Monday, August 27, 2007

I Want to Believe

On Saturday night, I noted a very odd bruise on my right elbow. Now, that sounds stupid and not at all alarming, but I was alarmed. The bruise was round and donut-shaped and very black. It encircled my elbow perfectly and I was quite surprised when I discovered it in the shower. I hadn't whacked my elbow on anything. Not anything I could remember, anyway. And if you end up with a large, black bruise on your elbow, you should remember whacking it.

I was forced to Google. It could have been the first symptom of a crippling disease; you don't know. The only consistent explanation: Apparently, my bruise is evidence that I've been abducted my aliens.

I find this entirely plausible.

I mean, not really. But why not? That's as good an explanation as I can come up with for the way this summer disappeared out from under me or the way that my brain feels odd lately, like someone took it out and then put it back in slightly off-kilter. I've been blaming just run-of-the-mill laziness, but alien abduction is a much better theory. It means when I bottom out of graduate school, I can live in a trailer on the edge of the world with my dog and a fence made of aluminum cans and chat online with My People. (You know, the other abductees.) I've always wanted People.

(And, by the way, when I was looking for the photo up top, I actually rejected one because I looked at it and thought, "Oh, what crap. That's not a real photograph." I've so been colonized.)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Light Coming on the Plains

I just got back from Albuquerque, where I'd gone to visit my grandmother and her husband. The southwest was hot and still and the house crowded with relatives who seemed most interested in knowing when I was going to finish this damn PhD if they showed any interest at all. My grandmother's husband doesn't see well but insists on driving, there were six of us packed into a single sedan for many hours a day, and my plane ride home was canceled, leaving me quite sure that I was never going to survive the trip at all. Either the riding on the highway with a blind man would kill me or the attempts to get out of there would, but I began to doubt I was ever going home.

One afternoon, my younger cousin, a sweetheart who is no longer the baby I once adored, called a caffeine time-out in Santa Fe, and we stood on a corner and watched our relatives disappear in a craft-buying crowd while she slurped an iced mocha and I slowly licked an ice cream cone. I remembered, from my last trip to Santa Fe, that the Georgia O'Keefe Museum was somewhere very near, and so I silently grabbed her elbow and began to walk with her on the side streets, dodging groups of tourists and wondering where the calm I'd felt during my last trip to that city had gone.

During that trip, I'd wanted very badly to see the O'Keefe museum, but had arrived on a Monday to stare at a very closed front door. This time, the museum was open. Feeling a little bossy in my desperation to calm down, I pointed to my cousin's cell phone. "Call you mother," I told her. "Tell her we're going in."

My cousin lives, purposely, in an information vacuum on a ranch in New Zealand and doesn't know Georgia O'Keefe from Salvador Dali. As we walked through the door, she stopped me. "How about," she requested, "a two-minute summary of who this person is." I'm not an art historian, I cautioned her, and she looked at me like I was nuts. "Just, you know, what's her deal?" my cousin asked. I wanted to hug her for her openness, for her willingness to take an artist that has been been practically rendered cliché by calendars and posters as something brand new. I always forget that no poster taped up on a dorm room wall can capture the power of art. No wall calendar can transmit the power of brush strokes and energy that comes from a canvas. It just can't, and that's always such a surprise. My cousin's cluelessness about O'Keefe reminded me that seeing it there, in person, would be new for me, as well.

We wandered through, and after marveling in awe at Alfred Stieglitz's "The Steerage," I found myself standing with my nose just inches from "Light Coming on the Plains." Suddenly, I was transported to a moment years before. I was waking up in a dew-soaked tent in a New Mexican campground, feeling the cool morning let go with misty fingers as the day's warmth pushed its way in. I was unzipping my sleeping bag and pushing my hair down as I stuck my head out of the tent, feeling the feet of my partner shift against my thigh. I watched the day leak out of the horizon in shades of light blue, smelled it coming to a world that was dark and slow to move. One foot in that tent and one in front of this watercolor on newsprint, I felt the calm of Santa Fe wrap me up in that gallery and kiss my nose. I felt it all in that painting and I was glad I'd come.

Will Work For No Food

Currently, I am actually sitting by my mailbox. Ok, it's on the outside of the house and I'm on the inside, but it's right there outside this window, and I'm watching it. I'm waiting for the financial aid check that feels like it is well overdue. It's the check that will cover the bills and rent until the semester's first paycheck and then supplement my meager earnings until January, when another check will arrive to take its place for the spring semester.

Today, I resent the hell out of this check. I need it so badly. I've spent weeks now trying to be creative with my meals and playing games with which checks get sent in when, hoping to avoid anything bouncing or losing electricity and sitting in the dark. I don't mind, so much, in the summers, when I work a little and wait a little and have big blocks of time that belong only to me. But when I look out into the great expanse of fall, look into weeks that will be warm with frenzied activity and cold with the coming winter, I start to get extremely frustrated about the financial sacrifices graduate school entails.

