Attending the regional conference for my profession, I reconnected with friends, attended a few panels and meetings, and then promptly let myself be lured away from the crowds, choosing a quiet beer with a few friends over the conference reception. Since I hadn’t seen these particular friends in at least three – four years, and this was the longest amount of time we’d all spent in the same place, I reasoned that this still counted as visibility. The next day I attended sessions, continued to meet with friends, and generally let myself follow my permission slip to be in the moment and accept the adventures that came to me.
I forget, sometimes, how powerful the permission slip can be. These days there is nearly always one in my pocket when I have one, tucked into my bra when I don’t. A mix of the things I most need reminding of, the messages vary and either wouldn’t make sense to anyone else or might seem banal: belong to myself, own my authority, be in the moment, shine, be rooted. Often I forget about them entirely until one slips out of my pocket when I reach for my lipstick or flutters to the ground as I get ready for bed in the evening. Permissions slips were certainly not on my mind when my friend and I entered our hotel bar that evening, which probably explains why I was ready and a little surprised at the adventure which followed. Picking up a guy in the hotel bar is probably about as banal as you can get for a somewhat newly divorced woman, so I won’t bore you with all the details. The only important elements were that it was fun for me, it counts as visibility, and as you can expect from me I’ve analyzed it all for every possible meaning and lesson. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with all of those either.
Spring Break came this week, just in time. Reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost seemed like a good start for a week in which I wanted to step away from all the pressure and exhaustion of this first year.
Solnit opens with a discussion of losing yourself, of the possibilities of an open door, and follows it up meditating on the blue of distance and longing. In the course of our evening, Magnum P.I. (as Dr. Mags dubbed him)asked me what I wanted. Inspired by the near anonymity of it all and the knowledge that I would never see him again, I surprised myself and told him. “As an academic, I want someone or something that shuts my brain off.” No, I wasn’t very articulate, but I’d had a couple of glasses of wine and it was the best that I could do to describe it. The permission slips might tell me it is okay to be in the moment, to accept the adventures, but they don’t turn off the constant assessing and analyzing, or the anxieties that come with it.
As she often does, Solnit seems to articulate my feelings better than I can. What I tried to describe to Magnum was the way I want to stop the assessing, the analyzing and truly lose myself in a moment. Solnit describes it:
To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Bejamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.
Solnit and Benjamin are referring to losing yourself in your surroundings, whether city or country, hence the reference to geography. For me, right now, I am caught longing for the choice, for the ability to lose myself, that feels so far out of my grasp. I try. I walk around the lake to visit the heron. I pause on my bridge to feel the breeze, to watch the water ripple, to lose myself in that moment. I am stuck in the longing though, wanting to choose the surrender, but always too aware. Discussing longing and the blue of distant horizons, Solnit asks, “If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed?”
Crossing the distance the blue we longed to find recedes to the next horizon, the thing or feeling we long to possess shifts and changes when we acquire it. Perhaps losing myself is a choice I make or not, but maybe it isn’t a choice that can be made in the moment. Yes, as I described I analyzed every moment from my night at the bar. I assessed and learned my lessons, hopefully. My brain worked and worked for the whole drive home. As I described my deepest longing to a stranger, though, I didn’t recognize that in a way I’d already gotten there. I was wholly there, in that moment, in the uncertainty and mystery of getting to know someone, of not knowing where the night would take me. My longing for someone or something to shut my brain off remained the beautiful blue of the far horizon; maybe, it, like that blue, is even something that can never be possessed. That night though, I was fully present and my brain was off; maybe that is how I can own my longing, learn to recognize how it can be fulfilled by my immediate surroundings.
There is a Big Thing due at work next week.
Naturally, this means I have barely started it, and am procrastinating with everything I can … even other work. Actually, that is not fair to me. The other work doesn’t stop and needs to get done, so it doesn’t really count as procrastinating.
The first plan included me working on the Big Thing over break. Well, last semester required a bit of recovery, and we all saw here that break had its ups and downs that required their own bit of energy.
The second plan included me getting the Big Thing done, or at least started, during the first week of classes. Well, the year that started out with such promise, quickly said, “No. Here’s your first major hurdle.” Oh, and by the way, that Todoist plan you have for what is going to get done this week, nope. Instead, you can have a minor work crisis to deal with.
