Walking Down The Same Long Red Aisle
As I waited in a line of robe-and-hood-clad PhDs for our march down the long red aisle today, I was keenly aware of the way that rituals, while they do have the power to change or transform you, also have the ability to remind you of how things change over time.
I looked across the hallway at my new colleague, Jason, who is here for his first tenure line appointment, about to walk down that aisle for the first of many times and I remember keenly what a surprise it was to me on my first walk down the aisle, what a surprise it was that I actually felt real in a way that I hadn't until that moment.
Certainly my PhD hooding had been great and meaningful -- surrounded by family and friends and all for a moment recognizing my achievement, but *this* moment had been different for me.
I had gone through the job interview and the difficult deliberating-between-jobs and the careful decision making of house-buying, and the weeks and weeks of prepping for courses, a summer retreat with my future colleagues. And I was happy about all of the choices. I had an old unpretentious house on a street that was too busy, right on a bus-line and even bike-able to campus. I was teaching at the uglier of the two campuses that I had been offered jobs at -- the uglier, I thought, and the better. Better because it wasn't a pretentious place. It was full of genuine people. I would have good hard-working colleagues, full of heart and moderate ways of thinking about the world. I had found a job that would allow me to teach about things that I knew and I would have to work hard, but it would not be outside of my abilities. Part of the beauty was the simplicity of the Quaker influence deep in the institution. People were plainspoken, hospitable and were what they seemed to be.
So I was quite caught off guard when convocation started. Walking into the chapel was a startling experience. The strength of the pipe organ, the height of the ceiling, the length of the aisle, the turning heads of hundreds of students, the feeling of being part of an institution. It was all more majestic, overwhelming and happy than I would have predicted it could be.
And so watching Jason across the hall about to have an experience like mine (or maybe not) I was struck by how far away from that experience I feel now. I still feel very much (too much?) a part of an institution. I now know much more clearly what and who this institution is, and, maybe ironically, my position in it feels just precarious, vulnerable and fraught with (im/?)possibility as it did so many years ago before I first marched down this red carpet.
But I'm not sure that's a bad thing either. I think one of the worst things to imagine is that you are central to the life of an institution. That it is, in any way, about you or aligned with your interests. I say this about any human institution that I can imagine being a part of. I believe that we must join them. We must stay in them (for seasons) and that we must influence them in the very small incremental ways that we can. But we should never be mistaken about the degree to which they will serve us. They will only be able to keep the most basic promises they make to us, and sometimes even their delivery of these promises will be underwhelming, disappointing and less than we had hoped.
But this is what we do: we walk down aisles, we profess creeds, we make our promises, we repeat our gestures -- all with a little bit of faith and a lot of doubt. Hoping that maybe this is the best choice we can make for now. Nostalgic for the moments when this choice seemed clear and shiny, grateful for the contentment and predictability that buoys us along like a welcome tide, when we've grown a little tired of rowing.