Posts that are Didn’t fit anywhere else-ish
It’s a rough go, living life without an anesthetic. About 2 weeks ago I ran into a quote from John Paul II that’s been on my mind ever since: “I propose to you the option of love, which is the opposite of escape.” And so I’ve been working for that deliberate awareness, that consciousness of being fully where I am, with all I am — not just going through the motions of duty with only a skeleton crew left to mechanistically operate my body, but fighting constantly not to use my far too well-honed skills of running away.
I’m sleeping, eating, breathing, stretching, taking time for myself, relaxing — working like a dog, stumbling into anxiety, losing the presence and the centering peace I’d been grasping so fully just a few moments ago. My presence flickers in and out; it’s a worse feeling than just being completely out of it, because you have it, then you don’t, and then you have it, and it suddenly snaps off, and… It’s a way to use my stubbornness for good, this holding-on to letting-go. Like unwinding tight muscles, scraping and stretching through the fascial layers to pull freedom into your sinews.
So many stories in the past few weeks I’ve chosen not to write, because I’ve chosen to do other things with my time. I’ll just say that my cousins (and their significant others) are fantastic, and this is the all-too-brief time of us being young adults together, sipping fig-steeped bourbon late at night after a day wandering the city, talking about the sorts of random things that people in their twenties talk about. And that not having hearing aids is actually a visible effect to other people in terms of how it changes my behavior.
And I have slowed my reading and my writing, because they are so often escapes (as I have said before), and in my practice of presence I am painfully aware of how stilted and unsatisfying they are, how little they grasp at, how feeble their power is in my hands. I know it’s a sign of developing mastery to be able to see flaws, but it doesn’t make it easy to see the paltriness of your abilities, how much you’re wasting your energies and talents and… yourself.
But that’s the only way that you can start to make it better.
Maybe I should start writing through pulling up poems I’ve found of use. Today I’ll pull up a small part of Teilhard de Chardin’s famous Jesuit prayer, which I see as painful echoes through my research as well as in the rest of me — it’s strange, how the misaligned clingings within you that keep you from being really you, and really here, and really free, show up in tiny fractures, jiltings, guises all throughout all aspects of your life.
Anyway. The poem, which I think is actually prayer. It’s like someone wiser speaking to impatient me, and young impatient me listens with a bit of grumbling and swearing in the midst of a grudging admission that yes, Teilhard, you’re absolutely right.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
– that is to say, grace –
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.
Later on, de Chardin says to “accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” I’m… I’m trying. I wish my muscles would strengthen faster. I wish my papers would write themselves. I wish I could deal with this all by sprinting really fast, with laser hyperfocus that doesn’t stop to breathe or rest until it’s All Done Done Done Done, because I can do that — I’m good at that. It wrecks me, but I’m good at that.
But that is not what I am doing now. Which means I am fumbling through whatever I am doing now, because I am not very good at other ways of being yet.
Okay. Stand up. This post is not a perfect post. But it is far along enough to have helped you think through a sliver of the work — not homework, but interior work on yourself — you need to be doing. Now stand up and go to your next place and do your next job. Go.
(I’m fully aware of the irony that this blog post is in written format. It took a long time.)
I’ve noticed I’m most present and open to the world when words aren’t involved. Reading, even reading excellent books with the full faculties of the sharpest mind I can have, makes it too easy for me to slip into a glazed-eye daze. Talking, lipreading, even thinking in words — ditto. They’re not bad; they’re just overly strong muscles that twitch towards habits of not-being-here, because I grew up not wanting to be part of the world around me. (Or not able to; it’s hard to tell the difference.)
When folks asked where I was from, I used to say “the internet,” as if that were my home. It was. It isn’t any more; I publish there occasionally, but live in my skin, here in this town, here with these people I can touch. I can learn to love the people I am physically present with. Differently, maybe. But you love everyone differently anyway.
The people I love most aren’t here with me; they’ll never be all in one place. And this hurts, and I mean hurts, sob-into-pillow-until-unconsciousness-comes hurts. This happens a fair percentage of my nights now; the current bout started about a month ago. It alternates with falling asleep to wild jolts of terror. These alternate with nights of peace. It’s funny, the shit that comes out when you finally learn how to feel safe; I figure this is some sort of detox reaction that will improve once the shit’s run its course.
