Audie makes changes at work, too

Audie: In my previous entry on this blog, way back in October, I said the following:

Our biggest remaining challenge — and it is a big and vexing one — has to do with time, and work…. Colette and I struggle mightily to achieve “work-life balance,” and we have so far yet to figure it out….

At my school, the students attend academic courses on Monday through Thursday every week, and then attend electives on Fridays. I currently teach one elective on Fridays, but if I resign from that, I could have a three-day weekend every week, which is very tempting. But it would also mean more than a 10% reduction in salary. But maybe that’s OK. I probably won’t make this choice for the coming spring semester, but I might very well make this choice for next fall….

Colette, too, could make a change. She could take a year’s “sabbatical,” and rest, take a breather, maybe experiment with other work options…. Maybe she will write her own blog post one of these days, about that.

Future blog post(s) to come, about our successes or failures in addressing this next, persistent challenge….

Well, here we are, eight months later, with news to report.

The biggest news is that Colette has left her teaching job, a decision she writes about below (see the next entry).

As for myself: As this past (spring) semester was winding down and plans for the next academic year were being made, I wrote an email to my boss, detailing the reality of my workload, the hours I was putting in in order to do a good job, and I mentioned that it was not really sustainable; it wasn’t allowing for the kind of life I wanted to be living; ‘work’ and ‘life’ were out of balance. I listed a few options, suggested some solutions, and one of them was the idea of me dropping the teaching of an elective on Fridays — but I added that I wasn’t yet prepared to take the ensuing (I assumed) cut in salary.

My boss — bless her heart — came to me the next morning and said: “Let’s start with you just teaching on Mondays through Thursdays — no Friday elective — with no cut in salary. Let’s see how that works. You’ve gotta have a personal life.” And she even offered other good ideas for streamlining my work and reducing my hours even further.

Wow. ‘Boundary setting’ and ‘asking for what I need or want’ are kind of new things for me — practices that I am still working on, that feel somewhat unfamiliar to me, that unnerve me a little bit, make me more than just a little uncomfortable — especially in a work situation. But I realize that those practices are a necessary component to creating the kind of life one desires — and in our case that is a simple, minimalist life, with breathing room, a feeling of spaciousness, and balance.

So, not only do I enjoy the work that I do (even when there’s a lot of it), but I head in to the coming fall semester (after a full summer off) with only a 4-day work week (which in reality means that I have a 5th day to do planning, grading, record keeping, and communicating), for the same pay as before. I also have been given the green light to change the curriculum for the courses I teach — from the curriculum that I inherited a year and a half ago to one that, after a fair amount of research, I believe will be a big improvement and will help me cut down on the extra hours, as well.

I am very grateful for my boss, the head of our school, for listening, for hearing me, for adapting, and for giving me a quite unprecedented level of autonomy. I do believe everybody wins in this situation: the students, the school, my family, and me.

I’m excited about the changes we have been able to make, and I can already feel that sense of spaciousness, a slowing down, an opening up of our lives, so that more of the essentials of life can take their place herein.


Colette leaves her job

Colette: After years of contemplating quitting my job as a teacher, I’ve finally done it. June 3rd was officially my last day, although I get paid through July — which is a nice benefit of teaching, I must admit.

In the two weeks I’ve had to unwind and shake off the stress I’ve been carrying around for the past nine months, my emotions have been all over the place. One moment I feel exhilarated; I can almost taste the freedom. The next I’m panicking, wondering how I’ll pay for health insurance for myself and my child, and frantically searching the classifieds for a replacement job — usually something to do with teaching because I don’t know what else I’m qualified to do.

But, despite all this yo-yo-ing, somewhere deep inside of me I am certain that I have given myself exactly what I need: time to slow down and just be. Already, I am relating to myself and to other people differently. For instance, I hang around after meetings and converse with people I don’t know, instead of bolting home to prepare for the next day’s work. I am exercising daily, and eating healthier food. I am trying things that scare me — like writing in this blog, and learning Spanish.

My life is not suddenly and magically wonderful, of course. I still feel irritated when my son takes 20 minutes to brush his teeth, or when I step on the scale after twelve straight days of exercising and find that I have gained, not lost, weight. The difference is that I don’t get thrown off as easily. There’s a sense of space around everything.

