Tag Archives: opportunity

Gap Year FAQ

What is unemployment? If no one tells you that you’ve lost your job, are you really unemployed?

Generally speaking, the cessation of payment is a strong indicator that one’s job has been terminated.

Notification is a different story. I, for example, notified myself of my own impending unemployment. In February 2017, my husband, a full-time boarding school teacher, did not receive a renewal contract, so I, a part-time teacher and his partner, by extension did not either. My supervisor (the administrator responsible for contract renewals) did not discuss the matter with me, in person, in writing, or via email. I officially found out well after my peers did, in an email sent from the school’s business manager, who attributed the dissolution of my job to a lack of/low enrollment in the 7th and 8th grade student body. He intended, I think, to soften the blow: It’s economics, Jules. It’s not personal.

My employee evaluations were solid, and I completed every task asked of me (even the uncompensated ones), surpassing the requirements expected of part-time staff. I believed that my supervisor and I were on amicable terms, and, for several weeks, my confidence bolstered by favorable comments from the school’s higher ups, I reserved hope that I could continue working at the school in another capacity – potentially allowing my family to remain situated in the same house and community – until the time came when I realized that would not be the case. It felt intensely personal. People have disappeared from my life before, but for an employer to do so was a novel first.

 

I heard you moved. Where are you now?

In the fourth quarter, the school administration raced to disassociate from my family, and we reciprocated, vacating the faculty house in which we’d spent that last nine years, cleaning and preparing it for its new tenants within 36 lightning-quick hours. I documented the process on social media, using captions such as The Purge, The Big Move, Good Riddance, and, on a particularly bad day, Our Former Employer is Satan.

We took the carport and the trampoline, which we’d purchased, and dismantled the monkey bars we’d built, giving away the wood to friends for tinder. We left no trace of ourselves. Many coworkers – those with whom we’d worked and laughed, and broken bread, and raised our kids – didn’t blink or say goodbye. They avoided eye contact in shared workspaces. They drove by our house, and they watched us mop sweat from our faces as we carried load after load of pieces of our life to the ever-growing dumpster. They heard us cry on our front porch and try to diplomatically rationalize the school’s motivations to our children, who responded with greater maturity than we could have imagined.

It took several weeks to secure a rental property, during which time I slept little and fought nightmares. Ultimately, a neighbor took pity on us and agreed to rent us his house. Half a dozen school families, whose students my husband and I had taught successively, pledged to help us on moving day. When that day came, two of twelve “definites” showed up.

 

What is the hardest part about being unemployed?

This question has no single answer. Answers vary widely depending on experience and circumstance. My biggest challenge has been the shunning from former “friends” because it bleeds into so many different aspects of daily life: basic social courtesy, traditions, the definition of a functioning community. Our discontinued status at the school renders us invisible to our peers. Even today, when I encounter a former coworker at the library or the grocery store, most wince and/or avert their gaze, stumbling backwards to increase the physical distance between us. I offer them a smile and a greeting while seething inside. I used to think of myself as part of a great community, but it was only a construct of my imagination.

 

Why take a gap year, at your age?

Though we aren’t high school students trying to find ourselves before committing to a college path, the spirit of a gap year suits our current situation: we wanted to find out what to do next. My husband and I considered ourselves “lifers” at our former school. We were committed to the school’s mission and hoped both to teach our own children and to see them learn with esteemed coworkers. We dreamed our kids would matriculate from the school. The school did not return our loyalty. My husband and I found ourselves in middle age, rootless and directionless, reevaluating what we wanted from the next chapter of our lives.

Of the five major life stressors that jeopardize the stability of individuals and families, leaving the school confronted us with two: moving and starting a new job. (The other three stressors are the birth of a child, marriage, and death.) We didn’t want to act out of desperation: take last minute jobs in a random city that we might end up despising, only to job search and uproot again the following year. A hasty move compounded by a second hasty move seemed like a fast track to a lot of bad juju, and a costly one at that, so we made the decision that best supported our family’s needs. We have yet to discover whether we made right choice or not.