At the end of last week, I mapped out a totally reasonable plan for getting the big thing done by the end of this week. I even put it in my Todoist! And, I still didn’t follow the plan. The good news is, I’m pretty sure I’ll still be okay, even with my Saturday in the ‘Boro trip. Today, I used Coffitivity and Pomodoro to get at least a good hour and a half of work done on the Big Thing. Of course, now I am rewarding myself with
more procrastination, I mean writing this blog post.
Did you catch that? The fact that the year isn’t even a month old yet, and already there are challenges. Yeah, I know I am not the only one. It is just that this week seems bent on twisting the knife from last week. I know, deep breaths, patience, I will get through it. Oh, and maybe I could start the post already, right?
One of my new friends at work goes out of town ALL THE TIME. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but 2-3 weekends a month is not, not at all. Given my propensity to revel in the fact that these days I often come home on Friday, put on yoga pants, and see how long I can make it without leaving the house. You can imagine we have a lot of jokes about it, about being afraid to stand still, about patience, about always chasing new things, about me hibernating, being a little afraid of new things. You get the idea. One of the things my friend likes to do is go camping and hiking, which is cool because I invariably get to see the awesome pictures, and hear about the adventure.
In fact, it was my friend’s beautiful pictures that finally encouraged me to put aside my fear of the ticks and snakes and figure out where the trail next to my house led. I’m really happy I did because now, as I think I have mentioned before, I try to walk my trails around the lake at least once a week, weather permitting. The result is a contrast that I find interesting, because whenever my friend sends me pictures of new hiking trips I usually end up sending back pictures from my walks around the lake. All this is interesting because I think it captures a little of our joking. My friend chasing new views, new locations; and me, re-visiting the same place observing the changes. There is probably a lesson there for both of us, but I’m not ready to think to0 hard about it.
Today, another snow storm hit this area. After heading down to work for a couple of hours, I just barely made it home before it really started coming down. As I paced the house, knowing I needed to sit down and work on the Big Thing, and really NOT wanting to do it. I looked out the window at this, amazing for this part of the world, snow fall. Big, wet, fluffy flakes were falling like something out of a movie. I realized I was still pretty bundled up for work, so I threw on hat, scarf, and a good coat, and took off for my trail. I couldn’t make it all the way around the lake because the trail was a little too wet, but what I saw was magical.
First the little tiny creek, which is the first little bridge I cross when entering my trail. The pictures don’t really capture the snow falling, but it was breath taking. I live in town, so even though my walks around the lake give me the feeling of being in the woods because there are no houses around, I can almost always here traffic noises. Today, though, because of the snow almost everyone was off the roads and the woods were intensely peaceful.
Then there was my bridge. Yes, I call it my bridge. Like I said, since I found it I try to walk around the lake at least once a week, and I almost always start out thinking about the walks as visits to the bridge. Think what you want, but y’all know the Anne of Green Gables is strong with me, and I am prone to the personification of inanimate things. There are benches in the covered portion of my bridge, and when it is nice enough out there, I even bring my journal to sit and write. I’m hopeless.
Today, I walked across my bridge, marring that pristine snow, and looking back to marvel at my footprints. On my way over, I stopped to look back towards the city park at one end of the lake, and watched the ducks and geese swimming around in the snow. On my way back, the snow had intensified, and I turned in the other direction. Facing into the snow, feeling it fall and catch in my eye-lashes and on my nose, I marveled at the wonder and peace of it all.
Yes, the year already has a bump in it. The hardest kind of bump for me, actually, but whatever drew me out for a walk in the snow knew what I needed to see. The familiar made strange. The way the seasons shift. I began walking my bridge in October, as you can see from the first view above. The trees were changing colors, but the paths were still rich with vegetation. I watched those leaves complete their changes and fall, revealing the beauty of the bamboo and other undergrowth that remained green long into December. You might not be able to see it in the first picture, but my bridge undulates. It is full of warps. The snow covers over them all, but they are still there.
