Youngest one in the room

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Due to my recent job shift, I’m now sitting in on meetings with a number of administrators (most of whom are in their late 40s or older). And in various social settings, I’ve sometimes looked around, and realised that I’m the youngest by a number of years. (This isn’t always true, naturally, but there’ve been a good handful of specific situations in the last few months.)

This isn’t to say I mind – I grew up as a faculty brat, around my father’s grad students, and was comfortable socialising with people 15 or 20 years older than I was from an early age. My brother and sister are also 15 and 16 years older than I am, so I grew up with the idea that life was more interesting if you behaved in a way that let you go do the adult-focused activities (museums, nice restaurants, performances, etc.)

This all means I’ve done a lot of thinking about what it’s like to be in my earlier 30s, and working with people who are much older. There are some places – notably technology – where my experience *is* vastly different from most of the people I work with. (I am effectively a digital native, in terms of how I use and multitask on the net, for example, even though I first got real access to it in 1994, when I got to college.) And professionally, I need to be able to bring up those kinds of issues and provide resources to help them understand what’s going on, while still respecting and honoring the much more extensive administrative and other professional experience my colleagues have.

(Because no matter *how* good I am at my job now, I’m going to be a lot better when I have 10 or 20 or 30 years of experience in it. Same is true of priestessing.)

This all got brought home to me this weekend, because I went back to visit the group I trained in for ritual for the first time since I hived. (For those not keeping count, that was about 15 months ago.) At this ritual, they honored the group’s elders – and very firmly included me in that category.

They have a point – during my time with that group, I was substantially involved in the training of 9 of our initiates (to varying degrees), and I did a lot of work to help support (and at one point, change) the community culture when that was needed. (I’ve done *less* work than my HPS and HP there, of course, because they were doing that work before I ever showed up. But I’ve done my time in the trenches.)

But it did also get me thinking.

The responsibilities:
There are responsibilities that come along with that role: needing to pay attention to what and how I say things in a community setting. Remembering that people may attach *extra* emphasis to what I say in some places, and adjusting for that – even though I might, inside my head, be thinking “this is just a thing I found handy”, not “this is what everyone should do.” Remembering that I need to model what it looks like to be a respectful guest and participant, because that reflects not just on me, but on the people who trained me, and it’s going to keep echoing with the people who see me.

Not that I’m perfect at any of these things. And there’ll always be things I thought were clear that get muddled somewhere along the line. But I do keep them in the back of my head.

Balancing “Done good stuff” with “Still got more to do.”
I’m nearly 34. Chances are good that I’ll be continuing to grow in my professional and religious life, and taking on leadership and practical roles there for another 30 years. At least. So how do I do that sensibly?

The first thing I keep in mind is that burning out is not a good move. Yes, I’m perennially busy, as most people who know me figure out fast. But I also need to schedule downtime at home, and I need to make sure my projects are balanced and sustainable.

For example, as much as I love Pagan Pride, and have enjoyed doing Programming work, I’ve done that for three years, and have learned about as much from it as I’m probably going to for a while. It’s also fairly close to things I’m now doing more of in my job that can sometimes be stressful (getting people to get me information with a deadline involved, mostly.)

So, this year, I’m training someone new in to take on programming next year. I’ll still be involved with the project, but I’ll be able to step back a little bit and do less of the stuff that feels like just more work. (I do enjoy the end result, mind you.)

Likewise, at work, there’s a bunch of stuff I want to do – but I also know I don’t need to do it all this year. This year, I’m focusing on creating an intentional space and use of the library. I want to get the administrative parts of my job under tight control, so they work as efficiently as possible. And I want to have time to develop lots of individual interactions with students and faculty about learning, finding information, and reading for pleasure.

*Next* year, I can think about other projects – like getting online literacy education more tightly interconnected with our curriculum, and working on teaching specific databases and resources. (I’ll still do some of this this year, of course – but it’s not going to be my major focus.)

Likewise, it’d be a good idea for me to get involved in some professional organisations and help run a conference or two in that setting (because I do have really useful skills there). But the first year or two of a new professional job (even if it’s in a school I’m highly familiar with) is probably not the right time to do it. There will still be conferences in a few years.

The same is true in the coven. The next step (once we’re back from hiatus) is to look at gaining a few students. I know I can’t go from 2 people to our ideal working coven focus overnight, so it’ll be a few years of building. That’s fine – I just need to make sure that that building is something that sustains and supports me, not something that’s only work and no fun. (Fortunately, I love teaching and discussing, and find it re-energising almost all of the time, so this part’s pretty straightforward.)