 

How can you afford a gap year?

My husband and I have been continuously employed since we were teenagers. In the last decade, I’ve held multiple jobs at once, concurrently freelancing, tutoring, and teaching to maximize my revenue. We agreed early on about the necessity of long-term financial planning and we’ve been aggressively saving and investing ever since. Rather than acquire additional debt, we subsidize unemployment payments by cannibalizing our retirement fund, playing a game of risk with our security net.

 

What are the benefits of taking a gap year?

If money was of no concern, my husband might never return to teaching, because he relishes his newfound liberty. He sleeps in late and stays up until the earliest morning hours playing video games and reading. He speaks his mind and eschews shaving. Sometimes he doesn’t leave the house. And he’s okay with it.

I have also benefited from a certain freedom. My former self, who I’ll call Teacher Julia, used to do battle on weekdays – nag the kids to move quickly so I could drop them off at school, rush to the dining hall to inhale reconstituted eggs for breakfast, and hustle to the classroom for a precious hour of prep before the teaching day began. I graded student work feverishly, my eyes attuned to when the clock struck 3:00. My children came home and the battle continued: urging them to do their homework while I finished gathering materials for the following day’s lessons, losing patience when they had questions and needed help. Did I ever stop to say thanks that my children had returned home safely one more time, or take a break from working long enough to hug them and breathe in their warm, syrupy hair?

While my husband’s drive for intellectual inquiry will eventually propel him back into the classroom, this Gap Year has shown me that I don’t want to go back to being Teacher Julia. She was not a happy person or an attentive mother.

 

So, um… What do you do every day?

Until one (preferably both) of us finds a suitable job, we carry on as usual, accomplishing much the same daily chores and obligations we used to, albeit with much less stress. I send the kids off with kisses every morning and wait eagerly to see their bright eyes as they come home in the afternoons.

 

What are your goals/objectives for life after the Gap Year?

  1. Obtain meaningful employment
  2. Relocate to an affordable home in a new town
  3. Start over

Simple, right?

 

Have you reached a place of acceptance?

Friends have likened leaving the school to escaping from a destructive relationship: you don’t know how bad it was until you get away from it. In our last year of teaching, the school’s motto seemed to be The beatings will continue until morale improves, or, as Harry Potter’s Aunt Marge says: “A good thrashing is what’s needed in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred.” We saw (and experienced) countless random outbursts and rash, demoralizing criticisms. A change to the administrative roster caused ripple effects – thrashing upon thrashing – that led to roughly one-third of the school’s faculty being let go or voluntarily opting to seek employment elsewhere for the 2017-2018 academic year. In hindsight, it was time to walk away from a rapidly souring romance. We weren’t the only ones who did.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

* * *

Thanks especially to MO, FM, and RD for the kindnesses you showed us when kindness seemed in short supply; and to all the friends, near and far, who stood by us during the painful transition. We are very grateful for your support!

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under food, literature, travel

An Open Door

A couple weeks ago, my husband stopped me in the hallway at the school where we teach to tell me that he wasn’t receiving an employment contract for the upcoming academic year. By extension that meant I wouldn’t receive a contract either; we came to the school as a package deal and will leave as one, too. As a part-time Humanities faculty member, I was already keenly aware of my expendability. My husband’s news, however, came as a surprise. I felt like throwing up, but I did what an adult does: I pasted a smile on my face, returned to my class, and finished out the day’s work. Then I drank the weekend away.

Unemployment is a stress in itself, but, at a boarding school, it carries an additional wallop: eviction. We live in a faculty house and must vacate it, and our positions, by June 15. My family has four months to figure out many things: where we will work, where our children will attend school, where we are going to live, and what steps will cause the least damage to us as individuals and to our family unit.

