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Reflections on a year of change
It’s been a good long while since I wrote a personal essay for the Stony Creek Diaries section. For you subscribers who have joined since December 22, just be warned - this isn’t about school operations or any of that jazz. There’s a little reflection on the job of head of school.
I have always been preoccupied with managing expectations… don’t worry, a normie Talking Out of School will be back this Friday!
I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello…
Lennon and McCartney
People are like suns… breathing into life, all that’s good in us…. And they come and they go….
It’s been quite a year. It’s been such a year that it’s taken me about eight months to figure out what to write about the year.
I talked to an old friend the other day, in her first year of not working in a school in a long time, feeling that late August pull of wanting to sharpen pencils and buy a new backpack. I felt that way last year and I escaped to the other side of the country. Now it just feels like my life and while because of the business I’m building and the people in my life, I’m aware of the academic rhythm, I don’t feel left behind or left out or like I’m wearing a jacket that doesn’t quite fit. I just feel like me and I am looking forward to Labor Day and the daytrippers leaving Stony Creek as the weather cools.
It’s been nice to get reacquainted with what feeling like me feels like while also integrating some of the new, complicated aspects of life. Living with big losses leaves behind holes in the fabric that are patched in ways you can’t disguise even if you wanted to. When you run your hands over it, the material has a different texture from the original. Try as you might, you can’t completely conceal the new stitches. And each big loss means a new patch. The result may be beautiful but it’s likely inconsistent, a little wacky, a bit melancholy in its disjointedness, whole but messy. It’s not better or worse than the original. Few of us are master seamstresses. It certainly is different and it takes time to adjust to it, accept it and embrace it, rather than just keep telling yourself you’re “over it” and nothing has really changed.
I have found big losses have invited bone deep gratitude. Gratitude for what was, feeling incredibly lucky. And to begin to feel the blessing of acceptance of where you are in your own life, that you are, indeed, aging, but you’re still lucky, lucky to still be here - although twenty one year old knees and my former ability to keep all my appointments in my head without a calendar would be nice to have again.
But just the fact you are still here, even with your raggedy patchwork, and can feel all the beauty and terror is enough.
It’s truly great to have the bandwidth to read. It’s great to really listen to music and cruise around Spotify finding new music, an album that you just can’t get enough of - I had thought that interest had dissipated with time but it was just sleeping.
It’s been a huge privilege to just really think about how I want to invest myself and spend my time. In creating a business, the first six months were all about, “I could do that - and I could do that - and I could do that…” and really it took me until just about a year into this new phase to let go of things I could do but if I’m honest with myself, I don’t really want to do, and then start to create opportunities that really light me up and get me thinking, the kind of problem solving where I am so engrossed in grappling with a problem that I stop on a dog walk to make a note about a new angle or insight.
To get here, there was a whole lot of first acknowledging I have an ego - my associations with ego are generally 1) negative and shameful (I blame the Catholic Church) 2) about ambition for ambition’s sake (see #1) and 3) most often attributed, in the most unfair stereotypical way possible, to men and a condescending opinion of their sloppy, status-hungry, painfully transparent striving - ick. Since I am purpose or mission driven, I am above that muck. And if I’m being frank, I really bought into the idea that striving should look effortless, as if you’d ended up here by chance and had decided to make the best of it.
But you can be driven by purpose and by ego. Of course you can. Of course you are!
You just don’t want to be unconsciously driven around by your ego.
Any one of us who is or has been a head of school, even if you fell into the job at some level, takes the job for complicated reasons that people generally don’t fully excavate - and maybe it’s a futile goal. Of course there is something extremely validating about being offered a job at the top of the pyramid of your industry. And even if that was not your main motivation, it’s in there somewhere. You’re being recognized. The hard work led to something tangible. And then you are just treated differently in the context of your industry once you’ve held this position. And weirdly, I have found that among a certain subset of people, there is a certain cache in having been a head. (Many, many people have only the vaguest idea what “private school” is about but there are some…) I was sitting next to a neighbor at a dinner party recently and he knew I had worked at a boarding school but when he realized I was the head! - (he was a Deerfield graduate) - his eyes widened and he said, “that’s a big job.” And I said, “I know!”
