Archive for the 'faith' Category

Failure in Translation

amywink June 14th, 2018

A friend I knew in graduate school used to tell the story of how her friendship with the cluster of Italian graduate students began at a museum in Italy, where she, speaking Italian, had constructed her sentence in the language she was still learning and instead saying “I have made a mistake” she had, in her usage, said “I am a mistake.” To which the kind Italian stranger standing beside her had responded effusively, “Oh, you are not a mistake!!” and had helped her understand the difference in translation so that she would not longer announce that she was some kind of “mistake of the Universe” and had only, like humans do, made a small mistake.

Our American cultural narrative of success provides no such nuance and moving home at 36 means only one thing: failure, as in “you are failure.” Our belief that if we work hard, do the “correct” things, follow the conventional path, we will be rewarded for our efforts has no room for what happens when a person does all those things and still cannot find the job. The external cultural narrative exerts a great deal of force on the understanding of experience, even if the knowledge of what has happened complicates the prevailing idea. Add to that the popular misconception of work in higher education as some kind of easy life in the ‘Ivory Tower’ completely divorced from reality (and therefore the target of a fair amount of cultural hostility) from which no one can ever be fired. Let me just say, I have never encountered this utopian vision of academe and when people talk about the “liberal” slant of higher education and the feminist paradise that exists there, I laugh (but that is another essay for another time.)

I had not lived at home since the summer of 1987, when I left Austin to pursue my graduate degrees at Texas A&M, after completing 4 years of undergraduate school at Southwestern, also not living at home. I had not lived at home for a long time, for good reason. Our cultural narrative of “moving home” implies that home is a safe place; that one is returning to the nest seeking the comfort of a welcoming family. The cultural narrative has no room for the problematic return to an environment complicated by mental illness. When I knew that the only path before me was the road home, I was afraid. Afraid because it seemed right and afraid because I knew what I was heading into, except I didn’t really know that what I was about to encounter was worse than I had expected. Yet, failed and afraid, I came home in May of 2001. My parents did welcome me and were also afraid.

It would be unfair of me to claim that they did not want me home or thought I was a failure just as it would be unfair to claim that I was not relieved I had a net at the bottom of my fall from grace. They both worried, about what this meant for them, what it meant for me, what it meant for us, and a lot about how would we all afford this. My mother was a retired teacher, my Dad also, though he was working at Home Depot. Our home, the house we had moved into in 1974, was not large, 1300 square feet. I moved most of my things into storage and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, since my conventional plan had not worked at all. I was about to have a book, I had a lengthy vita, I had years of successful teaching experience. This was the thing I was made to do. I had a gift that no one wanted, a calling that culture refused to answer.

It was a hard place to be.

When people say “embarrassment won’t kill you,” I have often responded “No, it’s worse because you have to live through it.” The same goes for failure, you have to live through it. I understood, on most days, that I was not failure, that the system was the problem. While academic and popular culture might push the narrative that I was a failure because of my own fault–something I hadn’t done, some step I hadn’t taken, something wrong with me– I understood that the story people might be telling themselves was a story for their own comfort, whistling past the graveyard of failure themselves, holding onto their ideas of rewarded merit. I had tried to follow convention and it had not worked at all.

I had fallen. I was flat on my back. I was no longer looking down at the frightening fall. I had to look up. I also looked around. My parents were in serious trouble. My mother’s bi-polar disorder was poorly treated. My father, though we did not know this at the time, was beginning to feel the effects of Parkinson’s disease (which would be diagnosed in 2005). The house was in disrepair with half-finished renovations my Dad could no longer manage and also filled with things my mother refused to part with (yes, it was a hoard). I knew I could not live like that. I knew they could not live like that.

I had come home hoping to leave as fast as I could and suddenly I understood I could not leave.

“I cannot leave.” I told Stacey, who said she always remembered the moment when I said that. And it didn’t matter what culture said about failure. What mattered was not abandoning my parents in their difficulty even if that is not what I wanted.

It did not look like my calling, and yet, here was what I was being asked to do: care.

