Musings on the anxieties, but also joys of graduate school

Today I had a meeting with my adviser to talk about a fellowship that I am applying for.  That is what this fifth year of graduate school is all about for me: fellowships. ABD and on my last year of department funding, I need to figure out how I am going to fund my 6th (and hopefully last) year of the dissertation.

Afterwards, when we finished talking about the nuts and bolts of my application and letters of recommendation, the conversation turned to matters of my health, my goal to incorporate more mindful movement into my life, comfort rituals, program benchmarks, and how to talk about the difficulties but also joys of graduate school. Leaving her office, my mind was buzzing with the energy of our conversation, and I wanted to share parts of it here.

I have been dealing with extreme exhaustion since the middle of the summer, which was initially diagnosed as “just jet lag” or “just anxiety and stress” until I found out that one of my hormones was out of balance, which sent me down a winding path of visiting specialists, getting blood tests, ultrasounds, brain scans (due to problems I am having with word recall), and a sleep study.  Annnnd, every test has come back normal (except for that one hormone that is a bit high but not causing any problems). Which is both good and bad.  I am glad that I don’t have something growing in my brain, or cysts on my ovaries (they suspected PCOS), but I still don’t understand why I am tired all the time and why I can’t remember my students’ names.

My undergraduate mentor who I saw a few weeks ago at Homecoming thinks I am just compartmentalizing stress.  Which, considering my history of stomach ails and anxiety is possible, though I feel calmer and more steady in my life than I have for the past four years.  But maybe these physical symptoms are “just” mental.  Still, as someone pointed out to me, no matter what the cause is, my body is giving me signs that something is a bit out of wack. This same person also pointed out that mind/body are not truly split, and so I am trying to pay more attention and see what I can do to feel better.

Today my adviser and I talked about mindful movement and holistic ways to treat myself (I love that this is something I can talk about my academic adviser about!), like going to acupuncture, which has now moved even closer to my home, and has a $10 special for November, trying to incorporate a yoga practice into my life, as well as contact improv.

We also talked about how exercise as a concept is not necessarily helpful, and that one should be deliberate and thoughtful in figuring out what kind of exercise might be most helpful for me, and what feels right in regards to what my bodymind needs. I discussed this blog post that I read yesterday which I absolutely loved which talks about how exercise and yoga can be good in regards to dealing with anxiety and depression but also acknowledges the challenges people with depression and anxiety have in regards to motivation or feelings about the body.

I also really liked the blog post by the same author, Keely, about how keep moving forward even when your brain hates you,  which talks about comfort rituals among other things to do to help yourself, as well as this one about leaving graduate school which gives a really good break-down of things to think about in regards to staying or leaving a program. (Basically everyone should go and read the blog “A Little Dose of Keelium” because it is amazing!).

I read every “quitting graduate school” and “quitting academia” article with interest and sympathy, as I continue to think about my place in the academy in general, and work to make this graduate school experience livable for myself.  When I was thinking of quitting or moving institutions in my second year, these articles hit home in regards to how I was feeling, and they continue to remind me that I am not alone, and that graduate school puts undue pressure on people, that many of us end up feeling like failures because of the constant critique.  Often I wonder if it is worth it, particularly when I see tenure-track faculty running around just as stressed as I am, and when I don’t know if I can get a tenure-track job in academia even if I want it.

These stories of leaving are really important to tell, and I hope that people can feel that leaving is an option, and one that should be applauded rather than seen as something shameful.  I admire people who know themselves well-enough to know something is not right for them.  And it is from blog posts like Keely’s, and blogs like Ph(Disabled) (another must read!) that I know I can and will make the same choice if I need to.  Nothing I might gain from getting a PhD is worth it if means destroying my health or my sense of self.

We need to talk about the stress, the constant sense of “I could/should” be working, the competition, the exploitation of graduate labor. And the answer to supporting graduate mental health is not to simply tell graduate students’ to practice “self-care” as was recently touted to us at a graduate colloquium.  Screw that.  (Yes, self-care is important, yes, creating time for yourself as a person is important, yes, sleep, good food, exercise, are important but we also have to look at wider structural issues and I am interested in a system of community-care, not just putting the burden on the individual).

Yet, in the midst of talking about the stress and anxiety, and talking about creating an outside life, and taking care of ourselves, I want to also create space to talk about the joy, and the excitement and the fun of graduate school. Why do those of us who stay, stay? What is keeping me here?

When my adviser told me in my first year to think about the general exam (our first benchmark) as “fun,” I remember thinking she was eccentric and didn’t understand what pressure we were under. And it was stressful, and I never want to go through those 72 hours again, but there were moments of fun as well, when I realized how much I had learned that summer, when I was able to include authors whose work that I enjoyed and when I made interesting intellectual connections.

