“Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! The scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round the little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent..." ~ George Eliot

November 4, 2012

All in the Same Boat

This post is inspired by a marathon, a conference, the election season, and a statement from my brilliant mentor who says "we're all basically on the same side, rowing the boat together" in a post from Constructing the Academy that you can read here

Last weekend, in what proved to be great timing, I flew back east to run in the D.C. Marine Corps Marathon. This was my first marathon, so I did not really know what to expect. I had heard the cheering crowds were amazing at this event, and despite the weather courtesy of Sandy, they did indeed turn out in droves. Whether holding up signs or holding out cups of water, people lined the 26 mile route through the capital to cheer us on. Other than two people, I did not know a soul among the thousands running with me, but the sense of camaraderie as we all struggled together toward the same goal was a good feeling indeed. 

I flew back just in time to attend a small conference of the top Victorian Poetry scholars hosted by the Armstrong Browning Library in honor of Robert Browning's 200th birthday. I have been to conferences before where, when the bigwigs are involved, things get nasty. Between territorial tiffs, self-righteous claims to being right, and the need to carve out a space for your own argument, academics can be quite nasty to one another. At this conference, however, I witnessed the best that can happen when great minds come together. We posed intellectual problems, pondered over possible solutions, shared helpful advice, and humbly asked for advice. The veteran and newly minted academics, honored professors and graduate students, all ate together, rode buses together, and participated in lively discussions together. There were even some Brits yee-hawing and swing dancing.

My mentor's statement points to an important truth: we are all in this business of being human together. Whether you are republican or democrat, sub-3 hour runner or marathon walker, a poetry or novel person, we are all rowing together. I am saddened, and often downright disgusted, at the way we talk to one another, across the political aisle, the department aisle, or even the grocery story aisle. My experiences of the past week in both the marathon and the Browning conference showed me what happens when we stop trying to row against one another and instead realize we can only experience the high seas if we row together. 

September 9, 2012

Then Sings My Soul

Cool mornings
Grounders fielded
Football sundays
Potluck feasts
Fall break
Al fresco dining
Pears and peaches
Pool volleyball
Summer solstice
Grill smoke
Long sleeves
Longer walks
Season premieres
Fresh starts
Good friends
Grass cut
Corn maize
Small triumphs
Quiet moments
Open windows
Open hearts

July 15, 2012

The Slow Movement

I wish I could say I chose to wash the dishes by hand out of some romantic “back in the day” nostalgia, or out of some perfectionist sense of immediately drying them so there were no water marks, or out of an industrious impulse to not let a machine do my work for me. But really I washed the dishes by hand last night because I bought the wrong soap for the dishwasher (I also wish I could say I realized that before trying to use it, but this was a mistake learned after the fact unfortunately).

It takes a long time to wash the equivalent of a full load of dishwasher dishes, but because this was not a normal activity it had the feel of a special occasion, or the freshness of something new or different so that I actually quite enjoyed it. But I think I enjoyed it for two other very important reasons as well: 1) using my hands and 2) slowing down.

I equate this to one of my favorite activities, cutting up vegetables. For those of you who know me this will be shocking because I am often too vocal about both my distaste for and discomfort with cooking.  But because I love cutting up vegetables I will cook almost anything that requires me to cut up 3 or more vegetables. I love pulling out the cutting board, laying out the freshly washed vegetables in a row at the top, and then meticulously choosing each vegetable one at a time to either dice or cube or slice or mince.

I love the way the cutting board looks with the remains of vegetable skins and ends on one side and the rainbow array of the innards piled up ready for the pan or pot. I love the feel of holding each vegetable in my hand, the perfect balance of the knife stretched end to end from my hand to the cutting board, the methodical rhythmic action of lifting the knife up and down as it moves along the vegetable.

Despite the inefficiency of it, I never have another part of the meal going while I chop vegetables. This sacred rite of preparation is something I do first, before anything else begins and while nothing else is going on. This way, I do not have to keep track of anything else and I can just lose myself in the methodical slowness of cutting vegetables.

Washing dishes, I discovered, created the same space, and while my hands worked my mind wandered. Not in the frantic way it often does during the day when I’m trying to get five things done at once, but in a meandering, lumbering way. I began to wonder how many other machines have taken away tasks that would allow us to slow down and let our minds wander.

I don’t think I’m advocating a return to the days where we wash our clothes down by the creek (although, wouldn’t this be fun to try one week?). But cutting vegetables and handwashing dishes made me aware once again of the value of slowing down, and how, because of technology, we may need to become more intentional about creating spaces for slowing down.

In a wonderful TED talk by Carl Honre he explores two questions: What made us speed up? And is it possible and even desirable to slow down? His answer in part about why we are such a fast paced culture is profoundly revealing: “speed becomes a way of walling ourselves off from the bigger, deeper questions, we fill our heads with distractions and busyness so we don’t have to ask…” and here you can fill in any of the big “life” questions or any of the niggling, nagging questions of your own life that you continue to ignore.

My own slowing down experiment over Lent, to sit for one hour a week and do nothing, was a miserable failure. It seems absurd, doesn’t it, that I could not find one hour in 168 to do nothing? With all of the research out now about the benefits of slowing down, including, ironically, increased productivity, better health, better relationships, even better sex, you would think we would all be rushing to slow down.

