Friday, November 7, 2014

(Not) Doing It On My Own

I often hear people my age say things like, "Everything I have, I earned," or "I've worked for everything I have," or "I am the reason why I have what I have." There's this intense desire to validate that one's successes (whether material, professional, or financial) are purely their's and NO ONE ELSE'S. They were the ones with the strong work ethic. They were the ones who worked since they were 17 years old. They were the ones with the goals and aspirations.

This sort of perspective has been on my mind lately since I have been celebrating a series of successes. A few months ago, I defended my thesis and passed with distinction. I recently started work as an adjunct professor, teaching three classes in two different departments. It's not an understatement to say that I am in the beginning stages of my dream job. And, yet, despite all of the work, time, effort, tears, fatigue, frustration, and dedication that went into (and will continue to go into) these successes, I would never feel comfortable saying that my accomplishments are purely "mine." Looking back on it, I realize that they belong to so many others.

My parents bought me books as a child and told me education was a priceless endeavor. They took me school-shopping every summer, they encouraged me to go to college, and they helped me pay for expenses like food or health insurance so that I could focus on my studies. They didn't completely pay for college for me, but they gave me the resources to be able to go, and the ideology that made me WANT to go. Beyond my blood family, I've had "adopted" family who love me as their own, year after year, after year, after year. My surrogate "big" sister, for instance, has been with me not only every step of the last 7 years of my academic journey, but also my life in general, offering me her house as a safe space, buying me countless meals, and spending thousands of hours with me talking about my passions, struggles, and dreams.

My accomplishments belong to those I call my family.

My undergraduate professors saw potential in me and encouraged me to go to graduate school. They met with me with and read my writing sample over and over again. They gave me advice. They sent me emails and texts after interviews, asking me how I went. They told me when my writing needed improvement, when something was poorly phrased on my resume, and even when I was currently a major that they knew wasn't right for me. This extended even beyond classroom: the summer I moved into my new apartment, a professor gave me boxes of kitchen appliances and even a few pieces of furniture so that I could save some extra money. Another professor helped me set up what she referred to as a "big girl filing system;" before heading to grad school, I learned how to keep a budget, organize important paperwork, and understand things like car loans and interest rates.

My accomplishments belong to these faculty.

In graduate school, I found similar support. Professors answered emails at all hours of the night, did endless paper conferences with me, and encouraged me in my scholarship. While some could say that's just part of their job, many of them will never be financially compensated for what the time they gave me (and other students). My boss, for instance, who surprised me and took me to hear Toni Morrison speak at a school in the city, did so simply because she knew how much Morrison and her work meant to me; she was not obligated to show me such thoughtfulness. The same goes for my thesis advisor who would often stand outside in the cold with me for an hour after class, helping me process and think through ideas about my thesis.

My accomplishments belong to people like that.

At the risk of sounding like a complete poster child for socialism (guilty as charged), let me stress that I understand that this is a two-way street. It is a participatory relationship. These people help me, but it's because I want to be helped. I ask for advice. I'm not afraid to call myself an amateur and seek the advice of others. My desire for success far outweighs my momentary desire to seem like I am the pro or expert. I don't know it all, and I am willing to consult with the people who do. I've learned that this kind of humility and intense willingness to allow others to help me carries significant benefits. I'd go as far to say that it's one of the primary keys to success.

Yet, while certainly somewhat my responsibility, I also know that my initiative and willingness to learn would be meaningless without the people who have so graciously and selflessly met me half way. Anything I have, no matter how great or how small, is on one hand a product of my work and dedication, but it is also a product of someone ELSE's work and dedication. At the end of the day, I am a collective effort. In the famous words of Rushdie, "I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine." Everything I have is shared. And I am so very proud of that. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What's in a name?