So yeah. My feelings: I didn’t shut them down because I didn’t have them, I shut them down because they were too strong. I can’t truly be somewhere and not feel deeply in my response to it. This comes with a wild capacity for anger… and gratitude. I still get teary-eyed out on the highway when a song comes on with snare drums I can hear; it’s still surprising when I inhale deeply, and I’m randomly — in ordinary moments — utterly astonished just to find myself alive, 25 years after I so nearly wasn’t.
I can learn to be more comfortable with presence that’s in-person; I am possibly little bit too good at presence at a distance, so I’m experimenting with… not doing that. No books, no internet, no phone — or really, only little slips of those when necessary. This forces me to face, day after day, a world that scares me. And I find that yes, I cry a lot. (And holy crap do these instances have more to do with hearing than I want to admit.) But also — I’d forgotten this — I laugh as well.
I laugh when Kyler sticks his head under my shaking knee so I can lipread him as he coaches me through yoga poses, whose instructions I have never heard (turns out cues to expand this or bear weight on that make a huge difference). I laugh when other dancers add “Mel can’t hear instructions!” to the list of Fun Games We All Play With In The Studio — the same sort of rule as “Only Three People On Stage At Once!” or “There Must Always Be Somebody Lying Down During This Dance!” or “We Are Walking On A Grid!” — no pity or judgment, just acknowledgement, adjustment. I laugh when I meet Sam Brunhaver and remember that I, too, need to face the person that I’m speaking to; I laugh because I live in a world where all of my friends have this amazing superpower (zomg high frequencies!) and hey, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where all your friends have got a superpower and use it to help you?
And it’s from this sort of space that I was so struck by this video of Brene Brown (thanks, Emily — especially for linking me to the transcript) that I went through and pulled quotes from it. (So yeah, all the remainder of the text in this post? From that talk.)
“Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”
“There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”
“The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.”
“They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees… they’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”
“You cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”
“Our job [as parents] is to look and say, “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” That’s our job.”
“To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”"
“How are you, Mel?” Robin asked.
I slumped against my advisor’s office door until it clicked shut, and grinned. “I’m… proud of how I’m responding to repeatedly falling on my ass in chaos.” I dumped a pile of post-its on the table representing everything academic I was working on this school year and asked her to help prioritize and cut them, including things I was supposed to give her. (“You know that it’s not that I want to cut corners or slack; but if it doesn’t need to be as shiny as I’m thinking now, then I’m going to make these slides with Sharpies the night before my presentation and have more time to focus on the more important stuff.”)
90 minutes later, I strode out of Robin’s office with an even broader smile and a relaxed spring in my step. I love having her as an advisor because — well, I try to come to our meetings with my research in as good a state as I can get it, but I know that I can come to her in any state so long as I’m trying, and we will use our time together to make even the most ridiculous mess better. Not perfect; that’s a lifetime’s work. But better than it was.
Rewind 5 hours earlier. I’m dragging my feet towards the chapel, a bit embarrassed. My mind’s going a million places at a million paces a minute. I know my day goes better when I spend time in contemplation — it brings this weird slow inner renewal that lets me be a Better Mel. And yet. I’m busy, dammit. Also: I’m in an awful shape to pray, I think, falling slightly into my old patterns of beating myself up. I should be better! And then I step in and remember my odd recent mental image of God as infinitely awesome grad school advisor — the kind who wants you to surprise them, question everything, smiles to see your curiosity strengthened by focus and collaboration.
And I sit down, look up, and whisper: “Hey. A bit messed up today, but I’m here — and that’s why I’m here.” (“By the way, I got distracted by your awesome bookshelf on the way in. Oops.”)
And 30 minutes later, I am running through the parking lot with glad determination and a lot of things to drop (responsibly) and things to do — and clarity with which to do them. And it’s this momentum that carries me through the hours to Robin’s office, where I get another echo of the same.
I thank both my advisors today for showing me the kind of teacher I am growing up to be.
Another reading for “Class, Race, & Gender in Engineering Education” — this one’s the book that launched Raewyn Connell to fame (we’d previously read the 2nd edition of Connell’s book on gender). It’s Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities (2nd ed.). Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.
