Turning 36 in the year of the dragon

Fighting for good journalism, getting ‘real’ jobs, and marriage equality in church

My birthday was last Saturday. I turned 36. This means, in Chinese astrology, that I am a dragon in the year of the dragon. (There are 12 animals in the horoscope, so it’s a 12-year cycle.)

You might think this is a good thing; I did. Woohoo! It’s my year, I wrote on facebook. This belief was dispelled by the only other Asian working in the school district where I was employed during the first half of this year. Hai, a Vietnamese immigrant who had lived several years in Hong Kong, has a much better understanding of the horoscope than I do as an ABC (American-born Chinese). The year of the dragon, he told me, is a bad year for a dragon. This, as I understand it, is because the astrology takes into account the five elements — earth, fire, metal, water, wood — and having too much of one element causes imbalance, and a dragon in a dragon year would present a pretty big imbalance. A dragon in a monkey year, however, would be a good, balanced year, since the monkey provides things that a dragon lacks. Or something along those lines.

In any case, Hai was right, in that I had a miserable first half of the year at least. Working at that school caused me to increase my antidepressant as well as start me on anti-anxiety pills; I had bad evaluations, no support though I asked for help, parents and students complaining about me, and a new principal who was convinced that I was a horrible teacher and didn’t give me serious chances to improve. This principal made it virtually impossible for me to get another teaching position in another district, because I was technically, if not officially, fired, and no other school in these tough-on-teachers times wants to touch a fired teacher with a 10-foot pole.

Being fired from my job was, however, probably a blessing in disguise, because I am much happier NOT as a teacher. Of course, I have not been able to bring myself to forgive the actions of my superiors in that district, but I know that I should really feel grateful that they didn’t let me waste any more of my time trying to learn something — dealing with challenging behavior — that was so difficult for me.

Today I went into the city for a job interview at the education graduate school where I got my master’s degree in bilingual education. I had worked there as a secretary for a year during my studies, and that job may have been one of the most enjoyable experiences I had there (which is not exactly saying it was enjoyable, per se). I applied for another secretary position last month, and I think I do want to get the job.

At first, when they called me to set up the interview, I didn’t want it. I had been volunteering at the farm on Friday, talking to the apprentices with whom I work about their difficulties working with their boss. I looked back at my last 15 or so years of work experience and realized I have never had such a good time at a job as I do where I am now, at this paper, working part-time with no benefits. (It was a beautiful fall day at the farm, by the way. I love this area.)

The path to the fields up topView of a pond at Glynwood Farm

After all, the editor is endlessly helpful to me, encouraging me to take on more responsibilities and praising my writing. (My latest articles are both on the front page!) I also like many of the people I work with, and I get to meet interesting people. Oh, and have I mentioned that it is greatly fulfilling to know that I work at a publication that directly competes with the local paper owned and operated by the wife of the president of Fox News? I feel like I am fighting for a good cause, for real journalism, ethical reporting, and bipartisanship, even in the venue of such a small town. I didn’t, and often still don’t, want to give any of that up.

Later I discussed the job with my husband, who is really excited these days about the prospect of getting full-time jobs in the city and moving back there. He says, if we could get settled into some secure, stable jobs in the city, that eventually he could support me while I have a baby. And so we are back to the age thing — I am no spring chicken, and my window of childbearing is closing. If I want to have kids, then I have to have them soon, probably within the next few years.

The truth is that we haven’t found any way to sustain life here in this beautiful and too-expensive Hudson River village, now that I’m not making a good salary. With my increasing responsibilities at the paper, I could make a little more money, but it will not be a full-time job with benefits anytime soon, with the funding situation as it is. And Shane has not been able to find any positions within reasonable driving distance for which he is qualified and that would support us, and commuting an hour and a half each way to the city would be too much for him.

So I resigned myself to perhaps only being able to copy edit for the paper remotely on the internet.

Taking into consideration this new desire to get a benefit-providing job, I don’t know why I was so honest at the interview today. Basically, I admitted to wanting to a job where I don’t have to take work home and where I can have fun with coworkers, and I confessed to needing to work on resolving conflict with others. Whaa? And yet, I think, being honest is my way of cutting to the chase, and if they don’t want me with all of my flaws, then I don’t want them.

There may also have been a little part of me that simply hopes that we can find a way to make things work living in this area and keeping my job at the paper.