In the fall, I do not choose to make money stretch and hope that the warm summer mornings without an office to drag towards are worth what they quite literally cost me. But when the first semester of the new school year begins, I work my ass off. Average teaching load at this university for a TA is four sections of twenty students each. That's 80 students who I teach in class, talk to in office hours, coax through assignments and prod through excuses and lies and plain old absence. I grade their papers, know their names, listen to their academic problems and take their criticism seriously. It's my job and it's a good job and I'm grateful for it. But I often feel as if the university is taking advantage of my passion for the work and my need for a job compatible with this education to get highly skilled labor for very substandard prices. They use me, and I'm grateful for it. And that pisses me off.

This semester, I'm lecturing a course. I'm excited about the time in the classroom, the freedom to create the syllabus and the plain fun I'll have with the students. But I don't actually get paid as much to do this job as I do as a Teaching Assistant. Like my work as a TA, my work as a lecturer makes it possible for the university to charge an undergraduate an obscene amount of tuition to come and take this course. If graduate students and recent PhDs weren't willing to work for far, far less than professors who do the same job, the university would be screwed. They know it. They have to know it. But they count on a brutal, long educational process and a vicious job market to keep us in our place.

It's not that I didn't know, coming to graduate school, that very little money would end up in my account. I very consciously decided that work as a TA was the best on-the-job training I could ask for and that I was willing to see that education as a compensation in and of itself. What I didn't realize was that the material compensation I would receive would not even begin to cover the costs of living in this town. I've had funding almost every semester I've been here. I've had loans almost every semester, as well. And I don't know a single other graduate student who has escaped that fate here. Apparently, graduate work now requires not just a short-term financial sacrifice and a willingness to become very familiar with very cheap foodstuffs. It also requires that I make a sacrifice of my long-term financial health. Professors don't get paid enough to compensate for these loans.

Thank god, I suppose, that I'm fairly good with money and careful with bills. I manage to get by without credit cards and to stash quarters and dollars away to help pay for the research trips that make graduate work in history that much more expensive. Mostly, though, I'm thankful that I have no doubts that this is the profession for me. If I did, I wouldn't be able to justify the debt and financial worry. I would, like other graduate students I have known, have to abandon the project for something more stable. But I still wish I'd taken the financial aspects of graduate study into greater consideration when I chose my university. I might not have chosen this one, and I'm not the only one who feels this way. Graduate programs in general have to start making graduate work financially realistic, or their ability to recruit and keep the best students to teach the university's undergrads is going to tank, and with it the university's reputation. This place is only as good as the students who come here and the students who teach them.

The postman just walked past my house with nothing for my box. The check did not come today. It'll be another 24 hours of hoping that no checks will bounce or no fees will be deducted while I sit here and work on my syllabus for the fall. I've got to get this formalized so I can put together the copy packet and start writing lectures. I'm not on the clock, though, for another week. They'll get this weekend's work for free.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I've been trying to come up with a blog post about the ways that my research cracks me up. I mean, it's really funny stuff. I could go on for hours about why I think it's crucial to our understanding of the period or why understanding it could have an impact on culture today. But seriously, I keep going back to it because it makes me laugh.

Of course, the problem is that I can't really write that blog post without also writing about my research, and that brings me nose up to the brick wall between my world and this blog. Sometimes I feel like I'm lying on top of that wall, naked and exposed for all to see. But more often, I feel like I'm throwing missives over the wall and hoping they come down on the other side in half the condition they left. I hope the trip hasn't altered them too terribly. I'm often so excited and honored by the very smart people who read and comment on my blog, and I very much want to offer them something of myself, unmasked, in return. It seems absurd I can't even offer my name.

Perhaps, though, it's the mask that makes all of this possible. Perhaps I would never toss these messages out to all of you if I thought you'd know who sent them. Perhaps what I call prudence is really possibility. Perhaps having such a wall on one side allows me to demolish other barriers that are in place in my every day life.

I don't know. What I do know is that my research is making me laugh this week, and I want to say something here about the way that is rejuvenating and reassuring. I don't just mean that it often takes me out of myself and out of the seriousness of the moment. I also mean that I often know I'm on the right research track when something amuses me. My project is actually based on a foundation in which I knew my sources should be examined together because they all cracked me up in exactly the same way. (Yeah, that was hard to explain at the proposal defense.) Every time I giggle inappropriately in the reading room, I know I was right about that. I know it's going to work out. But it's just not amusing in the abstract. You'll have to trust me.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Road Rage

I was almost hit by a car today. By almost, I mean by inches, and by inches I do not mean 15 or 18 inches. I mean that there were perhaps three inches between my hip and the bumper of a car that drove through a cross walk as I was running across the street. I'd stopped and the car had stopped and I then proceeded, assuming that he'd look both ways before driving though. He did not. He did not look, he almost ran me over, and when I screamed at him, shaking and angry, he looked shocked that I even existed. And then the asshole proceeded on his drive without so much as a mouthed apology.