My husband and I waited a week before telling the kids. Though it would have been easier to bear the heartache and spare them, we didn’t want to risk them hearing the news from one of the other faculty members or their children. (In this small community, news travels fast.) My son was four when we started working at the school, and my daughter stood as tall as my knees. This is the only home the kids have known. They cried, we cried, and we all went to bed with nine years of memories to either mourn or savor. When we woke up the following morning, we watched the sun rise into a crisp blue sky.

I will not miss this job. It has demanded my creativity and sapped my patience. It has killed my love for young adult literature. I may miss the unique relationships I’ve built with young learners, but I won’t miss the grading, the superfluous, unproductive faculty “workshops,” or the hours of planning. This job has always been a job, not a calling, and I accept its end for the possibilities and potential it unleashes.

I feel buoyant, despite the chaos. This experience is an open door. I intend to walk through it with my head held high.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

5 Comments

Filed under literature, motherhood

Pilgrim

IMG_0524

Over the summer, I gave myself permission to relax. I – mother, wife, teacher, writer, tutor, freelancer, runner, accountant, cook, laundress, housekeeper, chauffeur, homework monitor, dog walker, and giver of hugs – gave myself permission. As if indulging in a good book and an afternoon in the garden are against the rules. As if rest is a transgression. Absurd. And yet, I found it irritating and difficult to do fewer of the things that keep me busy and more of the things that keep me happy.

I promised myself a summer of reading and writing, going back to beginnings as I’d resolved at the start of the year. Lacking the ability to travel, I sent my imagination to distant places through the eyes of others. Tamar Adler and I supplicated ourselves to the ghost of M.F.K. Fisher; Kathe Lison took me to the alpages and fromageries of France. Kirstin Jackson and I toured the States to meet the pioneers of artisanal cheese production. Gary Paul Nabhan, faculty and endowed chair at my alma mater, introduced me to the historical complexities of the spice trade in the Middle East. I shared tears and bittersweet laughter with Anya Von Bremzen, whose reminiscences of Soviet cuisine made me deeply miss my mother. Unconstrained by budget, time, or responsibility, my mind savored its pilgrimages.

But envy crept into my heart. Each of the books I read provided an example of a life I’m not leading: grants I didn’t solicit, award money I didn’t win, opportunities I missed. Rationally, I know that comparing myself to others is not productive or healthy. Rationally, I know that writing is work, and one must write (and submit) constantly in order to be published. Entry fees cost money, which necessitates other work, which in turn constrains the time and space required to write. Someone who lives in a literary desert and devotes entirely too much creative energy to tasks other than writing waits a longer-than-average time for rain.

School resumed and my days have, once again, grown chaotic and unpredictable. I send essays off to contests as much as I can, though not as much as I would like to. I actively seek out reasons to write. It’s a struggle, though, and one day I fear my reasons will dissipate, if my imagination doesn’t first.

My summer of beginnings taught me how challenging the intentional practice of being kind to oneself can be, and, moreover, how challenging it is to convert this practice into changed behavior. For now, I repeat my personal mantra. I turn my back to guilt and jealousy, and try not to think about the algorithms that conspire to make my world smaller. Though I have lessons to plan, homework to grade, and dishes to wash, I write towards my dream.

For further reading:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Filled with practical suggestions for preparing, serving, and storing ingredients, Adler models her own writing after the work of the mighty M.F.K. Fisher. My only complaint about this book is that I didn’t write it first.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison. Do not – I repeat, do not – give this book to a cheese-loving Francophile unless you also intend to purchase his/her airfare abroad. This book filled me with such a powerful longing to follow in Lison’s footsteps that I swilled an entire bottle of cabernet, then erupted in an inconsolable (and petulant) crying jag about my meaningless life. If you must, buy the book and a bottle of wine to give to your friend, but stick around to provide comfort as she sniffles into her wineglass.

It’s Not You, It’s Brie by Kirstin Jackson. Perfect for any curd nerd, and slightly less depressing because Jackson’s U.S. destinations seem more attainable. If, however, you are one of the curd nerds in my life, might I suggest waiting until after your next birthday to look into a copy?