I carried my given name with me for about 25 years. It was what I was called even before I was a born. It was printed on my birth certificate. It was the name I learned to write as a child. It was the name on my diploma and my B.A. degree. It was printed on my school awards, essays, the first piece of writing I had published, and on my first license. It was written on opening pages of books, in letters to friends, on certificates and forms. Quite simply, it was me.

...That is, up until two months ago. On May 15th, 2014 I went to court and had my last name legally changed to my great-grandmother's maiden name. This is something I considered doing for many years. Graduating with my M.A. degree, having access to some money for legal fees, and starting my teaching career made me think the moment was finally right.

There were multiple, complicated reasons for this name change that certainly expand beyond the scope of one blog entry. This decision is a product of years of conversation, research, and especially personal introspection. I'll try, however, to briefly explain my top three reasons:

1) To honor my female heritage: For good or for bad, I know I am who I am today because of the women in my life. My mother, my Yiayia, my aunt, and some of my close female cousins all deeply shaped and influenced me. While I am blessed to know some great men, it is ultimately the women who "made" me. If a name reflects who we are, then it is only appropriate for it to reflect them.

2) To honor my Greek heritage: Although I am also German, I have always identified strongly and passionately as Greek, mostly because it is the culture that was most impressed upon me while growing up. I was closer to my mother's side of the family, and I deeply connected to my Greek culture's love of things like food, education, politics, and especially, family. My legal name is undeniably Greek now, and while it's certainly not the easiest to pronounce, I feel proud to carry and display that heritage to the world.

3) To specifically honor my Yiayia (grandmother): I am lucky to say that I haven't lived a single day on this earth without my grandmother. My "Yiayia" has lived with me since I was a baby, and has been a part of my daily life since the moment I first drew breath. She has been one of my greatest friends, my second-parent, teacher, and role-model. Unfortunately, she was not so lucky herself; her mother--my great grandmother-- died of a sudden heart attack when my Yiayia was 21 years old. It is a loss that she continues to deeply feel, even sixty five years later. My name change is to honor her, as well as the woman who she loved and lost so tragically young.

4) To create a new identity for myself: Ultimately, a name (especially a last name) is narrative. It carries a (sometimes good, sometimes bad) story. It connects you to something beyond yourself. It ties you to people, to places, to cultures, and traditions. At this stage in my life, lots of people are changing their names through marriage. They've had the pleasure of living 20some odd years with their birth name, and then establishing a new name as they start a family. Putting aside the fact that I am single, I always knew, for both political and personal reasons, that if I got married, I would not take my husband's name (I realize that this is not a popular opinion, but unless both people are willing to hyphenate, I don't believe that women should change their names). Despite this stance on marriage, however, I did nonetheless feel a desire to join my married friends and establish a name for myself beyond what I was given at birth.

And the time felt right. While there is still much growth to be done, at this point in my life I feel more confident, more peaceful, more sure of my desires, hopes, fears, and strengths than ever before. I wanted a new name to reflect that confidence, assurance, stability, and "meness" (a la Toni Morrison). I decided that choosing a name for myself--a name not granted by my parents or predicted by the spouse I one day choose--was perhaps one of the most independent, personal decisions I could ever make for myself. I could make a conscious choice on my own about something that I would carry with me (literally) to the grave. Ironically, names are our greatest identifiers--they declare to the world, "This is me"--yet, we rarely have much say in them. I feared what Desdemona once said: "I [could not be] the meaning of a name I did not choose." Quite simply, I wanted a choice. For me, choosing my name and having a say in something that important, was not only a way for me to declare what I was called, but also who I was.

I have chosen my name, and I have chosen my meaning. And that is me.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Saying Goodbye to 504

Right now I am in the process of dealing with an upcoming loss. It's not the loss of a person. It's the loss of a place: my apartment. This week my lease will be up, and I will move out of this little one-bedroom space that I've learned to call my second-home. I've spent many nights alone now packing up boxes, organizing things, getting stuff ready for storage. These times have offered me some quiet moments of reflection--something that I always really need when I am dealing with any kind of significant transition.

