The Spill

When I was a kid, I spilled everything. Liquids were my particular specialty, but my clumsiness knew no bounds. If it could splatter, then I could spill it.

Nowadays I take especial care to not let my butter fingers wreak havoc, and I navigate my surroundings less like a bull in a china shop. I’m more like a well-meaning giraffe in a china shop – I still knock things over, but I’m much more ginger and apologetic about it.  I have also stockpiled an arsenal of excuses so that, when I do spill something, I am prepared to explain why it was absolutely and without a shadow of doubt not my fault. I’m not sure how compelling Paul finds my “explanations” for the avalanche of granulated sugar cascading down to the kitchen floor or the pea soup oozing its way across the stove, but I am confident that my powers of persuasion will only improve with practice.

Truth be told, most of my “adult spills” occur because, despite my best intentions, I have a tendency to make my way around our cubicle-sized kitchen like an awkward oaf. They are small-scale disasters of which I am the sole perpetrator, and they signify nothing more than my regrettable lack of common sense.

Sometimes, though, the universe seems to take a cue from Hollywood and try its hand at a little dark metaphor. And as it turns out, the universe has a particular fondness for the symbolic potential of “the spill.”

On Tuesday morning, I dragged myself to campus after a positively miserable start to the week. I had spent a fitful night trying–and failing–to snag a few hours of sleep before my alarm summoned me at an ungodly hour to finish my lesson plans. When I staggered into my university’s coffee shop, I was feeling particularly weighed down by discouragement. And I was just tired – so, so tired. I ordered my usual: a grande mocha with an extra shot of espresso (I was lately shamed by a barista for ordering a flavored coffee – but, mercifully, it was not the one who took my order on Tuesday. I could not finish my dissertation if I was banned from the college coffee shop). Carefully–really, I mean it–I brought my steaming hot beverage over to the counter so that I could cover it with a lid.

Now, humor me for a moment while I tell you a bit about the coffee lids provided at the university coffee shop: they suck. You could construct a better, and less flimsy, coffee lid from a Dixie cup. They also barely fit around the circumference of the top of the to-go cup and thus require extremely delicate application. The slightest slip of the finger would result in a caffeine catastrophe. (The takeaway point? None of what follows was in any way my fault.)

I’ve been aware of the hazards surrounding coffee lid application since I began patronizing this particular establishment and, thus far, have largely avoided any mishaps. But as I have already intimated, the universe was feeling cinematic on Tuesday. “Universe,” it asked itself, “What frequently happens in a movie montage when someone is having a bad day?” The Universe paused to reflect, as a downtrodden Rachel fumbled with the coffee lids. But before long, inspiration struck. “Aha! In movies, when people are having a bad day, they…they…USUALLY SPILL THEIR COFFEE ALL OVER THEMSELVES! That gag NEVER gets old!”

And so, once I pressed the sides of my lid over the lip of my cup, the moment transformed into one of dark poetry, and I became the saddest of clichés. Before I had any opportunity to react, the lid popped off of my coffee cup, and the cup, filled to the brim, bounced off the counter and onto me. I was drenched in piping hot mocha latte from neck to foot.  The flood of self-pity and frustration coursing within me paralleled, in the most hackneyed, symbolic fashion, the coffee streaming down my person. A puddle formed rapidly at my feet as I stood, frozen with shock.

For a moment, I thought I might burst into tears. At 11 a.m. it seemed that it was already time to give up on Tuesday. I was now wearing the extra shot of espresso that I had so desperately needed, and, judging from the way my skin was tingling, a first degree burn did not seem out of the realm of possibilities. After alerting a barista to the coffee explosion (which, let’s be honest, had impacted me more than the coffee shop floor), I hightailed it to the restroom to bathe in the sink. I taught my class wearing a drenched-to-the-point-of-dripping cardigan, tank top, and jeans – like a timid contestant in a wet tee-shirt contest (or, as a friend called it, a wet cardigan contest). I explained the circumstances that had led to my soggy, disheveled state, likely solidifying any inklings my students may have had that I am a real-life incarnation of Liz Lemon.

