the boy blowing bubbles in the moon

When I was away for my recent conference, there were two things that I read while traveling: Rob Wegman’s recent essay “Blowing Bubbles in the Postmodern Era”and the memoir, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Journey to Understand his Extraordinary Son by Ian Brown.*

The first is a meta-musicological meditation on the work of the historian and the inherent constraints we face as individuals in a place and time trying to understand another place and time.

So it is as if we are inhabiting a little bubble: a bubble that’s floating in nothingness, a sealed and self-contained conceptual world called the twenty-first-century West. Trapped within that bubble, we are trying to imagine the one thing we cannot possibly know: what it is like to live in another bubble. (217)

Historians work to collect, sort, interpret the bits of history, placing them in their contexts, constructing identities and nations. Historians look at the cultures from the everyday morsels of life to the ruptures that change those routines. Historians sit at their computer screens in the twenty-first-century writing arguments and citing evidence for historical hunches. (Historical truth is so nineteenth-century.) Historians spend their whole life trying know the unknowable.

It was interesting to me that I was reading this article as I was finishing up The Boy in the Moon, a book by the father of a son who was born with a genetic condition that leaves him so severely disabled physically and intellectually that all the means the father has previously used to get to know another human being are now moot. His son is non-verbal and does not have enough motor control to sign, neither are they sure if he can intellectually ascribe meaning to signs. He can’t express desires. He does laugh and can appear to be either content or discontent. And he can walk.

Not only is Brown trying to understand who his son is, he is also trying to understand what meaning his son’s existence has in present society. If our society values the mind, productivity, economic production, then the boy has no place in that society.

Brown quotes a conversation with a wise geneticist:

The state of non-verbal rapture you describe in your son — who is to say that that is inferior? Who is to say that? We’re arrogant enough to believe that sentience is all that counts. It’s not all that counts. A sequoia is not a sentient being. But they count. There is nothing more magnificent. It doesn’t require me to think about it to be in awe of it…[The difficulty of raising a handicapped child] says something about the place we have reached as a society that doing so creates a serious handicap in these contexts. But it’s just a mistake to think of them as lesser than. There’s no lesser than. There’s just different from. It isn’t just great minds that matter. It’s great spirits, too.

It was a genetic aberration that produced the child and science that keeps him alive. If evolution brings us children like him, then our societies need to evolve with them. An underlying question of the book is, what does disability bring humanity?

Both Wegman and Brown are trying to know an unknowable. Faced with the insurmountable constraints of time-travel and massive genetic overhaul, their tasks leave them with the opportunity to reflect back to themselves. Brown says, “I keep speaking [to him]. Of course it’s not Walker alone who needs to keep hearing me talk; it’s me who needs to keep talking to Walker. I’m afraid of what will happen if I stop.” When faced with the chasms of history, Wegman says, “With great pleasure, I will go on research trips to find watermarks…I will be happy…[and] write about these things in a way that interested readers will find entertaining and enlightening.” In each case, the authors are speaking to their own experience as individuals in the process.

Both authors find the experience of probing the unknowable an occasion to reflect on their own humanity with respect to their tasks. And it is their personhood that gives meaning to otherwise stymieing feats.

The work of history is profound. Raising a severely disabled child is also profound, but in a very different way. I hope I don’t minimize their unique realities by juxtaposing them here. I’m merely reflecting on what was, for me, a fortuitous collision of ideas that seemed to relate on a deeper, human level.

* Ian Brown was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air shortly after the book came out.

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another step on the reentry path

In my last post I talked about that peculiar process of reentering the professional life of academia from the life of stay-at-home-mom (and how brain-jolting it is). I have made significant progress this year to that end. This last weekend I made it through another milestone of that process: the first conference presentation. And not just any conference, a national conference. It was a seminar session, so our papers were pre-circulated and the session time at the conference was mainly for discussing. This format went pretty well. I got some great feedback at the session, and the general buzz about the paper, I’m told, was positive. But more importantly, I made some personal connections with people that I really needed to talk to.

This is the paper that made me feel so vulnerable. I had a personal connection to it that I haven’t had with previous work. It was also a little nerve-wracking to send a paper out there for anybody registered for the conference to read. Okay, I’ll admit. I’ve kind of been a stressed-out bundle of nerves for two months, and I think a large part of that is part of the reentry process. I think it’ll be okay now. Why? Because I’ve personally connected with some people. And I think what makes what I do as a scholar meaningful is the fact that it’s connected to me as a person. When I share that with another person, and I see my work as a conversation in a community, then it’s not sending work out there into that good night, but it is sitting down and talking. I think that great web of culture actually connects people and not this sort of disembodied idea of “culture.”  If I feel like I can add another thread to the web, then I’ve done something meaningful.

there and back again

A friend of mine is going back to grad school. She has three kids. She is where I was this time last year. Head spinning, excited, wondering how it will work, believing that it will work. Her situation is somewhat different. She is a scholar, but not going for a professional academic career. Nevertheless, our situations are somewhat analogous. We belong to class of women otherwise known as “Mama, PhD.” A category of women who find themselves at the same time in the academy and mothers.

