To muse

To muse is to consider something thoughtfully.

A muse is a person, usually a woman, who is the source of inspiration.

In May of 2013, I hastily decided that I need a new name for my blog, something that would signal the break I was taking from academia. I wanted a name that evoked transition and open endings. I settled on “In Progress” because it suggested that I was a “work in a progress” without a clear end. It also reminded me of blaring television announcements that we would be joining the program in progress. I hated these as a kid because I would miss the beloved beginnings of favorite television shows for some urgent announcement. The action started in the middle. In progress adeptly summed up how I felt. Transition whether I wanted it or not. A brief hiatus that dumped me in the middle of my life ill-equipped to handle what was next.

My blog was a lifeline in those early days of transitioning out of academia into anything else. My anguish in the posts about my grace period still feels raw and real, though I’ve long recovered from much of the hurt and confusion. I’m in progress, I would say aloud, to calm my anxiety about what would happen next. I didn’t know what kind of work I wanted to become. I just knew that I was transforming from one vision of self to another.

In those early moments, the focus on transition was a balm. I tried (and failed) to embrace uncertainty. As the last two years have gone by, transition as a theme chafed rather than healed. I found myself blogging less and less while wondering about the utility of this space for my writing and my life. I picked up more and more paid writing, so blogging felt like a distraction with no real goal. What did I have to say about my progress? What was I working toward? Who the hell was I going to be?

These are questions that I still don’t have good answers for, but I thought more and more about my blog’s place in my life and work. I’ve been blogging since 2007. I started out writing posts for Religion in American History with the hope for conversations about how and why we did our scholarship. I started my blog here in 2010 as a way to cultivate my own blogging voice separate from the group blog that I helped found. Blogging has always been my way to work things out. Short posts that explain what I’m thinking, but also longer almost-essays that work out particular problems in my research. Blogging gave me a casual way to voice concerns and create my opinions. It was my method to work through my scholarship in a public way.

Maybe, I needed to give blogging up. Maybe, it wasn’t working for me anymore. The thought of no longer blogging, however, bothered me. So, what was my problem? Why wasn’t I writing at In Progress with any frequency?

The title and format of the website no longer worked for me. They shut me down rather than inspired me to write. I was unsure of what the goal of my blog should be, but really, I was unsure what the blog did for me.

Then, I realized (with some serious help from Chris) that my blog should be whatever I wanted. This blog is my place marker in the wild world of the Internet, so it should free my creativity rather than stall it.

First, I changed the look of the blog. I chose a minimal design that forefronts writing. My blog should have never really looked like a magazine because that’s not really what I do.

Second, I changed the title to Musings, which has long been my favorite tag for my posts here. As a verb, to muse means to think thoughtfully about a topic. As a noun, it means either a dream-like state or a person that inspires you. After suggesting a particular idea for an essay, Chris likes to say, “you’ve been mused!”

Thinking, inspiring, and dreaming are excellent goals, and musing covers all three. Musings evoke dwelling with ideas, topics, and events, which is the best part of my job as a writer and essayist. Why not make my blog a place where musings are standard fare?

I hope y’all enjoy the redesign and follow along as I muse about whatever speaks to me. Hopefully, my musings will speak to you too.

 

 

 

Writing Motherhood

While finishing an essay on the Tooth Fairy and childhood beliefs earlier this week, I realized that I’ve been writing more about motherhood than I have before. At first, I was unnerved. Why was I suddenly writing more about my life as a mother? What was to be gained, or lost, by presenting my understandings of my children to the larger world? Why was motherhood looming large in my writing? And why was I bothered that my writing had taken a new direction?

I’ve mulled this question all week because Mother’s Day is upon us. Yesterday, my son’s preschool hosted Muffins for Mom (dads get donuts for Father’s Day). E and I ate muffins and played on the playground together. We climbed on tires, in boats, and on cars. We had fun. There’s even a souvenir picture.

Today, my daughter’s Kindergarten class is hosting a Mother’s Day Tea. She was beyond excited about this event. She was up early to get dressed in a fancy red tutu because her teacher instructed all the students to look nice for today. Motherhood is celebrated on one day despite all our struggles and efforts through out the year. We tend to ignore what our mothers do for us in the day to day.

I’m ambivalent about the holiday that celebrates an idealized vision of moms and our supposed sacrificial natures. Mothering is complex, as our relationships to those who mother us. Our parents cannot always be easily celebrated in cards, gifts, or meals. Many have lost their mothers. Others have strained relationships. Celebration of motherhood is not an inherent good.

I also chafe at the suggestion that motherhood is the sole force that defines me. I am a mother, but I’m also more.

Why, then, am I writing so much about my experiences as a parent? Being a mother feels unavoidable in what I’m writing. My relationships with my kids are making me think about different things than before. I want to figure motherhood out. I want to dwell with my children’s questions and observations. It is just where I am right now. I look forward to where it takes me.

Running In The Rain

Today, I ran (and walked) in the rain. A whole 5K with Chris, who is training me up to a full run. We are on week three of a nine-week plan. I have tried to start running many times before. I always quit.

