Sunday, August 30, 2015

a glimpse of rest

I had the privilege of hearing a great sermon about the importance of taking a sabbath this evening. Mark talked about how the moments of rest are an integral part of the creative process: In Genesis, the seventh day is one of the days of creation, not an extra day after a six-day creation was complete. In music, it is the rests that shape the phrases and create beauty rather than cacophony.

In the breakneck pace of twenty-first century American life, and especially the diffused nature of academic work, it's sometimes hard to imagine what sabbath rest looks like. For me, it looks like this:

dissertation shelfie
That, dear readers, is all the books and articles related to my dissertation on the shelf, which really only happens on sabbath.

Most days, they look more like this:

piles like this populate floor near my desk
Over the course of the working week, the piles around my desk multiply and grow precariously taller.

When I'm done working on Saturday, I save and close my working dissertation file and minimize the browser window with related websites. My teaching materials find their way into my backpack, and the sea of books and articles surrounding my desk return to their shelves.

And then I rest.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

the framing is the hardest part *

This is my rock and shell collection, and I love it.**

I love it so much, I brought it with me all the way from Rambling Farmhouse in the car, in the bottom of a round laundry basket, with only soft things packed on top.

I am happy just to look at them. Occasionally, I turn some over or bring new things to the top.

Some of these rocks and shells have been with me since childhood when I gathered them on Long Island's south shore. Some have crossed oceans in my backpack from Lake Baikal, from Paris, from São Paolo. Some have been gifts from other people's travels.

My grandmother thinks a rock collection is ridiculous. She has lots of reasons: they all look pretty much the same when they're dry, they don't say where they're from, there are too many for me  to remember acquiring each of them.

And she's right. The origins of most of these are now a mystery, and the overwhelming colors are greys and tans.

She's also wrong. In the aggregate, my rocks and shells are my travels. They are pieces of my world, the places I've visited and the places I've lived, and it doesn't matter that I can't tell you their individual origins.

They are beautiful to me just as they are because when I look at this basket, I see the world as I have known it.

My choice to keep these rocks and shells piled on top of each other in a basket on a shelf, however, means that other people, like my grandmother, see just a pile of random rocks and shells gathering dust.

Sometimes I think about framing some or all of the collection. Like this:

Photo Credit:
And then I start thinking about all the decisions: how to group them, how to organize each group, what kind of frames, glass or no glass, how to mount them, permanently or not, where to hang the frames. And the basket of no decisions starts to look better and better, and I just...don't.

In a fit of pique this week I realized that my dissertation is exactly like my rock and shell collection.

I have gathered 138 pages (double-spaced! Times New Roman! 12 pt font!) of beautiful ideas. Ideas about the role of narrative in society. Ideas about why we tell some stories and not others. Ideas about how narrative changes. Ideas about faith and science and fairy tales.

Ideas with very little connection to one another.

They're not quite as random as my basket of rocks and shells, of course, because they're loosely grouped into chapters by topic. And truly, the grouping and the ordering makes sense in my head.

It's articulating the connections and guiding the reader through my thought process that I'm struggling with.

Putting the ideas on paper is not enough. Unless I can polish these gems and frame them beautifully, my work is just a pile of dusty rocks that are only valuable to me.


* Bonus points if the title made you hum.
** Did you know that rocks are my first love? When I was little my parents used to take me for walks on the beach because it was close and it was free. Most days we all came home barefoot because I had filled our shoes and socks with rocks and shells.
When the crew working on water and sewer lines under our street found out I loved rocks, they started bringing me the most interesting ones at the end of the day. When we moved, my dad refused to put the (many! heavy!) rocks on the truck, and I wailed because he was making me leave my friends behind. (In my dad's defense, some of the rocks from the workers were quite large.)

Monday, August 3, 2015

be the tortoise, not the hare

I measure my life in tally marks these days.

At the end of each 25-minute pomodoro of dissertation,  I make a tally mark on a piece of paper on my desk. Then I reset the timer and get up from the desk for 5 minutes of not-writing.

I'm at the stage of the dissertation process where I can feel it starting to gather energy as we roll down a steep hill. It's tempting to embrace the heady momentum and stay at the keyboard for hours at a stretch.

That way lies madness, though. Taking my hands off the breaks and my feet off the pedals and giving myself over wholly to the writing means forgetting to cook or even buy groceries. It means forgetting to make important phone calls and pay bills. After a few days, I have no brain for words and no energy for thinking and the life outside of my desk is in shambles. I've done that before, and I always hate myself for it.

So, now I aim for six poms a day, every day but Sunday. Most days, I make it to six tally marks by mid afternoon and then come back to the desk for two more poms (and two more tally marks!) in the evening.

Making myself stop feels like a bizarre kind of discipline.

I can attest that it is a fruitful discipline, though. The document on my computer is growing longer and more complex. The rest time away from the keyboard often leads to connections among chapters and solutions to knotty problem spots.

This is a mountain stage, not a sprint.