Being human, and reminding other people of that.
I love my job, and I love priestessing, and I love a lot of other stuff I do. But I am also going to have bad days. I have stuff I am less good at. I have times in my life where things conflict and get tangled, and it takes me time to sort it out. I have times where I say stupid hurtful things and need to make it better.

For me, part of taking these responsibilities seriously is reminding people of that. Letting them know what I think I can sustain long-term, and pushing back if they try and push too far beyond that. Not rudely, not nastily, but “If you want me to do *all* of these things, I’m going to miss stuff: which ones are most important right now?” and “If you want me to do all this paperwork that requires attention to detail and has high costs if I mess it up, I need some time off the desk where I won’t be interrupted: how do we make that work with your other goal that I am highly available to students?”

And “I really want to be involved in the broader Pagan community, but I’ve got a job that demands a lot of time and attention (and that has very little downtime to work on other things), and I’ve got this coven, and my health requires I be attentive to getting enough sleep and downtime.”

There’s answers to all of those. But they’re not always simple and quick and easy. And while there are certainly days I wish those limits weren’t around, being responsible, being mature, being – well, worthy of being an elder – means I need to speak up about what I can do well, and what I can’t do well, and what the options are.

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.

Creating the life I want to live

Today is my birthday (I’m 33). I’ve spent a bunch of the past few weeks thinking about something specific – about creating the life I want to live in.

I’m single: almost three years post-divorce, and now back at a point where I’d like to consider the possibility of a serious relationship again. But to do that, I need to make space and continue working on balance (and on continuing to expand my social circles a bit.)

I have a still-new coven, and how do I want that to take shape and grow? And how do I give it space to do so, and ways to incorporate ideas and things that are not me? We’ve got a good start, but there’s still a lot of work.

There are a lot of things that interest me: how do I make time for them, or figure out which ones to do? Music is a big thing on the plate, and it’s somewhat emotionally fraught for complicated reasons. There’s writing, and there’s fiber art, and there’s baking, and all the books I want to read, and somewhere in there exercise would be a good idea.

I have an ongoing relationship with multiple deities (the joys of polytheism). How do I continue to nuture and expand and explore within that context?

I have dear friends, family of choice, and family of origin, all of whom I want to spend time with. How do I balance that against scheduling limitations, and other things that also matter to me?

And how do I make my home, my hearth, my work the kinds of space I want to spend time in – between doing the things I want, and managing the mundane responsibilities as well as possible (dishes, laundry, bills).

These things are, to my way of thinking, the most fundamental kind of magic: reshaping my own life at the most fundamental levels with focused intention and desires. But these are all big and complicated issues.

So, I started with a party.

I knew that what I wanted for my birthday was a day full of good food, good company, and great conversation. What I got was all of those and then some (there was also some fabulous mead, and some very thoughtful and caring divination readings.)

But how did I get there?

Well, first, I have loving and caring and generous friends (who are also good cooks) which helps rather a lot. My covenmate hosted (she’s got more space suitable for a larger gathering) and another friend brought homemade scones, a range of delicious fruit spreads, and there was all sorts of other goodness.

Now, a couple of years ago, I might have made a few plaintive noises about what I wanted. And I might well have gotten some of it (I have nifty friends, after all.) But this year, for a range of reasons, I felt a lot more comfortable being quite specific.

And look! Wonderful things happened.

Why did it work?

Well, I was asking for help with things that the people helping generally like to do. That never hurts.

And while this was something of a production (both my covenmate and I spent most of Saturday cooking and otherwise prepping) it was the kind of production we generally *enjoy* doing a couple of times a year.

And third, it tied into other things. It’s a time to celebrate harvest and plenty and abundance – a gathering of great food and conversation and reflection on what to ponder as we move into the dark half of the year certainly fit very tidily in that. And, having poked our heads out and been sociable, we can now focus back on the coven building for a few months.

It’s not only a good model of friendships (and I am deeply grateful to everyone who helped make this happen – whether it was obvious stuff like cooking, or just showing up). But it’s very much a model of how I want to priestess. I obviously have Opinions and Ideas and Plans – capitals quite intentional. But I also want to be doing things I can do with people I care about, and find the things *they* enjoy and look forward to, and so on.

Getting that mix right yesterday? Very hope-inducing for my coming year and years.

Taking a week

One of the good things about working for a school is the vacations.

(There are also downsides: my breaks are unpaid time, and I don’t get any say in when I get them – it makes it very hard to do things requiring time off during the school year.)

Continue reading