Monday, October 30, 2006

External Support

I'm really very bad at asking for help. This isn't a particularly interesting problem to have, I know, but it takes on whole new dimensions in the context of a research project and on trips to the libraries and archives that hold my sources within. I think a great deal of my reluctance to ask for help or rely on others is a completely unrealistic expectation that I should be able to do it myself. As a result, being in libraries and archives is good for me. When I was in the south last month, I couldn't even allowed to use the photocopier. This was fabulous, actually, because I didn't have time. But I never would have been so willing to rely on others to make copies if a Historical Society regulation hadn't insisted upon it. And that was just making copies, for crying out loud. (It's not that I'd think someone else incapable of making the copies. It's that I feel like it's an imposition to ask them to do so. Even when I'm paying for it.) So being forced to ask someone to guide me to my source pushes me into uncomfortable places, but in a good way. Once there, I'm realizing just how much the success of my project is dependent on the contributions of others.

So with each of these research trips, my project will pick up evidence of the places I've been and those to whom I've talked, a happily sedentary stone growing warm from all the moss. I'm getting tremendous energy from the thought that I'm not doing this alone but instead with the contributions of a hundred conversations and inspirations. One of my library trips involved sitting and talking with The Expert in one of my sources. This was intimidating and exciting all at once. As I talked, he'd jump up and go fish out a book that he thought would be helpful, or his partner, listening to our conversations, would be inspired to add a book to my stack. I felt like we were building a little bookish scaffolding around my project and thought that if The Expert was contributing to its structure that I couldn't go too far astray. Now I get to stand on this scaffolding, ask for help in building it taller and stronger, and then diligently work within it. The better I am at asking for help, the easier it will be to relax, lean back, and create the dissertation I know this can be.

photo by Bouwsteiger

Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

Research Metaphors

There are few things that I enjoy more than an unexplained metaphor, the kind that are left out like cookies for Santa, waiting for you to digest them when no-one is looking. Yesterday, I was waiting to speak with my advisor during her office hours and stuck my head in to say hello to the professor in the office across the hall. I hadn't seen her in a while and she asked how I was. I told her that I was moving forward, but that I was still pretty confused and at sea and not at all confident that I had the first clue as to what I was doing. She looked at me and then offered me two facts without further comment on my current situation, and I will do the same for you:

1) When a cancer metastasizes from one part of the body to another, it is still in the form of the original cancer. So if you have, for instance, breast cancer, and it metastasizes to your bones, you have breast cancer in your bones, not bone cancer. You can have liver cancer in your spine or lung cancer in your gut. Just because it is located in one place doesn't mean it began there, and close examination will reveal exactly what kind of cancer cells are living in a particular location.

2) The colors we see are not, in fact, the color objects really are. The colors we see are, really and truly, the colors an object isn't. The colors we see are the wavelengths of light rejected, not taken in. "Look at that filing cabinet," Metaphor Professor said. "It's not red. It's every color but red. Red is the color it didn't absorb. It's what we see because it's what the filing cabinet spit out."

Do with that what you will. My plan is to do quite a lot.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Friday(ish) Photo Blogging

I'm traveling this week, spending time at an archive on the West Coast. I'll blog about that more next week when my internet access is more reliable. For now, I just wanted to say forget about my photos this Friday and check out this absolute stunner over at photojenic.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Rites of Fall

I spent all day yesterday at the community garden plot I share with friends. I was weeding and turning over soil and getting the plot ready for winter. I was also planting tulip bulbs. Today, I spent part of the morning taking pictures of the tulip bulbs I couldn't bear to plant just yet. I can't bear to plant them because I'm just so in love with them.
I fall in love with tulips every spring, caress their stems and think them signs of the rising in all of us. But I didn't realize until yesterday, when I put my first bulbs in the ground, how much each bloom is a promise fulfilled. So now I'm completely smitten with the bulbs themselves—the soft, smooth, mother-of-pearl arms wrapped around the infant heart of spring—and also with the ritual of their planting.
I never understood before what an act of utter faith it is to plant a tulip. To drop something so perfect in itself under inches and inches of dirt with the belief that it's the brutality of our winters and the frozen ground and blankets of snow and ice that will allow it to give birth come spring.

