Friday, July 31, 2009


We had our second Haiti Team meeting last night. I’m remembering why we have so many meetings in preparation for the trip. There’s much to do and decide before boarding the plane. What activities will we do with the kids at the House? What supplies and materials will we need to procure and transport to support those activities? What supplies can we take to minister to the staff of the house? How will we as a team choose to interact with one another as well as with those we will serve?

In addition to these issues, there are the individual, mundane details of travel. Visit to the travel clinic – shots, malaria meds, an advance supply of Cipro. Starting the packing piles of the things you know you’ll need – all cotton clothing, sun screen with SPF 50, insect repellant with 30% DEET, as well as the things you hope you won’t need – Pepto Bismol, Immodium, Triple Antibiotic Ointment.

My Support Letters have gone out – in some ways the most difficult part of the process for me. I hate asking others for financial support. It would be so much easier to write a check and be done with it. I suspect that’s why they make us do it. Going to serve others as part of a ‘mission’ trip could easily result in feelings of superiority or arrogance. After all, you’re the one who is giving out of your fullness – in this case, the material wealth that is part of being born American. It could be easy to forget that your wealth is transitory (a rude reminder many of us have faced during the recent economic downturn.) Putting yourself in a position of need – asking others to support you with their gifts – highlights your dependency, forces you to acknowledge that you are not as self-sufficient as you might like to believe, gives you some small idea of what others experience daily as they are the ones in need.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I watched friends pack up their belongings to move yesterday morning. Moving is probably the ONE activity that really makes you realize in no uncertain terms how much Stuff you have. And it certainly makes you wonder how much Stuff you actually need.

I’ve been staying with a friend who lives just outside Washington, DC in a community in Virginia. The neighborhood she lives in is full of 1960’s era, ranch style houses like the one she lives in with her 3 children – 3 bedrooms, bath, kitchen, living room upstairs, and a basement with a family room, bedroom, laundry room, second bath. You know the type. Many of us grew up in houses just like these. They were serviceable, but certainly not fancy. But what’s interesting about this neighborhood, and many more that I’ve driven through while visiting here, is the changes that are taking place. A house goes on the market for sale, is purchased, but isn’t moved into. Instead, it is bulldozed and replaced with a much, much larger house – the clichéd McMansion.

They stick out oddly in the neighborhoods. One or two in most blocks. Instead of the ranch you expect to see, it’s a 2, or even 3, story house whose footprint takes up almost the entire lot it sits on. Some imitate the style of the ranch on a larger scale; others go for the brick and pillar, imitation-plantation style. The families who live in these houses are no larger than the families that live in the original ranch houses, and more significantly, I suspect they are no happier.

It’s ironic that everywhere we turn we are encouraged to be ‘green,’ to reduce, reuse, recycle, be aware of our carbon footprint. Yet, here in our nation’s capitol at least, we still seem focused on having more and more space and acquiring more and more Stuff.

It’s something to be conscious of as I go home to my own house and back to my own Stuff. How much Stuff do I really need? What Stuff do I need? Does my Stuff make my life better or does it cloud my vision and cause me to focus on things that lead me away from where I ultimately want to be?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


The word "sabbath" is derived from the Hebrew verb "shavat" meaning to rest or to cease. In the Christian tradition, it is understood to be the seventh day of the week, the day of rest, reflecting God's creation of the world in six days and his rest on the seventh (Genesis 2:2) Going to church, in theory then, would seem to be about taking time to rest and reflect upon the manner in which you live your life.

I grew up attending a Protestant church and have been a member of a Protestant congregation in my city for the past 18 years. Going to service in a Protestant church is relatively simple. You stand up to sing songs; you sit down to listen to the sermon. You don't have to memorize anything or remember any complicated series of events. Stand, sit. Pretty simple. And, to make it even easier, someone even tells you "please stand," and "please be seated."

Mass, however, is a completely different experience. There are responses to what the priest says that you're supposed to just 'know.' Eveyone suddenly stands or kneels without being told to do so. They sing or speak without any instruction. Kneel, sit, stand, sit, stand, kneel, stand, sit, stand. It's a lot of work and you have to really pay attention so that you don't sit when you should kneel or stand when you should sit or... You get the idea.

When you are in such unfamiliar surroundings, it's easy to get so caught up in making sure you're not doing the wrong thing at the wrong time that you miss the message being shared. And, though the message of the Catholic homily is much shorter than the message of the Protestant sermon (about 30 minutes shorter than the messages of my Protestant pastor) it is no less instructive. In this case, the message was "to be a teacher, one must first be a learner, and to learn well you must sit at the feet of the master."

This would seem to imply that a good teacher is a 'master' of their subject matter, certainly. But perhaps good teaching requires mastery of more than a subject. Perhaps it requires a mastery of one's emotions, attitudes, and biases. So, maybe, part of the purpose of a sabbatical year is to learn more about those unchallenged notions under which we often teach, notions about who our students actually are, and what it is they need. The challenge of this, and the challenge of finding a master, is sometimes a dificult thing.

Friday, July 17, 2009


True friendship is a curious thing. One of the things I like so much about traveling is the ability to maintain relationships with friends from the past. Admittedly, Facebook and email and cell phones have changed the way we maintain friendships in general, compared to when I was a kid or teen. And, I have to admit I even appreciate and use those technological tools. But all the on-line talking, posting, or texting you might do, just isn’t the same as looking into someone’s eyes as you are talking and listening. Traveling allows you to reconnect with people Face-to-Face and that is Such a different animal.

