Sunday, January 10, 2016

Saying Goodbye to a Purgatorial Year - Part II

[continued from Part I]

We still were by the sea, like those who think about the journey they will undertake, who go in heart but in the body stay. We all were motionless and fixed upon the notes, when all at once the grave old man cried out: “What have we here, you laggard spirits?  What negligence, what lingering is this? - Purgatorio Canto 2

Much of what I had to work through initially was my sense of betrayal. This was not the university or the department that had hired me 13 years previously. Class sizes had doubled during my tenure there making the engagement of individual students almost impossible. The mind-numbing bureaucratic duties of assessments had burgeoned over that time. Student evaluations which once were done in class with live human beings now emulated Rate-my-professor sites online with a handful of largely disgruntled customers or groupies actually going to the site to complete the satisfaction surveys. Worse yet, these highly unreliable results were increasingly actually being taken seriously by people who knew better for everything from raises to faculty evaluations.

I struggled to gain a sense of perspective for my ongoing engagement of this soul-draining process. How long could I hold on? At what price to me personally?

Rumbling around in the background of those questions was the word that is the professional equivalent of hospice: retirement. My ego had allowed me to believe I would die in my classroom, carried out feet first from my lectern. Like Miss Jean Brody, I told myself I was still in my prime.  I was, after all, only 61. I was hardly ready for a rocking chair on the porch, much less the wheelchair with the drip bag at the Happy Valley Home.

But the reality of my situation was very different. While I was able to bear teaching online mainly because it prevented me from having to spend much time at a toxic work site, I rarely enjoyed it. I missed seeing live human beings. My on-campus office hours, which I voluntarily observed on my own dime, were often filled with students from classes I had previously taught live. It was always good to see them even as my current online students, for whom the office hours ostensibly were held, rarely showed.

Worse yet, the once vibrant department whose faculty had dared to dream of new programs and public engagement when I arrived 13 years previously now found itself hunkered down, hoping to simply avoid further cuts in funding and personnel. A demoralized faculty in survivalist mode was the result of a relentless devaluation of the humanities at a university which had long since sold its soul to the military-industrial-technological complex. Now the byword was simple:  Every man for himself.

While the increasingly rare tenured academic (less than 1 in 4 of academics today) is able to make a decent living these days, none of us go into teaching at any level believing we will make a fortune. The rewards of teaching are always moral in nature – appreciation for one’s hard work, valuing of one’s role in the educational endeavor, the joy of seeing one’s students succeed within and after leaving one’s classrooms, the ability to indulge the hope that one’s efforts have made the world a little bit better place. When those moral rewards are no longer available, continuing in such endeavors becomes an act of self-denigration if not outright masochism.

But how to find the courage and the means to escape? And to where? To do what?

[M]y mind, which was—before—too focused, grew more curious and widened its attention; I set my vision toward the slope that rises most steeply, up to heaven from the sea.  Behind my back the sun was flaming red; but there, ahead of me, its light was shattered because its rays were resting on my body.  And when I saw the ground was dark in front of me and me alone, afraid that I had been abandoned, I turned to my side;  and he, my only comfort, as he turned around, began: “Why must you still mistrust? Don’t you believe that I am with—and guide—you?”   Purgatorio Canto 3

Following a Spiritual Path

When I left the practice of law in 1990, I was completely unsure of where I was going or what I would do. But I had a sense that I was being called to something more spiritual in nature. I have always had led a deeply spiritual life even as my relationship with organized religion has been as tumultuous as it has with the other conventional institutions to which I have devoted my life –education and law. My spiritual life has been my fail-safe on more than one occasion.

In April I began attending a series of spiritual retreats that would provide the means to begin the transition out of the morass into which my life had devolved. The Sacred Prism retreat at the Franciscan house in Tampa would bring together a mystic rabbi, an imam dedicated to interfaith work and a deeply spiritual Episcopal priest and fellow Franciscan. As we chanted hymns together from a number of religious traditions and engaged in an interfaith blessing ritual which world events and common sense would suggest to be highly unlikely, I began to feel that perhaps something new might be possible.

In early June, I went to the university human resources office to talk with a representative about retirement. I feared being told I would have to wait until I was 65. To my surprise, I found I was actually eligible to retire at 62. At that point I would have a little over 20 years of service to the state of Florida completed (between public schools, public defense and college instruction). While the $1500/month I could receive would barely keep the lights on and I’d lose my insurance, I suddenly had an out.

I could retire now. But would I be able to actually make that decision?

In June, I joined a group of 15 pilgrims bound for the island of Iona in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. Iona is the site of a Celtic monastery that dates back to the early days of missionizing of the British Isles. Ancient stone crosses (like the one below) still stand in defiance of the Viking raids that repeatedly burned the monastery, each time rebuilt. It was my great pleasure to spend a week on this breathtakingly beautiful island which Celtic spirituality calls a “thin place” between the realms of spirit and the material world.

To my surprise, I found myself in the company of a host of people at major turning points in their lives. It proved a safe place to explore the terror of major life changes amidst kindred souls. We prayed together, we did our chores together, we ate together, we hiked all over the magical island together. And when the time came for our tearful goodbyes, I knew I was ready to make the decision to head out in a new direction.

I came home from Iona, drafted my letter announcing my retirement, went out to the university, cleared my office and left the letter under the department chair’s door.

