I guess it all adds up to joy in the end…

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Joy to Marseille

I stole the title of this post from the talented Josh Ritter. It’s from a song called “Joy To You Baby”.  It’s a breakup song; more accurately, it’s a post-breakup song. But it popped into my head while I was in France, since joy was what I was feeling most of the time.  I remember walking around Marseille with the line, “Joy to the city, the heat wave and all…” on repeat in my brain.

Out of fairness, I should probably share the lines that precede the one above, since they are also relevant:

“There’s pain in whatever we stumble upon. If I never had met you, you couldn’t have gone. But then I wouldn’t have met you, we couldn’t have been. I guess it all adds up to joy in the end.”

And that sums up how I’m feeling, sitting here, the day before I return to work, reflecting on the past three months of my sabbatical and trying to distill some wisdom from the experience. This time has been about the dichotomy of things gained and things lost. Beginnings and endings, meetings and partings, anticipation and memory, exploration and introspection.  Balancing the risks – lost professional opportunities, missed events, things undone – with the benefits – restoration, adventure, friendship, growth. And not just balancing, but understanding. Understanding what I’ve chosen and what, then, cannot be chosen. Understanding – knowing  the “pain in whatever we stumble upon”, but accepting it because we also know, or trust, the joy in the end.  

Really, that’s what it’s all about, right?  Life, that is. We move between, and try to balance, the joy and the pain, the bitter and the sweet, the struggle and the triumph. And what you hope for yourself and those you love is that in the end, when you weigh the sum total of your days and years, your experiences and adventures, the scales tip towards joy.

Recently one of my youth group alums, a well-traveled young woman wise beyond her years, shared this quote from writer and professor Miriam Adeney:

You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.

I love this, and I know it to be true. I felt it first for Haiti, a place I have known for 15 years, where I have friends and colleagues and a deep sense of connection. As life has taken me and friends onward, parts of my heart have gone to California, Connecticut, Amsterdam, Rwanda, Paris, Seattle, Prague, Memphis, Chicago, and now Germany, Australia, Nice, Canada, and of course, Marseille. In my own travels, I’ve left parts of myself in places, like breadcrumbs dropped in the hope that they will one day guide me back.  Or better yet, like seeds, which have the potential to take root and, if I do return, to surprise me with what they have become in my absence.

One of life’s challenges, of course, is getting comfortable with the feeling of never being completely at home. It is unsettling, and can lead to restlessness or shallow and hollow attempts to fill that part of your heart.  But what I’ve learned throughout this time is that the restlessness can be a gift, if we’re willing to listen to it and learn from it, instead of trying to drown it out.

On occasion, I’ve been accused of being a bit flighty, fickle, jumping from one activity to the next, as if I am trying to fill a void or find the thing that will finally be “it”.  At times I’ve felt the truth in that charge. Why aren’t I satisfied with the comforts of my life as it is? Why do I always want to have something on the horizon, something to look forward to, something new to try, or some new place to go?

My friend Wolfgang shared a beautiful poem recently with this line that, for me, starts to answer my questions:

“Only he who is ready to journey forth can throw old habits off…”

Yes! It’s only in response to the feeling of being not-quite-satisfied that we can free ourselves from the things that fetter us, and seek out something new.  With the help of words from other, smarter folks I can begin to build a defense for myself. My seeking and all that comes with it – the restlessness, the sense of not being completely at home, the hunger to see new places and try new things – these don’t arise from a desire to replace something lost but rather to give more away. The other places and other people I love don’t diminish me, they expand my life. They make me more curious, more generous, more fully myself. Who wouldn’t want more of that?  And if the unease, the not-at-home-ness, are the price, I’ll accept that because the reward, the payoff, is joy. Always more joy.

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This will be the last time I post here, at least for now. My intention was that this blog would last as long as my sabbatical.  Since the sabbatical is at its end, I think now is a good time to, as we’d say at the Institut, “prend une pause”. I may offer a post-script about my return to work, but otherwise I’m going to take a break, and wait and see what happens next.

When I started this adventure, I emailed a group of exactly 43 people and shared my blog address with them. According to my stats , I’ve had 1609 views (not visitors), from 24 countries, from the US and Germany and France to Belarus and India and Israel. Which means that I likely don’t know most of the people who visited my blog.

It’s part of the weirdness and wonder of the internet that strangers would take an interest in what I had to say, but I’m grateful for it, and for all of you. Thank you to everyone who visited and read, who shared my blog, who commented (either publicly or privately).  I am so thankful that you joined me in this life-changing adventure.

Wishing you joy on the journey, and in the end.

