Monday, March 1, 2010

Counting All My Chickens In One Basket

I hate doing anything halfway. And while I also hate cliches (primarily because I tend to combine one or four, inevitably resulting in a phrase that makes no sense), I choose to describe this as both a blessing and a curse. I find it more frustrating than rewarding to walk 10 minutes when I know I should run 30. Unhealthy in that I mentally demean myself if I don't fulfill expectations of which I know I am capable, I likely am in much better physical shape because of it. Oh, but then the pendulum swings. I also occasionally use the "halfway is lazy" philosophy to justify completely irrational tendencies - Example: if I know that I'll have a piece of coconut cream or apple pie (my favorites) for dessert, eating a healthy dinner seems inconsistent and half-hearted.

This philosophy has somewhat regrettably controlled my attitude toward my graduate work the past year and a half or so. I felt so overwhelmed by the dissertation process and the hoops that one irrevocably must jump through in any graduate program that I just basically shut down. I focused on teaching, on the wheel throwing pottery class that I decided would be fun, on designing the Christmas cards featuring Lucy and Willie, on summer job or conference opportunities that seemed interesting. Actually sitting down and researching and writing was not on my agenda; I didn't feel inspired to run 30, so I didn't walk 10.

As with nearly all of my chosen paths, I continue to look at this one through a charcoal lens. The speckles of clarity, of purity, of "right thing at a particular moment" surely exist. We all reach a point where we need distance, a chance to reevaluate. I've learned that sometimes it is ONLY in those moments where we allow ourselves to figure out if what we thought was so important is in actuality, important. Putting my dissertation aside for a while and subsequently, changing my topic to something less valued in the eyes of some, but essential in my own, gave me a chance to genuinely figure out the type of person I want to be and the type of writing I want to do (it is a tangible expression of a broader philosophical change - but a valid one nonetheless). Those pottery classes, those moments with Luce and Will at the dog park, those chance meetings with people at random events or locations, have made me better. Better in the sense that I feel like now, for one of the first times in my life, I am choosing the life I am living. What I do is not simply the next step in a predetermined process; it is actually what I want. And with that clarity, I feel a new sense of conviction to earn/get/make that life. Although I am not where I necessarily want to be now, I am putting myself in the company of those that inspire me, I am writing about things that interest me, and I talk about the things I want to do (including finishing the dissertation, opening my own cafe and bookstore, having a family in Cumberland County ) in terms that seem less whimsical and more matter-of-fact.

Remember how I described that charcoal lens, though? With any "road less traveled"/"find yourself" process, I think we tend to romanticize the neglecting of responsibilities and expectations. True, I needed a break from school, but did I really need months upon months? I am self-aware enough to know that laziness, lack of inspiration (and even the inspiration to go seek new sources of inspiration), and the half-ass philosophy mentioned at the beginning, simultaneously existed alongside personal setbacks and seemingly inexplicable life events. Yes, some good things definitely came as a result of reevaluation, but would I like to be closer to finishing my dissertation? Of course I would. Sometimes in the midst of "finding ourselves" we need to meander back to the path more traveled; perhaps put our own footprint in it, but return to it, nonetheless.

I say all of this to stress a point made in Vivian Swift's blog on February 22nd. When describing how someone should go about starting an art journal, she recommends drawing one picture of something of interest or telling one story about a particular vacation. This might mean drawing the same teacup 22 times because you think it has an interesting story to tell, or describing the intricate threading of one scarf you saw in a boutique while in some exotic place. Her point is that while these individual messages may not be "the whole story," they will inevitably have the essence of the story you want to tell. They will reflect what you find important and they will be nuanced enough to give new life to a story people have heard before (or even one that you yourself have experienced before). *For example, in describing why I am fascinated with the notion of "community," little things like the Marrowbone postmaster always telling me to "Have a blessed day" (and I think genuinely meaning it) or the careful manner in which she returns change (and without using a calculator), might get lost in a more theoretical discussion of "place" and "identity."*

So, to be clear, the point is: Maybe the occasional off-track venture isn't so bad; maybe "halfway" shouldn't lead to self-deprecation. Take one step in the right direction - start a pillow book, start a blog, talk to your best friends about the cafe you will open one day - and you may suddenly find yourself writing your dissertation.

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