Through career discernment, I continue to learn the importance of slowing down, listening to embodied wisdom, and building emotional literacies. Decision-making involves more than well-reasoned answers, and it holds potential for healing when prioritizing commitments and alignment with our better/best selves.
I continue to wish for personal and collective healing and believe our working lives play a role in this process. How might our careers—and ongoing career discernment—contribute to grieving and growing? To greater acknowledgement of both/and? To the willingness to tread alternative paths?
As a practice, the use of oracle cards helps me see patterns and seek guidance, slowing down to notice and reflect when I’d otherwise move too quickly through the day. I don’t pull cards for fortune- or future-telling, but instead as a sort of meditation on life. An openness to listening to what I might be blocking. A willingness to open my heart to divine guidance. A reminder to expect miracles in everyday life.
Over time, I’ve become frustrated with this deck’s mythical-norm representations of people (gender, race, size, and more) and its reliance of Christian symbolism (another part of what Audre Lorde so aptly named the “mythical norm”). At the same time, this deck has taught me a lot about trusting wisdom when it comes in unexpected ways. It continues to teach me about sifting through complicated emotions, imperfect situations, and kernels of truth.
While asking these questions, I’ve had several conversations reminding me that I’m not alone in feeling upside down at this moment. I’m not alone in wanting a different way to live that honors life and builds justice rather than seeing some beings as valuable and others as expendable. I’m not alone in grieving and desiring deep change. And I’m not alone in struggling to see this moment of possible change as a “blessing.”
So, in the midst of grief and anger and fear and trauma, here are some questions this oracle card raises for me, as I seek “blessed change”:
How might the pain (vast injustice) of this moment be prompting changes that too many of us might be too comfortable to confront otherwise?
Postscript: One thing I know from years of practicing yoga is that literally getting upside down (inverting the body or getting the feet above the head) does wonders. Legs-up-the-wall pose is both calming and stimulating, both quieting and energizing. It’s both deeply embodied and deeply contemplative. What I realize when thinking about being upside down is that changes, similarly, are full of both/and qualities. Perhaps it’s the recognition of both/and that will help move us toward blessed change.
Still, if I’m being honest with myself, the past few weeks have felt messier than I’d like to admit. I’ve had a piece of a broken ceramic bowl in my foot, a mostly mild but sometimes excruciatingly painful attention-getter. My podiatrist tells me to be patient and let my body release the piece naturally. Yet, I’m impatient and complaining about this regular reminder that I’ve got broken pieces within myself to heal and release before moving forward.
What I’m realizing, as I work the healing process that requires patience with pain, is that I’m in the midst of chrysalis, or the gruesome transformation caterpillars undergo to become butterflies.
In the past year, as I’ve announced career changes, moved cross-country, and continue to reflect on and refashion my identity, I’ve been seeing many caterpillars and butterflies and excited to think of myself as “in transformation.” Now that I’m fully in it—in the midst of big changes—I’m remembering that caterpillars essentially digest themselves, dissolving their past bodies while creating new ones. They transform into another being that moves so differently, eats so differently, and experiences life so differently that they aren’t recognized as the same being. How much disintegration, discomfort, and dis-ease must be involved in that transformation?
So, what does chrysalis (this time of mess, mess, and more mess) look like for me?
More days that I’d like to admit …
I’m spending many hours in one place, curled on the couch.
I’m eating irregularly.
I’m waking from vivid and sometimes-scary dreams.
I’m crying often and at unexpected times.
I’m all over the place, teeter-tottering as I walk, carefully balancing on my injured foot, and yet feeling completely off balance.
I’m creating art and climbing and falling and calling friends and seeing a counselor and writing, writing, writing—all toward processing big changes and even bigger legacies of personal, family, and social trauma and wrongdoing and lingering hurts.
I don’t know yet who I’ll be when I emerge from the messy and often-painful chrysalis, but here are two embodied experiences from inside it:
Experience #1: On a day of bingeing sugar and TV, I find myself pulled into a documentary on hooking up via dating apps, which highlights rape culture, sexual violence, and the ways in which systemic racism and intersectional oppression manifest in technological innovation and intimate relations alike. It’s not until a headache gets me to turn off the TV that I recognize that my body is incredibly tense. I’m physically holding onto, remembering, and witnessing anew this violence. I need to hold myself, quiet my mind, and notice my body’s wisdom before I can process my own experiences and reactions to what’s surely shared (collective) tension.
Because I can’t look at another screen when my head is pounding, I walk around the block and meet a postal worker who acts with such gentle kindness that I find myself crying. In the exchange of mailing a package, I feel energetically how the person before me holds hope and good will in the words, “Have a bless day.” I’m lifted by human connection, and I’m blabbering about the beauty of this brief loving interaction, as I’m still releasing through tears the heartache of how much we, as humans, hurt one another.
