Taking Stock

Inspired by my sometime life coach, a part-time position he shares with Annie Dillard, Frederich Buechner, C.S. Lewis, Winston Churchill, Austin Kleon, Matt Might, Brett McKay and Marcus Aurelius, I am taking a moment at the outset of summer to take stock of the year. Though the natural breaking point for the year is December, and though I usually do feel reflective then, as an academic, my years sheer cleanly along the school calendar’s lines, recently involving moves, new places of employ, and similar obvious points of development. So, what has happened just now? And am I living the sort of life I mean to, or just letting it happen to me? Following the model, then, I asked myself some questions.

1. What are the core values that drive my life and work?

These are the things I think I’m about, when I remember to think about myself and what I’m doing here. 

I. Scholarship

  • Am I contributing to the discipline, or merely standing around in it?
  • Am I teaching in such a way as not only to impart skills, but to elicit wonder and appreciation for the subject?
  • Am I making an effort to create a more sociable, connected academia?

II. Creativity

  • Am I writing poems, which fills me with purpose as almost nothing else does? 
  • Am I engaging in other artistic pursuits that nourish my spirit and benefit others?
  • Am I sharing these things with the world?

III. Hospitality

  • Am I acting as a steward of my place on earth, making it as comfortable and welcoming as I can? 
  • Am I reaching out to others, fostering connection through shared space, time, attention, conversation, meals, adventure? 

IV. Strength

  • Am I mentally strong? Reading difficult texts, working through problems, memorizing poetry? 
  • Am I physically strong, working out strenuously and regularly in order to discipline my body, which helps me both sleep and focus? 

V. Spirituality

  • Am I praying or meditating regularly?
  • Am I involved in the local church?
  • Am I studying theology (books, podcasts, sermons)?
  • Am I reading the Bible? 

These are my core values. I wouldn’t name them except that Brett said it would help, and then this study showed that it would help massively, like, in every area of one’s life, to conjure such a list and act in accordance with it. Honestly, it was super fun to try to whittle down my first list of 20-something “core” principles to these five. Now that they’re up there, they seem about right. 

2. How am I living and working with integrity right now?

Academically, it was a pretty good year. I published one article in Romantic Circles and finished two more. One is in the revise and resubmit stage at a good journal, and the other is under consideration elsewhere. I’ve agreed to review a book for Romantic Textualities, which I’ll do over the summer, and I presented at one conference Faith in Humanities at Northwest University, and had an abstract accepted to another, my first NAVSA, which will be held in Phoenix in October. Moreover, I taught 9 undergraduate courses, some of them the best I’ve ever given. 

Creatively, the year didn’t feel full, but looking back on it (the point of this exercise) it doesn’t seem to have been a wash. With my friend Joel Hartse, I co-edited (his idea, I just set up the format and harassed writers) Chrindie 95, a music appreciation site for a rather particular sub-culture, to which I also contributed an article. I also joined a writers’ group at the university, whose encouragement (and deadlines) led me to finish I think 10 new poems, which is a good haul for me. None published, alas, but a few sent out, which is a start. I also reformatted Poems for the People and added 2 new episodes, and counseled my wife ad infinitum on her Romeo and Juliet project, which will continue into next year. 

We moved twice within this last year, from London to Kirkland, and then to Seattle, so much of the year was spent setting up homes. In each of them, we did pretty well, despite barely being able to afford them. The suburbs were alienating. Despite our invitations, we could hardly get people to come, but we still had my brother’s family out, my wife’s mother, and my friend El Che (twice), in addition to hosting Christmas with our friends and their kids. Since moving to Seattle last month, we’ve already had two proper dinner parties, and the house is coming together weekly. In addition to our time abroad, we also took a trip to Arizona to see our families, and I took a road trip with my Dad from there to Seattle, which I cherished.  

Physically, I’ve probably never been in worse shape. It happens to all new dads, I hear, but it feels awful. I’ve turned a corner on it though, and am beginning to see change. Happily, this was probably the best year for sleep in my whole life. An insomniac since birth, this year I was just so exhausted, it was rarely an issue. 

3. How can I set a higher standard in the future?

There are some areas where I’m still struggling. Summer is always a time of renewal for me, so I’m at the beginning of a new set of resolutions. It’s hard to say which of them will stick, but…

I need to be in better shape. I’m just not as much fun to be around when I’m low-energy, and I get crankier more easily when I don’t have the serotonin balance borne of having sweat through toxins. I’ve exercised more this month than I have in the past 12 combined and it’s just starting to show in both my moods and my arms. Need to keep this up. 

Write consistently. I wrote a lot this year, and in a number of genres, but they were all random, done at odd moments and cobbled together piecemeal. I never had a plan for any of it. Maybe this is just my style, what “works” for me, but I want to be more consistently productive, if only for the sake of my anxiety. I feel terrible when I think I’m not getting any work done. Part of curing this is taking care of the step above, and part is scheduling. 

I can share more than I am now. This was an intensive year for mentoring students, supporting colleagues, and advising artist-friends, so I probably can’t give any more of my time, but I have way too many projects living on my hard-drive. I need to share more of the things I’m making, even if they aren’t perfect. Some of my reticence is professionally motivated. I’m still looking for a full-time academic job, and one of the first things committees do is google the applicant, and I can’t really post poems that haven’t been published yet for legal reasons, so I guess I have to submit more so that I can eventually share them. I’d like to share more classroom ideas too. 

Read the news less. This might seem counter intuitive, but I’m motivated by Yeats, who wrote in June 1915 to his American friend and patron John Quinn about WWI then raging across Europe. "It was," he said:

merely the most expensive outbreak of insolence and stupidity the world has ever seen and I give it as little thought as I can. I went to my club this afternoon to look at the war news but read Keats’s Lamia instead.

At least half of my reading time, writing time, and emotional energy get sucked up by responding to items in the news cycle. Someone will write something silly, and instead of shrugging, I churn out a response (which usually lives in my notebook) and spend the next few days fuming about it. This is ridiculous. This year, I’d like to direct my energies more than having them directed for me.

So there we are. I’m in the city I love, in the neighborhood I want to live in, working at the university where I’ve always wanted to work. It’s the start of summer and everything feels possible.