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A Landscape of Indifference

amywink June 12th, 2018

As much as I would like to say that my escape from my first academic job lead directly into happiness, my second academic job at a small university in Kansas, came with troubles of its own. My friend Sheryl had indeed saved me by contacting her friend, the department chair, and he hired me to replace an outgoing faculty member so in the summer of 1999, I made my way, with the help of my BFF Kristi, into the heartland and out of Texas.

And it was beautiful. I left behind the tall pines of East Texas, my garden, and my darling house, and moved to Emporia, in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, 45 miles south of Topeka. The town was picturesque, a postcard for Midwestern Americana. It looked like home.

And yet, I had a terrible time finding a house to rent that wasn’t in such a terrible state of repair as to be dangerous. I did eventually find a house with a fenced yard (I had dogs) and I set about to make it habitable–though I never was able to keep the birds from falling out of the furnace in the basement and suddenly flying into the house and the hole in the ceiling was never patched. The young faculty helped paint the interior before my furniture arrived (3 weeks later), and I pulled up the shag carpet with the permission of the landlord (as God is my witness, I will never have carpet again) and made the place mine. I tried again to bloom where I was planted but I also knew that I was not going to be able to move again and again. My roots did not like being disturbed. I knew it was going to be was this place or no place. I held on to hope for this place but something had gone out of me and I was more reserved and wary.

That fall, the silver maple in the front yard turned such a miraculous color of golden yellow that it illuminated the entire interior of my house, which I had also painted yellow. It felt like peace.

The department chair encouraged me to teach my academic specialties, asked if I wanted to teach another women’s autobiography class, engaged me in the department. I sent my book manuscript off to the press, where it was accepted for publication. All seemed to be going “according to plan” and I continued to do all the “right things”: attend conferences, publish, teach.

Everyone said I was “on my way” to a good tenure-track position. And it did look like that because that is what everyone said was the right way to go about getting an academic job. This was the plan. This is how it happens. And yet that was no longer the way because there were far too few jobs and the old “right way” to get one had not kept up with the times. Still, everyone clung to the idea of the right way because what would it mean if that was no longer the right way?

I had no interviews that year at MLA (where everyone in Literature and Languages interviews), which was in Chicago, where I visited Stacey, and we watched 1999 turn to Y2K as Tom Brokaw kept saying “Nothing continued to happen.” Truer words were never spoken. Nothing continued to happen.

I tried to love where I was anyway. I loved the Kansas prairie. I spent a lot of time antiquing and learning the history of the area. I was very close to the route of the Overland Trail to Oregon and could go see the ruts worn there by all those who traveled West. I visited Lawrence occassionally, which was gorgeous. I tried to garden because I could suddenly plant things that would never survive in Texas. I liked the students, who were genuine and kind as one might expect in Kansas, and who found me quite exotic (just as my East Texas students had done). My classes filled and I was happy enough. I taught an Advanced Composition class focused on personal narrative and had an amazing time with the students. Two of them had essays published in the college wide publication of Best Essays, and faculty commented that personal essays usually never did get in.

I taught a wonderful class in Women’s Diaries the first summer and it was perfect, a dream class in which I was able to do the things I wanted to do with the 6 students in the seminar. I took them as a class to the Kansas Museum of History, where we toured the exhibit and had a more visceral experience of the diaries we’d read of the Overland trail–one student tried to lift the iron kettle and nearly fell over. We all understood that she’d have died on the trip. I took them all out to dinner. It was a beautiful teaching experience and one I will always cherish because I got to be the teacher I always wanted to be.

And then the department chair left for a position at another college at the end of my first year and in the midst of that change, all the welcoming faculty retreated to their offices. I became invisible.

Active hate is one thing to experience but indifference may be worse. At least with active hate, you can see your enemy clearly. It’s easy to know you exist, even as some kind of ill-conceived representative of an idea. Indifference makes a person invisible. People stopped talking with me. If they did talk with me, mostly it was to assure themselves that not thinking of me was perfectly reasonable. I heard more than once “Oh, you’ll be fine. You have a book.”

