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One of my biggest problems with academia is that breaks are so rarely breaks. Even for those who do not have administrative work to contend with, the break so sorely needed to recover from the previous semester is too often spent preparing for the upcoming semester. Winter break is particularly problematic in this way. Anytime stolen to relax and recover from the exhaustion of the semester is tainted by the knowledge that I should be prepping and planning for the new semester.
This year at the beginning of this break I was forced into a little down time by scheduling an outpatient surgery just after I turned in final grades. Dr. Lawyer came down the night before to take care of me on the day of surgery. We had a lovely evening talking and she reminded me of some advice I gave her this summer. She’d suffered heat stroke and was dealing with recovering from this brain injury. We visited shortly after her injury and as we walked around town and she apologized for her weakness and disorientation. She had felt up to walking around when we left her house, but now she felt weak and unsure of herself. Having dealt with my own brain injury, I told her to stop apologizing and to stop being so hard on herself for not recovering faster.
I explained a significant aspect of my own recovery that was hard to see, but helped me learn to be kind to myself about many aspects of my life post-stroke. The brain is very malleable. After an injury it accepts the new situation as normal and begins to chart its new pathways. I remember that, once I had been transferred to my rehab floor, I felt completely normal, like I should be fine. Yes. Some things took longer than normal and things had changed, but essentially I felt ready to get back to my old life. Coming home from the hospital I could look back and see, “Oh, right, I was not normal. I needed that time in the hospital to recover.” Again felt “back to normal.” I didn’t feel like I needed the two months off before the next semester; and I certainly felt ready to return to teaching in January. I made it through that semester, feeling fine and going about my business. Yet once I continued to actually recover, I could see that I hadn’t been fully back to normal.
I explained to Dr. Lawyer, “You are going to feel recovered. You are going to feel like you should be, or are, back to normal. But then, in a few months or a year, you are going to reach another point in recovery where you can look back and say, “Oh, I thought I was recovered, but I wasn’t.” This is important to hold onto, especially for those of us who tend to push too hard and take on too much, because it is so easy to start to berate ourselves for slowing down, to push ourselves too hard too fast to recover and be done with it. To move on. Though I couldn’t articulate it exactly in the moment, my point for Dr. Lawyer was that recovery from her brain injury would be ongoing.
When she reminded me of this conversation, I was a little surprised. I’d forgotten I told her about that. As I close out this year and look back at where I was this time last year, I’ve been reminded how it isn’t just physical recoveries that are incremental and ongoing. At this time last year, and I am pretty sure at various points over the last couple of years, I thought I was done. I’d recovered and moved on from my marriage. I was my new self. Yet, each time I look back, I realize I have recovered more. Realize that I should have been kinder to myself along the way, because I wasn’t done. I was still healing and needed to take it slow.
As I move into the new year, I know I will lose sight of this again. I will push myself and I will get frustrated when I feel like I am not making the progress I think I should. I haven’t settled on my conditions for the year, but my word for the upcoming year is foundation. As I work to establish and strengthen the base of my relationships, my finances, my health, my self, it is good to remember that this recovery is ongoing.
If you are at all familiar with the musical Carousel, please forgive me for putting that song in your head. If you aren’t the linked video is a special peak into musicals circa 1956. Watch it, if you can. Also, take comfort in the fact that, due to a bit part in our high school production of said show, it is going to take me at least a week to get it out of my own brain. In my last entry, I inadvertently set forth a challenge that the rest of June would have to work to live up to the first day. Apparently, the challenge was accepted in all the best ways!
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Look, too often the days that are often supposed to be significant end up being not. Yesterday though .. yesterday was the First of June. Maybe not a national holiday, maybe not even the official first day of summer, but it was the first of the month and, man, the rest of June will have some living up to do!
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Explaining my absence is probably the first order of business. As I mentioned before the end of spring semester is its own beast. Like the end of any other term it is hectic and stressful, but there is some additional dark magic at work in academy during the month of April. Every demand on your time, report to write, email to send, meeting to attend adds some kind of exponential weight and stress. Additionally this year as I trudged through April, I suddenly felt the significance of everything that has happened to me in the last two years. In many ways the stress, my mood, and my general exhaustion mirrored the way I felt as I finished my dissertation and approached graduation.
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In A Field Guide to Getting Lost Rebecca Solnit discusses the captivity narratives of the early American colonizers Cabeza de Vaca, Mary Jemison, and others. She is concerned with the captives who adapted, who created and stayed in the homes and lives they made inside these new cultures. She talks about the psychological and cultural metamorphoses that these transitions required. And, she discusses the way we perform these metamorphoses all the time. We grow, we change, without necessarily noticing.
“Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar, if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment.”
This slow and incremental, every day change she calls a psychological metamorphosis. The captives she describes as having to go through a cultural metamorphoses, which she describes as “something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life.” The caterpillar doesn’t just magically reform into a butterfly, its body must first disintegrate, decay to feed the emerging creature. Solnit says “We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.” In this book about getting lost, about losing oneself, I see Solnit’s point about the total transformation necessary to adapt so wholly to a new culture that you can’t return to your old one.
