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? (more…)
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.
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. (more…)
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. 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. (more…)
“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.
“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.