The “Advanced Organizer”

here are some things I was thinking during today’s monthly herding of faculty into a room:

  •  i should have grabbed a muffin before sitting down.
  •  people have such unlikely wave gestures and some do *not* match the wo/man.
  •  so that’s what a restrained collective gasp sounds like.
  •  don’t look up, don’t look up, don’t look up…
  •  i blame the accidental decaf for stifling my ability to be appalled.
  •  did every generation not learn the “pointing is rude” rule? 
  •  finger snaps seem to come out of nowhere; i’m never prepared for them.
  •  why are there three empty rows in front of me? aka: no cover for texting in plain sight.
  •  don’t get caught texting. please don’t get caught texting.
  •  people who haven’t gone through tenure really don’t understand tenure and probably shouldn’t use tenure as a throwaway noun.
  •  what fool am i to donate two hours to these shenanigans?
  • if this were a tv show, who would play _____ and who would play _____? oh, and there would definitely be dire straits montage.
  •  that’s the second time i’ve heard or read the phrase “advanced organizer” in the span of two days.
  •  damn, i am lucky L is my friend. ok, glad i stayed.
  •  no “short” story ever began with “One day in the summer of 1978…”
  •  is it noon yet?

and then it was noon.


…is a funny thing. Not “haha” funny, more like “ain’t that a damn shame” kind of funny… The kind that leads one to drink or cry rather than belly laugh or giggle (and if one is belly laughing or giggling, it is often accompanied by the drinking and the crying). So funny in fact that I am starting to wish I was still pre-tenure, ever longing am I for the sort of busy-ness that I had grown accustomed to

And then someone tweeted this…

Outside New York, a high place where with one glance you take in the houses where eight million human beings live./

The giant city over there is a long flimmery drift, a spiral galaxy seen from the side.

— Tomas Transtromer, trans. Robert Bly

…and I received a reminder of this in my email…


By William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, 
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.


… and all is really quite well. Having retreated momentarily to my mental Innisfree, summoning my muster to see anew, ’tis only a meeting that stands in the way between me and what I hope will be at least a monthly “spontaneous” department happy hour — that seems right: following each department meeting, the secret society gathers around libations in the cloak room. Or, the copy room. Whatever’s handy. (hear me, e?)


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

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.

Where’s my shoe horn?

August 31st. The last day of the last full month of sabbatical. The automated sabbatical message will terminate in a few minutes. And I have learned two things in the past 72 hours:

1) there is no “easing in” from sabbatical to post-sabbatical

2) there is no “easing in” from sabbatical to post-sabbatical

And a bonus realization: tenure is finally sinking in, with all of its glory (read: ha!) and craziness and inexplicable expectations.

Good night changing time zones.
Good night long email respites,
summer uniforms, and movie marathons;
Good night wandering walks, nation hopping,
mismatched socks.
Good night open calendars.
Good night, sweet full blue moon.

Hello new year.

preparing to cross an ocean

Can I get away with just one carry-on? This is the first question I asked myself as I finally began to prepare for an extended stay overseas that begins next week. Extended as in 3 months. Extended as including traversing various terrains, climates, situations all requiring slightly different clothing, accoutrements and gadgetry. But the sheer hassle of international travel and my bad luck with checked luggage pushes me to consider this option. Which, as predicted, was quickly dismissed not only for its non-viability but also for the inevitable moments of “Oh [insert appropriate expletive and/or harsh sounding word of choice]!” up realizing I had forgotten something essential and the potential gentle jeering from my dear friends who are already singing a chorus of “One bag, are you crazy?” They are, of course, right. (Right?)

One correction before I go on: it would be inaccurate to say that I am just now preparing for this sojourn. Indeed I began planning the logistics well in advance: confirming housing and research contacts and making a plan for what it is that I would do while spending this time away from either homebase in the States. And in actuality, the nuggets of this idea took root a few years before as relationships began to be cultivated and the realization that, save my initial four years on this lovely earth, I had not yet lived outside of these contiguous states. This was an epiphany born of more than mere wanderlust (which is really never mere at all); this was more so a long-occurring, deep-seated curiosity that had not made the leap from the wishlist to the cart for checkout.

So what does one take? What are the essentials? How does on prepare to live and walk along the same streetsonce traveled by Darwin, Yeats, and Woolf? Extra socks and comfy shoes? I’ve perused repeatedly several websites the offer advice on how to pack as well as what to pack. A couple of favorites:

Packing for a year abroad (via Academichic)

Packing smart and traveling light (via Rick Steves) — perhaps not for the extended stay, but definitely good advice (if somewhat paranoid) for the shorter trips.

But these are mainly helpful in thinking through what I’ll need to wear or have access to on a regular basis — which reminds me that I’ve run out of contact lens cleaning solution. And shampoo. Why is there always such nervousness about hair care and travel? Nevermind, I just answered my own question — I am laughing as I recall a recent trip to New Orleans whereupon landing I experienced a state of awkward hair frizz unlike any I had been victim of til then. So traumatized was I that when a colleague from a different institution whom I don’t know too well inquired politely, rhetorically, “How’s it going?”, I responded without filter and with reckless abandon, “I’m in search of hair product! I’ll be better when I find some.” Oh my… (And, in case you’re interested, after some consultation with myself and my occasional travel companion, I’ve opted to take basic toiletries with the plan to replenish items I don’t already own while on terra noveau as another aspect of visiting like a local.)

