On the need to write and to be brave (back to saying what I think)

Some days I feel like I am literally choking on a waterfall of words dammed up between my brain and finding a time and place to release them. Some days there just seems to be so much to say and my body and the hours of the day seem to be so limited at expressing everything there is to be said. This is when I know I need to write. Not that I should sit down and write, but that I actually need to. Usually this feeling overtakes me after reading something particularly good, but sometimes it just sneaks up because I haven’t written in a long while or I haven’t had very strong outlet for releasing everything I’m thinking about in speech.

I have the sense that my brain is tremendously active and tremendously verbal. I don’t mean to say that I think I’m smarter or better than anyone else; actually I think as a culture we over-value verbal facility as an expression of something we call “smarts” that I’m not even sure exists outside of racist classist sexist elitism. In point of fact the tremendous activity of my brain is often painful and troublesome. The inability to find time to actually process everything I’m thinking about can be crippling, along with the accompanying thirst for knowing and understanding more. All this thinking and need to verbalize is basically a neurosis in and of itself, and it certainly contributes to other neuroses (I am exhibit A for what it means to “overthink” anything concerning my body, for example).

Actually I suspect deep down most people could cultivate this same ability/affliction, and sometimes I wonder if they don’t because they are smarter than me and want to avoid the constant rollercoaster that thinking critically constantly can bring. My dear coauthors and I are not, as it were, poster children for the joys of the examined life.

Today I came across the blog of a brilliant sociologist Zandria F. Robinson, and I fell swiftly in love. For me, being in love means the urgent need to a) tell everyone you know and b) talk a lot about why l love what I love. Robinson is not only a gifted, incisive, and funny writer, but I have the sense that she never holds her tongue. Reading her blog I don’t know that I was shocked by any opinion or even way of putting something, but I found her blog shocking because she says what she thinks, without first making it palatable to the uninitiated, and not only uses her real name but often names names. I suspect that from this very radical act she derives not only freedom, but the kind of security that can only come from operating openly in the sunlight.

By contrast, I spend a lot of my time couching what I say in terms that will be palatable to those hearing them and essentially afraid of the force my own words can have. Maybe this is why sometimes they torture me.

Reading Robinson’s work I not only feel like a stodgy, unfunny, timid cultural commenter, but like a cowering mouse, afraid to use my real name or name my university and afraid of discovery in a world where discovery is inevitable.

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Work

Everyone has their cross to bear, and work seems to be mine. Does work, worrying-about-work-jobs-losing-getting-jobs occupy other people’s thoughts to the unnecessary degree that it does mine? In literature and movies, the big challenge is finding a life partner, cancer or Alzheimer’s; no one ever appears to worry-overmuch about jobs and work. In fact, most don’t appear to even need to actually show up at work and are always available for endless hours untangling relationships with friends, parents, boyfriends. Even people in some high-stress fields like medicine are concerned most with the travails of love. Is this just stupid-TV or is that how most people’s brains work – is 90% of most people’s brains devoted to the state of their relationships, with work merely the steady background hum of their brains?

My brain, in contrast, has solid neural pathways connecting work and anxiety, and anything (even something previously enjoyable) that acquires the trappings of work (pay for instance) immediately invokes anxiety. And if I look closely at the anxiety, it usually doesn’t even make any sense – why should I feel anxious about completing a paper when I know what needs to be done and how to do it? Why should I endlessly rerun conversations I’ve had with colleagues/bosses replaying what I should have said versus what I did say?

Is it possible to retrain ones brain so that a new pathway is built connecting work to, say excitement or calm? My romance books are full of people who throw themselves into work to avoid dealing with personal stuff: for these people work invokes calm rather than fear; it is an escape How did that happen for them?

On the few occasions when a serendipitous blend of God-prayer-meditation scraped off the layers of anxiety about work, I’ve discovered a well of excitement, ideas and creativity – so many things I want to make, do, write about, buried under all that anxiety.

For a hellish 2 years I was a housewife – this was not out of choice but because of some random crazy visa issue (is there any other kind?) – and with every day without some well-defined-busyness-making-task before me, I felt myself getting smaller. I’m skinny and brown and soft-spoken, and in groups, it is easy to forget I exist. High-status work is the only sure-fire way I’ve found to counteract this effect. It is a curious problem to have – having a job makes me anxious and miserable about my work, but not having one makes me disappear. And I remember another one like me – my neighbor, another H4-visa wife, a Pharmacist in India, a housewife in the U.S. – she would sleep for days on end, the house dark even mid-afternoon, but would tell me that she was happy being a housewife and has no beef with the H4-visa rules that kept her from a job, even as she disappeared before my eyes, since her memories of her job were anxiety-ridden.

I read recently about how American’s commitment to work and the centrality of work for their identity has risen along with the increase in layoffs, temporary work, unpaid work . And the stories in this piece had a familiar desperate-clinging quality to it, with people who’d been laid off multiple times avowing their death-do-us-apart commitment to their jobs – “I give 150% to my work,” others gave 200%, 300%…an arms race for what you would give for a job. This makes no sense and is as irrational as me putting my family through hoops to hold onto a job that I know will boot me out with only the slightest of pangs, and drumming into my son the importance of working hard. Has working hard ever really helped anyone? I know we all think it helps, but are there concrete examples of good stuff that happened because of hard work? When I think back on my life, all the good stuff that happened, happened because of some combination of serendipity, showing-up, and being-at-the-right-place, and which I sometimes later spun into a story of hard-work and ability.

in defense of stridency

I am the kind of person that enjoys being loud, definitive, and often strident. This does not mean that I enjoy dominating other people or converting them to my point of view, but I often find it is a struggle just to openly hold my own beliefs, many of which are anti-mainstream. I am the kind of person who literally gets a jaw ache after a meeting or a cocktail party where I have self-censored and not spoken the majority of my thoughts. To some extent, this just makes me an extrovert. I think it also relates to my understanding about social change, which is, put succinctly, that the only place one can be free is in the struggle, but that connection is too elaborate and of too little interest to anyone else to unpack here.

