I came home tonight from an afternoon and evening spent with my best friend in Dallas, Mark, cherishing time together and reflecting over the last (couple of) years, the things that have changed, the things that are the same, and how we feel about a number of different things. When I got home, I found numerous Christmas cards filled with letters from friends, updating me on their lives. I don’t usually send those kinds of cards and I’m writing this blog in place of that.
Every New Year’s, I spend time in reflection over the last year and thinking about where I want to go in the new year. Since last year, I have added using Leonie Dawson’s amazing books to my New Year’s retreat (thanks, Hannah Bagnall, for introducing me to that!). The time in reflection is good for me. Usually, I keep that private, but this year so many things have happened and changed that I want to share some of them with my friends.
This time last year, I was actually in Irving, visiting dear friends and family over my Christmas break. I knew then what I had told very few people, that I would probably be leaving Indianapolis. I had just finished my application to UNT and after such precious time with loved ones, I found myself praying that I would end up at UNT over any of the other places I had applied to.
My last semester at Butler was complicated, but beautiful. I enjoyed a Nun Night where my beloved sisters came to visit my girls and we played board games. I took several students to the Woods for Alternative Spring Break to work at the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice (where I lived as a volunteer for five months in 2013 while preparing for my exams at Notre Dame) and they fell in love so much that we went back for the Earth Day celebrations. I told Father that I would be leaving Indiana and I faced his disappointment. I told my students that I was leaving and my heart ached as I watched some of them grieve. I dealt with the frustration of working with the Archdiocese to find my replacement—they were slow to move and Father and I lived in fear that the community we had built would be left without support. I was included in interviews and listened to students talk about their fears for the future. It was a true practice in humility and detachment, and I am grateful for the growing experience of leaving a ministry that I continue to love and miss very much.
I know some have heard me talk about the negative aspects of my ministry at Butler and I want to take the chance to explain some of that. If you already know all this or simply don’t care about why I left Butler, you can skip the next few paragraphs. While there were many parts of my life in Indianapolis that I hated, my students were never one of them. I loved them immensely and continue to love them and pray for them, but I am glad to know that they are under the wings of someone much more suited to that life than I am right now. In Indianapolis, I struggled to make friends because of my crazy ministry schedule, my need for introvert time with an extremely extroverted job, and my inability to find many people outside of my sisters and friends from Echo that had similar interests. I am infinitely grateful for the friends I did have—my sisters, friends from Echo, and ministry friends at Butler as well as St. Thomas Aquinas Parish. I never could have made it through that last year without them—and not only did I survive, I enjoyed moments of great happiness. Please do not think I lived my whole time there miserable and alone in the world.
My last year in Indianapolis, I lived alone. That was a great decision, because I was coming out of a very negative and hurtful community experience and needed space to heal. Sometimes I was lonely, but fortunately I had the community of the Retreat in Daily Life that I was participating through Providence Center at St. Mary of the Woods (which included two sisters, one who is 92(!), and two other young women about my age). My friend Annie, who was brave enough to embark on this 30 week retreat with me, would come to my office and together we would skype the other women. I treasured the time we would spend after the meeting, talking and dreaming together.
The diocese of Indianapolis, while it succeeds with some social justice issues and the larger parishes work to address poverty, is an overwhelmingly conservative diocese. Because every person who works for the diocese signs a paper stating that we will not “promote or support any ideas contrary to Church teaching,” I found it hard to be myself and be open, even with my friends outside of the office. My first two years in Indianapolis, I lived in fear of my community because the members of my community had expressed disapproval of my spirituality (including not only my prayer style, but my relationship with the Sisters of Providence) and “concern for my soul” on a regular basis. My last year, I lived in fear because if someone took something I said offhand and reported it to the diocese I could lose my job and have no recourse. So, when I wasn’t with my sisters or the limited number of friends that I felt completely at home with, I was generally living with a mask. I loved my students and I enjoyed and appreciated my ministry friends, but I needed something else to add stability to my life. I am an introvert and can thrive on my own, but I am also a community-centered person. While loneliness is an inherent part of the human condition, it was the degree of my loneliness (and the depression I started to experience) that made me realize I needed to make a change. Added to this was the added strain of maintaining my diocese-approved mask, which made me feel like I was being dishonest and lacking integrity.