Where does one pack sense of familiarity? Comfort? How does one make space in a suitcase, backpack, or laptop bag for peace of mind and easy access to people, places, and things. No, this is not pending homesickness – a concept with which I have never been familiar, much to the chagrin, I suspect, of my parents. These are, in fact, the indicators of rootedness in a context, communities, and networks that have been formed and nurtured over time. In seven years one is bound to put down roots, and those roots become intertwined with one’s sense of self, work, and purpose, even with one’s way of being. Sure I’ve been “away” on sabbatical, but I’ve had the great luxury of being able to enter and leave the Apple as the occasion demanded — for meetings, for fieldwork, doctors appointments, and of course to commune with friends.

For the next few months, however, there will be an ocean between us. Such a phrasing is unintentionally sentimental, yet the sentiment feels oddly correct for the occasion. An uneasy acceptance of impending events, measured excitement, cautious enthusiasm — all euphemisms for feeling anxious. (Has someone written Zen and the art of traveling abroadThe Sabbatical Edition yet?) My anxieties rest primarily on the hope that I’m not leave people flat-footed, specifically those for whom I feel a sense of responsibility — students, my research teams, the young people with whom we work. And thus with responsibility exists… well, no sense in repeating myself.

This post may have gone on longer, but the throbbing pain pulsating throughout my left arm as a result of vaccinations (in prep for a few side excursions that are on the agenda) is begging me to stop. So I will.

humility of writing

the atlantic was chock full of writerly articles today and two in particular caught my eye. the first poses an important question that many of us who must write — either because our work requires it or because we have pursued work that allows us (pushes us?) to write — have asked ourselves more than once: When does a writer become a writer?

In it, Betsy Morais recounts the experiences of various writers, both contemporary and historical mainstays, to muse about when it is that one who writes can and does declare herself a writer. What does it mean to continue in one’s current form of non-writing employment after one has “made it” with writing, presumably after something is published and has earned revenue? She begins her piece with the story of Alexis Jenni, a French high-school biology teacher who, at the age of 48, recently won the Prix Goncourt and in so doing joined the ranks of previous winners such as Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir. After surveying the rise to fame of other writers, including T.S. Eliot who continued to work his day job after becoming financially stable through his published writing, she concludes her piece with wise musings about the affordances and constraints of “making it” as a writer:

And in spite of the anxious determination of those who work to write, or the casual persistence of the Sunday writers, there is something “very liberating” in having yet to be discovered, Von Arbin Ahlander remarked. “Okay, you haven’t gotten recognition. But at the same time, you don’t have expectations.”

While reading this piece, another title caught my eye under the inset and customized menu that floated in the middle of the webpage: Famous Author’s Harshest Rejection Letters. I swear this isn’t schadenfreud, but I admit to a feeling of delighted solidarity when, while looking through the embedded slideshow of some of these rejection letters, I saw letters received by Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabakov, and Jack Kerouac. About a manuscript submitted by Ursula Le Guin, the editor had written “The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable.” Is it wrong, too, to aspire to have all future rejections that come my way to be on the basis of my “endlessly complicated” narrative and abundance of “reference and information”? I would especially take those over these two choice excerpts from reviews of an article of mine that was summarily rejected by a special issue of a journal for which I was invited to submit a piece. I did so reluctantly and only because at the time (two and half years ago) I was still trying to fit into one definition of the field to which I and my program colleagues purportedly belong. Hint: it’s not anthropology.

Review 1 excerpt:
“The language is very very difficult to follow. I think this is a very interesting opinion article; would make a great piece, with photos, for something like the Sunday New York Times Magazine.”

Review 2 excerpt:
“As is, though, the article includes the current thinking and analysis of a thoughtful individual, but one that is limited to telling a story and interpreting events that occurred in a workshop.”
This reviewer also had something to say about my writing, suggesting that the piece might be rewritten and “framed for teacher educators who may be less familiar or comfortable with some of the rhetoric employed” [and then cited the 2nd sentence of the submitted manuscript.]

Admittedly, the piece, which was later published in another journal, did benefit from revision and additional space — 8000 words instead of the original 4500 word limit — and even now, going back to these reviews, which I had initially met with laughter that was saturated in the delirium of my penultimate pre-tenure year, I see the value in having work read by non-kindred spirits. Rejections are humbling, but just as important as these lessons in humility, it seems, are spaces in which writing kindreds can bring out that which may remain hidden or unspoken. So in a continued spirit of gratitude, I am thankful for the critical reviews of strangers, the encouraging insights of critical friends, and the seemingly endless patience of true friends and colleagues in conversation with whom thinking, musings, ruminations and writing are made ever better.

nanowrimo – day 13

still in the cafe from earlier, someone still crooning above me — i can hear it now because i’ve taken the earbuds out that i put in to create an enclosed writing zone. i just got wind of the NaNoWordSprints twitter feed and did some serious word sprinting — over 1600 in the past two hours.