One of the toughest things about my job as a teacher was that I felt I had so little control over my day. It felt as if I were being carried down a river, on a raft without paddles — and I was just moving at the speed of the water, figuring out how to stay afloat, and rarely stopping long enough to notice the amazing scenery along the way. So now is my time to stop and sit by the side of the river.

For how long, I don’t know.

A Summary of This Year’s Big Changes

It’s been about nine months since our last post, but we have made a lot of pretty big moves toward simplification during this time.

1. We sold the house.

Colette had purchased the house five years earlier, in a gentrifying neighborhood, and with Austin’s current hot real estate market, she stood to make a handsome profit on the sale.

But the deciding factor, to sell, really, was that the house had become a moneypit for us — as well as a time-pit. The regular maintenance expenses — it seemed that every time we turned around, something else was breaking or needing an update or some professional upkeep — were keeping us locked in a cash-poor lifestyle. We found ourselves just scraping by every month. And this was extra frustrating because we both had “professional” jobs and were working our butts off, more than full-time, each. “We are working so hard…. And we have no money.” That can be depressing, as you might know.

But as much or more than the money issue was the time issue. Many people seem to love owning a house, but when it came right down to it, our situation was driven more by a sense of “Well, this is what people our age, in our culture, should be doing.” But in truth, neither of us really wanted to mess with it. We wanted to be spending our time and our money going on adventures, or lounging about — reading, pursuing hobbies, playing, exercising, and spending time with friends. But instead, on the weekends we were raking leaves, or trying to keep 1500 square feet clean, or trying to keep the back yard from turning into a jungle, swamp, junkyard, or some combination thereof — or we were just too exhausted from working so hard to pay the bills that we hadn’t the energy for doing anything else.

It was amazing how consistently we could trace our unhappy moments back to the fact of home ownership.

The decision to sell was itself emotionally taxing — especially for Colette, since it really was her investment — and also she did not have the same ‘pick-up-and-move’ mentality or history that I have and with which I am more comfortable. And of course there was no shortage of well-meaning “advisors” or just curious skeptics out there who would say or insinuate that it was a crazy idea to sell the house, which would lead to second-guessing. But ultimately, we held firm to our own values. And we found a great realtor who guided us expertly through the process.

2. We got rid of a LOT of stuff.

Prior to selling the house, we had come to realize that, though we had made good progress in this simplification process, we had reached a plateau of sorts, as regards simplification. And we couldn’t take it to the next level while also owning that house. Not that owning a house and leading a simple life are necessarily incompatible. It’s just that, for us, now, leading a simple life and owning that house were incompatible goals.

So, anyway, selling the house gave us the opportunity to purge a lot of possessions, in the process of downsizing and getting the house ready to sell.

Among the things we unloaded from our metaphorical shoulders was: a full-size bed frame & mattress, two couches, a loveseat, three tables, four chairs, a desk, a refrigerator, rugs, a lawn mower & other lawn maintenance equipment, toys, books, clothes & jewelry, camping equipment, a cat, half a closet’s worth of no-longer-used Montessori materials, three truckloads of miscellaneous household stuff given to Goodwill, and many containers of paint & cleaners & other hazardous materials that had to be taken to a special disposal facility.

Some of these things we sold, through a variety of channels, and we converted these no-longer-needed things into about 500 very usable dollars.

And most of these things we haven’t replaced. We did buy a perfectly sized table with three chairs, for $35 via craigslist, in the process helping someone else get rid of some of their stuff. We are enjoying, for now, the wide open spaciousness of our living room, which has almost no furniture in it. We just loll about on the carpeted floor….

3. We found a great apartment, at a good price.

Colette and I had slightly different ideas about what kind of place we wanted to move in to, but we stumbled onto a great place, which fit the bill wonderfully. The house was 1500 square feet; our new apartment is 1100 square feet, which is more than a 25% reduction — and is plenty. There are 2 bedrooms here, 2 bathrooms, with a very spacious and open living/eating/kitchen area.

