Tag Archives: writing

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?

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Academic Motherhood

I wrote this piece over three years ago when  my daughter was two years old. It was my attempt to work through my conflicting relationship between my academic work and parenting. I wanted to document how I always felt torn between my desire to be a “good” mother and a “good” academic. I felt I was failing at both. The expectations of both were too much. More importantly, I was too chicken to be marked by motherhood while still on the job market, so I let this post languish. I wish I’d been braver. I’ve added some reflections about how I feel now,

February 11, 2011

On my way out of the house earlier this week, the toddler asked me a poignant question, “Mommy, you go to work?”  I answered in the affirmative, and the toddler pushed the issue with the ever-present “Why?”

Why, indeed?

Now, I might normally shrug off this question as the inquisitive mind of the a young child, the insistent need to know why, but the question triggered my now familiar “mommy guilt.” Instead of “why are you working”, I heard something like “why are you abandoning me?” The question hit me at a vulnerable moment, in which I am doubting my ability to mother and to produce quality academic work (and wrangle 100 plus students this semester). How can I balance? Or juggle both? I left my toddler in the care of her other parent and stewed over my choices during the drive to the university. Perhaps, I should have kept my now romantic and nostaglic schedule from the fall semester, in which I taught only two courses and went into the university three days a week. Wasn’t that better?, I ask myself. Was the toddler better? More well-adjusted? Does my new spring schedule damage our tenuous child-parent relationship? One day am I going to be the festering source of all of the toddler’s, now adult’s, problems? The question that haunted me in the cold jaunt from my office to my car is: What if I am doing it wrong?

By the time the cold seeped through my jacket, fury replaced worry. Why do I do this to myself, I mutter. As I jab my hands in my pockets, I uncover a remnant of the toddler, a hair bow displaced and absently jammed in my winter coat. Fury melts into warm memories, and ambivalence is all that remains. I love my child, and I love my work, and I struggle to make it work.

This struggle of self-doubt and love, maternity and career, mother and child is an ongoing, frustrating public debate. And I usually duck for cover in the verbal volley between stay-at-home moms and working moms because until recently I felt like I was both part-time. The critiques of each type of mommy generally create maternity writ large, general and unhelpful. Yet Tina Fey’s recent piece in the New Yorker (February 14, 2011) clarifies this struggle with humor and wit. As Fey notes, “The topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield” (64). Moreover, she argues that the worst question to ask a working mother is “How do you juggle it all?”, which equates to “You’re screwing it all up, aren’t you?” (64).  While Fey talks about the way others ask “juggling” questions as accusatory, she also alludes to the questions I ask about myself constantly. Am I screwing this up? Why, indeed?

Fey, of course, is talking about the particular pressures of Hollywood, and Hollywood isn’t my concern. My concern is the parallel to the academy and the place/status/opinion of maternity. As Fey agonizes other whether to have a second child and when, I agonize too. My book is coming out this Fall (yay!), other projects are piling up, and I wonder what will happen to my academic career if I have another child. How will I juggle? There, of course, are women in American History, American Religious History and American Studies, who have not only a child but children. This is not an impossible feat, but I wonder (“selfishly”, “awfully” and “narcissistically”) about me.

How will I juggle? Aren’t I just screwing it up? The questions repeat again and again. The constant refrain of the working mother/academic/historian of gender and religion/spouse/sister/daughter/instructor that I am. My tacit resolution has been to assume that my child will survive with my working, and that my agonizing is just that, a fanciful agony over my poor performance of a maternal role. Yet, I struggle with maternity.

In her excellent article (that is part of an equally excellent book), “Sacred Maternities and Postbiomedical Bodies: Religion and Nature in Contemporary Home Birth”, Pamela Klassen argues that not only is maternity under-explored and under-theorized but also there is a wariness about broaching such a topic. Maternity is its own minefield.

May 9, 2014

I found this post while writing a column about mothers in academia. I found this post with Mother’s Day only two days away. I found this post while the baby rolled over and played with his favorite frog toy, which was once his sister’s. I found this post at a moment where I once again find myself wrangling motherhood and career (or lack thereof).