And then, my class went well. My students had great insights about the novel we are reading, and I remembered that I am a good teacher. And I realized that, while I was soaked and sticky and smelled of wet wool and coffee, what had happened was actually pretty hilarious. I even felt slightly grateful for the absurdist climax to what had been a particularly unpleasant twenty-four hours and an aggravating several weeks. It seemed like a rather heavy-handed sign that I was taking everything way too seriously and needed to lighten the heck up. When it comes to setbacks and disappointments, that is not easy for me to do. It can be hard to shake the feeling that each time I try for something–anything–I am inviting a tidal wave of rejection to wash me away in waves of humiliation and frustration. But at the same time, I am so much stronger than I was when I began graduate school, and I will become stronger still. If nothing else, it helps to know that sometimes the world is a ridiculous and stupid place – a place where freak coffee accidents lead to teaching Stone Butch Blues while standing in a puddle of coffee-tinted water.

It’s a healthy little reminder that not everything is about me.

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This is the Academia I Want

This evening, I read a wonderful blog post called “It’s Not on the Syllabus: Cultivating Collegiality as a Graduate Student.” If you’re an academic or considering pursuing an academic life, I strongly urge you to read it. The author is Melissa Ridley Elmes, a doctoral student in English and Women’s and Gender Studies.

(Link: http://melissaridleyelmes.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/its-not-on-the-syllabus-cultivating-collegiality-as-a-graduate-student/)

Ridley Elmes makes a number of brilliant remarks over the course of her piece, but one that really sticks is her assertion that academic conferences should be safe spaces. I want to take this even further and argue that academia should, in all of its different facets, be a safe space. I do not, of course, mean that academia should cease to be a venue for provocation, intellectual stimulation, and debate. But it should be a space where we can share–and challenge–ideas without diminishing one another.

As is probably evident by the above, Ridley Elmes has inspired me to do a bit of thinking about the academic world that I would like to see. I pointedly do not refer to this as my “ideal” academia. All that I want–and hope for–is attainable if we navigate the field with empathy and intellectual generosity as guiding principles.

So, without further ado, here are some key aspects of The Academia I Want:

1. I want an academia where expressing vulnerability does not come at the cost of seeming less professional or competent. (I wrote about this topic briefly in my BWD post: https://positiveandpromise.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/the-bwd/)

2. I want an academia where we are encouraged–and encourage each other–to live varied and full lives.

3. As such, I want an academia where we support parents–especially mothers–who are striving to both raise a family and succeed in the field.

4. I want an academia that is aware, as Ian McEwan writes in Atonement, that we are all every bit as real as each another. Behind a professional demeanor there is always, always a vibrant and complex inner life. Behind a professional demeanor there is often suffering. When we remember these things, I believe that we are kinder to one another.

5. I want an academia that WANTS to be guided by kindness.

6. I want an academia where we discuss our ideas more than we discuss departmental gossip or politics.

7. I want an academia where the humanities are valued and supported financially. (Okay, here I might be drifting into idealism…unfortunately.)

8. I want an academia where our pedagogy is shaped by feminism.

9. Hell, I want a feminist, sex-positive, queer-friendly, diverse academia.

10. I want an academia where we are comfortable sharing in the successes of others because we are not encouraged, however implicitly, to compare ourselves to one another.

11. I want an academia that is always mindful of the ways it can shape the world at large and eager to do exactly that. We can all of us be activists – and we should be.

In composing this list, I do not mean to say that all of these things are currently nonexistent in the academic world. I am fortunate to know so many kind-hearted and intellectually generous people, both within and outside of my field. I know people who fight actively for animal rights, and others who inspire me as working mothers. I am a fortunate woman if I can make a career in a field where so many brilliant, warm, and charitable people exist.

But we can do better. I can do better. And as I work on my dissertation and think more concretely about the sort of life I want as a professional–a life that includes being a mother and a creative writer as well as an academic–I feel a greater urgency to help reshape academia’s less collegial dimensions. It is doable, of that I am certain. I hope that readers will respond in the comments with their thoughts on this topic. What sort of academia do you want?

Back Because of a Bang

So, I’m back.