On the way back, as I stood there, a line from Watership Down came to me. When Bigwig (Thlayli in the book’s version of Lapine) is trying to escape with does from Efrafa, there is a massive storm with thunder and lighting. Unsure of where his friends are, trying to lead a pack of unfamiliar rabbits, and knowing that pursuit is not far behind, he is at a loss when he senses a message “It’s your storm Thlayli-rah, use it.”
Outside of the peace I felt, the happiness at being outside, at getting to witness something not many people will see, I am not sure how to “use” this snow storm. Standing on my bridge, watching the snow fall, listening to the quiet, just breathing, I realized I needed that. I needed a minute away from the pressure of the bumps, of the Big Thing hanging over me and shadowing everything I do. I needed the reminder that things change, and that sometimes we can only see that when we visit the same place over time.
This morning I sat down to do my last bit of reflection for the year. The word I chose to guide me this year was Discovery. While I have been conscious throughout the year of the changes in my life, which have certainly led to discoveries, it has also been hard for me to capture and articulate exactly what I discovered this year. On the whole, the year has been full of blessings and happiness: new job, new home, returning to old friends and making new ones. Each of those blessings also feels like it was punctuated with a challenge mourning, leaving friends, unexpected health issues, the House of Plagues. The year gave and it took away, not just for me, but everyone. I can see it in the explosion of “Me at the beginning of 2017 and Me at the end of 2017” memes on twitter. Many have made me laugh aloud, but this one is my favorite. Thanks for @morninggloria for posting this.
Yes, Catwoman has some serious faults and is in some ways a mess, but she also represents Selena Kyle’s ownership of her power. I sincerely hope that, even though this year put us through the wringer, we’ve come out of it recognizing the power that we can carry in to the new year. Maybe that is just my hope for myself.
After reading through my journals, feeling the pride and power of all that I have made it through and laughing at my often silly mistakes, I ran to the grocery store. Walking into Aldi I texted Ouiser, “I’m going into Aldi with only a half formed list. This could be dangerous.” Sure enough, I did succumb to a couple of impulse purchase in the Aisle of Random Shit. The checkouts were a little backed up as always, and as I stood in line I played on my phone until I noticed it was time to start loading my stuff onto the belt. As I loaded, I noticed someone come up and hug the woman at the register. A little later the same woman walked out, and I noticed her eyes were a little teary and red. The old man ahead of me checked out, and I noticed the cashier subtly dab her eyes.
Given how much y’all know I get annoyed with random people talking to me, I have no idea what possessed me. Once my transaction was complete, I looked at this woman I have never met before, and said, “Do you need another hug?”
To my ever-lasting shock she said, “Yes.”
She stood up from her stool and we embraced. A full embrace in which we both fully engaged, my eyes teared, and I know my voice was a little shaky when I quietly said, “Happy New Year.”
We barely looked at each other as I pushed my things away, loaded my bag, and left the store. For me, I know that was self-preservation, because as soon as I got to the car, I teared up for real. I don’t know what the situation was, and I certainly hope my “Happy New Year” wasn’t grossly inappropriate. What I didn’t know at the time, but realized in the car whatever the situation, I needed that hug as much as she did.
There are far too many ways I can parse and analyze why I needed that hug, but the simplest is this: one of the greatest struggles of this year has been the way it has worked to disconnect me. Sure, some of those disconnections have been positive. Reading through my journals was a wonderful window into how I have managed to disconnect from my ex-husband in very healthy ways. In other ways though, I’ve been re-located at work, and at home (twice). I fight constantly to find a balance between my need for the solitude to heal, and the new connections I need to make to really adapt to this place. The biggest tension of the year is how grateful I am to all the friends who never left my side and supported me through all of this, and how wholly alone I have felt at times.
Offering to hug a stranger and the comfort I took from that connection, they were my final act of defiance and resistance to this year of disconnection and isolation.
I don’t know anymore than anyone else where this year will take me. That is okay. What I do know is that I have claimed it as another year of Visibility and Vulnerability, so it will be a challenge. The words I claim for my years guide me, and I can usually easily see the work I do with them. This year, as with many others, my words came to me early, and I have been preparing for the challenges I know they will present me. The challenges will be real, but I feel prepared to take on the visibility and vulnerability in all their forms. I haven’t prepared for connection, but after today I think it is going to make its way into everything in the coming year.
