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GRIEF FOR THE UNCOUSINLY CHASM, Part 1 (La condition humaine)

“England was already frozen into a winter years long…. King Stephen was crowned, and held, however slackly, most of England. The Empress Maud, his rival for the throne, held the west, and came with a claim the equal of Stephen’s. Cousins, most uncousinly, they tore each other and tore England between them, and yet life must go on, faith must go on, the stubborn defiance of fortune must go on in the husbandry of the year, season after season, plough and harrow and seed, tillage and harvest.”     Ellis Peters, The Virgin in the Ice

I have pledged to sing at karaoke at the Shed next time around IF my friend Melinda is there and IF Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender”  is playing. I’m terrified to sing in public—it has to do with a childhood trauma in which I taped myself while singing along to a favorite record, after which, at some point, the tape was stolen and played in front of others, and I was assured by the thief that everyone laughed and thought I was a horrible singer—but Melinda makes me brave, and Springsteen makes me brave, and Lake Louie’s Warped Speed Scotch Ale also makes me brave.

Melinda is one of the main organizers of Spring Green’s Recall Walker effort (see note #1 below) and I am helping a little, though the number of signatures I’ve gathered is pretty pitiful.

It’s not a perfect analogy, just sort of loosely, vaguely analogous, but if we time-traveled to England about 850 years ago, Melinda might be a chatelaine whose castle declared for the Empress. Or an abbess whose nuns sheltered the right kind of knights. Or a merchant who acted as a courier for secret messages. Whatever she would have been, I’d have been the third kitchen helper or the clumsiest nun or the woman buying gloves, standing there acting as though I didn’t know exactly what was going on. In short, I would do pretty much whatever she needed me to (pitifully, probably, cf. above).

And I think, if we were standing there some 850 years ago, as the late autumn hardened into early winter, we would say we understood why others fought for the king.

We agreed recently it must be hard for Walker’s supporters, who were happy when he won, and who now wish people would just leave him alone to do his job. We agreed we felt the same way about Obama. We had this conversation standing across from a church gathering Recall Walker signatures, just after an older gentleman had called us “damn fools.”

This tendency to disagree, whether or not blood is shed, makes me think of Robert Penn Warren in his poem “Folly on Royal Street.” Our grand captiousness is, pretty simply,

“La conditione humaine,
which was sure God what we were.”
Empathizing with people I disagree with doesn’t stop me from disagreeing, however—not this time.

Of all the things I’m angry at Scott Walker about, the devastating blow to educator morale is high on the list, and one colleague springs to mind more than almost any other. This is a young man well on his way to earning tenure, admired by his colleagues, loved by students. He’s one of those people with a large personality and an energy level to match. But when I saw him this fall, he looked utterly bedraggled. It was late on a Friday afternoon, but he’s someone I would typically expect to see bopping around even at that point, annoying the rest of us who experience dips in our energy levels from time to time.

He said he was depressed and I would say he is also burned out. He works a lot of hours, more than I do, and isn’t sure how long he can sustain the pace. I know times are hard, so this isn’t the place to argue about salaries—most of the people I know who teach in the UW System do understand how lucky we are to have jobs, how lucky we are to have relative job security, to be able to provide for our families with our salaries. But our salaries were stagnant before 2008, and beyond that, the divisiveness in Wisconsin has made it acceptable for some people to say right to our faces that they think we’re overpaid and underworked. Let me assure you—this young man I speak of has never underworked a day in his life. As for overpaid, well, he’s not sure he’ll be able to keep up his mortgage. If another college in a state that’s supporting higher education even slightly more than Wisconsin comes calling, he might listen. Or we might lose him to a private college, the way the UW Colleges is losing our premiere researcher in the field of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to Vanderbilt, beginning in January. Or we might keep him, but not really him at his highest potential, not him, not really, not if he stays depressed and burned out. Everyone loses if someone like him isn’t routinely thrilled to be doing the job he does.

When I saw him in early November, we talked briefly about the Recall Walker campaign, about ten days before it kicked off. He said he wasn’t going to participate, that he just couldn’t. And we agreed that last spring had been very hard emotionally.

Yes, I protested at the Capitol. Three times. One of those times I got to touch a hero of mine, Susan Sarandon. I hadn’t realized she was there, but I was moving one way in a mass of people and she was moving the other, and I recognized her, reached over to touch her arm, said, “Thank-you,” and she looked up at my ridiculous blaze-orange-ear-flap cap, on which I’d written “Public Employee”” and said to me, “Thank-you.” That’s one of my top-ten life moments. I won’t apologize for it.

But it was an adrenaline roller coaster last spring. I think the collective weight of the citizens of Wisconsin stayed the same, but only because the pounds gained by those of us eating emotionally (one friend began putting bacon on her veggie burgers) were balanced out by the pounds lost by those too tense to eat.

My young colleague said he couldn’t help with the Recall because he couldn’t go through that again. I said I understood, but said I felt calmer now. “How?” he asked. “How?”

I’ve been articulating my answer, and it’s taken me a month. Here’s how.

I am currently in the process of healing from burnout. I think I’ve been on the edge of burnout most of my life. I remember it most clearly beginning in high school, so it may be correlated with hormones. I come by this naturally, the tendency to push to extremes and then collapse. My mother does it (though less as she ages, so maybe it really is related to hormones), her sisters do it, her mother did it…. I’d like to stop doing it. There’s a terrific book called Tired of Being Tired that has helped a lot.

So that’s part of the answer to my colleague—healing from burnout. Because, as Ellis Peters says, “life must go on, faith must go on, the stubborn defiance of fortune must go on in the husbandry of the year, season after season, plough and harrow and seed, tillage and harvest.” Our professorly version of that would be semester after semester, grading and prepping and conferencing, teaching and turning in grades. We go on because we have to, and there are still so many moments we love what we do, which is part of why so many of us are working on the Recall.

Or as the Boss would say, “No retreat, Baby, no surrender.”

#1 Because this particular blog has political content, I have been careful not to work on it while on campus, and I am using my own laptop to compose it.