Nine Bean Rows

Nine Bean Rows:
A Headmaster’s Reflection on His Sabbatical
January 3, 2017

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
W.B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Glimpses of My Sabbatical Adventure

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From Top Left to Right and Down: Day 2 on the Camino in the Pyrennes; Wedding in CO with the fam; on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem with the Thielmans; my happy place on the sunporch; cycling with Stone; with my boys in CO.

I want to express my deep thanks to the Trinity board, to the faculty and staff, to the Senior Staff, and especially to Mason Goss for these last six months. My sabbatical was truly a time away from Trinity, and I was deeply grateful for such strong leadership in the school.  I was able to leave with confidence that you would all lead and manage the school wisely and well without me.  Thank you!

I have been asked to give some report of my time away.  I am glad to do that, though it is challenging to gather up six months in a short summary.  My sabbatical was not one thing but many. It had seasons and phases as well as overall themes.

When I left in late June I sent everyone a farewell with Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”  Some people might have wanted a different kind of sabbatical, but peace dropping slow seemed really fine to me.  I got some of that, more than I deserve. But not all of my time was alone in the bee loud glade. And even Yeats had “nine bean rows” to tend in his idyllic spot--I take it that such tending was part of the charm of the place.  It certainly was for me, and I have named nine of my own bean rows below as a way of reporting out on my own time in Innisfree.

I’m glad to be back in Dublin, but I will always remember fondly my six months away.  And I hope that some of it will stick with me for a long time.

Row 1: Des
Des and I spent more time together in the last six months than perhaps ever.  We were together intensely on the Camino and in our trip to Israel.  And when we were home, we were working side by side.  Good things came of this: We prayed together, and we developed some enjoyable habits like watching the PBS Newshour together.  We also got to spend a lot of time together with our grandson.  We did a few home projects together (though not nearly as many as Des would have liked--if this had been “her” sabbatical, we would have taken on a number of these).  The question of whose sabbatical this was was an undercurrent of our time.  In the end, I think it was mostly mine, and Des had to adjust.  She did great, but it wasn’t necessarily what she would have chosen.  And then there was the experience of the old adage, “I married you for better, for worse, but not for lunch.”  We experienced the challenges of togetherness that retirement might bring and we are both thankful for our respective, meaningful employments.  I am so thankful for Des, who walked beside me throughout this sabbatical.

Row 2: Family
I was able to spend a lot of time with my family.  I began my sabbatical by visiting my mom (alone--a great visit), and I had several days to be with her in a focused way.  I made two other trips to Knoxville during my sabbatical, and mom came to Durham for Thanksgiving.  I also saw my brother several times in Greensboro (went to two AA meetings with him), and he came to Durham for Thanksgiving.  We visited Chad in Chicago.  The whole family went to Colorado for a wedding and spent time together mountain biking and exploring the mountains.  We were in New Orleans for a family wedding.  I did a little woodworking with Teddy.  And when we were home we kept Stone at least one day a week, sometimes more.  I played the guitar for him and crawled on the floor with him and pulled him behind my bike through the neighborhood.

Row 3: Self
I disconnected well and took off my Headmaster’s mantle.  The benefits of this were enormous.  I relaxed.  I was less distracted and more present (sometimes).  I did not live by a calendar--that was a truly liberating joy.  Instead of hundreds of emails, I got maybe ten in a busy day, and rarely did they make demands on me or create anxiety.  I had time to read the news (I’m better informed about current affairs and politics now than usual), listen to books on Audible or read or listen to podcasts, try to learn a little Spanish online, and order my days as I wanted.  Still, there were some hard things about this: I learned how much of my identity has gotten tangled up in my role as headmaster, and it was sometimes hard not to wear those robes.  This was acute on the Camino, where I was pretty much completely unknown in this role.  I would go for days getting to know someone before they would learn my job, and then they wouldn’t really care.  Other things mattered more.  This was both freeing and challenging.  I tell a story about this in my Camino reflections.  The other hard thing was the truth that wherever I go, there I am.  I brought myself into the sabbatical, and sometimes I spoiled Eden with my competitiveness or ambition or whatever.  Again, I reflected on this in my Camino journal.

Row 3: Camino
I have put together a set of reflections on the Camino.  It was a powerful experience, complex and hard and wonderful.  I am happy to share it with anyone who wants it.

This pilgrimage across Spain was memorable.  It was a great way to disconnect from Trinity and my life here.  It was challenging for Des and me to do this together, but we did it.  I learned a lot about myself and life--I didn’t always like what I learned!  I don’t find myself longing to go back and do it again, as some people do, and I suppose I am a bit disappointed about that.  But I will never forget the glory of the Pyrenees or the beauty of the wheat fields on the Masetta or the lush green of Galicia.  Or the fellow pilgrims who shared the experience with us.

Row 4: Philemon
I have long wanted to return to Paul’s letter to Philemon.  It was part of the warp and woof of my dissertation 25 years ago.  For years I’ve been imagining a book that tells this story and the back story of Onesimus, and finally I had the time to explore this.  I got a carrel at Duke Divinity School and library privileges.  (I soon discovered that I much preferred to bring the books home and sit on the back porch than in the catacombs of the Div School library.)  It was gratifying and satisfying to dive back into the world of New Testament scholarship, and I had time to pay attention to things I had neglected back in the day and to reread things I needed a refresher on.  And I did a deep dive into Philemon.  The net: a rough draft of a book and a dream of a class I might teach as a theology elective at Trinity.  