I probably won’t make hugging strangers an everyday practice, but it was everything for today. I sincerely hope that woman took as much from it as I did.
In general my approach to the challenges life throws my way is put my head down and just keep moving forward. “The only way out is through it” has been my guiding principle since before I could articulate it. The difficulty with this approach is that it requires some pretty hefty armour and deflection. A lot of my energy is used up putting off tears until later. Unfortunately, then when I get to “later” it is often difficult to let myself feel the feeling and get those tears out. I need a catalyst, at least this is my explanation for why, when I feel the most depressed and out of sorts, my first instinct is to find the music, movie, or book that is going to depress me the furthest.
Going through my first major break up I listed to the Jayhawks’, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, non-stop for a good two weeks. The Hours is my go to, “I need a good cry movie.” The ex-husband used to joke about hiding all the sharp objects whenever I suggest I needed to watch it. Even now, when I have gotten a lot better about practicing vulnerability and letting myself feel those feelings, when I am at my lowest it will typically show in the music I’m listening and the films I am watching.
Lori McKenna is the current sound track to my heartbreak. Pandora’s algorithm put her into my Neko Case station and there wasn’t a song from Bittertown or her earlier albums, that didn’t capture what it felt like to live through those last years of my marriage. These days I take it as a good sign that during my daily commute concerts in the car, I often find myself skipping the tracks I felt most deeply during those years, like “If You Ask,” “Swallows Me Whole,” or “If He Tried.” The strength, joy, tenderness, and struggle I have in this new life requires something different. Elvis Costello, Soundgarden, Neko Case, and the songs that Ouiser, who is the Queen of all mix-tapes, put on my divorce albums.
Film wise well, it is no secret that I have been binging on Hallmark Channel stuff this year. It started with “The Good Witch” and “When Calls the Heart” binges on Netflix while my cable was paused. When the cable turned back on, I descended into the cozy mystery movies, desperately wishing I could be Aurora Teagarden; and by the Christmas in July event, when I needed every escape I could find from the House of Plagues, I knew I had a problem. Not only was Hallmark practically the only channel I watched, I’d started to dissect and analyze the films. Good dialogue, but no chemistry between the leads. Chemistry between the leads, but nothing can make up for the ridiculousness of this plot. To this day I give myself a pat on the back for refusing to watch anything that involves someone secretly falling for royalty. (What? Even I have my standards!)
This holiday season the number of people watching Hallmark channel movies to escape the reality of this horrible, rotten, no good year is great enough that a number of think pieces have circulated, and SNL even did a great skit about the movies. (Yes, Canadian Handsome is a thing.) Last week, though, hanging out with friends and new acquaintances from my adopted neighborhood, I was surprised when someone admitted they also watch Hallmark movies, and justified it by saying, “Sometimes you need something to turn the day around.” Beers were involved in this particular hang out session, so who knows what exactly was said, but it was something to that effect. My surprise wasn’t actually that someone else at the table was also watching, and recording, Hallmark movies. We all need an escape every now and then. I have often characterized my watching of Hallmark movies as blatant escapism, fluff for a brain that just doesn’t want to think about things anymore, in that moment my surprise, however, was that I realized escapism wasn’t the only thing I wanted from these movies.
In what I am coming to realize happens more often than not when a large group of friends, some married some divorced, get together, someone inevitably asks, “Would you do it (fall in love / get married) again?” My fellow Hallmark aficionado replied quickly with, “Yes. Absolutely. I still believe in it.” I deflected my answer and shifted the conversation. At this point, just beginning year two and barely dipping my toes in the dating pool, I want to believe, but I am not sure I do. I want the romance I see in the Hallmark movies, and that is my escape, but it is also the thing that will undoes me. My current favorite Christmas movie is the Mistletoe Inn. There are a lot of stupid reasons it is my favorite, but one is a moment when after a brief snow ball fight, David Alpay and Alicia Witt end up in a snow bank. They look longingly at each other for a few seconds, and then he reaches over and pushes a lock of hair behind her ear. It is a mid-movie scene, which means the moment is broken and nothing happens. That gesture though, I physically long for it, and I want to believe it will happen again. Every few weeks, when driving home from work I find myself running my own fingers through my hair a little more than normal and singing along with a little more feeling to the pre-divorce songs, I know I need a romance fix and it is going to be a Hallmark movie night.
