Will you listen?

Laughing Mama&Leah

Do you remember the sound of your great-grandmother’s laughter? Do you remember her stories?

When I’m not writing my own poetry or essays, I’ve created the best job in the world. I listen to, and write down, stories of people’s lives so they can leave a printed legacy for future generations. Or, for those who have the desire to write themselves, I create short assignments and an outline with the end goal of the story of a life.

Frequently these sessions are a gift to parents from their children. I smile when I get approached about this, because of course it’s a grown child’s own gift to be able to hold the previously unrecorded story of a parent.

The absolute most rewarding aspect of my job as family story coach is when someone looks at me across a kitchen table and says, “Thank you for listening. I haven’t thought about that ______ in years.” I tear up more often than I’d like to admit.

Turns out that small details like plummeting downhill on a first red two-wheel bicycle, or sweeping up into a hot Midwestern summer night on a Ferris wheel, are elements of a life that might have been forgotten if I hadn’t thought to ask, “Do you remember your first broken bone?” Or, “When was the first time you held a boy’s hand?” These small memory jogs frequently lead to a deeper story. Of a first career inkling, or a lasting love.

So many people say, “Why would I want to write my story? My life isn’t extraordinary.”

I respond, “Of course it is, especially to those who love you.”

Some say, “Why should I tell my story now? My life isn’t over.”

I say, “Thankfully, that’s true. But at some point, the distant past fades. It might be forgotten altogether. Can we start with when you were small?”

Here’s a secret. To me, each life is extraordinary. All the human ways we find to grow and learn, to make mistakes, to recover, to be brave or timid, to love hard or hardly love. We are all amazing in our complexity and in our simplicity of wanting to be heard.

Listening is a great act of respect. It sows dignity and reaps understanding. And if you listen very carefully, there’s usually a moment of mirth just about to be called forth. To be in the midst of spontaneous laughter is such a gift.

Women’s History Month seems like a good time to commit to listening to a female ancestor’s story. Or, decide to finally tell your own. Write it down. For now. Or for later. You really are more extraordinary than you’ll ever know.

Reach out in the comment section below if you’d like a few prompts to get you started on beginning to write your life, or if you’re interested in learning how we could work together.

Now go be you, in all your ordinary glory.

 

 

A fall class offering

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Did you ever walk away from something you truly loved and feel a bit disoriented? After nine and a half years I quit my university teaching gig.

It’s a little soon to say if I regret my decision, but I’ll admit to floundering this fall.

I didn’t leave my job because I didn’t like it. The privilege of standing before a roomful of bright, kind, young people looking at me like I had something valuable to teach them, never ever got old.

And I didn’t lose my job. In fact, my evaluations were always strong and my contract was freely renewed each semester. I have an open invitation to return.

What I tired of was continuing to play a part in the nationwide trend in higher education to shift the role of teaching to part-time faculty who, at least at my university, receive no benefits and no more job security than a 15-week contract. One current study found that from 2003 to 2013, the use of adjunct labor increased from 52% to 60% at private universities and from 45 to 62% at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions.

At the same time, student loan debt has risen to over 1.5 trillion dollars collectively according to a June, 2018 article in Forbes: Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2018: a $1.5 Trillion Crisis.  “At private nonprofit colleges, average debt in 2012 was $32,300 (15% higher than in 2008, when the average was $28,200).” Where does the money go?

It turns out, according to a recent study, savings which come from using adjunct labor are usually funneled into more student services and administrative expenses. Somehow I felt complicit in a cycle that feels usury.

To put an exact number to this trend, my last contract guaranteed me $4,830.00 for teaching one semester’s class. The university limits the number of courses any adjunct can teach: Two. So, I taught two courses for a total semester paycheck of $9,660.00, or $19,320 annually.

I stood in an elite private university classroom before 36 students for six hours a week, prepped and graded 36 students’ writings, and made myself available for office hours adding another 18 – 20 hours of work a week. Add a week of syllabus writing time. Add another week of finals grading. I was making roughly $28 an hour which is significantly more than minimum wage.

Each of the 36 students would pay the university about $5,000 for my class. Yes, you can do the math. The university earned about $180,000 on my labor each semester. No savings are passed to students.

Can I reiterate how much I loved my job?

I did have the opportunity to voice my concerns directly to the university president over a lovely mushroom soup and salmon lunch. He shrugged and said, in effect, it’s the same everywhere and until there are no more adjuncts to take the work – and in the humanities especially there’s an over-saturation – the situation won’t change. And besides he said, students care more about adding a lazy river to the pool than who teaches them.

So I walked away to decrease the adjunct pool by one whopping body.

I’m faced with tremendous amounts of free time. I feel a little fractured, to be honest.

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Finish poetry book:                 Check.
Send book to publishers:         Check times ten.

I’ve targeted 25 publishers for my recently completed manuscript, each with its own open submission timeframe. I’m on the tenth publisher. Four have rejected the book. Six are still pending responses. Fifteen have approaching deadlines.

In the meantime, every writer will say the best thing to do after you finish one big thing is to start a new project.

Since it’s fall, which has meant school begins for as long as I can remember, I’ve decided to take a class. One of my own: Composing Self. It’s a writing class I’ve taught many times, exploring how and why writers compose a specific identity through careful language selection. If I’m any good at this teaching thing, I should learn quite a bit.

Composing Self is a creative nonfiction course. I’ll write about myself, or write about another real human, within the context of the world, much like this blog post which blends the personal with facts and figures for larger context.

We exist in the real world. We have permission to speak.

Do you want to take this course with me?

If you’re intrigued with the prospect of having someone curate a reading list for you, and create regular writing prompts, send me note using the contact form at the right. There’s still time!

What’s the cost?

What do you think I’m worth? Pay me what seems fair when the class is over.
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~Catherine

ps: This passage written by James Martin, SJ in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everyone: A Spirituality for Real Life inspired me to include real salary numbers in my post, a move I’m certain I would have shied away from before reading the observation.

Individuals show their status through certain social symbols – job titles, possessions, credentials, and so on. One’s personal worth depends on one’s wealth or job.

That’s why discussing salary is perhaps the biggest taboo in social settings: it’s the quickest way of ranking people and is society’s prime measure of our worth. Finding out someone else’s salary instantly makes you see the person in a certain light…

James Martin, SJ, in summary and comment upon Dean Brackley, S.J.’s concept of “Downward Mobility.”

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This is the same face as the image at the top of the post. Different angle. Different light.

Kalapaki Beach Sand Sculpture 1, 2, and 3
Photos by Catherine Keefe