A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.
At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
One reason why I might have over-reacted (besides the simple fact that I can sometimes be fairly dramatic) is that there are a lot of things in my life that I feel unprepared to face, and they all seem to be coming up pretty quickly: My Ph.D. applications come due in December, too-quickly followed by my comprehensive exams to get my Masters degree, then my first contracted publication and first teaching job... and if I get in to the Ph.D. program that I am eyeing, I'm not convinced I will survive it. I was told that it will be nothing like the program where I'm currently working on my Masters degree; a graduate told me that at the school I aspire to attend next--they give you tough love. They kick your ass, so that you're prepared to face the next person who tries. Or something like that.
A lot different from where I am now--in my program, the department has a literary dessert contest every year, and I'm friends with several of my professors. Some of them have their students over for dinner, while others let you haunt their office and play with their action figures. I babysit for one couple in the department, and go out for lunch to talk about my thesis with my advisor. I felt at home as soon as I started going to school there. But now, I'm faced with a Ph.D. program that will be trial by fire--if I even get accepted into the program. So, I'm feeling a little less confident than usual. It's not hard to imagine failure on all sides, accept the worst-case scenarios, and plan for the next Great Depression.
Then I read something that gave me a little boost. (Those of you who are cynical about the Obama "rhetoric of hope" should just skip the rest of my entry.) Michelle Obama was talking about facing the intensity of her husband's presidential campaign, and she said, "When you're a person like me, who steps outside the normal boundaries of what their life is supposed to be like — say, going to Princeton — you're worried that maybe you're not prepared, because everybody has told you you probably won't be, and then you get there and you're like, I'm prepared... I think many of us are more prepared for certain situations than we imagine."
This is not Sarah Palin saying, "Yes, I'm ready to be president because I'm confident... I have that confidence." Confidence doesn't make you qualified for a job, just emotionally ready to face it. But Michelle Obama seems to know that--she was talking about readiness to face an emotionally intimidating and rigourous experience. That's what is really terrifying me, after all--the emotional drain. The academic challenges will take everything that I've got, and what little I've got left in my reserves--will it be enough? Will I be able to press through my work, even when my brain is already fried? Will I be able to find any sympathy from anyone in the new department to make me laugh when I feel like crying? Because graduate school makes me feel like crying, fairly often in fact.
My husband tells me he thinks I can survive a Ph.D. program, and I hope he's right. His opinion matters a lot to me, obviously. But somehow, Michelle Obama made me believe it, at least for the moment. And this sounds incredibly silly, but the next Great Depression doesn't seem so likely either, once I've had a few frozen margaritas and swallowed my own personal fears. Maybe I can even swallow my cynicism and believe that Congress will do something intelligent.
Friday, September 26, 2008
In Midnight's Children, my narrator Saleem uses, at one point, the metaphor of a cinema screen to discuss this business of perception: "Suppose youself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up. . .
Gradually moving up until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars' faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions; . . . it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality."
The movement towards the cinema screen is a metaphor for the narrative's movement through time towards the present, and the book itself, as it nears contemporary events, quite deliberately loses deep perspective, becomes more "partial." I wasn't trying to write about (for instance) the Emergency in the same way as I wrote about events half a century earlier. I felt it would be dishonest to pretend, when writing about the day before yesterday, that it was possible to see the whole picture. I showed certain blobs and slabs of the [contemporary] scene.
It struck me that this is how I feel about the economic situation at the moment. I can look back on the stories that my grandparents have told me about the Great Depression (over and over again, because I'm very close to my grandparents, and they are fabulous storytellers), and I can get a sense of rising action-tension-climax-denoument. Reading history is not so different from reading fiction--they are both narratives, after all. But even when I hear on the news that we face another depression like the Great Depression if Congress doesn't put together some sort of bailout package, I still don't quite understand. I am pressed up close against the movie screen, able only to see blobs and slabs of this week's events, only blurry pieces of images that frustrate me and fill me with thoughts like, "Will we be able to afford to buy Lindt chocolate bars if the stock market crashes?"
