dreams

(Non)Toxic Dreams

My most recent piece, The Hard Business of Letting Go, is more emotional than my other pieces. I dwell on what it is like to realize that a dream is dead. What happens when you are forced to let go and move on? How do you feel when you confront that hard truth? What if you no longer recognize yourself?

Here’s a sample:

 My dream to become a professor floated away, too, in the flurry of applications and the brutal realities of the job market. The career that I trained for appears more and more untenable day by day.

Applying for a job off the tenure track, then, felt like the death knell of my dream. I stalled, not because I am a coward, but because abandoning who you think you are going to be is hard. I’ve let the dream I haven’t achieved define me more than my accomplishments. That dream turned toxic, and it is time to let it go.

It hurt to write this piece because I had to own up to the fact that my career won’t be what I imagined. I have to find new dreams. The end. Onto the next column.

But,  an interesting thing happened when I posted the column on Facebook. One of my mentors, Martin Kavka, asked, “Are there such things as non-toxic dreams?” He continued:

I ask in some seriousness, and with a lot of trepidation.

I ask in seriousness because I suspect that the contingency of life means that all dreams will always be crushed. 

I ask with trepidation because I fear that my suspicion ends up functioning only as a way to occlude all the structural problems of academia…

Are there such things as non-toxic dreams?

Academia was my dream, but lately, I’m not sure that I was ever really suited for it. The pursuit of an academic career turned me into a strange, neurotic woman, whom I avoided in the mirror. Frantic, busy, tired, anxious, irritable, pessimistic, and depressed. I mastered my brave, public face. It appeared as if nothing bothered me, but everything did.

When I decided to take a year off, I sort of fell apart. I cut and dyed my hair over and over, as if changing my appearance would change my life. I vacillated between anger and sadness. Slowly, I started to feel better, as I realized that my failure as an academic had very little to do with me and mostly with structural constraints of the university. Most days I’m happy with my decision to move on. Some days I’m miserable. This dream was clearly toxic.

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2013: Year in Review

2013 was more eventful than other years. I won the Chancellor’s Award in Teaching Excellence, and then, I quit my job as a lecturer. My family moved to my home state of Florida. We bought a house. The Zombies Are Coming! was published in July (Listen to me talk zombies with Carol Howard Merritt and Derrick Weston of God Complex Radio.)

In August, my big girl started voluntary pre-Kindergarten. In September, I had a healthy baby boy. Just two days ago, I celebrated twelve years of marriage with my husband.

It was a big year.

I also started writing more, including a column for Chronicle Vitae. Here’s the list of my pieces that were published in 2013. I’m proud of all of them because they signal a move to try new things and maybe start a new career. I’ve listed them in chronological order.

1. Evil Religion? Then & Now, The Christian Century, May. It was sixth most read post for this column.

2. Can Brad Pitt save us from the (secular) apocalypse? Then & Now, The Christian Century, July. Pitt’s manscarf cannot distract from the reliance on yet another white savior.

3. Walking Dead and Zombie Ethics, Religion Dispatches, October. We save the world, bullet by bullet, and we feel fine.

4.  After Halloween, more zombies, Then & Now, The Christian Century, November. The zombies, they won’t go away, which is good for me but bad for the rest of you.

5. The zombie preppers among us, Washington Post’s On Faith, October. Some people believe that the zombie apocalypse could really happen, and I document zombie preppers.

6. My Post-Academic Grace Period, Chronicle Vitae, November. This is, hands down, my most important piece of the year followed closely by Not A “Real” Academic.

7. How to (Not) Avoid the Job Market, Chronicle Vitae, December. Ever wonder what the job market does to someone psychologically? I explain.

8. The Creepy Surveillance of Elf on the Shelf, Religion Dispatches, December. This was the funnest piece to write. Elves, even creepy ones, were a nice distraction from zombies.

elf

Elf Surveillance

Yesterday, Religion Dispatches posted my piece on Elf on the Shelf as a prelude to surveillance culture. Here’s an excerpt:

“I need to be good because of the elf that lives my room,” my five-year old explained.

