responsibility of privilege

No one warned me about the guilt. It was all happy, happy, joy and fun. The time, they would emphasize, to do this and that and so much else. To contemplate, to reflect, to breathe, to become rejuvenated. To be free from here, they would earnestly repeat where “here” referred to a panoply of campus-related ills – pettiness, politics, and policies chief among them. But at no point was there ever any mention that being saturated in the time to do this and that and being free from that and this would result in an almost shame-like posture when someone would ask What do you do? What are you working on now? It was easy enough to sidestep the whole truth until someone in the know would proudly announce “She’s on sabbatical!” I have never wished for the earth to swallow me whole more than when such a moment occurred soon after talking with a friend from grad school who I ran into at a local grocery store. She was with her two toddlers, a packed schedule, and wondered aloud why I was in Philadelphia on a Wednesday. The guilt, perhaps, stems from the realization that everyone could benefit from the gift of this time – to have time, to take time, to find a new relationship with time.

And there is certainly time. Blissful time, seemingly boundless and nearly uninterrupted time. And with that time comes, also, the possibility-turned-obligation to notice things that were merely blurs in years past. In the house, in the news, in one’s own life and the lives of others. This is not idle time. No, to be sure this is hyperaware time during which a strange hyper-vigilance about everything and anything is emerging.

But this was not always the case. The first few months were, as has been documented here, what I assumed the sabbatical might be. Joyous. Magnificent expanses of possibilities of how to use one’s time. New forms and spaces of seeing. And what I feared – the paralysis that has been shown to follow in some post-tenure cases – has so far been avoided (rapidly knocking my knuckles to my head, on the faux-wood table in front of me), replaced instead with a flow of ideas inspired in no small part by the reading that this sabbatical-time affords.

So what has changed. People, for one. That is – and I know how bad this is going to sound – during the month of December ample time was spent with family, both immediate and extended, and also fictive – those individuals and family units whom I have known for decades – for whom a sabbatical is not only not common parlance but the concept of a break in the quotidian rhythms of life has no basis in reality. Adult obligations still persist in most people’s lives even if work-related ones are greatly diminished. I mused about as much with a friend recently while saying out loud how unimaginable it seems to me now that there are some people who can mentally manage the spate of home repairs and general home maintenance (of all kinds, structural, personal, familial) while also managing to fulfill their professional desires.

At this point, the word “choices” was silently screaming from a dark corner of my brain. For a person who lives relatively regret-free, this was a strange moment. Some with whom I engaged in conversation during these past few weeks seemed to view my very existence as confusing. I could understand this, because when I have to say out loud how I spend my days and the commitments to which I have chosen to give my time, the words are quite outside of the norm for most people. What are you going to do? How are you spending your time? You’re going where? For how long? By yourself? Their questions were asked not in malice or with disdain, but perhaps with the nascent curiosity of an ethnographer who is truly struggling to make sense of  something (or someone) thought to be so familiar that now seems to be something (or someone) strange. Yes, I will think of these as short-lived, ethnographic inquiries that were premised on the notion that there are norms and that in part they were being flagrantly flouted by this strangely situated, micro-social phenomenon called a sabbatical.

And deadlines. Whereas I wasn’t naïve enough to think that a sabbatical would actually function as a time-stopping, invisibility cloak, I was blanketed in a relatively luxurious amount of time free from immediate demands of the writerly kind. (And no, Nanowrimo was not the same at all.)  And now I am eye-deep in three writing deadlines that fall in the next two weeks. Apparently sabbatical has done little to abate my proclivities to procrastinate, despite how early these Todos begin. It probably doesn’t help that I also keep adding items to my plate, that seems magically (read: incorrectly) larger than before July 1st.

I am left then with one simple, familiar thought: With great privilege – like this relatively unfettered time – comes great responsibility.

That seems a nice idea as any to bring 2011 to a close. And while you out there in your respective corners of the world will be preparing to embrace the new year, I will be feverishly writing to meet one of those aforementioned deadlines (12/31 – did I mention that?), and pondering how to live and use this time responsibly. Thankfully I didn’t completely lose a day like the people of Samoa.

