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.)

What it takes to write

In her piece for the New Yorker titled, “How I get to write,” Roxanna Robinson describes the precious, sacred morning time between the end of sleep and the beginning of writing. The time — or more precisely, the space, the gap in the day when remnants of slumber still linger before the day’s demands become all-consuming.

I brush my teeth, get dressed, make the bed. I avoid conversation, as my husband knows. I am not yet in the world, and there is a certain risk involved in talking: the night spins a fine membrane, like the film inside an eggshell. It seals you off from the world, but it’s fragile, easily pierced.

The “fine membrane” of the previous night is one I want to stay with for longer than I usually am able to, save during breaks and time away — that is to say, physically away. While I don’t agree with all of what she writes (i.e., I love breakfast and, when I allow myself to indulge, truly enjoy the taste of coffee) —

I go down the hall into the kitchen. I don’t like breakfast, but it’s necessary to get through it in order to get to coffee.

I drink instant because I don’t care how it tastes, all I want is the kick. And I don’t want to wait for perking or dripping.

— I do have a deep appreciation for her articulation of the importance of undisturbed times to delve deeply into the gossamer hints of thought that require space to germinate and sprout.

So I don’t read the news or listen to it. Nor do I make a single phone call, not even to find out if the plumber is actually coming that day to fix the sink, which he has failed to do now for five days in a row. One call and I’m done for. Entering into the daily world, where everything is complicated and requires decisions and conversation, means the end of everything. It means not getting to write.

The reason the morning is so important is that I’ve spent the night somewhere else.

This is nowhere I can describe exactly, only that it’s mysterious and limitless, a place where the mind expands.

****
Being awake and ready for writing and being awake in order to be social are two utterly different things. My family knows this well…

****

Still more daily routines of writers were made available recently by Maria Popova over at brainpickings.org:

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

including, Ernest Hemingway:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Maya Angelou:

I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work.

Don DeLillo:

I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.

William Gibson:

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

Anaïs Nin:

I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.

and, for E, the wise musings of Benjamin Franklin — seen here in this graphically organized daily routine:

Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule

and now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare to sleep so that I can get up and write.

Snow’s white

Snow started to fall, started to zig and zag maniacally at the whim of the winds and all at once. The first snowfall — that is, the first snow burst of the season.

This was another day that had forgotten how to end. Conversations bled into one another, the clock kept time, but an hour fast because I had not found the time to turn the hands back. For months it had been five minutes slow. And now, keeping time 55 minutes faster than everyone and everything in the surrounding office suite — somehow, that felt all right.

Finally at a few minutes past 10:00 at night, I walked out into the flake filled air and it felt like bliss. This photo — the original is below the doctored one — was one of the first I made that night with my camera’s phone. The frenetic moisture that drenched the night was no deterrence and soon after reaching home, I turned right back around — stopping only to pull on my waterproof boots and grab my slr. Those pics turned out terribly. But for those several minutes, there was no deadline looming, budgets to approve, and the like. There was just a sepia world that awaited…

…recognition.

tragic flaw

We all have them, those personality traits or characteristics that we can’t shake no matter how many self-help books we read, conversations we have with friends, meditation retreats we attend… For some, the trait is being too closed off, putting up boundaries for fear of being disappointed or hurt or angered. For others, the opposite is true — those whose hearts leap out at the first sign of another human being, less than desperate for human contact, so willing to give kindness to friends and strangers alike. I have friends who fit both of these categories, and others for whom saying yes or no is near impossible; still others whose ability to listen to a story of yours was predicated upon the opportunity to top it somehow (Ok, I’m not friends with any of the latter any more.).

I used to think my tragic flaw was procrastination. Last minute is when I did (and still do) everything, it seems. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I working until the very possible moment, working on multiple projects at once — because, while saying “no” is not a problem for me, I can’t quite pass on something that feels right and true and what a friend calls “soul-giving” — and more often than not, working past whatever deadline has been determined. (It doesn’t help to have an overdeveloped sense of how made up everything is… thereby making deadlines seem even more arbitrary than they already are — yet all too real in their made up arbitrariness.) But in this past week, while mired in the aforementioned book deadlines and conference proposal deadlines and grant deadlines and teaching and meetings and email responses and the re-revving up of the reference letter requests and, and, and… an all too simple thought occurred to me. My tragic flaw isn’t waiting until the last minute, nor is it taking on too many projects (for which I only have myself and my very persuasive, overachieving friends to blame — you know who you are…) — no the problem is perplexingly simple: while I have learned to collaborate well, I have not learned to delegate.

Being a “boss” was never a role that appealed to me. It was a different spirit of a university that drew me in, initially. Anne Carson, in describing John Henry Newman’s view, notes that

This gives one great pause — the pursuit of a “useless” existence, and all the trappings that come with claiming such a pursuit, such as accusations of elitism and myopia in the face of a world so burdened in many corners with the mere struggle of survival. But “useless” in Carson and Newman’s estimation is not without purpose; it is without predetermined use.