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Informative and thorough, with wonderful profiles about the spices of the world, Nabhan’s writing almost convinced me to go back to grad school. Almost.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. The author and her mother cook meals that go back in time and personal history as far as the start of the last century. Her whip smart voice and vocabulary could knock a person over.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under food, literature, travel, girl power, motherhood

Eupepsia

“Food is a feminist issue – and not just because historically women have been the ones to cultivate it, harvest it, preserve it, can it, budget it, shop for it, cook it, serve it, clean up after it, and/or mass produce it in assembly-line work at the Frito Factory…”– Bonnie J. Morris

There are usually two publications I read immediately upon receiving: The Sun, a monthly magazine that celebrates the wide and varied spectrum of human narratives and experiences, and Gastronomica, a quarterly journal that celebrates the wide and varied spectrum of all things related to food and food culture.  I received the Fall 2012 issue of Gastronomica weeks ago, though I couldn’t say exactly when because during that time I started working as an instructor-in-training for a group of bright, sweet middle schoolers.  I spent those weeks training and training, and devoted what little time I had outside of training to planning and planning.  When I finally granted myself the permission to stop planning and read the current Gastronomica issue, I experienced a series of unsettling revelations.

In the issue, a writer named Paula M. Salvio presents her study of food blogs written by women and the commonalities that appear between them.  According to Salvio, the larger body of work written by female food bloggers can be distilled into two categories: 1) “narrative references to postwar cookery books with specific references to a discourse of comfort,” and 2) “narratives of domestic discomfort.”  Dyspepsia roiled as I read about the bloggers who apologize for their lapses in writing (I’ve totally done that before – in fact, I’m kind of doing it now) and bloggers who interweave autobiographical details, positive and negative, into their exploration of food (ditto).  She concludes with the uplifting suggestion that female food bloggers are actively creating a culture in which to connect and support one another as we face the stresses of challenges of work and domesticity.  This comforted me for about a minute, until I realized that not only was I a stereotype of both narrative categories, I had also forsaken my culture of food peers through an unintentional gap in my writing.

Panic whacked me upside the head.  Suddenly, I couldn’t recall the last time I cozied up with a recipe or made anything but the most perfunctory, quick fix meal.  When was the last time I lingered in the cookbook section at Barnes and Noble?  When was the last time I thought, I should cook something in beer today!  It’s been over five months since I opened my Google Reader, overflowing with posts from bloggers whose writing and photography have historically been my threads of inspiration.  When did I stop paying purposeful, measured attention to my central passions?

The middle school faculty met with parents a week prior to the start of school for orientation.  I found myself face to adolescent face with enormity of the responsibility of my new position.  I also caught a glimpse of its potential, and I liked what I saw.  I have the freedom to create my own curriculum, heavy on writing – to my good fortune.  I can use my talents to inspire young minds, something my grandfather urged me to do since I was a teenager. (My mother would have burst into proud tears to learn that I am finally pursuing the profession she urged throughout my life.)  Quirk and spunk are assets in an environment such as this… I only hope that students embrace this notion sooner rather than later.  But if my goal is to foster open creative expression among my students, then it must be something I practice too.   If I want to help them unlock the dynamics of style and prose, shouldn’t I commit to following a similar path of discovery?

Food is a feminist issue.  Everyday, I wake before dawn to squeeze in a run, then rush home to assemble school lunches, shower and get ready, ferret Kai out the door, and deliver Rory to her babysitter-du-jour, barely making it to work on time.  I duck out of meetings to retrieve Rory from the babysitter and transport her to afternoon kindergarten, only to return to classes and meetings that last until dinner.  What’re you making for dinner? I ask my husband, keenly aware that I will be preparing dinner myself and/or phoning in an order for take-out.   I’m not willing to concede to failure in any role.

