On taking time to tend

I’ve had a couple of people, on hearing about what I’m doing for my friend who recently had surgery (currently in a transitional care/rehab center, and steadily improving), who say “I could never do that.”

And I point out that it’s not everyone’s gift to do the specific things I’m doing. (Scheduling and coordinating are tasks that take me time and energy, but that are not, in themselves, particularly challenging for the way my brain works: I am, after all, in the business of creating at least the simulation of order out of chaos.)

But today, I realised that there are two stories I’ve rarely told but that are key to why it’s so important to me to help in this way. One is a debt I’ll never be able to repay – and can therefore only pay forward. The other is a reminder of why it’s so important to me to build caring connections over time.

My first story:

My father died of cancer when I was 15. But before he died, he was ill for about a year, both before they diagnosed the cancer, and then while going through treatment to prolong his life.

He loved me a very great deal, and one of his deepest wishes was that my life should be disrupted as little as possible by his treatment and illness. Now, there is no way to make that happen – but he was desperate (in a quiet, British, way) – to do what he could.

I was 14, most of this time. And I was deeply involved in two things: music and horseback riding. The music was easy: school choir and orchestra were at school, my music school rented our Middle School building (on my way home from high school), and I could get myself there easily.

But the horse – that was trickier. I was a serious rider and competitor at that time, and I was at the barn 6 days a week (three of them for lessons, one for Pony Club, and the other two for pleasure or competition). At a barn 45 minutes away. And I was 14 – well below driving age.

Chemo takes a lot out of a person so my father was often not up to driving (especially during rush hour as many of those drives were), and my mother needed to be around for some of his appointments.

My mother was, at that time, working at our public library, in a close and friendly staff. At some point, one of her co-workers said “What can I do to help? No, really, anything.” And my mother, in some desperation, said “Could you drive Jen to the barn once or twice a week?”

The friend blinked, and thought about it, and came back and said “You know, I always regret not doing more riding in my teens. Sure.” And so, for most of that year, she drove me to my barn at least twice a week. Since she was a novice rider, and I very much wasn’t, my riding instructor arranged the lesson times so that suitable lessons for both of us would be back to back, and then we’d trek back home.

That year – and my beloved Dorothy – saved my sanity. I’m sure of it. And that friend of my mothers (who had not been particularly close before that) made a *huge* difference to not only my well-being, but to helping my parents feel that my life was continuing to be as stable as they could possibly manage.

That friend went on to continue riding, long after she stopped driving me. When she and her husband moved back to the Netherlands (where her husband was from), she found a new place to ride, and sent back periodic pictures of herself on gorgeous Frisians for a while.

It’s that, in those most formative years of my life, that taught me that helping not only makes life better for the person I’m helping (at least that’s the hope, or why do it). But that it can be a deeply transformative and world-opening moment in my own life.

I can’t deeply help everyone on the planet. I can’t even do it for all of my close and beloved friends who might need it. But I do it when I can, because of that memory of those drives, those riding lessons, those moments in which I could get away from everything else pressing in, and just be.

The second lesson:

The summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I was taking intro German classes in summer school. My mother tends to show affection through driving, so even though I could get myself to and from school by bus and a walk, Mom would often drop me off at a somewhat easier stop.

One day, my mother mentioned – rather off-handedly – that she wouldn’t be able to pick me up at a particular time. When I asked why, she said that someone – my guidance counsellor in public high school, who had also been the guidance counsellor for my older brother and sister – had cancer, and Mom was driving her to chemo treatments.

I asked a bit more, and found out that my counsellor had been single all of her life, was living in another town (because housing prices in the suburb I lived in are not within reach of teachers who work there, as a general rule) with her very elderly and rather difficult mother.

She had no one else to drive her. She’d started treatments during the school year, when all her colleagues were obviously occupied, and couldn’t get free for the couple of hours needed to drive into Boston, wait during treatment, and drive back. Because of her mother’s demands, she’d never developed other close friendships, because her mother wanted her home.

And so Mom, who’d run into her casually at some point when this started, and she was trying to figure out what to do, had offered to drive. She had the time, she knew the routine. And … someone needed to care. This was a woman who had thoughtfully guided generations of teenagers into places they might be happy (so one hopes, anyway – certainly worked for my family).