I'm not quite sure of it, frankly. Right now, that faith is requiring a leap across a chasm at the bottom of which is every plant I've ever killed suffering through a hell of harsh, snow-filled winters. This is because, though I love gardening, I am not good at it. Actually, let me revise. I do not love gardening. I love planting and harvesting. All the rest in between seems like a lot of regularly-scheduled bother. It's no surprise, then, that I'm not good at it. And so right now, it seems pretty miraculous that I could plant a tulip bulb, cover it up all nice and cozy for the winter, and expect a tulip come spring. But the universe seems intent on asking me to have faith, let go, and trust that there are rhythms that, though not comfortable for me, are How Things Are Done. So I dropped them in, bulb by bulb, covered them over with very nice dirt, and waved goodbye. Except for these three here. These three bulbs will live in the small kamani wood bowl that sits on my desk and remind me of the importance of promises made and the part faith plays in their fulfillment.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Focus! Focus!

When it comes to the dissertation, it is ridiculously, insanely difficult to make yourself get up and work when you are having a hard time visualizing the big picture. At this point, I feel lucky I'm dressed and don't smell bad.

It's not lost on me that I might just catch a glimpse of the big picture if I'd get up and work. And so I try to take on tasks, crossing them off one at a time. The problem is that I just don't see it. I feel like I'm trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, but someone swiped the box top, so I have no idea if this little white and gray piece here is part of a snowy rooftop or a bit on the tail of a poodle. No clue.

I'm being melodramatic. A little. I find that I'm actually less sure of myself and my project than I was before the proposal process and I'm not entirely clear on whether that was intended or not. I am convinced that the proposal process is only minorly useful for some of us. Those with easily-defined, concrete projects can carefully lay out in 20 pages or so what they'll do for the next several years. Mine is not one of those projects. On the other hand, while the lit review bit was helpful (I loathe writing lit reviews, and so being forced to is the only way it will happen) and I enjoyed the conversations about my project, I'm not entirely sure forcing choices about some aspects of my project actually did anything but muddy the water. Yes, sure, I can tell which six sources I'll use because you've just told me I have to in order to proceed. But really, I might not really know whether sources number 5 and 6 are really any better than 7 and 8, which I had to ax, until I see sources 1 and 3. My proposal became a tortured 45 page document that tried to account for all the practical possibilities of a pretty intensely conceptual project. Now I feel as if I'm twisting around inside all 45 pages, desperate for the clarity of the pre-proposal days.

On the other hand, I've also been working (you know, when I've been working) on a two-page statement of interests for funding applications. Now that's helpful. I can see all the problems identified in the proposal defense in that little document, and it actually helps me see the big picture. It's a good box top for my puzzle. Turns out the little white and gray bit isn't snow or a poodle. It's popcorn! Who knew?

Unfortunately, my statement is currently with my committee members, getting reviewed, edited, maligned. And so I return to where I started this post: It's ridiculously hard to make yourself work when the big picture seems so, well, big. I'm trying to focus on the popcorn and worry about the rest later, but honestly, I'd rather eat popcorn, watch television, and wait for divine intervention. Which would be a lot more likely if I believed in such a thing.

Monday, October 09, 2006


So I'm not exactly sure how I got to a place in my life where I get to count conversation as work, but I realized this week that I do. On Friday morning, I met with a committee member. Brilliant but friendly (always so nice when those two go together), she and I talked about my dissertation at a clip for an hour and a half. What had I done? What was my plan for the next month? What did I think the disseration was about in 10 sentences or less? Had I read X? How about Y? Z might be helpful, and, you know, throw on the kitchen sink for good measure. It was lively and casual and very helpful. It was also exhausting. Seriously, I was supposed to have coffee with a friend right after, and I just couldn't talk any more. I had to come home and lie down for an hour and then meet up with her.