In this spirit, collaboration exists not only with others, but with the words and ideas of others as well — the “getting lost with abandon” nature of falling into a text or conversation — the full embrace of how artist Tacita Dean describes the experience of reading Sebald:

“He takes you down these poetic cul-de-sacs. And you don’t care that you’re being led nowhere, of course, because you learn so much on the way.”

Is that what a university is for? To be a space where education can be lived, at least in corners and whispers (if not completely out loud), free from agenda or tethers? (I know, I know, I hear it… the preachy-bordering-on-whiny; bear with me.) In her essay, which is titled “The Idea of a University (after John Henry Newman),” Anne Carson continues her simultaneous explication and wondering about knowledge and universities, and because I like her way with words so much I will simply reproduce them here:

In its most beautiful sense, a university setting can be one that nurtures inquiry for the sake of inquiry — a place that embraces, for instance, an ethos of research that is inherently collaborative, collective, and participatory.

But ever at the ready are those elements of the “institutional apparatus” that do not merely maintain but also earnestly endorse the status quo — and it is surprising how much paperwork the status quo requires!

Instead of sitting for hours upon days with transcripts or field notes or revisiting video or in the company of curious adolescents (who never fail to remind us old adults about the true nature of humility), I find my days increasingly taken up instead with decisions about topics too mundane to describe even obliquely. These are the times that try muggles’ souls. Suffice it to say that if someone approached me with an offer to become a painter’s assistant in a seaside Maine town or work in a hat shop along the Seine, I would leave in an instant.

Delegation, it seems to me, requires a certain degree of detachment wherein the task supersedes the person as the valued object. Is there a way to delegate humanely? And do shipbuilders or surgeons even worry about such things? And is not this worry about delegation merely a manifestation of a “use”-driven agenda rearing its ugly head? What does it matter whether the way our department assesses students’ [insert learning objective here] matches or meets the expectations determined by [insert state agency here]? (Would it be terribly wrong if I filled in all of the boxes on all of the grids with a simple “Trust us, it’s good.”?) Wherein delegation so often, but not always, is in service of running a more efficient machine — Sebald’s own words come through here:


For a response — of the sort in which a weary traveler’s nod at a passing delivery boy is done so in recognition of the doing that must be done in the moment in which it is — I turn a final time to Carson’s essay:

An earlier draft of this post once ended with a worry about how one achieves the ability to delegate. But then I took a walk, sat in the company of people who soothe my soul, took another walk, and had yet more conversations with friends and texts (which have become like friends, themselves) and have arrived at the conclusion that I’m going to continue collaborating, learn to delegate in service of that collaboration, and that it may be quite all right to remain inadequate when it comes to complying with the status quo.

In fact, I’d think it rather tragic if this flaw were to, say, suddenly disapparate

friday poem break

Between Going and Coming
by Octavio Paz

Between going and staying
the day wavers,
in love with its own transparency.
The circular afternoon is now a bay
where the world in stillness rocks.

All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can’t be touched.

Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.

Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.

The light turns the indifferent wall
into a ghostly theater of reflections.

I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.

The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.

first days of school

Each August, before the start of the coming school year, while my parents were busy reminding my siblings and me about the importance of doing well in school and making sure each of us was equipped with the necessary accoutrements to face the coming onslaught of new subjects and homework and a surefire method for covering books with brown paper shopping bags, my mind was fixated on notebooks. It must be that the organization of one’s class notes is drilled into children’s minds from an early age because it was the decision that caused me the most anxiety. One multi-subject notebook? Several single-subject notebooks? Loose leaf paper that could be inserted into a neatly organized binder, ready with tabs for each subject? Different colors or the same? Spiral or composition style? I remained unsettled in this annual mental juggernaut for as long as I was allowed, ultimately making the decision at various points throughout my life to try out all of the above configurations. The only decision that has remained consistent for most of my post-pre-teen years is the commitment to college-ruled rather than wide-ruled paper; all bets are off, of course, on the occasions when I choose no rule at all.

This past week, many children in the northeast and many other parts of the country returned to school. They joined their counterparts in warmer climates who were entering their second month of the new year. Following my anxiety-ridden post earlier this week, I was launched into a schedule that unwittingly became a repetitive chorus of 12-14 hour days. Meetings blended into more meetings — in offices, the hallway, impromptu caucusing on the way into and out of the bathroom; and students with whom I hadn’t spoken in a long while aired their welcomes peppered with grievances, while incoming students wove anxiety and confusion into their enthusiasm. Orientation was a blur and I’m not entirely sure what I said or did, other than that I forgot to include more than a few pieces of crucial information. But what is really crucial? What are these men and women doing in a graduate program? How is it that they find themselves here, or there, that is, in that not-too-warm room while the air conditioning unit hanging out of the window high above the room whirred and occasionally grunted as my colleagues and I performed our annual ritual of autobiographical storytelling.