The property has been in the same family for three generations; the matriarch lives on-site, one of her sons serves as the property manager, and at least one other family member lives in the original house, which is also on the property. The apartment complex, built in the 1980s, only has 16 units, and the place has a funky, eccentric, Austin vibe — with Spanish, Mexican, and mountain-cabin aesthetics. We are upstairs on one side of one of the buildings, so we have windows on three sides of our apartment — and front and back doors and a front porch complete with porch swing. The property has lots of trees and other greenery (none of which has to be maintained by us!), as well as a large green space complete with a volleyball net, garden, and room for our trampoline, which the owners graciously allowed us to bring over.

We felt at home quite immediately. We’re amazed that days and weeks go by without our even thinking about the old house — that thing that we fretted about getting rid of.

And Noah likes it here — which is a relief, as well.

4. Our financial life is significantly simpler and stronger.

While we choose not to own a house right now, we have to acknowledge that Colette’s decision to buy five years ago indeed had quite a payoff. The sale of the house this summer has allowed us to become completely debt-free: no mortgage, no student loan balances, no car loans, and no credit card balances. And there’s quite a bit left over, even with all that paid off. So, with gratitude and humility we acknowledge that, thanks to the modest inheritance from Colette’s mom that allowed her to make the down payment back in 2010, and also to the natural and cultural and technological forces that have contributed to Austin’s current standing as a hot “place to be” — the timing of which has led to a low inventory of and high demand for housing right now, which contributed to such a quick gain on her investment — we are the beneficiaries of good fortune.

After clearing away debts, the proceeds have been spread around a little bit, in what we believe is a pretty smart mix of investments. One avenue we’ve taken, for part of the proceeds, I first learned about from The Minimalists blog (here and here) and had already begun using myself, before we had any house proceeds to invest: and that is an online investment tool known as A smart, simple, and relatively safe investing philosophy, with a great (and simple) user interface — and the returns we’ve got so far from that have been downright eye-popping (I suppose the timing was in our favor, cuz we kinda jumped in when the market was down a month or two ago).

Our apartment choice has also simplified our financial life — as not only are there no more large and unpredictable home-maintenance expenses, but also our landlord pays our water bill and even provides internet service for a scant $25 a month. With no more loan payments, we are down to monthly expenses — beyond rent, food, and taxes — that consist of our electricity bill, cell phone service, and insurance. Pretty simple.

5. We got married.

Though sometimes people react with a sarcastic “Oh, well that’s romantic” when I explain the largely pragmatic reasons for which we decided to get married — and reasons which have a lot to do with life simplification — I maintain that our romantic life is a private, personal affair between the two of us, and the whole idea of being “married” seems to us to be largely a legal, civil arrangement (and so, yeah, I guess that doesn’t sound very “romantic”). As the financial and parenting and taking-care-of-each-other aspects of our lives gradually became more intertwined — a process that we largely have allowed to happen gradually and organically — it just started to seem more and more necessary, or at least advisable, from a legal and life-simplification perspective, to “make it official.”

And, we had an extremely simple wedding. Total attendance was four people: Colette, me, the judge, and Noah (age 8) — who served as best man, man of honor, witness, and official photographer. Total expenditures amounted to less than $100 and consisted of the judge’s fee, the cost of the marriage license, a new shirt for Noah, and cake and coffee afterwards at our favorite bakery. And two of our dearest friends just happened to be available to join us, with zero advance notice, there at Quack’s, to help us celebrate. (Thanks, Kristy and Leslie!)

A couple of weeks later, during an already planned reunion with Colette’s family, we celebrated with them, with a wonderful dinner-and-champagne “reception” in the mountains of Colorado. Additionally, for one night that week, Colette’s sisters watched Noah for us and sent us packing, off to a nearby resort in the mountains, for a little honeymoon/wedding gift. (Thank you, Heather and Elise!)

Probably sometime in the coming months, we will have a similar celebration with my family, here in Texas.

And — at some point — we hope to throw a little party with our friends here in central Texas, as well.

It just seemed like too big and too complex of a project for us to plan a single event, at which we would: get married, have a party, arrange to have all of our family and friends converge at one place, at the same time — and keep our sanity through the whole process. The idea alone, of that, was keeping us from getting married, for a while. But breaking it up, into simpler, more manageable chunks, has allowed us to at least get started on the process. It may take us a year or more to “complete” it: we still plan to get some (cool, unconventional, inexpensive) rings; celebrate with my family and with friends; and take another, longer “honeymoon” trip. In due time, we hope. But we also hope to keep our attention focused mainly on the actually important aspects of being married — our relationship. That’s a pretty-big-enough challenge right there; we’re OK with letting those outer symbols take a back seat….