I've been fighting fury over this all afternoon. Fury that he could be so reckless and so indifferent to my life and fury that it would take so little to change my life forever. It was good that I was running at the time; I kept moving and got some of the adrenaline and fear out of my system as I did. I kept thinking about it as I ran, and it did not make me feel any better to know that he hadn't intended to run me down. He didn't even know I was there. And that's the part I'm angry about now. He didn't even know I was there. He doesn't know, now, how close he came to making a mistake that would have changed his life just as quickly as mine. As I ran, one thought kept coming back to me, over and over in time with my footfalls against the pavement: We're so unaware of each other. We're so unaware of each other. We're so unaware of each other that someone could come inches from running me down and not even know I was there.

Staying aware of other people is one of the greatest struggles of my graduate student life. My twenties were marked by volunteer work and political activism. I had that fantastic inner rage against injustice that pushed me to Do all of the time. Somehow, that motivation has waned. My job leaves me quiet and alone much of the time. I'm just shy enough that it's hard for me to make introductions, though once they are made I'm happy to chat and connect. I wait for others to come to me too much of the time, full of a girl's fear of imposing myself where I'm not wanted. I hold back. Too many of us hold back. We're so unaware of each other.

When I was first out of college, my godfather sent me photocopy of a poem by William Stafford, "A Ritual to Read to Each Other." It's one of my very favorite poems by one of my very favorite poets. I'm going to put that poem here, a taking part in that ritual, one that feels very important to me today. It feels as though the loss of this ritual almost killed me.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephants tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep:
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

- William Stafford

The picture up top is by Sujit Kumar Bhattacharjee and was part of the Insights exhibition of work for visually impaired artists in 2005.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


When I was small, I lived in a big brick house on what became, several blocks west, Main Street. It was a wide, paved street with proper gutters and sidewalks. When it rained in the summer, the gutters would fill with water and run like a stream, and we'd make sailboats out of sticks and notebook paper and race them through the gutters in front of my house, stomping around in the water in our sandals and letting the stream rush over our ankles. Those summer days feel like the perfect example of what my small-town American childhood was like, though I could tell you a dozen others that were just as idyllic.

I just got back from visiting my oldest friend and her children, the oldest of which is my goddaughter. It was, as often as not, this friend that I would be playing with in my small town, and it is her companionship which is among the most constant in my memory. We played games no-one else could have (because, truly, they were the stuff of our own imaginations) and I do not remember not being her friend. My mother often remarks how like sisters we were, how like each other from the start. But we grew up and our lives went very different directions, and I often think her life is the one I didn't choose. Mine is the one where I live alone in a grad school cocoon. Her's is the one with children and husband and house. And it's beautiful.

It seems that one of the many gifts of this friendship is to remind me of how many ways my life could have turned out. It's sometimes tempting to see the choices I've made as the only right choices, ones that are somehow better than all the others I could have made. At least, better for me. But I don't think that's true, and that's comforting somehow. I could have made the same choices that my friend made and have days that curl around the sound of children shrieking with laughter and called it good. Every choice I make isn't the choice that will decide, once and for all, if my life will be a happy one. It doesn't all hang quite so precipitously in the balance.

It's good to be reminded how much of life is about the moment you live within, not the moment that came before or comes later and the decisions you made then. They don't define us as much as we might think. At my friend's house, they dance a lot. Q, the goddaughter, is two, and likes to run around in circles, happy to be moving to music. (That's her dancing, up top.) She doesn't think much of the way I dance. The first night I danced with her, she placed one hand seriously on my arm and said, "Stop. Don't shake your booty." I laughed loud and hard and then started to run in circles with her, matching her happy wiggles with my own.

I'm trying to bring a little of that home with me. I'm trying to remember to wiggle and dance and be happy because this moment is happy, not because it's right according to a big picture assessment of what my life should be like. I just returned from my community garden plot, and as I pulled in to the parking lot beside it, I discovered that they were clearing the water mains and the gutters were running fast with water released from its prison. I stepped out of my car and into a giant puddle and cursed. And then I inhaled the smell of a summer afternoon and felt the water on my ankle and looked around. No-one was watching, so I jumped up and down in the gutters until my sandals sloshed and my clothes had been splashed and my adult life was very good.