Yesterday, I had lunch with an old friend from theatre days in college. After college, we went our separate ways, reconnected while living in the same city for several years, then she moved out east here to live in DC. We email occasionally, and check out each others’ Facebook posts, but we don’t talk on the phone or send voluminous letters back and forth.
Yet, when we get together, it’s like we saw each other yesterday even if 2 solid years have passed. We do a little bit of filling each other in on life changes that we’ve both gone through and by the end of our lunch we’re up to speed. The conversation is as comfortable and deep as it has ever been - no awkwardness, no self-monitoring – just the same level of ease and closeness as we had when living in the same town and seeing each other weekly.

This is the kind of friendship that preserves parts of you that you’ve lost or left behind, provides you with the love and support to be who you think you can in the present, and nurtures your soul throughout.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


The flight began, rather inauspiciously, at 7:00 am with screaming children – in stereo. It took several painful moments of frantically digging through my purse to remember where I had stashed those earplugs. However, once airborne, children calmed down and peace reigned (in the form of Oreos and sugared soda.) But who am I to look a gift snack food in the mouth?

I vaguely remember the days before 9/11, when airline travel did not require packing a lunch just to make it through the security checkpoints and when you could include a full size tube of toothpaste in your carry-on bag without anyone dragging you off to the side and asking you dozens of questions about your destination, your purpose, and your parentage in a suspicious tone of voice. Then there was the time when you could check 2 bags at no extra charge, eliminating the need to try to stuff 3 carry-on bags the size of Montana into the overhead bins and then arguing with the flight attendant when told that you were limited to 2 bags and would have to check one anyway. Travel used to be relatively simple – a time to explore new places and cultures and leave worries at home behind you. Now, travel is complex with long lines, mulitple questions, multiple searches and more long lines.

At times, usually in the 5th long line of the day and the 8th version of the question “Did you pack your own bag and did anyone give you anything to carry on?” you begin to lose some of your patience and sense of humor. You begin to think that maybe all the hassle of travel just isn’t worth it anymore. That the time may be coming when you should just frame your passport and reminisce about all those places you’ve been instead of trying for one more stamp – one more Visa entry card. But then, the pilot announces that you are starting your descent, the weather at your destination is 80 degrees and sunny, and he wishes you an enjoyable stay, and you decide that maybe you can stand in one more line, answer one more question, plug your ears to one more screaming child.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Up North

The call of the loons woke me up this morning, accompanied by the slapping of the lake water against the hull of the boat down at the dock. The sun was cracking the edge of the horizon and on July 11 at 5:00 am it was 48 degrees. That's Farenheit, folks.

When I'm in the city I don't, quite frankly, 'get' the idea of - load up the car, sit in traffic for an hour and a half just to get out of the metro, then drive another 3 hours just to get ' to the cabin'. Then there's the mowing and taking down that dead tree and basically taking care of an entire second property. And this is supposed to be rest? Just seems like doubling the workload with a lot more bugs.

And yet, there is something inexplicably quiet in the sound of the wind, the slapping of the water, the call of the loons.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Everything Old is New Again

One of the first big ‘items’ in the travel portion of my Sabbatical is a 2 week trip in September to Haiti to do some volunteer work. We had a team meeting last night and I was reminded vividly of all the things I loved, and hated, about the country. I first visited Haiti in 1996, at the tail end of my first Sabbatical. It was, with the exception of a driving trip up to Thunder Bay, Canada, my very first trip outside the US.

Traveling to Haiti was the clichéd ‘baptism by fire’ in terms of Intercultural experiences. Everyone looked different, sounded different, was different. Of course, given my blonde hair and blue eyes, blending in was out of the question and I hadn’t expected to. Neither had I expected the pointing, stares, and cries of “blanc, blanc” by the Haitian children as we went past. Before that experience, I had never thought much about my whiteness. Jane Elliott, creator of the famous blue-eye/brown-eye exercise, says that,

"White people’s number one freedom in the United States is the
freedom to be totally ignorant about those who are other than white.
We don’t have to learn about those who are other than white. And
our number two freedom is the freedom to deny that we are ignorant."

Jane Elliott, The Angry Eye
To say the least, this was me.

Fourteen years (and travel in 29 other countries) have passed. I’ve intereacted with a few more people from different cultures during that time, and hope I know a little more. Yet, I was reminded last night of the feelings of complete difference I experienced during that first trip abroad. Somehow, I suspect, that while I may have more ‘experience’ and be more culturally aware than I was back then, that the differences will still be the first things I feel.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Independence Day

It's an interesting coincidence that Independence Day and the beginning of my sabbatical came at the same time. I didn't "plan" for this - it was the vagaries of the academic calendar that scheduled my last class to end on July 2. Yet, it seems like something to take note of. Many of my "non-academic" friends and family have mentioned their envy at my upcoming 'year off.' It's my academic friends who know that the 'year off' isn't what many imagine it to be.

If you search for synonyms for the word 'sabbatical,' several pop up with additional synonyms listed for each of those. "Breathing space" was one. It seemed like a good title for a blog, yes, but more importantly a good way to think about the upcoming year. In academia we get so caught up in the daily pressure of lessons and exams, papers and lectures, committee meetings and committee meetings, that we often feel that we don't have time to catch our breath. That is really what sabbatical is about. A time to slow down, catch your breath, and really look at what you do and why you do it and, most importantly, figure out ways to do it better. Wish me luck!