As much as I value self-care, there are times when it flies out the window. I’m no longer the adult caring for my inner child, but I’m the toddler or teen full of emotion and pursuit of immediate pleasure.
This week, I’ve been really in touch with my 2-year-old self, who’s been demanding attention. When it’s running the show, I’m inclined to emotional meltdowns, sugar binges, irregular sleep, over-tired crying, and resistance to naps. I readily settle in front of the TV and need an adult to get my jacket and take me for a walk. When back from the walk, I find myself whining: “But I don’t want to take a bath …” even when baths are among my favorite things and absolutely calm me down.
There’s nothing like embodying my toddler self to remember that I have access to all my former ages and selves—and not only as memories but also as immediate actors and agents in my life.
Some years ago, when taking children’s literature courses, I remember hearing and repeating the line: “we’re all the ages we’ve ever been.” Versions of this quote have been attributed to Madeleine L’Engle and other authors, but I attribute it to my storytelling professor, who regularly stepped into characters of herself as a child, a young mother, an established researcher, and an elder storyteller. Through these characters, I could see such love for life and willingness to re-play past experiences. My professor performed the sort of deep revisiting of the past that I imagine my 2-year-old self is asking me to do when I’m in resistance mode.
Interestingly, in this week’s total toddler takeover, one of the few things I wanted to do was coloring, a form of art I’ve craved from a very young age. I also chose to color images of owls, symbolically associated with wisdom and aging. The more I layered colors, the more I could see the wisdom in honoring all my ages and in looking backward to look forward.
For now, I’ll hug myself close as I work on being a better parent to this 2-year-old who needs veggies and sleep. I can see (again) that there’s much to heal in my past if I am to make change in the present and future. I commit to this healing, as I commit to justice: work that involves deep revisiting of what’s old, what’s hidden, and what’s nevertheless demanding attention.
This week I’ve felt stretched thin—waking up earlier and heading to bed later than I’d like. One moment, I’m reviewing students’ midterm portfolios. The next, I’m scripting a hard conversation. While attending to microaggressions and facilitating tricky online and in-person conversations, I’m also sharing hopeful-yet-emotional announcements with family, friends, colleagues, and students.
In the midst of such frenzied and frenetic activity, I’ve been finding support through everyday practices and joyful reminders that past-me put in place for present-me. To give a sense of what I mean, here are some views into what’s keeping me grounded in gratitude this week:
Certainly, there are other snapshots I might take, but these are a few for which I feel particular gratitude. And slowing down enough to recognize and experience gratitude is its own sort of healing, energizing practice.
I’m curious: How do you create support for those times when stretched thin? Perhaps this post gives some ideas, and I hope you’ll share additional suggestions through comments.
As we approach the new year, I find myself engaging in a personal “year in review”: looking back on 2017, questioning what I’ve learned, and setting intentions for the year to come. This review prompts reflection on my first year of blogging, which has been both improvisational and planned, both reaching beyond and helping me set better boundaries. Blogging, for me, has meant speaking up and starting something new and scary that represents larger changes rippling throughout my life. It’s also opened possibilities that I’m excited to explore as we head into 2018.
From this “year in review,” I share here 7 lessons that seem applicable for others, even beyond the realm of blogging:
1. Everyday life is a constant source of curiosity, inspiration, and learning. I wondered early on if I’d have difficulty creating content, but as my list of writing ideas continues to grow, I’m reminded of the richness and complexity of everyday life. I’m also reassured that my academic training in ethnography, conversation analysis, and other research methods translates well to the work of observing and writing about everyday living for justice. What I’m learning is that when stepping into unfamiliar ground, my background (or previous groundwork) makes new steps possible. I’m bringing my research, teaching, and healing experiences along with me, as I’m shifting into new roles and responsibilities associated with public writing.
2. Doing makes it so. Though I’d wanted to write publicly for many years and created this blog in 2016, I truly committed to regular, weekly posts in 2017. (I’m excited to say that this is my 52nd post this year!) The more that I’ve created and shared posts, the more that I’ve come to see myself as a public writer, creator, educator, and blogger. In other words, the activity of writing (verb) has helped me step into the identity of writer (noun). I’m learning from this experience that whenever I want to be _______ (fill in the blank), I need to do the associated activity. One current example: Because I want to be a hike guide and backpacker, I’m now prioritizing weight training. May carrying weight make me someone who can carry weight.
3. Community provides motivation and support. I’m especially grateful to Vanessa Mártir and the #52essays2017 writing group for helping me stay focused on steady, weekly writing. In the past, I’ve appreciated writing challenges like AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month), and now this year-long challenge has bolstered me, giving me courage to share my work before it feels ready. Being in community with other writers has kept me accountable, and it’s helped me set a sustainable pace. Now this rehearsed rhythm sustains me and my writing.
