Motherhood Minority

My friend posted this on Facebook today. It gives a rather stark picture of how difficult it is still for mothers to be on a career track. Why the issues and advocacy of feminism are still so relevant. There needs to be a place, in this present age, for both parental units to be able to be present to raise their kids and not have their careers significantly compromised. (Should note: this graphic represents what is required by law. sure, some employers have maternity benefits, but if you’re not lucky to have such an employer, the only thing a woman can use is the required 12-week UNpaid Family and medical leave. Many universities do not have maternity benefits for women faculty. Go figure.)

I wish I could discuss further, but the truth is, I’m exhausted and have had a day long headache. I’m planning a birthday party and warm birthday memories for my son who will turn 7 on Friday. I’m planning to be gone on a road trip, just me and the kids, for two weeks, starting Monday. Where I will leave my kids with my mom, so that I can fly to Denver and give a paper, which isn’t quite done yet. And I may have to go into campus tomorrow. I also want to pick more strawberries to make jam so that my kids don’t die of cancer from grocery store jam. And I’m afraid if I wait ’til I get back, strawberry season will be over. And one of the things I want to do before I begin a two-week road-tripping adventure with my kids is to sew a bajillion drawstring bags for all their car crap that I got them at Target today so I don’t rot their brains by letting them watch DVDs non-stop. (After I sew a personalized birthday Tshirt for my son.)
A day in the life…

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the Garden of your Mind

Since I spend most of the summer reveling in agriculture, this video was not only incredibly nostalgic (shout out to the ol’ ‘hood!) but delightfully a propos.

What a simple, yet deeply evocative, metaphor: letting ideas grow in the garden of your mind.

I’m gardening a lot these days, so I think about all the things that go into growing plants–good soil, fertilizer, watering, training. I am challenged to think about how I’m tending the garden of my mind. Especially since I’m working to be a professional scholar, where my mind is the foundation of my job, inasmuch as a farmer’s field is. As a grad student, I always feel like I’m cramming stuff into my mind as frantically as possible. But maybe my ideas will grow into healthier plants if I step back and tend them more carefully. Yet, at the same time, practical considerations also overwhelm. Do I feel ready to get that conference paper? If I don’t give x number of papers and meet y number of people, will I get a job? It’s tough. But, for now, I feel inspired by the ultimate cheerleader to the least of us, Mr. Rogers.

Campus is still there

In case anyone was wondering after my last post, campus is still there. I spent all day there today, probably the last time I can do that as the kids’ school schedules are wrapping up. I got work done; it was quiet. I visited with a colleague and bumped into another in the library. Just what I needed.

I live so far away from campus that it is very easy to feel disconnected here in the Boston countryside surrounded by farms. I do love living out in a small town nestled between CSA farms. It is so soul-nourishing to me.

And then I feel like a wimp for wanting the connection of a physical space. Shouldn’t I just want to do my work because it’s interesting and awesome? I think it also has to do with community. It’s not just work. Academia doesn’t make sense if it’s not a conversation.

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dare I eat a peach?

Hopefully this summer will include a beach.

For my monthly post, I feel like I need to say a word of wrap-up about my first year and a word about the upcoming summer. I don’t necessarily plan to have my posting frequency only once a month, but it turns out this way. I also wonder if such a post isn’t too banal? But in my many years of blogging, I’ve learned that to blog is to not forget.

In some ways, I don’t really need to summarize all that was my first year, because the story has kind of woven itself in previous entries. But as I sit here in the year’s aftermath, only a few weeks since the door closed on the semester, it already seems like a fuzzy reality. The most distinct impressions I have are of being frantic, frazzled, excited, and stressed out about money. And I settle back into the familiar reality of stay-at-home-mom, I sometimes wonder if Aimai-je un rêve?, did I love a dream? Did I really get to do all that cool stuff?

This is part of why I hate summer. I always have. It messes with my mojo. I have a huge to-do list for the summer, but it seems fake. I am having a hard time focusing. I plotted out my to-do list on a calendar of the next 13 weeks ’til the semester starts again. Thirteen weeks of feeling fake.

I’m planning a trip to campus in a couple of days. It requires Herculean effort for the whole family for me to spend the day in town. I don’t really need to be on campus for any particular reason, but I’ll get some campus busy work done while I’m at it. I’m partly going to make sure that campus still exists. I’m also going so that I can work from 9-5 in an office and hopefully chip away at my to-do list. I hope that as I mature as a scholar, the Home Me and the School Me won’t live at such odds. The School Me feels energized and productive. The Home Me feels oppressed by piles of laundry and distracted by my awesome garden and dreams of owning chickens and a Jersey cow named Sylvia.