I moved into my apartment in August 2012. I went from living with my family to living alone. I didn't know a soul here. When I told people I was going to live alone, a lot of people warned me that I might be sad or scared-- after all, I was a commuter during undergrad, meaning I went from living with 5 loud and ever-present people to living completely independently without any kind of roommate experience. Despite these warnings, however, I found that I loved living alone; in fact, I relished in it. Living in a new place was hard, but not the living alone part.; in fact,  I loved the quiet, the privacy, and the idea of knowing that a space was only "mine." I loved declaring and establishing a sense of "home" for myself that I created and maintained all by myself. 

It was a beautiful space, too. You hear horror stories about people's first apartments, and I have to say that mine wasn't the standard scary narrative. I was very lucky; my apartment was in a safe area, in a quiet building with friendly neighbors and a nice landlord. It had large beautiful windows that over looked trees and a local park, it was in walking distance of my university, stores and restaurants ranging from Thai to sushi, it had lots of light, lots of space, and possessed a simple kind of charm. Nothing broke--not even once. It was an expensive area and the complex wasn't cheap, but it was worth the money. 

A part from these practical things, my apartment holds sentimental value because it is the place where I truly grew up. That sounds cliche, but it's true. It's the space where I processed some deep loss and deep happiness, where I experienced intense loneliness but also learned the true value of being alone, received great news and also heart-breaking phone calls, where I did the intense work to gain my MA degree, where I planned my first college-lessons as a TA, where I threw my first dinner party, saw dreams actualized, where I took care of myself when I was sick, where I discovered the joy of inviting friends (both old and new) into a space that was completely "mine," where I cooked, did laundry,  paid my bills, managed my finances, did dishes, dusted, vacuumed, learned how to clean a stove and put together a TV, decorated the walls, planned my future, unpacked groceries, baked treats for my grad school friends, got ready for dates, coped with a depression, watched President Obama win re-election, did Yoga on the living room floor. And, most importantly, I did all of these things all by myself. There was no roommate or person down the hall to talk to me, bhelp me, or even distract me. It was just me. These moments taught me independence and strength-- traits I already possessed but that came into full bloom when living alone. (A friend and mentor of mine actually joked, "Some people can't be that independent. You do alone very well. Maybe too well.")

I am moving back home with my family during the time  before starting a Phd program. I love my home and there are many beautiful things and people waiting for me there. I will, however, nonetheless miss my little apartment and all of what it represented.  There will never be another 504, but I like to think that I carry it--and all of what I learned while in  it--wherever I go. The interesting thing about places is that we may dwell in them for short time but they often dwell in us for far longer. I am proud to have that in me, and I am especially proud to say that I did (as the title of this blog suggests) find a new place, and it was very "right." Thank you, 504. Thank you. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Writing and Standing

I read an article in The Chronicle recently about a professor who bought a treadmill desk to use while she is at work. It’s pretty self-explanatory: a treadmill attached to a desk replaces a chair, so you walk (instead of sit) while you work. Her story inspired me; the idea of incorporating some kind of movement into an otherwise very (physically) inactive long work-day was alluring.

I love the typical experiences of life in academia—reading, writing, thinking, discussing—but, it has always bothered me that every single one of these activities involves sitting. Academics tend to live completely in their heads, and that means often living in a chair. I’ve always found it very frustrating that I’ll wake up, sit at the office, come home, sit at my computer and write, and then go to bed; if I’m lucky, I'll take the stairs instead of an elevator, or there will be some kind of work-out thrown into my day, but it’s certainly no more than an hour. That can't be good for anyone. Even putting strenuous exercise aside, I've read so many articles that suggest how just moving—in any kind of way—is so valuable. A recent scary essay--entitled something like, "How Sitting Is Killing Us"--talked about the simple benefits of just being on your feet instead of your ass (for a lack of better words).

