serenity now

i’m not a very religious person, so instead of the serenity prayer some people may be familiar with, i offer here the serenity doctrine that better reflects my current state of mind

hoochie mama! hoochie mama! 

When the inner crazy peeks out

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

It’s one thing for your internal, often NSFW (no, not in that way) proclivities to have made a safe and comfortable home inside the recesses of your mind. I am referring here to those bits of yourself you save only for yourself and, on occasion, “lucky” family members, ie communicating while hungry (read: impatient and unabashed snapping tendencies); disliking an idea without a good, sound reason (read: there’s no way I’m working with __________) — and I’ll stop here, lest all my secrets be revealed…!

But it’s an altogether other and problematic thing when these once-hidden proclivities (read: just plain bad behavior) begin to make an appearance in the form of verbal and physical expressions that others in your orbit do not associate with their sense of you, nor you with your own sense of self.

So, the dilemma: When does preservation of one’s sanity, in which some of the crazy peeks out, trump maintenance of one’s known persona?
(and the real question: Why and how is it that some people are endlessly able to get away with behavior so egregious, it borders on pathological?)

In popular culture terms:

  • Twerk queen Miley Cyrus — sure, she’s gotten a good amount of flack, but her “youth” seems to buy her free pass after free pass, in large part because covering her flaws keeps many people employed.
  • Anne Hathaway is mercilessly eschewed in the mainstream press for being too aloof (and perhaps for not twerking enough…). Her great transgression: a reputation as a bit of a diva and not giving the press too much attention. Egad! {eye-roll}

At the precipice of the aforementioned storm is where I find myself, and the tumble downward into a frenzy of activity seems daunting and unavoidable; my natural inclination is to avoid all such madness at all costs, but I do not have that luxury at the moment. And so for the next fortnight, I will ride what I will imagine in my mind’s eye as a benevolent incarnation of Hokusai’s Great Wave — if I make it out alive, I’ll report back from other side.

Mad dash (or, the Storm before the Calm before the Storm)

Yesterday, I awoke with a start — what day was it? Where was I? What time of which day was it?

And then, a calming thought: it was only Saturday. Despite two previous days free from meetings and human conversation — a kind of bliss that only few people can truly appreciate — it was just the start of the weekend. I was newly thankful for the holiday long weekend, into which breathing space was inserted into the days before the usually panicked-laced Sunday.

I have never fully appreciated the Thanksgiving break before — the holiday arrives at an awkward time for those who live by the academic calendar: much too late in the semester to provide the respite usually sought in the middle of October and too close to the winter break to feel like anything but a burdensome obligation to be a human being in the presence of family, many of whom cannot understand why you’d rather be sitting quietly, listening to Bach’s Cello Suites in the dark than engaging in human interaction of any type (ok, that might just be me). And, in another version of this solitude seeking, that we might relish time to attend to the many mundane items that linger, patiently awaiting proper attention (anything from writing letters of recommendation, completing revisions to articles, reading drafts of students’ dissertation chapters, to returning emails that have been languishing in your inbox).

It’s not that we solitude-seeking academic types (with newly acquired administrative responsibilities) would rather be doing any of those things, but we recognize that whole days free from meetings are like found time, blissful pockets of unscheduled time where wandering thoughts intersect with the ever-present and ever-growing todo lists, creating space for some much-needed self care — in my case, largely in the form of sleep and at least one meandering walk — within which to address these aforementioned mundane todos.

And so the mad dash of semester-end frenzy begins. December 1st. December 1st.

As the storm/calm/storm sets sail, my mind floats back a couple of weeks to the memorial service that was held in honor of a colleague who passed away this summer. Words were spoken in honor of this colleague, words that nearly brought back to life his intellectual heft and generosity, and, perhaps most importantly, his tremendous humanity. (Nearly.) How many storms and calms did he witness? Did he cause? Did he navigate? What came through most loudly — in stories, in memories, in photographs, poems, quotations, and artifacts — were the many ways this robust man embraced all contours of life. When does one learn to do this? When does one cultivate the practice of keeping the forest and the trees in perspective?

