In Gratitude, For Tom, with thanks to Karen
“The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.” – Ray Wylie Hubbard
Paul and Anna Chukan, my maternal great grandparents. Photo by my sister, Melanie Brown
I’ve spoken before about my life change. In 2010 I won a year long research fellowship at Dartmouth College. I’d done doctoral work at McGill University in Montreal and had a professor position in philosophy at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Dartmouth paid me to work in residence on the projects I already had in place. My presence there was meant to support my own work as much as it was to enlarge the already vibrant conversation occurring at Dartmouth through outside influence. While there I contracted pneumonia. At its worst I couldn’t stand and speak at the same time. I visited the emergency room three times, and went through three rounds of antibiotics before recovering two months later. In the midst of it I realized it was time for me to leave academia. I’d devoted my entire adult life and a doctoral program to that career but recognizing the need to leave, I gave myself a year to get out gracefully. I assumed I’d have a new career in place by the end of the year. I returned to Northern Arizona University to do one more year teaching in a town I loved.
The day I turned in the keys to my office and my final grades, thus closing my contract at Northern Arizona University, my daughter, Rachel, was in Alaska visiting our family. The house was empty. I returned home having left academia for the last time and sat on the couch. The house was silent. It was winter so the light was low. And I was alone with no plans before me. I had begun drawing my wine illustrations but did not yet know that would become the basis of a strange new career. At Dartmouth I recognized a path of academic life blazing before me clear and bright. I’d established myself in that profession in a way that delivered clear options before me. Now, it was as if I stood in an open field. No path or trail cut of direction reaching to the horizon. Nothing leading before me. No others standing beside me. No guidance. The terror of that moment was profound. I felt there was nothing to do but let the terror come. Everything in me felt still and quiet while the immeasurable mass of the unknown crashed over me and then crashed over me again. I had walked away from a career I’d devoted myself to and done well in, given up something I was good at simply because my intuition said it was time. It was clear the best thing for me to do was sleep. So I went to bed and slept 14 hour nights for a month.
Tom Wark posted yesterday about Karen MacNeil‘s recent keynote address at the Wine Blogger’s Conference in the Finger Lakes. Karen spoke at the Wine Writers’ Symposium here in Napa Valley in February. There she shared a story about the challenges of beginning her writing career – how long it took to have even one article accepted; how little money she had in the meantime. The contrast between her clear success now and the starkness of her writing roots then was inspiring. There is power in such perseverance. In telling the story of her path it was as if she shared that power with all of us.
In Tom’s article on Karen, he admires her resilience and then also considers a conundrum. How do we invest in a job that seems so unimportant as writing about wine? How do we find our inspiration?
Stephan and Malquay Ivanoff, my paternal great grandparents. Photographer unknown
My work as a philosophy professor was something I believed in utterly. My doctoral dissertation investigated the question of what it means to be indigenous. The inspiration came entirely from my own family. I am an Aleut and Inupiat woman from Alaska that was lucky enough to be raised with extended family, our traditional foods, and a multi-generational blanket of family stories. During my doctoral program I discovered I was likely the first Aleut to pursue a doctorate in philosophy. The relevance of that was clear. In doing any of my work I felt my great grandparents, my grandparents, my late uncles, my distant cousins, and generations of ancestors I’d never met standing quiet and strong behind me. Their spirit was there to help push my work forward because I was there, in a sense, doing it for all of us. Any time I sat at my desk to write they were there. If I spoke in front of groups or when I was teaching they were there. Their presence gave me a power to do my work. The most difficult aspect of leaving my career rested there. I had, without meaning to, become a metaphorical conduit for my people. Whether I wrote about my family or not, my family in some way saw my work as about them. For me too, it was. They were a reason for me to invest completely in what I was doing. In leaving my career I was also choosing to leave that role as a sort of intellectual elder, and to risk losing that sense of all my ancestors beside me. When I closed my contract I walked away from work that was for all of them and for the first time stood in that open field alone.