And for sure, heads see a different side of schools and it’s a club where whatever differences you may have, there are always a million commonalities when you meet another head. We all have our well-earned scars and we enjoy comparing notes and feeling understood.
There is something hard to give up about that, and it’s even beyond ego - it’s a security and certainty about your place in the world. Sometimes people wonder why some retired heads go on to have busy lives as head of school search consultants. It’s not just a way to stay busy and use your hard won skill set - I suspect it’s a way to retain that part of your identity. No small thing.
I didn’t realize that about myself until recently, and how I wasn’t truly free to figure out what would be my best and highest purpose in this phase until I realized holding on to that identity was a factor. Now a year later, I think about schools and have really enjoyed all the networking and connections I’ve made. It has been a little miracle to get as much pleasure and satisfaction out of writing as I have - if I could spend 50% of my working time doing it, I would be perfectly happy. Writing was another thing that for years, well before headship, had really become more of a chore than anything else. I knew it was important and a part of who I was as a leader and while I remained particular about it, I was more than happy - grateful! - to have Lauren Castagnola take a first pass at a speech or a presentation and then go back and rearrange, add, edit, shape it. Now sitting down to a blank screen with an idea is one of the highlights of my week.
But completely separate from my professional identity, I now also have an ongoing goal about my third floor (that needs to be finished off) becoming a little haven for people I care about to stay over, who need to escape for a night or two, that I will bake and cook for them and make them tea as they sit at my kitchen table and we chat. I think about perfecting new recipes and lighting candles. I think about how I want my garden to evolve next year. I think about finally learning to kayak. I think about travel and spending a few weeks somewhere like Berlin, wandering in and out of all the museums, thinking, sitting in cafes, writing. I work on a novel in my head that I think has a pretty good chance of getting on the page some day.
The desire to support people doing the hard work of running schools and serving kids grows stronger, but my need to be recognized as someone who at one point had “the top job” diminishes daily. A few weeks ago I wrote about heads and power - everyone knows you wear the crown so trying to hide it is just silly and counterproductive - it’s about wearing it with grace and humility and confidence. Now I don’t care if anyone knows that I wore the crown or not. Goodbye, Hello.
So the number one thing about this past year was getting a better sense of who I am in this moment - who I was before I had an all-consuming job, how the job itself changed me, how leaving the job changed me, how you integrate losses into your life rather than stuffing them out of sight.
The other thing that came out in stark relief this year was just the rhythm of life, the comings and goings. I have been so lucky to have parents who have lived so long and for the most part, with good health and agency and self-sufficiency, who have parented, really, been the wise ones who you could still look to to give you insight and perspective when you needed it. To say things like how proud they are of you, who validate you. And then you realize when one dies (departs, transitions, I like “passing” because it seems gentle and it felt very true to how my father exited this plane) what a deep sense of your own mortality it conveys. Things are changing, all the time. We all get older but day to day, you don’t notice. Until one day you do.
I told a friend recently it’s like you’re in a long line of people that is moving along fairly briskly and you are looking around at the scenery and thinking about your destination and then the line abruptly comes to a halt. You bump into the person in front of you and you look around at where you are. This is the life I’ve built. These are the enduring friends, these are the family relationships, this is the professional network. All built while you were busy living your life - here you are.
And you also realize how life is, like Stephen King wrote in the short story, “The Body,” that friends come and go like waiters in a restaurant. Beloved friends. Beloved coworkers. Beloved mentors. Beloved institutions. Beloved pets.
My beautiful Nessa passed away (also an appropriate term) in June, my blondie, my wheaten terrier girl. I arranged it. Such a weird thing to say. Part of me will never get over that fact completely. I arranged to own and adopt her when she was an eight week old baby creature who knew nothing about nothing and ate poisonous plants and power cords, who cried to go out at 3AM. And then almost exactly fifteen years later, I talk to the vet and make the arrangements to help her exit when she is skinny and full of metastasis and probably suffering more than a human could tolerate but still doggedly(!) sticking as best she can to her schedule and her habits and her happiness when she can sniff the grass or sees you walking through the door. The wagging tail gradually went from a helicopter blade ready to take flight to a flag barely shifting in the breeze, but the spirit was the same.
