Caring While in Academia

by | Nov 21, 2017

Two paper bags, two back packs, one couple

Monday morning found me sitting at Starbucks. A mountain of ungraded papers, like sentinels, lined up before me. Which pile should I tackle first? I chuckled to myself as it really did not matter which set of papers I started with; today was the day. They ALL had to be graded.

I dropped my daughter off at school and hustled to Starbucks to ensure that not only would I find a parking spot but also that I would get one of the prime tables (I hate the communal tables). So by 8:07 am I was in the lot. First goal accomplished: I found a parking spot. I hurried inside, as there were cars pulling in behind me. Goal number two accomplished: I claimed the one table under the window that was bathed in just enough sunlight. My cup of tea and mountain of papers stared back at me. I pulled out my pen and got started. First paper graded, I reached for the second one, glancing up to notice my surroundings. Siting facing me was a young Black women with a killer afro. We looked at each other and smiled. I went back to grading.

Eventually, I looked outside. I saw the couple: he was holding two paper bags and both were carrying backpacks. There was something intriguing about this couple.

This pattern repeated itself on Wednesday morning. However, instead of a pile of papers to grade, I found myself challenged by a pile of chapters that needed to be analyzed for an edited volume I was co-editing. I met my resistance, as I always do, by spending a few minutes just gazing out the window and feeling the sun on my face. As I came back into the room, I again saw the same woman from two days ago. Her partner came out and greeted her. He had the two paper bags and the backpacks. They walked outside and he helped her adjust her backpack. They had a brief conversation and then slowly walked away. I watched them until they were beyond my sight. They were homeless.

That morning I wrote, “They seem to look out for each other. And there is something deeply sad and beautiful.”

The hay 

It was that time of the year when the lawn needs to be readied for winter. I’m an island girl, from Barbados to be exact, so what do I know about putting lawns to “bed” for winter? I gathered up my stuff and tackled the lawn. I mowed, I raked, I seeded, I fertilized. And I got angry!! Yes, every time I have to do the lawn I have to confront my anger. I stood there with the rake in my hand. My 5’2’’ body could barely manage the rake that is seemingly taller than I am. My hands and the rake were not compatible.

Either the rake was too big for my small hands or my hands were too small for the rake. But I had to find a way to rake the lawn because as I’ve learned, you can’t seed unless you rake. I silently screamed “sh*t!” to myself as I bent my knees and found a way to grip the rake that worked for me. I

finally accepted that I have to rake in small sections. So I raked and considered all the other things that needed to be done. I still needed to cook, respond to emails, call and check on my grandmother, and find time to rest my tired body. It was 3:30 pm and I’d been up and going since 5:00 am. Tears entered into my eyes but I squeezed my lids shut before they spilled out. I looked up at the sky. I breathed. I bent my knees and continued raking. I paused to switch hand positions and get a little relief from the soreness that was creeping into my hands—the same hands that I needed to use to give a hug, to chop the chicken for the meal that evening, and to grade and write.

Dirty feet

When I was a little girl, my grandmother always told us, “Don’t go to bed with the bottom of your feet dirty.” I often took that literally. And then I got older and realized how wise my grandmother was/is.

Doing academia while caring for children and elders

So what do these stories have to do with doing academia while caring?

1. Life is difficult and sometimes we find ourselves in situations that we simply cannot predict. The question we all have to confront is how do we want to be in these situations? This is a lesson I got from watching the homeless couple. The tenderness they shared with each other transcended their reality—and I make no claim that I know their truth. Each day as we find ourselves having to care for others while working in an institution that often requires us to become robots, solely there to produce, we have to ask: how are we being tender, both with ourselves and with those we care for? And even more importantly, are we allowing others to hold us tenderly?

2. What at the source of our feelings? It was easy for me to be angry while raking the lawn. But simply stopping at the feeling without “skinning” it open would be of no use to me. It would be like having a banana and thinking of eating it without actually peeling it. What I’m trying to say is that it’s important to honestly recognize the feelings that arise as we care for others. And yes, those feelings will not always be “positive.” Even more importantly, we have to recognize what’s underlying the feeling. When it comes to doing the lawn, I was angry about the situation that had caused me to now be responsible for the lawn, in addition to all the other things I needed to take care of. I had to allow myself to first sit with my anger and then to go deeper. When I go deeper I can find a place of response. I can learn how to adapt, to adjust. That day, my compromise was that we bought dinner. Raking the lawn was a good place for me to ground myself, to step away from the moment and remove the hay so that I could plant something that would materialize in the future. As we are caring for others and ourselves, we have to temper out focus on the here and now with an eye toward what we want to produce in the future.

3. As I’ve gotten older, and I would like to think wiser (although that may be questionable), I have a better understanding of my grandmother’s words. Yes, she was being literal about not going to bed with dirty feet. But she was telling us to not carry one day’s trials into the next. We have to find ways of literally and figuratively washing away the dirt. This means consciously asking ourselves, what do we need? How do we carry all of what life has given us? How do we adapt to that which we carry?

As I mother a teenage daughter and care for and about a mother who is chronically ill and a grandmother who is experiencing dementia, I offer and accept tenderness. I adapt to my situation, and I’m conscious of how I want to carry all that I have been given.

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Julia Jordan-Zachery is a former coach at Ideas on Fire, a professor of public and community service, and director of the Black Studies Program at Providence College.

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