Sunday, May 18, 2014

Beginning at the beginning: returning to work after 9 months


Is it possible to feel disconnected and in-sync, drained and re-energized, frustrated and fulfilled, all at the same time? If so, that is how I would describe my first 2 weeks back on campus.  

If nothing else, returning to Penn State Harrisburg after 9 months of sabbatical has been a lesson in how desensitized I had become toward my daily existence before I left. To give one example, my daily walk to work takes me past a lot of chipped paint, crumbling sidewalks, and a large cemetery, so I usually slip on headphones and try to ignore much of what is around me. Last Thursday, though, some parts of the path were refreshingly new. For example, a burned-out house on Spring Street has finally been demolished and rebuilt. Robert L. Sharp, Jr., whose lovingly-tended headstone marks one corner of Middletown Cemetery, is now joined by his father, who also died too young. Despite the obvious tragedy, the ever-changing decorations also strike me as an expression of enduring love. 
Sharp family headstones at Middletown Cemetery

Looking across the wheat field on the corner of Spring and Wharton, I noticed that a disheveled jungle of trees, brush, and fencing has finally been removed from the edge of campus. The new addition to the Education Activities Building is now in plain view, under construction. Feeling an unexpected strain in my thigh muscles as I walked up Wharton, I was reminded of the slight rise that leads into campus. I am eager to greet the colleagues and students who speed up that road. 
The Wharton Avenue entrance to Penn State Harrisburg.
Ahead is the new Education Activities Building

The campus gym was not new to me, since I had visited it periodically throughout the year. But entering the library was a sensory experience. Sitting at my desk for the first time in months, I realized I was in a space that was both me and not-me. I had straightened and thoroughly cleaned it in late July 2013. My books, Lego village, and pictures remained in place. But I had removed the most revealing items -- chewed pens, flavored lip glosses, and nests of pending paperwork. In other words, I had wiped away 10 years of my own habits and smells. Oddly, I didn't recall some of them until I was prompted. For instance, after turning on my desktop, I groaned as it churned through login procedures. How slow the damned thing seemed! Then I remembered that I had always used boot-up time for meditation. My eyes turned to the faded copy of the Prayer of St. Francis still taped to the wall. Later, when my lips became dry, my left hand automatically fumbled for Lipsmackers which I religiously line up at all my workstations. Finding none, I recalled the stash inside my desk and pulled out a fresh one (Grape Crush). In the afternoon, when a coworker stopped by to welcome me, I saw his employee name tag. I instinctively felt the side of my metal desk, pulled my magnetic tag apart, and clipped it just above my heart. After 9 months away from everyday routines, I am an odd mix of memories and forgetings. 

For the past two weeks, colleagues from the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education and other departments have been catching me up. Here is where I feel most in-step, in my relationships with other people. And still, time has marched on. One faculty member showed me pictures of his new home -- actually, a historic mansion -- in Harrisburg. A star student visited with his first-born son in his arms. He is now an employee in student affairs. Another frequent library customer spun around in a new sundress, showing off lost weight and a fresh master's degree. I wonder if they notice any changes in me. I hope they don't see the new curve under my chin or the scaliness of my hands -- signs that I did not take care of myself as well as I should have while on the road

Work has every potential to overwhelm me. By the end of my first full week back on campus, I had been: 
  • appointed chair of an employee search committee
  • directed to weed my call number areas of the library's oversize collection
  • asked to orient a graduate class in Education
  • contacted by the disability services office to provide intensive assistance to a student 
  • requested by another librarian to review some online tutorials she created
  • tapped to jury manuscripts for a scholarly journal
  • sent 10 applications to vet for scholarships
  • prompted to respond (repeatedly, as it turned out) to a disgruntled member of one of the professional associations I lead
and ... advised to use the summer to "get out some more publications" so that I could be recommended for promotion! 

Yeah, o.k.

So far, organizing my "loot" from sabbatical has done more for my mental state than anything else. Maybe if I organize one aspect of my work, I can make sense of the rest of it. On the days I am able to wring out a few paragraphs of the book I hope to write, I feel both disappointed and accomplished. As I plod home each night, I am utterly exhausted. Yet I am gradually refinding the girl who strode to campus at dawn, pedaled for an hour at the gym, worked a 10-hour day, trotted home in 15 minutes, whipped up dinner, emptied the dishwasher, and hauled out the trash before her husband crossed the threshold. Most importantly, each morning, I am (mostly) glad to walk back to campus again, ever-curious about what the new day will hold.  

My notes and photocopies, organized by research site


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