and so far, in between travel, subletting dramadies, becoming familiar with the comments about all of the home repair types in my area via angie’s list, i’ve managed to squeeze out what is shaping up to be an interesting story. and sometimes, the problem is not that i don’t know what to write — which is often true when i start an article or chapter: ever the struggle of where to begin! — but parts of the story are incredibly sad and just creep up on me, even though im the one writing this thing! so here i sit, working my way through my second pot of bombay spice tea, typing away when i start to get a little choked up. time for a break, i say.

so im taking this opportunity to give a little update about this kooky tale that is taking me on some interesting adventures and giving me pause about the very nature of the writing process. that is, every moment of this writing is pure joy. i can’t say the same for some other writing i’ve done. why is that? and i don’t feel the least bit guilty spending hours at a time weaving the intricate and multigenerational backstories of characters that have taken shape in my head. is it precisely because there is no guarantee that these thousands of words are ever going to see the light of day that they feel free to come flowing out of my fingers, in a series of keystrokes, onto the screen? maybe i should write with abandon more often…!

the word count at the moment is coming in at a little over 12,000. i have a bit more sprinting to do if i want to reach the coveted 50k word goal — and not to mention that whole other mess of writing im also supposed to be doing that is also due at the end of this month.

a few writing tips i’ve learned from my nanowrimo experience so far (that many of you probably already know and i am just coming to learn/remember/accept):

  • timelines are good — i mean here a timeline for what happens in the story as opposed to a writing schedule. i’ve written out what amounts to an entire family tree for these characters, including siblings, dates and places of residence, key events; much like ethnographic work invites us to do, but that can feel tedious when prepared for the purposes of writing an article versus telling stories.
  • if something comes pounding through your subconscious into your conscious mind, write it down for pete’s sake! even if you have no idea what to do with it.
  • write every damn day. even if it’s a few lines emailed to yourself on your very old smartphone.
  • word counts are strangely motivating.
  • give yourself a treat, or a few, for good word sprinting.
  • enjoy the story.

making recommendations

We make recommendations all the time. Try these boots, they are so comfortable! Yes, Venice is totally worth it. If you have a chance, don’t miss the chocolate mint truffle rooibos tea! (yup, this is an actual tea that I tried yesterday at Chapterhouse – oh, wow, yum.)

Sometimes we recommend over the phone, other times in person, and very often in the form of a quick email forward, tweet or retweet. When we like something, we want to share it with the world! Or at least with our friends. (see also café recs in this vein).

So why is it that a Letter of Recommendation or Reference feels like a different animal altogether? I have been ruminating on this post for quite some time – especially as I have been deep in rec letter season, which doesn’t seem to have diminished despite the sabbatical away message – and have come to the conclusion that there are two distinct types of rec letters: the ones that are a joy to write and fall in the vein of recommending your new chocolate find or passing along a fantastic deal, and those that make you put a protocol in place. For me, this includes a time buffer (at least 3 weeks, please, especially if I’ve never written a letter for you before) and a request for a draft of what it is that the person thinks I should be saying. It isn’t quite like recommending a book you haven’t read, but more on the order of having to say something about a book that you recall being pleasant enough but you mostly got through it because of your commitment to finish books you start rather than a compulsion to read the words on the page.

Those in the former category are likely to have worked with me on a project, have written with me or been involved in some other collaboration, or with whom it is a pleasure to engage – not only intellectually, but personally and discursively. These letters flow easily, like my recent enthusiastic endorsement to my mother of participation in NaNoWriMo or the peels of delight that escaped my mouth when I first tried chocolate chip pumpkin bread over fifteen years ago.  In essence, my life has been enriched by these people, and I wish the same onto others who may encounter them as well.

When someone who falls in the latter category requests a letter – for admission to a doctoral program, an academic job, a non-academic job, an internship – my first response, which I keep to myself, is puzzlement. Am I really the best person to do this? Might there be someone else who can vouch for you, which is what you are essentially asking someone to do? And is a letter from a member of university faculty, however lukewarm and vague, necessarily better than one written by someone who can speak to your unique strengths and contributions? Even as I pose these questions, my own reading of doctoral applications and job applications comes into focus and the frustrating phrase “it depends” dances all over these memories. Perhaps we need to do a better job in graduate school of helping students to develop human relationships with one another and with their faculty; more often than not office hours can devolve into a series of questions about exactly how many words or what type formatting a paper needs to include in order to be given a passing grade. I suppose I could make a note that such a student is “conscientious with project details” … ?

There is a third category that is muddier and may actually be a few different categories: the request from a colleague to write about another colleague, like the recent tenure review letters I was asked to write. These are newer to me, and take additional time in part because of the added layer of performance attached to these letters – that is to say, an assessment of the letter writer’s performance. So far, these have been fun to compose, in part because the work has been a delight to read and in part because I’ve only just written two.