It took time for me to recognize I’d begun a career in wine. In the meantime, it was simply something I was doing because I am a person built for projects, and wine gave me one. I poured all of my energy into building that project. For two years I visited as many vintners as possible for intensive one-on-one tastings and conversations at least five days a week without a break or pay, sharing much of what I was doing online. Posting my project online via this blog and social media was in its origin simply a means for me to circumscribe my own work. I wasn’t attempting to build an audience. Instead, I needed a way to recognize progress. In graduate school I’d developed a process of researching a subject then writing an in depth summary for my supervisors as a way of maintaining a conversation. Without a supervisor in wine, sharing an account of my vintner visits online gave me a way to imagine something like that conversation and see an accumulation of work. It was a way to hold myself accountable. Eventually I looked up and realized I’d built the start of a new profession. My blog writing eventually spread into writing for magazines both online and in print, as well as giving talks or leading panels. In a sense those aspects of the work I do look very much like what I’d done before in academia. My new career has depended very much on the online sharing I’d been doing initially only for a sense of perspective.
In responding to Karen’s key note address, Tom considered the idea of family and how they can serve as an inspiration for our work. In leaving my career one of the things I left behind was the weighty sense of obligation I’d carried for my extended family. I didn’t lose the dedication I have for them, and in a sense the drive I have for excellence (in whatever form) rests deeply in that dedication to them. What I let go of was the expectation that I could ever do something that would fulfill the path of my ancestors. I would no longer be the only Aleut in philosophy. I couldn’t carry my ancestors with me there. It’s hard for me to explain the sorrow of that for me except through that image of for the first time standing alone.
Five generations of my family five days after the birth of my niece, photo by my sister Melanie Brown
Unexpectedly, it is precisely there, in the starkness of that change that I now find my inspiration. Leaving a career I’d invested everything into, including my imagined ancestors, was a moment of erasing all expectations. I could no longer rely on a prescribed path of a recognizable career, nor on the sense of feeling generations beside me. I had no promise of the future. Though my perspective on such change has continuously shifted, in a way that sense of standing in an open field without a promised future hasn’t. The gift of such bareness has been that every wine visit, every written article, every magazine connection has arrived as an unforeseen bonus, an unexpected delight found in an open field. For me, it is there I find a source of immeasurable gratitude. Still with most visits I count myself profoundly lucky to simply listen to their stories, as if they are sharing their ancestors with me and I can see those ancestors standing strong and quiet beside the person I am listening to. Sometimes their ancestors have as much to tell through what the person doesn’t quite say as the person through what they do.
Over time, I have also found a different source of power, one much like I felt in Karen sharing her story. Her being willing to share so honestly the challenges of her upbringing in wine stands as a way of sharing a new form of freedom. New because her path of challenge and success is one different than our own but reveals through its details new insights any of us might choose to continue forward ourselves. Freeing too because of the humanity witnessed through storytelling. In admitting to her own difficulties, Karen offers us a way to see we are like her. That someone we admire has challenges too, so our challenges perhaps are not so unusual or so insuperable.
In writing about Karen’s keynote, Tom concludes with the point that he found the story of her path inspiring, that it makes him want to do better work. I would say that what I find in Tom’s post is the sense that through Karen’s speech he has found a new strength. Ultimately, it is there too that I find my inspiration, the discovery that in persistence and vulnerability we have the opportunity to share strength with each other.
Karen MacNeil has just completed the 2nd edition of her groundbreaking book, The Wine Bible. The new edition will be available October, 2015. It reflects over five years of work traveling major regions throughout the world, tasting over 10,000 wines, and doing thorough research to then write a fully updated book. The new edition is an invaluable reference for any wine lover.
For more information on the new edition you can visit Karen’s site here: http://www.karenmacneil.com/product/the-wine-bible-2nd-edition/
To read Tom Wark’s blog post on Karen’s talk: http://fermentationwineblog.com/2015/08/karen-macneil-inspiration-and-art-of-wine-blogging/
With thanks to Tom Wark.
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