It wasn’t all like that, though. During my time in Indianapolis, my sisters were my saving grace. Their support and love through my times of confusion and pain were my source of strength. Their constant reminder to trust in Providence and meet with people where they are (as Jesus did), made me a better minister, person, and friend. In answer to the ever-popular question, yes, I have on many occasions thought about applying to become a Sister of Providence. I love being an associate and my relationship to that community is the most important in my life. The idea of growing old with my friends, living in community, and taking on a greater role in the community I love so dearly is certainly appealing. However, student loans and a predisposition to need autonomy (I would struggle greatly with a vow of obedience at this point in my life—we will all see what comes in the future) made it evident that path is not right for me, at least now. I am not certain it will ever be my path, but only time will tell. I am happy with my life.
At the same time as my loneliness and frustrations were becoming evident to me, I realized something else. With the distance that a year without study (if you ignore the comprehensive exams I took in July 2013, as I did for almost the entire year before I took them) could provide, I realized that I missed being in school. I spent a lot of time in reflection about what I would want to study if I went back. I knew that I didn’t want to deal with another Classics department—I had heard too many stories about the cutthroat attitude in upper-level classics. Besides that, I would only really want to study Greek, but most programs require study of Latin as well. I also knew that theology is not for me. My experience of God is more relational and spiritual than rule based and, after my experiences at Notre Dame, I didn’t want to deal with theology people. This is not to say that I disrespect Theology or people who study it. On the contrary, one of my dear friends in Dallas is a theology professor and I have a lot of friends who are doing continued theology work. I just knew I didn’t have the patience or proper disposition for further study in Theology. I considered a D Min or a PhD in Spirituality, but knew that I would likely encounter the same issues as I did in ministry. I also considered simply applying for another ministry position (and did so), but I came to realize that I need time away from ministry and theology to heal and get myself together. I believe wholeheartedly that I will someday end up back in ministry for the Catholic Church—but I need time.
When I thought about it, I realized that the only thing I could really see myself teaching long term (and as my friend Greg Roper says, a PhD is just vocational school for teaching) is literature. After being prompted from my friend and mentor, Dr. Sommerfeldt, to consider my deepest passions, I realized that what I would really love is to study agrarian literature (think literature about farming and farm culture—The Georgics, Wendell Berry, Faulkner, that sort of stuff). I wasn’t sure that agrarian literature was actually a thing, but I quickly found that environmental literature, which includes agrarian literature and can include literature of the American South, was in fact something one can get a PhD in. And, miracle of miracles, the University of North Texas, only 40 minutes from my community of friends and family back in Irving, offers such a degree.
So, back to 2014. In March of 2014, I received the hoped-for acceptance letter to UNT along with an offer of a fellowship to teach two freshman comp courses each semester. I walked home, my heart pounding, and shared the news with my next door neighbors—the only people at Butler I could really tell until I formally resigned. After discernment and talking it over with my mom, my best friend, and my sisters, I sent back my response: an overwhelming YES.
While on ASB at the Woods, two different sisters let it slip in front of my students that I would be leaving Butler, but the official announcement was saved for April. By that time, most of my (very astute) students had already figured out that I was leaving. Some shed tears, others tried to hide their relief (hey, I never said I was popular with all of them!). All in all, they were supportive. Some even said they wished they could be in my classes.