So the question remains: recommendation at what cost? Is a reference necessarily a recommendation? What if you recommend something or someone that another person not only doesn’t benefit from, but is actually worse off for having taking your recommendation? Oh sure, they’ll say you couldn’t have known, but then the phone calls start slowing down and suddenly you’re the last one to find out about the wine and cheese reception…

Ok, there’s a small chance I’m being a bit dramatic here. My NaNoWriMo energy is seeping into my quotidian musings! A nano-update coming later today…

a meditation on vipassana

I’m not sure how old I was when I first realized that not all salads contained leafy greens. For much of my childhood, with the exception of egg salad which is not really a salad at all under any definition, salad consisted of iceberg lettuce, shaved carrots, sliced cucumber rounds, and tomatoes, which were at first cut into thin wedges and later sliced once my father unearthed his “famous” egg and tomato slicer with a larger than necessary rectangular slicing section and curiously short, teal handle that tapered near the end.  Occasionally, my mother would throw in garbanzo beans (or chick peas as they were known in my house) and kidney beans for protein, a key concern for a household of vegetarians, and top things off with store bought dressing. Even though we had immigrated to this country and had a different cuisine from which the daily menu was primarily drawn, I don’t think our initial salad ventures were that different from those prepared in the homes of my “born and raised” American friends. As I grew older and began experimenting more with cooking, I entered the world of romaine and sunflower seeds and various other goodies I’d glimpsed at the salad bars that were starting to crop up in different restaurants. But I was an adult or at least in college when I first was conscious that salad didn’t need to contain lettuce. It was a revelation that was nurtured by the discovery of tabouleh, salads with grains (rice salad and the quinoa salad I mentioned last month would apply here), three/five-bean salads, salads with fruit components – the list goes on. All of these things I recognized as salad – unlike the time when my friends and I, tired from yet another day of driving during our Western US road trip, stopped into a family style restaurant in Elko, Nevada where the “salad” placed in a large, clear, plastic bowl in the middle of the table contained exactly 2 ingrediencts: hastily torn leaves of iceberg and romaine that looked aged past its prime drenched to the point of suffocation in what appeared to be slightly watered-down mayonnaise.

Like lettuce-free salads, silence came as a revelation to me when I participated in my first Vipassana meditation course.  How, I wondered, does one live as a human being in silence – that is, free from all forms of communication, the very essence of living a human life? But this is what I did for nearly a fortnight in the summer of 2007: essentially, volunteering to live like a monk for ten days while learning to practice this most ancient of meditation techniques.  In that first instance, I went running toward this course following a tense, work-related exchange that had occurred a few month earlier.  My emotional stores were low and my proclivity for taking things personally and giving into the worst possible interpretation of a situation – a trait that concerns me in others and frustrates me when I recognize it in myself – was becoming higher. Something wasn’t quite right and thankfully I followed my instinct to pursue participation in this course about which I had extremely little prior knowledge save a very brief description shared with me by a childhood friend in a passing exchange and Elizabeth Gilbert’s reference to Vipassana as “the Extreme Sports version of transcendence” in her best-selling memoir. I’m not sure I transcended anything, but for ten days during that summer over four years ago, I sat quietly and gave myself over to the experience of observing myself more closely and deeply than I had done before. (This is actually not as narcissistic as it probably sounds.)

When I returned a couple of weeks ago to the bucolic setting where the meditation center is located, nestled in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, I arrived there a much different person. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I had a different relationship to my place of work, the source of the tension that pushed me to this endeavor in the first place had dissipated and evolved, and my practices of communication and expression had undergone a sort of awakening following a long, unwitting slumber. Four years ago, I found myself stuck in a myth I had created about what and who I needed to be in order to successfully meet the requirements of tenure – that ever-looming and gripping force – and the mind, with all of its amazing affordances to transform, illuminate, and nurture, can also be guilty of deforming reality and endless wallowing. The undoing of what was a state of perpetually shrugged shoulders, teeth grinding, and unfinished manuscripts came in a few different forms starting with an initial acceptance that I was the one not letting me be me. So I accepted the invitation to participate in a faculty seminar, even when I thought had not a second to spare; I resumed my practice of taking aimless walks; I allowed myself to get lost in the kitchen, where many of my most blissful moments take place; I pursued publication in a relatively new online journal and included a few animations as part of the piece; I took a painting course; I taught a video course; I remembered that I loved to read, fiction, and fell back in love with words.

This renewed, perambulatory self was the one that showed up at the meditation center last month. And as the course began, a strange set of emotions and reactions swept over me as I encountered and experienced my second, 10-day Vipassana meditation course.  It may important at this juncture to note that prior to the first course, I had never before meditated. And in between course 1 and 2, my success rate was about the same. Still, something drew me back.