Related note: We got married on the same day that we closed on the house. Yep — a 1 pm appointment at the title company’s office, followed by a 4 pm appointment at the Travis County courthouse. Kind of a big day! 🙂

6. A new school for Noah

One realization about which I have come to a lot of clarity, having attended and worked in a variety of educational settings, is that every child is different, and no one educational philosophy or setting is right for every child. Some ways of educating work great for some kids, and not for others — and what may work for those others also won’t work for others still.

And we (as well as Noah’s dad) are quite sure that a traditional public school would not be a good fit for Noah (though such a system works great for many). And Noah had been going to a private school that was very good, but certain aspects of it were not working out. It wasn’t an ideal fit, and that ill-fittedness was spilling over into our family life and causing unnecessary stress and strain and strife.

It is a big decision to make a change in schools, but Colette and Noah’s dad found another alternative school, and Noah seemed to be generally in favor of the change — and, fortunately, he has been attending for several weeks now and it is working out very well. It’s called Radical Roots Community Schoolhouse, and it is a very small democratic learning community, with a fair amount of self-directed time, weekly field trips, project-based learning, and time to run around and be a kid. And, relative to other private schools, it is not very expensive.

We all like it.

And when your kid is happy at school, he’s happier at home. And when your kid is happier, your life is simpler.

Conclusion: Our new plateau, and our next big simplification challenge

We are happy to be at this new simplification plateau — with a smaller home; fewer things; a happier child; fewer responsibilities at home; fewer bills and a simpler financial life; and more clarity in our relationship and family structure.

Our biggest remaining challenge — and it is a big and vexing one — has to do with time, and work. A teaching job is a demanding one — and Colette and I are both teachers. We both like many aspects of this work — it feels meaningful and fulfilling, and it feels like we are making a contribution back to the world.

However, the general expectation for teachers seems to be that, as a teacher, you are “on” for 7 or 8 hours, working with young people, being unfailingly prepared, patient, and inspiring. And then you have to do whatever it takes, after those 7 or 8 hours are over, to get ready to do it all again the next day.

Given this expectation, Colette and I struggle mightily to achieve “work-life balance,” and we have so far yet to figure it out.

Sometimes, it feels like we figure some small thing out, here or there, which seems to help — but at other times our strategies seem more like just “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” — not really helping, just shuffling an unrelentingly overwhelming work load from one pocket of hours to another.

But the benefits of the job make us hesitant to throw in the towel and make a change to something else (again, in my case). The money’s not great but it’s decent (and in Colette’s case there is the potential for a retirement pension), the intangible rewards are undoubtedly significant, the holidays and summers off are an undeniably huge benefit, we work fairly autonomously, and job security is quite strong. If we can reduce the time commitment (which currently consists of long weekdays and a lot of hours every weekend), it would be just about perfect.

At my school, the students attend academic courses on Monday through Thursday every week, and then attend electives on Fridays. I currently teach one elective on Fridays, but if I resign from that, I could have a three-day weekend every week, which is very tempting. But it would also mean more than a 10% reduction in salary. But maybe that’s OK. I probably won’t make this choice for the coming spring semester, but I might very well make this choice for next fall and beyond. That will give us time to see how our new financial situation looks over time, between now and then. If such a move seems viable, as we continue to live a simpler life, it might very well seem like the right choice — to work less, even though it would mean a reduction in income.

Colette, too, could make a change. She could take a year’s “sabbatical,” and rest, take a breather, maybe experiment with other work options — subsisting during this time at least partly off of a portion of this past summer’s house proceeds. She could always go back later if she wants to; she has a great reputation where she works, and it probably would not be difficult to return if she chose to. Or, she could, possibly, transition to another position at the same school — maybe even one in which she works, say, “30 hours a week” instead of “40.” (I put quotation marks around those because, since it could be another teaching position, it would probably really mean 40 hours a week instead of 55.) Anyway, there are options to explore. Maybe she will write her own blog post one of these days, about that.

Future blog post(s) to come, about our successes or failures in addressing this next, persistent challenge — in reaching the next plateau.

