Category Archives: Musings

Heidelberg 112

Haunted

Are we all haunted?

My paternal grandparents lost their middle son, Carl, in a car accident. He was almost 20. His car collided with a parked semi truck. He died. My other uncle,  Stevie, walked away from the accident physically unharmed. I can’t speak to other harms. We never talked about it, and he died seven years ago. This tragedy came to define my father’s family. His death was a gaping wound. Sometimes, woundedness bound them together, but this loss also distanced them from one another in particularly intimate ways. Their mutual pain became distinct and separate. His absence made him even more present.

His death became a reminder of the tenuousness of life and the finality of death. He haunted them, and later, the rest of us.

I never met Carl because he died almost three years before I was born. Yet, he lingered. I was told throughout my childhood that I was like him. This was not necessarily a compliment, more often it was an accusation tossed out in anger. I learned that Carl was funny and warm, but also willful and determined. He didn’t follow the path dictated by my grandparents, and they wanted us all to follow their rules. He challenged them. I challenged them years later. I often wonder if they loved him more because of his refusal to bend while I am pretty sure that they loved me less.

The story of his life was often avoided. My mother, who divorced my father when I was three, was more apt to talk about Carl. She loved him like a brother. He brought her joy. The story of his death came to me in hushed whispers, eavesdropping, and conversation with my mom.

Here’s what I can piece together. Before the accident, Carl and my father had a shouting match about Carl’s (reckless) driving. My father vowed to never ride with Carl again, and he never got the chance. Those last words spoken in anger haunted him. When my father was depressed, he would say that he should have been the one to die. Nobody, he told me, would miss him. Carl was the favorite, he explained, as if that explained anything. The stark pain of his words have stuck with me. His anguish was visceral.

As a child, I became accustomed to the seesawing of his moods. Hyper happiness interspersed with bitter depression. After determining the mood, I altered my approach to him. When he declared he should have died, I told him how much I loved him. I was convinced that if only I loved him more, maybe he would not say such things. When he would let me, I hugged him while he cried. As an adult, I realize no amount of love would have cured what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder. As a child, I had to try.

In those painful moments, I imagined what things would be like if Carl were still alive. His pencilled portrait graced the wall in my grandmother’s living room. I can barely remember what he looked like in the portrait. He had shoulder-length hair and maybe a moustache. I’m irritated that memory fails me. I spent hours upon hours trying to decipher who he was in each pencil stroke. I stared and stared, waiting for some clue to who he was. No one would directly talk about him, and I was too reluctant to ask.

The pain scabbed over the wound, and it was best not to pick at it.

Instead, I imagined my dead uncle and how he would fit into our wounded family. Would he like me? Would I like him? Would my father be happy? Would my grandmother be less rigid and demanding? Perhaps, I would fit in. On the bad days, I thought Carl would have rescued me from the moods and my desperate attempts to fix the someone who I couldn’t fix. As a child, I hoped someone would step in and save me.

I will never know how life might have been different if Carl survived that wreck.

I grew up and became older than he ever could be. I walked away from my father’s family to save myself. Some wounds never heal. Some hurts become unbearable. I like to think that Carl would comprehend my decision, but I also know it doesn’t really matter.

 

pretty-in-pink-1

Pretty

This is a piece that I wrote over nine months ago that I hesitated on publishing. Reading over this morning, I am not sure why I was hesitant or what stopped me from clicking the publish button. I’ve lightly revised, but here it is.

“Pretty”

Pretty (adj): attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful or handsome.

It all started with a decision about a new pair of glasses. I narrowed my choices down to two frames: one roundish, large, and delicate and the other square and academic. I fell in love with the round ones. They are bigger than my current pair and decidedly retro. These frames seemed like a new start. A new way to communicate my transition from academic to whatever I want to be. These sartorial choice was a move in the right direction, so that my style reflected my attempts to get beyond me as academic. Plus, my five-year old enthusiastically loved them because of the color combination of warm brown and russet red.

Following the advice of Warby Parker, I posted a picture on Facebook to get “necessary” feedback from others. Most commenters liked them, but one of my friends noted that I was ‘too cute” for these frames.

My confidence deflated. What if these glasses made me look bad? What if I wasn’t pretty in them? I tried on the frames again and again. I polled my husband, my daughter, and my sisters via text. I liked, maybe even loved, the frames, but I worried about my appearence. What would others think?

And then I got angry. At myself. Why did I even care about what someone would think about frames? I’m the one who had to wear the damn glasses. Why did I care? If I liked the way I looked, why did anything else matter?

I’d fallen into a trap that I often set about my looks. I don’t want to be pretty until I do. My relationship with pretty is contentious at best.