“The what? Who lives where?” I ask.

“The elf that knows if I’m bad or good,” she replies.

 “There is no elf in your room,” I say.

“Yes, there is. He’s invisible,” she notes.

I sigh wearily.

I lost this argument, like many other Christmas-related debates in our household. When I told my daughter that Santa can’t fulfill every gift on her list, she declared that “he’s magic” as if that would solve the problem. Her imaginary elf is a version of The Elf on the Shelf, an androgynous, rosy-cheeked elf toy that monitors children as Christmas approaches. 

The elf emerged from The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition co-authored by mother and daughter, Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell. The book alone has sold over six million copies since it was released in 2005. The story presents a “scout elf,” who journeyed all the way from the North Pole to watch children to find out whether they are naughty or nice. The elf surveils children during the day to uncover bad behavior, then it returns to the North Pole every night to report back to jolly old St. Nick.

For $29.95, parents can purchase the book and toy to start a new tradition—it is available in light or dark-skinned varieties and accessories allow families to transform the elf into a boy or girl. There are two rules that govern children’s interaction with their elf. First, the elf is magic, and a child’s touch can compromise its ability to return and report—its enchantment disappears if a child touches it for any reason. Second, the elf cannot interact with children during the day because its role is to observe and listen. The creators, however, encourage children to talk to their elves—especially to share secrets. The elf can learn more about the children, the more they share. Telling the elf secrets seems to secure a space on the nice list.

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How to (Not) Avoid the Job Market

This post originally appeared at Chronicle Vitae on December 11th.

When I decided to take a year away from academia, one of my goals was to avoid the job market. For six years, fall was a time of anticipation and dread as I waited to see what jobs would be available. How many jobs this year? How many could I apply for? What were the application requirements? How would I balance teaching, research, and job applications? How much would I despise myself after I had all the rejections in hand?

I hated job season, but I couldn’t really hate it either. The drudgery of compiling applications, and the critical self-scrutiny that accompanied it, were tiresome, but applying was the only way to get an elusive tenure-track job. Thus, I prepared for the market by crafting (and recrafting) research and teaching statements, updating my CV, and writing letters for each position. These tasks took much time and effort.

Yet the most painful part of the process was asking recommenders for letters year after year. I tried to act confident and self-assured when I politely requested letters again and graciously accepted their assurances that this year (unlike other years) would be my year. I even garnered enough optimism to halfway believe them. That optimism required equal parts hope and delusion, and to muster those simultaneously took exhaustive amounts of mental and physical energy, without which I might not have applied to any jobs. With them, I faced sleepless nights and gut-wrenching anxiety. Hope and delusion pulled me through multiple job cycles. This cycle, however, was different because I was not “on the market.” I’d opted out.

When this fall rolled around, I felt no trepidation. I had no need to gird my optimism and stave off my anxiety. I did not have to look obsessively at the American Academy of Religion’s jobs site to see which new jobs were posted. I did not frantically search the H-Net job guide for some position that might be a good fit. I did not need to strategize with mentors about how best to showcase my talents to search committees.

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londonghost

Ghostly Matters

image_miniWe need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there–Avery Gordon

On a whim, I reread portions of Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination last week. I picked it up because I need convincing and cajoling. I needed someone to inspire me about research, scholarship, and revolutionary possibility. This is the book is one of a handful of books that inspires me about the academic craft; there are many, many more that make me dislike the academic craft as a whole. But, Gordon is enchanting as she conjures enchantment, haunting, and loss, both historical and personal. We are all haunted, and she demonstrates why this matters. She makes me imagine what scholarship could be like if only we let ourselves experiment more and worry less. She makes me feel that my scholarship can be valuable to our world by changing the way we look at people, things, systems, institutions, and culture. Her helping “hand” makes me want to ignore disciplinary boundaries and expectations. She provides a guide to writing in ways that conjure the past but also the historical present beyond linear narratives and obsession with dates. She inspires me to be a different scholar than the one I was trained to be.

