Composing a life

October 16, 2011 – 5:45 pm

Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson is the book I read through the past week of travel, eczema first relaxing (difficult work, sales relaxing!) in Scottsdale, Arizona, then shyly trying to maintain and deepen that sense of breathing through an engineering education conference in Rapids City, South Dakota. Languid deserts, palm trees and cacti dotting rust-red soil; sun-warmed pools and winding conversations over massive burgers and differential equations, passing platters of chicken wings and following friends through a Halloween store, spontaneous plane tickets, fractured rock in the Black Hills.

My long-wished-for “proper” tea, with finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream and lemon curd, the structure of the meal a revelation as each small component fit into a larger orchestration. The discovery that more slow layers of familiarity have emerged; seeing the conference with the eyes of someone with a month of immersion into the scholarly tradition of the engineering education discipline, instead of none. Meeting my old physics professor — now Sebastian’s professor — and her new research group; watching my Purdue colleagues and faculty thread through the convention center, a duck confit and window-shopping with Steve, a long drive with Greg and Heidi. Small things that restock my soul. Debating pedagogy, looking over at the rustle of the New York Times, and wondering how did I get to be so lucky? And also why am I so tired, and how do I listen for discernment?

Anxiety and a perpetual knot in my stomach, occasionally dissolved with long, slow hugs; a lovely lazy morning of sleeping in. Frustrating paper sessions that made my eyes glaze and my fists clench; a flood of broken language as I try to situate my research ideas within grant-proposal format — excitement, trying to grasp a dialogue I’m unfamiliar with speaking. Quiet reading on the plane; sketching the canyons, excited cell-phone filming of the airport.

It has been life. And Bateson’s book, picked up during occasional moments, has framed that life this week, with its themes of following the constructed and improvised lives of five brilliant, multifacted, evolving, and very human women. I scribbled notes.

On page 71: “Most higher education is devoted to affirming the traditions and origins of an existing elite and transmitting them to new members.”

Particularly relevant during a large academic conference on engineering education, which has long had issues with diversity, privilege, inclusion, and self-knowledge. It’s a quote I wanted to remember, so I reread and recopied it until I felt like it had a hope of emerging unexpectedly in later thought and adding its tone to the self-awareness of that unknown future moment.

On 82: “There is a special dynamic in hard creative work alongside someone you are in love with.”

There is. I think we found that work dynamic long before realizing that there was something beyond a friendship taking hold — in fact, I want to say I started recognizing feelings through the way work felt, because that was the lens my life was focused on, almost in entirety, before the first time we went through the awkwardness of shuffling, defining, and renegotiation that accompanies the start of a relationship (or this one, at least). The quote continues. “The idea flow differently, and there is a common vividness… women are often stimulated to more ambitious and creative work when they see that work supporting someone they love.” And yes, I think that’s true.

There’s an extended section on caretaking and the many forms it can take, and about self-care as a form of caretaking. There’s another pointing out the patchwork lives of women — and of men — as directly contradicting the assumption that work, energy, and care are finite and zero-sum, that one can only serve one master at a time; there are tales of interweaving multiple lives in ways that enrich both. There was familiar wonderment and pain and loneliness, as in the line on page 180:

“Sometimes I felt as if a whole living planet were turning in my mind, with no one around me willing to share my vision.”

There were others. Page 193: “…constructing an educational system on observation rather than authority,” and on page 210 “The need to live in an imperfect world… [simultaneous with] the need to maintain a vision of a better one.” There was a new vocabulary word, wandervogel, used to describe the itinerant-traveling-scholar life of a famed researcher when he was in his unformed, rapidly-learning youth: my dictionary tells me that this translates into “bird of passage.” There was Arabic poetry, discussions on female college presidency, on gender role assumptions, on sacrifice, on an embrace of ambiguity and messiness, a meditation on how war brings black-and-white clarity to things and can come as mental relief.

It feels wonderfully reassuring to listen to other voices speak about these things, write them, describe tapestries of lives that in some small ways do reflect my own experiences, because I feel so frequently like a kindly accepted other. And the stories of these women give me a space in which I can be not a you but a thou, a soul with kindred of some sort, someone who enters a space already deeply understood. Thank you, Professor Bateson.

My plane is landing, so it’s time to close my laptop and reflect and think. Plenty to do once I land — give Nick a ride back to school, call the casting producer, get groceries, work on my lit review, figure out how desperately behind I am on homework… I’m learning once again to find and marvel in the oasis for a moment, be refreshed, and then move on.

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