moment, one that exploded into violence. I forgave her.

It has been over twenty years since I first encountered that moment in her 1867 diary and yet that moment stays with me today because my work turned on how I responded to her. A graduate student once wrote me about Tennessee Embree, asking “If there was basically a women’s shelter in Belton, why didn’t she just go there for help?” There was judgment in the question, like there is still today, but the answer I sent was very simple, very human: “She didn’t like the woman who ran the Belton Women’s Commonwealth.” That is the thing that stopped her. I never heard back from the graduate student. I suspect my answer might not have been what she wanted to hear, but it could also have been that my answer was just not exciting enough, not deep enough, for what the student wanted to write. I don’t know. I do know that Tennessee was a human being and it is hard to be a human being.

What does it matter what way I wrote about this long-dead woman? What does it matter how I chose to respond in a critical book on women’s diaries that so few people might eventually read? My response mattered because I was telling her story, the story she kept privately, the story I was reading, the story that now became part of my story. My responsibility to her story was also a responsibility to her, my responsibility to understand her humanity. I had to reach. I had to set aside my self (my PhD-seeking, make-a-critical-impact self) and reach, instead, for her.

When I eventually met Tennessee Embree’s descendants, they asked me “What made Henrietta and Tennessee special? What made them important enough for you to write about?” I answered, “Their ordinary lives.” I explained that they lived ordinary lives, in a community of people, and experienced ordinary human things, in the same way that we experience ordinary human things. The value of their diaries is exactly that, not in being extraordinary. When we read the story of ordinary living, we can come to understand what makes us human, the things that connect us to each other. The moments of ordinary failure, or ordinary achievement, help us understand, as Richard Rohr describes, the “shattering experiences of living.” Their ordinary lives, their ordinary words, reach across time and like a revelation, illuminate the difficulty and elegance of being human.

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