I’ll be the first to note that I suck at a certain type of traditional white femininity. I have a pixie cut and visible tattoos. I switch back and forth between my glasses and my contacts.  I rock skull earrings and a smirk. I’m more comfortable in jeans, boots, or flipflops than I ever am in skirts and heels. I wear some make-up (eyeliner is required) and paint my nails (often black). The best I can hope for is cute, but I’ve been told that my “attitude” sometimes gets in the way.

Me and pretty don’t abide one another. We never have. Partially because I bought into the cultural claptrap about how girls and women have to choose smart or pretty. I can handle smart. Beauty is another thing entirely. I know this is a false choice. Yet, I still judge myself by standards of beauty that I detest. I harshly catalog my appearance dwelling on ever-shifting flaws. As a teenager, I hated my nose. I would examine it in the mirror and dwell on its ugliness. Now, my nose doesn’t bother me at all, but I’ve found new “flaws” that bug me.

Why can’t I love how I look? Love seems to far out of reach. I would settle for appreciation or an apprehensive truce.

Much of my body policing, of course, will be familiar to most women. From an early age, we learn to critique ourselves. We become our own worst critics because our bodies matter so much. Cultural value weighs on our flesh and our minds.

I bought the glasses I liked. I wear them well. This is one of my many attempts to come to terms with my body and appreciate it. I want my daughter to be comfortable in her own skin. I can’t teach her that unless I learn to do it as well.

zombie

#Day2014

This week, I had the pleasure of giving the second annual Day Lecture at the University of Alabama. The Department of Religious Studies hosts a lecture on religion and popular culture in memory of Zachary Daniel Day, a former student who died unexpectedly at the young age of 26.  His father, Charles Day, and stepmother, Nancy Campbell, established the fund that supports the Day Lecture. I met Charles, Nancy, and Zach’s sister, Ashley.  I learned that Zach was a fan of zombies.  I’m not a fan, but I hope my analysis of zombies would have interested him.

My lecture was on zombies in American pop culture, particularly Night of the Living DeadThe Walking DeadWarm Bodies, and The Reapers are the Angels, as a way to think about ethics, violence, and the construction of humanity. Any chance to talk zombies is a chance I take. Mike Altman (and others ) live tweeted the lecture under #Day2014, and he created a really cool Storify if you want to see what I had to say about these monsters and their discontents. The University of Alabama’s student paper, The Crimson White, covered the event. There’s even an action shot documenting how I always talk with my hands. All in all, I thought the talk went well. Students raised good questions, and I managed to not run into a podium or trip over my own feet (sometimes it is about the small victories).

The lecture, however, was only part of my trip.  I visited classes to discuss topics ranging from blogging and online writing to gender and horror, met with majors over lunch to talk about apocalypticism, conspiracy theory, and campus events, and chatted with faculty formally and informally about my transition from academic to freelance writer, contingent labor, and the academic job market. There was much to say about zombies (there always is), but there was also much to say about my transition and how I understand my writing.

When Russell McCutcheon, the chair of the department,  first approached me about the lecture, I wasn’t entirely sure  that a former academic was the best choice. This was my unvoiced concern and my impoverished definition of academic. Yes, I was working on a book on zombies. Yes, I think and write about religion and popular culture. Yet, I wasn’t sure that I was still an academic, and I felt squeamish about participating in anything reminiscent of my former life.This is rather silly when you stop to think about it.

I’m still a scholar; I’m just not in academia. The context has changed, but I haven’t. Why should I let myself be bogged down by limiting cultural expectations? I shouldn’t, but sometimes I do.

And now, I am so glad that I didn’t.

My lecture was FUN. Preparing for it revived (pun!) my interest in my zombie manuscript and helped me think about what is really at stake in this type of project. Talking about zombies with the faculty clarified what I want to do, what I need to do, and what I haven’t done yet. Moreover, explaining how I view my academic writing versus my online writing gave me much to think and write about.

This Department of Religious Studies is one of the best I’ve ever encountered. The faculty are engaged with students, with their research, and with each other. They are encouraging and gracious, and they are so very smart. I learned something in each conversation, and I hope they can say the same. This department made me wish for something I thought I might never want again, an academic job. If I had ever interviewed at a department like this, I would have taken a job in a heartbeat.  Importantly, I would have had a very different impression of the job market and Religious Studies departments more generally.

If you are ever invited to visit with this department, you have to say yes. Thank you Merinda Simmons, Sarah Rollens, Eleanor Finnegan, Mike Altman, Russell McCutcheon, Steve Ramey, and Ted Trost for the conversations, coffee, meals, and time well spent.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Joan Didion in front of car, 1972, Julian Wasser.

Self-Respect

“I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire with no crucifix in hand,” Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect,” 1961.

