Leaving Home

There was a time when, if I were to be petty at work, a colleague might affectionately ask me, “Does Princess need a cookie?” Now, I do not have the luxury of being petty at work. I am the new person.

For the past thirteen years, working as an English professor, department chair, conference organizer, and center director at a small New England university, I have benefited from my colleagues’ generous and perhaps faulty memories and assumptions about me, the power of which I’m only just now coming to recognize.

I got very used to my colleagues knowing I am a hard worker, believing my intentions to be benevolent, and assuming my actions had integrity. Now– working in a new role, in a new state, at a new institution– I find myself operating without this safety net. It’s hard.

Rather than my slip-ups being generously read as a momentary lapse in an otherwise long and distinguished career of “getting it right,” I feel like my slip-ups now are magnified as potentially pattern-setting character deficits. They have the power to define me to colleagues I have only just met. And, being new, I slip-up. Often.

I gotta say: I got used to people thinking I’m awesome.

Or, at least treating me like they do.

This move has been great in a lot of ways. But once in a while I find myself struggling with identity issues and homesickness. It’s times like these I am grateful I have a practice that requires me to pause, reflect, digest.

Spring in Virginia

After contemplative practice, I am reminded that one of the reasons I left my cozy, tenured New England paradise was that I had wanted to be stretched and challenged. I knew I had been resting on my laurels and suspected I was getting… less awesome. And, after practice, I feel inspired to embrace this stretch and challenge.

But also, while people had treated me like I was awesome, some part of me knew I wasn’t actually being awesome. I wasn’t working as hard as I could. I wasn’t as sharp as I could have been. Don’t get me wrong: I have no interest in over-working or self-flagellation. And I did a good job. More precisely, I was comfortable but I wasn’t flourishing.

I recognize the ridiculous amount of privilege I have to even write such words. Ouch.

And so, this new environment, while challenging, is … well… challenging! And that is awesome. I am re-learning humility as I watch myself screw up this and that little detail. I also have a chance to examine my enaction of integrity and devotion– two key words for me in my practice. I also get to feel fear arise as I now, without tenure, vulnerable to budget cuts and the vacillations of administrative whims, navigate new dangers.

All of this is to say: I miss my peeps. I am excited by this challenge. I am fearful of being inadequate. I am human. I am feeling. I am privileged. I am struggling. I am grateful.

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Shifting the Ethos of Busy-ness

When someone casually asks you “How are you?” how do you respond? Words can transform lived experience and one small shift can ripple out to a community.

Many times when I briefly ask people how they’re doing, they’ll answer with “Super busy—tons of grading to do” or “So stressed out—Jenny has practice every night this week.” Or they’ll give me an incredulous look—like we’re both in over our heads—and tell me they’re “Okay.” This has happened with students, colleagues, and friends.

Several years ago I examined my relationship to busy-ness and detected the ways that my sense of self was entangled with how much I “had to do.” The entanglement was two-fold: I felt like if I wasn’t busy, I wasn’t important. And I also believed that other people would judge me as lazy if I did not tell them that I, like them, felt stressed.

I’ve started asking students about the various replies to the casual question “How are you?” and we’ve anecdotally confirmed that we sometimes perform stress for each other and unnecessarily create the expectation of busy-ness for ourselves and each other.

Last year an advisee told me she generally felt okay but that when friends around her said they were freaking out with busy-ness, she began to wonder if she had forgotten something and she’d become worried and anxious at her own lack of stress.

In an attempt to shift this culture I developed a small exercise for one of my classes: We looked at our own identity in relation to “busyness;” we practiced small moments of gratitude;  we vowed to give other people permission to be “doing well.”

Here is the exercise in a nutshell:

When someone asks casually, “How are you?” resist the urge to perform stress and busy-ness. This does not mean you have to lie or slap a fake happy face on a miserable day. Instead, choose which moment of your day you will share.

This takes noticing.

Throughout the day, notice opportunities for gratitude and then share those. Sure I may have a ton of papers to grade, but I also noticed a new bird in my yard. Sure my car is in the shop again, but I also had a great conversation with my sister who lives in another state.

So when someone asks “How are you?” I can choose to tell them about all of the Very Important Work that I Have to Do and contribute to the Stress Olympics, or I can say I’m “Doing well” and them about the great meal I just had or the sweet walk I just took.

Speaking these very true words is like spell-casting. They transform my relationship to my own life and they give my interlocutor permission to also be “doing well.”

I don’t want to ignore or downplay the very real struggles with stress and anxiety many of us have. Nor do I encourage you to avoid ever discussing the painful and difficult things we all experience.

But rather, once in a while, especially with casual acquaintances, I’d ask us to consider sharing a moment of gratitude and giving our colleagues a priceless gift: permission to be “doing well.”