My former guidance counsellor died a few years ago. But I am still delighted and proud of my mother, and how off-hand she was about it. How “This is just what you do, when you can do it.” Not because someone’s a best friend, or because it’s showy, or because it’s easy. But because you can, and you know it will truly be of help.

I also remember that there are ways to build connections in our community. The school I work at has a Sunshine Club. Most of the time, they coordinate gifts for new babies, or marriages, or other happy things. But if someone is seriously ill, or hurt, or has a family crisis, they also help coordinate a little of that help. If someone has great family support, that might be a few easy things. But if it’s someone who’s single, who doesn’t have family or other support in the immediate area, everyone also chips in with rides and pre-made dinners, and all the other things that can help.

So, those are my stories of why this kind of help – this kind of deeply personal help – are so important to me. Because I can never repay those months of my father’s peace of mind. Because no one should have to go to chemo alone, on public transit, because there’s no one to drive, or comiserate. Because sometimes, the thing that matters most of all is the simple human presence and engaged mind that can solve some – not all, but more than none – problems through creativity, attention, and a little time and effort.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone should go out and devote all their time to helping others. Most of us need to earn a living, and it’s also healthy and needful to have hobbies, spend time with friends and family, and all sorts of other things.  But if I had one wish for the world, it would be that people keep their eyes open for situations where their particular gifts and skills fit – with sparkling precision and beauty – into someone else’s needs.

When I have offered my gifts and skills and talents in the ways that best fit (not the ways that look best to others, or seem most showy, or whatever else), I have been amply repaid. There’s not one time I’ve done this for someone that I’ve regretted the time and energy it took: in all cases, it deepened not only my relationships with that person and the others close to them – but it’s filled my life with greater joy and beauty and wonder.

There are few greater transformative acts. Or magical ones.

A new era

On Friday, I got to hear the words I’d been hoping for for months – a job offer at the school I’ve been working at for nearly 9 years.

This school has seen me transition from being a paraprofessional to adding a lot of services to the library, to finishing my Master’s degree in Library/Information Science, to now hiring me to be the Teacher Librarian. My former boss left for a new position (which he’s very much enjoying) in January: I’ve been the interim librarian ever since, but with no certainty that I’d actually have a job after June. It’s been a long and drawn out process – it was almost appropriate that the meeting on Friday that  I knew I’d be getting the news in got postponed 3 times.

And now, I’m waking up in a new world. I spent Friday night going “EEEEEEEEE!” a lot, and Saturday dancing around my home at intervals, for the sheer joy and relief of it.

You see, this job search thing has been going on for a while.
I won’t go into the depths of details – but the library job market was lousy before the current economy meant that most libraries went into a serious state of hiring freeze. I started job hunting for a professional library job in January of 2007 (and got my degree that August). Since that time, I’ve had 2 serious interviews, one call I turned down – and a whole lot of non-replies. (And one short term job that got me some great experience.)

There’s another part: I’ve been dealing with substantial financial instability since early 2005 – as I’ve mentioned, divorce was not kind to my finances. The new job means an end of that. Librarianship is not the most highly paid profession – but it’s definitely sufficient for my needs and a large number of desires. (Also, it’s hard to beat a school year contract  for time to travel and pursue other interests while having a stable income.)

I haven’t been talking about my job stuff because I didn’t want to jinx it or bias it or anything – but now that it’s settled, I want to talk about two things: first, the kinds of magical and ritual work I did and didn’t do. And second, how my religious choices and commitments have affected my job hunt (and there were both benefits and challenges.)

Now, this doesn’t mean my work is over.
The job is a challenging one, involving keeping track of a whole lot of different pieces. I’ve been specfically asked to focus on two things that came up in the interview – including working on engagement with students (I’m an introvert, so this is going to be real work). Doing that while also doing the tasks that require focus and concentration takes real juggling skills.

It’s pretty clear to me that my next stage – professionally and religiously – is integrating tools and techniques. Getting out of my office, but using tools like deliberate aura and shielding changes to help me be more open to casual interaction without overstressing me. Being able to relax a little into the role and truly make it mine – but doing so in a way that’s friendly and welcoming to others. Creating a space that feels warm and comfortable and alive. (I foresee more indoor plants in my future.) Using what I’ve learned about being sensitive to intuition to help me have more meaningful conversations, and be open to hearing what people truly need, even if I was just focusing on something else.