Those nights, though, they start out soothing, but most often end differently. The romance fix also bursts the bubble, forces me to confront the emotions I’ve been putting off. On at least one, I shut the tv off mid-movie, cleaned the kitchen, and went to bed. Single life is so glamorous. As I have already said, this season is hard. Part of what makes it hard is the reflection, the thinking back about what was, while also trying to imagine a future. Trying to remember the story my ex-husband and I prized, the one of fated meetings, and an elopement that seemed to come straight out of a Hallmark movie. Trying to believe that someday, hopefully not in a snowbank, someone will reach over and tuck my hair behind my ear, or let their hand keep moving and run their fingers all the way through it. This morning, as I tried to figure out my Hallmark movie phase beyond the escapism, beyond the way they hold out a glittery and idealized image of romance, I realized that in a way the Hallmark movies are my old pattern. When I am low, or craving something, find the thing that is going to make it worse. The glittery, ideal, storybook romance isn’t just aspirational it is reflective. It reflects what I thought I had, and makes me see what was never really there.
One of Lori McKenna songs that I cherished pre-divorce, “Don’t Tell Her,” illustrates this even better. In the song there is a line, “I can’t stand the thought of anyone knowing me the way you do.” Pre-divorce this line represented all the time I’d put into my marriage, all the history, and captured the way I couldn’t imagine finding that with anyone else. What I can see now, as this year forces me to reflect on everything, is that my ex-husband never knew me that way. The Hallmark movies, where people know the perfect gifts to give, the perfect things to say, and the perfect moments to reveal their feelings, they also make me confront the reality that what I thought was deep love and connection didn’t end up that way. That if it is true my ex-husband never really knew me the way I wanted him to, then it is also true that I never knew him the way he needed me to.
“Would I do it again?”
“Do I really still believe?”
I want to say, “Yes. Absolutely.” I just don’t know that I can, yet. Maybe after a few more Hallmark movies, I will.
Next to the coffee pot on my kitchen counter sits a 1.5 gallon clear glass jug filled nearly to the top with the homemade granola I toasted yesterday. Every time I walk into the kitchen it makes me happy. A stupid thing really, that this jar of toasted oats and nuts fills me with joy, but these days I take joy where I can get it. None of my divorced friends warned me about this, how this second holiday season would be so much worse than the first. Maybe the second year blues aren’t a thing for everyone, but it has been a nightmare for me. Last year, everything was new and perhaps I’d steeled myself for a malaise that never materialized. As a result, this year I was unprepared for the unpredictable emotional roller coaster of loss, nostalgia, and joy I’ve ridden since mid-November.
Last fall once I decided to ask for the divorce, the universe pretty much heaved a huge sigh of relief and lay every sign and portent that this was the right decision at my feet, with ribbons attached. There have been struggles along the way, but without hesitation I can say that I am happier and did the right thing. Coming home each day to the animals and this house I rent in a town that I love, it balances pressures of this life: living alone, being responsible for everything. Yet, even as I embrace and relish my independence a part of me longs for a partner to share some of the burden. Reconciling what I had with what I want, who I was with who I am feels impossible. The joy and the longing so often go hand in hand and come from such unexpected directions.
Since about 1999, I’ve wanted to make my own granola. What I remember from that summer in Homer, is asking my Alaskan friend how she made her granola. Her answer was straight forward enough that neither she, nor I even tried to write it down. My life since that summer has been interesting, but definitely not straight forward. Periodically, I’ve thought about making my own granola, but there was always a reason not to, and over the years I forgot what my friend told me. Yes, I know there is an internet for these things. Most of my recipes are found that way; however, whenever I looked up a granola recipe it was this PROCESS that involved a million steps and ridiculous ingredients, nothing like what had been described to me. A part of me also just wanted my friend’s recipe, one I equated with good times, laughter, and my Pacific Northwest home. People everywhere make their own granola, but having grown up in Washington it feels like a quintessentially North-westerner thing to do. Doing something that so vividly represented my Northwest roots probably fueled my desire to give granola making a try.
