Today marked the last day of my wife’s employment at the local university. I have been unemployed for over a year, aside from a few contract jobs. My primary job has been to watch the little guy, starting when he was about nine months, and now ending as he is about to turn two.
Obviously, the occasion probably meant more for her, as she had been employed there for four years, but it is a significant milestone in our progression toward leaving this town and moving back to Austin. Of course, she’d given notice some time ago after I’d signed the matriculation letter and it was certain I would be going to school again full time starting in September. And, the house is under contract, and we pick up the keys to our two-bedroom apartment next Tuesday, but it’s one of those milestones that makes it all feel much more real and upon us.
I have no reservations about leaving this town. As I’ve stated before, all of the good things about it were known pretty much from the beginning, and they remained good things. The bad things about it were also known, but they just seemed to get worse. There is a palpable anger among so many conservatives right now, even good Christian ones with decent-paying jobs. My theory is that they know they’ve made a deal with the devil, and have to work themselves up to convince themselves that he is less of a devil than Hillary. Or, perhaps they’ve been angry for some time. Events like the one we went to last night seemed to be not much different in years past–youngish men with thinning hair and paunches unhappily herding their broods around, and not saying much of anything to anyone. They’ve always looked pissed off, come to think of it.
Can you blame them? They were hoping to have the perfect man’s man job in a factory somewhere waiting for them after high school and maybe the military, and this job would pay enough money for them to live an upper middle class lifestyle in a small, Texas city or large, Texas town. Of course, those jobs had left the country back in the 80s. Bruce Springsteen sang about it. Even the ones who go on to make a decent living in an office seem pissed off about it–they drive pickup trucks they don’t need to the office and back, to church, and to pick up a handful of things at Home Depot on Saturdays. They are pissed off because they are doing things only pussified liberal boys and women should be doing for a living.
Now, I lived in Austin for almost fifteen years, and I know that the liberal mindset can be just as nauseating when it’s taken to extremes. People congratulating themselves for not eating anything that doesn’t hurt the environment or exploit others while driving Priuses, but doing their share to deplete the water table in the area and clog up the air with pollution from its emission that they think is sweeter for the planet than an SUV’s. The extremes to which some people go to be the most virtuous seem to be fairly comparable in both places in terms of their output of insufferability and hypocrisy.
But, I am more of a liberal than not. I prefer being among more educated people than less, and being in a town that values the arts and the environment, at least in word if not always in deed. The university town we’ve been living in is incredibly divided between the university people and the other townspeople–much more so than I remember Columbia being and more so than Columbia seemed when I went up there earlier this month.
Right now, I would say that I am living with a heightened expectation that something might not go right–the school’s housing coordinator will point out a tiny new fine print rule added in the past month restricting breeds, the contract on the house will fall through, the house will require a major repair, or I will. It isn’t exactly the same thing as worry, because I am mostly not worrying about it. I have a distinct feeling that God has gotten me this far, and would be sending a rather mixed message if things suddenly manifested themselves in such a way to make me think this vocation wasn’t really from God, after all. All of the crap surrounding the sale of the condo that managed to resolve itself in barely the nick of time, and the way a contract fell into place for us for this house. The financial aid and subsidized housing from the school. The free time I’ve been able to have to get a lot of this done, and still have time to spend with my son and also to write and contemplate, etc.
Even though we’ve never really felt at home up here, we have lived here for four years–in the house we bought up here for three. There is a certain amount of…not sadness, but just the usual wistful set of feelings that come when you leave a place you’ve lived in for awhile. Maybe some of the fear of the uncertainty of what is to come is also there, too. While I have lived in Austin for a long time, and know it like the back of my hand, I hadn’t really expected to go back there as it was clearly becoming too much of a young, single person’s town (maybe it always has been) for a different generation than mine. It no longer felt like home anymore than anywhere else I’ve lived feels like a home to be returned to. Austin is noisy, busy and crowded and parking is brutal. It’s always been that way and I think it’s probably gotten a lot worse. The few times I’ve been down there, I’ve felt like an old man out of place when I walked down to Town Lake or visited a restaurant.