Happy New Year!!

Bonus: the smooth sounds of Nancy Wilson. enjoy!

unsolicited sound advice (from the internet, not yours truly!)

It isn’t clear whether the universe is trying to communicate something of importance to the earth’s inhabitants*, but the delivery of multimodal missives and messages that have flitted across my various inboxes, feeds, and walls reverberate with a degree of measured urgency. Thus, in the spirit of the coming new year and sharing the wisdom, I’ve collected a few of them here.

1. A straightforward, no-nonsense, slightly admonishing-toned list of 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself (via the blog: Marc and Angel Hack Life: Practical Tips for Productive Living). Among their recommendations:

Stop trying to hold onto the past. – You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading your last one.

Stop wasting time explaining yourself to others. – Your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it anyway.  Just do what you know in your heart is right.

Stop being ungrateful. – No matter how good or bad you have it, wake up each day thankful for your life.  Someone somewhere else is desperately fighting for theirs.  Instead of thinking about what you’re missing, try thinking about what you have that everyone else is missing.

2. A reminder to have compassion because We’re All Doing the Best We Can (via HuffPost)

3. Philosophy brought to life in The Cave (An Adaptation of Plato’s Allegory in Clay) — made me revisit an earlier post about shadows and looking. Well worth the 3.4 minutes it takes to watch & listen to the clip.

4. Advice in the form of a questionnaire that Vanity Fair claims is in the style of Proust and his contemporaries and responses to which may be quite revealing of one’s true character (if such a thing really exists). These questions were posed to the President and First Lady by Barbara Walters in a recent tv interview, resulting in some odd moments. A preview of a few of the questions:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • What is your greatest extravagance?
  • On what occasion do you lie?
  • When and where were you happiest?

More than enough to ruminate on as 2012 approaches….

*Yes, I’m procrastinating — blogging even as one of those pesky, year-end deadlines looms large.


Friend.ship. A ship of friends?  Ship of fools? Bateau d’amis ou de fous?

Pronounced: frend-ship.

Two short vowel sounds. “e” like feather or let or Jeff. “i” like lip or listen or whither.

When do we know we are friends with someone? Can we still ask that question when the word “friend” itself is both noun and verb? (My greatest bone to pick with one Mr. Zuckerberg is not about the sudden and neverending changes to his social networking site, but rather to his contribution to the addition of the ugly term “friended” – while most other natural shifts in language amuse me, this one just aggravates.) One does not befriend someone anymore — or at least not in the traditional use of the word to evoke a sense of accidentally happening upon or intentionally pursuing someone’s connection to your life. One such on-screen instance of befriending comes to mind, perhaps because of this nostalgic time of year: The way Nickie Ferrante sidled up to Terry McKay to strike up a conversation aboard a cruise ship, in part, I like to think, because he saw a glimpse of something familiar he recognized in her (and not just because he recognized his cigarette case), and likewise, she in him; a glimpse that blossomed when Terry met his grandmother, Janou. [If I’m very good, and finish my other work in time, I just may allow myself to take advantage of the instant play version on Netflix.]

“I want you to be my friend,” an eight-year-old may to another eight-year-old. And so it is decided. But are they friends? How long does this last? Is friendship a discursive declaration? A felt sense? An inclination?  Once friend, always friend? Perhaps. Not.

There are people — and I am thinking of three in particular right now — with whom I haven’t been in regular, that is to say weekly, monthly, or even yearly — contact for close to two decades. Yet each interaction, however sporadic, accidental or intentional, feels meaningful. purpose-full. joyous. There are others with whom friendship has taken on a veneer of obligation. Perhaps we sat near each other in elementary school and memorized one another’s breathing patterns or the backs of each other’s heads. Or maybe our families were friendly once and to discontinue this trend in a next generation would be anathema, not because one’s companionship is missed, but instead because it is what is expected.

