Friday, September 10, 2010

Continental Divide

My September is always divided into two distinct segments of time: Before Retreat and After Retreat.  Each year we take our incoming freshman class on a weekend getaway for social bonding, writing workshopping, and academic discussion.  And every year it falls on an awkward weekend, right after Labor Day, the same time as my scholarly organization holds committee meetings which, due to the retreat, I cannot attend (in beautiful Santa Barbara, no less, for the last two years) and right around Noel's trip to Toronto.

As a result of this crowded scheduling, I tend to see the retreat as a couple of days set apart -- no multitasking, no thinking ahead, no additional complications.  It's enough that I'm trying to keep in touch with Noel's mom who kindly agreed to come to town to take care of the kids, and with Noel at the film festival in between movies, and with the folks here in and around the scheduled activities.

It's a compartmentalization strategy I frequently employ during very busy times.  I allow myself to take the abnormal set of responsibilities or stressors as a license to put off thinking about other things.  So what am I pushing off my plate while I sit on the top of Petitjean Mountain and banter with freshmen?  Putting together the spring course schedule ... preparing a presentation for a meeting in a month ... a batch of tasks that I've known about for months but have managed to mentally tag as post-retreat activities.

The problem is that my compartmentalization doesn't extend to worrying.  I know I have to take up those tasks in earnest as soon as I get back -- the procrastination window will be closing.  And because of that, they hover over my mind as I'm at the retreat in a way they did not while I was in pre-retreat mode.  I wouldn't be surprised if I end up working on one of them while I'm here, because the most effective way to banish the worry is to get started.

But I also wouldn't be surprised if the magnitude of thinking those tasks through proves too daunting to essay before I enter the After Retreat period.  Of course, the magnitude is what makes me worry ... which makes me want to ease my mind by making a start ... but also makes the process of starting too big to contemplate.  Add to that a twinge of guilt for burdening someone else with my children, and you've got a stew of guilt and anxiety that, at odd moments during the weekend, will surely pull me out of my enjoyment and relaxation.

What will also happen, though, is immersion in the work I'm actually up here to do -- the In-Retreat period, completely neglected in my schema, but oddly transcendent in its actual unfolding.  I'll work with students on their writing, facilitate a discussion of the book they read this summer, and spend time with them in recreation.  And while that's happening, the oppressiveness of past and future tends to fade.  After it happens, there's the sense of fulfillment of purpose, of a job well done, of something worthwhile having happened.  

Perhaps it's the incongruent combination of worktime and downtime -- I'm here on an academic mission for my department, but I'm also reading for pleasure, knitting, and eating fantastic food -- causes this unsettled sense that I am cheating somebody or something by not being more productive, while at the same time I myself am deprived of time I usually spend on the unambiguous pleasures of family life.  In any case, I suspect that tomorrow at this same time, with the major work of the retreat over, I'll be looking forward again to life off the mountain, quickly forgetting this teetering, uneasy cusp. 

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