There’s this other thing, too, that I don’t know how to discuss on this blog, and that’s the work we’ve been doing for this Episcopal church in town. I think I try to avoid writing about it because I don’t want to turn people off by talking about religion. Most of my friends, after all, are agnostics and atheists, as I was for most of my life.

But it has been a great part of our lives here, and it has meant, for us, being part of a community and, in a way, supporting gay rights. This is because we have a priest who recently came out as gay and who has presided over the first gay wedding in the diocese (even though the bishop has not yet approved of marrying same-sex couples in an Episcopal ceremony). Honestly, if you looked up the Episcopal church, you’d find it surprisingly progressive (for those of us who look down on organized religion and believe Christianity is quite scary in its more popular, conservative American form).

The parish members are wonderful — we met our best friend in the village there, and we are actually friends with some Republican church-goers! The priest gives thoughtful and helpful sermons about emulating Christ by accepting and loving, not judging, others, which I truly want to try to do. (And here the friends who know me well may be surprised, since I never exactly espoused withholding judgment in the past. In fact, my disdain for most of humankind may be one of my most fun traits.)

The church, however, is not doing well. We recently learned that we have to prepare two budgets for the coming year — one continuing as is and another without a full-time priest. Unfortunately, our priest will probably have to leave, since we cannot sustain what we have now, and our savings are dwindling. (Sound familiar? Is it merely a coincidence?)

To add to the turmoil, a couple of the main players on the church vestry have quit, having been burned out, I guess, by the stress of trying to run a church with a full-time priest for over 7 years on a diminishing income. In the course of the past week or so, I have taken on more responsibilities on the vestry as a result — becoming co-chair of pastoral care and chair of hall rentals, and Shane has taken more financial responsibilities as treasurer.

St. Mary-in-the-Highlands

I haven’t been trying a great deal to discern my “calling,” but this — helping the parish — is the closest thing to a calling that we have imagined for ourselves thus far. It’s a beautiful landmark, for one, but a serene place to find comfort (with its stained glass, somber classical music, and age-old, high-mass rites — Catholicism with none of the guilt!) as well as a raucously fun place to find friendship. What churches, after all, hold champagne receptions for adult baptisms and Christmas midnight mass, and regularly serve alcohol at its fundraisers and social events (all while teaching people to be nice to each other)? This place needs to survive!

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On discernment, or lack there of, and health insurance

I am currently on a discernment committee through the vestry at my church. (Don’t worry, I won’t talk much about church.) A discernment committee, in the Episcopalian church, is created when someone in the parish wants to go to seminary and become a priest. The members and the candidate meet once a month for 6 to 12 months in order to “discern gifts for the ministry” or some such thing. We meet this person every month and talk to him about why he thinks he is being called to the priesthood, in order to make a judgment about whether the parish should recommend him for the seminary.

I have recently been struck by the absurdity of my presence on this committee. Not only am I one of the most opinionated and judgmental people in the group, I have no idea how to discern my own calling in life, let alone that of someone else.

I thought I had been called to be a bilingual, public-school elementary teacher, serving a low-income population of immigrants and their children learning English. I still feel passionately about bilingual education and advocating social justice for immigrants and minorities in the U.S., and maybe in the future I’ll want to work on those issues again, but I now know that teaching children in large groups is not the way I am supposed to achieve those goals.

The other day, I went to fill out an application form to be a substitute at the public school in town. I didn’t have time to finish the application there, so I brought it home and said I would bring it back the next day. That night, I had a nightmare about teaching a class of rowdy adolescents in my old school. I never turned in that application, and I am not sure I ever will. Obviously I feel a level of anxiety about classroom teaching that has not yet dissipated.

The dilemma I am experiencing right now is that I am paying $680 a month for COBRA to continue my health insurance, and my husband does not have health insurance, because it was much too expensive to have both of us on COBRA. We thought we’d be able to find something for him that was cheaper, in the age of Obamacare, but we haven’t so far. With the income from my part-time job at the paper and his from music lessons, we make more than the cutoff for poverty, so we don’t qualify for most forms of governmental health plans. But to expect to pay over $1500 a month for health insurance for two people is not feasible on what we do make.

The imperative at the moment is to find health insurance, and the only way we know how to do that is to get a job with benefits. We have been searching, though, even in the city, for a long time, and we haven’t exactly been offered many … or any, really.

Yesterday, I went to a job interview in the city for a full-time administrative aide position in a university department. I know it would be great to be able to have (1) a job that pays a reasonable salary, (2) health insurance, and (3) tuition credits as a benefit. The night before the interview, I looked at all the classes I would want to take if I were to get the position: language classes so that I could feel more comfortable pursuing translation, publishing or editing courses if I want to try going that way again in the future, web stuff because everyone wants someone who can do web stuff….

