Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On not being over it

Joyce Carol Oates's new memoir, A Widow's Story, has raised some eyebrows because it leaves unmentioned the fact that, eleven months after the death of her husband of 47 years, she was engaged to the man who is now her second husband. I haven't read Oates's memoir (although I read the excerpt in The New Yorker), and I don't particularly care about the timing of her remarriage; life's short, different people grieve differently, etc. But from what I understand, the book focuses on the two years after her husband's death, and nowhere mentions her new relationship.

That's odd. And more to the point, it's a loss for our public understanding of grief, the past, and how we move on.

Longtime readers know that I'm fascinated by how we work through and incorporate the past into the present, and I'm especially interested in what this means for interpersonal relationships--including but not limited to romantic ones. We don't much talk about these things, the long shadows and continuing influences of people in our past. Or if we do talk about them, that talking is pathologized: you're still thinking about that? Girl, you need to get over it. Are you seeing a therapist? Because you clearly haven't moved on.

Our standard narrative goes like this: something happened, we got over it, we moved on, and now we're better off. But why does moving on, or being better off, require "being over" something or someone? If we're honest, we all know that change takes a long while, and that we continue to be shadowed by events from our past (from our family of origin, from our adolescence, from old friendships and old relationships) even while we're forging new and better ways of being. Indeed, those shadows are a necessary part of forging new ways of being.

I'm unsympathetic to readings of the past that imagine clean breaks, and I'm unsympathetic to any vision of human nature that views such breaks as desirable or even possible. Sure, there are good reasons not to rush into a new relationship right after an old one ends. But the urge to prescribe the newly-widowed or newly-single an "appropriate" length of mourning seems to have less to do with a fear that they might do something crazy or ill-advised than with our own wishful, semi-magical belief that such a period (six months? a year?) will be enough, will do it, will heal the person totally.

We do not wish to hear that the widow remarries quickly, because we take it as a sign that she wasn't really so very content in her long, companionate marriage. But we also, and perhaps even more strongly, do not wish to hear that the happily repartnered man still thinks about his ex daily, and somewhat wistfully--because we assume that means he's not really so happy in his new relationship (and would take back his ex in a minute if he could). Usually, neither is true. The past lives with us, sometimes for a long while, and not being "over" something has nothing to do with being unable to move forward.

I would have loved it if Oates had written a book about that: how it's possible both to be haunted by the past and to move on: fitfully, uneasily, but simultaneously.

Monday, February 21, 2011

How to begin: a guide in four tedious steps

Whenever I start a new writing project or return to one I've set aside, the process goes a little like this:
  1. I set a date on which to begin--usually the day after I've finished some other major task.
  2. That date arrives. I think about working, but decide that I'm really owed a day of downtime and relaxation after the rush to finish my previous project/submit grades/plow through mounds of research/whatever. But I'll totally start writing the next day.
  3. The second day, I intend to dive right in. But I don't know where to begin. I wander aimlessly around the house, eventually settling down with my folder of notes. I write out lists of ideas or things to incorporate, or maybe a rough outline.
  4. The third day, I start writing. Usually I manage about a paragraph. The rest of the time I spend re-reading shit I've already written, marveling that it actually got written, and that it sounds kinda good.
  5. The fourth day, I can usually manage a few pages.

From there on in, I'm generally able to work slowly but steadily. But getting started is agony, every time.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


The Continuous Life

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? O parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost—a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don't really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.

--Mark Strand

(Because I'm in Cosimolandia, and not chez moi, I don't have access to my full supply of photos of Young Flavia. So I'm repeating this one from several years ago. I may be repeating this poem, too. But then, I'm getting old.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Playing chess by mail

I should note that I wasn't complaining in my previous post, or at least not really: after all, I'm on leave! And I'm well aware of how lucky I am to have a semester at full pay to focus on my research.

But it's humbling to realize how much of my daily sense of purpose, direction, and even identity comes from all the shit I was so eager to get away from--all that stuff that allegedly distracts us from our real work as scholars.

Thing is, scholarly time moves slowly. Even if you're reliably producing one or two finished articles or chapters every year--which is ridiculously productive--that's what? 60 pages? 80 pages? That doesn't feel fast. And it takes longer to get into print, and even longer to have anyone notice or respond.

Being part of a scholarly conversation is like playing chess by mail, one move at a time. With someone who lives behind the Iron Curtain. In a country with erratic mail delivery.

There are reasons that scholarly time moves slowly, and most of us wouldn't be in the business if we didn't enjoy and weren't constitutionally suited for long periods of solitary work and reflection. But few of us can spend 40 hours a week writing and researching alone in our studies, even if we had the means to do so. Most of us are energized by, and derive our daily sense of meaning from, our teaching and even our departmental and university service. Yes, a lot of what we do every week is bullshit. All office jobs involve bullshit and inefficiencies and idiotic co-workers. But teaching and service connect us to a network of people and events and ideas, and those are stimulating even when they're irritating.

Apparently I'd already forgotten the lesson I thought I learned in grad school: when it's just you and your work, there's nowhere to hide.

I have reached the ends of the internets

I finished the first (conference/seminar paper version) of this project last night. I feel good about where it is, for what it is, and I'm eager to work it into an article-length essay over the summer.

Unfortunately, I now have to spend the next three months revising my book manuscript.