List-makers of the world, this one’s for you

I love making lists. I have been known to make lists of lists, especially around the holidays (Christmas card list, Hanukkah list, gift list, cookie-baking list, and on and on). There is something very satisfying about crossing things off and saying, “There. That is done. What is next?”

At my workplace we use a special shorthand for these to-dos, referring to them as “bwat lists”, from the Haitian Creole word bwat, or box. Think you’re finished with a task? Not until you send a bwat-check to whoever asked you to do the task in the first place.

As a reader, however, lists can be a bit annoying. I get pretty cranky when I turn to a favorite columnist and see that they’ve offered up a list of “random thoughts”. It’s always a bit insulting, like they’re either being clever, or they just can’t be bothered to think more completely or critically about an idea. If you don’t have enough to say to write a whole column about it, maybe it’s not that good of an idea in the first place?

But here I am, a week out from my return to work, and I realize that there are a number of things that I’d like to share, but I won’t have the time to flesh them out fully.  And, I’m rationalizing to myself, many august publications rely on lists to convey information. I mean, Harper’s does it, so it can’t be that bad, right? (We’re going to choose to ignore the fact that far less august publications also publish lists, in the form of those terrible “What’s Hot/What’s Not” and “In/Out” lists that give me a blip of anxiety – ack! kitten heels are out and wedges are in? – until I remember that I don’t actually care.)

So, with apologies to the list-haters, here are (in no particular order) a few things that don’t quite merit a post of their own, but still, in my mind, deserve a little bit of my blog space:

– You can’t make over-generalized statements about the entire population of a country. There are over 65 MILLION French people and they are not all rude. When I got home from France I heard things like, “France is wonderful, except for the French!”  Everyone I met there, from waiters to taxi drivers to hotel owners, was friendly, polite, and helpful. And I’m from Long Island, so I know a thing or two about rude.

– Regardless of what I just said about over-generalizing, I’m convinced that everyone from New Zealand is completely crazy.

– The current crop of French pop songs includes a ridiculous – perhaps even obscenely high – number of male/female duets.

– If you’re a AAA member, you can renew your driver’s license at one of the AAA branch offices, without having to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles! You can also buy movie tickets, amusement park tickets, and book travel. It is fascinating to me that with all of the on-line options, there are still people who physically go to a AAA office to book flights.

– I should never attempt to read David Foster Wallace after 10:30pm. Those evening hours are meant for travel magazines and fluffy historical fiction.

– Having a lane to yourself at a public swimming pools is one of life’s greater pleasures.

– Solo travel is good for the soul. It forces you to take responsibility for yourself, and reminds you what you’re capable of.

– Concord, MA, might be my favorite place to ride my bike. Seen on my ride yesterday: horses, goats, a cranberry bog, farms, polite (ok, tolerant) drivers, friendly Concordians, rolling hills, chipmunks, Orchard House. NOT seen on my ride: traffic lights.

– Speaking of biking…triathlons are awesome.  What I’m most proud of is that over the past several years, I’ve recruited at least 8 women, by my count, to the world of triathlons. It’s been so much fun to help them prepare and to watch them realize how strong and able they are. If you live in the Massachusetts area and are thinking about doing a triathlon, I recommend any race organized by Max Performance. Also: stop thinking, and go do it.

– There’s no substitute for putting yourself out there. No one is going to knock on my door and offer to speak French with me for a few hours. (Although, as it turns out, I have a Moroccan neighbor, so that could happen…) It is awkward and scary to attempt to meet new people, especially as an adult, but the rewards are great. I’ve met some lovely folks this summer, and continued to improve my French thanks to them. That only happened because I reached out, took a chance, and showed up.

– One of the many gifts of my sabbatical was that it allowed me to slow down. I did less, but I enjoyed more. I was deliberate and a bit more thoughtful about how I spent my time and my energies. Along with my time for exercise, this is what I’m most afraid of losing when I return to work.

– Nothing – no social network, no text messages, no occasional greeting cards – can take the place of being face to face with friends and people you love. Of course, we know this already (and if we didn’t, we now have studies to prove it), and our lives don’t always lend themselves to personal contact. But we have to prioritize it, and try to order our lives in a way that encourages it, if we want those relationships to grow and nourish us.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for indulging my list-making and hanging in to the bitter end. You can now bwat-check “Read Kathryn’s blog”. What’s next?

 

Where do we start?

Earlier this week I had lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in several years. As we sat down, we started talking about a race he had recently run, my sponsorship of which had put us back in touch. With that covered, we had a moment where we looked at each other and said, “So, where do we begin?”.

Given the time that had passed, we weren’t sure how or where to start.  Do we calculate exactly when we last saw each other and work forward from there?  Or just skip ahead to current stuff – jobs, family, mutual friends? We figured it out, and, as it’s always been our custom to enjoy long, lingering meals, we spent over three hours catching up.