Week three is usually the point where I mumble “screw it” while out of breath and go back to walking. Or decide that my particular human body is not meant for exercise. Or sob about how out of shape I am. Or proclaim that I am not a runner. I usually fail, not spectacularly, but gradually. I make excuses. I avoid work outs. Then, I decide that I’m a failure at running just like I’m a failure at bead work, knitting, all kinds of crafts really, academia, writing, and my life.

I am a master at self-hate. I am my worst critic. One small failure sets off a cascade of critical evaluation of how I got HERE. Whether it is on the side of the road heaving for breath, pondering the end of my academic career, or worrying that I lack the hustle to be a writer. I am remarkably good at accounting failures and doubts; I seem to pay little attention to successes.

This morning, I woke up and heard the pitter-patter of the rain on my window. I cursed that today was a running day. I hate running, I mumbled. I hate rain, I moaned. I hate being wet even more, I thought as I scowled. Was I really going to run today in the rain with the slick streets and puddles filled with pollen? I wasn’t sure.

I decided to put on my running clothes anyway. “Let’s get this over with,” I told Chris. I strode out the door with gritty determination that I would not be defeated by the rain or running. I would get through this run, damn it. And I realized something as the light rain covered me.

I’m tired of being (and feeling) defeated. This run nor the rain would defeat me today. I would be successful.

So, I ran up and down the hills of our neighborhood dodging puddles. I ran as my shoes filled with water and squished with every step. I ran as my water droplets coated my glasses and obscured my vision. I walked to recover from my running, but I kept running. I was completely soaked by the time we reached home. It was glorious.

Today was our fastest pace so far: 14 minutes and 48 seconds. This is only ground-shattering record for me, and that’s okay. I did something that I wouldn’t have imagined I would ever do. This is not because of my lack of imagination, but rather a reflection of the limits that I set and reinforced for myself. I have cultivated a habit of limiting myself, of creating boundaries that I won’t cross. I make it about identity rather than about ability.

After all, I was a not a girl who ran. As a child, I had asthma. I suffered from deep, lung-rattling coughs, wheezing, and lack of breath. This coughing, and the fear that I might stop breathing, made my mom overly cautious. When my asthma flared up, I slept in an upright recliner hacking and wheezing in attempts to breathe. I doubt my mom slept at all. Her fear that I might not catch my breath meant a moratorium on running and athletics. I can remember being scolded about running or even walking too fast. My cousins would run around the yard while I sat and watched them. My early brush with asthma compounded my already bookish tendencies. I was terrible at athletics. I was clumsy. I wanted to turn attention away from my body rather than toward it.

Running was not for me, but I wanted to run to so badly.

I was not a woman who ran either. I attempted running in college, in graduate school, and after graduation. Every few years, I would try to finish a couch to 5K plan. I never managed to make it to my desired 5K. Running was too hard. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t do it, so I stopped trying.

Still, I yearned to run.

Three weeks ago, I decided to try running again with Chris’s help because he’s an avid runner. He’s also practical. “No one likes running when they first start,” he said. “You have to train your body to run,” he offered. “You’ll eventually be good at running,” he said with a smile. I didn’t believe him.

When I started training, I would chant my hate of running in every footfall. Hate, hate, hate, hate, HATE. I would never like running. I would never be good it. By the end of the week, I realized that I didn’t actually hate running (jogging really). I enjoyed the movement. I liked to MOVE.

Today, I ran, not jogged. In the rain. With my partner who loves me and encourages me. I’m beginning to peak beyond those limits I created for who I’m supposed to be.

I am a woman who runs. I would have never expected that. Clearly, my expectations keep me from reaching. It is time to break them down and create new ones that reach beyond what I thought to bigger visions what might be possible.

On graduate school orientation

A colleague suggested that I write a series of reflections of what I would say to my younger academic self. Hindsight, of course, allows me to tailor advice knowing what the outcome will be, but these reflections also allow me to think about my journey to academic to something else in a way that I haven’t before. Here’s my first in the series, Notes to a Younger Self, which starts at almost the beginning as it should.

On graduate school orientation

You are going to cry after graduate school orientation. You are going to cry A LOT. This is okay. After all, this is the first time you been gathered together with all the other smart kids. You are used to being one of the only smart kids in the classes at your big state university. Now, you are confronted with all the other students who are also used to being the only smart kids.

This is what I know about you, Kelly. You feel outgunned. You want to panic. I need you to take a deep breath.

Just breathe and listen.

I know what you are doing right now. You are looking around the seminar room at all those students sitting around the gray, awkward table. You listen attentively as they describe their training and their summer adventures. You are waiting for the inevitable moment when you have to explain why you should be here too. You don’t feel like you belong. You begin to question your decision to go to graduate school. You are pretty sure that you will fail melodramatically.

I know what you are thinking. All these students seem smarter, more eloquent, better trained, and more ready than you. Many of them described European vacations, summer research, and other things that seem forever out of your reach. I know one guy will tell the group that he got married and his truck got struck by lighting. I know that you’ll be hesitant to note that you’ve been married a mere eight months. What you don’t know is that this guy is a member of your cohort, and he’ll become a dear friend. His humor offers you brief respite. Continue reading On graduate school orientation

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.