And then, this past week, a small victory. A glimpse of possibility. A hint that days, weeks, months of seeming triviality were laying the foundation for… something. And like this, a hint of humanity is restored (my cryptic recollections, notwithstanding).

So let the storms come. It must mean that there’s a calm ahead.

and enjoy the Cello Suites

When all my words have been stolen by the waking hours

Keeping Quiet
Pablo Neruda

(trans. Alastair Reid.)

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,

I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead

and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

The refuge of quiet

First, I started writing to my siblings. Then I started writing to one friend, and then another friend, and then a colleague with whom I am friendly and a few friends who are also my colleagues. And each time I found myself writing a version of the same sentiment again and again:

It’s only day 1, and I’m already exhausted!

Like many schools, colleges, and universities around the country, our semester officially kicked off today. It was a day that I was dreading — not because there was necessarily anything new to anticipate (as one of my siblings noted, this would be my ##th first day of school — actual number not necessary), but precisely because I knew what the day’s activities would entail: talking, talking, and more talking.

Susan Cain, in her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, offers an elegant yet dramatic overhaul of colloquial understandings of introverts. Long has conventional wisdom implied that introverts share certain characteristics — e.g., shyness, quiet, and even being submissive or demurring in social settings. In her book, Cain argues against this overly simplistic classification and suggests instead that introverts, too, possess qualities and abilities often associated with extroversion — e.g., out-going personalities, ability to engage in public speaking, penchant for collaboration — however the impact on them is quiet different. Whereas extroverts may thrive on and draw energy from these (hyper)social interactions, introverts, Cain proposes, actually have energy drained from them in these same activities. Thus, the performance is the same; the effect varies significantly.

When I first read them, Cain’s words and propositions comforted me. She provided language I didn’t have when students or family members would comment on how comfortable I seemed in a highly social setting, while teaching, or giving a presentation and my reaction would include some version of how little I remembered about the event. I have gotten used to the looks of horror when I freely admit that as soon as I begin giving an academic presentation, for example, I slip into a form of auto-pilot/blackout and have to trust that whatever is coming out of my mouth is at least remotely related to what the audience was promised. (So far this has worked most of the time…)

And when I read her recent blog post — Ten Tips for Parenting an Introverted Child — I instantly wished for a time machine so I could place the piece in the hands of my well-meaning parents for whom the notion that public performance was a terrifying concept was hard to comprehend. For them, like many parents, I suspect the desire was to share with friends and family the fruits of the labor they supported in the form of musical lessons, purchases of instruments, and more; for the introverted child, however, the meaning lay in the practice and not the performance. Cain’s reframing also explains why, when the situation calls for it — as in the desire to succeed in a profession that is saturated with many forms of teaching and publication, or reciting poetry in a high school french language competition — it is possible for the introvert to perform. (Only after many years, did I myself come to appreciate this disjuncture in a productive way such that now, more than 25 years after my first lesson, I have begun to re-learn the piano. Just for myself.)

Cain’s thesis also gave credence to the routine I have developed of returning to my apartment after a day like today — eleven nonstop hours devoted to meeting new students, answering questions, greeting faculty colleagues, meeting with current students, attending to administrative issues… — and feeling utterly helpless to do much more than come home, throw together dinner from whatever is lying in my fridge, and sit quietly on my sofa eating, listening to music, or watching something inane on my laptop.

Anything… Just as long as I don’t have to talk.

Happy new year!
(To all my dear friends and family who are endlessly tethered to the academic calendar.)

Sun-day Afternoon

The song playing in my mind (and now on my laptop) is “Tuesday Afternoon” by the Moody Blues, although for the better part of three hours I was singing “Sunday afternoon” to myself.