Who could be a fan of the obligatory friendship? Friendship with too many rules offends my sensibilities. And yet this is the fodder of many films about school, adolescence, and life, itself – in this way, friendship is perhaps more insidious than peer pressure. Yet, I also hold close Clarence’s words of wisdom that he shared with George Bailey; “No man is a failure who has friends.” (And at the same time I think of conversations I have had with young men who were incarcerated who were forced to confront an often cruel realization that friends who were numerous “on the outside” numbered quite few when they went to jail or prison.)

Happily, the past few weeks have been spent time in the company of friends who raise questions, allow the space to wonder, give hugs (literal and metaphorical), and feed the soul. We who have friends amongst whom we move and live and dance and play are fortunate indeed. (One unexpected challenge of sabbatical — particularly if one leaves the geography of one’s friends — is having sounding boards and comrades at the ready; thus, these moments become just as precious as the time that time away affords.) Given the possibility of this tenor of friendship, the bad behaviors of individuals who perform the most wicked form of friendship of all, that which is laced with false humility and conducted behind the backs of their “friends,” is especially disappointing.

How might a tendency toward the prudent, then – that is, toward erring on the side of fewer rather than many whom we call “friends” – fit with previous musings on living with an eye toward the possibility that anyone, any stranger, may become a friend. Is it cautious optimism? Measured citizenship? And what to make of work that is borne in friendship, and friendship that is borne through work?

Confucius — “To have friends coming from distant places, surely that is delightful?”

It is, indeed, delightful. Leaving all involved full of delight. Friends who emerge from unlikely moments, the seeds of whose friendship were planted ages ago, even if they’ve only just sprouted.

Apparently it all boils down to seeds and sprouts.

the year in pop — 2011

i was waiting for it, and was going to write some musings about DJ Earworm’s pop music compilation that i look forward to each year, but then i read the musings of slate‘s forrest wickman and realized that i could just post a link to his piece.

or you could just watch this year’s video as you fight post-holiday-family-tour-sugar-rush food coma and await 2012

boom, boom, BOOM!

(thoughts on friendship and the magic of cards currently brewing…)


good tidings and good intentions

woody guthrie‘s new year’s resolutions (via @boingboing)

woody guthrie's 1942 new year's resolutions

i especially love the sketches made to emphasize the resolutions — see for example next to #31, the outstretched hug and kiss (Smack!) to the world on the bottom right.  and #15 — “Learn People Better” — couldn’t we all use a lesson in that?


fetes and mingles

What makes something — a place, a language, food — feel like home? And, perhaps conversely, in what ways do our assumed homes — that is, those sites or locations that bear a resemblance to our external appearances, our practices, or otherwise involuntary markers of (un)witting affiliation — continue to make us feel like outsiders? (And is home simply a utopic notion with no real expression in the world, as we are always necessarily searching and seeking homes?)

These were the questions on my mind as I awoke this morning, questions I’ve wondered about for quite some time, questions, I suspect, I have carried with me from mon enfance and into and through the strange landscapes of adolescence and adulthood. These questions also presuppose a certain privilege — that one has experienced glimpses, and in some instances long stretches, of home-ness despite brushes with the counter, that is a rootlessness, diconnection, a distinct lack of belonging. What amazes and amuses me about notions of home and belonging is that insofar as each word can open up a vast abyss of questions and seemingly endless inquiry, so, too, can one’s sense of home shift in the blink of an eye. Or, as in the case of last night’s Fete de Noel, with an easy grin.

The scene: the annual Christmas party (I’m assuming annual, although this was my first time attending) at the local Alliance Francaise where I am currently enrolled as une etudiante. I was on the fence about attending. While I can carry on conversation with relative strangers and find true delight in learning about the lives of others, I found myself momentarily hesitant as I approached the building. I could still go home, enjoy the brisk walk back and pick up some seemingly ubiquitous holiday popcorn on the way. But fate, in the form of my former teacher ML, intervened and once she said “Bonsoir!” to me, there was no turning back. So into the building we walked together and we rode the elevator to the 7th floor where the sounds of chatter (that my friend E might call “frenchified”) spilled out of the Alliance suite into the hallway as the elevators door opened. ML made her way to the restroom and left me to make my way into the crowded set of rooms, people numbering easily into the 30s and 40s. The lovely C instructed me as to where I could leave my jacket and bag — this would kill a couple of minutes. The open spot next to the water cooler seemed fine, and there was only one other bag in the near vicinity; most others had placed their items on the sofa. Better here, I thought, for easy retrieval and slipping away.