Recently, I had a low week (which turned into weeks), in which every bad decision, failing, and the general wrong turns weighed upon me. I was left unhappy, brittle, and shaken. In truth, these days/weeks come less frequently than they once did. After a year away from academia, I’m no longer constantly plagued by self-doubt and anxiety. They exist as a low hum rather than a blaring radio. I still doubt myself, but I’m mostly content. I’m not quite fearless, but I am less afraid.

I recognized this bad mood as it settled upon me. I even knew why it occurred. Yet that profound feeling of not liking one’s self lingered. It was a discomforting moment where I evaluated my life and my person. The only thing to find was shortcomings, doubt, and unease. I became angry at myself for giving into the existential funk. I know intellectually that my life contains much good and happiness, but it is hard to find my way to it once the funk sets in. My mood runs dark, and my confidence dissipates. Unruly affect trumps intellect every time.

Instead of mentally reciting all of my failings, I picked up Joan Didion’s short essay, “On Self-Respect.” I’ve read and reread it many times. Notes scrawl in the margins. Passages underlined in blue and black dominate the page. Didion’s prose is unflinching and brutal. Her stark honesty appeals to me. Her words pierce polite niceties as she forces to think about what happens when we face ourselves. “Innocence ends,” she writes, “when one is stripped of the delusion of liking one’s self” (142). What happens to us when we confront who we are not who we imagine ourselves to be? What are we left with when we inspect ourselves without the benefit of rosy visions but stark assessment? This moment when delusion dissipates is when she “lost the conviction that the lights would always turn green for me” (143).

Self-deception proves difficult. Didion explains:

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others–who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without (143).

To lack self-respect, then, is to be subject to “an interminable documentary” of one’s failures (144). Failures emerge as our constant companions, and we stake our worth on fickle reputations and mercurial approval of others. This is no way to live.  Didion relies upon a phrase that dominated my childhood: “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”  While adults wield the phrase as explanation for punishment, Didion notes that the only way to sleep in that bed is to have self-respect, which is our reconciliation with ourselves.  Accepting responsibility for one’s own life is the first step to self-respect (145).

Didion convinces me that self-respect is not something we have or don’t have, but rather it is habit that we can develop through practice. We can train ourselves to recognize our intrinsic worth. It becomes discipline. Self worth gives us the ability “to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent” (147). We abandon those debilitating notions of self that rely solely on the opinions of others. The goal is “to give us back to ourselves” (148).

I find myself working at the habit of self-respect, trying to ignore the notions of who I am that others cling to and trying to find who exactly is inhabiting the bed I made. This process isn’t easy as much of my self-worth has been defined externally by the lines on my CV, the list of accomplishments I could point to, and the desire for people to be proud of me.

When the CV no longer mattered and the accomplishments have no currency outside of academia, I found myself lacking. I craved the external validation that I was used to. I was disquieted by the person I’d become.

In “Bathroom Sink,” Miranda Lambert captures how I feel (like she so often does):

It’s amazing the amount of rejection that I see
In my reflection and I can’t get out of the way
I’m lookin’ forward to the girl I wanna be
But regret has a way of starin’ me right in the face
So I try not to waste too much time at the bathroom sink

Here’s the thing: I’m tired of dodging the bathroom mirror. I’m tired of rejection and regret. I’m tired of judging myself by the standards of other people. I’m tired of my happiness being tied to what I have or haven’t accomplished. I’m done with the profound sense of failure that creeps up on me in my quiet moments.

I’m building my habit of self-respect, so doubts annoy me, not paralyze me. The lights might not turn green, but that doesn’t mean that they are always red either. I’m learning to sleep well in the bed I’ve made because it is mine alone.

 

Power of Words

On Writing and Selling Out

“Writers are always selling somebody out,” Joan Didion explains in the opening pages of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. These words clawed at me days after reading them in December. Now months later, the words still scratch at me when I begin to write.

Didion’s words give me pause as I start new columns and projects. Do writers, implicitly or purposefully, sell out those we write about? Do we craft the stories of others for our own purposes whether it be fame, money, or bylines?

Didion’s insight could just as easily be applied to academic writing as well. Do academics sell out the people we research, analyze, and write? Sometimes, I fear that we do. When we turn people into our objects of study, we stake a claim about what kind of people are studied and what kind of people do the studying. Those demarcations contain judgment that makes me uneasy because I’m complicit too.

Writing is always our crafting of their stories; the author/scholar decides what becomes significant, what we need to learn, and what is valuable.  I, then, wonder about writing’s relationship with the telling the truth. With journalism, there’s an assumption of “just the facts, Ma’am” as a method to truth (of which I’m skeptical). Non-fiction writing seems to be about making the best of narratives that we are given. Familiar stories surface. They are repeated and sometimes contested. Certain narrative rhythms catch our attentions. They lull us into repetition, and repetition gives a ring of truth. Yet, we all lie too.

Who do we sell out?