But, as Honre points out, slow is a dirty word in our culture, synonymous with lazy or stupid. I hope we can begin to change that by having reasonable work hours, by making, or even better yet growing, our own food, by taking time with tasks rather than always multi-tasking.

This is revolutionary concept; it will change how we think about time, how we define success, how we interact with others, and how we look at ourselves. It will, in short, change how we think.

I hope you will take some time today to think about slowness and the ways you might incorporate a good kind of slow in your individual life and start letting the individual choices you make shape the larger culture around you.

July 8, 2012

On Not Sharing

I have recently joined the ranks of tweeters and instagramers, to add to my resume of Facebook and blogs. (This resume, by the way, proves that I am not old. A vital point to make post-July 5th)

It was a coincidence of fortune that I started using twitter and instagram when summer began. This enabled me to be part of my sister’s trip to Hawaii, friends’ trips to L.A., Connecticut, Wilmington, Galvaston, D.C., and just ordinary summertime events like festivals and cookouts. The immediacy of seeing pictures from trips and activities as they are happening makes me feel connected to people’s lives in a way that I would not if I just heard about it the next time I saw them.

Even the somewhat ordinary, but just surprising enough to share, pictures from daily life keep me feeling connected to people; it reminds me of the difference between being roommates and seeing someone once a week. It’s the sharing in life’s everyday happenings that creates community between people, and for me this is what twitter and instagram can foster.

Looking for the next picture or link to post also keeps me interested in what is happening around me, a way of going through the day with the expectation that life will have something beautiful, funny, surprising, maddening, enlightening, or moving that will be worth sharing with others. This anticipatory outlook makes me feel more alive, and for me this is what twitter and instagram can foster.

But turning life’s passing moments into permanent and orchestrated pictures can come with a certain amount of pressure, and for this reason I have on occasion decided not to share. And I think in doing so I discovered the merits of not sharing. Putting aside every directive we heard as young kids about how important it is to share, I want to extol the virtues of not sharing. In our culture, we tend to over-share #understatement. For that reason, I think there is now something very cathartic about keeping something to yourself.

While being connected to a community is a necessary and vital part of being human, it’s also important that I remember how to stand on my own two feet, to breathe by myself, to be content with only myself for company. You see, the flip side to sharing everything all the time is that you never really have to dwell with your own response to something or think about how that article or picture impacts you. Sharing immediately makes us think about how others will react and how others will be affected, and that’s important too. But there are merits to being solitary, and not sharing something you experienced can be a form of solitude.

There are two things that I have seen while walking through downtown in recent months that I did not share. They moved me deeply for different reasons, so deeply in fact that I felt compelled to keep them as my secret. And for some reason, because I did so, these scenes will occasionally come to mind again and I will dwell on what they teach me about being human, about the world around me, and just simply about me. Because these images never made their debut on twitter or instagram, they are somehow more firmly embedded in my mind.

You should try it. The next time you stumble across a beautiful or funny image, just enjoy the moment without trying to think of a witty hashtag or decide on the best filter. See what it feels like to carry this carefully wrapped secret close to you and know that no one else in the entire world saw or experienced that moment quite like you did, and no one else will ever know about it.

PS: I am now going to share these thoughts with everyone on my blog. And I will probably tweet about it and post a link on Facebook. 

July 2, 2012

Defining Success Part Three (and Final)

I am not sure if it's just coincidence or not that as I thought about my own struggles with success this past week I kept coming across articles and conversations that only added more twists and turns to the complicated issue of how we define success as a culture and what it means for me personally.

I wanted to create some very pragmatic steps for defining success successfully (ha ha), but realized this is an impossible task because no equation will work for more than one person, let alone a whole slew of blog readers. What I have to offer instead are three principles that I think are crucial to add into your equation for defining success.

“Practical” things I do to define success:
1) clearly articulate my goals to myself and keep these distinct from what my employer stipulates as goals.
This doesn't mean you don't work hard to achieve the kind of goals laid out by your employer, because you probably won't keep your job if you aren't meeting those goals of course. It just means you don't use those goals to define yourself as successful because they’re someone else's goals and not yours. Sometimes the goals that define your job will align with your personal goals, and in fact if too often they do not it probably means you are in the wrong field. But it is good, I believe, to keep in mind that your employer’s goals have to do with making the company successful on its terms, not with making you successful on your terms.

2) ask myself often why I am doing this job
You might say this is a “getting back to the basics” practice, but I have found that one good way to accurately define success for myself is to stay in touch with some of my original reasons for getting on a particular career path. In my case, I really do love to read and to talk about what I read with others. I am in love with learning, and crave any environment that gets its vibe from pursuing ideas. These “whys” mean that I should be defining success by how often I get to talk about books and whether I am connected or not to an intellectual community. That’s stripping it down to the bare bones of course, but sometimes I think we need to do that when talking about something as abstract and lofty as “success.”

3) Recognize your life connects to others
Sometimes the best success stories come at a cost to other people. As much as I may try to convince myself of the lone wolf myth, my success not only depends on others but it also affects others.  It’s vital to check in with the people who are involved in your life and ask them how your personal goals are touching their lives, for good or bad. In my single-minded pursuit of a graduate degree and a job I rarely did this, and it means you can be left staring at the idol of your achievement and yet feeling like something is not quite right. I think our definitions of success need to become more communal. For me this means that success as an academic involves my life outside the ivory towers just as much as my teaching and research inside those towers.