Like every other aspiring writer with an internet connection, I firmly resolved that 2014 would be a productive blogging year for me. I also resolved to make good headway on my dissertation, which just so happens to be the reason why blogging fell by the wayside for the remainder of 2013. Hopefully I can budget my time in such a way that I am able to write for pleasure more frequently this semester. I do not want to suggest that there is no pleasure in writing a dissertation – if there was not, I would not do it. But it is work, and once you label something “work,” it inevitably becomes that thing you HAVE to do every day, even if you enjoy it. And the thing you have to do can take extraordinary amounts of time and energy. Example: How did the process of writing one sentence–ONE–become so intellectually, emotionally, and physically taxing? Jeezy Creezy. I have nearly finished my first chapter, though, so my hope is that as I get the hang of this dissertating business (to the extent that one can, anyway), I will be able to devote more time to the blogosphere.

But, to be honest, I did not originally plan to return to Positive and Promise tonight. The day’s events prompted me to do it, in part due to the BWD situation that resulted. Late this morning, there was a shoot-out directly outside of my apartment.

No one was hurt, thank goodness, and no stray bullets hit the apartment. It was, however, terrifying. Paul was at work, so I was alone with the cat (who, while frightened of well-meaning, cooing visitors, is apparently immune to the sound of gunfire ripping through the air). I learned from my downstairs neighbor that, for as long as he can remember, there has been some sort of turf war between two local groups, and drugs are likely involved. Lately I had noticed a little graffiti across the street that suggested some sort of extant dispute, but I didn’t think much of it. As it turns out, that graffiti–completed by two different people, each representing a different group–may very well have been evidence of the turmoil that led to today’s near-catastrophe. The shoot-out was so close that it is a mercy no stray bullets flew through my downstairs neighbor’s window – the window he sits behind almost all day (he is wheelchair-bound). And while the altercation occurred a couple of hours after Paul left for work, I still…well, I can’t even finish this sentence.

So, needless to say, I have not been a paragon of productivity today. Paul came home from work early because I was so distressed, and we discussed whether or not we will remain in this neighborhood. We are not sure right now. Frankly, two graduate students have to go where the rent is cheap, and because neither of us own a car, we rely on public transportation. A one-bedroom apartment walking distance from a metro stop in a decent neighborhood? In this area, that would cost more than what one of us makes in a month. Obviously this is a matter that will require far more discussion and, if we do decide to move, some significant budgeting to boot. Furthermore–and as will become clearer–I have mixed feelings about leaving a neighborhood that has become special to me, in spite of the caution required to live here.

Before Paul returned home, I occupied myself by searching through various news sources, to see if anything had been posted about the shoot-out. Nothing. I wasn’t surprised, especially since there apparently had not been any injuries. But since the event occurred in broad daylight, I thought that it may have piqued the interest of a local reporter. However, I did find tucked deep into the online crevices of the Washington Post, a brief article about an 18 year old boy who had been shot and killed recently. He lived nearby. In 2014, there has apparently been one other, relatively local homicide, and a stabbing that resulted in critical injuries. I would not have discovered this information if I had not been looking–carefully–for articles on violence in South DC. And I am nearly positive that there will be no article on the shoot-out in tomorrow’s paper.

Paul and I live in a historically black area, and most of our neighbors are lower-income. And, for the most part, it is a happy, close-knit community – one that we have come to love. Some of our bus drivers live nearby – they pick up their children from the local elementary school during their shifts, chat with them about their days, and deposit them at a family member’s house en route. Our downstairs neighbors immediately took us under their wings, providing us with safety tips and, during the holidays, stuffing us with cookies. A warm, sunny day means cookouts on every corner – and that we’ll be listening to Marvin Gaye at full volume, well past nine p.m. (we do not always love this, although it is endearing). One of the little girls two doors down initiated a routine where, upon seeing “Mr. Paul,” she curtsies and he, in turn, bows to her. Ninety-five percent of the time, I end each day perfectly content to live in a cozy apartment, surrounded by friendly neighbors.