Vipassana is not for the faint of heart. In brief, it is a practice of meditation premised on the belief that our reactions to the world around us originate as physiological sensations on the body and if we are able to remain equanimous in light of any and all such sensations, then we will be able to live better and free from misery, of both the large and small variety. At the heart of this technique is the concept of impermanence (anicca – a Pali word, I think, that is pronounced “anicha”) and during a ten day course, participants are eased into the practice of sitting completely still and at first simply observing their breath as it touches the area on the upper lip. From there, meditators are guided through the practice of observing the range of sensations that arise and pass throughout the surface and later inside their bodies (including vibrations and tickles as well as extreme cramps and the spiky tingles that emanate from limbs that have fallen asleep) and to engaged in this practice of deep and focused observation without a reaction of craving or aversion. There are no mantras to chant or icons to visualize. It is by practicing and personally experiencing this meditation during controlled sittings, the theory goes, that one can train the subconscious mind from unthinkingly overreacting when, in our everyday lives, someone calls us an ugly name or something doesn’t go our way – situations that, once again, start as barely perceptible sensations on the body and have already begun to produce a reaction based on previous reactions long before we can compose ourselves to respond appropriately.  The teaching, based in the non-sectarian teachings of Gautama Buddha, is delivered in the form of audiotaped guided instructions each day and videotaped discourses each evening featuring S.N. Goenka who is credited with returning the practice to India from his homeland of Burma, whereupon it spread like it once again as it had centuries before. There are assistant teachers present at this and the other centers around the world who can answer questions about technique and one’s experience; this is, incidentally, the one speaking that is allowed during the 10-day period. Stillness, silence, and solitude – these are of great importance as one learns, and later if one chooses to more deeply cultivate, this practice. Those who fully embrace Vipassana’s invitation, which may seem extreme to most, pursue a life free from attachments – not only to sensations, but also to material goods, ideologies, any sense of i/me/my/mine, and people – because when we have fewer attachments, we are better able to maintain that sense of peace when something happens to those things in the large net of “my”: losing a favorite pen, damaging my grandmother’s ring, the transformation of a beloved café for the worse, a change in institutional policy that is no longer favorable to what i/we do, a rejected publication, and on.  Even if most are able to see the silliness of attachment to these aforementioned things, the practice of detachment becomes more difficult to conceptualize when we think about some of our deeper attachments: chief among them, family/loved ones and institutions (marriage, citizenship, religion), although the cynic in me suspects that humans are far more attached to their institutions; how else to explain the parent who can cast aside a child because of who she marries?

With that said, Vipassana and the promise of equanimity and peace can be for everyone. I’m still questioning…and while I continue to contemplate how this practice might fit into in my daily life, I’ll share the following musings that took shape as I watched and listened and tried hard to not think and just observe:

Contentment is not complacency. As I sat on my cushion on the ground in the large group meditation hall, cross-legged and trying to remain completely still by maintaining my equanimity in the face of cramps that were ripping through my left thigh and sharp pain that was piercing my right knee, I began to think about possible jeers that might be hurled toward this meditation. For instance, the accusation that to observe and resist any and all threats to one’s sense of peace is to become, essentially, a doormat. It was at this moment, near the middle of the week, that my mind transgressed yet another time and instead of observing sensations allowed in the following wondering: what is role of contentment in the pursuit of innovation? Actually, the exact question I asked myself on Tuesday or Wednesday of last week was: “If everyone became a Vipassana meditator, would the iPad have come into existence?” Because of our temporary monastic existence, I did not know at the time of Steve Jobs death, but far from being some sort of cosmic happening, that my mind conflated the entirety of the cosmos into the creation of the iPad is further evidence of Apple’s ubiquity in our conscious and unconscious minds. That point aside, with the help of some time to sit and observe and experience I arrived at the conclusion that people much wiser than I have realized long ago: that to be content need not diminish the active pursuit of innovation and design and creativity; rather, the intentions for the innovation and creativity shifts, away from purely financial or material gains and toward the larger benefit of one’s creative endeavors for the social well being of others as well as self.

Don’t hate or inflate. We tend to do both of these things: denigrate or, perhaps in a less volatile sense, minimize the victories of those we perceive as our competitors and sometimes even those whom we consider to be our friends. And, in direct contrast to a pursuit of equanimity is also our tendency to heap praise on ourselves, perhaps out of fear that others may not? While watching a discussion with Robert Gates earlier this evening, I heard him echo this thought in another and possibly more elegant way. He said [paraphrasing]: We hear an excess of talk about our rights as citizens of this country and yet disappointingly little about our responsibility as citizens and members of our [local/global] societies. I wish those who have assumed positions of leadership in this and other countries would resist the fear of being called some ridiculous label (e.g., “Socialist”) and earn that moniker of leader by asking more of us to contribute. This is not a call for increased governmental involvement in private lives, as the “anti” rhetoric always spins, but rather a recognition of the potential for what small changes across a mass populous can achieve…

Look. Closely. Again. Sometimes, during an activity or while attempting to introduce a concept in one of my courses, I will literally interrupt myself and ask the students to engage with me in an exercise of close description. For instance, I’ll take something out of my pocket (on an unplanned day) or, if I’ve thought about it ahead of time, I’ll bring in an object – past objects have included a disposable camera, a keychain with keys, and an orange – and initiate rounds of description. That is, each person in the room (and we are most likely arranged in a crude circle shape) has to describe the object before passing it to the next person. And on and on we go, sometimes for 4 rounds. This can be painful when there are over 20 students in a class and the object is, for instance, a tennis ball. What else can you say other than that it’s fuzzy, used for the game of tennis, often comes in a neon-green-yellow color, and bounces. But then someone will smell it, and someone else will describe what it feels like to squeeze the ball as different from merely petting it, and by the 3rd round someone may decide to look at just one part of it and describe the texture of the number imprinted on the ball’s surface. Our loquacious tendencies, it seems, have given way to a default setting of instant and often knee-jerk, split-second evaluations of situations – good in the operating room, not so great in various other places – a trait if left unchecked can have detrimental consequences. We never seem to have time for anything anymore.