My lord said: “Have no fear; be confident, for we are well along our way; do not restrain, but give free rein to, all your strength. You have already come to Purgatory: see there the rampart wall enclosing it;  see, where that wall is breached, the point of entry. – Purgatorio Canto 9

For the next couple of weeks, one thought commanded my attention: Are you crazy? I kept waiting to awake from this bad dream but no respite came. Retirement may be a happy occasion for many workers who see it as the culmination of their career and a well-deserved rest. Such was not the case for me. In many ways, it simply felt like a failure. I wept bitter tears nearly every day those first few weeks.

Worse yet, I had no idea what to do with the remainder of my life. I had spent 62 years collecting degrees and life experiences that few people will ever share. Most of my life I’d been a teacher of some kind. I was the fourth generation of college teachers in my family, the one whose great grandparents were named Reed and Wright. Pedagogy was genetically encoded into my very DNA.

But truth be told, the vast majority of the well-trained consumers I was now encountering online had little time for my insights and did not want to be bothered with the existential and ethical questions I posed them. They simply wanted credit and an acceptable grade. As the bumper sticker responding to the Beatitude promising the meek they will inherit the world so cynically puts it, “The meek don’t want it.”

 Sadly, it wasn’t just the students who no longer wanted what I offered. My colleagues had also long since voted with their feet. Few came to the colloquia where I talked about my experiences as a Fulbright scholar in Brasil or my study of religious syncretism in Guatemala. In a zero sum competitive world, academics simply cannot afford the luxury of true collegiality.

Clearly, if I was to offer whatever wisdom I might have for the world, it would have to be offered in a new venue. But where?

My spiritual director helped me a great deal with this. She said that in many ways I was fortunate. I had a husband who wouldn’t let me starve, I could get a monthly pension, albeit meager, and I could use the year after my retirement for a sabbatical, to regroup, reflect and to heal. Most of all, I would actually have time to write, which clearly is one of the things that brings me joy as my 12th year of writing on this blog evidences.

The reflection process began immediately. In August, my friend Dale proposed that we go to Gethsemane Trappist Monastery in Kentucky (pictured here and below). It was the place where the mystic Thomas Merton had done most of his writing. The weeklong silent retreat punctuated by the bells calling us to observation of the liturgical hours allowed me time to pray, to read, to walk in the woods and to reflect on what I needed to do next. One thing became very clear in that process: I needed to heal.

I had presumed that my healing would be primary emotional. I had come out of the last three years of teaching at the university pretty badly beaten up. I was no longer sure of my life-long vocation as a teacher. I saw myself as a failure.

At Gethsemane, I suddenly became aware of how very tired I was from that struggle. Where I had had trouble sleeping at all prior to and during my decision to retire, I now slept 10 hours a night and sometimes took 2-3 hour naps in the afternoon. Some days I never left the house. My social life became non-existent as I struggled to remain awake long enough to engage the world.

But emotional healing proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. Losing my insurance meant switching over to my husband’s policy from Valencia, something that has only become possible in the last three years. With my new insurance in hand, I had to go find a new dentist in network to repair my front tooth whose cap had come off. I got a new referral to an orthopedist who began a therapy using knee lubricants to keep my aching knee with its torn meniscus from freezing up completely. And I finally had no more excuses to avoid the long overdue colonoscopy and endoscopy my doctor had ordered five years previously.

The colonoscopy was clear, a real relief for a child of a colon cancer survivor father. But my endoscopy found scar tissue from acid reflux in my esophagus, a condition called Barrett’s Syndrome. Fortunately, mine has long since not been active and the scar tissue can be removed with laser treatment next year. In the meantime I am on a preventative to keep the damage done by years of hard working and hard drinking, much of it during my time as an attorney given the age of the scarring, from developing into a particularly vile form of cancer.

But my surprises were not over. My internal specialist saw patches of scabby skin on my left ear and just to the side of my right eye. After asking me how long I’d had those places, which I assumed to be a form of seborrhea, he left the room only to return five minutes later with a referral to a dermatologist.

The first comments from the dermatologist struck fear in my soul: “It’s a good thing you decided to come in today, Mr. Coverston.” Both places proved to be basal cell skin cancer, stage 1. The good news was that they could be removed. But it would require two rounds of carving at a same-day surgery center. I emerged with a black eye and stitches and a big bandage covering my left ear. I called it my Van Gogh look.

The good news is that I am now cancer free. Moreover, an unanticipated benefit of my retirement is that my blood pressure has now fallen 20 points allowing my doctor to reduce my medication to the minimal levels. I am walking 1.8 miles around my lake daily and meditating on a semi-regular basis. The healing has begun.

 Recently I was reading a numerology site which promised to predict the kind of year I was going to have in 2015. With the year over half over, I was shocked at what I read:

The 9 Personal Year is a year of completion, unraveling, and letting go of the old to make space for change. This change can be somewhat dramatic and tumultuous—affecting possessions, relationships, jobs, geographical location, spirituality, health. It’s all under review this year. This is the year that’s inviting you (oh, let’s be honest, it’s forcing you) to move on to an even more expansive cycle in your life if you choose to let go and allow what’s no longer serving you to fall away.

I am not sure I could have better described this purgatorial year. It has, indeed, been a year of completing, unraveling and letting go. I have to say I cannot wait for the year to come, a 1 Personal year which promises new beginnings.

[concluded Part III]

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


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