Writing

I Heart Blogging, or, Thank You Dorothy Allison

Here’s what you’ll see on my About page now.

When Sam Phillips’ secretary at Sun Records, Marion Keisker, asked Elvis who he sounded like, he replied, “I don’t sound like nobody, ma’am.” Writing can be such an isolating activity, that I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like I don’t write like anybody else does. I sure don’t feel like my writing is a neat fit in most other places. Blog writing feels right. First, it isn’t traditional academic writing like I’m required to do as a professor. I cheat at that usually–it’s such a formulaic, forced disciplinary exercise. When I do it, I write my narrative first and then sprinkle in the theory. Don’t laugh~~it earned me a Ph.D. and tenure. Thing is, the narrative is all I ever want to write.

For the purpose of categorizing it, I’m going to call it personal essay and memoir writing. It’s personal, and it’s narrative.

It’s not exactly essay, if by essay we prescribe more gatekeeping formulas. Same with memoir. It’s not storytelling exactly either, not like fiction. It is storying, though.  For example, here’s a true one. Back in around 2003, Miss Dorothy Allison came to LSU while I was working on a doctorate in education. I just love Dorothy Allison, especially her Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature. I was lucky enough to participate in a writing workshop one evening, lucky because most of the spots were taken by English majors.

One of the exercises was to free write for a few minutes. She asked for volunteers to share, and I, having a huge student crush, shot my hand up. I truly think my writing is not half bad, and have been told as much. So I shared. Did I mention that almost every other participant was an English major? English majors take their critiques of writing very seriously. The most scathing was from a very serious woman who accused me of attempting to replicate Miss Allison’s style, which honest to God, had never crossed my mind. You know how crushing it is to the soul when someone looks at you–and you recognize the look as one of pity? Miss Dorothy Allison looked at me like that.

Still, it’s–this–is the kind of writing I want to do. The kind that, try as I might, is what comes out. I still don’t think it’s half bad. That’s why I’m putting it out here. If not another soul reads it–or if English majors do and snicker like the Prufrockian Eternal Footman–I like seeing it here.

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Me and Miss Dorothy Allison, 2003. Before the English majors got a hold of me….

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
post This is a place for peaceful contemplation inspired by story. What is spiritual mindfulness? For me, it is remembering to feed my spirit. This blog is a spiritual practice~~storying the soul, if you will. Most sites I find on either one of these topics focuses on meditative and wellness practices. Maybe that’s what you are expecting here. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised as instead you find a narrative approach to exploring spirituality, mindful of the everyday. That’s what I do–I write. For almost two decades I dedicated my time and energies (a lot of mental energy, i.e. worry) to academic writing. Here’s how I did it: I would write my narrative essays about place, religion, gender, sexuality, white privilege, etc., and then cite the requisite sources (that’s the academic part). But a funny thing kept happening. People would approach me after a panel presentation and say, “You know, you really ought to write a book with just your stories.” Which is exactly what I wanted to be doing. The problem is, I am an academic; thus, the academic writing.  This is a period of discernment and transformation in my life. Of course, that’s part of what you’ll find here too. I started to seminary and had to make some life choices. One was to step back from academic writing and do the kind of writing I really do enjoy–and that’s what you are reading now. I invite you to come along on my journey as I nourish my own spirit through story telling, being mindful of every, every minute, as Emily in Our Town would say. It is my hope that my stories offer you nourishment of some kind too.  The writing here comes from observations that dawn on me as I go about living life with as much intentionality as I can muster. That’s the mindfulness part. What makes it spiritual? Well, that’s the part of me where the words come from—the part that hopes to connect us to, as Paul Tillich would put it, the ground of our being. One.

Dear God, Let Me Be Mindful, and Hurry Up!

I don’t blog as much as I would like, so when I return to this site, I read the last post I’ve written. I did that today and thought it wasn’t half bad. I remember writing it, I had intended it to mark the beginning of my commitment toward mindfulness.  That was April; this is January. I feel like I’ve failed at it miserably. I get anxious and angry. I get dejected and forget to meditate. I don’t follow through well on activities, such as this one, that are good for me and make me happy.