And why the constant stress?  It was so freeing to read Peter Mayle’s honest assessment of a writer’s occupation in Toujours Provence.  “There is constant doubt that anyone will want to read what you’re writing, panic at missing deadlines that you have imposed on yourself, and the deflating realization that those deadlines couldn’t matter less to the rest of the world,” he writes.  “A thousand words a day, or nothing: it makes no difference to anyone else but you.”  Though Mayle is obviously not a female blogger, I think his notion of anxiety caused by self-imposed deadlines holds validity.  In an online sphere of such immediacy, we create constructs that spur us to produce more and with high frequency.  But, without an editor or a book deal, who’s really keeping track?  Who are we actually disappointing when inspiration wanes?  Does quality of work suffer? Mayle also points out the intense pleasure that a writer receives from having his/her thoughts and ideas heard (or read).  “What makes it worth living,” he writes, “is the happy shock of discovering that you have managed to give a few hours of entertainment to people you’ve never met.”  This is why we write, what we miss when we don’t write, and why we press ourselves: our urgent compulsion to produce and our need for validation are irrevocably intertwined.

A feminist issue and a labor of love: I skip meals, but wouldn’t dream of letting my children skip them.  I am their mother – and mothers mean comfort, often in the form of food.  In my case, food means creativity.  I lapse in my writing, but can’t fathom damming the flow of ideas for good.  I might divert a stream of creativity to the classroom for the sake of inspiring young minds, but I’m lost if I can’t find a tributary that reconnects me to that which gives me such vital sustenance.  I embrace the recent ebbs in the current of my days – and welcome an entirely new group of opportunities.  Maybe this isn’t an apology, but rather a joyful song.

I survived the first days of school.  I enjoyed them, in fact: hearing my students’ laughter as they used teamwork to unravel human knots or mused whether zombies actually exist in real life.  My return to the creative fold reassures me that my beloved trifecta of cooking, writing, and reading hasn’t died, as I silently feared; it was only taking an extended siesta as I diverted necessary energies to the demands of an exciting new beginning.  Slowly but surely, my appetite returns.  I made lasagna last weekend… with honest-to-goodness marinara sauce that I slow-cooked with a friend’s garden-grown tomatoes.  I read Gastronomica cover to cover, and, thanks be, I’m still writing.

Leave a comment

Filed under food, literature, travel

Humble Pie

Do you see a door or a wall?

I recently received a letter from a woman living in Virginia.  A small yellow butterfly adorned her address label, and delicate blue cursive spelled out my name and address.  It took me a few moments to register who this woman was, but, when I did, I tore into the envelope to read what she sent.  I’d been hoping to hear from her since February, when I mailed her two sample essays and the obligatory reading fees – an opportunity I’d awaited since October 2010, when I first learned of the essay contest that she chairs: the MFK Fisher Award Contest.

Nervous exhilaration flooded my synapses: my breath rapid, heartbeat pulsing in my ears.  There, on the page, was the familiar logo, the organization’s name, and the names of its board of directors.  There, printed in no uncertain terms, were the names of those who won.  There, in no uncertain terms, wasn’t mine. My idol’s ghost slammed the door in my face.

*

Doors open, doors close.  I’m no stranger to rejection of my writing.  Essays that appear on the blog are automatically at a disadvantage, since many publication venues consider them already “published” and are thus uninterested in “reprinting.”  I continue to submit to those few venues that will consider my work.  I’m okay with making the best of fewer options, and this was one of them… A contest blessed by the Grande Dame herself!

MFK Fisher is a sensualist whose prolific writing on the pleasures of the plate profoundly influenced the world of food writing today.  I’ve had a crush on her since I first read The Art of Eating over a decade ago. (I’ve since read it half a dozen times more.) I painstakingly selected the two entries I sent to the contest, intent on honoring her voice, her spirit, and her life’s work.  I wanted this.  I, the resolute pragmatist, allowed myself to believe this contest might even serve as a gateway.  With the rejection letter clasped between my cold fingers, I hated myself for my optimism.