I’m hoping that meal will be good preparation for my upcoming return to the office, about a week and a half from now. Where do I start catching up with my colleagues? Of course, three months isn’t nearly the same as three years, but three months in the life of an organization is a significant amount of time. Particularly when that organization includes hundreds of people and spans multiple countries. On top of that, the past several months have been a time of transition and turnover. I honestly don’t know how many people I’ll recognize when I get back. Part of me wonders if I should pretend to be a new employee, and see how long I can keep that up…

For now, I’m focused on spending the first few days getting re-acclimated, meeting with and listening to the people who have been doing the heavy lifting in my absence.  I have to remember to be patient with them, and with myself, and to allow for some difficulties in the first few days. Getting back to my old routine and schedule will be a challenge.  I’m thinking of strategies to bring the things that have become important to me – exercise, mindful eating, thoughtful communication – into my work day.

All of this will take time. I hope in the weeks to come that I’ll be able to share some of what I learned during my sabbatical with friends and colleagues, and that those lessons will result in positive changes to my work and to our organizational culture. But first I need to listen, and understand the successes and challenges that my colleagues have had while I’ve been away. And most importantly, I need to find a way to show my gratitude, which, especially in these last days, is immense.

Teenagers, kick our butts

“I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn, but that’s not your fault, that’s just your turn…”

Dar Williams, “Teenagers, Kick Our Butts”

Several of my kids started college this week. Pictures of dorm rooms and new roommates are popping up on Facebook. More will head off in the coming days – I think 8 or 9 of them in total will be freshmen this year. And back in May, about 6 or 7 of my kids graduated from college. They’ve studied abroad in Denmark, England, Spain, Japan, and France. They live here in Boston, in California, in DC, and New York, at least for now.

Of course, these are not actually my children. (For starters, I could never afford to put that many kids through college.) I’m talking about the young men and women I know through my role as a volunteer mentor. For the past five years, I’ve worked with the Diocesan Youth Council (DYC), a leadership group that is part of the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts.

My husband and I don’t have kids, and I’m not under any illusions about my role in the lives of these young people. I see them for a few weekends a year. Their parents, teachers, and communities have done the heroic work of raising them into the thoughtful, responsible young adults that they are. I get to learn from them, enjoy their company, and maybe teach them a little something along the way.

My own experience in youth group was incredibly important to me. I grew up in a large Roman Catholic church that had an active youth program, with both small group meetings and the big events – ski trips, retreats, movie nights – that are universal elements of teen programs. In the group that met weekly at the home of our mentor, I learned about keeping commitments and being dependable. I learned how to deal with awkward silences, and how to be comfortable articulating and sharing my thoughts. We were given opportunities for leadership and I learned how to disagree, and how to handle people with whom I did not get along.

People often ask me why I like working with teenagers, and why I choose to spend several weekends each year sleeping on church floors, or in uninsulated cabins in the woods, trying to convince 10 or 20 young women that they really need to stop giggling and texting and go to sleep.

The truth is, the teenagers I know are so full of possibility and energy and life that they are a joy to be around. I get to join them on part of their journey, and often the most exciting part, as they consider their future and try to discern their path in the world. It’s such a gift to witness their growth over the 2 to 3 years that we’re together, and while I’m always sad to see them graduate, I just cannot wait to see what they do with their lives.

They give so much to me and the other adults who volunteer with the DYC. They keep me connected to (and help me understand) popular culture, and they keep me honest – teenagers can sniff out B.S. from a mile away, and they don’t tolerate it.  And what do I give to them?  I hope my message to them is that they are loved, and they are enough. Just as they are. When they are present, they and their gifts are welcomed and celebrated. When they are absent, their absence is noted and they are missed.

There are challenges, of course. You want to be able to prevent some of the difficulties that you experienced at their age, but you can’t. You know that they’re going to make mistakes, and you just hope they make the ordinary, run-of-the-mill mistakes that most of us made when we were young, the kind you get over and bounce back from, even if you still cringe thinking about them years later.

You know things they don’t. That some of their friendships won’t survive college. Some will rupture because of an argument or a thoughtless word. Others will end for no discernible reason – over time, emails and texts will slow, until one day you notice that a friend has simply slipped out of your life. Odds are that high school romance won’t last, either, in spite of the strength of feeling and the will to stay together. Of course you can’t tell them this – they need to figure it out and experience it all themselves, as you once did.

But if they’re lucky, you know what else awaits them. If they’re lucky, they may find themselves, as I just did, visiting a friend I’ve had since I was 15 years old, who is, against those above-mentioned odds, married to a wonderful woman he first met in youth group. If they are patient and generous and allow their friendships to stretch and change and grow then someday, years from now, they’ll know the pure pleasure of talking and laughing and recalling some dumb teenage mistakes with someone who doesn’t need any explanations or backstory, because he’s been part of the story, well, forever.