Forget chocolate. That's how much of a princess I am--I think of luxury items first. And of course, those would be the first to go. But even worse, will the grocery store start running out of things like eggs and milk? Will I have to eat pancakes made of flour and water, like my grandmother was often forced to do? I may seem dramatic, but I'm very close with my grandma, so the conditions of a serious economic depression are etched into my mind. Patched clothing, cardboard stuffed into holes in your shoes--making do with what you've got and not getting anything new for a long time. This could be psychologically disturbing for a shopaholic like me.
And even my last sentence makes light of the situation, while part of me feels frightened that I shouldn't make jokes. (Yet if you can't make jokes, you won't survive something like this at all.) I don't really understand everything that's going on with the markets, but I know what will happen if we have a honest-to-goodness crash, and I can't figure out why we (yes, all of us) let politics become so petty. I could raise unending examples, rant until I am blue in the face about how different politicians have said-this-and-done-that, but why bother? There are enough internet bloggers out there who throw in their two cents and a whole lot more without really understanding the political scene. That's what I want to avoid doing, in fact.
I just want to talk about fear. There's a fear that comes from being pressed up against history, being forced to confront the reality that we're living in more than our every day existance. When we think we're at a noble turning point in history--like being about to elect the first African American or female president, for example--we can feel good about ourselves. This is a momentous occasion, after all. Give yourself a pat on the back. We think we see things clearly.
But the price of milk gets higher, the price of gas gets higher, and suddenly we're pressed up against something that's not so noble, not so grand. We realize that we're always walking alongside the precipice of history, always teetering and about to slip. Maybe even if we don't go into a Great Depression, we (as a nation) should take our heads out of the sand and realize that our actions have greater consequences than we often bother to consider.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
--Jamaican Proverb, translated by Zora Neale Hurston
As if I wasn't overwhelmed enough, my body decided to go and get sick on me, and this provides a good example of how grad school changes your perspective: once upon a time in a land far, far away, I considered a sick day a good day to watch my favorite movies while napping on the couch. Now, a sick day is a "decreased productivity day," and I do my napping in between reading assignments. Yes, I'm still trying to keep up with my to-do list from my bed, because otherwise it will come back and devour me in a few days.
Which is where this Jamaican proverb comes in: I'm oddly comforted by the idea that while I may have to half-ass a few things once I recover, "the pinch of circumstances" will help me get everything done, in the end. I'm trying not to panic that the world seems to be moving past me at double the speed that I can go right now, because when I've recovered, I'll suddenly be able to outrun my usual pace--thanks to adrenaline, I suppose. At least, I hope that's how it works.
The thing is, I usually feel like I'm "running" pretty much as fast as I can to keep up with my fairly daunting list of tasks. Sure, I think I've reached a new "transcendental state" with regards to school. I've been feeling more calm about all my work, but that involves being content with the fact that I will constantly be working and still be unable to get ahead of things. I don't know if I'm quite ready for the landslide that's going to hit me when I finally escape my feverish state and have to look at all my work in the face again. A landslide tends to destroy anything that's in its path.
If there is going to be a landslide, maybe I should at least spoil myself with a few screenings of While You Were Sleeping, You've Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally... all the classics of my sick days on the couch in times past. A few episodes of Buffy or Veronica Mars, perhaps. Yet, I'm not quite feverish enough to forget the landslide--just feverish enough to put my hope in a Jamaican proverb and hope that in another day or two, my herbal remedy teas will kick in and clear my head, before I'm buried by a wave of mud (or, more literally, a toppling stack of books).
Monday, September 15, 2008
The card read, "Since I can't be there in person, I thought I'd send you the next best thing: books!" (Ah, a woman after my own heart... this is why we understand each other so well.) Then she wrote, "I know you probably won't have time to read them in the midst of grad school, so feel free to shelve them for future rainy days..."
Hmmm, future rainy days... when I've run out of things I need to read for my concentration(s) in Modernist and International Literatures. Future rainy days once I've earned my Ph.D. Future rainy days... seven years from now.