Negotiating the balance is difficult. How could it not be? But I want to focus on one aspect of this experience: the reentry. I’m writing this for my friend.

It all starts when you have the bug that won’t stop buzzing. The thought that won’t stop thinking. Despite the fact that there are these wonderful little people in your life who could easily take every ounce of your attention and energy and for whom you would give your life, the voices of dead people whisper in your ears from the pages of books where they are immortalized. Then the stars align and temporal space joins the mental space. You have an idea and then an event gives you a time. Now all you need is a place. So, with an encouraging husband and unsuspecting children who probably assume that you will be there to play playdough with them forever, you fill out an application, try to remember all the institutions you once studied at, collect transcripts, write “remember me?” emails to potential references. This is a tough step, because you have to write these personal statements, in which you have to sound mentally together. When the essay prompt tacitly asks you why you want to go to graduate school, you want to tacitly respond, “because I’m going crazy at home!” But if you say that, on the one hand you sound like traitor-mom who doesn’t love her kids (and that’s not true), and, on the other, well, that’s not really a scholarly reason. So tacit questions and answers aside, you try to pick up thoughts that were left off ten years ago, and try to mesh them with the person you’ve become since those ten years. Not easy.

But then it comes. “You have been accepted…” That’s when life really begins to reel–as you have to move the dream into reality mode. In some ways you’ve been preparing for this, mentally moving in over and over and over again. And then it all works out, you have a place to live, schools for the kids, a schedule. You are almost there, my friend.

What I want to write to you about is the next step.

Then there’s the first day of school. It should be exciting, right? It’s not. It’s terrifying. I couldn’t remember so much. Yes, I could get myself out the door to a certain place on time. I did think to pack a lunch and a backpack–remember I am a veteran park-goer. But I couldn’t think of what to put in the backpack in the place of diapers. It wasn’t that I was trying to think of what to put in; it didn’t occur to me to think of packing school supplies for myself until I was nearly out the door, and I thought, “oh, I’ll probably need a pen and paper.” So I grabbed a half-used mini-legal pad and whatever pen that worked. Lesson Number One: get yourself some school supplies.

But then you get to a graduate seminar, and you have to sit and think and say smart stuff for three hours!!! Let me tell you, I don’t think I have focused my attention for that long at all since having kids. It took me a good six weeks to get used to this. I just felt smashed at the end of a seminar. I didn’t know what the professor was talking about. I had this vague idea. But it was like he was talking through a fog. I couldn’t even think to write notes; I didn’t understand enough to write anything down. I would leave a seminar feeling shaky and exhausted. Like leaving the gym after your out-of-shape body tried to do a massive aerobic workout. I sat on the train on the way home and stared. It took me a good six weeks to feel like I could think, to start remembering stuff, to figure out how to participate in class again. Lesson Number Two: go really easy on yourself; don’t expect to jump right back in.

By the end of the semester I felt like I was getting my groove back. There’s still these small details I remember here and there. But things were clicking well; I was an active contributor in my classes; and I was reading and writing interesting things. I thought I was “back.” I did need a Christmas break, but with the stress of the end of the semester and the pile of grading, I was working right up to the holiday. We visited with our families, and then I had an insane amount of extra work over the break due by the beginning of the semester. It was like Never ending end of semester mode. I began this second semester exhausted and wrung out. And due to the nature of my work, I felt alone and vulnerable. Several weeks into the semester, I had an encounter with one professor who asked about how my work was going, and as I began to explain all I was doing, he said, “um, come talk to me–let’s find you some support.” I have a lot on my shoulders, but I’m in a community. Lesson Number Three: don’t go it alone.

It’s this last lesson that has struck me most profoundly. I’ve had to make some unusual sacrifices to be part of my current department. But I knew it was a special place and that is why I decided to come. I was right. Not every department will support you the ways mine does (and I’m not talking dollar signs here). The mental drain I felt at the beginning of the semester has been rejuvenated by the encouragement of the community of scholars I’m in–my fellow graduate students and many of the professors in my department, not just the ones who are close to my areas of research. Not every graduate student has this blessing, as academia is full of its own quirky dysfunctions and politics. But I do, and there are some things money can’t buy. Lesson Number Four: find mentorship.

And so, my friend, I wish you Godspeed. You will find your way. I just wish our coffee cups were about 262 miles closer. (Yes, I checked the mileage.)