Experience #2: I find myself fidgeting and biting my cuticles as I struggle to find words to write about complicity within systemic violence. I’m remembering several recently painful interactions in which I see myself contributing to harm (scenes for another blog post), and I’m turning that harm inward while writing. It’s not until I draw blood that I realize that I’m literally making myself bleed from my fingers—the instruments of writing expression.
Again, my body offers such a clear message about the relationship between personal (internal, self) and collective (systemic, shared) harm. My counselor uses language that’s familiar to me after years of writing about the relationship between the micro and macro. She tells me that processing my own lived experiences involves looking at broader family and community dynamics as well as social-cultural-historical conditioning.
What this means is that binge-eating sugar and binge-watching TV, as two examples, aren’t only about my actions. These “bingeing” experiences are also about cultural scripts that make “sweets” and “favorite TV shows” soothing salves for a harsh world. Sweets and shows stand in for or serve as reminders of good memories, loving relationships, special occasions, self-care, and much more. Streaming services like Amazon and Netflix start next episodes before previous ones have finished. The examples go on and on, pointing to the need for personal healing in the context of larger collective healing. For changing personal habits in the context of changing current conditions and cultural scripts.
Within the chrysalis—when experiencing headaches and bleeding fingers—I am lifted by human connection and the possibilities for personal, ancestral, and collective healing. And being lifted, inspired, and guided matters.
Grounding matters, too, which is why I suspect my foot has manifested the consistent, not-easily-forgotten reminder to keep releasing broken pieces. Pieces internalized and unseen. Pieces under the surface and buried deep. Pieces asking to be released if I’m to be transformed.
Many of these sauces are adaptations of pesto, thinned with water to make more of a dressing or dip than the typically thick and oily spread. I call this “adaptable pesto sauce,” because there are many ways to prepare it and because I’ve come to this recipe through studying variations on vegan pesto.
The idea is to combine the following ingredients (all of which can be adapted to what’s on hand) in a Vitamix or another high-powered blender.
Greens—approx. 5 cups of any combination of basil, spinach, kale, swiss chard, or the tops of carrots or beets
Walnuts— 1/2 cup
Olive oil—1/3 cup
Lemon—juice of 1 small lemon (~2 to 3 tablespoons)
Garlic—6 bulbs (more or less, depending on how much you like garlic :-))
Salt—1+ teaspoon (to taste)
Pepper—1/3 to 1/2 teaspoon (to taste)
I appreciate that this recipe is simple, taking no more than 10 minutes to gather and combine ingredients. I appreciate that it helps with achieving my goal of eating veggies as at least half of every meal. I appreciate, too, that I can eat a single batch for several days.
To illustrate, with the serving shown here, I ended up with three distinct meals:
(1) Adaptable pesto sauce became the focus on this dinner with roasted mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, crackers, and sliced peaches all as options for dipping.
(2) The next day I served the sauce with carrot and celery sticks and two veggie burgers topped with slices of avocado.
(3) What remained I used in a pasta casserole, drizzling the sauce over a layer of kale and textured vegetable protein (TVP), which topped a layer of gluten-free rotini (spiral pasta). After repeating these layers, I topped the casserole with Follow Your Heart vegan cheeze and baked for approximately an hour at 400 degrees.
These three meals are only a few I’ve created with this adaptable pesto sauce, as it’s becoming a familiar friend.
As I did back in January, when recovering from a concussion, I’ve written a spell of mantras to help ease the shifts (the letting go and calling in) that I’d like to experience in my new space. This spell now lives under my bed and again taped to my bathroom mirror.
I share this spell here as an accountability practice—holding its potential not only in physical space but also in digital/online space. I hope it might motivate others to write. I can already see that it’s inspiring me toward further writing to make commitments to justice actionable in everyday life.
I make decisions based on my “strong YES,” asking regularly which way brings me closer to my divine purpose, listening for what’s next, and engaging in discernment, even/especially when the answers don’t seem to make sense.
I get comfortable working on my own and enjoying my own company, while noticing who shows up as accomplices, companions, and guides in the work for social justice.
I read “for fun,” and I learn through reading-listening-witnessing how to amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), especially feminists and womanists of color.
I nourish my physical, emotional, and spiritual self: heart, head, and hands. In doing so, I invest in my relationship with food, building a relationship that’s full of integrity, consistency, forgiveness, appreciation, and love. I absorb nutrients and release inflammation. I show love to myself through the foods I take into my body.
I learn more about what it means to show up as my authentic self, getting to know Beth.
I treat myself gently, with tenderness and humility. I open my heart to forgiveness and peace. I allow myself to receive and give love.
To feel whatever comes up.
To feel deeply, expansively, expressively.
To feel a fuller range of emotions than we’re typically taught is appropriate or agreeable or allowable to feel.
To grieve for Nia Wilson, for Markeis McGlockton, and for many people whose lives are deemed expendable.
To rage against white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and oppression.
To push past easy, ready, and first emotions.
