I can't sing. Never could, never will.
I mean, sounds come out of my mouth, but rhythm?...pitch?... those preciouses have never been mine.
Periodically, if I’m singing along to the radio, my husband will stop what he’s doing and just stare at me in disbelief.
This should give you a sense of the awfulness that is my thinking. Once, during a candlelight vigil held by an anti-death penalty group on the evening of a man’s execution, a friend turned to me after a round of “Amazing Grace,” and said, “Wow. You are a bad singer, aren’t you.” Even at this most serious of occasions, the petty thing that is my singing voice was notably bad enough to merit comment.
So, it should be no surprise that I have an ugly Om. I think, like my singing, it sounds kinda flat.
But the thing is, it still works for me when I’m true to it’s sound. And here I think the extended metaphor about my singing has to end. The singing does not work. Trust me.
But the Om does, and as we’re preparing at my campus for another school year, I’ve been thinking about being authentic to your voice and what works for you.
The thing about chanting “Om” in the long resonant way you may have heard at the beginning or end of yoga classes, is that it doesn’t really need to sound good to do the work you need it to do.
Now, do I wish my Om sounded good? You bet your asana! But, I’ll file that under the category of wishes that don’t tend to get in my way much in life: I wish I had a great eye for design, I wish I had a better memory, I wish was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller, etc.
The thing is, that when I’m really doing my practice, my ugly Om gets me where I need to be. I love that it’s more sound than word. I love that it makes me feel connected to others around me. I love that it’s connected to many thought and belief traditions. I love that it reminds me of the relationship between sound and body. I love the feeling of vibration in my skull.
When I’m focusing on my own practice, I get all that, even with my ugly Om.
But, as you can see, I’m using that niggling little word, “when.”
Sometimes how other people sound distracts me. Especially when students or teachers get very sing-y and pretty with it, and I start thinking about how short my Om falls. Then, it strangles in my throat, it’s off, off, off, and not just from them.
It’s off from me too.
And then, not only do I still not have a pretty Om—just some wretched, strangled syllable, unable to crawl fully from my mouth—but I also don’t get the benefits that I get when I’m true to my ugly Om.
I’ve been thinking about this lately both because I Omed ahead of the rest of yoga class today, but also because I’ve been doing some mentoring of early-career teachers lately.
In response to questions from my TAs about how I want them to dress or conduct themselves in their discussion sections, I’ve been saying, “be professional, but also, figure out what that means for you. You need to think about the way you show up in a room given who you are and think about what the professional that goes along with that means to you.”
When I first started teaching, over a decade ago, I was very young, very close to the age of my students. I remember buying clothes that would disguise the proximity between our ages—a number of striped, button down shirts from TJMaxx, as I recall. The thing was, I hated these clothes. I felt like some weird imposter. Worse, it seemed like what I was mimicking was someone’s wardrobe from Working Girl or 9-to-5. Needless to say, the clothes didn’t last. I had to find the version of professional that worked for me.
I think this is true of teaching personas, or other creative or artistic personas more broadly. When I began writing as a graduate student, I was reading a lot of difficult, Marxist-inflected theory as well as law-and-literature materials. My writing became plagued by the verb “produces” and a tendency to refer to people as “persons.”
Like those striped shirts, I was here trying out a voice that didn’t fit. In both cases, I was worried about my lack of fit; I worried that I didn’t look or sound right. But the imitation was worse.
There’s a tradition among college teachers to not smile for the first two weeks of class. The theory is that you need to seem like a hard ass so that the students will respect you. The stony-faced professor conveys gravitas, is the theory.
That teaching persona is so so different from the way my personality is interpreted and the way I engage with the world. I am smiley person. It just looks weird when I try frowning—I’ve practiced, believe me!
Instead, the buy-in I get from my students has to come from a different place, one that is truthful and sustainable for me. My professionalism comes through my habit of being rigorously organized, and my seriousness comes in the form of a deep enthusiasm for my subject matter and for teaching more generally, not in the form of affective gravitas.
The point is, this is what works for me. It’s what “sounds true” when I step into a classroom. It’s not traditionally professorial. But then, traditionally, I wouldn’t have been part of the professoriate. It’s my ugly Om, my variance from being a corduroy swathed old dude.
It’s what works for me. It won’t necessarily work for every one of my new TAs; they’ll have to find their own ugly Oms.
January 11th was the end of my perfect schedule. That morning, instead of sitting to meditate, knocking out my sun salutations, and savoring an hour of quiet writing before walking the dog, I checked into the hospital. There, I hooked into an IV machine, started my Pitocin drip, and ten hours later, Eloise arrived.
I realize that mourning an earlier life is an obnoxious way of indicating that others have it easier (oh, I miss school; oh, to be young again; ah, dating is so fun!; etc.). I don’t know that these seven months with baby are harder in any way than those long years of wanting a baby before Eloise finally came. But what I do know is that life pre-Eloise, my time was more my own.
So now, post-Eloise (and, I imagine that this is now how I’ll count my days), I no longer have those sacred morning hours. Instead, I catch glimpses of them when she goes down for a good nap, when I can catch a meditation before she wakes up crying, when it’s dad’s shift and I can ride the rhythm of a good writing session and sneak out to a yoga class.
But the sacred time, it’s not what it used to be.
I can’t count on long, uninterrupted stretches of time, or if I would, I’d be the wicked mother of fairytales, ignoring the small, screaming person while I finish that one more (selfish?) task.