One of the tenets of mindfulness training is that practicing is succeeding. There is no failure, and so you should be gentle with yourself, compassionate to yourself, when you don’t meet your own expectation. That’s a hard one for me. In a weird way, when I’m disappointed in myself, rather than letting negative thoughts go and moving on, I run the script of–whatever it is–an argument, an embarrassing moment, a disappointment of some sort, over and over in my head. I keep myself in my low place, allow myself to return to it when I get busy doing something else. It is as though by punishing myself like this I am taking an action on whatever the matter is. That thinking is dangerously deceptive for me. So I get the importance of mindfulness. Today is a day of self-compassion as I turn back to it.

At Christmas, Sarah gave me mindfulness: a journal (Price, 2016). You don’t write enough, she said. I replied, yeah, I resolve to be more productive this year (Not exactly lying, but not exactly resolved)! That’s not what I meant. You don’t write enough and you like it, she said. I realize it’s true; I like this kind of writing, reflective essays. I do not like sterile, intellectual-overlaid academic writing–and this kind is not that kind. So I think it is a good idea to every so often take a prompt from the journal and write my reflection here. That way I’m writing and practicing mindfulness. The writing is the practice, and I like the thought of that.

Prompt: What is your intention for this journal? Why are you interested in practicing mindfulness? Between this post and the previous one, I’ve shown why I’ve turned to mindfulness, my hope for what I can accomplish. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches the heart of the Buddha: The wave does not have to die to become water. When I consider these two prompts, my mind turns to water, so to speak. The thought of engaging with myself via this journal feels like putting my hands in a running creek and feeling the water run through and past my outstretched fingers. I can’t think of a more peaceful image, and for the moment, I am the water.

Watershed: Three Questions and Mindfulness

There’s a line in the Indigo Girls song Watershed that goes, Every five years or so I look back on my life, and I have a good laugh. Absolutely worth pausing to enjoy:

The line reminds me of a therapy session I had a little less than a decade ago. I’m a firm believer in therapy. Every few years or so I look at my life, and decide that a little more therapy wouldn’t hurt. Anyway, after hearing me narrate my stories and give account of my life as I understood it, the therapist paused and suggested, Well,  you might ask yourself two questions: 1. what do you want? and 2. what do you need? Since then I’ve come to call these the two existential questions. Because when I come to crossroads in my life—when I take an assessment of it—I come back to these questions. Every time—what do I want, and what do I need. Considering them helps me clear away the clutter. And often, I find that clearing away the clutter, all the superfluous options, the unimportant details, all the non-options, all the false urgencies, all the manufactured drama~~ if I can do this, I can get a little clarity.

Now while at least temporarily I have only one good eye with which to look back upon my life, my timeline has been sped up. Thanks to the Bell’s Palsy I went ahead and turned to my existential questions early. As Sarah chauffeured me through Atlanta traffic~~a whole other kind of existential question, and that was pre-I-85 collapse!~~I expressed my hope that my two questions~~what do I want and what do I need~~might come in handy now to remind me to be mindful and set peace-full goals for my home and professional life. Sarah asked, Shouldn’t you also ask, What do you have? I mean, don’t you need to know what you have to start with?

And then I realized something: want and need are words that aim me toward the future. Have is grounded in the present. To be mindful of the present moment, in other words, my existential questions are literally getting me ahead of myself. I started making a mental note of when I continued a conversation with, Yeah, and I need to….or ok, and when we finish this, I want to… They really added up. To start with what I have indicates not only mindfulness but also gratitude for the present moment. It is not about possessions; rather, it is about being. For example, when we were house shopping two years ago, Sarah and I had very different ideas about what sort of home we wanted. I was looking for low maintenance, newish, bells-and-whistles, upgrades—I wanted as much house as we could afford. Sarah, on the other hand wanted a house that wanted our TLC, one that had projects that we could really dig into. She wanted us to live beneath our means in case I decided to stop being a department chair and bum around as a professor writing blogs and books all day.

I was not a project person. I’d rather read or travel. We ended up with a 1973 house that I call the Brady Bunch house. It has a basement that I call the Hot Tub Time Machine Basement—circa 1970s. We ended up with it because it makes her happy, and that makes me happy. She can see the possibilities it holds, and she can see the finished products of our DIY labors. I, on the other hand, approached—I raced through—the projects with a fury. Hurrying to get them done, shopping for new things to replace the old—as often as I could I would bring in a handyman to do them. Look at how great the mudding on the ceiling looks, honey. Yeah, and we need to…..This went on until on day, Sarah helped me understand that working on projects brings her relaxation and joy. That she looks at them as something we can do together. When I hire a handyman, it robs her of some of her joy. When I would looked at the house and saw only years of impossible work—and be not insignificantly depressed by it—I was rejecting opportunities for being—being together, being mindful, being grateful.