My dissertation research right now is causing me anxiety, as I wonder about how I will get through everything, but it is also fulfilling, and fascinating, and exciting.  These interviews that I have been conducting with parents are amazing, and I love hearing them talk about their children with so much joy and love. The conferences that I have been going to make me feel hopeful in regards to family relationships and lgbt youth and motivate me to contribute to creating change.

In our last colloquium we talked about alt-ac careers, and the presenters asked each of us to talk about why we came to graduate school and what we were passionate about.  It was amazing to hear about all the reasons folks were motivated to pursue a PhD in Women’s Studies and the kinds of questions, problems, ideas that we were eager to learn more about.  I think we need more moments like those.  Moments where we can talk about our passions, our intellectual questions, our joy at learning and figuring out how the world works.

I don’t know if I will end up in academia.  I love teaching.  I love my students.  I love being in an intellectual environment and forming relationships with professors and being a mentor to other students.  But I know that the tenure-track job market is competitive and difficult and soul-sapping.  That is what I am going to aim for as I finish, but I am not stuck on it.  I ultimately want a job where I can teach, and nurture youth, and see that I am making a difference in the world in regards to lgbt rights and queer politics, and it doesn’t matter as much to me where that job is.

Today I felt really grateful that my adviser is someone who I can talk to about all the nuances of graduate school, who I can be open with about my different ideas about academia (and she is good about making me think through the implications of various possibilities and choices), and that we can talk about the anxieties, the joys, the uncertainties and the exciting possibilities.

PS. It is also important to recognize that the support that my adviser gives me is one reason I have been able to make graduate school a place that I want to be. Not everyone is lucky to have a supportive mentor/adviser or department.

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Whoops–Posted to the wrong blog.

For those who just got the latest blog post in your email–my apologies, that was supposed to be posted to my teaching blog! 

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Feminist Parenting and Relationships

Hi all,

Don’t forget to visit a toy store (or store that sells children’s clothes/toys) this weekend (in real-life or if necessary, online).  Take notes and if you have the means to do so, photos.  Be prepared to share your observations in class–if you are not going to be in class on Monday, please email me a little paragraph about your observations.

I have also fixed the link to the blog post below.  (Thanks Genai for letting me know it was broken).  As you read hooks, think about what it means to have a feminist relationship? What needs to change for there to be more equality in parenting and in marriage?

On Wednesday we will read DTWOF, 260-271, 274-294, 306, 312, 316.  (Or if you would like to read straight through: 260-316).  Pay attention in particular to some of the parenting dilemmas that they face, as well as the relationship issues that come up.  You will also note that the backdrop of these story-lines is Bush’ election and September 11th, which can be related back to Shara McCallum’s book and discussion of war and motherhood.

On Friday the weather will hopefully be good enough for us to finally go outside for a group activity on identity that we should have done weeks ago! Still, I think that it will be interesting to do it now that you have much more background on the core concepts.  It will also be helpful to return to intersectionality and privilege and explore them further.

I hope you have a lovely weekend! The weather is supposed to be gorgeous.

Best,

Jessica

Week 12: Feminist Parenting and Relationships

Monday, April 14th: read hooks’ chapter 13 and 14, and this blog post on kids toys. In addition you should go to:

1) toy store or the toy sections of Target/Walmart/[insert store name here], and make observations on what you find there.  Is there a boy section and a girl section? How can you tell? What kind of advertising is used on the boy toys or the girls toys?

OR

2) the baby section of a clothing store and look at the clothing options.  What options are there for gender-neutral clothing? What do you notice about the girl clothes or boys clothes?

3) A bookstore or library and look at a variety of children’s books to think about what gendered messages are there.  Are there boys and girls shown in the books? Who are the protagonists? Who is doing the action? What colors are used? Etc.

Take notes on your trip (and photos if you would like! Email them to me and I can put them into a slideshow to share with class) and

In class we will discuss hooks, your observations and also read a selection of feminist children’s books.

Wednesday, April 16: DTWOF

Friday, April 18: Class activities—hopefully the weather will finally be good enough to go outside together!

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How to Make a Baby

Last weekend I had the incredible experience of attending the 2014 Split This Rock Conference, where I listened to panels on being a Queer Citizen Poet, and The New Black Masculinity, and attended workshops for white poets writing about race, and another for creating racial solidarity.  I have a notebook filled with ideas, quotes, wonderful words and pieces of poems from all the folks I listened to. I hope to write something more about the conference as a whole, and will probably post it on The Afterword, as well as perhaps here, but tonight I wanted to post a poem that I wrote this week, based on a spark of an idea that came after watching the dynamic Gayle Danley perform her poem: “The Talk.” It is also somewhat inspired by this poem about having baby with a lesbian lover, “Blue Print” by Theodosia Henney.   