The elephant in the room, though, is definitely the kids. Oh wait, it just sounds like a herd of elephants. (Or maybe it’s Elmer the Elephant). Sure, there’s the difficulty of finding time to get stuff done. My husband and I work this out. The public library has study rooms and wifi. I can walk there. We have a work room with a door that closes. I can find time and places, carved out of the nooks and crannies of summer. I’m having a hard time with the mental aspect. I felt like I deeply developed as a person over this past year, and I haven’t quite figured out how to jive this development with the mom who takes her kids to little league and the beach in the summer. In some sense, I’m bothered by this, did I miss something by not taking everyone along on this personal development path? How could I even have found the space or the energy? In another sense, I’m kind of fascinated by myself as a kind of anthropological artifact: how exhibit Mother navigates identity in a personal space and family space and tries to smush them together. (does the word identity even mean anything anymore?)

I’d like to think more about the way I construct my life to blend some of the boundaries that I have mentally constructed. I’d also like to accomplish my summer to-do list: studying for 2 language exams, an edition, a conference paper, another draft of an article, and one online class. I will try not to be distracted by my other dream career of sustainable agriculture. (Though, I must say, farming and academia have a lot in common.)

jodler: when there are no words

This week I learned of a new (to me) song form: the jodler. A friend of mine in my department, who is from Bavaria, brought out her book of jodler when we students wished to collectively express admiration, respect, and love to a professor. But it’s hard to put those things adequately into words.  My friend describes the experience of singing jodler as a communal event when words would not suffice. The voices create a resonance which bonds the group, who keeps singing until what the community needs to feel has been expressed.

The Grove Dictionary classifies the jodler as an Alpine song form, whose primary concern is “acoustic communication: signals between people, between people and animals, or between people and gods.” The kind of jodler we sang last night was a signal between people. To communicate something that sounds one-dimensional if an individual says the few words that are available in a spoken language. Perhaps my experience with a sign language has opened my mind to other language possibilities than spoken words. Singing a jodler was a way to experience community, reverence, and joy without words.

This is the one we sang last night (even though it was an Adventjodler).

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.

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.)

first encounters with queerings

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Suzanne Cusick’s essay, “On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort not to Think Straight,” was first published in the 1994 volume Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, a ground-breaking book in queer theory in musicological circles. I first encountered Cusick’s essay last semester in a proseminar (a one-semester introduction to the development of the fields musicology and ethnomusicology). This essay was lumped into Gender day. I read it at 2 am, while trying to cram in all the readings for the next day’s seminar. I couldn’t sleep afterwards. It floored me. How is it that, nearly 20 years after it was first published, I am only now finding this? I recently reread it a few times to try to unpack its impact.

I think it affected me so much partly because, for the first time, I read something that really explored the connection between the person and the scholar, in a deeply profound way. She offers the possibility early on: “I needed to understand what relationship, if any, I could suppose to exist between my being a lesbian and my being a musician, a musicologist (69).” Perhaps her statement causes us to take a step back. Before considering the co-existing identities of lesbian and musicologist, we can possibly acknowledge that other aspects to our personhood matter to our musicological identities–that the private and professional can mingle, that we are somehow physically present with the music.

I have read a lot of personal reflections. And I have read a lot of postmodern criticism. I have even read combinations. But I have never read anything quite like this essay.

The content itself is very fascinating. Cusick defines what she means by “sexuality,” that “it is a way of expressing and/or enacting relationships of intimacy through physical pleasure shared, accepted, or given (70).” How this definition intersects with “lesbian” and “musicality” has to do with what Cusick calls “the enacted structure of the power/pleasure/intimacy triad and the gender of the beloved (71).” In other words, when we think about ways we enjoy music, we pause to consider, in that moment, who has the power: who is the lover and who is the beloved? Is the music, the lover, and the listener the beloved, in the weaker position? When we are performing music, do we become the lovers? In this expanded view of sex (something other than reproductive act), the notion of music as lover, or beloved, challenges us to consider what music is, how we listen to music, and what kind of place it has in our lives.

But I think it is something beyond content that I am so fascinated with. It’s how the personal is situated in all the intersections of lesbian, musicologist, criticism, music. I’ve always been interested in these kinds of intersections–though the details are different for me: woman, mother, Christian, musicologist, emerging critic(?). So how is it that I only just now encounter queer theory? a nearly twenty year musicological void in my life? And as I explore more about how the body is expressed critically in scholarship with my work in disability studies, I think I will find these new friends very helpful.

the way of things

These past few weeks have been tough. It is the way of grad school. Exhaustion, insecurity, panic, exhilaration, success–around the cycle goes. Add to it a bit of a cold and “real life” problems, it is enough to feel overwhelmed.

I’m struggling with the balance. Finding the time to do what I need to do, while taking care of a home, two kids, a husband, and a resident sister. Finding the time to teach the class I’m teaching.

I feel insecure. How will I ever make it? Can I do the work in front of me? Panic.

Exhilaration when I can do it. Enough adrenalin from the success to send me back into the cycle.

Trying not to feel too despairingly that after a nearly seven year hiatus, I’m struggling to remember all the in’s and out’s of early 15th c notation. (Sure would be nice if the songs at least had a mensuration sign, though. sigh.–at least there’s a staff: perspective)

Exhaustion.