Suddenly, it was my turn. And my only thought, as the fifty new faces focused on me, was that exactly one year ago I had been on my way from Tasmania to Sydney. No, that wouldn’t do. I am [insert my name here], I started to say. And I teach [these courses] and my research is [about this]. And then, as I had done in the beginning of the hourlong program orientation, I welcomed them, and reassured them about their decision to enroll in our program. It was the latter that they needed to hear.

This week was also marked by the news coverage of the Democratic National Convention, as nearly everyone is jabbering about Bill Clinton’s stemwinder. I say that word now with a false ease; until the surplus of speech-related commentaries that saturated every media space following his DNC moment, I really had never heard it before. Or perhaps it’s fair to say that I had never taken notice of the word. (Who can really say for sure that they have never heard of a word, for we hear much of which we take little notice.) Is it really surprising that our former president lingered on the stage, in his inimitable way of captivating a crowd while explaining policy tedium, for near fifty minutes?

A report claims that Clinton admitted to Sandra Fluke, after he congratulated her for her speech, that he was nervous before taking the stage for his. “Sir. Please.” she is quoted as saying in response. But I can believe it.

This strange phase of reentry is overwhelmingly marked by what it is not and what it is missing: slowness, stillness, solitude, silence. These are not my words. That is to say that while I had felt a renewed kinship to these words throughout the past year, I had not said them out loud, all together, to anyone. They were shared with me by a colleague who I saw in the hallway after we had each finished teaching our first class. Both of us had also just finished a year of sabbatical. In the screaming mess of details and minutiae that was swirling around us, particularly at the beginning of the academic year, those twenty minutes in the hallway felt like what I imagine the experience of floating to be: time suspended, an unfettered sensation, yet not all together away from this earth, but temporarily free from the leaden feet we wear to keep ourselves tethered.

She said it out loud: nervous. She was nervous. I was nervous. About expectations, about holding on to what felt so natural for the past year, about finding a way to fit in without becoming the versions of ourselves that were so of this world… in which, somehow, the details not only mattered, but became all consuming, or worse: character defining. To live and work without giving in to the quotidian urgencies that insist on churning out products — forms, email responses, and more. [deleted: some thoughts that bordered too much on whining. That is a definite don’t for this space.]

Much was made of the fact that Clinton ad-libbed many parts of the address delivered to the convention delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina — speaking nearly 5200 words while his prepared remarks were only around 2900 words. He fulfilled his role, his obligations, his expectations… his way. Of course he was experiencing some nerves beforehand. He has the tricky role — or is it fortunate irony? unfortunate challenge? — of being seen as both establishment and maverick.

Slippage into the expected is all too easy.

This year, prepared with a stock of 6×8 lined notebooks and the soliloquy of a stemwinder I’ve been narrating for myself as a form of accidental therapy to treat the previous years of academic pathology, I’m going to remind myself to go off-prompter more than occasionally. I suspect it’s the only way I’ll survive.

forever sabbatical?

The title of the post is somewhat misleading. Sabbatical implies a break, an alternative from the norm, a hiatus, rest from work, a gap. In fact, I have regularly, albeit somewhat jokingly, referred to this past year as a gap year, that tradition in which many high school graduates — less so in the States, and more so in other parts of the world — use the year between high school and college (or university) to travel, see and be in the world in a different way, commune with strangers, and live… whereas the time until then has been dominated by the completion of a series of largely predetermined benchmarks in pursuit of graduation, higher education, or some other objective on the academic trajectory. In this way, we are not so different, those grads and I.

But does a sabbatical ever continue ad infinitum? Is sabbatical a way of life? Can a gap year transform into one’s everyday for longer than may be the social norm? Surely, these are the concerns of the spoiled and coddled? For there are people who roam the earth without any one particular geographical tether not only for a year, and not always by choice, giving rise to the persistent to the question of where any of us really belong.

For the family who blogs at Snaps & Blabs, life on the road has been ongoing for the past 500+ days. In their own words:

This blog is about the life of two vagabonds and their three children, right now traveling around the world on a shoe-string budget.

I started following them around their 500-day mark when someone, yes, tweeted it and of course now I can’t say who or in reference to what. And I am enchanted by their journey as much as their — and when I say “they” I only have the writer’s voice, the group’s representative, to go on — approach to this fantastical adventure on which they have embarked. In addition, the photos they post, most recently from Norway, also provide technicolor windows into this world of ours.

To some, this may seem like uprooting and disruptive. I think, however, of my dear friend A who, with family in tow, is spending a year (maybe more?) in the UK. Their peregrinations are giving form to nascent notions that are not yet ideas, those that are planted in the imagination by the very movement and meanderings that nurture them, creating new roots rather than destroying the original set.

The Snaps and A and the other brave souls who find homes in far corners are embodying Socrates’ famous claim that he is “a citizen of the world.” Believing and enacting in this spirit are entirely two different realities.

For the rest of us, who must resume a slightly more predictable rhythm (for the time being at least) and for whom physical travel in an ongoing way is not realistic, perhaps the lesson is to carry on our persons, at all times, the ethos of this breather from the quotidian — to sabbatical, as in an active claim of respite.