This fall when a new friend revealed that they were from Oregon AND that their mom still made and sent them granola, I pretty much begged for the recipe.
“No way, too soon! It’s a family recipe. We’re barely friends, yet.” I was told.
“Okay. How long do we have to be friends before I am family?” I asked.
“Well, in my life, generally after 5 – 10 years one or the other of us has been through something major. We’ve been there for each other and become like family; or, we weren’t there for each other and have grown apart.” I explained.
Later, I joked. “I need a time-line. How long before I get the granola recipe?” It was about then they gave me a small container of the granola, and a printed copy of the recipe for Christmas. That friend doesn’t realize what a gift this actually was. I know, because frankly, I didn’t know what a gift it was. I was just excited to have a granola recipe much more quickly than I expected. Yesterday, I did my grocery shopping picked up all the ingredients I needed, and the container to keep it in, came home and began the assembly process. In no time at all, I had two sheets of granola toasting in the oven, while I went to work on my other, greater than I realized, gift of the year.
Moving back to North Carolina from Minnesota is one of this year’s events filled with struggles and joy. Getting rid of nearly everything I owned counts as a joy, because I entered this new life relatively free of the old one. Trying to replace everything counts as a struggle because it takes time, and in that time you still need things, like a desk or a kitchen table. My friends, who always see me through the struggles, helped with this one as well. A dear friend in Raleigh loaned me a desk and kitchen table, and every time I visit sends me home with something else they planned to donate. After the incident with my Christmas sock, when they offered this tree and a couple of sets of lights, I wasn’t sure.
As a single woman, struggling to get through this season, the last thing I thought I should do was buy decorations and put up a tree. I accepted it though, and then I bought the decorations. With the smell of granola toasting in the background, I put together the tree, strung the lights, and hung the decorations. Yes, I almost cried several times. They weren’t the tears of loss or longing I expected, though. In those long, hard years while my marriage crumbled, I’d forgotten the simple joy of putting up a tree, of hanging memories on the branches. Christmas music playing in the back ground, I nearly cried because I realized I missed decorating the tree. In a moment antithetical to everything in my Gen X heart, like the heroine of a Hallmark movie, I didn’t just miss decorating the tree as something I used to do; I knew it had to be a part of who I was now.
Finding my joy, the big and small moments of it, has been the true blessing of my divorce. Remembering the ease with which I could smile, laugh, and love, I found myself again during this last year. I learned to understand what I truly crave and what I don’t need, to know my strength and to accept my weaknesses. Looking in the mirror each morning, I am amazed at how much I can love myself and, at the same time, be so curious about what I have yet to learn and who I will become. The mirror reflects back to me who I am now, and I am re-shaping the woman so deeply scarred by my marriage.
Christmas trees, even artificial ones, can only stay up so long, and a single woman can only eat so much granola. For now though, this first batch, is about something bigger. It is about the way the smell drifted through the house as I hung decorations. This recipe comes from home, or close enough, and it is a connection between who I was and who I am becoming. The full jar on the counter is a visual and visceral representation of my Pacific Northwest roots. It brings to mind cabins in the woods, shelves full of mason jars of granola, herbs, and preserves, and living in time with the tides while being embraced by the mountains. It reminds me that I was a girl who explored, who risked, and who could rely on herself, even if it was just to make her own breakfast.
Yes, this holiday season has been hard. It has ripped me bare and it isn’t even New Year’s yet. Perhaps, by the time you read this, I will have made it through. Divorce is hard. Making a new life is hard. The holidays are hard for as many reasons as there are individuals. I wish I had answers for myself, or for you, but there is no magic. I just keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, stacking up one morning after the next. Some days, though, some days I get to sit in the glow of light from a Christmas tree and see the jar of granola on my counter, and these things make me smile. Once, as I lamented moving back to North Carolina not Washington where I could be closer to family, my little sister said, “At least in North Carolina you will be close to your friends-family.” She was right. Throughout this year my North Carolina friends-family carried me listening to me, helping me move, carrying on epic text conversations, getting me out of the house, and talking me off all my ledges. Only time will tell if my new friend becomes a part of that friends-family, but the granola that brings my Washington home into my North Carolina life is here to stay.