My desks always start out neat, organized, a clear space to work. As that work progresses the piles of things in progress develop, bills to pay, tax documents to be filed, books to be referenced or read, mementos pile up. The pink beanie baby bear a secret admirer gave me before I left my Haggen’s job. The stuffed lamb a dear friend gave me to keep me company during my hospital stay. Pictures I discovered going through my memory shoe boxes. These days three selves stare back at me from those pictures; and I am all of them and none of them.
A card the friend made for me, “The Three Faces of Brandy Brown (Seductress, Seductee, Seduced).” Two of the pictures cannibalized, probably by the ex-DH for one of his last minute birthday projects where sentimentality was supposed to make up for the lack of forethought. The picture of me, the Seductress, the only one remaining. Me hugging a good friend, chin to my shoulder, grinning, looking at the camera as if I’m daring it to try capturing all of me. The moment I thought I had emerged, newly formed, newly named, newly married and ready to unfurl my painted wings.
The photo-booth roll of Ouiser and I on a conference trip to San Francisco: our sunglasses on, laughing, having such a good time. I can’t remember if this would have been before or after our encounter with the Bushman, the street performer, or the one footed pigeon I named Percy. That was a very full day. In the third picture down we are both have our sunglasses up and are captured mid-laugh, and I honestly don’t know that there is a happier picture of me anywhere. This is the moment before, before the decay. Before grad school began the deconstruction and reformation of herself. Before the stroke. Before the unraveling.
Finally, the oldest. The snap shot of me at nine, though even then I looked old for my age, standing up from a picnic table, looking back over my shoulder as my Grandma Nina looks at me. My hair pulled tightly into a pony tail. My bangs the perfect length. I don’t remember the event or where the picture is taken, nothing seems familiar. I remember the shorts set I am wearing being one of my favorites, and that this was probably one of the last times I was able to wear it before outgrowing it. I know I kept the picture partly because of the amazing tan I have. I spend all of my Western Washington high school summers chasing this tan.
Judging from the timing, this picture was probably taken at some kind of going away event before we moved west. Maybe that explains my expression, the sadness in my eyes, though I don’t think that is it exactly. That girl has no idea where she will end up, no idea how far away from that tiny northern Minnesota town she will travel literally and figuratively. All that girl has ever known is growing up in a trailer, then a cabin, finally a house in town, parents who scraped by, aunts, uncles, and cousins babysitting, hotdishes to make meals stretch(tuna noodle, spam, and wild rice), and never really fitting in. Always being too much, too strong willed, too imaginative, too independent, too talkative, too smart. She doesn’t know that this is beginning of a period of decay and withdrawal. She doesn’t know this is where her family changes. This is where she will say goodbye to grandparents, where Aunts, uncles, and cousins will become strangers, where her home will become an awkward place, an outgrown garment.
However, it is also where she will learn to move, to grow, to re-build that family wherever she is at. It is where being too much, too strong willed, too imaginative, too independent, too talkative, too smart are the things that will sustain her. They are the things that will get her out of that west coast version of the Minnesota town. The things that will make her a reader, teach her how to make friends, and help her survive this move and all the rest. Every way that she didn’t fit will help her survive her marriage and divorce, help her earn her Ph.D., and give her the courage to face every new thing: illness, job, town, house. She may have outgrown that northern Minnesota life, but with every metamorphosis she steps further into the life that does fit. A life in which she is no longer too much and always enough.
A consistent theme throughout my post-divorce writing is the joy, revelation, and tension between the past and the present. The granola post probably captures the idea, and the joy of it, most clearly. The tension and the revelation are, I think, more diffuse. In my experience, they sneak up on me; the moments of the most joy and revelation in the present made more so by their inevitable contrast to the past. Moving through this past weekend, chronicling it with pictures that deliberately avoid faces, recovering from the bouts of laughter that left me breathless, I planned a joyful, celebratory post about the impromptu first party in my home, about old friendships, about bringing together old and new friends. Perhaps this post is still that, there is still joy and celebration, but all of that now exists in the contrast.
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My goal for my house has never been to have a particular look or style. Sure I have a weakness for mission style furniture and dark woods, but beyond that my tastes are fairly eclectic. Generally, it is good because randomly collecting hand me down pieces from friends and family is pretty much the only way I get furniture. The goal for my house has always been a feeling. From the first time to now, there isn’t a time when I have walked into Dr. Phoenix’s house without immediately feeling at peace and at home. In fact, it is her house and that feeling which started me thinking about welcome as much as it was the scholarly work in graduate school. It is the idea of welcome and the feeling I have in Dr. Phoenix’s home that I try to create as I pull together my new house. My scholarly work tells me that in order for me to create that sense of welcome for someone else I must first feel welcomed and at home in my own space. While it certainly isn’t all there yet, since I moved in back in August I have been trying to turn this house that I love into a home.
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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.