Things, of course, have changed.

I no longer work at an university. I’m not sure that I’m still an academic. Instead, I’m staying at home with the baby while his big sister goes to pre-Kindergarten. I write in my “free” moments: nap time, early mornings, or those elusive pockets of time in the day when the children don’t need me.   I now feel guilty about abandoning my writing.

But, I no longer have the ability to toggle back and forth between my identities as mother and scholar. Motherhood consumes most of my time. What the baby needs is pressing and urgent. He can’t wait for me to finish a sentence, and he cares not for my deadlines. His sister needs to me to be present for her. To read to her. To cuddle her.  To listen to her. To make her realize that I love her more and more everyday even though her brother takes away much of my time. Writing, then, gets pushed aside in those moments of need and love. My loyalties feel torn between kids and career. Still.

My worries are now different. I want to write. I need to write, but I can’t necessarily find the time.

I’m typing right now with the baby asleep in my lap. His steady breathing becomes the soundtrack to my post. I stop occasionally to smooth his hair or pat his back. To tell him I love him more and more every day. To whisper that I’m his mother, but I’m also more. To assure him that writing takes away time not affection. To cuddle him while I still can. To let us know that I can be both a mother and writer. To hope that one day my guilt will dissipate as I’m realize that I don’t have to be a good mother, but just good enough.

 

Parent and Baby's Hands and Feet

The Parenting Paradox

I’ve published my first non-academic book review over at BookTrib.  I reviewed Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (Ecco: 2014), which I adored. I recommend to all parents, and anyone who wants to understand why parents act in the erratic ways that we do. (Hint: It has something to do with living with mini-humans whose brains function differently from our own.)

Here’s a sample:

Like all other parents, I realized (philosophically) that a child changes everything. Other adults told me this as a warning, but I didn’t know exactly what they meant until my daughter arrived. A child makes you into a different person than your childless self in the most abrupt and exhilarating fashion. Children change us in intimate and profound ways that can’t be easily predicted.

Most books about parenting, however, might warn you that life changes, but they don’t worry about you at all. These books, instead, care about your offspring and your impact, good or otherwise, on them. There’s much more concern about how we harm our poor progeny than what they do to us. In our home, it is a running gag to evaluate which of our actions might lead to therapy or a tell-all memoir. Our parenting styles include heavy doses of paranoia and anxiety as we desperately attempt to uncover whether we are doing a good job. My huband and I analyze our kids for clues about what works and what doesn’t. Our kids ignore our attempts to decipher well-being, which is the best for everyone involved. The pressure to be engaged, perfect parents is fairly high; the cultural expectations for motherhood are ridiculous. Anxiety, guilt, and doubt are constant companions for modern parents. Yes, parents affect their children, but children also affect us. What do children do to us, really? What is their influence on the lives of adults?

Read more.

 

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Genre Fiction Saved My Life

I gave up many things for graduate school, and popular fiction was one of them. Training to be a religious historian meant that reading became my job rather than my beloved hobby. I only had time to read the 30 plus books assigned for seminars each semester. I’ve never read so much in my life as I did then. History, theory, methods, and studies of gender and race crowded my book shelves and took over my dining room table. Reading for pleasure no longer fit neatly into my schedule. Instead, I trudged through the books that now defined my life. If I read anything beyond the assigned, I found it necessary to read things labeled serious or literary. At parties, faculty and students would chat about the author of the moment, that critical darling reviewed by NPR or the New York Times. I would nod at appropriate moments. Literary fiction was the only fiction appropriate for scholars in training. Most of what I liked to read was not deemed literary. Trade paperbacks seemed less than serious. Intriguingly, the Harry Potter books were allowed, so I could discuss them without tarnishing my serious image.