And good God, people: the internet is boring when it's not part of an overcommitted day of furious multi-tasking. My only commitment is my writing. I have no meaningful distractions or diversions, and though I keep trying to invent them (first it was Etsy, for wedding-related shit, then it was Zappos and eBay for shoes, then it was Kayak for travel deals, and now, God help me, I'm browsing real estate listings), each distraction gives me about a day of pleasure--and then there's either nothing new to look at, or the new listings require all of 10 minutes to scrutinize.

I expect to be the most boring person alive for the next little while.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"A richness that we miss out on sometimes as Christians"

There's an article in today's Times about the increasing popularity of various Jewish wedding practices--principally the ketubah, or wedding contract, but also the huppah--among evangelical Christians. To be clear, we're not talking about interfaith marriages, where the two participants are trying to preserve and honor their respective traditions or combine them into a meaningful whole. These are Christians who may or may not know any actual Jews (the featured couple learned about the ketubah at the wedding of the bride's equally evangelical sister), but who are attracted to whatever they vaguely understand the "significance" or "symbolism" of these practices to be.

And I have to admit, my first reaction was to say, "Get your own fucking traditions! Or learn about the ones you have!" (And upon reflection, that's my second and third reaction, too.)

As someone who works on early Protestant literature, it always amuses me how much and how eagerly many contemporary Protestants are trying to undo the Reformation, or at least its most visible outward signs. When I lived in Harlem, I was astonished by how many churches gave out ashes on Ash Wednesday or held Good Friday services that seemed to incorporate something like the stations of the cross, and I always smile a little at those students who talk about Catholic "idolatry" while wearing crosses around their necks or carrying laminated pictures of Jesus in their wallets.

But while those things may be surprising, and some of them do display a questionable knowledge of history or of their own denomination's intellectual and spiritual underpinnings, others can be seen as a genuine effort, on the part of a congregation or denomination, to reclaim parts of their faith heritage.

What gets my goat is people whose religiosity is totally untethered to a coherent intellectual or theological tradition, but who think they can manufacture a tradition out of odds and ends taken from other people's. It's not so different from what pisses me off about those who think they're "creating their own traditions" with their precious, special, unique weddings.

You don't get to have it both ways. Either your spirituality is synthetic and free-floating, based only on whatever speaks to you personally, or it's firmly grounded in a particular tradition (which doesn't mean that it can't incorporate other elements or practices, or that it has to be orthodox in every particular). Both are reasonable ways to approach your spiritual life, but they're not the same thing.

If your Christian marriage doesn't provide you with what the female half of the featured couple calls "a permanent reminder of the covenant we made with God," it's worth asking yourself why. It's worth asking yourself why your own ceremonies don't feel sufficiently sacred--and why you think you're "miss[ing] out" when someone else's faith has traditions you don't share.

And with all due respect to Jenna Weissman Joselit, a historian who works on Jewish popular culture and is quoted in the article, I do not think that incorporating Jewish practices (such as holding their own Passover Seders or eating kosher food) provides Christians with "another level of authenticity or legitimacy."

If you don't already feel that your religion has authenticity or legitimacy, you're not going to be able to co-opt it from someone else's. Sorry.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


I've been doing a lot of emailing about this project. I'd already been in correspondence with a few friends about the problem I mentioned in that post, and the post itself generated more ideas and more emails--including several wonderful readers who contacted me off-blog (and in some cases then put me in touch with their wonderful colleagues and friends).

In the interim, unrelated problems have arisen: I'm working on the very fringes of my area of specialty here, with genres, authors, and political or cultural events about which I know only the general outlines. So I keep firing off quick messages to people I know who work on this or that corner of the field: "hey! what do we know about the reception history of this work in that decade? Was anyone reading it?" "Scholar A claims that X isn't possible. But doesn't your work on Y say the opposite? Is this still a live debate?"

Of course, I'm not just emailing people--I'm combing through library books and journal articles trying to make myself a reasonably competent interlocutor. And someday soon (maybe even today!) I'll sit down and start writing.

But as exciting as starting a new project is, it's equally exciting to be doing it in this semi-collaborative way, and to have so many people seemingly interested in the questions I'm asking. This experience touches on issues I've written about before: it's important to have a professional network. It's all we've got, if we've got anything, after we're cut loose from our dissertation advisors and no longer reside in a department or at an institution chock-a-block with World Experts in our field.

The fantasy of the brilliant scholar working in splendid isolation is bullshit. We need our peeps.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Not precious, not special, not unique

Further proof: my favorite wedding invitations on Etsy turn out to have been the wedding invitations of people I know from grad school.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Calling all historians

(. . . or just scholars better trained in historical research than I.)

I'm trying to find out what happened to a minor--but long-standing and very public--religious practice that seems to have stopped abruptly with the English Reformation. It's of interest to me because I've turned up an extended literary allusion to the practice in a well-known work written a couple of generations after the Reformation. For the allusion to work, however, the audience would have to have real familiarity with the practice (not just a vague cultural memory of its existence).

So basically, we're talking about something that might have persisted in practice or in oral culture, but without textual traces. I can't find any mention of it in scholarship on early modern popular religion (though it's such a minor practice that it's not something anyone would be looking for specifically, and the evidence would be easy to miss).

I think I've done as much as I can do combing through early printed books and the existing historiography. If I'm to do any more research, I suspect it would have to involve manuscript archives--probably something like parish records and churchwarden's reports. But a) I have no experience working with such sources, and b) sifting through all the surviving records would require a massive amount of time, travel, and effort for what might be zero result.

Anyone have any thoughts or advice?