4. So much depends on others. Just as community has provided writing support, I’ve relied on and am deeply grateful for the many people who have read, made suggestions, shared, subscribed to, and supported the blog this year. Unexpected miracles and miraculous timing have propelled particular posts into being, and they’ve helped me form new relations and discover new spaces of creative conversation and community organizing. I’m realizing (again) the importance of learning from, with, and alongside others, while staying true to my own “strong YES.”
5. Writing supports self-awareness. While this blog relies on many people, it’s also become a space for me to do critical self-work, slowing down to reflect as I make sense of the world and my actions within it. As a writing teacher, I believe in the power of writing to engage in contemplation, identify patterns and outliers, see one’s own assumptions, set intentions, clarify commitments, and hold conversations with the self. Blog writing has engaged me in such processes this year, as I’ve used writing like yoga and meditation to look within and ask who I am and what I’m about. Writing feels like powerful spell-casting: the stuff of everyday divination wound up with resistance and artistic creation.
6. It’s important to act, even/especially before feeling ready or right. If I’ve learned nothing else in this year, it’s that perfectionism has been slowing me down and tripping me up (getting in my way for many years). Blogging has helped me interrupt this pattern by sharing work in-progress before I feel ready. In the process, I’m shaking off the sense that writing must be carefully reviewed before being seen. I’m recognizing that imperfectly acting is important not only with writing but also with speaking up, taking risks, and taking a stand. Standing TALL is about showing up and being seen, even when shaking, uncertain, and sure to still need revision.
7. The time to build is now. Through this first year of blogging, I’ve realized that it’s time to build: to build myself, my vision, my commitments, and my contributions. Building doesn’t mean starting from scratch, but securing the roots while expanding and growing. For this blog, my building will prioritize web development: creating a fuller website with a range of offerings. Early on, a primary concern with blogging was creating content. Now that I’m generating content, I need to make it accessible and navigable. I hope that investing in the blog aligns with collective investment in building, creating, and restructuring toward the world we’d like to see. Truly, the time to build is now. I look forward to building and hope you’ll want to build with me, too.
Thanks for accompanying me on the roller-coaster through 2017, on this journey through sweet and sour. I send many good wishes for the year ahead and recommit to blogging in 2018 as part of the long haul toward justice.
There’s a story that I’ve told for years, a story that represents my early disappointment and dislike of school.
In kindergarten, I was assigned to color a bird brown, but I thought brown was too typical. I’d been reading Zoo Books and learning about parakeets, toucans, and other birds at home. I knew birds could be practically any color or any combination of colors. I decided, therefore, to use my creativity, knowledge, and the tools (crayons) available to me to create a colorful bird.
A few days later, I received my teacher’s response: a frown face at the top of the coloring assignment. I had failed to follow instructions, and following instructions was what mattered in school.
I was crushed that my teacher didn’t like my imaginative attempt at art. I was sad, then discouraged, and finally angry. In the years that followed, I felt largely disconnected from school, stubbornly refusing to do assignments if I couldn’t see their value. I’d sit still with arms folded, embodying the stubbornness of a bull (yep, I’m a Taurus). Instead of learning to follow instructions, I learned to question schooling.
The stubbornness and questioning have largely served me well, especially as I’ve become invested in unlearning inequity, injustice, and social conditioning that we’re taught in and out of school. If I’d been too attached to school or too invested in following instructions, I might not have spent time analyzing what felt or appeared unfair. And I had a lot of time to reflect while not doing assignments.
Recently and randomly, I felt called to coloring again. I ordered a coloring book of forest trails, extending my love of hiking into art and looking again to tread another path. When the book arrived, I opened it to the first page and began adding color to birds on a branch:
It wasn’t until I’d colored birds yellow, blue, and purple that I realized I was recreating this early childhood memory. I was choosing colors based on intuition and inhibition. I was creatively following my own path, calling back my early identity as an artist.
I share this story because it’s got me thinking about the power of recreating, re-enacting, and ultimately rewriting early experiences. Rather than being trapped in old narratives, it’s possible to remember and revise them. Now, when I’m adding color to each bird, I’m seeing myself as an artist with power, as an artist whose intuition can contribute to personal and collective healing.
As a child, I wanted my artwork to bring joy, and I was sure that colorful birds could do that. Then the teacher’s frown face communicated the opposite: her dislike and disappointment with the work. It’s taken me years to sort out her response from mine and to appreciate—deeply value and feel gratitude for—the disconnection I felt with school.
Now I can see that early school experiences rooted in me the courage and conviction to stand TALL for justice. They helped me question authority and value self-determination. They fueled my desire to be an educator, but one who’s never quite comfortable in school. They allowed me to understand ageism and were surely the origin of my alignment with ecofeminism.