My inner teenager shrieked and mentally threw a bucket of blood red paint on the winners’ cars.  My inner grandmother clucked and shook her head, weary of a lifetime of wisdoms.  I cried all night – a wretched, inconsolable mess, leaving behind a wake of soggy tissue and useless self-pity.  Then I pried my fists from my swollen, bloodshot eyes and forced myself to stop.  I wrote the award chairwoman a thank you note; gathered up the sour, limpid remnants of my humble pie; and moved on, jaw set, all the more determined to produce the caliber of writing necessary to place in the next award contest, which occurs in 2014.

*

My husband and I live and work at a boarding school, so, between our own children and the ever-fluctuating student body, much of our day involves direct interaction with impressionable minds.  We model our behavior and actions on those qualities we wish for others to see and learn.  It’s a stance I embrace: instructive and inclusive.  Many of the students I know have graduated but continue to follow my written work, either on Facebook or directly on the Eater Provocateur blog.  How many times have I told them to keep faith in themselves?  What would they think if they saw me curled in fetal position and wailing like a toddler on a sleep-deprived tirade?  What message am I sending my kids?

I was not born with an honest, easy sense of sportsmanship.  I suffer Scrabble poorly.  But I am trying.  I want them – my children and the students – to be strong, proud, and unafraid of facing frightening challenges, even if they don’t surmount them (though I desperately hope they will).  I want them to learn how to quickly recompose themselves after the wind has been knocked from them, and to extend a hand to those who have fallen around them.  I want them to be Davids to the Goliaths of life.  So I have to be all of those things myself.

*

Disappointment is a condiment that overwhelms the palate, rendering all things bitter and unsavory.  I am not proud of my unprofessional petulance.  In my defense, I would like to point out that a year and a half is a really long time.  Most contest deadlines range between three and six months; the MFK Award contest occurs every two years.  The anticipation kills.  Between October 2010 and the contest deadline in April 2012, I’d taken the MFK Fisher award out for many dates and we’d settled into a comfortable relationship.  I’d visualized our eventual marriage, our idyllic future.  The breakup was devastating.

The official results have not yet been published online, so it would be unethical to disclose the winners’ names.  I can say that the winners are cookbook authors, bloggers, chefs, and restaurateurs… even authors of highly regarded memoirs on the New York Times booklist.  Most of my competitors operate in much larger social and professional spheres, and have resources like agents, assistants, editors, and publishers.  Many have books of their own.  I competed against 82 talented female writers, each of us working in our own way to bring back the pleasures of the table and raise culinary awareness.

Now that the sting’s faded, I feel proud that I contended with such strong writers, especially as a newbie lacking in external professional representation.  That counts for something.  Clearly, we are all deeply passionate about the culinary world, contributors to culture and literature – also important.  But defeat is defeat, and disappointment is a key ingredient in humble pie. Other ingredients include hubris, self-doubt, lack of confidence, and a fundamental oblivion to the enormity of the odds at hand.  Humble pie pairs well with tequila.

*

I write notes to myself:

Be kind to Jules… She’s the only one of you that you’ve got!
Keep fighting!
Ambition is not a dirty word! 

I write notes to the students:

It doesn’t hurt to dream big – dreams are free!
Life is short – live each moment!
Never be afraid to show your compassion, intelligence, humor, and talent!

And yet.

I won’t lie.  I thought briefly – again, petulantly – about quitting: ending the blog, giving up on submitting essays to venues.  I thought: What’s the point? Why do I even try? I can’t go through this again!  Why is it that in a moment of turmoil, my first impulse was to abandon the passion that sustains me?  This is my forum for singing my love.  Giving up is not an option.

Doors open and doors close.  The trick, as ever, is finding the right doors to open at the right time, and never relinquishing hope that they are there to be found.

3 Comments

Filed under food, literature, travel