Short version: good ideas hidden in prose that’s moderately difficult to read; unconsciously modern-world Western-centric (as Barbara said, “you could tell it was written by an Australian”) and something I’m looking forward to the revised-edition of. Both Gender, 2nd ed and Masculinities do a good job of pointing out the various perspectives on their topic in the contexts of their formation. “Through the course of history, people have seen masculinity as this in the 1800′s, that in the 1900′s, and this other thing in the 1980′s.” (Actually, that’s most of chapter 8. My notes read: the notion of Modern Western Men is a thing, one side of a binary, and it’s evolved over time in response to violence and feminism and queerness and colonialism, economics and capitalism. At all times it’s been called “the natural order of things,” because of course masculinity is what we think it is, and couldn’t possibly be anything else.)
What Gender, 2nd ed does (and Masculinities does not) is to visit the subaltern, discuss topics from a personal (and thus reflexive) perspective, and (most importantly) hang important signposts through the prose: here’s what I’m gonna tell you, look at what I’m telling you, here’s what I just told you. Here’s the 2nd thing I’m going to tell you; remember how I told you this in the 1st part? Here’s the 2nd thing I’m telling you. Here’s what I just told you, and how it fits into part 1. It’s harder to get lost in Gender. I often got lost in the midst of Masculinities. 
Still, I can see why Masculinities was such a landmark work. Whenever we think “gender,” we often think “WOMEN!” because… well, women have been historically ignored. Similarly, when we think “race” we often think “COLORED PEOPLE!” because… haven’t white people had enough attention?
Mayyyyybe. Maybe not enough critical attention. Just because something is dominant doesn’t mean we’ve tried to understand it; maybe we’re taking it for granted and ought to unpack it just as much as we unpack “minority” or “less privileged” groups. Connell was the first to do this.
As we saw earlier, the book takes up the topic of… well, masculinity. (Duh.) It points out how the notion of it changes over time — another seemingly “duh” moment, but it’s easy for us to forget that the way we think now isn’t the way people have always thought about a topic. Connell next problematizes the dichotomy of male/female as a binary, and points out that (1) there is variation within masculinity (which I unpacked more in my analogy on paint colors) and that (2) it’s not so much about males dominating females as it is about masculinity dominating femininity (and that both males and females can have both masculinity and femininity).
This idea — which Connell calls “hegemonic masculinity” (the power structures that keep (straight) men on top) — makes sense of things like:
- gay and effeminate men are disadvantaged by “masculine” power structures
- women who find ways to adopt “masculine” traits are slightly privileged (for instance, women who go into engineering inherit the “toughness” of that field)
- …as long as they don’t go too far and become “butch,” because that’s just too much
- women whose actions reinforce the culture of masculinity (think stereotypical cheerleaders at a football game) are “loaned” some of that power, like a lackey enjoying the privileges given by their boss
How could we apply this to engineering education research? Well, we could think about overrepresentation of masculinity, not men — so the experiences of (for example) effeminate men, or masculinity-performing females, in engineering fields, would be now relevant. But how would we “measure” masculinity in such studies? What in femininity can inform engineering — either by becoming part of the accepted “engineering” behavior and a trait that masculinity can take on too (“real men can cry”) or by having engineering admit more femininity or by neutering these traits so they’re “beyond gender”?
 I hesitate to add this footnote, because I don’t want to be “the deaf engineer who writes about hearing” and am uncomfortable pointing out that Connell is… well, you may have noticed I didn’t use gender-identifying pronouns in this blog post until now. Connell’s writing and perspective has broadened significantly between Masculinities and Gender, 2nd ed. – but another thing that’s changed is that Connell was known as male during the writing of the first book… and transitioned to female by the time of the second. I actually didn’t realize this until Alice brought it up in class, and I am glad I didn’t know while I was reading her books. Does the gender of the author (of any book) matter? I… don’t know about “matter,” but it certainly made me stop and think.
I felt like Gender was more compassionately written than Masculinities, without knowing the gender transition that had happened in between, but I don’t want to attribute a causal link between the two now that I know. Maybe revisions are more compassionate than original books in general because there’s more time for reflection; maybe Masculinities was written with the “I must prove myself” bravado of a younger, unknown researcher whereas Gender came from a place of comfortable tenure, maybe Connell just got more compassionate with age. But we can’t untangle and say that they’re independent, either; Connell may have gotten more compassionate with age, but she also became a she with age. We don’t get to compare older-woman-Connell against older-man-Connell; there is no control sample.
I’ll stop here.