And because it’s partly an administrative role (and I’m at least 5 years, and often 10-15 years, at a guess) younger than many of the other administrators, figuring out how to make that work to everyone’s benefit. (For example, I’m a *vastly* different technology user than most of the other administrators, due to both inclination and age.)

And there’s the other part of this new world:
I graduated from college in 1998. I’ve spent half the time since then (and almost all of the past 5 years) in a constant state of low-grade stress. Stress over money, over not being sure where I’d be in a few months, of having to edge every project I wanted to help with with “Sure, as long as job stuff doesn’t interfere” – because I knew that the library job I wanted and yearned for might not be local. And just the practical stuff – at one point, I moved 3 times in 18 months, and my furniture choices remain portable and more limited than I’d like.

I coped.

But now, I’ve got another question. What  do my body, my appetite, my sleep, my emotions, my dreams, my music, my magic and ritual feel like when I’m coming from a known and long-term foundation without those stresses? I have no idea anymore. Far too much has changed in my life since the last time I was in this place.

I look forward to finding out – but I bet there’re going to be a few bumps on the way. (Got one already: the tension headache this morning from release of stress was not exactly a surprise.)

Fortunately, there’re a few things to help – thanks to a gift and loan, I’m able to get a new computer (my first laptop in 5 years) now, rather than at the end of the summer – meaning I can start getting out and about more easily now, and start getting things better integrated and together. I’m really looking forward to that. (Also, I found the most suitable ever decorative/protective thing – personally meaningful without being too overtly Pagan. More on that in a sec too.)

On seeking a job:

Now, being a witch and all, some people might think this section would be all about how I did just the right spell, and the job just fell into my lap. Not so much.

In reality, while I did a good deal of ritual work on some related topics, I did very little work about specific jobs. That’s because I wanted to be sure of a few things. I wanted to make sure that the job was due to my professional skills and talents, not a manipulation of them to best effect. (Otherwise, I’d be sunk when it came to *doing* the job.) I wanted to make sure I wasn’t forcing the situation in a direction that wasn’t actually right (for me or the people making the decision.) And I had a bunch of other choices that sometimes left me feeling very conflicted. (I’ll be coming back to this.)

Instead, I focused on other things.

  • Discernment: was a particular job a good fit for me and where I want to be in the near and distant future? What would it allow me to do? What would it be hard to do? Were there things in the ad that were particularly important hints of what that job might hold?
  • Clarity: how could I best present myself? How could I write a cover letter and resume that truly reflected me and my personal style/energy/view of the world and what I could bring to a given position?
  • Integration: what job would let me use all of my skills, not just some of them.
  • Prosperity: enough to keep me going – and somehow, something always turned up. (I’m also eternally grateful for the friends who treated me to dinner, had me over, and helped me with little things over the years. It made a huge difference.)

One thing that was quite curious here: I had a very hard time stressing about not getting this job (well, right until the last couple of weeks, anyway). I kept taking that as a good sign – but there was an element of “What if I’m just so out of cope I can’t work up the energy” in there that I couldn’t ignore.

Some of what I did was spell work or divination work – but I also did a lot of smaller things like building a professional shrine (I honor Hypatia, popularly considered the last librarian at the Great Library of Alexandria as an ancestor of profession), or wearing jewelry or light perfume (natural oils) to help keep me in the right mindset. Things like that.

On Craft and profession:

I’m in a rather interesting place. I consider my work – helping others find, use, and understand information that makes a meaningful difference in their life – to be very much a vocation that’s interwoven with my religious life. But at the same time, religion and work are tricky.

The school I work for is an independent school with no religious affiliation. (We have students from a number of varieties of Christianity, a range of Judaism, and a smattering of other beliefs, including Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism.) When I started there, I was considering my religious options: I started studying with the group I trained with my second fall there. This job has also encompassed my growth from a new seeker to a 3rd degree in the tradition, hiving off to form my own coven.