And her naps do not come when I wish they might, no matter how I beg and plead with the tiny despot. I used to be a person who said, “Oh I can’t work in the afternoon; my brain can’t do anything serious after lunch.” That can’t be true anymore.
Instead, I have to catch sacred time now—that slippery fish. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say I have to make it myself, wrangle the odd afternoon minutes to make them hum.
In some ways Miss Eloise and her naps are a good teacher for life. The time you get is the time you get.
It may not always be the time I wish for, either in its length or quality. But it is the time that I have.
I know the current situation my husband and I face is both imperfect and impermanent. One day, he will finish school, and we will spend profligately on the babysitter: a movie on a Sunday, don’t mind if we do! I know too that the spot in the daycare will open up and the elaborate calendar we spent hours creating—a veritable Tetris board of baby handoffs, teaching commitments, vet appointments, faculty meetings, yoga practice and tennis meets—will become obsolete.
But this too is life. Its seasons are imperfect and impermanent. And nevertheless, sacred. Nevertheless, valuable. The time I get is the time I get.
This week a family member has died. She leaves behind my uncle and her two sons. Before her death to cancer, she had lost another son, who had lived out his eighteen years with severe disabilities. The time she had with this son was both imperfect and impermanent but I imagine that it was sacred to her and too abrupt in its ending.
I know that when I hand my baby to her first daycare teacher and the gates—those closely guarded doors to a working parent’s heaven—open to us, I know that I will feel elated. I will think, “ah, my time back.” I will tell my students, “Yes, I am happy to meet with you,” and I will mean it. I will have unrushed coffee with friends again, as opposed to squeezing them in between other, efficiently scheduled tasks. (Okay, maybe this last is fantasy.)
But I know, too, even as I am a hideous creature born of exhaustion, terror, and boredom most days, that I will miss this time.
I will look back fondly on the ridiculous circumstances of my writing time these days, coming as it does before the sun begins to purple the Sierras; or the sessions during which the baby, slung across my lap as I type, drools down my leg, the trail of slime that stays and dries, marking the writer as mother.
Or I will recall watching my husband trying to grade papers: sitting on the floor in the hallway as the baby dangles in front of him from her swing from the doorframe. She leans forward to try to see his laptop, and satisfies herself by biting the corner of the computer.
I know that I am lucky to spending days with my baby, imperfect and impermanent as they are.
In the meantime, though, I continue to entertain borderline erotic fantasies about the kind of writers’ retreats during which breakfast and lunch are delivered to one’s cabin and writing comes in long, uninterrupted stretches. And I hold out for the days when I will get my mornings, my old sacred time, back.
But it may not come back. And that's okay, too.
Because I've been on vacation the last two weeks, and because the fall semester is starting to do what it does best, that is, loom, I've been thinking a lot about work and play and the sometimes blurry line between the two, especially for academics.
I think that particularly for academics who work in the humanities or social sciences, there's a messy proximity between work life and play life. For my job, I write about and teach about novels and films. In my play time, I consume lots of novels and films. Mostly, the resonance between what I joyfully do during my off hours and what I am happy to be paid to do during my on hours means that I have a very happy life.
But sometimes, the blur can be confusing, as though I can't tell whether I am, or should be, working or playing. I feel this especially acutely during times when I am officially "off." Or I think I'm "off." As an academic, this comes up both during vacation and visits to family (these two are often one and the same).
During the great wait that occurs as the various babies on the trip nap, eat, nap again, are sunscreened, scream, nap, scream, and finally can be packed up to go to the beach, I feel that I should be doing something.....
Should I knock out a paper assignment description for a fall class while my baby is in the nap portion of the nap/scream cycle? Should I read the article that might help with my revise and resubmit?
Or, because I am on vacation, should I ask the willing and lovely grandparents to listen for the baby while I sneak off for a pond swim with the husband? Maybe I could ride a bike to the bakery and have a chocolate-filled croissant (hey, it's vacation!)?
The think is, either thread of choices would be fine and make me feel good.
The first set clearly belongs to the category "work" and would allow me a feeling of accomplishment, give me a sense that I am doing good battle against the semester's loom, and would let me feel greater freedom to fully enjoy the non-productive pleasures of vacation throughout the rest of the day: afternoon visits to an oyster bar, seal watching, testing floaty toys for the baby's approval.
The second set belongs to the category play. This group would also produce good feelings because these activities are so clearly a treat a silly reprieve from my normal life during which there are no free babysitters, I do not eat sweets for breakfast, and it's hard to find the time to talk with my husband about things that are neither our work nor our child. These are joyfully purposeless activities.
But more often than I admit, I do neither. Instead, I engage in what I am tempted to call joylessly purposeless activities. Not surprisingly, dear reader, they mostly involve dinking around on the computer or the internet, flagging things in my facebook feed that are vaguely work-related, reading yet another depressing piece of clickbait about being a mom on the tenure track. Or, because I am who I am, rewriting my to-do list, that self-flagellating act of transcription.
The problem with this blurry middle path, is that it lacks the clarity. It's unclean, lacking a purity of commitment to working or playing. And it is so deeply unsatisfying--a mindless way to spend the precious time of vacation days.
And so, I have been trying to ask myself explicitly, "do you want to be working or playing right now? What would feel good?" If the answer is playing, I find that I need the activity to be very clearly playful, almost a return to childhood. Let's play ladderball (it's fun, trust me); let's take the baby to the pond; let's read novels where someone gets stabbed in the eye in the first chapter (so, this is a kind of fun particular to me); let's get pizza and watch Jaws so that we're all afraid to get in the water. Let's play.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote