Monday, February 17, 2014

Turning the Quarter

I’ll admit, I didn’t start this last year off in the best of spirits. Sure, I was enjoying my job, my schooling, having my own apartment, attending a poetry work shop, and so on, but I was a bit disappointed in myself. My biggest goal for my life thus far was to complete my Master’s degree by the time I turned twenty-five. I had a plan all through college, even before I had decided, for certain, to earn a Master’s, that I would have that degree before I turned twenty-five. So there I was on my twenty-fifth birthday glad that I had followed through with part of the goal yet feeling like my whole life was behind schedule. It had ruined everything. Everything. Not that I really had many other plans. I wanted to publish a novel, to publish a poetry collection, to get a job at the local college, and accomplish a few other things, none of which had time constraints, but that was the main thing.

So when I walked across the stage of Pacific University’s auditorium and received my degree certificate, a Master of Fine Arts, a “certified poet” as a friend has since referred to me, I received it with much excitement, pleasure, and just a hint of sadness. “What is the big deal?” you may be asking. “You got your degree. You’re only twenty-five!” And you’re right. I think that somewhere deep down, that goal was so important to me because of the quarter-century birthday regrets I had heard so often in the years leading up to mine. “I’m already twenty-five!” my friends and relatives said to me. “I haven’t accomplished anything. I don’t even know what I’m going to do with my life!” But me, I’d known since before I was six, carting a five-subject notebook everywhere and answering the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” with “a children’s author!” without even missing a beat.

That particular dream got derailed shortly before I entered college by a rather disappointing correspondence writing course that did nothing for my storytelling and left me feeling like a writing fraud. But I bought a few new notebooks, trooped off to FVCC, and immersed myself in poetry. It did wonders for me, and it brought back most of my writing ambition. That ambition developed into a love for poetry and a re-routing of my ultimate goals. But the date for that Master’s degree never changed. I envisioned receiving it the summer of my twenty-fourth year and hanging it up at some enormous twenty-fifth birthday gathering. (I don’t know why. I’m not a big crowd person...)

The birthday party didn’t even really happen. Normally, my family comes together for a fairly large party at my grandmother’s house. Four of us have birthdays in March, and we celebrate all of them together (this allows for a variety of desserts). Last year, everyone got sick, and we all had to celebrate on our own. I stayed home panicking about my thesis and chastising myself for the year and a half I took off from school after graduating UM that landed me in my house studying instead of at the movies or somewhere fun.
But I finished the thesis with a few wonderful writing epiphanies. I walked across the stage and received my degree. My mentor contacted me during that residency to tell me he had set up a reading that he and I would give together at the local college. I came home fairly elated and was swept away from writing altogether from July until mid-September by a challenging, stressful, frustrating job. Every evening when I came home from work, I turned on the TV and stared at it mindlessly until bed time or called my dad to vent about some awful thing or another that had happened at work that day that left us even more short staffed or made me seem like a worse supervisor than I already thought I was. 

Toward the beginning of September, I took a ten minute break. Most of the time, my opportunity for a lunch break got eaten by some emergency or another, or I covered for my girls’ lunch breaks so they could get out and have a break. I was being driven by nothing more than stress and adrenaline, but I had wanted a supervisory position, darn it, and I was going to do the job to the best of my ability. But that afternoon, my vault teller and amazing friend, Maria, told me to get off the line for fifteen minutes, and she wouldn’t let me back into the building until that time was up. So, I took my phone and wandered around the parking lot. I had a voice message from a good friend who worked at the local college as a tutorial specialist in the Writing Lab on campus. She couldn’t continue with the job that semester, she explained, and she had already recommended me to her colleague as a replacement. Would I like her to send him my contact information? I told her yes, yes I certainly would. Then I called my mentor and friend at the college and asked him if he would put in a recommendation for me. He did. 

The next day I took a break to check a voice mail. It was from my friend’s colleague, asking me to come for an interview. Maria made sure I got out in time to go, and the interview was fairly short. He didn’t look at my résumé or CV until much later. Instead, he set them aside and asked me a few questions. Then he told me, quite frankly, that it sounded like I’d been trying for this opportunity for a long time, and he thought it should be rewarded. He would check with his boss to see if he needed to interview anyone else and, if not, the job would be mine. He called me a couple of days later with a start date, and I put in my two weeks’ notice.
My mentor and I gave our reading two months after I joined the college, and it was well attended by colleagues, friends, family, and community members. (Well attended in terms of Kalispell, which means we had about 50 people—quite a few more than we expected.) I received a lot of wonderful, encouraging feedback on my poetry, which was the inspiration I needed to get back into my notebooks and create some more. Since my new position was not full time, I certainly had some time left over in the day to write.
At a suggestion from one of my advisors at Pacific, I submitted one of my thesis poems to a journal called Minerva Rising. They not only accepted my submission, they sent me a check for $35 upon publication. My first post-Pacific publication made me a “paid writer”.