I’ve been quietly more out about my beliefs in the intervening time. First, a conversation with the school counsellor in case it would be of help with specific situations, then with my now-former boss, and finally this year, quietly and in some specific situations with students. I spoke in October and November to our diversity club, and to the comparative religions class. (Both were excellent conversations – as I’d anticipated, they were respectful and thoughtful. Working with great kids is one of the reasons I really like the school.)

On the other hand, I can’t deny that my religion has really limited some of my job options. Among schools and colleges, there’s a wide variety. Some are non-religious – no problem here!

Some have a religious affiliation but fairly open hiring requirements. For example, at St. Kate’s, where I got my degree and worked briefly, they expect everyone to support the school’s mission as a Catholic institution and spell out what that they mean – none of which I had any problem with, as they’re really quite sensible about it and have a strong interest in social justice issues.

But I do live in the Midwest. A noticeable number of schools require a creedal agreement, references from members of clergy in the school’s religious affiliation or other explicit statements of (Christian) religious beliefs and practices. A couple significantly limit what you can do outside of work. (It’s legal, and appropriate in private religious institutions. But it limits the number of places I’m going to be able to work.)

I thought hard before doing becoming more open with students about my Paganism – because then, I knew my boss would be leaving. On the other hand, the school has a focus on integrity and courage in having conversations that go deeper, and I finally reached a place where being that much more open (again, in appropriate places: it’s not something I’d bring up with a random student out of nowhere) made more sense – and seemed like a necessary step in integration. And because, I decided, if I got the job long-term, I wanted to do it *before* I got hired, not after. There’s also a part here about how to have meaningful connections you have to be somewhat open (especially in a setting like a school: it’s not like working in an office, because we’re already talking regularly about other areas of worldview.)

But that interweaving of vocation has also left me feeling more than a little conflicted at times.

The internal conflicts:

You see, I have a number of local ties these days. I live in Minnesota because I fell in love with the state on a visit in 1998 and I didn’t want to leave. There’s my coven, close friends, our parent group (who I’m still fond of), my work on Twin Cities Pagan Pride, and a number of other things.

And yet, the library job market here has never been fantastic: there’s a library school in town (where I did my degree) which means there tends to be a good bit of competition for positions. I knew from the start that finding a job might mean moving – maybe within driving distance, but maybe far enough I could come back for the occasional visit, but not much more. (And my friends back in Boston kept trying to lure me back there, which tempted me at moments. Though, as I say, I really don’t miss either Boston’s traffic or the average rental prices…)

But how to handle this? One thing I wanted to do was get my 3rd degree close to the time I finished my graduate work – that way, if I *had* to move, at least I’d be able to start a new group in the tradition wherever I landed, and continue the specific tradition I love within the context of a group. That worked out fine, fortunately. (Because while I might be capable of it, I’d really rather do it working with my covenmate, and with the support of local friends and tradmates when I get stuck on something. I try not to make things harder for myself than I have to.)

And then there was time when I thought I at least had time to wait for a job in the area to be the right fit – until my former boss (the previous librarian) got an offer of a job with an old friend. In the meantime, I’d started the new coven. And so, wanted to continue with it – but realised that we should be really careful about considering students until I was sure I’d still be around in a year or two. (The fact that two new prospective students showed up in the last two months also made me hopeful about getting the job, mind you…)

So, it’s been a whole lot of juggling sometimes competing demands and needs. Tricky!

There are the other complications – I feel a strong pull, on par with other religion-related callings – to be in education, in specific, rather than other library roles. This helps some things, but in a lot of college and university settings, you may end up working some evening or weekend hours regularly, which can complicate a coven schedule. (Ok, so one of the few reliable perks of being HPS of a group is getting to determine when the rituals are going to happen – but it’s no fun to juggle that kind of schedule around other people who are free in the evenings and weekends.)

(And this also, obviously meant that looking for jobs that would use the MLIS skills, but were not in education might earn me an income – but might not be satisfying long-term. I tend to build relationships slowly over time, so the idea of having to do that twice – once for a MLIS job, and once to get back into education sometime in the future – was a bit daunting)

And I knew I needed a job that would challenge me (or I’d get bored – never good!) but that would also leave me with enough time and energy and mental focus to be a good coven leader. This winter and spring have been hard (I’ve been working flat-out for 50-60 hour weeks a lot) but I’m coping okay with it – and it’s been getting easier, as I get more familiar with some purely mechanical things like handing the budget and other paperwork. I’m pretty sure it’ll all work, though I continue to look at how to make it work better.