Yes, that's right. Recently I found out that I most likely have six years in a Ph.D. program after I finish my Masters degree this coming spring. That's seven more years of slaving away as a professor--but paid much, much less because I don't yet have that "Ph.D." attached to the end of my name. Seven more years of living in the same apartment--which is cozy and sunny, but is running out of room for books. Seven more years before my husband and I can buy a house, paint the living room turquoise and my office walls the color of warm chocolate brown. Seven more years before I can buy a ten-foot long dining room table where I can make collages and play with play-doh with the kids, or build myself a entire wall of built-in bookcases.
When I found out how long we'd be living in our apartment before we could afford a mortgage, my sweet husband (who knows me so well) said, "Don't worry. When you get into a Ph.D. program, I'll buy you another bookcase." It may not seem romantic to anyone else, but that concession to my habit of book-buying was one of the sweetest comforts he could have given me at that moment.
I had a nice moment today, though, when I realized something: I'm twenty-five and stuck in the midst of an incredible challenge to become qualified to beat out hundreds of other applicants for a university teaching position once I've earned my Ph.D. Yet, I don't have any children that will feel abandoned, my husband and family are very understanding and supportive, and I passionately believe in the value of teaching International Literatures to high school students and young undergraduates during this era of globalization. This is defintely worth my time and effort, and so it's okay if I am career-driven right now. As a kid, the term left a sour taste in my mouth--probably because my own parents were gone so much, and when I did see them, I only saw that they were stressed out by their careers, drained of any passion that they may have had for what they were doing.
Another friend of mine has labeled this my new "transcendental state of being in regards to school," which has been growing on me these past few weeks that we've been back to school. (But I have also had an under-lying fear when I remember that I was fine the first few weeks of school last fall, and then I had a breakdown and remained a slobbering, overwhelmed sop until sometime in February.) Now, on the day of my twenty-fifth birthday, when apparently everyone expects me to have some sort of "I'm getting old" crisis, I feel like I understand this "transcendental state" more fully. It has to do with letting go of the resistance and giving myself fully to a goal, to accepting the grueling pace of my academic life. Of course, at times I'm sure I'll still feel the tears clogging my throat and weighing heavily in my lungs--the feeling that even if I keep working at an unsustainable pace, I'll never be able to finish. Yet, I think that for the most part, I've finally achieved a sense of balance and acceptance.
The birthday card from my friend ended with the admonition to "do something special on your day--no homework allowed." Those words were firmly underlined. And for the record, my husband skipped a meeting to come home and cook dinner for me, and give me presents. (He has also planned a "surprise party" for me in a couple of weeks.) But that firmly underlined instruction came from someone wonderful who clearly has already forgotten what it's like to be in graduate school--there are very few days when I can simply not do any work.
But, I think I'm okay with that. I just hope I don't have to wait seven years to read those books my friend sent me.
Friday, September 12, 2008
For weeks this summer, I had little red welts all over my ankles--I hadn't noticed, but teeny little spiders had been nibbling on me while I was sitting out on the balcony, studying hour after hour until the late afternoon sun got too hot. I would discover new bites every day or two, the itching becoming a consistent distraction. Then, insects--perhaps spiders, perhaps not--started eating away at the beautiful leaves of my money tree, which I've been carefully cultivating all summer. I've been so excited that with the extra hours of summer sun and special diet of extra Miracle Grow, my tree has shot up almost a foot over the past few months. See, usually I have a hard time keeping plants alive. I've even killed cacti and bamboo plants--two of the hardiest types of house plants, I'm told.
So, I decided to get even with those little bastards. They were eating me, and eating my plants, after all. I went and bought some insecticide--but while it seems to have stopped whatever was eating away leaf after beautiful leaf of my money tree, it also killed off most of my flowers. My bright little pink and orange blossoms, another proliferating victory of my gardening attempts this summer, all shriveled up. But loosing the flowers themselves isn't the only sad part, though: it means my hummingbird won't come back.
Hummingbirds have always seemed like a bit of a myth to me, and since I'm ornithophobic (afraid of birds--no joke), I've never had a particular desire to see one. Yet, one day while I was reading out on the balcony a month or two ago, a small blur flew up towards my pot of riotous flowers, and hovered there for a few seconds. Startled, I let out a little yell, and it flew off. I sat there, trying to figure out what exactly I had just seen. The was it moved was not languid like a butterfly, yet it definitely hovered, which was unlike a sparrow. And it had been too small to have been another type of bird, and too big to be one of those beautiful, irredescent dragonflies.