Then I wondered, at 35, whether I should take this job if they offer it to me. Do I want to be a secretary and delay an attempt to work as a copy editor or writer? Or maybe this is just a way to take a much-needed break from being burned out by teaching, and a time to really figure out what my calling could be?

Finally I conceded that I probably won’t get this job anyway, because they are spending the whole week interviewing people, and I have to admit that I didn’t show much excitement for the position, so I may not have to make that decision after all.

I guess I should work on making business cards and a website for myself, while still looking for a “real” job that I would love to take, and use my time wisely while I still have it. What exactly constitutes “wise use” remains to be seen.

From teacher to farmer?

Cucumber

I recently and finally accepted my therapist’s suggestion that I would do better in a job where I could see the results of my work.

For a classroom teacher, she explained, the outcome, dependent on humans and their learning, was never a guarantee, no matter how hard I worked. I would spend hours planning, collecting and creating worksheets, grading papers, and organizing paperwork, and it was true that there was very little to show for it.

These days, many people, at least in the government, think that the outcome of a teacher’s work is the performance of his or her students on standardized tests. This is completely unfair, since there are too many variables determining how a child will perform on a test, with the main variables starting years before that student even walks into your classroom. The lessons I gave might have worked fabulously in another class, with different demographics, in a different place. What else could explain why I had such a horrible experience in one district and a more positive one in my first district?

There are definitely several reasons why I did not thrive as a classroom teacher of children, even in that first district. It was not only that I needed more visible results of my work. I speculate that teaching children in a public school was difficult for me because of a conglomeration of personality traits: introversion, a need for control, high expectations for compliance, a less outwardly warm presence, dislike of rigid mandates from layers and layers of authority above me (despite my own need for my students to comply with my rules). I worked and worked and had no life outside of work; I was exhausted every day, except during summer vacation. There was always something else to do, and piles of papers all over the place, and I hardly ever felt successful.

Yes, the need for concrete results or a tangible product of my labor, while not the only reason, may be another factor for my unhappiness as a teacher.

Zinnias, marigolds

I realized that the one activity I loved most about my past two years in said horrible district was gardening, which had hardly anything to do with teaching. Of course, I did bring the students out to see and work in the gardens at school, and my enthusiasm for learning about plants and gardening rubbed off on some of my students, but what I loved most was the time spent weeding, planting, and harvesting on my own, after school. Weeding was particularly satisfying — to clear an entire space of unwanted plants left me with a great sense of accomplishment. (And this is similar to a certain destructive compulsion of mine that I will have to address later, in another post.)

Iris

I started having fantasies of becoming a farmer. There is a real need for young people to get into farming, and though I am not necessarily all that young, I am at least younger than the majority of working farmers in the U.S. at the moment. And there is a real need for people to farm sustainably, an endeavor that I support wholeheartedly. As an avid knitter, I want to have angora goats or sheep. As a drinker I want to have an apple orchard and a cider press. I want to grow vegetables and take care of chickens, like my knitting and spinning friend in town, who used to be a sheep-shearer herself.

Everyone thought I was crazy to want to become a farmer. My husband kept telling me that I’ve never done it before, and it’s awfully hard work, and that I’d probably hate it after only a few days. My therapist agreed with him but suggested that I volunteer on nearby farms or gardens to get more experience. In any case, we didn’t, and still don’t, have the money to buy and start a farm, so I couldn’t very well just go off and do it.

Hot peppers

The first day I went to help with the harvest at the local farm where my friends and I went in on a CSA share together, I mentioned my joy in gardening at school, and an apprentice there agreed, saying, “You can really see the outcome of your work.” And I was stunned that everything seemed to be coming together then; I hadn’t said anything to her about my therapist’s suggestion that I find a job where I could see the outcome of my work.

The fruits of one’s labor are certainly and literally right there before you as a farmer or gardener, and I do love that. I love it so much that I go every Friday morning to work on the farm for four or five hours, even though my first day I got scratched up by the squash plants and had an itchy rash on my arms and legs that lasted three days. (Now I wear long sleeves and long pants while I’m working there, even through the summer heat.) I pick kale, cut broccoli, collect tomatoes and tomatillos, dig out basil plants and carrots, and I get sweaty and dirty. It’s my kind of work, at least right now.