But today, after the shoot-out–and after I did a little reading around on the Washington Post–I was reminded of a truth as dismal as the above paragraph is precious. We do live near the most violent section of Washington D.C., not far from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country. Lives end frequently around here – generally young, black lives. To some degree, everyone in the DC area knows what happens “over here.” None of it is considered newsworthy because it is expected. In Precarious Life, Judith Butler writes about the difference between lives perceived as valuable and those that are deemed–consciously or not–expendable. She emphasizes that this is a global trend, but we also see its effects locally in a deeply profound way. When we do not recognize the violence inflicted upon black bodies, the socioeconomic circumstances that perpetuate cycles of violence and pain, we endorse a hierarchical system that privileges some lives over others.  I do not pretend to know what we can do in order to ensure more visibility for people of color in DC. And living in this neighborhood does not affect an ounce of my privilege. But I cannot tolerate a world where any life is regarded as expendable, and I am determined to find a way to do something, however small, to help this–my–neighborhood.

The BWD

It really pisses me off that I am capable of writing this blog post right now.

Why? Because I spent the better part of today staring at Scrivener, attempting to eke out one, maybe two paragraphs of my dissertation. And after much gnashing of teeth, En Vogue singles, and superfluous hydration, I was indeed able to wring out a few sentences. I’m not going to venture a guess at the word count because that would just depress me – and, besides, I suspect that much of what I produced today will, at some point, be deleted. I am not being self-deprecating — well, not entirely. Today was a Bad Writing Day (BWD, henceforth), one of those days when producing words felt like traveling through a birth canal lined with sandpaper. And when one is caught in a BWD, it can be difficult to claw one’s way into the greener pastures of the Good Writing Day (GWD, henceforth). For example: On a GWD, music helps me to maintain a rhythm as I think, write, and revise. Today it distracted me and induced YouTube cravings. Another example: On a GWD, I might pause to reread what I have already written for inspiration. Today I was this close to deleting all thirty-five pages of Rachel’s Disparate Thoughts on the Jerkface Narrator of Vanity Fair (Thackeray’s full name to be included in the actual chapter title).

So here I sit — writing, because it feels good to produce words, but simultaneously angry because these are not the words I want to produce right now. One of the reasons I decided to begin blogging was because I thought it might somehow be academically productive to stretch my non-academic writing muscles. Perhaps that will prove to be the case. But I also firmly believe in writers’ solidarity, and, for me, part of what marks that solidarity is the willingness to say when writing has not gone well – when one has had been caught in the sticky mire of a BWD.

Performing competence–even when it is very much a performance–is something that any professional must do. (As a Professional Student, I assume I can generalize here because it seems a safe generalization to make.) If I did not think that I could survive a day in academia without dissolving into tears, then I would hopefully choose another profession. But for genuine collegiality in any field, I believe that people must be willing to share their experiences of incompetence, too. We have to be willing to admit when we have been blindsided by a BWD, or even trapped in a cycle of the nasty buggers. We are professionals, but we are humans first. Our work typically feels more pleasurable and rewarding when we speak about its progress–or lack thereof–with candor.

To be clear, I do not believe that everyone, everywhere, should publicly announce, “I really sucked today!” every time s/he feels that has been the case. However, I do think we form stronger communities when we can admit vulnerability. I have always known that I could never exist in a profession where I was denied such a community, one with open-hearted support and honest intimacy. And I–along with everyone who has ever had to write a single paragraph–know all too well the isolating, desperate feeling of so-called writer’s block. As far as I am concerned, there can never be too many balms for that feeling, whatever forms they may take.

After I gave up dissertation writing for the day, I exchanged a few messages with a friend who is further along in her writing. “Tell me I am supposed to feel like an idiot,” I pleaded with her. A few hours later, I realize that we are not “supposed” to feel like anything – we simply do or we don’t. But I have discussed dissertation writing with enough seasoned veterans to know that BWDs, and all the feelings of shame, despair, and isolation that accompany them, are by no means rare among our population. I will not let today hold me back–nor will I let any future BWDs prevent me from pursuing the work I love so dearly. But I will openly claim this day, just in case anyone now, or in the future, could benefit from the sense of solidarity that comes from shared, frustrating experiences.

Today was a Bad Writing Day. My ideas felt stale. My writing felt forced. And while a BWD does not necessarily mean “bad” writing, what I wrote today might not make the final cut. But I have to write through the BWDs to reach the GWDs. Those days will be there too – it just might take a few hundred crappy words to reach them.