I asked my husband Jeremy whether he thought that hummingbirds lived in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and he wasn't sure. But a few days later, I was eating lunch by the window, and the blinds were pulled back so I could see the flower pot clearly. Suddenly, a tiny bird flew up and stuck its beak into the blossoms hanging over the balcony ledge. I was able to watch as it drank from several blossoms, and was now sure it had been a hummingbird. A magical little friend, in a way, since his presence seemed so unlikely.
And when he came again a few days later, while I was sitting on the lounge chair next to the flower pot, I was even more thrilled. I was only two feet away, and this time, I did not make a noise. He looked at me for a moment, and I could clearly see his long little beak, and how quickly his wings were moving. Then, he drank from several flowers again, and I stared at the tiny grayish body, imagining how light his bones must be. I even felt proud--for an ornithiphobic to be more thrilled than frightened by a bird in such close proximity seemed like an accomplishment.
But now, those little red and pink flowers are shriveled, and my big yellow begonias are turning brown as well. The final kicker is that my arch nemesis, the squirrel I have affectionately termed "son of a bitch," has popped the heads off my gerber daisies. The stems still stand tall, but look rather morbid, like headless bodies who have returned from the dead to warn of the impending fall season. I might as well dig up the dying plants, stack up my pots, and be ready for winter.
School is here, so I don't have time to prune and water and mulch my little garden much more, anyway. But it is like saying goodbye to something much larger than just summer when I realize that the hummingbird will not be back any more. Perhaps I shouldn't feel sad--my grandma told me that she's only seen a hummingbird once in her life, and I've seen him three times now, once from quite close. But my heart feels just a little heavier when I look at my headless gerber daisies and the shriveled flowers that once drew the hummingbird to my balcony. Maybe he will come again next summer, though.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
1) I forgot to take my birth control on Tuesday.
2) I went to "catch up" on my dosage on Wednesday. (For those of you uneducated about birth control, you normally take one pill every morning. To catch up, you take the first pill in the morning, then the second pill at night. Voila! You are caught up, ready to take the regular dosage the next morning again.)
3) I went to take extra vitamins about an hour later on Wednesday night, but being tired, I thoughtlessly grabbed and swallowed the third birth control pill I had taken that day.
4) I did not panic until ten minutes later--because it took me that long to even register that I had taken three pills(!).
5) I managed to stay calm on Thursday, felt on edge most of Friday, but felt the need to express some tension on Saturday. So, I went ahead and expressed myself (and you can all send your sympathy to my poor, long-suffering husband).
Now, I was faced with the following questions:
1) Am I going to die? (It may not be apparent from this blog as of yet, but I have the capacity to be extremely dramatic. Also, I'm a hypochondriac.)
2) Have I had such trouble concentrating on all my reading this weekend because of the hormonal imbalances/fluctuations caused by my three-pill dosage? Or, is it simply because I was assigned to read literary theory by a man who clearly did not care at all whether or not his readers could understand what he was saying???
This is not the medical dilemma of the average person, this much I know. Is it even the medical dilemma of the average grad student?? At any rate, how would I prefer to categorize my episode of slight hysteria on Saturday? The female hormonal problem--or mental problems??
I'm really not quite sure which option portrays me in a better light, but I certainly wouldn't want to "play the gender card" as a crutch. According to Sarah Palin, if we women are discriminated against, we need to simply "work harder, prove yourself to an even greater degree" (watch the clip called "The Sarah Palin Gender Card" from the September 3, 2008 broadcast of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart at http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=184086&title=sarah-palin-gender-card).
There's the subtle political undertone for today's blog entry: see if you can deduce my politics from that statement. Meanwhile, I'm going to skip the rest of that literary theory and go back to reading A Tale of Love and Darkness. I didn't get very far yesterday because I decided that for the sake of my sanity, I needed to go to a beer-tasting party. Isn't it great when you can justify things like that? After all, alcohol just seems like the best way to top off my three birth control pills.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
But, I thought maybe I would feel better if I took a little time to think about this quote:
"If a man lives calmly, without getting impatient, he has time to think and to remember. That way, he'll meet his destiny, perhaps. He'll live content, maybe. He won't forget what he's learned. If he gets impatient, rushing to outstrip time, the world gets out of order, it seems."