This awareness combined with the article from The Chronicle, inspired me to spend some of my work-day out of my chair. Despite doing Yoga and even dancing ballet for many years, I’m somewhat clumsy, and I thought typing while also walking on a moving machine seemed a bit complicated. I decided to go the less extreme route and set up a standing-desk at my apartment. I’m not walking while I work, but I am at least out of my chair; in fact, about 4-5 hours of time typically spent sitting, I am now standing. 

I've only been doing this for a week, but so far I've already seen its benefits: I have a bit more energy while I am writing. I feel more tired by the time 3 a.m. rolls around (a plus for someone who struggles with some mild insomnia). It gives me a good opportunity to work on posture. My neck and back hurt less. And, according to a handy online calculator, I burn about 50 more calories (relatively effortlessly) an hour standing than I would if I was snuggled up in a recliner in my living-room. 

Academics often forget that we are more than a brain. We especially forget that in order for those brains to function as well as we want them to, we need to take care of the bodies in which they are housed. In this world of multi-tasking and deadlines, what better way to do that than by combining our cerebral work with some physical activity? My plan was that this blog would be a place I could explore issues related to writing/the writing process. While a topic such as standing vs. sitting might seem insignificant, how I write—even on the most basic physical, bodily level—is an important part of that conversation. So, here's to more standing, and the hope that a more active and mobile existence will add some life to the page as well.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Thoughts on Women's History Month

As a young woman living in the twenty-first century, I deal with a particular set of challenges: I am trying to define myself as a scholar, academic, and future-teacher in a still (primarily) male-dominated profession. I am attempting to build a career in the midst of a bad economy, and in an even worse job market. I am living with the dual-desire to have job that leaves me happy and fulfilled, yet also completely financially independent.  I am trying to juggle health with a very sedentary existence as a writer and student. I am trying to maintain a healthy-body image and a progressive understanding of beauty in the midst of a culture that often leaves me feeling horribly inadequate. I am a single person aiming to feel "complete" when the majority of my friends are in romantic relationships. I am struggling to juggle intense work demands with familial responsibilities and commitments. I am constantly attempting to reconcile the "hard" parts of my personality (strength, independence, practicality and pragmatism) with other attributes (emotional vulnerability, intimacy, and trust) that I know are vital to my relational and emotional life. And, I am trying to travel a journey of constant self-improvement/fulfillment while still maintaining the awareness that there is a bigger world far beyond my own--a world that requires my help, my activism, and my political involvement and participation.

Looking at this list, I know I lead a life of a privilege. My challenges are primarily abstract; I am not without basic needs such as food, water, shelter, or freedom. Indeed, these are the challenges of a privileged woman, yet they are challenges nonetheless. Something like Women's History Month is inspiring to me on many levels, but especially because it reminds me of the women who have gone before me--women with challenges ten times greater than my own--who pushed through and accomplished what must have seemed impossible. Whether Alice Paul or Harriet Tubman, the women I celebrate during the month of March (and should celebrate all year long) leave me believing--whether simplistically or foolishisly or not--that with enough work, gutsiness, commitment, and enthusiasm, change is possible. 

Luckily, the term "inspiring women" is also something alive and well in my own life; such women are not only ones found in the pages of history books, but are also tangible, real people in the here-and-now who provide me with a steadfast flow of wisdom, strength, love, wisdom, courage, and humor. My mother is the ultimate embodiment of this, but I am also blessed with an amazing grandmother, aunt, and cousin. Beyond blood, yet equally influential, I possess what we lovingly refer to as an "adopted-Thea," as well as a beautiful big-sister-of-the-heart. As if family were not enough, I have a strong and stable set of female friends who bring joy to every day of my life. I am proud to say that I have never--not once at any point in my life--have lacked female community.

