Saturday, June 21, 2014

Recalibrating My GPS

From the Avett Brothers:

"Load the car and write the note
Grab your bag and grab your coat
Tell the ones that need to know
We are headed north"

If you were a regular reader of this blog during the Great Clothes Shopping Moratorium, you'll know that I ended the 6-month experiment musing about happiness, things versus experiences, divestment (of stuff), and other matters more serious than a closet clean-out typically merits. And in the three months since the moratorium ended, I have continued to ponder these bigger and more important issues. What will make me happy? What should make me happy? Like the slices of a specimen we once viewed on slides through our high school biology microscopes, I have spent quite a lot of time staring into an eyepiece aimed at my heart on a glass slide, turning the knob to focus, blur, and focus again, occasionally hearing that sickening sound that occurs when you crush the cover glass with the 40x objective lens.

It's all good, though. I have seen a lot during these sessions, and have learned a lot about the inner workings of my heart. So I'm writing what will be the final entry in this particular blog series to let people know that my examination has led me to do something I didn't think I was brave enough to do: quit my job, pack my belongings and move to Burlington, Vermont to start a new chapter in my life.

About the job I've quit: it's a good one, mostly. Wheaton is a great college community to be part of, and I value the colleagues I've worked closely with for five years. Most of my students have been wonderful, and those who haven't been--well, that's the work of a dean of students, so it's hard to complain too much. I think I was called to this work because I saw, as a student myself, the good that a fair and kind dean could do, and the harm that a self-important and capricious one could do. I tried to be the former (though I confess to days when I was probably more like the latter, but I'll blame that on long winters, some students' overuse of alcohol and the federal government's unreasonable expectations of us). The other day, while cleaning out boxes of long-saved cards and letters in preparation for my move, I came across a long-forgotten hand-written letter, dated April 19, 1984, from one Steve Larson, who was the Associate Dean of Students at Gordon College while I was there. This was the same Steve Larson who had sent me off on vision quests(a.k.a. "suspensions") a couple of times in my Gordon career. He worked in the Center for Student Development (CSD), a place that, not unlike my own offices over the past 20 years, was familiar to both the stars and the miscreants of the campus. I did time as both, sometimes in the same semester. In April of that year, I was an occasional columnist for the Tartan, Gordon's student newspaper, and I must have written something positive about CSD or Steve, to prompt this note:

"Dear Lee,
My wife and I read your article in the Tartan last night, and were very touched and impressed: touched by your generous comments directed to me, and impressed by your level of understanding regarding what the heck we are trying to do here in CSD. You have more insight than most of the faculty and staff who have offered their views lately. Usually, when I bring home reports of campus-wide response to something I've done discipline-wise, my wife is ready to storm the college and start popping people in the nose. But when she read this last night, she was overjoyed to know that at least one student understands the larger picture. I also have a feeling she's thrilled to know that I'm not the ogre of the century here. I'm not particularly worried about that; but these last few weeks have been troublesome for her, especially in that respect. At any rate, thank you, Lee, for your positive, affirming remarks. It made my year. Steve"

I have no recollection of the issue I was writing about, but assume Steve had done something that provoked at least part of the student body to rise up and protest, likely not in the most gracious of ways. If you asked me now where I would probably have been at such a moment, I would have assumed I'd have been at the front of the angry mob (yeah, I know: karma's a bitch). But Steve's letter says otherwise. I was the reasonable one? I saw the larger picture?? I was 'positive and affirming'? Huh. Somewhere between the end of the 1983 academic year, when I was still in full snark as the Tartan's editor, and the end of 1984 when I wrote about Steve, I must have taken the road to Damascus because clearly I'd had some sort of conversion experience. I could attribute it to a normal developmental pattern in people that age--Kegan would say I had moved to a new order of consciousness, Perry would stick a flag in me and declare me a relativist--or I could just say I had the first stirrings of whatever part of my heart would lead me, thirty years later, to be a dean of students at a small college, trying to find the grace and strength of spirit that I remember Steve Larson showing me, even on those days he was ushering me out the door to another disciplinary suspension.