Working less during the day gave me the opportunity to apply for an online tutoring position which had been recommended to me by a fellow Pacific Alum. I was hired on to the online tutoring program, which is a nice way to spend a few extra hours during the week. I also had the opportunity to house sit more often. During one of my house sitting stays, my uncle gave me a call to talk about some writing I had sent him. The conversation turned to his guitars, and he told me about a new guitar his friend John Doan had recently purchased. He liked it so much, he had decided to get one for himself. He was planning to take my aunt and fly to England to pick it up. I told him I was jealous; I’d always wanted to go to England, and he’d better send me a lot of pictures!

He did me one better, and sent me. January 9th, he and I met up in Atlanta and boarded a plane headed for London Heathrow, and from there we traveled to Hough-on-the-Hill to stay with a Luthier who was also a Falconer, a carpenter, and a dog lover. I, who had always imagined that England was a bucket-list or imaginary sort of adventure, wandered the fenlands of Lincolnshire, stood awed in a breathtaking cathedral, stood in an 18th century (at least) cottage with a Saker falcon on my hand, and walked across the countryside watching the two Lurchers chase hares across the fields. 

Upon my return, when I stopped by my mentor’s office to tell him a bit about the trip, our conversation turned to a few of the upcoming events on campus. “Did you see we’re teaching a class together?” he asked me. “Noooo,” I said. “Oh. Well, I’ll show you. Hope it’s okay; I probably should have asked you first.” Trust me, no permission was required. He showed me the schedule for the Senior Institute classes beginning February 21st. He and I were listed as the leaders of a poetry workshop. I don’t know that I have felt that particular type of elation before in my life.

Later, talking to one of the professors about a Writing textbook we’re developing, another colleague saw me and said she wanted to ask me something. They needed an instructor for a poetry class in June. Since my mentor doesn’t teach in the summer, and I am the only other “certified poet”, would I like the class? My outer demeanor was quite calm as I told her “Yes”. I turned to the other professor as she left and said “If you weren’t watching me right now, I’d be doing a happy dance.” He gave me a high five and told me to go ahead.

What does all this have to do with my initial disappointment about not meeting my goals? This: I believe in perfect timing. That application to FVCC was my fifth. I had tried and tried to work in the mail room, the financial aid office, customer service, and so on. I was inches away from walking into the president’s office and asking her to put me to work anywhere there. But those other times weren’t time yet. The year and a half I took off school made it so I found a fantastic job that took great care of me, even though it eventually drove me crazy. It gave me the opportunity to be in a leadership position that I needed, so that I would feel comfortable training employees, and, therefore, teaching them one-on-one. That has translated to tutoring, and taught me valuable lessons about when to help, and when to let the student figure things out for him or herself. That job also made me lead meetings, which meant that I had to get up in front of between twelve and twenty-five people to talk or explain something. I am terrified of getting in front of people. But when it came time to give my graduate presentation and read my poetry for a half hour to strangers, I could do it. I never wanted to be a teacher. Ever. That wasn’t my dream, and it is not my highest ambition. But I wouldn’t mind teaching poetry, especially if there is an opportunity to point out good contemporary poetry that is accessible and interesting. I want students to know that there is poetry that can be understood and enjoyed in this day and age. And, now, I can do that. 

 Another major blessing that has come out of this is my colleagues. I left my other job feeling, quite frankly, useless. I was told that I did a good job, that I handled the difficulties well, and that I was irreplaceable. At least, to my face. I found out later that my main supervisor was saying awful things about my performance behind my back to my immediate supervisor. 

Upon my entering the college, my mentor threw an afternoon barbecue at his house, and invited the English department, most of whom I knew, and they remembered me. I’ve never felt so welcome at any job I’ve ever had. Even though I’m still not technically “faculty”, they make it a point to invite me to department meetings, ask for my ideas and my input, and ask for my help with projects and improvements. When I told some of them that I had been offered a class, they instantly stacked my arms with resources and offered their help. They treat me like an equal. I no longer walk into work wondering if someone is going to fire me for making a little mistake or wondering what kind of rumors are going to be spread about me and the work I do. 

So the “delay” I imagined in getting my degree? I understand that now, and I’m glad that those lessons I’ve learned, this job I have now—no matter how long it lasts—have come along when I’m so young. I don’t have time limits on my other goals, but I do have a few resources opening up that might allow me to achieve them sooner than I think. But as long as I work steady, they’ll come along when they need to. And, by the grace of God, I’ll enjoy every blessing and difficulty as they come along.