The process of knowing how to communicate about my dissertation is, at this point, almost impossible. It requires that I string together words, ideas, instincts, questions, and speculations and have it come out in something resembling a sentence. I often feel lucky if it comes out as more than an unsightly string of drool. At this point, being forced to talk about my dissertation—in fact, any conversation about my dissertation at all—is work for me. I'm not sure, it's possible it's supposed to be like this at this stage, but this may be a sign that I am completely, royally screwed. (But also - how lucky! I get to say I've worked when all I've done is try to say out loud what I've been thinking about for weeks on end.)

During my meeting, Brilliant But Friendly asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks. "What," she asked, "do you want to do next?" Want? Want?


I couldn't answer. Not because I don't want to be working on this. I do. Not because I don't remember why I wanted to work on this topic. I do. But because I've been so concerned with what the right thing is for so long that I forgot that part of what makes something right at this stage might be that I want to do it. The big picture has always been, in part, about my desire. I feel like desire is burning in every corner of this academic journey for me. But it didn't occur to me, or hasn't for a long while, that the small decisions like how to organize chapters or what archive to visit next might have anything to do with wanting. And now that I know that it does, I have to rediscover what it means to factor desire into the practical bits of an academic project. What do I want? I'll have to figure it out.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Take Me Home

I have finally returned from my adventures Out and Away, and find myself settling back into life as a campus-bound grad student. It’s a strange transition. I was gone for three weeks, slept in five states, and drove 4,000 miles. I love traveling by car. Part of it is the joy of the road trip—sealed in my car with the music on or off, my brain has all the space the road affords, unrolling ribbons of thought by the lane markers along the way. Part of my love of traveling by car is in its intimacy. I feel every mile go by, one by one, see the trees, the fields, the gas stations, and feel as if they see me. I can no more imagine feeling intimate with this country and this land without driving its back roads than I can imagine feeling intimate with a lover without knowing the way her skin tastes when it’s salty with sweat. I grew up on those back roads, so perhaps it speaks a language of heart and desire that I understand in ways that I’ll never understand the murmuring secrets of a city. But it’s also just possible that the back roads feel very much like the world stripped clean, glittering city clothes in a pile on the ground, curves and dark places exposed to the glint of the sun through the trees.

I love my small city here, as well, but instead of bare-skinned communion, my days feel very much like a long breakfast with an indecipherable lover. You know the kind—quiet and impenetrable, you’re always trying to push the right button to get the reward, the revelation or smile or sudden chatty exposition on what kind of toast is just the right complement to the marmalade. I’m a sucker for those partners; I think a lot of women are. It’s easy to feel special and gifted when someone so stoic lets you in. Cities feel that way to me, with secrets behind buildings and one-way streets. I often feel anonymous and invisible. Sitting here in my favorite coffee shop, some days I feel like my city lover will not speak, no matter how I prompt. I feel alone in close quarters, crowded and unable to get my brain to seize the moment and work, now, because it’s time. I miss the luxurious hours to linger, the freedom and warmth that comes with dropped inhibitions and room to explore.

Of course the transition isn’t as simple as country road to city street. Back from my research trip, I’m faced with endless tedious tasks that do not promise the discovery of boxes in the archive. I’ve never been good at routine, and this part of research is all about discipline and routine. I’m reading trade journals, and one page after another offers up fact or statistic or dry business shop talk. There’s little promise of excitement here, but, of course, that’s why it’s important I do it. History is lurking, even in world’s most boring trade journal, and I have to wander through, day after day, in case I lift the page that lets it spring to life in my hands.

It’s the promise of those moments that brought me back to My City. Because some days it all unfolds. Secrets well-hidden are revealed, and my inscrutable lover will hum, stroke my hair and dance with me. When things click and words spill onto the page and friends stop by to chat, I can’t imagine leaving it all for a tryst with the back roads. I love my marriage to the busy streets and the challenge of a world that’s not easy or predictable. I know that this is where I belong for now—as long as I can take the occasional road trip.

photo by Hubert Stoffels

Friday Photo Blogging