Goodbye to All That

I slipped into a funk about my writing, especially about writing a book that no longer had a home, and about my life more generally. I decided that I hated writing, even as I continued to write columns, personal essays, pitches, and blog posts. I wrote and wrote and wrote. So maybe I didn’t hate writing; I just hated this manuscript and way it made me feel like an academic failure. I couldn’t get a tenure-track job, and I couldn’t finish a project I had started almost three years ago. What was wrong with me? I kept the cancelled contract in my desk as a reminder of this particular failure, but the mere thought of it left me teary-eyed. I decided to ignore both the manuscript and the returned advance.

I thought I was over beating myself up about my exit from academia. Apparently I wasn’t.

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Out for Coffee

“Coffee. Mama coffee. Hot. Burn baby,” my toddler says to me while pointing at my plain white mug. “Mama’s coffee,” I respond with a smile. He often pretends to drink coffee from his older sister’s pink Barbie mugs. My almost-two-year-old associates me with hugs, kisses, cuddles, and coffee. This is not a surprise really, because I always seem to have a cup of coffee in my hands. Coffee is an intimate part of our daily life, a constant presence. Drinking this beverage is my ritual to get through the day. Coffee offers me some comfort, no matter what the day might bring.

I read a couple of years ago that the appeal of coffee might not be caffeine, but rather the warm mug. Psychologically, the warmth comforts us; the caffeine emerges as an added bonus. When I read the study, I was drinking a cup of coffee, the fingers of my left hand wrapped around my ceramic mug as I read the article on my laptop. Scroll with the right hand. Clutch my coffee with my left hand. My need for the sensation of warmth is the reason I despise travel mugs. Their cool exterior tricks me into believing my drink is also cool. I burn my tongue. The travel mug deceives me while the ceramic mug holds truth.

In turmoil and chaos, I turn to a cup of joe.

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TinyLetter

I started a TinyLetter in June. I’ve written two letters so far. I imagined that I might write a letter weekly, but my imaginings don’t often sit well with the reality of day-to-day life. Part of my slowness to write these letters is to figure out how they are different or similar from my other writing. I’m not sure I have a good sense of whether TinyLetters are a particular genre or not, so I’m treating them as tiny personal essays about two topics that dominate my thinking (and writing), bodies and books.

I’m writing to you, dear readers, because I want to write more and think more about bodies and books. Also, I would love for you to write back. Let’s have a conversation. Some of you have already written to me. Thank you.

For those of who haven’t subscribed, here are excerpts from my first two letters. I hope you’ll let me write to you too.

My first letter is on writing, motherhood, and Rebecca Solnit’s Faraway and Nearby:

When I first started reading The Faraway Nearby, I adored it. I read the book while I was still rocking my youngest to sleep for two naps a day. While he snuggled close, I followed along as Solnit pondered apricots, fairy tales, leprosy, Che, Frankenstein, ice, memories, empathy, and family. My eyes strained in dimly lit nursery. My Kindle glowed illuminating his chubby face and balled fists. I was drawn to Solnit because of her essay that spurred discussions of mansplaining. I hoped to mimic the lovely intermingling of personal essay and researched explanations. The baby nursed; I read. The close proximity of motherhood and writer’s aspirations felt meaningful. I could only read about writing while he slept. I could only write while my oldest was at preschool. I was pulled into two different directions, motherhood and writing. The tension felt distinct and inescapable. 

My second letter is about my anxiety about parenting and my attempts to let my children become who they want to be:

On the drive home, fear punched me in the gut. I just agreed to let my six-year-old go to the beach without me. I imagined everything that could go wrong in intimate detail. Sunburn. Drowning. Car accident. Drowning. Jellyfish stings. Drowning. My breathing became shallow, my stomach bottomed out, and tears rolled down my cheeks. Chris could tell something was wrong,  but, I couldn’t speak without making my sobbing obvious to our kids in the backseat. I took a deep breath and tried to reign in my panic.

What if something bad happened to her?

Here’s the link to subscribe. A new letter is coming soon.

 

Catalog of Wounds

Fever
Sore Throat
Rash covers his face, arms, legs, and tummy.
Tears
“Nah” on repeat as he swings his arms wildly
More tears
Flinging himself on the ground in protest
To the doctor
“Rock baby,” he says, “rock baby”
He cuddles close.
“Mama, up! Up, Mama!”
Strep throat.

Fever
Sore Throat
“My tummy hurts,” she says, “and so does my head.”
She mumbles and forgets to pay attention.
“Can you hear me? Are you listening?”
Hearing loss
Everyone speaks louder and louder.
To the doctor (again)
The nurse washes the wax from her ear.
She cries quietly.
“Can I sit in your lap?,” she asks.
She climbs up and barely fits.
I refuse to recognize what this means.
Ear infection.

Dogs fight outside.
Gashes
Growling
Cuts and blood
The old dog limps.
To the vet
The young dog howls and whines.
Clean the wound.
Feel her leg.
The vet assures her leg is not broken.
Staples seal the wound.
The old returns home and promptly sleeps.

Sore throat
Headache
Tears
Anxiety
Stomach ache
Fatigue
Worry
I catalog the wounds of our week:
Bumps, bruises, bug bites, scraps
Aches, pains, and general distress.
Gashes, infections, and viruses.

Their bodies heal.
My children play.
I give motherhood a chance for one more day.

Gendering Brilliance

Writing specifically about merit and gender in academia, Linda A. Krefting, a professor of business at Texas Tech University, notes that stereotypes of women often “put competence and likeability in opposition.” What happens, then, is that competence appears as a problem for women, but not for men. Being too competent is coded as aggressive and assertive while appearing too feminine becomes a marker of incompetence.

Joan C. Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work and a law professor at the University of California at Hastings, describes that same phenomenon as “the tightrope” that working women have to navigate. It is a pattern of bias, in which women who appear and act too feminine are judged incompetent but women who appear and act too masculine are judged as lacking necessary social skills for the workplace. In particular, academia prizes brilliance and originality. For men, assertiveness can signal brilliance and confidence in one’s work. When women act assertive, we’re not brilliant, we are just bossy or lack social skills.

When I talked to Joan last year about her book, she specifically mentioned the gendered nature of “brilliance” in academia. She asked me, “How can you [a woman] be brilliant, deferential, and nice?” I admitted that I never mastered all three simultaneously.

How can academic women meet traditional gender norms in the workplace while also taking pride in our work, promoting our accomplishments, and showcasing our original scholarship? To be more blunt: Can academic women ever appear “brilliant” if that term — used to showcase high-level intelligence — is understood as a masculine trait?

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