In Minnesota, the weather can turn and change and spin on a dime. At the beginning of this past week–sunny days with temperatures in the high 70s, trees full of color glittering in bright sunshine, and blue skies clear as a bell, glorious to behold–held sway. In less than 12 hours, summer’s last gasp was blown away by blustery winds, and trees once clad in autumnal beauty stood naked rattling against gray, snow swept skies. It is the earliest I have ever seen snow in my life. And the weather of the week symbolized the journey from a day before dis ease was my constant companion to a day where I was lucky enough to grieve the greatest loss thus far. This week, on a day when the sun could not break through, and clouds hung heavy and oppressive in their steely color, I said farewell to my beloved colleagues and friends and began the life that I have sought to avoid for 22 months. On Thursday, I stepped down from the responsibilities of working for the first time in 45 years.
I don’t want to wallow in the causes. Suffice it to say that dis ease has asked me to turn my face to a future that is just a little closer than I wish it to be. To stop working is a statement of physical health that I have twisted and turned and denied and avoided, balancing on a razor’s edge atop an increasingly widening precipice, hiding out until the reality that stalked me had passed by, embracing any and all solutions that would allow me to continue something that felt like life well lived. Stopping work means overwhelming emptiness, blind grief pressing down on my eyes and my heart, light pulled from meaningful engagement and passion and complexity and joy and yes, occasional irritation that allowed me to be in communion with so many people of faith toward some common good. We stood together on behalf of our children, the poor, the vulnerable, those who would require wise leadership, or effective education, or healing counsel. I won’t wallow in the causes.
I want to tell you three privileges granted to me, just three.
On my last day of work, I was allowed the privilege of speaking with my colleagues one more time, a privilege of tears and love and hugs and kisses and the knowledge of just how blessed I have been. On the day that I left, I was granted the privilege of a professional coda–one last restatement of a theme of gathering in which the participants, knowing this was my last day suggested, “We don’t have to do this you know;” respecting my answer, “Please let’s do this according to plan;” fostering one last spirited communion with good people who have the well-being of my beloved college in their bones, allowing a professional punctuation to my too short career. And on the day that I left, one of my colleagues reminded me of a dear friend who had made it his practice to never let a valued educator leave the building for the last time alone. I was given the privilege of facing the end with my remarkable second floor staff, in its entirety, walking with me as I rolled one last time as dean of the college, down the hall to the elevator that would take me to my waiting van below. These are three privileges I wanted to tell you, three.
And as I reread the above, I want to tell you three losses, three losses suddenly clear.
In the past month, knowing Thursday must eventually arrive, I turned my energy and attention with precise, pinpoint focus on the tasks required so that I could believe all would carry on. I turned my energy and attention to the tasks of succession, the last day, moving out, moving past. And I missed beauty and companionship and love right in front of me.
In the past month, I missed the death of a dear brother in ALS. Rob was one who changed the conversation about the dis ease. His postings in the forums were in the thousands, and he exhorted us to take anything we could share, anything we could give, anything that could further the understanding of this insidious sickness and offer it freely in new ways, ways that might not be understood by the research powers that be, but might, with creativity and new methodology result in effective treatments. But even more important was his generosity and his bravery. He took on, in a kind but firm way, the hard stuff of dying. And he chose no extraordinary measures, and I missed his death and the chance to thank him.
And in the past month, I missed the beauty of life lived in the moment, because I existed in the future. I missed subtle hints of physical loss that left me surprised, angry and humiliated as they were suddenly realized. I missed knowing the last time even when the last time was screaming in my face. And when the last times came, I was so focused on the final ending, I missed their beginnings.
Three plus three.
Cathy Wurzer of MPR asked me how I would think of myself, once I stopped working. Perhaps it is my music background, for musicians learn to think of themselves as musicians first, and then what they do, where they do it and for whom as punctuation to the fact. I cannot help but think of Yo Yo Ma. He is first and foremost a ‘cellist, remarkably accomplished in the West’s great 17th through 20th century works, then adding new ears, new skills in Eastern, African, Brazilian and even traditional American genres. And he uses these skills and his most accomplished core identity to venture into new venues beyond the traditional concert hall, so that space and time and music and Yo Yo Ma are one and the same.
Though my musician identity does not deserve mention in the same breath as Yo Yo Ma, music taught me early on to balance the strange conditional tensions between who I am, what I do and where I do it. This is the bizarre walk so many of us are required to walk these days. Each of us brings an identity, a core human to the task at hand. Each of us refines our skills, our capabilities, our techné into some level of more or less competence. And more often than not, we are asked to hold these things separate and isolated from each other. Loyalty to place and colleagues is supplanted by “doing the job,” and the self-protection of a “work isn’t life” attitude encourages us to operate in an unholy arena of siloed selves, where never the person we are, the capabilities we have developed, and the places where we bring these human gifts, should meet. It is no wonder that we feel so disjointed and at odds with ourselves. In the name of something else–profit, power, efficiency, effectiveness–balance is diminished.
My answer for Cathy was based in balance and music and education. I have been blessed to work in a place where identity and capability and space intertwine and become one. I was granted the opportunity to bring who I was, to develop new capacities along the way in a space that changed to reflect the needs at hand, and I became the teacher that I was destined to become. Balance compels me to teach a little when the need arises.
Minnesota weather speaks a past month of knowing the balance between summer and autumn, privilege and loss. Grief’s hint of winter’s death remains raw in my heart. My future is more real than ever before, for such grief is just rehearsal for the great performance, in spaces where identity and capacity and place are synergistic, where loss and privilege are the blessings of a life well lived. And I will turn my teacher’s face toward the next dis eased space and the next, and hope to God I grow enough to remain balanced in the moments life’s winter will bring.
And if nothing else, I know the path to the final place need not be walked alone.