I think I've done that on most occasions: shown some grace, some compassion, to the students in my charge. I've also, like Steve's wife, wanted to pop some in the nose, and not just once. Some have deserved multiple poppings. When I'm asked what is most challenging about my work, I usually respond that it's having to be downstream of things that students have done to others--the bullying, the physical or sexual assaults. Fortunately, those instances are rare. Much more common are the lightbulb moments students have when they figure out a big truth about life, or those instances when they more than rise to the occasion and do something kind, compassionate, creative.

I have witnessed a lot of those, and consider myself blessed to have done so. I have also been gifted with committed, passionate and patient colleagues here at Wheaton and elsewhere. But like that 5th-year senior in college I once was, I've found myself on a different road, both attitudinally and directionally. Some of that shift is of my own doing, some of it has been thrust upon me. When I came to Wheaton, I was married and ready to settle here in southeastern Massachusetts for the duration of my career, however long that might be (knowing, as my friend Tony said to me recently, "all work is interim"). I knew from personal experience the unpredictable nature of administrative work in higher education, and was prepared to just do my best and hope it worked out. What I didn't expect was a change in my marital status which pretty much unmoored me from what felt like a safe harbor and sent me adrift, sails sagging, into some very scary waters. I'll skip all that and get to the point at which I now find myself, which is why I'm writing this: so those of you who kind of follow my life will know what the heck I'm doing.

On the personal front I am, as I said, moving to Burlington. My motivation for coming to southeastern Massachusetts had a lot to do with the aforementioned marriage, but beyond that, not much ties me to this place. While I love Wheaton (more on that in a minute), this is a difficult place to live alone. Not much goes on, and not many people around here share my interests or inclinations. Burlington seems to hold promise on both counts. More significantly, I have learned in the past two and a half years that I don't like living alone. I am, as I've said to some friends recently, a pack animal, no doubt the result of growing up in a large family that has provided me with an essential part of my identity. I have now the opportunity to build a life in the company of someone who seems pretty darn committed to building that same life--Betsy. Her patience and kindness throughout these very difficult years have been the lighthouse I needed while I was tossed about in big, big waves, and, well, what do you know? She's a harbor herself, and I'm going to tie up here for the foreseeable future.

On the professional front, there's also been an evolution of sorts. First let me say what I have said to my colleagues with all sincerity: serving as the dean of students at Wheaton has been the great honor of my professional life. I will always love Wheaton, and am desperately sad to leave the colleagues I have worked with for these five years. But higher education is a tough business these days, getting tougher by the week, and maybe, just maybe, there's a way I can contribute to the field that I love in a more wide-ranging way. Let me explain.

Each year at Wheaton, I have seen more students coming to campus with significant emotional and learning needs. I know this isn't exclusive to Wheaton, because my dean counterparts at other small colleges and I often sit over beers and tell tales of the challenges we're facing. One particularly vexing group comes to college with diagnoses that place them on the Autism Spectrum (especially those known as Asperger's)--smart, interesting, but organizationally and socially in need of so much more support than we can offer. About a year ago, I became aware of a new program called Mansfield Hall, which had just opened in Burlington. Their mission is to provide residential and academic support to students with these and some other challenges who are enrolled at one of Burlington's several colleges. I was intrigued. What were they figuring out that I could perhaps import to Wheaton to help us help these students? What strategies had they landed upon that gave these students, many of whom have a tremendous amount to offer our society but too often can't get past the obstacles of college, a chance to graduate and take their place in a world that needs their output? So I went to see them. And a few weeks later, I tendered my resignation at Wheaton because the folks at Mansfield Hall basically said, "We don't have it all figured out yet, and we think you can help."

Sometimes the universe hands you an opportunity--a convergence of the personal, the professional, the psychic and spiritual--in a way that is too obvious to ignore. If it were a cartoon image, this would be that moment when every conceivable flashing sign and marker would be pointing me to load the car and write the note and head north while I stand there, bewildered, afraid, as averse to risk-taking as I've been my whole, entire life. A previous Lee would shrug and turn back. But you know what? I don't want to be the previous Lee anymore. I want to say, hopefully many years from now on my deathbed, "I did at least one brave thing in my life." So with a simultaneously heavy heart and light step, I have said goodbye to my colleagues and students at Wheaton, have sold or given away a ton of the stuff accumulated over 26 years of marriage, and on Saturday, June 28, will get behind the wheel of a U-Haul and take what's left to South Burlington to live, to Mansfield Hall to work, to the shores of Lake Champlain to learn to be whole and fully engaged in life and maybe happy once again.