Ok, next: Locating the bar. I said hello to the woman who had conducted my placement test. Talk to me now, I wanted to exclaim! I remember the difference between the passe compose and passe simple! And I can almost remember all of my subjunctive conjugations! But instead I followed my Bonsoir with the most banal of small talk: “Ah, voici le vin!” And poured myself a half plastic cup worth of pinot noir. From there I made my way into one of the smaller classrooms, that I had used on a few occasions after class to Skype with my research team, where there sat one of three cheese platters, assorted breads, a pasta salad, haricot verts, and a large bowl of raw tomatoes — as a decoration, I suspected, when I saw similar formation of clementines in an adjacent classroom.

For several minutes I stood against a door jamb adjoining two rooms, content in my having made this outing, exchanged a few french pleasantries, and enjoyed the late autumn evening air. Having committed to taking an early departure after a quick rotation around the other rooms, I started across the main room whereupon I ran into my current teacher J who greeted me with a jubilant “Bonjour!” and, after introducing me to two other students to her right — Michel et Robert — she immediately instructed us to gather close for a photo and before any of us could protest, she had us raising our glasses with a toast of “Sante!” as the moment was captured in the form of digitized bits of pixelated information.

This moment — of introduction, of orchestrated camaraderie, of (likely somewhat) booze-induced socialization — transformed an otherwise tolerable evening into truly enjoyable one. For the next two and half hours conversation flowed easily and often in varying degrees of comfort with the French language. I heard a Southerner parler-ing from across the suite with great animated conviction; spoke with a Wharton MBA student who had spent a few years living in Switzerland as an adolescent and who was brushing up on her French in preparation for a move to Senegal because her husband, also a student at AF and who works for the State Department, is being transferred there; and the very lovely, positively magnetic Benjamin qui est un professeur de Francais, who somehow managed to convince even the reluctant amongst us to join in the caroling — another first: choral singing of Silent Night en francais.

The rest of the evening, conducted almost 90% in French, was as enjoyable as it was instructive; and in a strange way served as a book end to another mixed group gathering that I attended today, this time of old family friends (about which I’ll write more extensively later, but for now, suffice it to say that subtle differences even in how someone asks how you are doing — interestedly versus accusatorily — can invoke or supplant a sense of home!).

While peppered with instances of organized socializing, this sabbatical has been a model of the bliss of solitude. Parties, those strange artifacts in which people willingly (sometimes) participate, challenge this oath of solitude — challenge the fairly amiable individual to engage not merely in idle chatter for purposes of mindless, mutual adherence to social convention but to help construct an experience that does not make one yearn for a return to one’s solitude.

Happily, both occasions fell largely into the latter category, filled with laughter that binds new acquaintances and the kind that evokes shared past memories; and conversation motivated by genuine interest in another person. (I credit much of my fete de noel meaning-full talk to the very lovely Benjamin who posed questions with ease and seemed to instinctively understand these musings of home-ness and belonging; in contrast, la fete avec des familles was, at times, hampered by stifling interlocutors, despite the charming toddlers who proved to be quite able conversationalists.) To be fair, both fetes had moments of the former as well. In these moments of momentary displacement, I wished to be sitting alone, with a latte or pot of tea, a book near me and with implements of writing at the ready.

To wit, in both form and content and for its reflective as well as projective tone, I appreciate Rilke’s musings on the subject — as found in one of his letters to the young poet Kappus where he writes:
“We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”

I might add to Herr Rilke’s observations that while it is also good to be social, this too, is a difficult endeavor; and to be done well, one requires apt partners, a healthy curiosity, and perhaps a general expectation that there may be something marvelous yet to be discovered, a home to be found(ed) — where the sweets are sweeter, language is a site of openings, food more comforting, and an easy smile between friends and strangers opens up glimpses of home.