More relevant to our project here, my inability so much of the time to just say what I think is directly tied to the racist, sexist, classist, speciesist, capitalist, ableist norms in the society at large (and society writ small in the institutions where we work and play). If what I fervently believe is anti-racist, then it stands to reason that it will be perceived as radical, and strident, and maybe even antagonistic, to the majority of people in a racist society. I’ll be a bitch if I say what I think.

I’m writing in circles here.

Maybe instead I should start at the beginning. I see myself as a person with a strong moral compass and a strong sense of ethical standards. Being an irreligious person, and a person who believes there’s no such thing as god, and having been raised outside of any formal religious or ethical traditions, I have spent a significant amount of thought developing my own sense of how to be a good person in the world.

I’ll explain this through an example. I don’t eat meat of any kind. And I do so for ethical reasons. Sure, it’s better for the environment. Sure, it’s pretty good for my health. But the fundamental reason I don’t eat meat is because I think it’s wrong to eat another living animal if it is completely possible for me survive (and even thrive) without doing so. And, if you really press me, it’s true that I find it abhorrent for others to eat meat. I think it’s wrong.

However, this is never, ever information that I volunteer. I do not shame others for what they eat, or ask them not to eat it in front of me. I simply refuse to eat, prepare, or have meat in my own house. If you ask me why I’m a vegetarian I will give you the short answer “for ethical reasons” specifically to avoid making anyone feel judged or uncomfortable about their own choices (which, after all, are theirs to make). It’s only if you keep asking that I’ll say what I said above—that I think it’s wrong to eat animals. The vast majority of people dearest to me in the world eat meat and a good portion of those disagree with me on the moral question; for me the test of those close to me isn’t whether they meet my moral standards, it’s whether I can be explicit and open about my moral standards with them and find a situation of mutual respect and tolerance.

The trouble is, this is how I see myself but this does not seem to be how others (less close relationships) react to me. When it comes out, as it did recently, that I hold some kind of core ethical belief, people sometimes react as if I’ve become a Puritan right in front of their eyes. As if it were unfashionable to have a moral compass, or as if I had begun praying for their souls right there at the dinner table. When my friends discover that I think they are wrong for eating meat, I wonder if they feel like I did in high school when I realized a Baptist friend was certain that I was on my way to hell, and that this fact regularly made him very sad?

The thing is, I feel like I’ve learned to live with having a lot of people around me who’s relationships with me co-exist with their sadness that I’m on my way to hell. Those are irreconcilable ethical differences, and to me the only thing we can do is set them aside and agree to disagree. They’re at once very deep and somewhat unimportant, because that’s how the world is. It isn’t consistent or tidy or permanent. In fact, that’s why I feel I need to have a clear sense of morality so that I can be guided in all this murkiness, but that also means that my sense of morality has to allow for change and compromise and above all the complete humanity of others. Which means respecting their autonomy and ability to make judgments and what David Foster Wallace called “the richness of their interior lives.” But somehow I feel that others are not always able to do this for me. When I sense that I disagree on some fundamental level with a friend (for example, about the existence of god), I don’t attempt to get them to tell me what they think so I can convince them otherwise. I think that fundamentally disrespects the other, because it implies that I don’t respect their ability to develop ideas as correct as my own – why am I sure I know better than them? I am sure of that for myself but it’s wrong to impose that.

My fear of how others will react to what I really think leads to self-policing, which inevitably leaves me feeling silenced and somewhat lonely. I have a deep need to say what I think (maybe we all do), and I don’t think this need implies a similar need to have others agree with me. I just wish I was sure I could count on receiving the same respect in return.

end of the summer

This week, I’m stressed out and anxious. I’m trying to get a writing project finished before I leave town in 36 hours. I’ll be gone for a 4 day weekend, back for 3 work days, and then gone again for another 4 day weekend. My 9-month contract begins again 14 days from now. In lieu of a blog post this week, I’m choosing to provide a random list of some things—mostly work-related–that are on my mind. (Sure it’s self-indulgent, but I’m hoping that some of you or at least my friends who read this will be interested to see how the contents of my mind mirror or differ from yours.)

  • edits needed on my book proposal
  • the article that is almost done that I have still not submitted
  • whether my co-author for said article is not responding to my emails because he’s mad I haven’t done the revisions I promised or whether he’s just busy
  • whether or not the dress I bought in 2008 still fits me well enough to wear it to the wedding I’m going to this weekend
  • what shoes to wear with the dress since the wedding is in a gravel lot
  • how many hours of work do I have left on my sample chapter?
  • is my book project doomed to become like my article project?
  • wtf have I been doing all summer?
  • summer is for enjoyment, why am I wasting the end of it worried all the time about work?
  • the book I want to read before I teach a class on the same subject
  • the novel I want to read to enjoy the end of my summer
  • is it OK that I apparently didn’t mean the deadlines I set for myself in my pre-tenure review?
  • the active learning activity I was going to submit to TRAILS
  • how do other people always seem to get so much done?
  • my syllabi for the fall–no stop that, if i think about that it will mean the real end of my summer writing projects!
  • cleaning off my desk… both of my desks
  • is it too late to drop everything, max out my credit cards, and go to the beach before the semester starts? or is it just early enough to start planning that for the winter break?
  • will I ever have another full blown research project after my dissertation?