Sunday, November 04, 2007

Off Balance

Sometimes I wonder whether seminary is really a younger woman's call.

Some of the more difficult aspects of going off to seminary in my 50s are things I had not even considered, but in the wake of my previous rant, I've been thinking about them.

I have lived in the same house for 24 years, had the same group of close-knit friends for 20. We can say what we want to one another. We have been known to irritate, exasperate, infuriate, and hurt one another -- but we can be who we are and know that we are the people who stand together when a child is in trouble, when a parent dies, when disaster of any kind strikes.

At seminary, everyone and everything is new. I am building relationships from the ground up, and I am SO out of practice. And during the week it's 24 hours a day. When you start a new job, with the attendant requirement for adapting to a new culture, you still return at night to your own house, your own family, your own friends. Not so for me this year. My opportunites for self-expression are considerably more limited than what I am accustomed to. Excellent practice, no doubt, but terribly difficult.

I have had a certain amount of control over my daily life for years and years. Last night I mentioned that to a friend, herself the mother of three young children, and she said, "Are you crazy? Have you forgotten these years?" I laughed and pointed out that she pretty much sets her own schedule, and if things spiral out of control, she can reel them back in. (Of course, I am talking about normal, everyday life here, and not about the days when you have to race to the ER, or cope with a squad car in the driveway, or listen to the "I'm pregnant" announcement.) Even as a teacher -- a rigidly-scheduled life if ever there was one -- I could take a personal or sick day if I needed or really wanted to be somewhere else. Now I'm the student, and I can't do that. School continues onward whether I am there or not.

And -- and I admit it, this might be the real kicker -- at seminary, I am at the bottom of the heap. In my regular life -- oh! wait! seminary is my regular life right now -- my friends and I have become the people in charge of things. Not necessarily by design -- we're just OLD. I can get you divorced or run your classroom or plan your program or make your presentation. I have been involved in all kinds of school and community and church enterprises. At seminary: who cares?

Oh -- one other thing: the education, at least in the first year of seminary, is clearly designed for a younger mindset. Lectures and memorization. The professor is the expert. We are the sponges. Period. Except that the middle-aged (or older!) brain no longer functions much like a sponge. More like a sieve, one might say. I'm sure there is a more flattering analogy, but of course I can't think of one at the moment, because the sieve function is in full swing!)

(My spiritual direction program is quite different. Most people are in their 50s, a couple of them younger, several older, and we draw naturally on our previous education, undergraduate and professional, and life experiences in our seminar discussion and bi-weekly papers. A very different way of learning a tradition and a set of skills.)

When I was in law school, the first year class was divided into seminar groups for our writing and advocacy program. In my group of about fifteen, one of the gentlemen was a physician in his late 30s. The rest of us gave him no particular thought, never wondered what he thought of us -- and he did not voice his opinion. (Let's just say that I often chuckle when one of my classmates mentions something that he's been thinking about for a really long time, ever since he was 15, and I realize that he was 15 all of seven years ago.) Last night I suddenly wondered: who was that doctor, exactly, back when we were all first year law students and thought we were sharing an experience in common? So I looked him up, and discovered that when he entered law school, he had been a physician for thirteen years and was the director of a department in a prestigious university hospital. In law school he was just a lowly first year student, having to make a moot court argument as though he had never made presentations before hundreds of MDS, and having to master the ins and outs of civil procedure as though he did not already know the human body inside and out. He must have wondered, too, at times, whether law school was really a younger man's game.

I draw no conclusions here. I am tremendously grateful for this opportunity, and I am thrilled by all that I am learning (even though Greek will probably leave me dead by the roadside). There isn't a day that goes by that I am not filled to the brim with material and ideas and models for sharing in some way in the unknown future.

But it's still a shock to the system. The OLD system.


Lisa :-] said...

It is unfortunate that our system of education is set up for the skillset of the majority of the consumers---those in their twenties who still have room in their brains to stuff all that new information. I'm a firm believer that, at my age, my brain is full...and when I cram in any new fact or skill, something else has to fall out the other end.

You describe the challenge so well. If only understanding it made it easier to conquer ;)

I've had a lot of the same feelings during my "cafe education." Frustrating, yes...but though it does point out that I AM old and learn differently than I used to, it also shows me that, by god, I still can learn new tricks...

Kathryn J said...

A cautionary tale to which I should carefully pay attention.

If I go to school to become a teacher, I have to take a chemistry exam to show my competence to teach middle school level chemistry. I have not taken a chemistry exam in 25 years.

Please stay focussed on the end result of working with people and helping them in their relationship to God. You will rely more on those skills that you learned over 24 years than on Greek and facts that are plaguing you now.

more cows than people said...

i appreciate the self-reflection in which you are engaging as you pursue this journey.

your presence is invaluable at that seminary. don't doubt that. please.

Diane said...

yes, please read that you offer something irreplaceable where you are at right now.

Quotidian Grace said...

All of which is why I admire you tremendously for taking on this challenge. And it must be that God is really calling you to it.

"PS" (a.k.a. purple) said...

You spoke well. As a second career semianry student, I understand much of what you wrote. It seems to me that seminaries should learn to value the life experiences that people bring with them.

LawAndGospel said... Ah..totally new landscape. Ah...taking the test as soon as the information in is it before it has a chance to seep out. I not only feel your pain, I am living it also. You were brave enough to blog what I started feeling during Summer Greek. And wistfully I think law school was easier. But I think that because we were being trained to find THE answer, or to pick an argument and make it, without having to own it. Now, the answer may well be "yes" and "no" at the same time, and it does matter what you stand behind, or next to or with. Sorry for the dangling prepositions.
BUT.. there is a vast difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom is experienced ( and at least for me sometimes as a result of a lack of the right knowledge). As scary as this may seem, we have grown into ourselves in some important ways that will help us in this path. And we will not have to be asked, as one young seminarian was, " How can you be old enough to give me any advice?" So we really all have our challenges. And it is only by God's grace that we will move on, and I thank God for God's infinite patience with me- with all of us walking sieves. Every thing you experience will add to your wisdom, and you will be the person with wisdom someone else needs. Keep the faith.

RevDrKate said...

I do so appreciate that you are sharing all of this. Having had an "alternative route" to ordination I sometimes have seminary envy, but I also see that for the group of us (all "mature learners") there were some definite advantages!

Gannet Girl said...

Wow. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

I was expecting to be castigated as a whiny wimp, and I really debated whether to hit "publish post."

But it turns out that it was worth the risk. I think that people often veer away from taking risks because they don't know anyone else doing such a thing and therefore have no sense of direction for the road ahead. It's really helpful to hear others' stories of taking on new challenges (at any age).

I'll be interested to see what I think a year from now!

Carol said...

As I told my cantorial student friend last week, this process isn't supposed to be easy. And the rabbinic/cantorial school's job isn't to make you feel good about yourself. It's to ordain as many quality cantors/rabbis as they can. The same applies to seminary. Yes, you're older and that makes information retention a little more challenging. But the life experiences that you bring to the job are invaluable. Letter grades are just that--letters. Where you'll shine is pastoring to and serving people.
Be kind to yourself, GG.