Rather than swinging from one extreme (following instructions) to the other (resisting assignments), I’m wondering what it might mean to value the wisdom and reclaim the power from these early childhood experiences. I’m wondering how I’m recreating these early experiences and the stories I tell about them as I keep coloring bird by bird. I’m wondering how this work of reflecting on the past helps with articulating and acting on commitments. And I’m wondering how the adult/teacher self might be more accountable to the kindergarten/student self and to all selves looking for their artist + activist efforts to be nourished.
I’ve been teaching for almost two decades, and throughout this time, I’ve routinely asked this question on the first and last days of the semester (and often in-between). I’ve found my own strong YES to the question, asserting: “I don’t just study writing. I write. I am a writer.” And I hope that students, colleagues, friends, and family will similarly see themselves as writers, as people who write (who do the embodied act of writing). I believe there’s power in claiming this identity, as writers are positioned to speak up and speak out.
Early in my life, I was quick to call myself an artist. I loved painting, drawing, sculpting, storytelling, and dancing. One of my earliest memories (around the age of three) involved being in big, big trouble for decorating the apartment door with crayons. Throughout elementary and middle school, I loved visual art, photography, calligraphy, and clogging classes. I put myself in charge of constantly changing seasonal decorations. I created my first books—a novel and scrapbook—in fourth grade. My mom found the owner of local bait and tackle shop to teach me crocheting one summer. I designed my first science fair projects to focus on art: understanding the color wheel and visualizing rock sediments with layers of colored sand. I submitted photographs to 4-H youth competitions. And I learned to bake, to make bracelets, and to write poetry. My memories of youth are full of creation. (Growing up rural East Tennessee pre-internet days, creation came naturally.)
Yet, somewhere along the way, I began to struggle with this self-definition, as I internalized a sense that only some people could be artists, and those people were ones who produced “great works” recognized by others. Though I still flirted with art and briefly considered minoring in visual art, I let go of the self-identification of “artist.” I considered friends—those who really studied and perfected their crafts—to be artists. I learned to hold the identity of “artist” at arm’s length—likely for the same reasons that many of my students hold the identity of “writer” as something “out there,” something that others can claim only after recognized achievement.
Today I’m wondering if my reluctance to claim “artist” might be another form of playing small. Might this be another form of internalized inferiority, especially since my art was often feminized and I’d learned not to associate myself too closely with the feminine? If so, might claiming the identify of “artist” be another way to embrace feminine energy and feminist activism?
Recognizing the need for encouragement, I’ve started speaking to myself as I do when mentoring students, urging myself to claim the identity of artist. Since childhood, I have continued to create art—writing, storytelling, taking and editing photographs, designing cards, creating recipes, crocheting, and now blogging. I choose to believe the identity of “artist” is in the doing, just as I believe that one becomes a “writer” simply by writing.
As further encouragement and a great synchronicity (or “god wink”), I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, and this week’s queued episode was titled: “Who Gets to Decide Whether You’re a Legitimate Artist?” As you might imagine, the episode made the sort of argument I’m making here: it’s important to focus on the doing—the verb—of creating, making, writing, artist-ing.
So, if I embrace this identity—artist—and want to answer Morrison’s call “to go to work,” I can ask some new questions:
Where do I find inspiration, and how might I inspire others?
What needs to be said now, even if it’s been said before?
Whose voices need to be amplified, cited, credited, and made visible?
What am I called to create, and how might I listen to and hear the call more clearly?
How might creation help to imagine and enact visions of the “ought to be”?
I ask these questions on a day in which students and I have generated lists of the genres (types of writing) through which we “write for social justice.” We showed each other the work we’re engaged in and the possibilities that lie ahead. One student urged me to “blog about this class”; another suggested creative nonfiction; and still another encouraged me to keep working on my academic book project. This encouragement reminds me that students see me as a creator (a writer, researcher, and artist), even as I’m encouraging as them to step into and claim these roles—to become writers and artists for justice.
I also ask these questions on a day when a friend shares the article, “Finding Steady Ground: Strengthening Our Spirits to Resist and Thrive in These Times.” Of the seven behaviors outlined here for strengthening ourselves and taking strategic action, #5 pops out to me: “I will be aware of myself as one who creates.” How about this for an affirmation? For a reminder that art isn’t frivolous, but part of resilience and resistance?
As I create—as I write, teach, research, blog, and share my work with others—I must say, “I am an artist.” And as an artist, I encourage artistic activism. I hope you’ll join me. I hope you’ll claim the identities of writer, artist, and activist. I hope you’ll create and act in the world, countering passivity and taking up Morrison’s call.