There is a rhythm to life. A set of habits, practices, and rituals that create an aura of structure and predictability to the things we do. This time last year I knew exactly when I would wake up and have an accurate assessment of every other activity mundane to extraordinary that might inhabit my schedule (much of which was maintained on Outlook for others to share). I’d shit-exercise-eat-shower-dress-drop-off-child-to-school and then rush off to work, hoping that no morning crises would be await my arrival. Sometimes there weren’t any. But, for any who have been chairpersons might guess, if you have a department hosting (roughly) 120 course sections a semester, 900 majors, 400 minors, 26 full-time faculty, 40 adjunct faculty, and reporting to an administration with initiatives and marching orders that absolutely must get done… if you had that structure you might expect that, more often than not, there was a crisis.
That is the privilege and the burden of being a chairperson.
No sarcasm to that: it is definitely a privilege even though it is definitely a burden. As chairperson I was trusted by many. I had the opportunity to help people: in their education, with their professional growth and development. I had the opportunity to be on the front line for the university defending the rights of my students, to help my community feel supported and included, and to amplify the some of the small voices that are too easily lost in the cacophony of daily life. I had that privilege and committed myself to taking the actions I could to being worthy of it.
It was also a burden. The job constant and intense, but most days it was difficult because of the pain. Every failure by faculty, staff, and structure. Every person in the department who felt victimized, or wronged, or angry, these became my burden. These issues were shared with me and I carried them to and from campus each day, persistently struggling with them to seek an appropriate resolution. Some people deal with this kind of psychic pain more effectively than me, but I couldn’t, and didn’t.
That was me last year and throughout the years that I was chairperson. This year is so different. I’m on a sabbatical. Not just a sabbatical, but working on a project for which we are traveling. Constantly. I am speaking with inspiring people and coaxing from them intimate stories of their lives! I am delving into their research with fresh eyes and dashing from subdiscipline to subdiscipline, from paradigm to paradigm, and from sea to shining sea, as part of this journey. My habits are largely broken as we adapt to each new place.
When did I wake up? I’m not really sure. When I was ready, I guess. I arose, I read, I wrote. I exercised with my son. We ate. I walked my nephew to school.
(That’s possible because currently we are at my brother’s house near Chicago. He and his wife are amazing people: he’s a kinesiologist, she’s a political scientist, both professors at great universities and they have smart and adorable children. Why my brother and I both went into academics I couldn’t tell you. I’m not sure who went this direction first, my brother or I. Or why graduate school was on the horizon for either of us. But here we are. And here I am near Chicago).
On this sabbatical my patterns are broken. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that each day my patterns are newly formed and woven into the fabric of the context that surrounds me. Something familiar, but always something strange.
Most days have no crisis, no thundering of emails and tasks. It is for me, and me alone, to set out each morning to work I’ve committed. That work is deeply meaningful for me: Being a parent to my son as he studies in his online school and as he learns and grows each day. Being a loving and committed partner to my spouse as we plan each day anew and, together, try to sort through the challenges of being in a new place and on a new schedule. Being the researcher who will see this project through to its successful end. Finding wonderful people to have conversations with, eliciting their involvement in all this wackiness, delving into their lives and background, capturing that to share with others.
Each week we see new places, try new foods, see new quirks and tempt stopping at attractive area draws. Each week I try to make new friends: both with the amazing and influential psychologists that are the focus of this project, but also with the people I meet along the way. It is worth a few extra minutes of chatting to get to know the woman from Montreal who rented us the AirBNB, and why she created this space in her house. A few minutes spared to understand why the women at the diner served my son an extra large hot cocoa — she has five kids of her own! And take to my nephew to school along the wooded streets filled with bustling parents and their adorable kids. This one has a shirt on backwards. That one has a Halloween mask staring out of her backpack.
We have committed to this journey and all that it entails. Every day is new, every day is strange. Every day I feel free.