Tag Archives: anxiety

Surrendering the Lead: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

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I could not accept retirement with grace.

Perhaps it was because retirement was not something I’d sought. Quite the opposite. After eighteen years as a lawyer, I’d been teaching high school English for six, loved it better than pistachio ice cream, hoped to continue for fifteen more years.

Perhaps it was because I’d spent a lifetime seeking education. I’d earned three graduate degrees—in law, teaching, and writing—to be the best I could in my careers.

Perhaps it was because my résumé had always worked magic. Spiffy schools, top grades, and strong endorsements had yielded a series of jobs, each one better than the one before, all landed easily.

Perhaps it was because I’d always been a workaholic. Late nights, weekends, holidays, I’d be there at the grindstone. Yep, you could always count on me.

Yet there I was jobless at age fifty, brought down by four high school juniors. They’d turned in identical essays for a final paper not assigned as group work; even their typos were the same. When I reported the incident to the dean, he ordered me to overlook the cheating. I surmised the parents were donors and resigned instead.

That was seven years ago, and I haven’t found steady work since.

It’s not that I haven’t looked. I applied for countless jobs: eighth grade language arts teacher, high school debate coach, twelfth grade creative writing teacher, college instructor of expository writing, law school professor of legal research and writing, volunteer writing tutor, assistant to a nun who ran a nonprofit and sought someone experienced in teaching, writing, and law.

I wrote the cover letters from the heart, tailored every application. Still, most went unacknowledged, despite my follow-ups. The rest elicited rejections addressed to “Applicant.” They secured not a single interview.

The only work I found was teaching college writing as an adjunct—and, believe me, I was grateful. But this was intermittent, temp work, doled out on a moment’s notice, carried on in isolation, lasting just ten weeks per stint, without a chance of advancement, cancelable at the college’s will.

What had happened to me? I’d once been treated like a crystal goblet, now like a paper cup.

The situation resulted in depression—ceaseless lamentation and self-recrimination: Why doesn’t anybody want me? Was my past success a fluke? How can I be so worthless that hard work can’t bring me up to snuff? I should have ignored that cheating. I was such an idiot. If something happens to my marriage, how will I earn enough to live?

My reaction to joblessness, I learned, was not uncommon. Psychologists have long associated unemployment with depression, poor self-esteem, and anxiety. And a recent Gallop-Healthways survey found that under- and unemployed Americans are more than twice as likely to report they’re being treated for depression than those with full-time jobs.

Treatment, though, wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was a job. Why was that impossible?

A friend surmised the problem was my age. She knew the nun I had applied to and asked her which applicant she’d hired. The response: a recent college graduate, a twenty-three-old. A young woman my former students’ age.

That age was my undoing seemed ridiculous. I might live thirty more years. I’m also a whiz on my iPad, and in yoga I can stand on my head.

What’s more, I know young adults. Believe me, I love them dearly. But they skip classes over broken fingernails. They can’t write a sentence worth beans. They’re known to be shameless job-hoppers, switching posts every three years. Why would employers them when they can have someone resilient, experienced, and steadfast—in other words, me?

Still, my friend’s hypothesis had merit. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that in 2013 almost thirty percent of cases claimed age discrimination. And according to a recent Boston Globe piece, almost half of all Americans who are jobless for more than a year are age forty-five or older and unlikely to ever be hired. A sixtyish former executive who’d spent five years pounding the pavement described the challenge he’d experienced: interviewers were twenty years his junior and not eager to “hire their dad.”

I was doomed, no doubt about it, so I resolved to walk The Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where, according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is buried. Ever since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have journeyed to his tomb on a variety of routes. The most travelled is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of France, but some pilgrims walk from farther points—Paris, Rome, Munich—others from spots nearer Santiago—Burgos, León, Samos. Last September, I joined them with my husband, trekking 200 miles in twelve stages.

Walking The Way is like having group therapy. All along the trail, pilgrims encounter each other, hike together for a distance, converse about their lives.

The first thing pilgrims always asked me was why I was making the journey. When I confessed that I was unemployed, they listened, shook their heads and nodded, then told me reasons of their own: One said her boyfriend had betrayed her. Another disclosed his wife had died. Another revealed she had cancer. Several, like me, said they couldn’t find jobs. Many of us were hoping the Camino would ease us through a transition or help us recover from a loss. Every day we were happy to discover empathetic souls who liked to walk and talk.

