“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” -E.B. White
Years ago, my mother and I sat in a bar, arguing about politics. In an uncharacteristically patient voice, she said, “I don’t want to argue anymore. Your dad and I lived through very hard times when we were growing up. Your father went to war. We both lived through the Depression. We’ve worked hard all our lives. Now, all I want to do is enjoy the world, not dwell on all the bad things. It’s someone else’s turn to figure all of that out.”
My time as faculty chair ends this week and I’ve been afraid to exhale. On our campus, chaos can come at any moment: a holiday, spring break, or an ordinary Tuesday. I’ve become hypervigilant. There have been reflective moments, but mostly it’s been an adrenaline-fueled ride from day one. And I do well with adrenaline. I feel clear and purposeful, able to zero-in, gather information and opinions, and move to action. Yet, over time, I’ve become a little addicted, unsure about what to do when life is calm and the adrenaline surges abate.
My addiction to adrenaline began earlier than my chair position, back in the summer of 2017. My mother died over the course of three weeks. On the day of her funeral, my mother-in-law’s partner died after seven months of suffering. Soon thereafter my mother-in-law entered a deep downward spiral. The resultant caregiving, grief, and recurring crises became layered in with expected and hoped for events – college departures and new job responsibilities. The icing was the pandemic and my father’s death. Behold! Mimi’s upside-down adrenaline cake was complete. Each surge came with a let-down made easier to tolerate because of the sweetness of managing well, knowing what I was doing was needed and important, feeling purposeful.
Although the last six years have been particularly intense for me, it’s no different for most of us on a college campus. Everyone is so busy, striving for the next accomplishment, helping a student, or fighting the latest battle; I’m certainly not alone in my adrenaline-soaked existence. “Dead wood” is the disdainful term for people who remain on the payroll but are non-productive; I have feared that moniker all my professional life. We academics take pains to show people that we are not deadwood. We work on maternity leave, during the two-week family vacation, at the kids’ soccer game, or sitting in the doctor’s office with an aging parent, dividing our attention in halves, in quarters, in eighths…
This summer, as life slowed down and my chairship drew to a close, my adrenaline withdrawal surfaced first as a gnawing frustration, a furrowed brow, a slightly clenched jaw. Would I be satisfied with turning back into a pumpkin and leaving the ball, no matter how much a monster’s ball it had become? Now I’ll be the last versus the first to know about significant developments. Following such unattractive petulance, a malaise set in, a withdrawal, a hopelessness. If I’m not fully in it, I’ll be fully out of it. Time to take my toys and go home. Back and forth I’ve swung over the last month, wondering what I was missing, why I couldn’t simply enjoy some rest, not worry about what came next, find the balance between letting things go and healthy engagement.
Asthe anniversary of my mother’s death approached that 20-year-old conversation bubbled up. I saw her argument then as a cop-out, a way to avoid versus engage with difficult truths. But now her words redound and mingle with a conversation I had with my father a year or two before her death. I wanted them to move to a retirement community where I thought my mother would have more to do. More excitement, more connection to the world, more adrenaline.
My dad shook his head. “Let’s give her every good day we can. Let her be still with her beautiful things she’s collected over her life. Let me cut up her morning mango just the way she likes it and serve it with a biscuit and marmalade. Let us sit together on the front porch and listen to the birds and look at the big live oak tree that I planted years ago.”
I didn’t buy his argument, but I respected it. And somehow now, six years after my mother died, both of those conversations hit differently. Peace, permission, pleasure. Their voices tell me: Let adrenaline be a servant, not a master. Give up trying to be a savior. Fill your eyes with beauty. Take pleasure in the world as it is. Sit on the porch. Read what you like. Take the trip to Paris and eat every croissant. Say yes to the college friends’ get together. You will need the adrenaline again perhaps. But, not today. Take a breath. Take a break.
Yes, Mom. Yes, Dad. Love you.