That last post was “typical Mel” — long think-alouds, the kind of writing that’s a running down the hill with arms outstretch bellowing “wheeeeeee!” But still: I wonder if other readers can sense the shifting I’ve been feeling, the growth of an interior life, a more deeply rooted self.
I like existing now. Not just “not being dead,” although I like that too. But simply being. Sometimes in action, sometimes in stillness. Sometimes with great straining effort, sometimes with ease. Sometimes with quick steps of my wit, sharp mind, precision — and sometimes (strangest of all) with nothing than just being, aware, existing in the universe in an awake, relaxed wonder. Not earning anything, not proving anything, just being.
This morning I stood in a patch of sun on my kitchen’s wooden floor, right foot a bit ahead and turned out to catch the sunlight on its slant. There were tiny birds, white-brown dapple-breasted, hopping back and forth outside my door. Burnt-butter leaves flickering off the tree before the river, a strong back holding me upright, lung-lobes expanding with my breath. I stood there wordless for… I don’t know how long. Started crying, because… being! Started laughing, because… being! Laughed and cried because the universe exists, and I exist in it, and this was wonderful, straightforward, terribly amusing, and very strange.
This was also the day I learned that psalms are sort of rappable, which was just pure amusement: a barefoot Mel swinging her arms around the kitchen, enthusiastically rapping out Psalm 104, and laughing when the rapping didn’t work (I said “sort of” rappable, not “entirely.”) And the day of sweet-glazed salmon, and the day of coffee with good friends, and quiet listening, and being – but this time, with others.
Yep. Existing. It is good. (Good good.)
Summer is coming. Actually, winter is coming, but possibilities for summer are coming. I’m almost certain I’ll be at ASEE (big engineering education research conference in Indianapolis for a week in mid-June, assuming my papers get accepted; I know I’ll be in Boston for research and friends for at least a week in mid-May, and seeing yet more friends along the roadtrip. Matt and Bonnie will have a pet Mel who will get very excited by the Beer Church; I also want to see Dan and Becky, David and Kelcy, Howard and Heidi… friends, yay! Beyond that? Exploring options, not making commitments.
I thought this summer might be good for hiking the Camino, something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I’m considering mountain-biking it (or rather, “folding bike pretending to be mountain bike”-ing it) between my stint in Boston and the conference in Indy, but I’m getting more and more cues that this summer may not be my Camino summer. Scheduling looks increasingly absurd, especially if I want to really live out my apprentice with Indiana Voices of Women and stay close enough to home to do teaching prep for next year’s circle this summer. Also, flights to Europe in the summer are pricey, and I could use that budget to do so many other things, like…
Hacking with friends. The Erics (Gallimore and VanWyk — my undergrad suitemates and the electrical engineering geniuses of our batch) and I talked after Kristen’s wedding about how awful electronics books were for teaching you to make things. There are some good books for the basics (which I’ve got down) and some good books for the theory (which I pick up easily), but nothing that launches you past that towards, say, Bob Pease. I quietly expressed my sadness at missing out on the pragmatic rules-of-thumb because I can’t simultaneously lipread the engineer beside me and look at the circuit board they’re talking about. There’s a very real “Deaf Mel Cannot Access This World” ceiling for hardware — which I prefer to software, and miss dearly. But I can navigate the software engineering world entirely in text chat, so I am much more skilled in that domain.
In any case, I said, I really just wanted to hack on electronic things in the presence of people who’d be willing to answer stupid questions and let me ask stupid questions about their own ongoing projects (which are so far beyond me that I don’t even know how to think about them; I need to see the big messy context and muddle around lost asking stupid questions to get any better). And the Erics, with great enthusiasm, said basically: ZOMG DO THAT YES COME HACK WITH US AND THEN WRITE A BOOK ON ALL THOSE THINGS THAT ARE NOT WRITTEN DOWN PLEASE PLEASE. Which… honestly, I’d love. They know how I work, how I think, what I can do, that I need subtitles and lipreading and that my questions often come from “I can’t hear, and therefore have fascinating gaps in my knowledge!” rather than “I have no electronics experience” or “I’m dumb.” (Case in point: multimeters beep for connectivity testing. Most people learn this within 5 minutes of touching their first multimeter. I found out, in a somewhat embarrassing fashion, after using high-end multimeters for years.) So there’s that, and a lot of people in Boston who I’d love to see, and who’d love to see me, and who I’d like to… honestly, just be around. Not so packed in that all I can do is schedule in 2 hours for an isolated dinner. Really be around, day after day, for a few weeks. A month, even.
