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Work: Part 1. Endings and Beginnings.

As I type these words, I am surrounded by a house that is going to seed.

I may never have been a great housekeeper, but the years since I entered teaching have been particularly poor from a Better Homes and Gardens perspective. The carpets are more dog hair than any other fiber; our dining room table cannot be seen for the stacks of unopened mail and hampers of laundry waiting to be folded; the windows are nearly opaque with grime; and cartons of books to give away or throw away hulk in the corners as if they were themselves bulky pieces of furniture. I won't even describe to you the mildew in my bathtub.

It's a mess around here. And (as is surely the case in many two-teacher households) it won't get much better till the end of June, when school lets out.

It is a visible reminder of how out of balance my life currently is. And it is a visible reminder to continue to wrestle with the questions of work and vocation that have been on my mind almost constantly this year.

I do not think there has ever been a time in my life when my work life and my home life have been in balance. At times when I seemed to have a good balance in terms of the number of hours spent at home vs the number spent on the job, the money I brought in has been embarrassingly inadequate. For about twenty years, I worked in various capacities as a counselor and psychotherapist. I was good enough at what I did to build up a small reputation for it locally; I was good enough at it that I know myself that, yes, I did some good.

But the hours were lousy; it was feast or famine in terms of how busy I was. And I will not tell you how little I earned in an average year, because remarks that I have overheard in passing about "hobby therapists" still sting after all these years out of the profession.

Suffice it to say, I never earned enough money that I felt it was adequate compensation to my family for the evening hours I put in, the shortened vacations (to keep clients from decompensating in my absence!), the crisis phone calls interrupting meals, or the constant fatigue when I did get home. I think my daughter probably heard, "Not now, I'm tired" from me more than any other set of words, and if it is not reasonable to hold one's parents liable for the "sin" of working hard to support you, I'm not sure the same can be said for working hard and not actually earning enough to accomplish that.

But I was good at what I did, and I enjoyed the sensation of being good at it. There is a kind of sensuousness to doing a job--perhaps any job--properly. And that satisfaction is only deepened when the job is one that you know very clearly is meaningful to the world.

I remember one night, walking across the dark and almost abandoned UMass campus to my car after facilitating a rape survivors' group. As is not unusual while running a group for trauma survivors, I was somewhat hypervigilant. It's not that the world is more dangerous to women who are aware of its dangers to us, but it certainly feels more menacing after a long night of hearing stories of rape and abuse, and sharing those emotions with a group.

The shadows were long and dark, and I was quite aware of the ways I am not invulnerable, and thinking about what would happen were I assaulted before I could reach my car.

Minds work that way, after all. On the one hand, it had been a very satisfying and productive night, and real healing was happening. On the other hand, it had been a night that stripped away the illusion of safety that usually soothes us all as we go through our lives.

But as my feet padded along the hard concrete of the sidewalk, I had a funny feeling come over me. Not that I was immune to rape or violence or death, but that, doing what I was doing and had been doing, no matter what might happen to me in my body, I would be OK. Somehow, the essential I walking through the night would be just fine.

It seemed to me that my life was a path. That night, not simply because of the nature of the work I was doing, but because I had been fully open to that work and fully in it, and because the work was what I was meant at that moment to be doing... just at that moment it seemed to me that I was fully on a kind of white path that was mysteriously much, much stronger and more real than even the cement under my feet.

And though I could be hurt or even killed, while I was on that path, somehow, even that would be all right. In a deeper way, nothing could harm me, as long as I was walking my own true path.

I can't really convey the solidity of the realization. It was a kind of affirmation of my work in the way that, years later, on September 11, 2001, my sudden and visceral conversion to the peace testimony was a repudiation of my ideas about the rational use of force.

As a Quaker, I now have a whole vocabulary about leadings and openings and times of being "well used" by the Holy Spirit. One of the ways I understand that moment was that it was an encounter with the Holy Spirit; one of the ways I understand the work that I did as a counselor, while it was the work I was meant to be doing, is of the experience of being "well used."

The memories of being fully and rightly used as a counselor are among my very best. I continue to honor the men and women who trusted me with their stories. It was a privilege to be part of their connection to life and to meaning.

But it came to an end, that era in my life.

There had always been days when the stress and the grief of counseling survivors of abuse sat heavily on my shoulders. Literally, I think, on my shoulders: I used to feel a kind of burning sensation between my shoulder blades, an ache, after some of the most painful client sessions.

I knew where every green space in downtown Northampton was, and I always booked at least 30 minutes between client sessions, so that when I felt the need I could go outside and lie down on the ground underneath a shady tree and let the pain drain out of me, into the soil. Into the Earth. (She is big enough to carry our pain, and will if we let her, taking it away and letting the little eaters of life feast upon it, only to return to us the broken up bits of our grief as nourishment for new life. This is not a metaphor.)

But the day came when I began to feel something different, unlike the heaviness of sharing, however briefly, another person's burdens. I began to feel a grief that was like fear, or a fear that was like grief. Gradually, I began to realize that I was going to have to stop counseling. And, though it had never actually paid the bills for my family, I had never done anything else since I'd left school. I had no idea what would come next.

