A couple of weeks ago I dreamed I lost my place.
It started simply enough. I dreamed I was in the administration building, robing for graduationa natural enough dream for the late spring. As I had for twenty years, I was putting on the robe, the hood, the velvet hat . . . but the odd thing was that I was alone in the basement, not with the others in the common room on the second floor. I realized that the faculty marshal must be reading the names and we should be taking our places in order on the grand staircase, the most senior on the lowest steps, the most junior on the large open landing outside the common room.
So I began to run, speeding effortlessly up the stairs, more and more anxious as I came to the second-floor assembly area. Coming around the last corner, I was relieved to see the end of the line in its usual place. (I was not even concerned that the only people I could see in line were dressed as clowns and jugglersno academic need consult Dr. Jung to interpret that one).
Suddenly, the line began to move. I could not seem to make it to my assigned starting place. As fast as I ran, the line receded faster, and in a moment was out of sight. I woke up still feeling the crush of panic.
It was early on a quiet Sunday morning. The dog was still sleeping soundly, pressed against my leg. The cat pulled himself up on the edge of the bed, examined my face, found it boring, and went back to watching birds from the living room window. Even though Sunday is now the most demanding workday of my week, I still had an hour before I needed to get up, so I lay there, trying to come to terms with the dream.
For I had, in fact, lost my place. To be precise, I had given it up (a distinction like that between being the dumper or the dumpee when dating: a distinction without a difference in the end result). When I went from being a Professor of Chemistry to being a pastor (albeit with more degrees than is usual, or even reasonable), my younger colleagues moved forward a step, the line closed, and that was all there was to that.
We used to joke about it, the way your progress is measured by the place in line, the row where you sit: Will I ever sit in the front row? No matter that the front row is not especially desirable seating, demanding decent black shoes rather than Birkenstocks, and affording a fine view of the speaker’s back, the inattentiveness of the seniors, and the vultures circling overhead. (This last is not a metaphor, but a feature of outdoor graduation in my neck of the woods.) To sit in the front row as the most senior of the full professors is to have arrived, to be recognized as either a Power or a Character. (Those in the second row can be Movers and Shakers but almost never Characters. The only back-row Character I ever knew was Irish, and there’s an automatic waiver for that.) I got only as far as the upper end of the second row.
We used to joke about it, yes, as if it were not very important or was just a stuffy old custom. But let someone start to walk on the right whose place is on the left, or vice versanot to mention being off by two spacesand there would be an elaborately courteous guiding into place, or perhaps even an insufficiently-suppressed hissing. It turned out to be rather important after all.
And apparently some part of me still found it so. Not a very attractive part, mind you: In fact, I thought it might be a distinctly ugly part, the Pride of Life. Did I regret not quite making it to the first row, with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining?
As I lay there, still not quite awake, another worry seized me: Where is my hat?the doctoral hat, the velvet cap. I knew where my robe was; indeed, I knew where both my robes were, the original garish one and the black one I bought to use during Lent (since my university did not anticipate that its doctoral garb might have to fit the liturgical seasons). I use one or the other once a month, on communion Sundays, except when it’s too hot (I’m not that liturgical). But I couldn’t remember when or where I had last seen the hat; I remembered that it had played a bit part in a Children’s Message in another church three years ago, and that was it.
That was when it clicked that what I was missingin my dream and at that momentwas myself. The place I had lost was not so much my place in line as it was my place in the story of my life. The place in line was a bookmark. When my starting-point for the graduation procession moved from the second floor step by step down the grand staircase, it marked years in my life. There were the usual career events: struggles for promotion, writing grant proposals, meetings, the comings and goings of presidents and deans, the major reorganizations and minor skirmishes. And of course, there was the decade before that, of graduate study, post-doc, first faculty position: what it took to get to the top step, the staging-ground for the course ahead.
People ask if I miss it. Most days, I liked what I was doing. Of course, the top-notch students were very satisfying. They became genuine colleagues in research, and we struggled together (but in different ways) through their projects and final oral presentations. That was fun. Equally satisfying were some of the middling students. I’m thinking of the ones who dragged through Organic as if it were a long illness punctuated by bouts of delirium, both lesser (quizzes) and greater (exams), and yet did not give up. Week after week, they would come to see me and I would try explaining it all again and by the next quiz they would maybe get one more question right than last time. In the junior year they might find that Medicinal (my favorite course) or Biochemistry was more interesting, especially when they got to choose the labs (getting hold of a cow heart is a lot more difficult than you would think, but to the right student it’s exciting beyond belief). Bit by bit they would struggle heroically to a B+, pour heart (theirs, not the cow’s) and soul into the senior thesis, and walk out of the oral beaming with hard-earned confidence. That was fun, too. That’s why I usually answer: “I miss the teaching.”
Harder to explain is how I liked the sheer craft of what I did. I enjoyed not only the intellectual challenge of the subject but also its tactile and visual side: the manual dexterity required for a vacuum distillation, the sheer esthetic pleasure of recrystallization, the shapes of glassware, getting a precise endpoint in a titration, slicing into the shining interior of a chunk of sodium, drawing structures of complex molecules, watching a compound’s “fingerprint” develop as I ran a spectrum. Nor was that all: the olfactory element was a richly nuanced world of its own, with the bracing dead-fish stench of amines, the fresh pungency of ketones, the floral lightness of ethers and the varied fruity and spicy notes of esters. All this was satisfying, fun and pleasurable.
