Saturday, November 9, 2013

A city that the damned call home

This year I've cut way back on my conference travel. Ordinarily this time of year I'd be juggling presentations and meetings at the national Honors education meeting, followed closely by the American Academy of Religion. But following my exit from most official posts at these organizations, I'm strangely passive about their yearly demands to gather in vibrant cities at big hotels and attend multiple parties. Back in the distant spring, before I made the decision to step down from administration, my boss included me as co-presenter on a session for this year's National Collegiate Honors Society meeting in New Orleans, so I've known for quite some time I would attend. But I've been otherwise content just to let it happen, and hope someone would tell me where to show up. (That's almost too much to expect, it seems; I somehow got left off the list of recipients when the big conference agenda was shared, so I didn't even know when our group dinner was until my boss happened to mention it earlier that day.)

The lack of business suits my mood -- and the mood of the city. I attend some sessions, do some thinking, grab a couple of hours off site to sample the city's food (from beignets to po'boys to gumbo), and try not to add to the self-important bustle of the conference. I support my colleagues and get a little work done and have the football game playing in my shared hotel room by 8:30 pm. And occasionally I wonder: Do I miss being at the center of the action? Having a bunch of special ribbons on my nametag? (The NCHC is crazy for one-off ribbons; there are at least a dozen that I've seen that only one attendee is entitled to wear.) I note that some of the decisions and work are quite important, not only to the organization and its members, but quite literally in the sphere of life and death. But of course, removed from that context as I am, it is undeniably pleasant to leave the worrying and the detail-obsessions to someone else.

This will be the first time I haven't been at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in many, many years. I believe the last one I missed was probably 1997. I went when my children were babes in arms, I went when I had interviews, I went when I had papers to give, and for the last six years, I went as a member of the board of directors. This year I have no committees to staff and I have no papers to give, so there was no rationale for me to ask for my department's support with travel expenses. I let it go. I'll miss it when my friends post to Facebook or tweet about the meeting, but I doubt I will spend a lot of time feeling left out. I have plenty on my plate.

But I confess that sitting in a business meeting here at NCHC this morning, my mind wandered to the AAR office I told many people I might run for in the future. I thought I might do it sooner rather than later. A year out of the trenches and away from the social whirl feels like a vacation. Two years, a well-earned sabbatical. When it starts getting to be a habit, though, you might start feeling sidelined. Irrelevent. Give me a chance to recuperate a bit longer, and then if you have a committee that needs a member or an office that needs a candidate, call me. I don't want to need that kind of status; I hope I'm beyond ever needing to feel important. And I'm way past wanting to have people pile responsibilities on me just so I can stay at the center of things. But on my own terms? I could see it happening again. And I'm betting it will feel as different as night and day, after having climbed the ladder once and been truly grateful to step off the rungs back to solid ground.

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