Then there’s the possibility of chillin’ in NYC doing more work with Hacker School, and possibly doing some artistic training on the side to take advantage of, y’know, being in Manhattan. Things like creating a solo show, or dance classes, or… something that will let me live full-time in the hacker space, but have a thread of the performing arts along the side, because…
I’m feeling more and more compelled to write and draw, to get up, speak, and dance. To hone my skills (and muscles, and habits of discipline) so I can do this well. Writing workshops? Acting workshops? Dancing workshops? I learned this week (thanks, Stacey Parker Joyce!) that sometimes they are accessible to a deaf Mel with little performance background — a deaf Mel who has very little performance background because she’s gone her whole life worrying that they aren’t accessible to deaf Mel, and thus never started until grad school.
I can make tons of excuses about my motivations for that: oh, I want to communicate my research clearly, want to be really damn good at writing papers and then books, experimenting with output formats like dance and theatre for communicating research, engineering, tech, hacker stuff — and that’s all true. But the real driving force, the story kicking out inside me waiting to form and be born, is the story of silence, living with silence, living in silence, this not-being-able-to-hear that I’ve spent so long running from and now am rediscovering in painful, awe-struck amazement how much it wraps around, threads into, all my life — has always been the air I breathe, how many ways I’ve tried to hold my breath for so long. And I would like to bring that story into the world with mastery someday, which means many small awkward births along the way while I obtain that mastery.
And I am going to publish other books first, dammit because I want to have something good out there that’s not about hearing, even if I know that I just want to prove that I’m not just my audiogram, even if I know that this is very silly and will kind of not work anyway and I will probably end up being known more as That Deaf Woman Who Wrote This Thing About Not Hearing Stuff instead of Mel, The Freaking Excellent Researcher/Teacher of Engineering Education… just like Sheryl Sandberg is now The Woman Who Talked About Feminism instead of, I dunno, the other dozens of her jaw-dropping accomplishments. But I digress. Summer.
There are other options, other possibilities. Research collaborations, professional opportunities, classes I could take, things I could learn, the usual. Tons of options. But I’m keeping this in mind above all else: I want the sense of this summer to be just packed… with laziness. Quiet time in empty space just being there with family, old friends. Unhurried, no-deliverables, relaxed. Playing with wonderful ideas alongside wonderful people. Sleeping, breathing. Not running madly from one plane ride to the next; stopping and starting when I want to. Empty days, long afternoons, an epic van ride as the sun comes up, cool water, satisfying sweat.
So… summer. And with that, I pull back to the present, and curl into the fuzzy blanket from my mom, because it’s winter coming now.
Julia asked me to write about my relationship(s) with writing for our “reflective thinking” seminar. I took her literally.
Writing and I grew up together. When we were very young, I was the quieter one, content to listen to Writing’s stories every evening. Writing was a great caricaturist with a facility for taking on the voices of a wide variety of men — and they were mostly men, these authors we read (aside from that one brief episode of Laura Ingalls Wilder). My own voice was a little scary; I wrote well, but I wrote weird. Thick descriptions, allegories, strong emotions, complex sentence clauses. I learned how to dumb down my writing until it looked like a correctly-spelled version of the other elementary school students; because it didn’t look like the writing “everyone else” did, I thought for the longest time that my writing was wrong.
In contrast, Writing — when he read — was right. So smart! So much to teach me. I couldn’t hear the other students during recess, or the teacher during class, or my family around the dinner table. Lipreading yielded information only after a hard-won fight, and I’d often find that information was useless: lip gloss flavor trends, 5th grade dating gossip, parties I’d never be invited to. Writing, in contrast, held high-quality thoughts in easy-access format. And so Writing became my primary information source, my connection to sharp thinkers and their broadcasts. They’d talk one way, I’d listen; there was no way for me to talk back. I thought that all their thoughts were always just as polished as their printed words. Reading revisions, diaries, and other things that pulled the craft of messy writes and rewrites apart was a great revelation when it happened. I was an archaeologist, extrapolating patterns from the output of artifacts because I felt (and was) so far removed from the living humanity that produced them.