On the seventh day of our Camino, my husband and I rose before dawn and departed O’Cebreiro, a Celtic, mountaintop village with cobbled streets and numerous pallozas—round, stone houses with thatched roofs. We walked beneath the moon and stars, soon joining a group of eighteen young adults we’d met a few days before.

Guided by a few pilgrim headlamps, we headed down a wooded track. It wound around the hill before descending to the hamlet of Liñares and ascending again. The sun began to rise, revealing an ethereal horizon of green hilltops floating over morning mist. This is where Megan caught us and my husband speeded up a so the two of us women could talk.

Megan is a blue-eyed Millennial, a genial girl-next-door with a graceful stride. She told me nothing makes her happier than teaching and working with kids. Just a few months before the Camino, she’d completed a MEd in educational psychology. Through the summer she’d worked as a camp coordinator. She’d enjoyed it very much, but the job was seasonal and ended. On the Camino she was pondering her future, worried that she’d found no other job and scared that she never would.

When Megan and I reached Alto de San Roque, she stopped at a monolithic statue perched on the edge of a bluff—a trekking medieval pilgrim carrying a walking stick. There some of her friends were taking photos, gulping water, and gorging on croissants.

I continued on the path to Padornelo, which passes a pretty, stone chapel and climbs steeply for a stretch before plunging towards Ramil, where pilgrims, sheep, cattle, and chickens share a corredoira—a narrow lane walled with granite. By late morning, light rain began to fall. As I was pulling on my poncho, Rochelle and Erin joined me. We walked and they talked about their lives.

Rochelle is an athletic twenty-something with long blond hair and a bright, wide smile. She professed a passion for the Catholic Church and hoped to dedicate herself to serving it. With a BA in political science and comparative religion, she’d found a job at a diocesan chancery and had been there for two years. She told me only God knows what’s in store for her, but in the meantime she was happy where she was. She was walking The Way because she felt she had something to prove to herself and she couldn’t rest until she did.

Erin’s a gregarious Gen Y-er with chic, dark hair and cerulean eyes. She’d earned a BA in linguistics, planned to work in bilingual education, but realized teaching didn’t suit her well. She wound up in working in high school youth ministry. That job had disillusioned her, so she quit and embarked on the Camino, hoping to become re-inspired. Her goal was to pinpoint a career that would help others and gratify her.

As we talked, the three of us meandered a trail above a wooded valley. After a while, the drizzle tapered off and the clouds lifted a bit. The path began to ascend and soon I felt the need to slow my stride. The two girls offered to stay in sync with me, but I encouraged them to keep their pace, so they nodded and hiked on.

Within moments they were ahead of me, joining their marching, ponchoed friends. Orange-berried rowan trees swaying at the roadside, the queue of young adults briskly climbed the hill, their ranks stretching out before me as far as I could see: Blake, Megan, Lisa, Monica, Milo, Katey, Bryson, Julie, Alex, Liz, Vincent, Helen, Erin, Ruth, Rochelle. As I watched them soldier on, a wave of peace swept through me. I realized we were just where we should be, with them leading the way and me bringing up the rear.

I’d been wrong about their generation. Far from being unaccomplished and inconstant, they were strong, smart, caring, skilled, determined, with lots of love in their hearts and lots of dreams in their heads. They deserved to reach those dreams, but being young they had only just begun and had not yet had the chance to succeed.

On the other hand, I had had my chance. During my fifty-something years, I’d accomplished many, many dreams. I had a family, home, and friends, and yes, I’d had a long career. Between the young adults and me it was only fair that employers would choose them. Perhaps it was time to surrender, accept my turn to lead was over, and bless the next generation as it passed.

Please understand what I’m saying: I’m not condoning ageism; older workers need and want to work and have so much of value to give. And, believe me, if I could find a steady teaching job, I would leap at the chance.

At this juncture, I’m simply acknowledging the deal that God has made with every one of us. As we age, we lose things one by one—health, work, possessions, loved-ones, independence, life. We don’t know the timing or the sequence. For me the job went first, and really, I should be thankful; compared to other things I might have lost—and will lose in the future—the job was insignificant.

Once, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a special colt as the people lined the streets with boughs and hailed him as their king. Within days, though, they arrested him and sentenced him to death.

Jesus begged God to change his fate; he loved his work and life and didn’t want to lose them. But God ignored his supplication, so Jesus readily steeled himself and did his Father’s will. He surrendered, accepted his time to leave had come, and blessed his disciples as they began to lead the way.

 

Originally published in Good Letters.