The other night I started reading Lindy West’s Shrill. I was looking for something new to read, and avoiding Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which I desperately want to read yet know I am not ready for it. Look, I think you either love Gay’s writing, or you don’t, and that is fine. For me, however, she guts me, lays me bare, and makes me deal with myself. All good stuff in the long run, all painful in the short run, right now I feel like I’m full up on dealing with myself and my stuff, thank you. West’s writing hit the spot, relatable, inadvertently insightful, and full of just the right amount of escape from my own life. Oh crap, maybe I just described my other current read/re-read Harry Potter and the Sorcer’s Stone. I don’t think West would mind the mix-up.
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During the hour and a half drive back to the house, I tried not to think about how good it felt to be among friends in GSO, or the tension seeping back into my shoulders at the thought of returning. Sitting at Ouiser’s awesome kitchen island eating my first hot, home cooked meal in longer than I dared to count, I laughed and I felt joy and comfort chatting with Mama Ouiser, her sisters and my friend. It was a glimpse into the life I expected to have upon my return to N.C. A life where I could invite friends to my home, cook for them, and where I could share my wonder at the new course my life is on. Later, I felt similarly as I sat at Starbucks chatting with Dr. Phoenix and Dr. Leaving Academia. There was a cloud in that conversation, however, we couldn’t seem to stop careening back to my housing problems.
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We never met. In fact, I’m fairly certain we didn’t even exchange emails, or tweets. Anissa Mayhew was, however, one of the first people I followed on Twitter.
Though the medical bills from my own stroke prevented me from ever getting a t-shirt, I almost obsessively followed the Free Anissa campaign during her second, I believe, stroke.
Anissa’s eventual recovery, her continued writing, all inspired me during my own recovery and struggle to finish my dissertation. The strength of her friends and family provided a window into what my friends and family went through on the other side of my stroke. In fact, I am fairly certain it was Ouiser who first encouraged me to read and follow Anissa.
In the last few years, as the DH’s medical emergencies, moving to Minnesota, the DH’s crisis, our divorce, and my move back to North Carolina kept me a little preoccupied, I would see the announcements of the latest from Slightly Bent Productions, but it would often get lost in my feed before I had a moment to click through. Still, when I saw @Cecliyk’s tweet, “Damn it, @AnissaMayhew! I’m going to fucking miss you. Hope you are enjoying high heels and bacon right now.” My heart dropped. I snooped around and learned that Anissa died today.
We never met, but the tears came quickly and easily, as if for an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while. She’ll never know it, but Anissa Mayhew made me feel less alone as I recovered from my stroke. Knowing there was someone else out there recovering from a similar event, struggling to continue writing and maintain her voice, made me feel as if I could get through it all myself. Her absence is a great loss for her friends, family, and more of the world than they may realize. I wish them all peace. Anissa will be missed.
Recently, I was asked to write a book review for a professional journal. Given that I knew I wanted to read the book, was confident I could write a good review, and have nothing else in the publication pipeline right now, I ignored the truly crazed status of my to-do list and agreed.
Yesterday, I stopped reading a chapter here and there, and committed to finishing the book. No, you won’t get my review here. What you will get is my personal reaction to this book. How are those things different? Well, my review for the journal will put this book in conversation with all the other interesting recent books on writing center studies and comment on the professional need for the books, and all of that wonderfully boring outside of the profession kind of stuff. My personal reaction to the book — that is the stuff of this blog. Because in addition to all that wonderfully boring stuff I will write about, this book made me think about myself and my career.
Hell, my whole life is making me do that right now! This book just gave me an interesting frame in which to do that. The book is a case study of nine writing center directors with different backgrounds working in different institutions in positions with different types of contracts. There was hardly a chapter in the book that didn’t resonate with me in some way. The whole thing got me thinking about my own career trajectory, which is a little weird for me.
