Thursday, July 12, 2012

30th Year Reflections/6: Priorities

“It’s what our fathers taught us.” — Leo McGarry, “The West Wing”
I’m still laying the foundation to my reflections by recounting early days in library school. But let me jump ahead to the present and pin a note to the board, one lesson that took a long time to learn, and which shouldn’t be left for a later time.
A month ago the annual Rare Books and Manuscript Section (RBMS) pre-conference kicked off in San Diego and I wasn’t there. The RBMS meeting is my premier annual professional development and networking event. It has been for nine of the past fourteen years. So I grimaced a bit at the answer a colleague gave when I asked him about the conference: it was one of the best he had ever attended. (I saw similar comments in Twitter feeds as I followed the proceedings from a distance.) I was not a happy camper. But I made my choice in not attending, one that I didn’t regret, and will live to attend another RBMS gathering. (We’re the host for next year’s event, so it shouldn’t be an issue.) The decision not to attend is one of many made over the last three decades. Some decisions were easy to make, or were taken completely out of my hands by factors such as lack of funds, time, or competing—and relatively more important—events. The remaining decisions meant weighing priorities and options. Perhaps it has taken thirty years to realize this (I can be slow at times), but most of those priorities and options fall into one of these categories: community, faith, family, health, or vocation. These are my categories; you may (and should) have your own. I urge you to construct such a list. Life is more satisfying when the categories are clear and the priorities in order.
It was not always the case with me. It was easy, for instance, when I lived two blocks from work to come home after a full day, wolf down some supper, engage in some quick conversation with my spouse (and later my family), and then head back to the office for another three or four hours of work. And it was easy to work at home, sequestered at my desk (or dining room table) on an urgent project, oblivious to all around me. (The examples could go on—I’m not going to beat myself up—but you get the idea.) At some point in my career work was everything. It was how I defined myself and my relationship to the profession. But I was wrong; my priorities were out of order.
One of my favorite television shows of all time is “The West Wing.” In a first season episode entitled “Five Votes Down” there is a scene between Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and his wife, Jenny. Leo, forgetting his wedding anniversary, tries to make amends by arranging a special dinner at home, one that he misses due to a late night at the White House. He tries to explain the situation: “This is the most important thing I'll ever do, Jenny. I have to do it well.” Jenny responds, “It's not more important than your marriage.” To which Leo emphatically counters: “It is more important than my marriage right now. These few years, while I'm doing this, yes, it's more important than my marriage. I... I didn't decide to do this myself, Jenny. There were many discussions.... I'm five votes down, Jenny! And I need to win....” In the end Jenny leaves; the marriage is at an end. Leo’s priorities, from my perspective, were out of whack.
I never forgot an anniversary, but I didn’t always make time for things that were most needful. Priorities need to be clear and in the right order. In my case faith, family and health take precedence over everything else. It was not any easy lesson, but it is my own; you’ll find your own balance. My sister and her family were on vacation, visiting home the same week that RBMS was scheduled. For me, finally, it was a “no-brainer” decision to be here with them.

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