I left Butler in June and packed up my house, which I had hoped to be living in long term and therefore had brought a lot of childhood mementos and things. My mom and a friend moved my belongings to Missouri while I drove to the Woods. As I drove onto the campus of Saint Mary of the Woods, I felt a huge weight leave my shoulders. I rested with my sisters and enjoyed our Annual meeting. I witnessed my dear friend Arrianne take her first vows and reminisced about how I had met her at a “Come and See” weekend before she even entered. I cherished time with my best friend, Hannah, and was grateful as my sisters, who were sad that I was moving so far away, were also supportive, happy, and excited for me. After the Annual Meeting was over, I left the Woods and drove to Missouri, where I spent an entire month anxious about this big step I had taken. I almost backed out of moving to Denton several times, but fortunately where I lost faith I had friends and family who had enough faith for two. (Besides that, where else would I go?)
I had searched for a roommate or place to live for a couple months while still at Butler and was relieved when a guy in UNT’s Environmental Philosophy PhD program asked me to move in with him. My students obsessively stalked him online (sorry Fabio) and my mother worried about her daughter moving in with a complete stranger. It turns out that her worries were in vain, because Fabio is wonderful and is literally the best roommate I have ever had (no joke). Our problems have been very few and I consider myself blessed. It was truly Providence that we got connected. I’m so grateful. I am also grateful that when I arrived at our tiny little house in August, my family (the Parent/Ponikiewskis) and my bestie, Mark, showed up to unload my car and my mom’s car. My car was full and my mom’s car had traveled from Rolla, Missouri to Denton, Texas with my bed and mattress strapped to the roof (something I will never do again and don’t recommend). Mark, Mark, and Trevor quickly unloaded, Patty hung up hangers and clothes, Rachel helped everyone, and Randi mostly entertained us with Ranger, her dog (which was more important and necessary than you might think). I don’t know what we would have done without them. My mom stayed with me long enough to help me unpack and shop for the random things I needed. Then, she left and I became a UNT student for real.
Since I moved in, the last six months have been a blur. I went to Orientation with the English department, where I made my first set of friends at UNT. I settled into my desk in the Teaching Fellow office and got into a rhythm of going to class, teaching, grading, and studying. I have found that the people in the English Department are awesome, really without exception. I enjoy the friendly banter in the office and hope to continue to develop friendships with many of the other TFs, PhD candidates, and MA students.
I started going to Mass at UD after I found that the local parish wasn’t comfortable (it’s really big). It turns out that, for me at least, going to Mass at UD includes sitting with the Sommerfeldts, weekly hugs from Dr. Norris, and regular lunches with Anna, Andrew, Joe, and Irene. So, for the few people who would care enough to judge me for going to Mass at my undergrad instead of making a local parish my home, you’re doing it wrong. Be jealous instead.
I spend a lot of time with my UD friends and family, while still getting to develop a community at UNT, and having time alone. I am finding a balance, or as much of a balance as anyone can have.
This year I also started SpiritualUprising Magazine and UP Ministries with Molly and we’ve kept it going through our transitions. This semester I started the habit of walking daily, joined the Tone It Up nutrition plan, walked a 5K, taught my first semester of classes, wrote 2 twenty page papers and cited the Sisters of Providence in both of them, watched multiple movies and spent time with friends, and so many other wonderful things. It’s been a great semester and a great year. Things aren’t perfect—I’ve had bronchitis for 2 months and am still relatively sick, my uncle was just diagnosed with leukemia, and my dad’s health continues to go back and forth. I've struggled to find time to write and do things I want to do and at the beginning of my time in Denton, I was still trying to shake the issues from Indy. But, through it all, I have had people who love me. I had a friend wiling to drive me to the ER when my fever hit 104 and bring me food while I was recovering. I had professors who were supportive and understanding. I have a roof over my head. I am blessed with the opportunity to continue my education and teach truly wonderful college kids, which is more like ministry than you would think. I come home to a roommate who doesn’t steal from, judge, or demean me.
I am happy.
I hope that you and yours are, too.
Merry Christmas and Happy 2015.