Along today’s run, I took lots of pictures for you. I wanted to rave about the surprising colors of nature in winter. And they are really great! But the most apt of my snaps was this:
A banana peel in the road.
If you look closely, just a few feet from the banana peel appears to be the word “HA.”
Why share this image first? Because this week, I’ve been the fussiest, frettingest, ball of stressing-est version of myself. If you know me personally, you might be thinking, There’s a more intense version? Really?! She goes to 11?
In fact, I go to 12—but mainly because that’s a nice divisible number which pleases me in its tidiness. This is a tidy time of year. Writing syllabi for three classes, working through my department’s timetable (= the schedule of classes our faculty will teach for a full year), and working on the 100-plus events of a humongous book and author festival—this all turns in me into a human calendar who cannot compute anything that falls outside the boxes. Stress defines my family, too. My husband is in a highly intense job. My kids are tweens; one of them enters middle school next year.
Fussiness rockets me into high gear. I work until 3 am. I wake up brainstorming ways to do things better. I forget to eat. I solve problems as I’m trying to fall asleep. And when I have to interact with actual humans, outside of a classroom (my home turf), sometimes I struggle.
When I’m in Super-Fussy-Phase, I have to literally instruct myself to Chill out, girl, be whimsical! Go off the beaten path!
So I did this today. I added some mileage to my perfectly mapped route and LOOK AT THIS SECTION OF WHIMSY ROAD: PURE ICE!
Whimsy = danger!
Okay, so I walked over it and didn’t fall.
Of course, we can all make a bumper sticker out of this. Banana peels slip us into new adventure!
But it got me thinking more about roads— those well-trodden paths we map— and the surprising, untidy experience of traveling upon them.
It got me thinking about the mental habits (gridlines, spreadsheets, plunking assignments into calendars, writing directions for every Tuesday and Thursday for fifteen weeks) that thread my every muscle fiber with PREPAREDNESS.
My most intense mentor in graduate school was a woman about my size. For the record, I am 5 ft. tall. One of my other professors characterized my mentor thusly: “If she wasn’t so tightly wound, she’d be at least six inches taller.” This mentor was in charge of one of the three exam areas of my PhD—the scariest (to me) area of Postcolonial literary theory. This is a really important way to view the world, but Man! is it dense and impenetrable and written by some of the most jargon-y, fussy, intense scholars I’ve encountered. (Side note: most of the “Bad Academic Writing” awards have been won by Postcolonial literary theorists.)
Anyway, years ago, my most intense mentor helmed my most formidable, hardest exam area. And yet, she was a joy— a flinty joy— to work with. One night after class, we hit lesbian dance clubs with a few other students, even though neither she, nor I, were lesbians. She made me omelettes at her house and helped me break down thorny concepts. She gave me so much of her time and feedback.
And, after I spent months preparing for my comprehensive doctoral exams, which I passed, but not with elegance—she, alone, out of my three examiners, called me to talk me down from feeling worthless. She, uniquely, saw how much of myself I’d thrown into the fussy, difficult work of being fluid yet exacting with three areas of study and 200+ texts. She, alone, understood what it meant to define your entire self by a metric set by others, a spreadsheet of standards comprised of lists and words and concepts which felt, to me at that moment, like the sum total of my brain and being.
Fussy recognize fussy, I guess.
Did I tell you I began running for the first time during my doctoral program? Before that, for 28 years, I despised running. But in my doctoral program, I realized I had to connect with my body to combat the constant feeding of my brain, my brain, my brain.
Running, intense and fussy as it is, forced me out of my head and into my body. Likewise, my Postcolonial Lit theory mentor forced me out of my narrow concept of Self-As-Knowledge, and into a self-acceptance as a total human being.
It’s no surprise that her comments on a paper I wrote come back to me, again and again, as I live this academic, writer life:
Me, in a paper comparing a dead parakeet to Derrida’s theory of Deconstruction (just go with it): “How do academics and scholars balance life, and death— family and marriages, emotions about a dead pet— with the demands of their scholarship and work and intellect?”
“Poorly!” my mentor wrote, in cursive.
I hear her voice in the margins. It’s threaded with the driest, sincerest, darkest kind of laughter.
A slicing pleasure.
Calendars and maps and banana peels and ice.
It’s a mess we have to live with.
I hope you find your own way through.
Yours in Runity,