Ah, I can hear it – even I know I’m rambling, so I’ll turn your attention to the rich legacy of Patricia Carini and Margaret Himley, two educators who have spent a considerable number of years emphasizing the need for teachers to look, really look, at children’s work and to resist evaluation as the first response, which is no response at all and is, instead, squarely in the realm of reaction. While they document and have developed this approach within a process they call the Descriptive Review, the ethos is more wide reaching and as I strolled in the wooded walking area around the center during breaks, my mind continued to wander in the direction of an imagined curriculum grounded in the “art of living” and “being present” that each us might pursue…

In his essay “Circles,” Emerson wrote “Everything looks permanent until its secret is known.” I wonder if the secret to some of our social ills might be found lifting the veil of speech that is saturated with staid meanings, unyielding concepts that don’t merely maintain the status quo but instead strip even the status quo of any traces of luster. Vipassana is a practice of meditation committed to making the secret – to equanimity and sense of peace within oneself – known. If, knowing this, we continue to play the game, the least we can do for ourselves and each other is to acknowledge that we could stand to have a bit of quiet, stillness, and that we need not always consume the limp lettuce placed before us; we can add fruit, nuts, grains, roots, flowers and even eliminate the leaves altogether.

writing lives

  • 3 musketeers bars and the hypnotic bass beat of “every breath you take”
  • new year’s eve and an evening of cole porter tunes
  • a good book and ready access to google and wikipedia for the all important insta-reference searches
  • fresh mozzarella and tomato with basil
  • heck, any melange of tomato, cheese, and grain-based substrate (tortillas, crusty baguette, magical bread that a nearby cafe brings in from a bakery in germantown)
  • year-round ceiling fan and a thick blanket
  • slightly runny eggs and toasted multigrain bread with raspberry jam
  • sparkling conversation and hot tea with honey
  • ice cream and ice water

with one exception, i still indulge in all of these combinations of things/foods/experiences with regularity. i’ve long been fascinated by how things combine — not just foods and ideas, certainly those are elevated on my radar, but also items of clothing (as worn by others mostly and less on me), gestures, images, people, furniture, sounds… more recently, as perhaps recent posts might suggest, the determinism that accompanies some combinations continues to hold my attention, especially as they become entrenched in our social consciousness and can come to have a profound impact on daily actions and interactions as combinations become labels become intractable indictments — but that is not the point of this post. i’m not yet sure what the point is, but i know that for the moment, i want to focus on something other than the social ills of labeling and categorizing and stuart hall’s multimedia treatise on race and the insidiousness of an ethos of “matter out of place.”

there is another combination that i have long enjoyed that has been absent in the pop culture landscape for over twelve years now, and that is the pairing of gene siskel and roger ebert. this may seem like an odd segue to the original odd couple of movie review and film criticism royalty, but the atlantic’s recent article about a new book by the prolific roger ebert, life itself, brought back my memories of watching the two men bickering on the movie balcony stage set. in an earlier post i quoted from an everlasting meal in which tamar adler makes a simple observation: we all need a little seasoning to be most ourselves. and even though ebert is astute and critical and witty on his own, i enjoy thinking about how siskel coaxed out of his balcony buddy some musings and observations that might have gone unnoticed, unsaid, or a different direction altogether. ebert said as much in an interview last year. (how many more examples of learning as social do we need before schools listen? sigh…)

but that is not the point of this post, either. it is, i think, found in a quote that the atlantic excerpted from life itself in which roger ebert is reflecting on being asked to review the film persona:

On writing about “impenetrable” art“In 1967, new in my job at the Sun-Times, I walked into the Clark Theater and saw Persona. I didn’t have a clue how to write about it. I began with a simply description: ‘At first the screen is black. Then, very slowly, an area of dark grey transforms the screen into blinding white. This is light projected through film onto the screen, the first basic principle of the movies. The light flickers and jumps around, finally resolving itself into a crude cartoon of a fat lady.’ And so on. I was discovering a method that would work with impenetrable films: Focus on what you saw and how it affected you. Don’t fake it.”

those last two lines sound like they are shouting to everyone who has ever attempted to utter or pen a single word. how can we write truthfully? that isn’t to say that we don’t embellish or invent or imagine fantastic tales of impossibility, but, like the pair note in clip about back to the future 2 to which i linked, how might retain in our writing perhaps a nugget of that which offers moments of connection and a glimpse of recognition for the reader. they ought to talk more about writing alienation (read: boring your readers!) and less about the five paragraph essay (which can certainly induce writing alienation). how do we move from faking it — in our letters to family, cover letters for jobs, personal statements for tenure, field notes academic articles, policy statements that are filled with assumptions and pairings to which even the most attila-the-hunnish among us wouldn’t adhere — to writing as offering, writing as work in the world.

here’s another choice nugget from ebert, who has suffered through thyroid cancer that left him literally unable to speak audibly with his voice, but as he writing continues to demonstrate, he continues to talk with his audience:

On why writing matters to him now“What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.”

ebert’s reflections remind me of andre aciman — another writer like w.g. sebald whose words literally transport you to another world with a quiet steadiness, at once gentle and jarring descriptions, astute yet painful allegory –who seems to practice as well as embody this studied and steady ethos of being present in one’s writing, trusting one’s memory, moving simply through ideas (but not necessarily without complexity of relationships between those ideas) — recalling one’s first memory of lavender for example (see this video of aciman on writing, the lavender reference is at the 4′ minute mark). i think perhaps what these and many other writers, whose writing is available in the form of published texts as well as blogs and interviews, overwhelmingly advocate is a practice of writing itself as a start to writing. just write.* even if it’s crap. even if what you write on sunday is long gone by the time you write a conclusion on friday. of this anne lamott’s musing in bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life are particularly insightful:

You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well go ahead and get started.

in the ever present and ongoing existential crisis quandary in which i find myself, i wonder if perhaps there are other questions we might ask of ourselves and one another (instead of the ones we often pose to kids and derivatives of which we ask during polite cocktail part small talk: What do you do? Where do you work? Where do you live?):  how did you write your life today? which page of your story did you work on this afternoon? with whom are you spending time? with whose words and ideas and actions do you resonate, disagree, find joy? how are you living your life?
(i know, i know: i’m not getting invited to any parties any time soon. but i swear i like to wax on about my collection of boots and latest teen angst tv discoveries, too!)

ebert’s implication that what may be more important than the actual writing is where and to whom the writing may take you is a lovely and fulfilling thought. [insert flood of memories of reading and writing and conversations about readings and writings here…] and so perhaps ebert’s title is apt as suggestive of another lasting combination:

writing and life, itself.

*despite this recent spurt of obsessive blogging, writing the lives of others — which encompasses a great deal of my writing todo list — continues to paralyze especially as the desire to write justly and without freezing the dynamic realities of people’s life narratives rings loudly in my ears. and so perhaps writing this post and reading ebert’s book is an attempt to take some of that good advice myself.

why write, and why this much?

maybe it’s because someone — many someones — told me there would be a dip productivity in post-tenure and im trying to capture whatever comes out whenever it chooses to do so for fear that it’ll be nothing but crickets and the sound of bad tv in the background (upcoming silent retreat aside)
because a semi-anonymous space to dump out and try out words is definitely less threatening than the alternative of public, over-evaluated writing that has been my reality of late. (besides, no one knows im really a dog pawing away at the keyboard.)
it may be that i have kept just so many thoughts in check for so long for the purposes of focusing and being productive that given the chance to breath, even just a little bit, they rush forth like over-excited cannon balls
perhaps, like suzi and sebald*, i simply can’t help myself.

writing mystifies… i wonder whether other modes of communication have a similar pull (hint: the answer is not no)…

* in the la times obituary of this writer, who came into his writerly identity later in life and died much too soon, the following is noted about sebald feeling compelled to write:
“I found a patch of my own,” Sebald told Reynolds. “It was a kind of therapy, self-therapy. I never thought it would take over, but you write one thing, and then you feel compelled to write another. It’s a kind of compulsive disorder.”
” Writing is quite painful,” he added. “There’s the odd chapter I can do in my sleep, but for the most part, I grind away with dogged persistence.”
i only became familiar with this writer in the past year, but each time i think of his death — and perhaps especially as i continue to live with his words, both in his composed fiction and in his responses during interviews and other dialogues — my throat tightens up and i feel the warm embrace of a strangely generous melancholia.

seeing and doing and seeing

During my near-fortnight in Oz I spent a day in Manly, a town on Sydney’s northern shore that is accessible from the city by ferry. I wasn’t sure what to expect save for the fact that there was a beach that a new colleague had described to me and an arts festival taking place during the month of September that I had read about in one of the numerous texts virtually thrust into the hands of tourists upon clearing customs, whereupon mechanisms of sorting visually separate the residents from the non-residents.* It was the 7th, a few days after I had spent time talking with elementary, secondary, pre-service teachers and meeting other university colleagues who were also involved in the small conference for which I had been invited to facilitate a workshop and give a talk; and it was a few days before a not-traditionally-monumental birthday — only notable for me because I had planned only up until this one. Everything afterward remains a complete and utter mystery. Almost.

Upon arriving in Manly, I first stopped into the Art Gallery just steps away from the ferry terminal. I might have known that in a month’s worth of events there would be a few down or slow days. The 7th was one such day. But “no worries,” as the country and its citizens seem to exclaim while embracing the unexpected, because this non-turn of events opened up my loosest of plans considerably and led me to have a most magical day, the kind that can only occur perhaps when one is traveling alone.**

Before taking my leave of the gallery I spent a short while taking in its offerings. In addition to the schedule of events related to the arts festival, the gallery also boasted an eclectic permanent and revolving collection of mostly paintings and also a few other artifacts. In the room immediately to the left of reception was set up a visual and mixed media retrospective of the evolution of the bathing suit. A notice preceded the entrance to the exhibit that warned entrants of occasional instances of nudity and near-nudity. I have to think they were referring to the images of men and women in bathing suits, unless I missed something…

The semi-permanent collection featured work by artists living in an artist colony in nearby Scotland Island. While standing in front of a photographic portrait of Venice – as the recognizable orange and yellows of the Venetian buildings fell into their canal reflections – a simple realization hit me.

