Saturday, April 24, 2010

Don't mind the gap

So here’s the story on where I’ve been lately. Midway through Fall semester, I got a phone call from a highly respected professor in my college. He asked me—totally out of the blue—to take over a class for him Winter semester. And this was no ordinary class. It was a course this professor had created, along with another colleague, more than 30 years ago, as an Honors Colloquium. Together, they had developed this class into a veritable institution, a cornerstone of the honors program, one of the most famous classes on campus. This was a really big deal.

I had to ask him more than once if he was serious. Did he know who he was talking to? Was he sure he had dialed the right number? He insisted that he was, he did and he was. Still to this day, I’m not sure why he asked me, of all people, but I accepted and I knew from the beginning it would be a wonderful, daunting, intimidating, thrilling assignment. Ha. What an understatement.

Sure, I knew it would be a stressful semester since I had already committed to teaching two large Humanities classes, not to mention my usual family time and church responsibilities. But even I was surprised by the magnitude of the job. I have seriously spent every spare moment from October through April preparing for lectures, researching, making powerpoints, previewing films for the lab portion of the class or grading an even taller stack of papers than usual. I have gained weight. I have lost hair. I have destroyed my teeth (3 fillings yesterday, 2 more cracked teeth to fix) from all the grinding I apparently do in my sleep. My kids have begun to wonder if life will ever return to the normal chaos they now look back on fondly as the “golden age” before mom became permanently attached to the office chair.

The really amazing thing is that the class pulled me out of a formidable stretch of depression, gave me a much-needed sense of purpose, and filled up the dangerous open spaces that otherwise serve as collecting pools for ruminations and self-pity. Learning new stuff gives me great pleasure and I have learned more new stuff in the past few months than at any other time in my life. (Which means I am even more aware of my vast ignorance than I was before because that’s what learning does to me; isn’t it great?). With a surprising degree of depth, I have loved this class and the students who suffered through the semester with me. I don’t exaggerate when I say that the experience has changed me as a person. I can’t begin to describe the class in a blog post, but I’ll just say that it’s a class about war and peace and how we can understand the former and create more of the latter. Even that description falls short. I’m sure the things I learned will be creeping into blog posts for years to come, especially since it looks like I’ll be teaching the class again in the future.

But back to the dangerous open spaces point. I was worried, upfront, that I’d be neglecting my husband and kids for a few months, which as it turned out, was a fairly accurate concern. My absence (physical, often mental, and sometimes emotional) left gaps in the fabric of my home.

But surprisingly, I’ve witnessed a manifestation of the principle that “nature abhors a vacuum.” My busy-ness has forced the kids (and Ken) to fill in the gaps. Ethan has stepped up and helped more with the younger kids (even starting a “Nora school” to teach her the writing skills I’ve been putting off). McKay decided some blessed day several weeks ago, that he wanted to get straight A’s and I haven’t had to remind him a single time this semester to do his homework. (No kidding!) Gabie, always desperate for attention and stimulation, has discovered a passion for reading, which I must say, has been a blessing from the gods of Mount Olympus themselves. (Gabie is currently on his fourth time through the Percy Jackson series). Nora, well, I can’t put a happy face on all the videos Nora has watched in the last few months. She deserves better from me and I’m going to make it up to her. But she has learned to be more independent, which is a good thing. She can play happily by herself now for long stretches of time. She’s also spent more quality time with her dad. And Ken has been a saint. He’s had to fill in the “mommy spaces” by sacrificing much of his own free time. He has read more to the kids. Cooked more. Cleaned more. Taken all the kids off to fly kites or watch movies or play in the sand dunes while I worked on school stuff. Since we don’t see as much of each other during the week, we’ve made date night a top priority, even if it meant leaving the kids for a couple of hours to go shopping together.

So, while I don’t plan to repeat this kind of stressful semester ever again, I have learned that, if you’ve got good relationships to begin with, families are resilient. Kids will surprise you. Husbands can step in and save the day.

The connection to art that comes to mind involves Picasso’s cubist works. He showed (especially in the early, analytical phase) how space is never really empty. There are no true voids. Whether a canvas is crowded with objects or fairly simple, every inch of it has content and substance. The intervals between things and surrounding things are as important as the things themselves. We like to think that, in the shipping crate that is our life, we have this vacuous, meaningless “free time” floating in-between and around all the important scheduled events and responsibilities, but honestly, don’t we fill up that time with various kinds of packing material? And what if it turns out, when the container arrives at its destination, the packing material was just as important as the claimed contents?

If not stressing about class, I would have been writing or reading or reading about writing. I would have been making fancier meals and more homemade bread. I would have been saying yes to more demands on my time outside the home. I would have been, frankly, wasting time watching movies or surfing the internet, the moral equivalent of bubble wrap. As Ken reminds me, I’m not always rational when it comes to time-management. But this stressful semester has forced me to make better choices and focus my priorities. It has also forced my kids to waste less of their time and listen to their own consciences because their mother, who used to think she had to hold everything together with her pestering and nagging and reminding, was temporarily out of the picture. They all expanded—grew up a bit—to fill in the gaps.

For the sake of my family, my marriage and my sanity, I’m glad the semester is almost over, but I also hope to maintain the feeling that every second is precious. And if choose to spend those seconds just hanging out with my kids doing “nothing,” at least I’ve learned how lucky I am to have that luxury.

8 comments:

OrganicSchool said...

Wow--that was JUST what this work-at-home homeschooling mom needed to hear! Thank you for such a brilliant and thought-provoking mother's manifesto with your blog fans. We will now spend less time obsessing over those "spaces"--at least, I will!

NorahS said...

Sounds like an amazing experience. I am so glad you are blogging about it!

Deb said...

We NEED to get together - I have been living a similar experience while being in school full time this past year...and I have one more year to go. I get done mid-May - let's make plans :-) I'm certain that the Pen and the Sword students have learned so much from you! You are amazing, and a hero of mine!

Pale Bear said...

I grind my teeth so much that my back upper molars are almost level with my gums. I was fitted a year or so ago with a mouth guard that I wear at night. It is my friend. I lisp when I wear it, but it keeps me from caps on my teeth. And it keeps me from biting my tongue in my sleep too. It's not as bad as a retainer because there's no roof-of-the-mouth attachment. Ask your dentist about it.

planetnomad said...

Our family can relate to these times when you're in 'survival mode' and all the extras go out the window. I'm glad your survival time has been over something so enriching! I enjoyed this post immensely.

Jill said...

Aaahh, you're back. I love how you think about things. "Dangerous open spaces" and "bubble wrap" are concepts I am all too familiar with. Thanks to you, I now have names for them.

I can only imagine how great the class was with you guiding the way. You are amazing!

Annie said...

Bravo! I needed to read this, too. I have those same tendencies with "dangerous open spaces that otherwise serve as collecting pools for ruminations and self-pity." Loved that!

I'm in my 4th year of doctoral work and have those periods where it expands further into my life than others. Thank you for articulating the juggle so well. I wish I could sit in on your class--sounds fabulous.

Tangent Woman said...

I totally relate to this -
In the last year I have gotten rid of 3 major time commitment responsibilities and I had all these delusions of organization and cleanliness - I figured that with all the extra time I would be able to do all my put-off projects.
Instead things are more chaotic than ever because I filled my time with fluff.

BTW - I'm so glad you're back to blogdom