But I wanted to document the big changes we’ve made in the past several months. Thanks for reading. Comments/responses/suggestions are welcome.

Returning to Teaching… (Audie)

(A re-post here, of my note on FB about this, with an added postscript:)

I’m a little bit afraid that some of you who have known me a while and have followed my unusually frequent job changes will now want to stage an intervention and say, “Dude…. Dude…. Ya gotta stop this. It’s crazy.”

But I’m doin’ it again.

I had actually committed to Whole Foods, I was in a good position, at a great store, with a great team, with a decent schedule, and I have actually been having fun at work most of the time, so I figured I was in it for the long haul. I definitely was not looking for another job. But one found me.

In my previous job, as a teacher at a prestigious Montessori school here in Austin, I got completely burned out on that profession and figured I was done with it. At the end, I was the lead teacher (or “guide”) in a combined 4th-thru-6th-grade class of 25 students; I was the teacher of all subjects, from biology to history to math to language to physics to art to music to geometry to chemistry to geology to social studies to gardening to character development to whatever else; I had no planning period, and I needed to be with the children at lunch and recess, as well; the school day was 8:15 to 3:30, so that was a 7+-hour uninterrupted stretch every day with 25 kids, and it was only outside of those hours that I was expected to: plan and prepare lessons (up to 10 a day, each in a different subject area); do a great deal of record keeping; communicate with parents; meet with my assistant; make materials; organize class trips (or at least lay the groundwork for them or run reconnaissance missions in advance of the ostensibly-children-planned class trips); and also plan for, prepare, and either present at or at least attend a relentless schedule of weekday-evening “parent education” events, school events, and weekend festivals or workdays. I had three assistants during my year and a half in that position — the first one was ‘challenging,’ the second one was disastrous, and the third one was a godsend but unfortunately the change was too little too late. And, in my first year, my supervisor’s position was essentially vacant (though I had access to the wonderful JS whenever I got really stumped), so I kinda just operated with a lot of autonomy and created the kind of class culture that worked for me and for the students (and their parents). And though the work was draining and overwhelming that first year, I got by on adrenaline — adrenaline that came from being able to run my own show and create the best kind of learning environment that I could — one that focused first on the building of relationships and of a relaxed, fun, and respectful community. And it was a success, overall. There were good reviews, happy kids, happy parents, strong connections, and a big demand the following year. I thought, “Great. Now, in year 2, I will get to build on that success, and hopefully things will — things should — get easier.” But then my supervisor’s position got filled, by someone who is very different from me, and instead of building on my earlier success, I was led to, in a way, dismantle what I had spent the first year creating, and to create something different, something which did not fit with my personality or my philosophy (or Maria Montessori’s, as I interpreted it). Before long, the classroom no longer felt like my own, or the children’s own. And so the workload actually went up, which I didn’t even think was possible, and the fun and the adrenaline and the sense of reward went way down. I barely made it to the end of that semester.

In my six and a half years in education (so far), which have ranged from small family-run private schools to large endowed private schools to an inner-city public school, one thing became really clear: wow, to do this “right” — that is, to really provide the type and level of education that these parents expect to be provided — you need a LOT of resources — more than the vast majority of them want to spend — or even have, to spend — on said education. So, our public schools are what they are — huge bureaucratic institutions, charged with doing something on a massive scale, with only the fractional and inadequate (albeit still large) amount of money people are ‘willing’ to forego in taxes; and most private schools subject their employees to an exhausting workload because to hire more people would raise costs, which would necessitate raising tuition — tuition that is already prohibitive for most families. And in both environments, turnover is very high, work/life balance for teachers is rare if not nonexistent, the average career lasts about 5 years, and many of those who stay do so because they believe, or because others tell them repeatedly, that their work is “important” and it’s wonderful that they give so much of themselves, “for the children” — which is nice to hear, and even is true — but it also leads to people’s idealism being taken advantage of.