I’ve never had any desire to write about the human-dog relationship because it is wonderful and there is not much to say about it other than that. But there was something profound about making that decision to prevent any further suffering that felt like a truly horrible burden, although I know it is also a gift and yes I know all the things about how it’s for the best - but to have to make that decision for someone you love is just kind of unspeakable.
The vet brought a small team to the house and it was profound and that small group wasn’t incidental to the profundity. They were part of it. The three of them approached the moment with reverence and respect. When the life of a beloved animal ends, an animal who is surrounded by love, there needs to be recognition of the bond, of the loss, and that we will not see the likes of her again. In retrospect, it is so clear it was the right decision. But this creature you nurtured and who depended on you for life is gone, just like that. Hello, Goodbye.
I wanted a dog for years. After our family dog died when I was 10 or 11, my dad, who did most of the dog heavy lifting, didn’t want to deal with another one. My parents sort of jollied me along for a few years as I looked into dog breeds and then adolescence hit and things like going out after dark with a car full of other teenagers became the most exciting thing in the world. I made them get a cat when I was in the tenth grade so I could have an excuse to pick up the kitten from a boy I had a crush on. I loved that nutty cat, who had a habit of putting his paws around your neck and rubbing his cheek against mine. He would also get tired of being handled and when his tail started to twitch so you needed to drop him, fast, or risk losing an eye. In my twenties, I got a shelter cat who was a dream cat - even tempered, social, a cat who dug hanging out with me when watching television or reading in bed.
But no other pet was a DOG! I still have a cat soft spot but the relationship with a dog is just…special. I researched breeds for months before I decided to get a wheaten terrier. I showed my friends pictures of the mama and papa dogs on the breeders’ website. The day I went to select a puppy, she wandered over and licked my sandaled foot and then she was part of the family.
Nessa was adorable and quirky and had a ton of personality. She ran zoomies around the house so intensely, she’d hit the wall like a competitive swimmer as she turned around to zoom some more. For eleven years, we were bosom buddies and unless it was a million degrees out, she went with me everywhere. She was a smiler, the kind of dog that looks happy with her mouth slightly open when she was excited. She had a raft of chronic breed related health issues and she was a picky eater and if she had to go out, SHE HAD TO GO OUT, NO LOLLYGAGGING, JULIE. But she had the best eyes and crazy long eyelashes and she had this way of sitting next to me and then just flopping her head in my lap as if to say, “Sigh. Happiness. Home.” I had a DOG.
I have the backup dog I adopted a few years ago as Nessa slowed down, the indefatigable, bananas, rescue Finn, (who is also a DOG! But this is not his story.) who gave the carpet where Nessa lay in those final moments a really good sniff after he arrived home from doggie day care the day the vet team came and where I realized recently, he goes in to sniff every morning before we go downstairs to start the day.
But using my previous metaphor, one dog doesn’t fill in the hole another’s absence creates in the fabric; he becomes another unique piece of the patchwork. Goodbye, Hello.
There are of course the many entrances of my neighbors in Stony Creek - and Stony Creek has enough characters to not just populate a sitcom but to populate a whole sitcom universe. Pawnee, Indiana has nothing on us. I was asked to run for the village council - actually, by the unofficial mayor of Stony Creek, the same guy who said, “that’s a big job!” to me. He needed a name to fill out the ballot but other neighbors think he’s trying to train me up…much to my relief, I lost. There’s always next year!
There have also been a number of what I realized are not entrances but re-entrances, some quite surprising in a delightful way. Some contribute something unique and invaluable before quickly exiting again - maybe to be seen again, maybe not? The mystery is delicious. Others hang around, as sweet and reliable as a cast member of Cheers. Some you never really noticed had come through the door in the first place but when you pay attention, you wonder at what else you may have overlooked.
Overall, you realize how much it matters how you show up every day because even if you’ve had your eyes focused on the future, you’ve been making an impact around you, whether you intended to or not.
There are the stark facts of loss. There is the lovely, imperfect new patchwork. I feel optimistic. My parents both were (my mom = is!) full of joie de vivre in their own ways. They really engaged (engages!) with the world; they really engaged and appreciated people. They loved (love!) and were loved.
They were so happy to be invited to the show.
It has rubbed off.
You say goodbye and I say hello.
People Are Like Suns Crowded House
To be continued…
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