I took a slightly different approach this year, for reasons that will be explained in the talk itself. And I'm posting a little ahead of New Year's Eve so that those who want to play along have a chance to prepare. The full text will be behind a cut, just because it's kinda long.
For those who've played along in past years, how did your 2014 word work out?
Because deep, deep down I will always be a teacher, even though I am currently not employed as one, this sermon will come with homework. No, it isn’t to find your word for 2015, even though I hope you will continue that tradition. But before I go further, I want you to know what your homework is so that you can’t later claim that the dog ate your syllabus. Your assignment is to find a big empty jar when you get home. Like this one. [hold up big jar, because who doesn’t love props?] You have until December 31 to do so.
Why am I asking you to do this? That is kind of a long story.
Around this time two years ago, I described my habit of picking one word to focus on during the coming year. During the nearly two decades I’ve been doing this on New Year’s Eve, my words have ranged from “courage” to “patience” to “restore” and back again. The trick to picking a word, I’ve explained, is writing it down on dozens of pieces of paper, then scattering those little notes all over your environment so that you stumble upon your word randomly.
Last year, members of the congregation shared their words for 2014 with me. I wrote a bunch of them down. Words like “discipline” and “awe” and “hope” and “phragmosis” were on our minds last year. And, now that we’re looking back, I hope you had the discipline to practice awe. I’m not even going to ask about your phragmosis.
As for my word, for 2014, I completely failed to practice what I preached. My word, which I actually had to look up because I mentioned it during the sermon, then completely failed to write it down, was “consistency.” The irony of this is not lost on me.
Adding to the irony is that 2014 was, perhaps, the least consistent year I’ve had in recent memory. It’s been a wild one, one that keeps throwing novel obstacles in my path.
Some of these have been wonderful obstacles to climb. I had an unexpected opportunity to present a paper in Cambridge, England. Despite not really knowing how a) I was going to pay for the trip and, more importantly, b) to write an academic paper after not having written one for so long, I embraced the challenge anyway and it is one of the better decisions I’ve made during the last 360ish days.
Some of the obstacles have been, well, not bad, really, just unexpected. After a decade of teaching at SUNY Oneonta, an opportunity to move full-time into a writing job with the Alumni Engagement Office presented itself. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, frankly, since college students and all of their attendant woes were starting to get under my skin. As much as I love teaching — and 85 percent of the students were lovely — I was starting to burn out a bit. When the writing job presented itself, I had to leap, even though I knew it would be a bumpy transition period from one way of working to another. For the last three months, my work days, which also stretched into work nights and work weekends, have been anything but consistent.
And then there were the hardest obstacles, the ones I’m still trying to scale. In early summer, my stepfather died unexpectedly. He was a wonderful, kind-hearted man who left an enormous, unfillable hole in my mother’s life. And in mine, to a lesser extent. I miss him.
I also miss his buffering effect on my relationship with my mother — but that is a story for another time.
Just as we were starting to regain consistency after a hastily arranged trip to the 3North Florida back country for the funeral, my husband’s stepfather died. While his passing was less of a surprise — Alzheimers doesn’t take its victims quickly — there was still a period of adjustment. And, of course, sadness.
The end of the year, too, has felt like a slow shuffle from memorial service to memorial service. I’m starting to develop a reflexive cringe whenever I see someone’s name in the subject line of an email. As much as I ache for consistency, a steady stream of grief isn’t really what I’d been hoping for.
None of this is to say that I’m not going to keep picking a word for each year. Just that I might need to shake things up a little bit. Hence the jar. No, the jar doesn’t have to be this big — but it wouldn’t hurt if you had ample space in it.
But before I tell you what will go in the jar, you’ll need to listen to two more quick stories.
As I was pondering about what to talk about this year, I knew there was a moment I wanted to work into the sermon but I couldn’t figure out how it fit. It’s probably the most spiritual moment of my life so far.
After college, my husband, who wasn’t my husband at the time, and I moved from Pennsylvania to Austin, Texas. He was going to grad school; I had just graduated with a degree in a field I wasn’t quite sure I had any passion for anymore.
Years pass, as they do. My husband — he was my husband now — had graduated and was teaching at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, for a year. I was finishing up a degree in journalism at UT-Austin. I was also dealing with mental illness, which, in hindsight, was greatly interfering with my daily life.