Risen Words

redchasmA book was sleeping inside me. It was somewhere deep and warm, somewhere just beneath my heart. At first, the words free-floated lightly, whispering so I could barely hear them. Next they somersaulted nimbly, mesmerizing me. Then they dropkicked, demanding their release.

Days, weeks, and months went by. Still, I did not begin to write the book. A book takes years from your life. Each day you have to stand upon a cliff, take a breath, plunge into the chasm. You have to hit rock to make the words rise. You have to push friends and family to the margins, shirk the world to live in the mind.

What’s more, I’d just finished a memoir, peddled it to more than fifty agents, received rejections from all. And though I’d found a small, independent press willing to take a risk on me, I’d been warned, given our lack of celebrity, the memoir likely wouldn’t sell. How could I justify another book, waste the future after the past? Better cook dinner for my family or for the homeless downtown.

No, the book was a stupid idea.

But the words kept kicking inside.

I talked to a friend about it. She said sometimes when a project is obsessing us, it’s a sign that God is calling us to task, a signal of our vocation.

Vocation. It’s an early Christian concept that’s been secularized by many. The essence is this: God calls every one of us to love and serve our neighbors in a special way. The work involved is our calling. While a few of us may hear God call audibly, most must learn to perceive his voice in the convergence of four signs: We desire to do certain work. The effort brings us joy. The work serves a beneficent end. Unbiased sources say we’re gifted at the tasks.

To perceive signs of a calling, we must look deep within ourselves, discern how the spirit moves within us, scrutinize the world around us, analyze the effects our actions cause. When in doubt, we should pray for clearer signs.

So, one night, I climbed into bed, burrowed next to my husband, who’d already turned out the lights. Pulling blankets to chin, I closed my eyes, fixed them on my inner world. I knew I longed to keep writing, knew I delighted in the process, even when it wasn’t going smoothly, even when the words didn’t seem to come. But I wasn’t sure that I was gifted or that my work served anyone but me. To find out, I would have to turn to prayer.

In truth, I’ve never found prayer easy. Through much of my adulthood, God has been a rainbow trout to me; I grasp him for a moment, then he slips, glistening pink and silver, from my hands. How could pray when I wasn’t sure that God was real?

What’s more, my petition seemed crazy: There are seven billion people on the planet, but hey, Creator of the Universe, let’s have a chat, you and me. No, it’s not about war, disease, or famine; instead, I’d like to pitch a book.

As for the notion God was calling me to write: God could jingle Anne Lamott. Why would he bother with me?

Still, I prayed. “God, should I write this book?” Then I listened. But, all I heard was my husband breathing sleep-deep, so I curled into fetal position, felt the flush of my foolishness.

Foolish: How I felt that night, having imagined even for a moment that God would speak to me.

Foolish: How I felt three days later, when my memoir was released at 1,745,362, and falling, on Amazon’s book rank list.

Foolish: How I felt two weeks after that, when the book received a scathing one-star review.

Foolish:  How I felt, having fancied for an instant that God was calling me to write when the world was screaming, STOP!

So I stopped. I turned off my computer, smothered every word that rose. I’ll never write anther book. In fact, I’ll never write another word.

That’s when I lost myself.

Mornings when my daughter called me, I no longer blew her kisses through the phone. Instead my mind hissed at her: Pest! Don’t you know I need to work?

Afternoons when I was with my college students, I no longer assured them they could write. Instead, my brain chastised them: Dunces! You should have learned where commas go in second grade!

Over supper when my husband spoke of cycling, I no longer tracked riders or the routes. Instead I thought: No, not crankshafts and gears! What a flipping bore!

Then came the night I asked my son to wash a pan he’d just used to make an omelet. When he said, “Just a minute, Mom, relax!” I shrieked, “You can go to hell!”

At those words, I winced and caught my breath: What was happening to me?

Then I realized, I’d just received a sign.

If God calls each of us to love and serve, we must do what enables us to do so. No one questions that we must eat, get fresh air, and exercise. But we also have to do what brings us joy, makes us feel alive, opens up our hearts, whether it’s singing, painting, gardening, skiing, or any of a million things. If we don’t, we become testy and embittered, spreading hostility rather than love.

Maybe I’m not a great writer. Maybe my words will never lighten someone’s load. But I know that if I don’t write them, I’m no good to anyone at all.

So here I sit at my computer, called to let these words rise.

Isaac Unbound

CollegeParent

 

Deborah* sat across the café table, cappuccino growing cold, tears brimming, lower lip trembling.