In the following jewel of mindfulness teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh, pretty much sums up my perpetual state of mind over the last 50 years:
If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

When I have already moved on to the next activity, or item to purchase, or place to go, or meal—then I am not mindfully grateful for the blessing of being present. Life in the present is gratitude for the miracle of life while standing at the sink. I take on our projects now and work on them in the moment; stirring paint is stirring paint. When I’m sanding a desk, I feel the wood grain and the flecks of paint. When we demolish a portion of the porch, I do not panic to plan exact dates and details of when it will be put back together.

No doubt~~knowing me~~I will have to remind myself of this regularly. Old states of being are hard to move past. I like to have something to look forward to, a curiosity deserving of its own unpacking. But the old tools weren’t working; pushing forward was not working through. I have to work at it, at mindfulness, and it is so much more difficult than I thought. For example, I spent one whole day looking at web sites for mindfulness trainings and retreats–one was in IRELAND!~~I downloaded three mindfulness meditation apps on my phone. Found an online mindfulness course. I was obsessing over mindfulness, an irony Sarah kindly but pointedly noted with a grin. And when you’re learning to face the path at your pace, every choice is worth your while (Watershed). Every choice is the opportunity to actually live one minute of life at a time. And that’s jaw-droppingly incredible to me.

Giving Account of Oneself

All my brainiac friends don’t get excited. This ain’t about Judith Butler. 

There is one part of being a professor that I actually don’t mind: the annual review process. I also enjoyed (!) the Tenure & Promotion process a few years ago, which is very similar, just a little bit higher stakes. Am I a glutton for punishment? Do I also enjoy visiting the dentist or gynecologist? No, I think find the review process meaningful because, at least so far, when I have paused to give account of myself professionally, I have come out on the plus side. 

My friend Nichole, also an academic–and one whose good opinion I value and want to keep–helped me start the process this year. She has told me several times that she ought to hang out a shingle for all the counseling she gives me. I don’t argue with her. This time, I was bemoaning my lack of discipline and motivation for writing. “Whitlock,” she said, “what are you talking about? You spent a year interviewing people for your book. And you had an edited collection published this year!” I guess, I told her, I hadn’t thought about those. I tend to focus on the writing that I don’t get done. I wonder if other academics do that. I wonder if other women academics do it. It is a very prohibitive and debilitating habit. 

With that in mind, I approached my annual review, which this year must meticulously be entered into an online system. One good thing about having to enter each tiny part of publication information into separate fields is that you can’t miss what you’ve done! In the hope that I won’t lose sight of it this time and thereby break my nasty habit of null productivity (I made that up just now), here is a list of what I have done this year: 
I was invited to speak at TCU as part of the Green Honors Chair Lecture Series. I was awarded a sabbatical (see previous post). I chaired a dissertation committee and served as external member on two from Georgia Southern. I wrote a book review that I’m now revising, and I have one book chapter in press and one published. I wrote an invited afterword in a special edition of a journal. I was invited by the dean to give a lecture in her speaker series. I gave three conference presentations. I researched for a book. As far as service (the bane of most academics’ existence), I am associate department chair. I served on a department-level tenure and promotion committee and on a college-level one. I taught an online course for the first time (and liked it!). And: I started seminary at Emory’s Candler School of Theology and moved from my apartment into a bungalow in Atlanta. I started back to church and joined the choir. I made new friends and reconnected with old 
ones. 

All in all, this has been one of the best years I’ve ever had. 

On Writing, Part 2: The Sabbatical Begins

A sabbatical is a powerful thing. At my university, they aren’t actually called sabbaticals; They are “Enhanced Faculty Leave.” They are competitive, awarded based on a research proposal. At universities that honor the writing processes of its faculty, sabbaticals are given about once every six or seven years. Sabbaticals, not Enhanced Faculty Leave. Why can’t my university call a sabbatical a sabbatical? Because it would imply to the voting (Republican) public that we lazy, blood-sucking socialist/communist academics were getting something for nothing. That’s about what folks think of academics. Just once I’d like our leadership to take a break from politicking local legislators for additional funds for things like football programs and inform the public that about once every six or seven years, professors need time. Just time. To let the fields lie fallow, which is what has to happen for re-creation, creativity, and good writing to take place. As an act of resistance, I will call my Enhanced Faculty Leave a Sabbatical. 