I did eventually start writing — not writing back, because all these authors were long-dead or far away. But I was writing. In middle school, a wonderful English teacher told me (through deeds more than words) that yes, my writing was weird — but that’s because my writing was good. I had never met a living person before who wrote things like I wrote; I only met them pressed into flat pages, slipped into a shelf. Writing — in both input and output — became even more of my world as my most understandable form of human contact. It was a stranger to grasp and cling to and escape in. Writing — both input and output — was my ticket out; Writing would whisper me the answers to class in the evenings, and during the days I would raise my hands and shout and write and pour out all I’d learned from him in demonstration of my worthiness to leave, to learn, to get into a magnet math and science high school, to engineering college.
I started blogging in college; I don’t know why, and it doesn’t matter. My blog was always something that I did for me, not for an audience to monetize or get some reputation capital for. I let my ugly and uncertain self hang out in type; it was the arena where I found exactly what I lacked, the place where I could find and show my weaknesses because it was the place that I was strongest in. My blog became notes for my future self. As I stretched out into the world, made friends, made things, made trips across the sea, I walked with Writing. Still my tie to information, still my place of safety, still the thing that I could use to reach through into other people, still an easy way to shut myself off from the world, protect myself from onslaughts of exhaustion, still the easiest format to understand.
And so writing is — and has been — an old friend. I am playing fast and loose with sentences here, switching tenses and personifications of Writing, deliberately snarling up the messiness of it instead of laying out clear thoughts because that’s how I know Writing and that’s how Writing knows me; like all relationships, it’s tangled up in contradictions and half-interruptions and thoughts that fade out, never complete, don’t quite make sense.
That’s why it was so disconcerting for me when I saw Writing with a suit on for the first time. “I’m Academic Writing!” he proudly proclaimed, strutting around in a hideous tuxedo with a paisley cummerbund.
“You look awful,” I said.
“I look professional,” he said.
“You don’t make sense,” I said. “This journal paper is just indecipherable. It’d just be easier if you used normal words like normal people and why are you wearing that tie?”
“Because,” Writing said impatiently, “I look professional.” And then he handed me a pair of heels. “Here, put this on. You’ll need it now to get a job.”
This wasn’t the Writing I knew. I avoided him in those moments, gritted my teeth through formal dinners. I carried out small rebellions, wearing sneakers underneath my dress, carrying a backpack rather than a purse, whatever I could do to break the feeling of constraint. I was just waiting until evenings when we got home and he changed into pajamas and was the Writing that I knew and loved and had grown up with and we could drip ice cream all down our chins while I blogged and he did a one-man radio show drawn from the Classic Science Fiction Collection and it was — just… connection. Friends. How else would I reach people if not through Writing?
It got bad, though. Even the informal bits. I felt more and more like I “had” to write, or nothing would count. (If the world reached me through Writing, and I only reached the world through Writing, then if I didn’t write down an experience, it felt like it didn’t exist.) A backlog of unwritten experience nagged me with the guilt of non-being, non-counting. Writing wore ties more and more often; I was a graduate student now, and Writing always wore ties in grad school. Writing nagged me to write more. Writing was always due. Writing always needed citations. Writing was really good at making me feel guilty.
I started hanging out with Drawing, Writing’s cousin from California who did organic farming, taught yoga, and never wore a paisley cummerbund.
“He’s an old friend, but I can’t stand him any more; I need to take a break” I told Drawing one afternoon. Drawing nodded and continued playing “Blackbird” on his guitar. I stopped writing for a summer.
I don’t think Writing noticed I was gone.
And then I came back and we had one of those Awkward Reunion Moments.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” said Writing. And then: “You know, you don’t have to wear a tie.”
“And you aren’t always nagging me; it’s just that sometimes I can hear it that way.”
“And sometimes I read things from people who have bad ideas and poor modes of self-expression,” Writing said. “It doesn’t make me happy either. They write like that. But you don’t have to.”
“I can be weird?” I asked.
“You can be weird. It’s weird in a good way. Sometimes people will look at us funny.”
“And I’ll keep hanging out with Drawing.”
“As long as I can come along. We’ll figure it out. There’s this thing people are calling Comic Books, or sometimes Graphic Novels, where Drawing and I together…”
“I’ve seen them,” I assured him. “We’ll try it. We’ll have no freaking clue what we are doing.”
“Excellent,” he said.
“And sometimes you can wear a cummerbund.”
“Sometimes. And sometimes you can use citations.”