“Jake’s situation isn’t improving. He just got a fifty-seven on a pre-calc test despite the daily tutoring I arranged for him. And before I registered him, I checked the instructor on Rate My Professors. He’s supposed to be the best. Jake just doesn’t put in enough time. He tries to compute in his head to cut corners, and that equals mistakes.”

Deborah often talked to me about her twenty-one-year-old son. Jake had attended a noted East Coast university, but flunked out sophomore year. Now, he was taking summer classes at the local community college.

“So, the question is whether I should have him drop the course, take a W and audit what’s left, or enroll him in an online college pre-calc course and hire a qualified tutor to get him through.”

I shifted in my seat. “Sounds confusing, Deborah.”

She leaned toward me across the table. “It seems like I’m always trying to fix a never-ending academic fiasco when there’s no progress. I just long for the tiniest forward motion, anything to give me hope.”

I tried not to turn away.

“But after four semesters of disasters, optimism comes hard. The other day, I had a long talk with the vocational psychologist and Jake’s tutor, and at this point I think Adderall could really help.”

At this, I winced reflexively, and she noticed it.

“Oh, I don’t like the thought of medications either. But Jake’s on the verge of failing everything again. You know, it gets me so upset. The pot, the booze in the backpack, the total disregard for college tuition.”

Now her tears were flowing, her voice catching in her throat. I grasped her hand. “Deborah, I know it’s hard.”

And I did.  Because the story I was hearing was one I could have told about my son Sean and myself: Me choosing his college, filling out the application, editing his essay. He receiving early acceptance and a scholarship.

Me steering his course selection, packing his belongings, setting up his dorm room. He smoking pot on campus, skipping his classes, being suspended.

Me pleading with advisors, managing to cinch a medical withdrawal and readmission option. He bolting from a counselor’s office, moving out of state, becoming a ski bum.

The grief. The desperation. The compulsion to intervene more.

Deborah and I aren’t alone. Recent studies show that during the last decade, fierce competition for prestigious college slots and jobs has boosted parent involvement in college students’ lives.

One report shows that technology has made intrusion easy: eighty-six percent of college freshmen report having frequent, sometimes daily, electronic contact with their parents, who often initiate the exchange.

Another study shows, though, that despite their best intentions, parents who run their college children’s lives do more harm than good. The surveyors asked 297 college students about their parents’ roles: Are they involved in selecting classes? Do they contact professors about grades? Do they meddle in roommate disputes?

The study also asked the students to report their own levels of contentment, depression, anxiety, and self-determination pursuant to the theory that all humans need to feel autonomous, competent, and connected in order to be happy.

The conclusion? While parents may think it helpful to phone their children’s professors to haggle a B+ to an A–, doing so causes their children to feel depressed and anxious by undermining their ability to develop problem-solving skills and become autonomous, competent, connected, happy adults.

I can’t tell you how difficult it was for me to have Sean living in another state, skiing away his early twenties, tying my hands. Or how painful it was for me to hear that he wouldn’t be home one Christmas because he had to man the slopes. Or how surprising it was for me to receive his phone call Christmas Day:

“Mom, this job sucks. No skiers showed up today for lessons. It’s Christmas, I’m bored and lonely, and I haven’t earned a cent. I really need to do something to get the hell out of here.”

The hard lesson for me: Hard lessons benefit children.

The hard lesson for Sean: College is worth the hard work.

Shortly after that Christmas, without prompting by me, Sean researched universities and found one that suited him. He completed a transfer application, wrote an honest essay, was admitted to the school. He negotiated transfer credits, changed his college major, found a part-time job.

This September Sean will be a senior.

Hopefully one September Jake will have discovered his direction too.

Meanwhile, every September, the story of Isaac’s binding will be read in synagogues worldwide to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It’s a narrative I now surmise is about an over-zealous parent much like Deborah and me.

In the story, God puts Abraham to a test. He tells him to take his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham saddles his donkey, takes Isaac to the designated spot, builds an altar and stacks it with firewood. Then he binds his son, places him on the woodpile, and whips out a knife.

At this moment God’s angel says to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy…now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold from me your son…and in your descendants all nations…will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.”

The test, most theologians say, was to ascertain Abraham’s willingness to lead his son to the precipice, then bind and murder him. Perhaps though, this isn’t the case. Perhaps God was teaching Abraham that parents must guide their children to heights where burning is a risk, but that’s the easy task. The test is to unbind the children despite impending dangers and to trust they will survive and ultimately be blessed.

Do I claim to know when Deborah should stay her hand and unbind Jake?

No.

But I suspect she’ll figure it out, though the lesson will be hard and put the twosome to the test.