Long before I became a teacher, and during my time as a teacher, and since, I have many times daydreamed about, and have imagined or tried to envision, what the ideal learning environment would look and feel like (beyond a home school or truly experiential, tribal- or village-based life of learning, which would actually be best of all). And in my mind, I picture a learning community that is small (not small because it’s ineffective and unpopular, but smallby design), in a home-like and rural setting. The teaching happens in small groups. The school day is not overly long and there’s very little homework, because children need time to spend with their families, to play, and to pursue their interests. And five days a week seems a bit much, really. The children want to be there (if you don’t want to participate in what we’re doing here, just don’t show up!). It’s independent — there is no “common core,” or bureaucratically or politically mandated curriculum, or sacred dogma to follow, either. Teachers are allowed to do their work the best way they know how, and by using whatever resources they deem best; the results — measured by the levels of happiness, curiosity, initiative, industry, and stress of the students (all but the last of which should be high) — will speak for themselves.

Two weeks ago, a parent of one of my former students, who goes to a different school now, sent me an email informing me that their new school was in sudden need of a middle school math teacher. They wanted me to apply. I responded by saying that I was happy in my current job and really wasn’t interested in returning to the classroom at this time. They recommended me to the principal of the school, who then said she wanted to meet me and wanted me to apply, based on their recommendation. I talked with Colette about it, and we decided it really wasn’t best for our family, for me to pursue another change at this time or to leave such a secure position with a good company, with “good benefits,” good prospects for upward mobility, and a decent work/life balance. But then my former student’s mom talked me into at least visiting the campus and talking with the principal — to at least see where her daughter (whom I used to tutor privately, as well, so we are fairly close) goes to school now. So I said OK — and I went on one of my days off, week before last.

It was a fairly long drive, and by the time I reached the last several miles I thought, “Oh. No. This is too far. Well — at least I’m kinda proud of myself for remaining open to new possibilities, even though this one’s not going to work out. Oh well. It’s just as well. I hope my visit today will at least be interesting — and at least I will get to see where E goes to school now.”

And then I arrived, and I saw that the school is situated on a large piece of grassy, partly wooded land… And it was a nice, sunny, cool, breezy day that day…. And there were a few teenagers milling about or playing some sort of game under some trees…. And I walked up the steps to the building (there is only one building, and on the outside it looks a bit like a building you might find on the campus of my alma mater, Southwestern University, what with its native limestone blocks and big windows). And the principal met me at the door, and she was warm and inviting and vivacious, and she led me into the central room, which was a large open space that looked sort of like the lobby of one of those historic lodges at a national park — high ceiling, big dark couches (on one of which sat a girl writing in a notebook), a big fireplace, a long dining table with chairs. Around the perimeter of this central room were what looked sort of like small conference rooms, with a lot of glass windows, so you could see in from where we were, and you could look out to the outside as well. Small classes — a teacher and a few students working around a single table — were inside. There was a garden outside. There are two dogs. A couple of teenaged boys were sitting at a chess board in the central room — one studying the board for his next move, the other reading an open book in his lap while also listening to something via earbuds. A teacher and student were having a quiet conversation in a corner. We toured the classrooms — the science room was large and sunny; there was quite a bit of movement and activity and conversation in the younger classes; in the older classes the students seemed more serious and focused. There was a media room, with plenty of up-to-date equipment for watching videos, accessing the internet, printing, etc. I then sat and talked with the principal for about two hours in her office, about my background and about education philosophy. We kept liking what the other one said. By the end of our conversation she was saying “I’m reallyinterested in you as a candidate,” and she introduced me to a few more people.

After a couple more emails and text and phone messages over the ensuing few days, she made me an offer — matching my current annual pay… but in this case it comes with 3 months off in the summers, a 2-week spring break, 2+ weeks off in the winter, and a week off in the fall. (Needless to say, a retail work schedule doesn’t look anything like this.) In addition, academic classes are scheduled only on Mondays through Thursdays, and the school day ends at 3 pm every day (no more ‘closing shifts’). There is a pool. There are tennis courts. The student-teacher ratio is 4-to-1 (my largest class would have 7 students in it; my smallest might have only 2). There are almost no extraneous events in the evenings or on the weekends, and in any event the only one teachers are requested to attend is graduation. There is practically no homework. I will have a planning period. There are 85 students, ranging from second grade through high school. School size is capped at a hundred — which they could reach now if they had more space (there’s a waiting list, and there are also plans to build a second building on the site). Longer-term plans include adding one or two more Austin-area campuses, and then adding an international campus (in another country) — giving students the opportunity to study abroad. She’s interested in my starting a Philosophy program (including at least Logic and Ethics) there, at some point. They adopted a math curriculum a couple of years ago, but she hasn’t been totally happy with it; wants it to be considered just one of several good resources to use — whatever works best. The school’s only been around for six years, and has only graduated 20 students so far — but so far those 20 students have been awarded over a million bucks’ worth of college scholarships. So… something’s working.