And yet, nothing continued to happen. The new chair perkily told me, standing in the door of my office, that there wouldn’t be a position for me the next year. She wasn’t sure she could even offer me summer teaching. And I was at an end. Nothing I had done made any difference and yet this was the thing I was entirely meant to do. This was the soul-work of my life and I was very good at it, gifted. I had the vita to prove my worth. And there was no help for what to do next except cursory suggestions that I “could do a lot of things” or, the fall back for everyone who can think of nothing “There’s always technical or business writing. You’ll be fine.” And they walked away.

That winter, my golden tree did not last a week as winter blew in with snow. My house did not glow with the light as the entire landscape turned grey and icy. It was an apt reflection of my internal darkness as the vision of my future faded. At Christmas, I had to wait for the temperature to rise to zero before I headed south to Austin.

I did apply for a number of other academic administration jobs, etc, and nothing continued to happen. My future went entirely black and my own light almost went out.

Only one way opened, returning home to Austin, to live with my parents for what I hoped would be as short a time as possible. I had no idea what I was walking into or what I would be doing or anything else. I just knew I had to go. And so I came home a failure in May 2001 because “home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I was 36.

20 Years

amywink June 7th, 2018

It has been twenty years since James Byrd was murdered in East Texas, when I was teaching at Stephen F. Austin State University. My memories of that time still cause a visceral reaction and my voice shakes when I tell about it, though I keep telling it. But it is different when I write and perhaps that is why I write instead. I originally published this piece in the Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. 11(Winter 2005-06). I still remember holding her hand.

The Middle of Difficulty

Sometimes in my writing classes, I have asked my students to write about a community problem and determine what action they, individually, can take to affect change. In essence, what can an individual do on a personal level to solve a large, sometimes overwhelming, problem? They do very well describing and pointing out problems, writing ardently about things that need change. They flounder when describing what they can do, falling heavily into cynicism and ennui. It’s not that they don’t want to create change, it’s that they do not recognize how an individual continually creates and re-creates the world in which he or she lives. This year, I may tell this story:
In the summer James Byrd was dragged to death behind a pick-up truck outside of Jasper, Texas, many of us in the region were fixed in our horror. The heat was unbearable as well, rising to near 120 on many days, as if Hell had been invited in and decided to stay awhile. I was teaching an eight o’clock class to heat-exhausted undergraduates. One day, a colleague noticed one of her basic writing students, an African-American woman, nodding off in class. When she asked her if she was ill, her student replied that she was very tired because she had been walking to the university from her home . . . 30 miles away. Her story unfolded. She had been refused Medicaid benefits for her epileptic son because, when she’d gone to court in her clothes from Goodwill, the judge thought she dressed too well to need the money for medication. Because she didn’t have enough money to keep her car, and she knew that getting her education was the only path she had out of her life in poverty, she walked. Because she wanted to be in school, she walked, starting well before dawn so she could make it for her first class at 8:00. She walked in the dark, in the piney woods of Deep East Texas, which stretched on to the east, where her cousin James had recently been killed.

Profoundly troubled, my friend started to find assistance for her student, whose needs were so many. If nothing else, we will get her a ride, I said. I asked my class if anyone came from the same direction. My quietest student, her Irish ancestry clear in her red hair and porcelain skin, volunteered, her eyes widening when I told her why she was needed. We arranged for our students to meet and they began their daily commute together. When I met my colleague’s student that day, she could not speak but to this day, I can still feel her hand grasping mine. I had done a tiny thing, but the impact was great. Her world changed. My student later wrote how much she learned by talking with her new friend as they drove to campus, and I asked her if she ever thought about what she might be teaching with her own being. My friend and I continued to find help, and while we could not change everything– the history of racism and sexism compounding the difficulties of her personal life, the poverty she struggled to escape– we did help. And we found more help. No, this small connection did not end racism, did not cure her son of epilepsy, did not free her from poverty. But if we had thought only of solving these problems, we might never have solved the most immediate one. She needed a ride to school. We found her one.

I hope this is a story my students understand. I hope they learn to see solutions as easily as they see problems. I hope that they see how they might practice in their lives the small changes that affect the larger world. I hope they understand the necessary union of theory with practice. I hope they consider how their ordinary lives can exemplify larger ideals. I hope they understand that generosity blesses the giver and the gifted. I hope that they see in the middle of difficulty, there are many opportunities awaiting discovery.

“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)

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