I abandoned the books that kept me company from childhood to fledgling adulthood. I loved romance, horror, and that whole genre now labeled young adult fiction. I followed the girls of Sweet Valley High through eating disorders, romantic entanglements, and social strivings. I wanted to be a member of the Babysitters Club, even though I was ambivalent about other children. I devoured anything written by Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine, and L.J. Smith. I first gained awareness of reincarnation via Pike, and garbage disposals still scare me of Stine. I worked my way through J.R.R. Tolkien’s complicated world of hobbits, elves, humans, and dwarves, though it took many attempts. I read and reread Smith’s Forbidden Game and Dark Visions books. Their covers creased and fell apart. The pages were dog-eared and torn. These books materialized my rough-handed devotion. (I’m still hard on books.) Smith’s books were my favorites. The strength and angst of the female protagonists resonated with me. These were girls who seemed ordinary, but were anything but. They were flawed but heroic. In Smith’s book worlds, the supernatural creeped unexpectedly into our lives, and no one was ever the same.

More importantly, the universes of these young adult books made sense. You could figure out the heroes and the villains (mostly), though sometimes the villains would redeem themselves through profound sacrifice. For me, they were beautiful escapism. These books permitted me to step away from the constant shuffle of life as a divorced kid. My week parceled between my mom and dad. I moved back and forth between two families. Tuesday, Friday, and every other weekend was my dad’s time; the other days went to my mom. Different houses, different rooms, different family members, and different responsibilities. The trade paperbacks moved to and fro with me. I tucked them in my backpack, or purse, before school at one house and read them in the evenings at another. They offered escape from the fraught complexity of living in two places, but never quite feeling at home. I could dwell in realms of extra-sensory perception, vampires, witches, and killer teenagers to avoid the emotional work of being one person who was actually two daughters. Fiction gave me purchase in entertaining simplicity; it allowed me to remove myself from the painful work of being the remnant of a failed marriage.

It should be no surprise that horror emerged as my favorite genre. By my teenage years, I had a firm grasp on how terrible people could be to one another; horror confirmed my bias. Characters harmed and killed one another. They broke down from the weight of the world, and sometimes they escaped terrible situations. I always knew that the monsters were the least of our worries. It is no surprise that I transitioned to Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Tami Hoag, and Patricia Cornwell. Thrillers, mysteries, and horror showcased the seedier side of humanity, and I couldn’t seem to get enough. The clear cut morality of these genres also appealed. It was easy to predict what would happen. Popular fiction soothed me as it entertained me. King remains one of my favorites because he knows that horror is about losing who you love. His books tell us something we don’t want to think about: the capacity to love opens us to the experience of horror. (There’s a reason I’m so fascinated with zombies.)

I lost something important, then, when I gave up reading familiar books for serious scholarly pursuit. I would occasionally consume a tale of horror when I couldn’t stand to read another academic monograph, but I always felt guilty and anxious. What if someone found out? When I submitted my dissertation to my advisor, my response was to read the Twilight series. This is not quite the celebration I imagined I would have. I routinely scoured the shelves of the local bookstores to find anything with a supernatural edge. I finally felt free to read whatever I wanted, so I binged on popular fiction. I flew through Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books, which I read again and again. I picked up books by Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, Cassandra Clare, Rachel Caine, Ilona Andrews, Seanan McGuire, Holly Black, and Devon Monk.

I uncovered a swoony love for urban fantasy as I rediscovered my love of science fiction. Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels and John Scalzi’s Old Man War series are my favorites for escapism. I found that I love some books as much for their particularities and their flaws as I do their triumphs. I like the smart-ass characters that Scalzi specializes in, and I wish I were an unrepentant badass like the mercenary Kate Daniels. When I read Scalzi’s Red Shirts and Seanan McGuire’s Indexing, I ponder tha narrative structure of our lives and our various attempts to make our own stories fit into limited molds. These books let me dream and imagine. They also help me think. I hunker down with books when I need time to process what’s happening in my own life. Books give me the space to breathe.

Yet, I read on my Kindle now, so I can’t see the wear of each book from every rereading. No more torn covers or dog-eared pages. My books no longer fall apart before my eyes. I do see the passages I highlighted that spoke to me, and I wonder what it was about each passage that caused me to mark it. The lines that seemed so important in one reading become less pressing in another. My transition out of academia could be narrated by the books I read and the books I refuse to read. I missed popular fiction. I needed it. Maybe we all do.