--from The Storyteller, by Mario Vargas Llosa
My world gets out of order quite easily, but if I'm going to spend another six or seven years as a graduate student, I need to learn to manage my anxiety. I don't want to spend that long with my world out of order, hiding behind stacks of books. The problem is, I am an impulsive, impatient person. I get excited about ideas and want to implement them right away. I want to do so much that I have unrealistic expectations for what I will be able to accomplish in a day, a week, or a year. I've got to learn to believe that it's okay if I don't finish something, or I'm a little late on a deadline. At least every once in a while.
I want to "meet my destiny"--some great intellectual destiny is what I envision for myself, I suppose, as a teacher and author. Also, someday, a mother. But I have a feeling that wasn't exactly the kind of destiny Vargas Llosa meant, and I also want to "live content," as he says. I want to find a way to enjoy being a student--I already enjoy the reading (well, most of it... maybe not some of the theory) and I already enjoy learning all the kinds of things that I get to study. It is simply learning to balance all of that with every day life.
I want to be able to enjoy watching TV, going to the grocery store, hanging out with friends. These probably don't seem like high aspirations, but you'd be surprised at how much I can enjoy chopping up vegetables to saute and pruning the flowers in my little balconey garden. Part of me wants to move out to the country and become a small-time organic farmer. (Except that may not be a good idea--I have a history of killing plants, even bamboo and cacti.) At any rate, I want to have small moments in my life. Virginia Woolf moments, I call them. Moments when I can watch the rain or stare at the patterns of sunlight on the tree leaves. I want to enjoy reading Tales of Love and Darkness, instead of rushing right though it and missing the beautiful descriptions. I want to make memories like Amos Oz describes:
"Living memory, like ripples in water or the nervous quivering of a gazelle's skin in the moment before it takes flight, comes suddenly and trembles in a single instant in several rhythms or various focuses, before being frozen and immobilized into the memory of a memory."
I want, in the midst of all the chaos and stress of my graduate work, to be living a life that poetic, that zen. I want to still be making memories that are worth keeping.
Monday, September 1, 2008
Classes started up again last week, and of course I couldn't sleep. Running on 3 hours of sleep while you're trying to follow a completely new schedule is great, let me tell you. Ah, well... chronic insomnia--at least it lets you get even more homework done in the middle of the night! Except, I usually end up surfing Amazon for even more books to read. Instead of actually being productive, I like to create even more work for myself, it seems.
The anxiety wasn't really about all the new loads of classwork, though--I think I've finally adjusted to the fact that I have so much work. The reality is, in fact, that I will never be finished--there will always be more preparation for my comprehensive exams, more research to do for my thesis, more novels to read to keep up with my career's chosen and ever expanding field of study. The lack of closure isn't easy to cope with, but I think I've settled into a more manageable pace, for the most part. An acceptance of my state of being as constantly reading.
Hard to identify with? I'm sure. Very few people have to read a minimum of 100 pages a day in order to keep up with their workload. I'm sure I sound like I don't live in the real world--and in some ways, I don't.
But I'm sure that everyone has that anxiety--that "taking stock of reality," that "dangerous hour for every man." And that was my week last week, pondering some serious questions: what do I do about my family's health problems when I live 500 miles away? How do I make choices about my career--certain courses of research are more interesting and more important, while others will actually get me hired. (Maybe.) Will there be enough money coming in next year? Will I be able to get into a Ph.D. program right away? Or, will I need to get a job? Will I be able to get a job next year? What kind? After all, the whole point of getting a Ph.D. is that there isn't a whole lot you can do with just a Masters degree in Literature.
And then there's the thought at 3 AM that wouldn't let me get back to sleep: Have I really become that kind of adult? Up late at night, worrying about bills, obsessed with my career? Do I really like what graduate school has done to me???