How to Make a Baby 

make hop-scotch patterns on the sidewalk.
memorize the mockingbird’s song.
wish.
wish some more.
track periods and ovulation,
though there is no reason to.
press yourself against your lover’s skin.
intertwine your fingers, black against white.
tuck her locks behind her ear
cup your hand against tummy
trace the lines of hip-bone.
imagine what if.
think of all the children you would have if love was enough.
let her hold you while you cry.
brace yourself against the stares in public
drop her hand
move close again.
think about donors, unknown and known,
discuss who may carry.
know this will be years in the future.
imagine a home-birth
the humming + rocking + breathing + singing
the blood and the pain and rush of body.
when you break-up,
mourn not only the loss of us,
but also the imagined them.
dream.
dream some more.
smile at a 15 month old in the park,
collect sea-glass on a beach in Delaware.
know that however they come into your life,
you will be waiting with open arms.

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On Why I Avoid the First Bathroom in Airports and Meditate: Books That Become Part of Your Life

Originally published on The Bucknell Afterword. 

On New Year’s Eve I flew to Ecuador to visit my sister for two weeks. (She has been doing volunteer work there at an elementary school and working with street kids in a market).  When I landed in Miami for my connecting flight I needed to use the bathroom, but I didn’t go into the first one that I saw when I got off the plane.  I hardly ever do, as I always think of Bean’s advice to Petra in the Ender’s Shadow series by Orson Scott Card, about never going into the first bathroom that she sees after deplaning because that is where “they” would expect her to go and would be waiting.  Obviously I do not have anyone after me who would be waiting in an airport bathroom for me, and yet, I still will pass it by in favor of one further away from the plane.

Reflecting on this in Miami–the fact that I always think of these books in airports, and the fact that a fictional story-line has changed in a slight way how I move through the world, I wondered if there were other books that had a similar effect on me, and on others.

What immediately came to mind was the way that I always think about Tamora Pierce’s books when I meditate, especially “Wild Magic” and “The Circle Opens: Cold Fire.” I read these years before I started my own meditation practice, and I have since read other texts on meditation, but these fictional fantasy books are the ones that I think of most often when I go to acupuncture or meditate at home. Informed by the descriptions in her books, I always count to 7 on each in and out breath, and I often think of Alanna, Daine, Daja, and Briar and how this practice helped them center themselves.

Other books that have become a part of my thinking/cultural landscape are Harry Potter and The Velveteen Rabbit.  For example, I know that many in my generation (or at the very least in my friend circles) when lamenting on the inability for humans to move from one place to another instantaneously will wish for the ability to “apparate” rather than “teleport.” And I have often thought about the concept of Realness in regards to my stuffed animals and beloved possessions as outlined in The Velveteen Rabbit.

There are probably more, but those are the ones that immediately come to mind. How about you? Do you have any books that you often think about when you are doing a particular activity? Or in a particular place? Do you have any practices in your life that have been informed by a book that you have read?

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2014: Breathe and Lead With Love

It is snowing outside. Light, like confectionery sugar. It is beautiful but very cold! Brrr. I have spent the day connecting with friends and family through Skype which has been nice, and finally got a chance to write this post about my wishes/dreams/thoughts for 2014. On my way to Ecuador, I had a lot of waiting-time in the airport and I spent most of it reading blogs on my feedly, and then following links in those blogs to other blogs and so on. Almost a year ago, within the lesbian mothers blogging community that I read, a little boy, Caemon, lost his life to leukemia. I hadn’t read his moms’ blog previously, but learned of the loss as the blogs that I read reacted and mourned his passing.

In the airport this New Year’s Eve, I was once more directed to C is For Crocodile and this time read through almost all of it. Such a tribute to his life, his love for his mamas and their love for him, his tenacity, his ability to face his fears, as well as what happens after loss. Their writing tears at the heart, and reminds us all about the wonder and heartbreak that is life. One idea in particular stuck with me: “lead with love” and is one that I will carry with me into 2014, along with Caemon’s memory. “Caemon has taught me, someone who has often led with anxiety and fear, how to instead lead with love. We’re all afraid; it’s what we do with that fear, how we channel it, how we frame it that lets us escape its grips and really, truly live.” –Timaree’s words about her son at his memorial. As someone who often deals with anxiety, and who struggled with it in 2013 in particular, and as someone who has also lost people close to me, these words really struck me.