“Sometimes. And I can just call you Writing; I don’t need to call you Academic Writing.”
“That’ll be our secret, though, because other people still think it makes them sound good.”
It’s been better since.
(Note: I don’t think this piece is good yet — even if I intend to scramble boundaries and framings here, it’s still too confusing and long to do that well. There are good bits here, and many not-so-good bits, and I think of this as material I can pull from and revise and polish in a later piece someday more than “it’s finished and magnificent now.” But it answers Julia’s question by showing just as much as telling, and I’m going to ship it.)
I’ve had some quiet celebrations of reversing long-held chunks of identity over the past few months. Recently: language-learning, singing, motherhood (yeah, that was weird.) The last one was last weekend at late Friday night Chicago blues with Andrew (where we failed the Olin challenge with Elsa and Harold).
“Are you a dance minor?” asks the panting, grinning (excellent) strange lead who’s just swirled me through a delicious, frenzied tangle on the wooden floor. Blues music starts to pour again; I have no idea how long we’d been dancing.
“Excuse me?” I manage to gasp between intakes of oxygen.
“A dance minor,” he repeats. “Or something. You’ve had training. Most people can’t keep up with anything like that; you’re really flexible. It was a compliment.”
“Thanks — I’m not actually — but thank you,” I stammer, ducking out of the way of swirling couples. And he’s gone, off to another dance, and so am I. Probably just being polite, I tell myself. “Flexible” is not often a word used to describe me. But two leads later, another gentleman: “Whoa, what other styles do you do? Are you a dance minor?” And so the compliments continued through the night.
WIN: I am a mover! The awkward, unathletic kid who wished she could be a disembodied brain-in-jar (it’d be much more convenient) grew up into a young woman increasingly comfortable and present in her body.
Freedom. It’s an important word, with many clashing choruses of interpretations. I have been thinking about freedom lately through my music and my movements through it.
I feel free in one sense when I nosh on the amazing fish n’ chips n’ beer at the small Irish pub that’s down the road. I feel free when I stay out late, eat triple dark chocolate ice cream, lounge in bed. I don’t discount or dismiss these experiences; they’re wonderful; I do them with great relish and with full appreciation.
But I feel free in a different sense — I’d even say a deeper sense, although I am still timid using the language of value judgments here — when I am gasping, sweating, running in the morning when I’d really rather be in bed and feel like crap and really want that ice cream and missed a movie last night because I went to bed early so I could get up and hit the gym. When I grit my teeth and step painstakingly through scales my fingers have forgotten on the piano, when I slow my playing tempo to pay attention to each — individual — phrase — instead of letting the new sonata fling as fast as it can go. When my legs start wobbling in grand plié but I stay there and watch my knees and hold it, hold alignment.
Because I have the joy of mastery and growth of self then; not a beating-into-submission, but a setting-free to follow better impulses, to improvise more fully in the moment.
Because my legs grow lighter and lighter in the running, and strong and stable, and can leap benches and swing from lampposts and I can just decide to spring to the floor and leap up and yelp with joy because it feels good and I want to. And the music spins out through my hands and I can twist the phrases wry or lyrical or maelstroming, no gap between my orchestral imagination and the real sound, hardly a gap between the dreaming and the doing. And I stand straighter in the dance studio mirror, and I smile and think: I look tall. And: it’s easy.
I know the scientific words for much of what’s going on. I know the myelin is wrapping through the cortex of my brain, the musical phrases chunking, the muscle fibers tearing and rebuilding. I know it’s both me and not-me reshaping who I am; the healing, growing powers that the universe is saturated in, the free will we are granted through a gift of love, my choice to use that will to become… me. It’s not that I was not myself before, or that I was inadequate; it never was. But we are always in the process of becoming.
All these examples are from physicality, from things my body does — I know it happens in my mind and heart and soul as well; I want it to be easy to be good, easy to do right. But oh, the discipline is hard, if you would have something be easy!
But that is the freedom I would go for, and the freedom I would have and share. The hard is what makes it good, because the hard is what makes it easy. The freedom to be good and right and you, to fluently and fully express that as the calling strikes you. And the yoke is easy, and the burden is light, and both are soaked in sweat and tears… which are what make the feeling of refreshing coolness when the wind blows.
Yep. Freedom is important to me. And I want to keep on learning how to chase it better.
My life’s gone unwritten for so long that it almost feels funny to dip into doing it again — not to catch up, but simply to mark moments.