But they can’t know all of this. They’re just at the start of this great adventure, and so we all – parents, coaches, mentors, teachers, friends, parish, community – bless them and send them into the world. Off you go now…

Choreographing life’s routine

We humans are, for the most part, creatures of habit. Any parent reading can testify to the importance of routine in a child’s life. As adults, we value stability and predictability, and prefer our breaks from the everyday to come in neat little 1- or 2-week blocks of vacation time. I suspect that even the most adventurous and nomadic among us still appreciates a reliable meal, an on-time train, and a warm bed at day’s end.

Life’s small routines – where we get our morning coffee or which car we sit in on the commuter rail – can link us to our neighbors and offer a daily point of connection to our community. Our grander routines – think reunions, holidays, or that annual family camping trip – allow us to mark the passage of time. They provide continuity, memory, and the shared experiences that create and sustain relationships.

My pre-sabbatical routine was pretty, well, routine. I’d wake up around 5:30 or 6ish, exercise, shower, and drive to work, arriving at my desk before 8am, when the office was still quiet. I’d work until 6pm or so, drive home, eat dinner with my husband, then read or watch TV for a few hours before going to bed. And repeat…

As soon as I stopped going to work every day, waaaay back at the end of May, I felt completely adrift without the structure that my work routine provided. When you remove 8-10 hours of work and at least 1.5 hours of commuting, you’re left with a lot of day to fill.

Happily, the work-day routine was replaced by the routine established in France. My in-class hours adhered to a very strict schedule, and our after-hours time also took on a shape and structure (although admittedly a loose one, which normally involved a search for  food). It’s funny, in retrospect, how quickly I created a routine in France, when I had so longed for a change of scenery and a new adventure.

Since I’ve been back from France I’ve had the luxury of time, but almost immediately I set about making a schedule for myself, mostly so I didn’t feel like I was wasting that time. I have a routine again, but I’ve noticed that the components of that routine are more varied. Before, I might have just sat in front of the TV for an hour before going to bed, because it’s what I normally do. Now, I look around for alternatives, and I’m just as likely to spend that hour reading, blogging, writing letters, conjugating French verbs (yes, I really do that), practicing the harmonica or taking a walk.

Preach it, Matt.

It’s not as if those options weren’t available to me before. But I find I’m more open to them, and I’m more conscious and mindful of how I use my time.  I’m a bit more self-critical. I mean, what is being adding to my life by watching “We Bought a Zoo” again? With apologies to Matt Damon, not much. (Although I do love the “20 seconds of insane courage” bit, and the ending is beautiful. It’s worth watching once. Twice, tops.)

A dear friend has a quote from Aristotle in his email signature which reads, in part, “We are what we repeatedly do”.  As I start to prepare for my “re-entry” into my working life, it’s a helpful reminder to stay alert to the choices I make and what those choices make me. It’s not just about how I fill the time I have available. Rather, it’s about structuring my days and, by extension, my life, to reflect who I want to be.

How to end a sabbatical

One of the reasons I started this blog was that I couldn’t find the kinds of resources I wanted to help me plan and prepare for my sabbatical. So it should come as no surprise that there are even fewer resources to help me end my sabbatical.

Yesterday I realized that I had only three weeks remaining before returning to work. A friend pointed out that if you offered most people a three-week vacation, they’d be thrilled – it would seem like a luxurious amount of time. To look at it another glass-half-full way, I still have about 20% of my sabbatical remaining. Not bad.

Still, I’m starting to feel some urgency and some anxiety about the remaining time. Several months before my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to attend a leadership training program, and as part of that experience I was assigned an executive coach. In a follow-up conversation a few weeks before my leave, I asked her for her thoughts about “re-entry” into work, and if I should use the week or so before returning to start getting caught up, checking email, etc. “Absolutely not!”, was her immediate reply. “Your sabbatical is your time until the moment you walk back into your office.” That’s been my guiding principle, and I’m confident I can stick to it.

But the question remains as to what to do with the time that is left. There are no great adventures on the horizon, but neither are there any big things I feel like I must do. Many of the goals I had for this time have been accomplished. I have learned, traveled, explored my hometown, nurtured relationships, exercised, read, reflected, gotten organized. Still, a part of me feels like I need to produce something, or have something more concrete to hold up to others to justify having taken this time. (One could argue that this blog could be that “something”, I guess.)

So that’s where I am on this beautiful Wednesday morning. Not yet counting down the days remaining, to be sure, but mindful that those days are few, and should be used well.