Tuesday, afternoon,
I’m just beginning to see, now I’m on my way.
It doesn’t matter to me, chasing the clouds away.
Something, calls to me,
The trees are drawing me near, I’ve got to find out why?
Those gentle voices I hear, explain it all with a sigh.

I’m not sure what it was about a Tuesday afternoon that moved Justin Hayward to pen these words — the same could’ve been said about today, an afternoon with just the right dose clear blue skies streaked with fleeting, white clouds, with gentle breezes whispering softly and getting just a bit frisky with my hair as I strolled to a local park to enjoy one of the finest sandwiches (or, if you’re in Philly: hoagies) this side of the Atlantic. At its warmest, the temperature began in the low 60s and rose to a respectable 80 degrees — mention-worthy in late August, when phrases like “heat wave” and “oppressive heat” are the norm.

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Perhaps my pre-emptive nostalgia comes from the realization that this is my last summer Sunday of the year. Next week, this time, I will be cleaning out my office (long overdue) in preparation for the start of the coming academic year. The summer days in Philadelphia draw to an end as the slow frenzy of New York City prepares to takes it hold. The challenge this year, as it always is, will be to keep the stupid frenzy at bay.

What distinguishes stupid frenzy from, say, beneficial or even useful frenzy you ask? In simplest terms, the degree of agita that it induces. It is why I work hard to avoid all known persons during the summer (save my friends, of course); to wit — while walking out of our main building last week (during one of my 24-hr visits to the city for semester-related prep), using guerrilla-like maneuvers, I rerouted myself three times when I spotted oncoming agita from afar. Call me a coward, but I was the better for it.

Of course, an active embrace of one’s inner zen is probably the more healthy approach. I’ll work on it, and in the meantime, as summer recedes into the land of memories, the Moody Blues can soothe my soul.

 

And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a bit more sun to be had on this summer afternoon.

Summer agenda

Since last September, the trials and tribulations of institutional academic life have applied ample psychic weight to my daily consciousness and have indeed dominated my waking (and sleeping) hours. But the spring semester has ended and June is nearly here — June… June! when I have to be finished with the last of the lingering todos on a very long and very overdue list of things I owe to other people. So, what is on the agenda for June, July, and August? In short, as little of a schedule as possible and a wish list of experiences:

  1. Try the creations at each of the Top 10 Falafel Spots in NYC (according to cityeats) — this is basically just an excuse to return, again, to Taim, which is well worth the trek down to the West Village.
  2. Go to the movies… a lot… and watch, among others:
    The Way, Way Back 
  3. Summer tv viewing: including “The Yard” (free on Hulu), “Arrested Development,” and (it might finally be time for a re-viewing of) all five seasons of “The Wire.”
  4. Taste test of lemon ricotta pancakes across the city.
  5. Thanks to E, I am now hooked on “Sherlock” — it’s the kind of show that begs a second and third viewing before the first has finished. So the two seasons’ worth will keep me occupied for at least a little while, especially as I play one of my favorite tv watching games: Guess where they are (the show is filmed in London, thus making the viewing and the gaming especially satisfactory.) And besides, who wouldn’t watch a show whose titular character is played by an actor called Benedict Cumberbatch, who could very realistically be the love child of Fred MacMurray, circa “Double Indemnity” and Dennis Quaid, circa pretty much any time.
  6. Embody and communicate a love of anything as much as Bobby McFerrin does here:

    or as Leonard Bernstein does here:
  7. Walk and walk and walk with no destination in mind, including in and out of the corners of Philadelphia, through the Sheffield Peak District, and along the Thames for as long as my legs will lead me.
  8. A photo a day for the summer (or as close to it as I can come). Here’s one I took in Central Park a couple of weeks ago:

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    The not to secret Cherry Blossom walk near the Reservoir
  9. And my real summer reading list
American Born Chinese by Gene Yang
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
Witness by Karen Hesse
Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolf

Gladly willing to accept any and all company who want to go along for the ride.