Fortunately, it all worked out. I have no idea what the future’s going to bring. I’m pretty confident the school will continue to be around (strong history and thoughtful leadership), and I’m pretty sure there will continue to be a role I can play. It’s possible I’d want to be there for the rest of my career (we have more than a couple of teachers who’ve been there 30+ years) but it’s also possible I’d eventually look elsewhere if situations change. For the time being, though, I’m delighted to have a place with roots and potential and all sorts of possibilities.

Speaking truth

As mentioned earlier this week, I spent an hour and a half on Friday talking to the Diversity Club at the school I work at. (Both lunches, so it was different sets of kids, except for a couple who have a free period over lunch.) We had 23 students by the diversity director’s count (plus him, plus the other diversity director, who is not normally based on that campus.) Two boys, the rest girls, and mostly upperclassmen rather than freshmen.

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That time of year

There is no year of my life that has not, at some fundamental level, been wrapped up in the academic calendar.

My father was a university professor: our family vacations ran on his schedule.

Then there were my years of pre-school, elementary school, junior high, high school, and boarding school (a new and different schedule, that, but still, in principle the same.) College.

Working for my college for the year after graduation. I had very little to do with students, in general (I was doing web and project design for faculty), but you could still feel the ebb and flow of the school no matter what else happened.

I moved to Minnesota, for one year *not* working for a school – but in graduate school myself part time.

And then I began my current job, where I’ve been since fall of 2000, working in an independent day school. There are many things I love about it.

One of them is how often I get to pause and reflect on how much I love it. Every year, the last week teachers are around, there’s a parade of special lunches, ceremonies, in between the meetings. Some of the process gets a little tedious – but many of them help me remember just how fantastic the people I work with are, how neat the kids are, why I enjoy getting up almost every morning. (Almost. I *am* human, after all.)

And then there’s the part we’re in right now. The beginning of the year.

It’s unusually exciting this year. We’ve moved my desk (in the hopes being in the office will make noise-distractable me a) less stressed and b) more productive). We’ve negotiated some new duties that make my salary manageable, but that give me some significant challenges. And we have new carpet (the original, from the early 70s addition, was in place until last week) and a little new paint.

We come back a week before the faculty (who will be here next week.) They’re already trickling back to look at rooms and have initial meetings with colleagues, and it’s hard to go an hour without someone stopping by to chat about their summer (always too short!) and what they have in mind.

I’ve been sorting magazines (we get about 50), a process that always brings the news of the summer back in rush. Later this week, I get to start updating our patron database (something that has to be done manually.) And next week, we’re back to meetings and faculty gatherings. The week after that, students.

All of them remind me of cycles and new beginnings, and new possibilities. I love that.

But it’s also sometimes a little weird: it’s obviously (and for some historical reasons) off kilter from the traditional agricultural busy points. Just when my religious life is telling me to go be introspective and reflective, my work life is getting hectic with major projects. Just when my religious life is telling me to work hard on goals and projects, my schedule drops out from beneath me, and I often find myself somewhat adrift as summer vacation hits.

Now, there are advantages to some of this: four of the eight Sabbats fall in my vacations generally, so it can be easier for me to prepare in an unhurried way for ritual. I get a natural sense of ebb and flow to my schedule: things build and then diminish. I’m constantly turning from project to project as cycles shift and different things become easier to work on. I’m never bored.

But at the same time, it does give me a strange perspective on the Wheel of the Year. And one I think I’m never going to quite shake, even if I eventually end up working somewhere that isn’t a school.

Role of the High Priestess

[The following is something I’ve written up for internal coven documents, because I wanted to spell out what I thought my role was. I’ve run most of it by my covenmate, and included some other thoughts at her suggestion.]

Or, rather, I should say roles: I think there are a number of things going on here. To many people, the HPS is the one responsible for making sure the spiritual and religious stuff happens. At a basic level, there’s three parts to this, in my eyes: anchoring the spiritual core, providing direction, and making sure the practical details fall into place.

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