And that, friends, is the closing argument in the trial in which I have been, oddly, both plaintiff and defendant, judge, jury and occasionally bailiff, and even, on the pages of this blog, an expert witness. Next time I write, it will be the opening post of a new blog about a new life and work that I have no doubt will be fascinating. I hope to see you there, or even better, in person in beautiful Burlington should you find yourself with a hankering to travel north yourself. I can offer great cheese, lovely vistas and whatever encouragement you yourself might need to untie from the mooring and set sail into deeper waters.
Boats, as they say, were not built for harbors. Raise the mainsail! Grab the wheel! The wind is strong and the horizon awaits.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Unwearable Lightness of Being: My Release from Retail Jail (But Still on Probation)

"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heav'n with my bootless cries
And look upon myself, and curse my fate."
--Sonnet 29, W. Shakespeare

I'm rounding the final turn of this six-month self-imposed mall moratorium in which I vowed to purchase no clothes, shoes or accessories. On February 1, I can walk into the sunshine of post-holiday, pre-spring season sales. The question is, of course, am I a reformed woman? Or have I been troubling deaf heav'n with my bootless cries?

First, I guess I should report that I bought a hat during this stretch. It was bitterly cold, I was on Church Street in Burlington, hatless (a rare occurrence for me in the dead of winter because I have these ears that cause terrific pain when exposed to cold wind, and plus, I just feel good in a hat, something that goes back to my childhood when I had to protect myself from my older brothers).
I had to make a choice: whine incessantly for the remainder of the afternoon (the pain doesn't subside for hours even once inside), or break the vow. As Betsy can attest, I agonized over this choice, but she convinced me this was not an "accessory." It was a "necessity" (I suspect the whining she would have had to listen to made it so, at least for her). So I purchased a relatively modest hat that covered my ears. I'll let you be the judge as to whether or not I remained true to the spirit, at least, if not the letter of this plan.

Assuming that I will have no opportunities to shop between today and Friday, which seems likely given my schedule, I will pull into the station having gone six months without new clothes or shoes or, shockingly, boots. The question friends who have followed this adventure have asked, of course, is what will I do on February 1? "Are you planning a binge?" one asked. "What's the first thing you'll buy?" asked another.

No, no binge is in my future, I think. As I had hoped when I began this trek back in August, I have learned a lot about myself, and those revelations are likely to keep me from going crazy next weekend and running up my Visa bill. I have also begun to appreciate what I think of as the unwearable lightness of being, this odd sense of freedom that comes from walking through a mall or into a boutique, or through a craft show that features beautiful hand-made wearable items without any sense of obligation to do more than casually admire the wares.

This unwearable lightness extends to my closet and drawer space, too, which has increased as my belongings have decreased, and I kind of like the look. My divestment of a number of items has worked like this:

1. I am bored, bored, bored with my existing clothes and wish I had something new to wear.
2. I root around in my closet(s) for something I have not worn all season in the hope that it will cure my boredom.
3. I wear the found item, but realize throughout the day that I don't really like it, which is why I hadn't worn it all season.
4. Once home, I put it in the shopping bag, bound for the Goodwill box.

This is as simple a retail equation as I can imagine: to get rid of things I don't like/wear/use. And yet, it's not how I roll, at least not on a regular basis. Like many of us, I do engage in an annual wardrobe purge. But why do I hang on to things I don't like? Aside from those things that have specific utility (a blouse that goes with a suit I wear infrequently, for example), I think I am most inclined to hang onto those things because to give them up would feel like a waste of money.

Let me repeat that (because I have pondered this for six months): a waste of money. THAT I DIDN'T NEED TO SPEND IN THE FIRST PLACE!! And so there, friends, is the koan I've puzzled over: If something is destined to be a waste of money, why am I buying it in the first place? You may argue (as I have) that it's hard to know when you buy something whether it will become a much-loved, frequently-worn item that spends years adorning your body or feet, or will be a one- or two-time wear that you realize either doesn't go with anything else you own, doesn't fit as well as it did three months ago (when you were plus or minus a few pounds), or has a fashion shelf-life comparable to Vanilla Ice.