Row 5: Israel
Friends asked us to join them on a trip to Israel.  This is the sort of invitation we would usually decline, but one of the wonderful things about sabbatical was being able to say Yes.  Margaret and Nathan Thielman had been to Israel before, and they were wonderful guides.  We stayed in a small boutique hotel in the German quarter of Jerusalem, a twenty minute walk into the Old City.  And we toured the Dead Sea, Masada, Herodium, the Galilee, Nazareth, and Caesarea.  We had Palestinian Christian guides and met some wonderful Christian brothers there--their perspective was a stark contrast to the Jewish perspective of our hotel proprietors.  I met the head of the Palestinian Bible Society, and one of our guides is the business manager at the school where Emily McSwain taught for several years.  We also reconnected with Hunter Lambeth, an old acquaintance who is now leading Young Life in Israel.

It’s hard to say why Israel made such a strong impression.  The history is so thick and dense and fascinating.  It helped me understand better than I ever have the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  And it gave me what Hopkins called “Inscape” when I read my Bible.  

Row 6: Riding
As expected, I enjoyed riding a good bit.  But not as much as I might have thought: I was off the bike for two months while we were in Spain.  And when I returned, I tried to get back to long mileage too quickly and my back went out.  I had to forego a ride I had trained for and work my way back up.  But at the end of my time, I was in a rhythm of reading, writing, and riding that was, as my son Teddy called it, “my happy place.”  And my son Chad took a job with Garmin and got me some really cool gadgets for tracking data and for safety.  

Row 7: Reading
This was not a study leave.  I did not maximize my reading time, but tried to take it slowly and gently.  I read in preparation for the Camino and for Israel.  And a lot of my energy went into the Philemon project (I have not listed the books for that below; they are in the bibliography of that book).  Here are some things I read all or major parts of:
Michener’s Iberia
All the Light We Cannot See
The Nightingale
Between the World and Me
Hillbilly Elegy
Invisible Man
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
The New Jim Crow
You Are What You Love
Jesus Outside the Lines
The Source
Warriors of God
Eusebius’ History of the Church
The Song of Roland
The Lemon Tree
Crossing to Safety
The Sun Also Rises
The Souls of Black Folk
And lots of Podcasts.  In particular, On Being with Krista Tippet, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, Invisibilia, Radio Lab, More Perfect, This American Life.

Row 8: Quotidian Demands
Anyone who has taken this kind of leave or retired learns quickly that everyday life demands do not take a sabbatical.  The difference was that I had time to tend to them.  Often I would wonder how I (and all of us) manage all this with a full time job.  It was nice to have time to deal with the DMV, the post office, the Flexible Spending Account, the dead shrubs in the yard, my mother’s will, and all manner of other things without stressing that it was taking so long.

Row 9: Trinity
Trinity was always there for me, but I put it in the back of my mind.  I prayed for people, especially on the Camino, when I had hours to walk and think and pray.  And I would think about things that were happening--the first day of school, the Turkey Bowl, etc.  And certain chronic challenges would always be there in my mind and heart.  But I really did disconnect.  I saw Mason a few times, and only once did we talk shop at all and then only in the most general way.  I would hear of things happening and decisions being made, but I stayed out of it.  I went out of my way to go out of my way of Trinity.  When I needed to fetch books, I would call Molly or come at night, and when I rode my bike in the day, I would try not to go down Cambridge.  Mostly this was a selfish move: I did not want to fall into a Trinity matter that would flip the switch I had successfully turned off back in July.  But I missed seeing people and one of the joys of returning is being able to interact again naturally with so many friends and not having to sneak around to the grocery.  

I return with a renewed commitment to the school, with excitement about the next stage (not knowing what that is but with some ideas).  

One bit of Trinity business I did engage in: I registered for a dialogue on sexuality hosted by Evangelicals for Social Action.  It is called Oriented to Love, and it gathers six Christians with traditional views and six Christians with revisionist views for two days of intensive dialogue.  I have had to do a good bit of prep work for that.  The dialogue is in late January.

Some learnings:
  • Trinity got along fine (so far as I know) without me.  So perhaps I don’t need to stress so much at the next crisis?  You all managed a lot of crises this fall and I didn’t even know about them. Trinity is not the most important thing in the world--I knew that, but this fall I experienced that.
  • Can I adopt a new M.O.?  I would like to avoid simply slipping back into the place where I was and we were when I left in July.  I wonder if one of the best blessings of this time for all of us is that it could teach us new ways of being in the world.  To that end, I hope to
  • Re-enter slowly and not try to rush back in.
  • Learn from my ignorance--a new place for me.  Vulnerable, but heuristic.
  • Listen.  Listen.  Listen.
  • Ask good questions.  What did you learn about yourself and your leadership here?  What did you learn about my leadership?  What did you miss me for?  (Please tell me you missed me a little . . . )  What do I need to be focusing on?  What things should I not do?
  • Teaching.  Philemon stirred that up big time.  I’d like to offer a Theology semester elective each year: alternating, between a Philemon class (which is really a class in Paul, early Christianity, Canon, Hermeneutics, and much more) and an Overview Class of Christian Thought through Christian Biography and Classics.  

Not many people get to do what I have done these last six months: to take time away from their work, to spend as they wish, without the pressures and demands of work, with a job to return to when they are done.  I am most grateful for the opportunity and hope that God will use it in my life and in the life of the school for much good.  

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