To resist “the tyranny of positivity” that limits the ability to name violence, wrongdoing, and injustice.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what psychologist Susan David calls “the tyranny of positivity,” or the over-valuing of positive emotions to the point of blocking the ability to feel sadness, anger, fear, regret, guilt, and other “negative” emotions. These emotions are needed to reckon with—to remember, resist, redress, reconcile—harms done in the world. Harms done to and also by us.
I’ve felt this “tyranny of positivity” when a colleague expressed concern about me writing on the trauma of graduate education, cautioning me against being “too negative” and suggesting that “writing needs to stay positive to attract readers.”
I’ve felt this “tyranny of positivity,” too, when responses to my writing on trauma included statements like these:
“Career counselors are some of the most positive people you’ll meet.”
“If you look for the good in graduate education, then you won’t feel the bad so much.”
“It’s better to invest in building one’s career than to linger over the challenges.”
“You did a great job with that piece: you kept it positive.”
Yet, what I see happening here and through broader social expectations for positive emotion is a sort of spiritual bypassing tied to white supremacy. White supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and other interlocking forms of oppression need denial to operate. White supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and oppression rely on the policing of emotion, the forgetting of and failure to address deep harms that nevertheless live in the body.
Policing and blocking of emotions contribute to the epistemic injustice of being told you don’t even know what you know, and you don’t even feel what you feel, and you don’t even have the right to know and feel what you truly know and feel. And it’s epistemic injustice that undergirds trauma in graduate education and in so many facets of life.
In contrast, it takes the strength of working with trauma, sitting with vulnerability, and feeling what comes up to counter the tyranny of positivity. It takes love, and it takes anger. It takes a much fuller spectrum of emotions that those deemed “respectable” or “civil.”
As part of my research on epistemic injustice, I’ve been thinking about the power of naming: the power of having the linguistic resources to identify, describe, and call out varied experiences, especially experiences of injustice.
Systemic oppression works in a way that denies the ability to name experiences of wrongdoing. When experiences are named, they can be acknowledged and addressed. To me, this is part of the power of the word microaggressions: the word allows for acknowledgement of what too often goes unacknowledged. Similarly, phrases like sexual violence, rape culture, and #metoo do important work in raising awareness, mobilizing response, allowing for healing, and calling attention to what’s typically hidden.
This week Inside Higher Ed published my article on why it’s important to acknowledge and address the trauma of graduate education as part of career conversations:
“The Trauma of Graduate Education” shares insights from this research on epistemic injustice, relating how graduate writers (participants in my dissertation research from several years ago) described the need for therapy, counseling, and self-help. In interview after interview, I heard writers (many of whom were white women and women of color) describe harms inflicted through graduate school. Moreover, participants’ stories echoed my own experiences with graduate education, which tore down my confidence, contributed to internalized pain, and kicked off a healing process that’s now taking me away from higher education.
In the article, I describe why it’s important to name these experiences as trauma:
“Often conversations with career advisers are similar to those among graduate writers: it is common to share, receive and even exchange stories of trauma while often not naming it as such. An important part of career conversations, therefore, may be recognizing trauma as trauma. There is power in naming experiences: acknowledging and giving language to describe trauma can lead to other actions, such as seeking trauma-informed care or, in Grollman’s words, “rewriting the trauma narrative.” Similarly, it’s important to name microaggressions as microaggressions, epistemic injustice as epistemic injustice and violence as violence. Doing so validates the reality of the experience (essentially saying, yes, this experience really did happen and really is wrong), countering the many invalidations that cumulate into trauma. Further, giving language to experience helps with developing the linguistic resources to understand, process and describe trauma and other injustice.”
My call to name trauma must have struck a chord with readers. On the one hand, I’m experiencing a new round of graduate students (especially white women and folks of color) reaching out and saying, “Yes, me too!” On the other hand, I’m seeing comment after comment (from what I can tell, all by white men) complaining about my “over-sensitivity,” exaggeration, and misuse of the word trauma.
Alongside these various forms of gaslighting (another powerful word for naming injustice) is a familiar rhetorical move of saying that if the experience of graduate education is too traumatic, then folks should just leave. Here again, as in my dissertation research and my own lived experience, I see readers (folks engaged in academia) making the moves that feed into trauma: those of denial, dismissal, and disengagement.
Such interactional moves point to why we need an “unrestrained” definition of trauma. What registers as trauma to one person may not to another, but to deny the experience is to deny the person. Writing off the reality of trauma is linked literally to writing off the people who experience it. Hence, we see the perpetuation of violence—perpetuation of oppression, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and epistemic injustice—within and beyond higher education.
Though this violence is all-too-familiar, I am encouraged again by the power of speaking and writing UP. I am encouraged that together we can build the linguistic resources to name experiences of injustice, and together we can use the act of naming to mobilize.
Today, tomorrow, and going forward, I’m naming trauma as trauma. And I hope you’ll join me in naming experiences of injustice to acknowledge and address them. We’ll need a lot of creativity and visioning to keep building the words for naming what’s intended not to be named. But build together, we must.