Exactly. You don't know. So you take the chance, because what does it matter? It's just one more thing to put in a drawer or closet, its fate to be determined by forces seemingly beyond one's control. Except they're not beyond one's control, and they begin with making a really thoughtful, intentional choice at the point of purchase. And that's one thing I know I have learned that I hope to take with me into future shopping expeditions (and I'm sure there will be some, for reasons I'll get to). I will "reconsider" (as Eustace Conway says, along with "refuse," in addition to "reduce, reuse, recycle," which you know if you've been reading along these six months). I will consider, and then reconsider, each purchase before I make it in ways that I am fairly certain will considerably reduce my purchases over time.

So what else have I have learned about shopping and myself? One important set of realizations involves the reasons I shop. Once shopping as an activity was off the table, I still had the reasons, but without shopping to distract me, I had to spend the time doing something else. Pondering the reasons was one of those things. I realized:

1. I shop because I'm bored. It's something to do that's not quite mindless and has a reward that's immediate and tangible. What else can I do that has those qualities?

2. I shop out of habit. A grey and rainy Sunday afternoon without a work or social obligation? That must mean shopping.

3. I shop because it's a social activity. It's sometimes done with others and serves as a framework and venue for casual conversation, learning something about someone, interacting in a way that's relatively low-risk while at the same time, useful, if you are one of those people who likes to get a second opinion on something, or offer one, or both. I've had some great conversations with complete strangers in dressing rooms where I find myself channeling Clinton and Stacy from "What Not to Wear," which, if you know my introvert tendencies may surprise you, but a dressing room offers permission to chat in ways few other spaces do (a hair salon is similar in this way).

4. I shop because I am, like many of us, genetically predisposed to appreciate good deals. I blame this on my mother, who could probably have talked a used-furniture shop owner out of his boxer shorts if she'd wanted (fortunately for my emotional well-being and future therapy needs, she generally stuck to items for sale in the shop).
I often witnessed her looking through racks in a discount store, accompanied her to yard sales and flea markets, saw her sense of pride when she could bring home, at a bargain, something that added beauty to her home or her wardrobe. She was a child of the Depression, grew up in a poor home with a mother who knew how to stretch a meal to feed her 11 children, and obviously inherited those skills. She also, though, developed an appreciation for nice, expensive stuff. She loved her china and silver, happily wore a mink coat, had great hats (hmmm) and criticized me for giving up red meat, taking it as an affront to my parents' ability to provide that for us, something she had not had.

All of which helped me recognize the challenge of being purchase-less through the Bermuda triangle of a) post-holiday clearance sales, b) boredom that arises from serious cabin fever in the dead of winter, and c) a companion, Betsy, who was not doing a shopping sobriety program. Betsy spent a month here over the holidays serving as nurse, cook, driver and Scrabble partner while I recovered from surgery. As I have throughout these six months, I dutifully accompanied her to malls, boutiques and a great pre-Christmas Burlington craft fair. I even took her to a shoe store in Johnston, RI, that I had visited previously and raved about.

Yorker Shoes is a great shoe store, but they did not have what Betsy sought (navy blue pumps, which are apparently non-existent these days). What they did have that day was a local cop and a speed trap just down the road. As an aside, let me just warn you that there is a stretch of Route 6, the four-lane road on which Yorker Shoes is located, that is inexplicably a 35 mph zone. So this is how Rhode Island's municipal coffers are filled? By unwary out-of-state shoppers? Apparently. I am officially listing this as a "shopping hazard," by the way.

All good learning. But I think the most important thing this exercise has taught me, the thing I have wrestled with the most, is this: what makes me happy? [Spoiler alert: I don't yet know.] At some point in the past six months, I was reminded of that post-modern adage: If you want to be happy, don't spend your money on things. Spend it on experiences. It's a nice sentiment, but of course it begs the question, what experiences will make me happy? There are things I like to do, of course, but "liking" something (not in the Facebook sense, but really enjoying it) is not enough to provide profound, marrow-deep happiness. Stopping shopping is one of many strategies I've used over the past year to peel away those things I like in order to better understand why I like them and what the relationship is between doing things I enjoy and being happy.