The drawback is that, of course, it is expensive. Very expensive. For all I know, it is the most expensive school in Austin. But the principal (who’s also the founder) has been in education — public and private — for almost 40 years, and personally meets with each prospective family, and says she can “spot a sense of entitlement from a mile away, and I don’t have a spot for those folks here.” So, the community does have an ‘earthier’ feel than you might expect by looking just at the tuition rate. But anyway, I really would like a chance to work as an educator, in a school setting, in which I can be free to use my internal resources — in which I have a good deal of faith — as well as whatever external resources (materials and, not least of all, time) that I feel I need, to do the job. I trust that my conscience will lead me to find ways to take what I learn and gain in this privileged setting, and give to others in another setting, who would otherwise not have access.

I could not have found this job if I had been looking for it. It is the kind of position a lot of teachers or aspiring teachers sometimes hear about and say, “Hmmph. Yeah. How do you get that job?” I shouldn’t have even known about it. And, from an objective standpoint, I probably don’t even really qualify for it (I don’t have a middle-school or a math teaching certification, for instance). But it has essentially fallen into my lap, and it is hard for me not to feel as if I am supposed to take it. To leave Whole Foods to take this job sorta feels the same way it felt to leave a job with Price Waterhouse to go get a Master’s degree in Philosophy — or to turn down acceptance into a PhD program at the University of North Carolina to become a park ranger — or to give up a ‘permanent’ ranger job at Petersburg to take a seasonal position at Zion — or to leave a permanent job at Zion to go back to school to study more Philosophy, at the undergraduate level even though I already had a Master’s — or to leave a PhD fellowship program at Rice and end up at Whole Foods, eventually in the beautiful city of Denver…. And so on.

All those decisions seemed crazy to some others, but they all felt right to me. And maybe ithas all been crazy, and this is just a continuation of that craziness. But even in moments of sound mind and body, I would not undo any of those earlier choices. They have given me amazing friends, amazing experiences, and a pretty damn amazing life.

So… I’m gonna go with this choice, too.

We’ll see where it leads.

P.S. I really appreciate Colette for hangin’ in there with me, and for her letting go, a little bit, of her long-held need for (perceived, anyway?) stability, predictability, and security…. Stability? I’m here for ya, baby. Security? Ain’t really such a thing, anyway. Predictability? That would be boring, now, wouldn’t it.

P.P.S. The name of the school is AESA Prep Academy, and I will be starting with the start of the spring semester in January.

Know Yourself, Forget Yourself

Here is the second passage from Marc Lesser’s book Know Yourself, Forget Yourself, which was shared at our most recent simplicity group meeting:

Accepting the power of paradox is one of life’s ways of waking us up, shocking us into awareness, so we can find our balance again. Waking up can be cultivated, practiced, so that it becomes a way of life, so that it becomes our habitual approach to life. Then we may become as skillful as a tightrope walker, who lives on the edge of falling and yet (almost) always catches him- or herself in time….

Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, once proclaimed in a public talk, “The secret of Zen is just two words. . . not always so.” He and the audience laughed. He clarified that in Japanese, his native language, this expression can be stated in two words. How funny and appropriate that the statement itself exemplified his point. Whatever we think, life is not so simple . . . and yet it is. Speaking personally, I’m not happy or satisfied with the idea of paradox. I don’t really want this book to be about paradox; I want this book to be about clarity. Who wants paradoxical relationships, or paradox in business? We all want confidence and assurance. Imagine a stockbroker or surgeon or soldier using the word paradox to describe his or her work. Paradox seems the opposite of clarity, the opposite of action, a nonanswer…. [But actually] paradox can point to a radical clarity…. With paradox comes a kind of clarity that is more accurate, more true, more clear … than what we usually accept at face value. Life and death are a paradox; in our day-to-day lives, we are constantly torn between opposites and dualities, between competing desires and needs. There is no escaping the paradoxical nature of the world. If we accept this, and meet paradox head on, if we work with and penetrate these apparently unsolvable conundrums, the place we reach is insight….