What I tend to forget is that I had given up other things for those pleasures. Lately I sometimes remember what it was like that last summer before college, how everything seemed open, all possibilities alive before me. It didn’t really occur to me that to choose one thing would be to close the door on others. At that point, I had no idea that I would go into chemistry: I was vaguely intending to be an ornithologist, because it seemed to be the closest I could get to being a naturalist after the nineteenth or early twentieth century pattern. (More precisely, what I wanted to do was the kind of thing that Ernest Thompson Seton did: go out in the woods and write and draw. This, of course, was not a major.) I signed up for chemistry to get it over with. As it happened, however, the professor who usually taught the course was ill that term, and his colleague stepped in on short notice. In the first lab, he taught us to make gunpowder, probably as an exercise in using the balance, and as much for his own enjoyment as ours. I decided that knowledge was indeed power, and I was hooked.
People don’t ask as often why I left it, although I sense curiosity. When they do ask, “Why did you decide to become a pastor?” the question itself sounds strange to me. There were, of course, decision points along the way, points of the sort that one could articulate and list and set up in a pro-and-con format. These included my involvement as one of the advisers to the campus Christian fellowship, a change to a different church, and books I was reading. Other people played critical parts, especially the close friend and colleague who felt drawn to ministry and came up with the idea of taking some courses at a nearby seminary, but also people in both my own and other churches. There was also the simple fact that with the onset of late effects of a childhood bout with polio, working in a building without an elevator was getting to be more and more difficult.
But life, like Narnia, is always “bigger on the inside than the outside.” There were other factors that are difficult to articulate, like a growing sense of discontent and uneasiness. The situation is still more difficult when it comes to describing important spiritual turning points: committed to the page, they have a way of seeming, even (or maybe especially) to the author, either flat or overblown, puzzlingly unlike the experience itself. The simplest to say is that, as things unfolded, I began to see it not so much a midlife crisis as a midlife kairos.
After all, Abraham didn’t leave all at once for the country God would show him. What with all the flocks and herds and household and general hangers-on, I don’t imagine he could move very fast. For several days, I suppose that he could still see the smoke of the cooking fires back in Ur. At some pointperhaps he even failed to notice exactly whenhe moved out of range, and was suddenly aware that everything around him was new.
I wonder, though, if at times he found things not completely new but oddly familiar. I went through a time of wondering if my decades in chemistry had been just “years the locusts ate,” if I had wandered off willfully pursuing some project of my own (for I surely did, in many ways, and still do, being after all only a sinner of His redeeming). And yet, I am not so sure that it was always a project of my own. Here’s an example. Back in the day when I had as my ill-formed goal to go out in the woods and write and draw, I had some wonderful high school English teachers, and one of them introduced me to Gerard Manley Hopkins. The first book I bought with money I earned was Hopkins. His poems were like a lightning bolt into my brain. (As a Protestant, I had no idea what to “do” with his Marian poems, but I liked even those none the less.) I thought what I liked best was his incomparable skill not just in describing nature but also in giving nearly the experience of nature, but now I’m not so sure. His work slept in me for years, and in seminary exploded again. But now when I read, in his great resurrection poem, that we are “immortal diamond,” it is more. I know the world of carbon now, know it by touch and sight and smell, and it makes the resurrection of Christ somehow more believable to me than less. I can’t yet explain how, but I have begun to feel the contours of the idea.
There are other things that seem familiar, too. My occupation is still a social liability and still elicits guilty confessions, though now on the order of “I don’t go to church very often” rather than “I had a terrible time with chemistry in high school.” I don’t need to wonder why I’m drawn to apologetics: Christian faith is about as popular as organic chemistry and also suffers from the same stereotypes that’s it’s (a) all about rote memorization and (b) intended purely to weed out people who don’t get it. These are battles I’ve fought before.
Something else I find still at work is this: Always, when I learned something new, I wanted to turn right around and teach it. Now I still spend a lot of my time explaining difficult things to puzzled people, often earlier in the morning than they seem to want, or than I feel fully ready. I still find myself wrapped up with others in the awkward dance of trying to get to know something very, very big with minds that are, after all, very, very small. Together we are still working on developing that special dexterity, now spiritual rather than manual, that will get us through without too much disaster, breakage, flood or firewhat the apostle called working out our salvation “with fear and trembling”only now I am again merely the T.A., and the experiments are set by Someone much wiser. And it is still true that the struggles we go through together are part of the way to a desired and desirable future, only now not only in this life only but also in the life to come.
So I find myself enrolled in a course of uncertain duration and widely varied content. I expect to have a better idea of the syllabus when I get to the end, but, since I do not quite expect to get all the way there in the time I have left, I imagine that I will always be wavering between the “new” and déjà vu, caught up in a perpetual Incomplete.
And what of the odd dream? After a bit I got up, padded to the closet by the door, and felt in the bottom of the garment bag. Therethere it was, my hat. It felt as if a picture had snapped into focus. I couldn’t see the details of the picture, but that was OK; I didn’t need to. I made coffee, got dressed, and went to church.
Linda S. Schwab is pastor of Clarion Free Methodist Church in Clarion, Pennsylvania, and professor emeritus of chemistry at Wells College in Aurora, New York.