Stretching sore hamstrings the morning after Mary Beth’s rehearsal; pulling my folding bike out of the trunk and racing across campus on it in the warm night. Monday I’ll be making fresh pasta, which Andrea and Alfredo will critique as Actual Italians. On Tuesday the whole gang, including Susan and the kids, is coming over. I’m excited about hosting for the first time in a place I’m proud of. I realize that for others reading this blog, these are strange names, events without context. But it makes sense to me, it’ll make sense to future-Mel, and that’s all I care about right now.
Allie and I cross paths in the mornings; she’ll leaves for work in the pathology lab while I’m still making my ritual omelet-and-tea. Megan is often up and working when I get home in the evenings, and we’ll often overshoot my bedtime because we’ll end up talking about Random Stuff: stained glass window designs, the French translation of Harry Potter, dynamics equations, what to name our house network (which is now set up in Latin).
Mark, Megan, and Randy introduced me to the brilliant combination of chicken and waffles, chased by cheese, wine, prosciutto, and a Harry Potter movie marathon. I brought mom and dad to their first personal training session and watched in amusement; my little parents, learning how to run! I spend most of the day off my computer now, roaming the world and being with people in it. My shoulders are happy, except for when Craig’s trying to convince me I can do more push-ups in the mornings. Then they’re tired, but it’s good for them.
Bri’s family fed me (watermelon!) last night while I illustrated her book. I’m now the department’s Unorthodox Publishing Woman, and my job is turning into “read cool things about hacking and learning, draw about them, and go around the world talking with interesting people about it.” Emily and I have fun writing together; she’s convinced me to leave the goofy turkey analogy in our ASEE abstract. My dissertation stumbles on towards birth; I can feel it kicking. Research is messy and difficult and alive.
I’ve retained my ability to randomly drop into German conversation, mostly because Abbee language-switches on me constantly. I’m tempted to pick up Italian so we can switch between three, but a couple family members are learning Spanish before winter break for fun, and I’m doggedly keeping my German studies (Aufbauwortschatz, I will conquer thee!) so we’ll see. There was also the night Abbee came over after Mass and we ate mint chocolate Oreo ice cream while she got the best test-out-of-math exam prep ever: an Olin grad (me) and and MIT grad (Megan) at the same time, getting increasingly happy-math-geeky as it got closer and closer to 1am.
I’m apprenticing with Barb, Anne, and Mary relearning the community-catalyst stuff I’ve done for years in the tech world. The difference is that they do it very much as women. That’s an awkward, oversimplified phrasing I don’t like because it doesn’t get what I’m trying to say, but I’ll leave it at that. We drink tea at our meetings, which I love. I’ve got good apprenticeships here: Peg and Robin, Ruth, Alice, and Matt — and if I get my rear in gear, Dr. Alexander.
Mary Beth was right: Ballet was a good idea. Also, ouch. And despite Ana’s insistence that ballet tights are made of tough material that lasts, I managed to create multiple runs in each leg within the first week of wearing mine; I guess I’m talented. Julia is in my improv class, so I goof around with her, and Scott and Ben — and Rebecca set things up so I could run around the studio with my eyes closed and follow directions at the same time, which was a very exciting moment for Deaf Mel.
My room is tiny and upstairs and I’m in love with it. It’s the perfect size for a little Mel-hidey-hole, and I’m slowly adding pictures to the walls as I get frames, and all my running-around and dancing and hitting the gym makes me sleep like the dead for 8 hours a night which is weird.
Tonight is the Zambia trip reunion at Dr. Krishnan’s house, and then I fly to Rochester and visit Melanie in college before driving to Becky and Dan’s wedding in Albany, blasting CDs all the way through upstate New York. Drums are slowly coming into focus for me in the music that I listen to; snare drums are there and they pop and they’re crisp and there’s texture!
And I’ve only been back in America for 3 weeks.
And I am happy. It’s a different kind of happy from what I’ve often described here; it’s not an adrenaline surge or a wild delirium, although those are still constantly there in great outbursts of happy-puppy everything because… I’m me. But it’s almost like those things are just as big and just as fully there, and I’ve zoomed out — they’re things in a much bigger space, and that space breathes in a strange combination of peace and invigoration at the same time. It reminds me of something I read as a little kid: a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
It is lovely, living in the whisper, where the fire is as well.