This is the part where my psychotherapist friends like to nod sagely and say, "Ah, yes. Burnout." But it was not burn out, despite the perpetual possiblity of that specter. It was something else.

It was being... done.

It was loss. (Maybe all change begins as loss.)

Counseling was simply not supposed to be my white path any more. I could stay on it if I chose, but the moments of knowing I was exactly where I was meant to be in that work were coming to an end. It was time to move on, but I did not know into what.

Again, as a Quaker, I have a vocabulary for this. I believe that this was one of three or four times in my life when I have been given a very clear leading.

The decision to leave the profession was not really a decision; it was a spiritual necessity. I could not have stayed in counseling without having disregarded something invisible but essential about who I am as a person.

It was still difficult to imagine doing anything else. I never had.

I asked myself what I loved.

I loved kids. Especially in the gawky, self-conscious, brilliant and erratic stage of life called adolescence.

I had discovered how much fun young teenagers could be. My daughter taught me that, when she flooded my house with her middle school friends for sleepovers and after-school chaos. (It has taken me some time to learn the vast difference between the well-loved and well-educated adolescents of functional families, and the angry, broken children of angry, broken parents. I am still learning how to love those teenagers; not impossible, but absolutely more difficult.)

A lateral move into counseling teenagers made sense intellectually. But in no other way was it appealing to me.

I did not love counseling teenagers. For whatever reason, teenagers in counseling are a prickly, defensive, fearful species. I believed then, and I still believe now, that this is less about the problems of teens in counseling than it is about the fact that counseling is not an adolescent's natural habitat: adults can often benefit from exploring painful memories and emotions in company with a caring other. Adolescents, though, are emotionally a bit like race cars without brakes. The last thing they need, in many cases, is to flood themselves with emotions they can scarcely name, let alone experience, accept, and move on from.

So. What else did I love?

I loved--I have always loved--books.

I took a second look. Could I combine my love of books and my love of adolescents? Why not change careers and become a teacher?

Why not?

Well, teacher certification programs are expensive. It was hard to justify more expensive education in the interests of a career that might not even suit me.

And how would I close out my private practice? It would hardly be ethical to simply close my doors one day, but if I simply stopped accepting new clients, and waited for old ones to finish or accept referrals, I could be in for a long, long period of even less money flowing in, while working enough hours to make things like practice teaching virtually impossible.

And I'd been an English major in college, meaning that the easiest road to travel would be towards teaching English. But I'd hated most English classes in high school and middle school: too much talking about books, and not enough reading them.

And who would hire me, anyway? I was clear that I was not interested in saving the world with this career move: I knew I could get a job in a troubled inner-city school, but I also doubted I could handle it. No schools with metal detectors became my index of possiblities.

I found options opening up, once I began looking for them. I discovered the books of Nanci Atwell, a middle-school English teacher whose student-centered philosophy of teaching turned out to be something I could imagine as a center of my own teaching.

My daughter took a class with another very talented middle-school teacher, who taught in a way I could imagine enjoying either as a student or as a teacher. He introduced me to books by other teachers, like Harvey Daniels, stressing independent student reading and writing.

A local college began offering a teacher certification program that met at times I could attend, and for a price I could afford. A local adult education program let me volunteer with student writing groups, and test my vocation.

Many of my clients gradually finished up their work with me. Others accepted referrals. Still others found ways to flex around my changing life as we concluded our work together.

And I was hired, in the end, by a small, rural school district where I work still. No metal detectors: clean, bright hallways. And colleagues I can admire; kids I can (mostly) reach and enjoy.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Isn't it wonderful the way a leading path opens up after each step we take. The path can be seen, but often not the end point, or the end point and not the path. It can be scarry starting on the path, but somehow it feels so right.
Sounds like you are where you are supposed to be.
Peace
Thudfactor said…
This is one of those right posts hitting at the right time for me. Thanks for talking about making career transitions in ways that don't sound like CNBC financial programs.

I'm going to have to try laying on the ground after a rough day once the ground is less soggy.
Christine said…
I understand how you feel. I wanted to be a veternarian since birth. I joined the military and worked as a vet tech. so I could earn money for college. I realized that despite how much I loved animals, I really didn't want to run a business.

Around that same time, one of the vets wanted to check out a horse therapy program in Galvaston. I went with him and was amazed at the kids who, despite their mental and physical handicaps, knew more about how to saddle a horse than I did. I had so much fun! The kids were awesome.

It was then I decided to teach, and I have been teaching for 14 years. Yes, teaching is hard. I work at a school that is Title 1, so many of our kids don't eat 3 meals a day or sleep in a safe house, and we have our fair share of gang problems. But, at the end of the exhausting day, I can remember the faces and smiles of those kids who want to be reached, who want to be loved, who want to learn English just because I am their teacher. It is humbling, tiring, frustrating, and wonderful.

Many times I have thought about leaving, but I know that this is what I am supposed to be doing. Every year, there is at least one kid who needs me to support them because he or she doesn't have anyone else.

So, at the end of the day, my dishes are not done, and there is a pile of laundry that is growing exponentially, but my husband is adored, my dogs are loved, and I am content with my place in the universe.

Blessings to you and yours.

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