Also, I am going back to do something I haven’t done since I was twenty-two years old: be a full-time student. Money will be an issue, and I may also have to work part time. The pressure parents and other family members put on me back in my undergrad years to find a mate and get a degree that will be worth something is no longer there, but there will be a kind of pressure coming from myself–if I screw this opportunity up, I am pretty much through with the idea of ever having a career I can be happy about. I will most certainly resign myself to being a slightly well-paid office schmuck of some variety managing some kind of technology and riding out various waves of layoffs in home that they don’t get me next.
So, of course I have mixed feelings even though I’ve been mostly excited and at times seemed hardly able to wait to get down there–like I was eighteen again and stuck in my senior year in high school again. I do still have quite a few of those dreams about having to redo a year of high school because I hadn’t finished something I was supposed to, and high school is kind of an amalgam of high school, college, graduate school and life. I keep finding myself in these hopeless-feeling dreams where I discover some class I’d supposed to be attending is about to have its finals and I am woefully unprepared. I suppose that’s how I feel about life in general–I am woefully unprepared to die right now and face the Lord with a good conscience of knowing I’ve done everything I was supposed to do in this life. I mean, my son is not two yet, and I’ve never really had anything resembling a vocation, calling–my career barely passed for a career–it was more of a cobbled-together series of bad employment choices doing things that were vaguely similar. And, the intention to go to grad school or go back to school was always there. Everything under the sun was considered, except preaching. That seemed foolish until I really started to think about it with my ego mostly out of the picture.
Of course, the idea of being a monk like Thomas Merton appealed to me. Yes, I would love to do something amazing like Dorothy Day did. But, I kept saying I didn’t know where to begin. And, I was right. I was clueless about where to start–trying my hand at any number of volunteering activities and working for a non-profit–but, always feeling like I was somehow still taking more than I was giving back. I jumped into trying to be an EMT one summer, and worked on a political campaign another summer, and so on…but, the thing is, I was declaring that I knew best what God wanted me to do after a night of drinking and binge watching shows on Hulu or Netflix then buying some spiritual books at Half Price Books the next day. I was, of course, completely clueless about what God wanted me to do, because I kept putting my ego in between me and God and declaring that my ego had all of the information from God I needed to begin some new thing.
So, is this next adventure any different? I would really like to think so, and I have a lot of faith that it is, but I am always open to the possibility that I have misheard God again–I still don’t listen nearly as much as I should. However, I have maintained a great interest in Bible study from a historical perspective, even as many other interests have waxed and waned after so many months. I do think that I will keep moving forward in some fashion, either as a preacher, chaplain or professor–and this is the correct next step.
I am especially excited to be entering into a phase of life where there are hard stops and starts again. Instead of that vague, neverending feeling that accompanies jobs until you decide to leave them (and often for another one that isn’t any better in any significant way), the academic life is punctuated by many stops and starts, plus the hard date on the calendar of: you will be graduating on this date, for better or worse. Having some structure imposed upon my near future by an outside entity is something that I’ve needed for some time now. Even when I tried to go back to school to become an EMT, there was this sense of…well, the school may or may not accept me this year or next year, so I will continue to keep taking these non-core, but required classes and hope for the best.
In spite of what my dad once thought (he screamed at me to get off the phone with the recruiter when I got serious about it), I think I would have done pretty well in the Army. I actually respond better to being told what to do than I or anyone could have imagined when I was in the thick of my rebellion. Of course, it has to come from a trusted source, and I have to be on board with the program, but I am terrible at setting goals for myself and sticking to them, hence my non-existent career and late start in life around marriage and family.
I like being told: in five years, you will be doing this, and then in ten, you will be doing that. This is also some of the appeal of sticking with the traditional preaching route. I know the timeline for when I will be ordained, when I will likely remain an Associate Pastor, and when I will become a Senior Pastor. And, the mainline denominations are full of hard stops and starts throughout the liturgical year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, etc.
Anyone who thought they knew me would be shocked to find how comfortable I am with being told what to do and when to do it. But, as I’ve written so many times, I excelled at fooling myself and others about who I really was during my teens and twenties. I am anxious to begin the second half of life being a considerably different person, but I am still partial to bending and breaking the rules when I feel like such an action is needed. I certainly hope that in the past four years up here, I have worked to soften some of my original rigidity I felt when I left Austin and more or less embraced a more conservative environment. I am now a more whole person–I am no longer running from my past self or trying to do violence to him, but embracing a new me who in turn embraces new opportunities to be and do things differently than before, but with a good deal of structure to them.