I see you

eclipsing moonsg

It was cold and windy a few nights back when Chester and I headed out the door on his last walk before bedtime. Rain was forecast. A south easterly breeze kicked up, already strong enough to rustle the eucalyptus and jangle the wind chimes. Two owls called to each other down the dark hill.

I was a little mad at myself, wondering if this year of kindness was already floundering since I hadn’t really found a way to be intentionally kind all day. I’d baked bread and shared it at a neighborhood dinner potluck. But I would have done that anyway. I’d been part of a conversation about where to donate the jar of money our friend group fed  all year instead of buying gifts for each other. But that felt like riding the coattails of a 2018 decision. Bah, I thought. I’ll do two kind things tomorrow.

Watch for coyotes, Jim said when we left. I saw one crossing the street just now as I was taking out the trash cans.

Stepping into nearly silent darkness, with its sage-fresh cold air, and tree-lined canopy, is my favorite nightcap. I take a flashlight, but rarely turn it on, especially on a night like this with the waning crescent moon, mars on the far horizon and stars enough to brighten the road.

Forgive me, I asked the moon.

There isn’t a sidewalk, but I can see cars’ headlights in plenty of time to move onto gravel or bushes long before the driver would have to swerve. Anyway, in my sleepy neighborhood on a Sunday night, cars are rare and I’ve never been hit.

So when a black SUV roared up the hill and pulled a u-turn a few feet from me and Chester, I startled. The back passenger door opened and a figure emerged, stood at the car’s back bumper, seeming to watch me. Chester growled low.

Mrs. Keefe!

I recognized the voice of a now-man, a once 7-year-old boy I’d met when we first moved in.

Zach was long gone from the neighborhood, but his father still lives on our block. I was starting to shiver, not eager to stay out longer and tempt the rain and coyote gods, but there was something urgent in the way he’d called out in the dark.

I picked up a thread of conversation we’d been pulling for more than ten years.

Are the right teams going to the playoffs? Zach played football through high school and we always caught up on his life through sports.

Nah, nothing is going right. He kicked the dirt, shoved his hands in his pockets. Inside the SUV, I heard voices between beats in the music.  I just got back from a funeral. Maybe you read about it. A guy I knew was riding a bike and he was hit by a 16-year-old girl. It was really sad. Nothing good about any of it.

Zach is the kind of guy that goes to funerals. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen him in front of his house after doing so. A friend’s mom. A friend. It seems like for such a young man he’s seen plenty of death.

So the wind blew and the cold settled while I listened to Zach talk in the dark about two shattered families. The fragility of life. How to find meaning.

I said I was really sorry about his friend.

I pointed at the sky and told him sometimes when I feel bad, I look up just to feel that blanket of stars cover me.

Mhmmm, he said. It sure is beautiful out here. Every day. We’re so lucky to be alive.

According to the United Nations, about 6,775 people die each day in the US.  Odds are we walk past, or brush by, someone grieving more often than we know.

How can we learn to carry a kind, open gentleness in our hearts when someone seemingly snubs us or nearly runs us over?

Can we learn to slow down a little, to look up together in the cold, dark and take time to listen when someone unexpectedly trusts us with an admission of sadness?

Zach and I finally said goodbye. Chester and I returned home. I sat on my balcony watching the moon slowly disappear behind gathering clouds. As clouds cover the moon, you can watch an ever-tightening circle hug the moon closer and closer, creating a focal point of light in the night sky.

The air grew damper and the wind picked up as the chimes clanged a louder dissonance. Down the hill, the owls still called. The lights went out in Zach’s house and I went in to bed.

moon2

Grief is, unfortunately, an unavoidable part of being alive. Additionally, we seem to be living in a particularly high-stress time according to one recent indicator reported in the January 14, 2019 Los Angeles Times under the headline: “Mental health books outsell diet and exercise books at Barnes & Noble.”

“In a shift, American readers have become more interested in books about mental health than about diet and exercise, according to data released by bookstore chain Barnes & Noble.

The data, collected around the New Year’s season, seems to indicate that readers’ annual resolutions are focusing less on losing weight and getting in shape, and more on reducing stress and increasing self-esteem.” Michael Schaub

According to research, kindness is contagious and can lead to elevated feelings. In “Kindness Contagion,” a recent article in Scientific American, Jamil Zaki explains:

“Witnessing kindness inspires kindness, causing it to spread like a virus…We find that people imitate not only the particulars of positive actions, but also the spirit underlying them. This implies is that kindness itself is contagious, and that that it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.” Jamil Zaki

I suppose there are many reasons why this is so, but I think fundamentally there’s great hope, healing, and joy when we feel seen by another. If you find yourself catching the kindness bug this year, and taking on new forms from my experiences, here are two simple ways to inspire others and uplift the common mood.

1: Post about your action on Instagram using hashtag  #KindInKind.
2: Write about what you did and get in touch via this blog. I’ll share your story, either anonymously or giving you credit, whichever you prefer.

Speaking of credit, my favorite photographer, Susan Greene Photography, gets all the credit for Super Blood Wolf Moon Lunar Eclipse photos.

A fall class offering

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_6b9
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.

rgWgg8EvTxWo7W4D8LWLYQ_thumb_6bd

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.
P9ZxEwdiTg+dLB6kfRyMZQ_thumb_6bc

~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.”

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_6b8

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