A while back, I gave each of the deans and directors who work for me a small notebook and told them about research that showed that the mere act of recording three small (or big) good things that happened during the day before retiring for the night actually raised one's happiness level. They dutifully took the notebooks, but I'm not sure how many of them took my request to heart (Most likely: John, who is the most compliant of the group, and still makes references like "that's one for the positivity journal" when something good happens. Least likely? Jack, whose notebook is buried under a pile of stuff in his office, but is generally a happy person, so I'm not concerned). Because I had given them this assignment, I felt I had to stick to it myself, and I did. For several weeks, I wrote things down, and after a while, it became a habit, like saying one's prayers, that didn't require a pen and paper. When I turned off the light, I would quickly identify three things that happened that day that were, in some small way, positive: a nice exchange with a student, a lovely sunset, a moving passage in a book or article. The research shows that if you do this regularly, you begin to notice small delights and appreciate them throughout the day, and that appreciation takes root and grows in you, transforming the way you see even the most seemingly banal moments. This has, it seems, happened to me. I am learning to see those things in my life that are good with more regularity, and give them the appreciation they deserve. A few from the past month:

*An excellent smoothie recipe, courtesy of my Wheaton friend Zoe's terrific food blog, Onebeet.
*The blooms on the paperwhites that came from the bulbs that were a holiday treat from my colleague Gail:
*A Facebook post I can't read (because it's in Spanish) from my friends Hutch and Shari who are in the Dominican Republic brushing up on their Spanish before entering the Peace Corps.
*Realizing that the only two people left in Park Hall at the end of the day are the Provost and me, and that she can almost always be tempted by a glass of wine and conversation instead of answering more email.
*Just this morning, a Sunday: up really early, outside to get the NYT in the driveway, cold, quiet, and the kind of light that only occurs at sunrise in the winter.
*The excitement my betta fish, Karma, shows every time I enter the room. She is beautiful, yes?
*For the record, any time you wake up in recovery after surgery and hear the nurse say, "You did great!" is hands-down a good moment.
*Back-to-back dinners out with good food and great conversations, courtesy of smart, funny and faithful friends Kim and Craig.
*A voicemail from my niece Kim that was so funny and sweet I played it three times.
*The perfect seabiscuit I found on a beach on Anguilla last year that prompted an ill-advised Ambien/Pinot Grigio-influenced Facebook post (removed the next morning, so don't bother looking for it) that, despite the embarrassment, still makes me smile when I see it every morning, as I did today:
*Having someone in my life--Betsy-- who would spend a month looking after me, capitulating to my recovery-related demands, uncomplainingly preparing meals, monitoring medication (see previous item for the one time she failed at that), editing the volumes of output I produce, graciously losing at Scrabble (except when she wins), and encouraging me to not shop for six months. She got me through some moments of great temptation and thus deserves the last two lines of Shakespeare's 29th Sonnet.

What has taken the place of shopping? My now-reflexive habit of seeing good moments, good people, good health and letting these things take root. It was absolutely worth six months of deprivation (I hate to even call it that, honestly, because it is nowhere near real deprivation; I'm just running out of synonyms). While a number of people throughout this stretch have shared that they couldn't imagine doing this, it's never been about provoking materialism-related guilt in myself or others. It's been more about challenging myself to do something different for a limited time, seeing what happens and, of course, because it's the 21st century after all, blogging about it as a way to explore my own head. In that way, it's no different than the many people who blog about committing to a diet or workout routine, traveling for a year to better understand food and food culture (like Zoe), having a "mid-lifeventure" (like Shari and Hutch) that shows what really is important in life (and it ain't things), or any of the many blogs we come across every day that challenge, inspire and/or entertain us. Honestly, just knowing I can do something for six months that feels unnatural gives me hope that I can tackle some of the other challenges in my life. Six months, I have learned, is not that long to do something that is at least moderately difficult. It is, though, long enough to carve some new grooves in the way I live my life, which was always the goal. And maybe a new groove leads to a new road, a new adventure. Who knows? All I know for sure is that I'll have less luggage to pack.

Thanks for reading.