Yes, this is yet another thing that creates a dissonance for me between the class I grew up in and the class I’m slowly moving into. I wasn’t really raised to think in terms of career, you see. Since I was 16 I moved from one job to another: bagger at the grocery store, checker at the grocery store, front desk worker at the hotel, video section manager at the grocery store, night shift desk worker at a hotel, shift supervisor at Starbucks. All of these jobs were just that, things I could leave easily for something different or seemingly better. Even when I started teaching the adjunct nature of what I did as a graduate student made teaching feel like a job, not really the career to which I aspired.
Things have changed though, and as I move through at least three of the different types of writing center positions described in this book, I have to acknowledge that I am on a career path. See, I started out my work in writing centers like many of the directors in this study. I’d been working on a Rhet/Comp Ph.D. and worked in the writing center, admittedly more than most, but it wasn’t where I saw myself building a career. Writing centers weren’t even going to be a part of my dissertation until I took my first position directing one.
In many ways, I saw that position as a job, something to do while I finished my dissertation, and the nature of the position helped me to see it that way. My first position as a writing center director was an academic staff position at a large, regional, RI institution. I started out as a 10 month employee and my official title said nothing about the writing center. I was a Coordinator in the Undergraduate Tutorial Center. Yes, my primary focus was to direct and expand the writing support services, but my title didn’t reflect that at all. I found this awkward, and more than a little embarrassing, at writing center conferences, where upon introduction I would make it a point to explain that I did the work of directing the writing center, without that title. I learned to do that work, on that job.
One of the things this book does, and which I will talk about very sagely and academically in my review, is to try to understand how the different types of position a writing center director can shape the position, and even determine whether or not a person will stay in that position over time. Eventually, I needed to leave that job, and it was easy to do while still thinking of it as a job. I’d advanced as far as I could in that position, and at the time I missed teaching and faculty life. Consequently, I took a chance. I left a fairly stable academic staff job for a two-year contract that came with teaching and faculty status. I had ample reason to believe this two-year contract would be a stepping stone to more permanent employment at the same institution, but that didn’t change the initial temporary status, or the employment insecurity that can bring. The gamble paid off though, sort of.
This fall I will begin a tenure-track faculty and writing center director position, at a new institution. According to general lore, this is the holy grail of writing center positions. I will have a tenure home in the English Department and a 2-2 course load because of my release time for directing the center. It is, however, back in North Carolina, which means that in the last two years I will have made two cross county moves. (Yes, you can bet you’ll be hearing more of this.) In this particular case the general lore is confirmed by the case studies in this book I am reading to review. The directors who stayed in their positions for the length of the study, and up to one year after, were the directors who taught, and were on the tenure track. I chose not to stay in my first two positions because they did not offer me one or the other of these elements. What I have to wonder though, is how much of my decisions were based on the way academia socializes us to think that success is a tenure-track job? Do people seek out and stay in tenure-track faculty / writing center director positions because those positions represent the best working conditions for writing center directors?
Certainly, the temporary nature of my two-year contract played into my decision to apply for other employment, and yes – probationary tenure-track employment received first consideration. Seeking out those positions was primarily motivated by my desire to stay in one place for a while. I know I didn’t really consider whether or not splitting my time between teaching and faculty responsibilities and directing the writing center was necessarily the best way to direct a center. It wasn’t until I started thinking about my working conditions that I realized how often in the past two years I missed my academic staff job.
I know, right?!? When I first started, I wasn’t sure I would be able to hack it because I was so used to fall break, spring break, etc. It took me at least two years to adapt from an academic schedule to the M-F 8 – 5 staff world. I miss that structure though. I miss being able to plan my time off / vacations when they make the most sense for me, not when the academic calendar says. As a staff person, when I decided to take time off during spring break, or fall break, I could actually take that time off. I didn’t have to spend it catching up on grading or planning for my courses. Yes, while I was in that position, I missed the teaching I get to do now. Thinking about the last couple of years though, what I wanted to accomplish and what I was realistically able to get done, I am not entirely convinced that balancing assistant professorship with writing center directing creates the best working conditions.
Like the authors, I don’t have the answers for what is the best. I am not even sure we can define one particular set of conditions perfect for directing a writing center. There are too many factors, to many variables, and ultimately it is a matter of personal preference. What I do know, is that as I move into this new position, my biggest challenge is going to remain balancing the competing demands for my time and attention.