But I hadn’t realized that yet.
Relevant for our purposes is that one of the daily activities my brain didn’t want me to do was drive more than a few miles. Even the idea of driving across the city triggered intense anxiety. Like - I need to crawl under the bed for a few days levels of panic. A good friend of mine from college, who didn’t know squat about my psychological state, came for a visit. She really, really wanted to drive down to San Antonio from Austin to take the mission walk, which is a hike and bike trail that connects four of the oldest stone churches in the country. The oldest is Mission Concepcion, which was built in 1755.
As interesting as that trip sounded, there was one problem: we’d have to drive. There was a second problem: I didn’t want anyone to know how terrified I was, because I still thought this anxiety was something to be ashamed of and kept secret.
Said friend was (and still is) not one to take no for an answer. What followed was in the top ten most harrowing experiences I’ve ever had. What made it worse was that all of the terror took place in my own skull.
What added to the experience was that it was July. In Texas. And we were two stupid gringas who failed to bring any water.
Still, we were in our mid20s and invincible. We hiked for an hour or so. At the height of the afternoon, we walked into the last mission — I think it was San Jose. But with the heat and the lingering terror, I’m not entirely certain.
At the time, this mission was still an active Catholic church. There was an older hispanic woman lighting a candle and saying a prayer. A couple was in the pews, heads bowed. It was easily 20 degrees cooler in that stone building and dark. Two seconds after I crossed the threshold, I made it to a pew before I fell to my knees. Then I had an overwhelming feeling that I was where I needed to be. Everything was going to be OK.
I’ve tried to not pick apart what happened. Maybe it was simply physiological, an automatic response to too much adrenaline, too much heat, and not enough water. The atheist in me likes that explanation. Or it could have been something not as logically explained. Or, likely, both.
And, to anticipate your next question, this wasn’t a turning point, which somehow triggered an urge to get my act together. Everything was both OK and not. It depends on the time scale you use. Short term: everything got much worse. Long term: everything is OK.
The rest of my year in Austin wasn’t great but I graduated and found a job in Knoxville, Tennessee. My husband finished up his year in Lancaster and moved south. Life bumped along. September 11 happened. Shortly thereafter, we decided to have a baby. And ten months thereafter, we did.
Long story short, all of the mental health issues I’d had — past and present — kicked it up a notch after Maddy’s birth. I wound up in our local psych ward for another week after her birth. But this isn’t about that.
By Christmas of that year, Maddy was six months old. Things were stable. Not great, mind, but manageable. After all of the holiday hoopla — and given that she was the first grandbaby for both sets of our parents, there was a lot of hoopla — both Scott and I had some downtime between Christmas and the New Year.
We spent the days doing a million things and not really anything, like you do when you have a baby. In the evenings, we’d hang out on the couch eating rum cake and playing the new Harry Potter videogame, which had been released on the heels of the first movie.
One night, post rum cake and with the baby sound asleep on my lap, while Scott made Harry Potter jump around the Hogwart’s library, I had that same feeling, the one I’d had in the mission. You are where you need to be. Everything is going to be OK.
Short term, of course, it wasn’t. Life got more chaotic still, as we juggled a new baby, two jobs, my tenuous mental health, and, eventually, a move with a one-year old from Tennessee to New York State. But long term, well, I am where I need to be. And, really, everything is OK, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
Which brings me to the jar. Remember the jar?
For the next year, which will likely be just as tumultuous and strange and wonderful and weird as every other year, I’m going to write down all of the moments that went well, the ones that make me feel like it’s all going to work out in the end. I want a big jar because I am nothing if not hopeful.
I’m also going to toss my word in there, too, once I figure out what it’s going to be.
This time next year, my plan is to go through the jar and see what comes out.
Your homework is to do the same. Find a jar. When you have those “everything is going to be OK” moments, write them down. And, of course, put these slips of paper in the jar.
My hope is that there will be many, many more pieces of paper than you’d initially think in the jar by the time we get to the end of 2015. I don’t think these moments are as rare as they appear to be. We just fail to notice them in the bustle of daily life. The jar is just a way of gathering them, like fireflies. Little bits of light for when things get dark — and a reminder that we are each of us is where we need to be.