To say that I love Ghostly Matters is too simple of an explanation; it feels like a trite attempt to describe my affection that doesn’t hint at the depth of my emotion. This book forever changed the way I view the responsibilities, ethics, and the craft of scholars, and Gordon’s encouragement leads me to think that scholarship can be something more than what we seem to limit ourselves to, if only we can take up her radical challenge. Maybe we could offer our helping hands to others to reimagine what we do and why we do it.

Gordon’s tangled path is littered by absence, seething and demanding attention. Absence of knowledge, history, and evidence unsettles and discomforts, but more importantly, points to structural inequalities, terrible histories, and the consequences of the capitalist system. Ghosts appear and reappear. They stalk us. We are haunted by those who suddenly become visible. They are unfinished business. Ghosts reminds us of past injustices and the need for future reckoning. History is haunted; we are haunted. Haunting becomes unavoidable; it tells us something important. Gordon writes that haunting is:

a paradigmatic way in which life is more complicated than those of us who study it have usually granted. Haunting is a constituent element of modern social life. It is neither premodern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import. To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it. This confrontation requires (or produces) a fundamental change in the way we know and make knowledge, in our mode of production (7).

“[L]ife is more complicated than those of us who study it have usually granted” is a sentiment that haunts me. This statement recognizes the sheer complexity of what we call life as well as the desire to fit the messiness of life into neat narratives that cleave away that what makes it the most fascinating. Life is more complicated than we have granted it and, possibly, too complex for us to easily explain (away).  What Gordon makes clear is that the common phrase “life is complicated” is not a banal, throwaway explanation provided when we have no clear answers, rather she notes that this phrase is “the most important theoretical statement of our time” (3). We often underestimate the analytical work of such a statement, which involves both power relations of particular times and places and “complex personhood.” Gordon catalogs power:

Power can be invisible, it can be fantastic, it can be dull and routine. It can be obvious, it can reach you by the baton of the police, it can speak the language of your thoughts and desires. It can feel like remote control, it can exhilarate like liberation, it can travel through time, and it can drown you in the present. It is dense and superficial, it can cause bodily injury, and it can harm you without seeming ever to touch you. It is systematic and it is particularistic and it is often both at the same time. It causes dreams to live and dreams to die (3).

How we account for power in both “systematic” and “particularistic” becomes crucial to our renderings of life. Complex personhood is the other key component to Gordon’s focus on life is complicated, which attempts to understand the ambivalence of human agency. Humans are equally as messy as the thing we call life. Complex personhood “means that all people (albeit in specific forms whose specificity is sometimes everything) remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others” (4). More importantly,

Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward….Complex personhood means that even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of value are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not. At the very least, complex personhood is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people’s lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning (4-5).

Complex personhood makes me hesitant as a scholar to proclaim that I can know exactly what the people I write about want, dream, desire, imagine, or claim. My claims, at best, can be provisional. I can guess, but I can’t know. It suggests that straightfoward is only a part of an explanation that cannot fully provide what we know about individuals or their lives. Subtle meanings abound, and they are more elusive.

Complex personhood reemphasizes both the tentativeness of what we can learn and write about another. They are opaque, even we think they are transparent. Transparency, the straightforward, is only one dimension to personhood, and we can never forget that.  Complex personhood forefronts narrative and imagination, institutions and power, labels and lack of labels, and knowledge and feeling. Gordon encourages respectful engagement with those we study and cautions against easy interpretations. Gordon’s discussion of complex personhood signals the ambiguity of people and life. Her approach feels tentative and ethical. It abandons the folly of certitude and reduction for the ambiguous and the absent. I love it. Ghostly Matters makes me want to be a better scholar and person, and there aren’t many books that accomplish this feat.

 

Figuring it out one post at a time.