This insight can express itself uniquely in any situation and yet embody universal truths. I have found it useful to distill this work into five core insights. These five insights present themselves as paradoxes, or seemingly conflicting statements, but nevertheless, they hold the keys to right action, effectiveness, and balance. The five truths … are:

1. Know yourself, forget yourself

2. Be confident, question everything

3. Fight for change, accept what is

4. Embrace emotion, embody equanimity

5. Benefit others, benefit yourself

As with the previous post, those that were in attendance are invited to share what they wrote (edited or not) in response to this passage, in the comments below. And, of course, any other responses are welcome, too.

The Tightrope Walker

Our simplicity group had decided that, for our most recent meeting, we would respond in writing to a shared passage from a book on a relevant topic, and the book that was chosen was Marc Lesser’s Know Yourself, Forget Yourself. I selected a couple of passages from it to share with the group, and I will share them here as well, in separate posts; in case anyone desires to comment about one or the other, they can do so by responding to the relevant post:

Here’s the first one:

To … be happy and effective, we must be in balance; on a very real level, our personal life, work life, and spiritual life are not at all separate. But how do we achieve balance? More importantly, how do we keep our balance when life seems designed to knock us off balance? One answer is to become as adept as a tightrope walker. A tightrope walker can feel when he or she slips out of balance and adjust, stepping more quickly or not at all, bending a little to the left, now to the right. As an audience, we see the acrobat losing balance and know that the person will fall if it goes uncorrected. Indeed, that’s the entertainment. We marvel at how the tightrope walker shifts in and out of balance constantly and continually, moving back and forth across the wire while performing tricks that only increase the difficulty. How, we wonder, does the person do it? Acrobats achieve this skill through practice, by understanding and honing their kinetic sense of inner balance. They come to know their internal gyroscope so well that they can feel every wobble and instinctively correct it. They also learn to balance their inner and outer awareness while never losing focus on the present moment: as performers, they must remember their audience and the show itself even as they adjust for every shift in their environment and in their physical position on the wire. They need to be absolutely in-the-moment about themselves and also hold in mind the next trick, the show’s progress. This isn’t easy. In order to find balance you must be open and responsive to imbalance. This is the paradox of the tightrope walker. I have come to believe that embracing and responding to paradox — turning our assumptions upside down, expecting the unexpected, comfortably holding two opposing viewpoints at the same time, resolving conflicting requirements, and so on — is the key to waking up to ourselves and the present moment and discovering the right thing to do. Paradox is the doorway to insight, just as falling is necessary for learning how to balance on a tightrope. We all want more clarity, more ease, more connectedness, more possibilities, more compassion, more kindness. We want healthy relationships in order to thrive at our work and to be effective in all areas of our life. What is hard is knowing in any given situation what the appropriate action or response should be. We want the insight to know how to achieve all these things, but our vision and experience are limited.

Those that were in attendance are invited to share what they wrote (edited or not) in response to this passage, in the comments below. Responses from anyone else are welcome, too, of course.

Lifestyle change postponed or altered…. (Audie)

A week after posting that I had decided to undertake a rather significant lifestyle change (July 26th post, below) — to sell my truck, buy a great bicycle, and become the kind of person who uses his own power (and public transportation) to get around — I learned of a promotion possibility at work — one that would require me to commute not just to the one store downtown where I was then working (and to which I had found an easy, safe, pleasant bike route), but to all five of my company’s locations in the Austin area — which are spread out all the way from The Domain on the north side to Bee Cave to the southwest. Continue reading

A lifestyle change in the works… (Audie)

So… Colette and I have accomplished a few things towards the goal of simplifying our lives. For instance, we’ve done a pretty good job of decluttering our home, we don’t own a lot of extraneous possessions, we (including Noah) are not involved in a lot of ‘busy’ activities that could keep us jumping up and scuttling away at every ‘otherwise-down-time’ moment (we do have some nice, regular blocks of quality, unstructured time every week), and so on. But we’ve both been feeling lately like we’ve kind of ‘plateaued’ on this path toward simplification, that… “OK, now what? We need to take this to the next level. What could that be?”

Continue reading