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.