Saturday, September 20, 2014

On book contracts and dissertations

Far be it for me to use a cliche, yet I will: it never rains but it pours. As many of you know, not long ago I signed a contract with Cascade for my book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. At the same time, I received formal acceptance into the University of Birmingham to write a dissertation on Quaker literature.

As I wrote to one friend, signing a book contract feels akin to having a baby. Jane Austen called Pride and Prejudice her "darling child," and I understand the sentiment. Cascade had my manuscript for a longer time than I anticipated while outside scholars read it (they did give it, apparently, an enthusiastic response), and by the summer I had gotten half frantic about it: Would my darling  child ever be born?  Needless to say, the thumbs up from Cascade brought not only pleasure, but relief.

I had walked away from graduate school several decades ago, before the dissertation. I had even passed my oral exams. I needed--or thought I needed--to  leave at the time. Now, however, that unfinished business has been weighing on me. Now I have a chance to finish, working as a distance student and spending two long summers in residence in England. I am grateful for the opportunity.

If the book has the feeling of the "sword in the stone" archetype--and I am convinced now that Arthur came to the throne later in life, not as a young man--the dissertation fits the Oedipus paradigm, not in the Freudian sense, but in terms of the difficulty of escaping one's destiny. I ran from academe for two decades and when I arrived back in its arms at Earlham School of Religion almost five years ago, what I least expected was to end up ... in academe. I thought I would explore careers in conflict resolution or find a job doing good work on the Gaza strip or in a city--or work for AFSC. Well, no. What was I thinking? The moment I got back, I fell more wholly in love than I had the first time. From the moment I met Ben Dandelion, touting the Birmingham program, I knew.

Yet I hesitate at the altar, in my wedding clothes so to speak, and truth be told, dear Reader, the issue is money. I am in my 50s. The ship of a career in academe, beyond the kind of adjunct work I now do, has long since sailed. This project falls into the category unfinished business, of meeting a destiny I can't seem to escape. I can't expect a return on this as an investment. I hesitate at the door of the plane--do I jump? Do I spend the money?  My parents paid my undergraduate tuition in the days when such expenses were affordable, and I earned the graduate degrees in English and religion on assistanceship and scholarship--but now, the piper must be paid. This is the logical price of doing things out of sync. Do I pay? Do I like, Tess and Alec in Hardy's novel, pay to the last farthing? And yet how can I not do this? I have been through clearness committees--but clearness committees are  not divine.

The intense emotional upheavals brought on by a book contract and a dissertation have led me to fall back deeply into the spiritual life.  I realize none of this is that important in the larger scheme and that wisdom helps keep me grounded. What is important to walk humbly and attend to God, to try to be a whole, if flawed, human being. Yet I have to make a decision and soon, a decision based on money, and I find myself caught between two fears: fears that I will later need money and not have it weighed against the fear I will end up bitter and full of regrets if I don't do this thing. I would like to find the path of love through this, the path that offers true guidance. What, I keep wondering, is money for? What matters?  What does it mean to pay Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's? What is good stewardship of resources--resources that go beyond, but surely include, money? Why do I worry so when other people were willing to crash an entire world economy to earn a few more millions they don't need? When women of my age and class spend more on remodeled kitchens or luxury cars than I would on this degree?  When do we hold on to money? When do we let it go?