The other blog that interested me (which I can’t recover from the rabbit hole of links and blogs I found it in) discussed the idea of choosing a word to define the upcoming new year, one that you will return to over and over, and which will guide you in how you want your life to be. It made me think about the word that I would like to define 2014. “Lead with love” is one concept that I will carry with me, and on my flight to Quito, I also made a list of single words on the American Airways napkin I was given, starting with the word “love.” love. learn. travel. hope. experience. calm. peace. breathe. break. thrive. love. believe. light. transformation. live. care. caress. create. circle. sacred. earth. ground. faith. me. connection. relationships. beauty. moment. silence. words. free. laughter. enjoy. possibility. potential. texture. adventure. spontaneous. simple. satisfy. active. simple. relax. restore. center. appreciate. understand. wick. limitless. bounce. power. elemental. While many of these words resonate with me, the one that stuck out the most, and which felt the most comfortable and appropriate over the next few days and weeks, was breathe. It is a reminder to center myself and be mindful of the present. When grad school is overwhelming, I often remind myself to just breathe, and take it one step at a time.

When I arrived in Quito and the taxi driver couldn’t find my cousin’s house and I didn’t have a phone number to call and it was almost 1 am in the morning, I took a deep breath and avoided panicking. (We found it finally!) Breathing is a way to calm anxiety. It also reminds me to be grateful for my life and to the breathe that I have, and for those around me. Appropriately, while I was writing this, Anna Nalick’s song: “2 AM” played on my pandora station. “Just breath.” I have specific ideas/resolutions about I would like to accomplish in 2014 in regards to my dissertation, relationships, physical health, but I am not going to write them out like I did last year. Instead, I am going to hold onto these two concepts, “lead with love” and “breathe” and see what the year brings for me. May your 2014 be filled with wonder, happiness, and love.

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2013 in Review

I know that I am behind with New Year Resolutions, but haven’t had a chance to write till now, though I have been thinking about it quite a lot. I enjoy the opportunity that New Year’s gives us to reflect on the past year and to think about the new on that is here.

So 2013. (This will be a bit of a stream of consciousness). One word that comes to mind is hard. It was a difficult year–full of loss and death. I lost a friend to suicide in April, a student from my fall semester class died a week later accidentally slipping in the shower, and my housemate’s father died in October after battling lymphoma for a few months. I don’t know what it is about the particular river of my life that keeps death and loss so close, but the grim reaper keeps visiting, and I could use a break from grief. I am often reminded that we never know what tomorrow might bring.

Still, 2013 had many wonderful moments as well, traveling to England, Austria and Hawaii, celebrating B and I’s anniversary in July, a beach weekend with close friends in August, camping with my sisters and a queer women’s potluck in October, many, many hours spent playing with the beautiful children in my life, throwing the stick for my housemate’s dog Puck, swinging in my hammock, Friends-Giving, and Thanksgiving in cabins, to name just a few.

And it was a year of wonderful firsts, especially in regards to relationships. First Valentine’s Day, first anniversary. Academic first too: first conference presentations, first chapter published about my research on queer kids.

And sadly, first major break-up. It was mutual and loving, but it was and still is hard. I miss her so.

In other reflections on the last year, I did accomplish quite a few of my 2013 resolutions:

Health: I managed to run quite often, write in my journal on an almost daily basis, eat healthily (for the most part), and went to the dentist. These are all good things. However, in general, health-wise it was not the best year–as I dealt with lots of morning sickness (from anxiety, not pregnancy) in the fall, spent a week in bed with the flu in December and in general felt pretty worn down. Still, I did discover the wonder of acupuncture, removed some stressful elements from my life, and I am determined to pay even more attention to my body and mind in 2014. Also, my bad habit of picking is still not completely gone, but has improved a lot!

Change it Up–Body Edition: As I had planned to do, I cut my hair short, first in January and then again in August. The August cut was shorter than I have ever had it–a pixie, which I have wanted for years, and which I absolutely love. I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner. Well–I do, family pressure and my own insecurities, and I am so glad that I finally moved past those and took the plunge. (Thanks to B and my friend C. for encouraging me to do so!). I also got my ears re-pierced, or as the dude who did it said, “re-opened.” Turned out they were less closed than I realized. In just a few months I have amassed quite the collection of bird earrings and am enjoying having pierced ears, even if it was a bit of an adjustment to having something marked “feminine” on my body.

Academic goals: This was a hard year academically in that I worked my butt off and felt quite burnt out at the end of the fall semester, especially as I taught two sections in both the spring and fall. It’s amazing to think I taught 100 students in 2013; 100 students that now have a different understanding of feminism. :) Overall, it was a year of academic successes, showing that my hard work paid off! I finished my second and third benchmarks–my interdisciplinary paper in April and my final comprehensive exam in October. I attended 5 conferences and presented at 4. I also had a chapter published in August in the anthology “Chasing Rainbows” by Demeter Press, and overall am feeling good about where my research is going. Unfortunately I am not done my proposal as planned, but definitely will be ABD by May. Phew, no wonder I was feeling tired at the end of the year–I did quite a lot!

So in conclusion: 2013 was a busy, busy year, full of ups and downs.

I look forward to seeing what 2014 brings!

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