portrait of venice, a reflection

As participants of an artist colony, the artists were fundamentally involved in the work of making art. And while the purposes and intentions may vary, each day these artists committed themselves to creating art simply for that purpose alone. So then I started to wonder: what must it be like to wake up each day to engage in a practice that you love?*** To fully attend to what’s happening in the moment, not necessarily for where it may lead or gains to be had. Another simple thought followed the first: why do we do what we do? By this I don’t mean the oft-concerning question of motivation or its always near semantic cousin, engagement. Rather, my observation of these artworks displayed in a gallery partially dedicated to their very existence gave me pause; how much of our daily lives are driven by where our actions may lead? To the next accolade, level of recognition, monetary remuneration, title or designation…? Certainly the “tenure track”, by virtue of its moniker alone, can feel like at times like a chaotic and traffic-laden (and other times deserted and dark) road to somewhere, with “where” not easily defined. At meetings and other types of gatherings designed to help the proverbial “us” make sense of these sensations of uncertainty and aimlessness — not that anyone would risk admitting as much out loud — the frenetic pace to somewhere-or-nowhere-in-particular was palpable. How might we change this, I asked a friend who also fell under that “pre-tenure” designation? (and what a strange designation it is, replete with the hope of becoming, one day, “post-tenure” — initiated at my institution in good spirits, I do believe, the designation functions instead like the tell tale heart in a young academic’s life…)

I’m not naively suggesting that practical considerations, such as the job security that tenure promises (in most cases) or being able to sustain oneself economically, are not real or worthy of importance. I simply worry that in constantly striving for the next thing, we forget to really see what we’re already doing, being, living. Echoes of such “next thing” thinking reverberate through young adolescents responses to questions about *what* they want to be when they grow up — e.g., words like “successful” and “famous” (no doubt a factor of our reality-tv-really-can-be-a-career-ITIS) foretell an unrelenting pursuit of those measurable markers of status that begin almost at birth. Could we change the question? Could we ask instead or perhaps alongside the “futures” question,”what kind of life do you want to lead?” not ten, twenty years from now, but now. What are we doing each day and how might our actions be contributing to or detracting from a way of being that we can imagine? Some call this mindfulness. Others have talked about how we attend to and cultivate the art of living. And still others have wondered about human flourishing. My friend O cuts right to the chase, “as far as I can tell, we have this one life. So, how are we going to live it? Each day? With how much time and space for play? To really live?” [paraphrasing, of course] I can’t help but wonder about these questions from the horizon of educator, to think about how actions, conditions, curricula, policies might be in service of flourishing and attentiveness — have no doubt that competition is not the only fuel for innovation, inspiration, creativity…

I walked out of the Manly galleries slowly, taking in the way the sunlight beamed down through the wood slats giving the illusion of a jail cell at one glance, but could also be suggestive of transparency (as this architectural wonder boasts).

front of manly art gallery

From there, the day unfolded like scenes from a collection of impossibly breathtaking postcards. I made my way through a cliff walk that placed multi-colored waters next to rock formations of increasing height, where I crossed paths with a stealthy lizard and was serenaded with a steady concert of bird songs and reptilian mating calls. All the while, I held onto the notion that walking was what I was doing in the moment. Not necessarily walking to reach any predetermined location, but just meandering; and resisting the occasional impulses to hurry back to the ferry: why rush? I really had nothing and no one awaiting me. A rare occurrence, and something that it was taking all of my focused attention to remember.

And sure, I’m probably guilty of sabbatical-brain, where I can’t keep days of the week straight — a feeling I hope to be able to access from time to time when I will also very likely slip back into the game of what’s next and where to… So for now, I’ll indulge my pontificating proclivities and see what the next corner brings and continue seeking and finding others with whom to commune artfully.


a friend emailed the other day to ask me how it felt with september approaching to know that I wouldn’t be going “back” — not this year, anyway. “back” of course refers to the sense of returning and beginning again that those of us who are forever in and a part of “school” — whose lives run not on fiscal years but perpetually on an academic calendar (and even as september approaches, I am moved to call out “happy new year!”), and where “semester” is the measure of time. “back” brings with it associations of reconnections, new possibilities, unchartered directions…

as august nears its end and we sit on the cusp of september, I think also of another feeling that often grips me at this time, and which this year nags at me like a faintly familiar sensibility, my ghost limb of memory of what this week-before-classes-begin(again) is usually filled with: a calling out in not-at-all-mock, utterly-earnest cries for just another month. a fortnight. a week. we call out for augtember.

ever more time to read, one more swim, another meeting free day, a week free from being on call, having to deliver written feedback, more time to indulge in the same 2 tee shirts that signify summer wardrobe attitude.

so until augtember gains momentum, we hold onto the promise of winter break.

happy new year, friends!!


a haircut is more than a hair cut.
more than hundreds or thousands of hairs cut.
it’s letting go of more-than-i-care-to-remember all-nighters to meet journal deadlines;
removing from my immediate memory nervousness and anxieties, frustrations and uncertainties (well, some of them anyway);
shaking off once-thought-inexcusable slights and misdirected injustices,
hours of line-by-line edits of students’ dissertation proposals and chapters (only to have them start “fresh” thereby rendering your time, effectively, a waste! … but you learned something: to say no more often and to notice the warning signs of wayward students earlier);
it is the sloughing off of the tough skin, built up to bounce back more resilient following rejections, negative feedback, cricket-like silence following conference presentations (and sometimes the presentations to your immediate colleagues, whose looks of confusion may never quite go away);
it is the stripping away of layers tension that has been shellacked onto each muscle as the gym and the outdoors become your friend again — and a series of massages doesn’t hurt, either.

no, a haircut is more than just a few hairs cut.
a haircut is shedding of the loveliest sort.

and now we begin to grow again — fresh, hopeful, with skin so tender it hurts.