It takes a while to settle in to a sabbatical–I still haven’t completely done it yet. I keep waiting to have to get up and get ready to go somewhere or do something. What I feel beginning to happen is my mind “un-tensing”–relaxing. I’m mentally starting to sort through how I want to approach my various writing projects. I got out a large yellow pad yesterday–the kind people used to hand write dissertations on years ago. I love those yellow pads; you can tell I’m ready to get down to business when I break out an official pad. While I always have top-notch pens, I’ll write on anything. So yesterday I wrote out a list of every project I want to work on this semester. Here’s the list: 1) two conference papers, 2) an essay for a book about my mentor Bill, 2) a book review that’s a year over due, 3) a review of a manuscript for a publisher, 4) my annual review documents, 5) an essay for a new curriculum studies handbook, 6) a book. Thank God I’m on Enhanced Faculty Leave and not a lazy good for nothing sabbatical.

Putting everything on a list is helpful to me. Now, I have sense enough to know that these can’t all be 6 separate writing projects. The conference papers will have to have some framing in common. The book will mine from what I write in them, etc. This prevents me from having to start with a blank page, which is self-defeating to me. If I can only cut and paste a little, I can go forth steadily. Usually. First, I’m going to do the mindless work of the annual review documents. I’m not being flip about taking them seriously. I do. But, it’s like filling out a job application when you have a good resume in front of you. You just lift from on document and put it on the other. This will be time consuming, but little thinking is involved. Next, I will finish the book review before I lose a good friend, the long suffering journal editor, Alan Block. I’m giving myself a week and a half to get these projects done. The others will need framing up theoretically. And that gets tricky. More on this later. 

On Writing, Part 1: Friends and Me

I have lately begun surrounding myself with friends who are either Sagittarius or who have backgrounds in a counseling or therapy profession, or both. I did not start out to purposefully do this, but once I noticed that I seemed to be collecting these kinds of people for friends, I kept keeping track. Now, It is altogether possible that they are drawn to me, so I am trying to figure out what it is that is appealing about me for these inquisitive, curious archers and advising helping professional types. I suspect it is that I tell a good story and tend to have some sort of conflict (I refuse to say drama), entanglement,  or crossroads in my life that I am seeking input for. I don’t mind saying that I like to get different viewpoints about what’s going on in my life. It helps me make decisions; it also means I can change my mind based on what seems to be most suitable. 

They have different approaches, these groups of friends. I don’t think any of them are both Sagittariuses and therapists. If I could find that person, I’d try very hard to move next door to her. Anyway, what this means is that I get different categories of feedback and support. Generally the Sagittarius free-forward-moving spirit helps me break out of my Virgo straight jacket and see my own possibilities. A Sagittarius cheers me on with, “You can DO it! You must GO for it!” as she is boarding the plane for her own next adventure (did I mention that my friends are almost exclusively women friends?). A counselor/psychologist, on the other hand, mainly asks me questions and insists that I feel my feelings before acting on them. 

Let me try to back myself out and try to figure out what it is about me that these bits of cheers and counsel meet. Reading the paragraph above, my Sagittariuses pick up on the doubtfulness, tentativeness, resistance, and hesitancy that I counter with impulsive acting out. My mind-pros insist I get to the root of those feelings, which I avoid by impulsive acting out. Reading the paragraph above, I am surprised I have any friends at all. I think I do tell a good story, and am just endearing enough that they keep me around. I am glad they do.   

What does any of this have to do with the topic, writing? Well, that’s mostly what I am doubtful, tentative, resistant, and hesitant about. And that is not a good thing, since I really, really need and truly want to be writing. Lately I’ve had the thought that even though I am a professor, I don’t have anything that I want to especially profess. That’s kind of like being on the Island of Misfit Toys. It is not that I don’t feel worthy or lack confidence; I have friends who have those issues as demons. I feel plenty worthy and confident. I think I haven’t found my joy, my bliss in it yet. I don’t think I’ve found a way, even after over a dozen years of being in the academy in one way or another, to do this job, this work, joyfully. And I truly believe it can and should approached and engaged with joy. So, joyfully onward today. My day, my work, my terms. My bliss. 

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