*Some names and minor details have been changed and consents obtained to protect the privacy of the people mentioned in this essay.

Peripheral Vision

3443136727_e5ae4b0e93_zNot long ago, I had surgery. I suppose that in the vastness of creation, the precipitating problem wasn’t much; with age I’d lost peripheral vision due to drooping eyelids. For several years I’d lived in shadow, sight obscured by canopies of flesh.

My ophthalmologist prescribed blepharoplasty coupled with an endoscopic brow lift. If I chose to have the surgery, he’d put me under general anesthesia, incise along my eyelids’ natural creases and in several places in my scalp. He’d remove excess skin, muscle, and fat and close the gashes with myriad stitches. The procedure would take about two hours, healing, four to five weeks, after which—he hoped—my field of vision would appreciably improve.

When I woke up in recovery, my body tensed with terror, my eyes and head pulsed with pain. I could scarcely press open my eyelids—was anybody there? I felt my husband’s hand in mine, heard a nurse calling my name, but saw only an under-ocean swirl—searing light, floating glow-spots, miasmatic silhouettes. Had my surgeon blinded me?

The first few days at home, I lay supine on the couch—inert—ointment in my closed and crusted eyes, pads on my livid lids, bandages round my throbbing head, heavy icepacks on my face. And for some reason I still don’t understand—anesthesia, pain medication?—I lost control of my thoughts, which tumbled into pondering my past, spiraled into panic for the future, pummeled me so relentlessly that my physical black and blueness paled before the bruising of my heart.

For the previous several years, I’d been teaching writing as an adjunct professor at a college. There, I’d given my all to my students: I’d worked fifty hours per week, developed multiple curriculums, written numerous student recommendation letters, counseled students outside of class, led a Bible study cadre, been a reader for senior projects.

Still, I’d been fired by mass email every June, rehired last minute each quarter, paid less than baristas earned at Starbucks, offered no office, meeting invitations, health insurance, or other benefits. And just before my surgery the college had informed me that a brand new PhD would take over my favorite writing class.

So I brooded: How could the college discard me? Had I done something wrong? Was I a terrible teacher? Was the problem my age? I was twice as old as my replacement, who wouldn’t need blepharoplasty till I was in my grave.

Curled up on the couch, I wept through my ointments and dressings, tears coursing into my ears. In my blinded and mummified state, I couldn’t shake my melancholic thoughts. So desperate was I to divert them, I flouted my surgeon’s orders; I picked up a book from the coffee table though he’d forbidden me to read for at least a week.

Straining to open my eyes wide enough to see, I turned to a meditation by the poet Scott Cairns, who wrote of hiking through Utah’s Arches National Park. Having gone only a little way along the trail, he was awed by the endless blue sky, enormous canyon spaces and tremendous arches and towers of incredibly red rock. He stopped to look down. A flash of vivid color caught his eye, held it, and he was startled to see a brilliant, deep magenta cactus flower on a prickly plant whose scarred, paddle-shaped appendages seemed more dead than alive. He wrote:

And then, having noticed that one flower…my eye was thereby led to another just beyond the first, and then just beyond the second, another…brilliant flowers dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. They had been there all along, but until I had seen the first I’d been oblivious to their presence, blind to their broadcast beauty.

I lay the book aside, realized my eyes no longer ached that much and neither did my heart. For the first time in several days, I got up from the couch and began to look around. Out the window, in the park, was a boy flinging a Frisbee, his dog springing like a pogo to catch it in its teeth. On the front porch up against the door was a fragrant crate of oranges with a get-well note from a friend. And in my computer inbox were some emails that had come in during the week:

From a student who’d just finished my writing course:

I have loved taking the writing class with you this quarter. I loved seeing your smile every Tuesday and Thursday : ). I feel like I have grown a lot as a writer because of your class.

From a student I’d taught in high school:

I just completed my first script and turned it in! What a rush! Thank you for inspiring me all the way to graduate school!

From the head of the English department at the college where I teach:

I just wanted to let you know that, if you’d like to teach writing next quarter, there’s an afternoon slot that’s opened up. And I want to let you know right now that I will have 1-2 writing sections per quarter next year available, if you’d be interested in signing up for teaching then too.

A leaping dog, sweet oranges, encouraging emails. This trio of brilliant cactus blossoms had been within my field of peripheral vision, but I’d let my umbrage at life’s prickles completely blind me to them. Now my eyes were open. And I knew that if I kept on looking, I’d find still more flowers on the trail.