And the tortoise wins.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

a glimpse of family

At the aquarium today there was a manipulative that taught about how objects moving independently of one another may appear to be coordinated if they are following the same rules (as in the natural laws of physics), and this appearance of coordination is heightened when the objects look alike. The manipulative used black spheres on strings, but it was teaching about fish and schooling behavior.

I was visiting the aquarium with assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins spanning three generations, and we moved through the space with a minimum of coordination. But we all had the same goals:

1. Enjoy the fish.
2. Be with each other.
3. Keep track of children.
4. Avoid toddler meltdowns at all costs.

Sometimes we were all together in a clump, showing each other the same thing. Sometimes, we were spread out into smaller clusters. At the end, we left the aquarium, as we had arrived, in small, nuclear-family groups.

This evening we sat around looking at old family photos. Over and over again, we collectively marveled at how much we all look like each other, each of us resembling different others of us at different times in our lives.

Most of the time, we are fragmented into clusters by geography and the quotidian demands of our individual lives. Every once in a while, though, we gather, and there is some critical mass of natural law that helps us hang together.

Photo courtesy of Alison Griffin.

In those brief moments, we are a glorious school of fish dancing individually together.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

free at last

Over the last two years, I've written a lot about inhabiting the wilderness between end and beginning. Moving halfway across the country a month ago was a huge step toward exiting that liminal space.

The more momentous occurrence of the last thirty days, however, was the official closure of my late husband's estate.

This most recent letter from the probate court is the matched pair of the first letter designating me as the personal representative of the estate. It puts a seal on all of the official actions I have taken to dissolve his corporation, sell his real estate and his vehicles, and distribute his investments among his heirs.

That unchosen responsibility was a too-large yoke on my shoulders, and I resented it.

This most recent letter marks the end of my legal responsibility for my late husband's affairs and effects. Now, my only obligation to Adam is to maintain his presence in the lives of his children, a yoke which I will gladly bear.

I feel so free.

Happy Independence Day!

Friday, June 26, 2015

pinch me

Sometimes when I walk past the door inside the apartment, I forget that I'm in an apartment. The stack of locks and the light from the hallway peeking around the edges are somehow coded not-home.  More than once, I've caught my mind whispering, 'Gosh, we've been in this hotel for a long time,' like the ghost of a thought that almost isn't.

And yet, all my things are here.

All my books, all my yarn, my cello, my photos, my spinning wheel, my dishes, my broom, my tax paperwork for the last ten years, my clothes, my bedding, my bills, my teapots, my computer.

All of it.


In the place I picked.

Sometimes it feels so very right, and sometimes it feels unreal.

Like playing house.

Sometimes the sky is too beautiful for words.

And I feel so blessed to have found this apartment in this building on this floor on this side.

The Netherlands Carillon and the bugle calls at Fort Myer make an unexpected and pleasant counterpoint to the urban din of quotidian traffic and emergency sirens.

Yet, even as high as we are on the eighth floor, the overwhelming sound throughout the day is the birds who make their homes in the trees that reach higher than my windows.

I definitely didn't expect the birds.

Someone pinch me.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Paris, je t'aime?

Today I came closer to using my epi-pen than I ever have before.

I expected to be in Michigan by now, but I'm still in Paris, because I was careless enough to eat a sandwich whose bread included walnuts.

On the one hand, why are there ground up walnuts in sandwich bread?!?!?! Really, why?

Dear international healthful food movement,
Please stop putting nuts everywhere just because you can. Baked goods, yes. Granola, yes. Sandwich bread, please can we not?
Itchily yours,

On the other hand, what food-allergic person reads just the placard and not the sticker on the sandwich, eh? I grabbed a sandwich and a salad from a lovely fresh bakery after having read the placards detailing the contents, but I didn't notice that the sandwich's placard didn't say anything about the bread or that the sticker holding the wrapper closed listed WALNUTS, just like that, all caps in English even. How could I be so inattentive? I should know better.

Boarding was just getting started when I realized that I couldn't get on the plane. My ears hurt, the front of my neck felt thick, and my chest was tight. I could still breathe and talk, but I wasn't confident that would continue.

First aid came, took my vitals, and tried to convince me to just get on the plane because the symptoms would have gotten more serious faster if they were going to. Except, that's not always the case with anaphylaxis, and Paris to Detroit is a really long flight.

When first aid called for a consult, the airport doctor counseled coming in to the med center, and I went despite the first responder's skepticism. Vitals, examination, a dose of prednisone, a dose of Zyrtec, and observation time later, I had, as predicted, missed my plane, the last direct flight for the day. The good news is that, although my face and chest felt awful, I was still breathing effectively as evidenced by my stellar pulse oximeter and blood pressure cuff readings.

Air France's customer service was amazing, though. Someone met me at the clinic to walk me through the process of rebooking the flight, picking up a prescription, and finding a place to spend the night. I have a boarding pass for a flight tomorrow, a room at the Citizen M, and more doses of steroids and antihistamines.

I also have a renewed awareness of my own vulnerability.