I don't believe there's such a thing as a singular "female experience." We're all different; our struggles, our successes, our desires, our fears, and our goals are not identical. National Women's History Month is still meaningful to me, however, because it reminds me that we can nonetheless find a sense of solidarity within the beauty of this diversity. The women who came before me championed my right, my opportunity, and my potential to be me; they fought for my right to live in this world, to occupy this space, to experience and push through the challenges of this life with the ever-abiding hope that it may even be a little easier for someone else down the road. Those women did that, and now it's my turn to do the same. I owe it to myself. I owe it to them.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Time and Thesis

I am currently in the process of writing my M.A. thesis, and, like most people, am finding it to be both a greatly fulfilling, yet also extremely challenging project. There are many things that make this so difficult--the limited and ever dwindling number of months I have to complete it, the incredibly large degree of research required, the pressure to produce something original and meaningful, to impress my advisors, etc.--but perhaps the very greatest challenge has been time management.

Time management. It's something that I used to think I was pretty good at; after all, I've long juggled things like work, school, activism, extra-curriculums, and family responsibilities, and (mostly) succeeded/survived. With the thesis, however, I find myself constantly two steps behind, constantly guilty over not working enough, and swinging back and forth between extremes of complete procrastination or complete obsession. I won't write for a whole two days, but then pull an almost completely sleepless night and write for 12 hours. I'll spend all night laying in bed feeling guilty and stressed about not hitting my page limit, but then get caught up in other responsibilities the next morning and never get to my writing. At my job, I'll spend 8 hours wishing I was at home writing, but then get home and feel too tired to write.

I know these struggles are not unique; they're the great plight of anyone writing a thesis, dissertation, or other large project--especially anyone attempting to do that writing while simultaneously holding a job or other significant responsibilities. My challenges aren't original, but they are personal and emotionally consuming nonetheless. It's terrible feeling like you might be failing at the one thing most important to you--and, that the key to not failing is ultimately in your own hands, but you just can't seem to be smart or disciplined enough to unlock the problem.

The very logical person in me knows that I will finish my writing my thesis. I'll finish writing my thesis because I am a stubborn person with a great sense of drive, conviction, and passion. Right now, however, my main concern is how I might finish my thesis not only in the most productive way, but also the most (mentally and physically) healthy way. Deep down I know I'll reach my destination, but I'd like to make the journey a little smoother. I'd especially like to be able to walk away from this experience not only with a 100-some-page manuscript, but also a set of time management and work skills that I can hopefully rely on, and refer to, for other big things in my life--both within and maybe even beyond academia.

(Suggestions, feedback, and ego-boosting comments welcomed.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Knowing What I Want

At this stage of my life, I hear so many people say, "I just don't know what I want. I don't know where I want to end up. I just don't know who I want to be." Being in your 20s seems to mean that you are in the ultimate era of uncertainty, confusion, and self-doubt. To some degree, I can connect to such restlessness, because I know how much of my life is still in flux. I have changed so much in the last few years, so there is no way I could entertain the fantasy that who I am today is exactly who I will be when I am 35. Surely, I may end up in a different place, have different relationships, different priorities, different opinions. All of these things have changed from a year ago, so who's to say they won't change again a year from now?

 Despite some natural and inevitable insecurities, however, there is one really big part of my life that I am absolutely sure about. My career choice--my desire to teach---has not once wavered. In this part of my life (which I would argue is a relatively significant part), I do know what I want. I am not unsure. I am not hesitant. Quite frankly, I am not open to possibilities, because I know that nothing else would bring me the fulfillment and meaning that this job would. The challenges are glaring and my insecurities are at moments overpowering, but it still doesn't change what I want.

That is such a wonderful feeling. And, it's also such a terrible feeling.

It's such a wonderful feeling, because it grants my life a sense of structure and consistency that some of my friends do not have. Four years ago--my sophomore year of college--I sat down with my advisor (and now close friend) and decided that I wanted to go to graduate school so that I could one teach English on a college-level. Since then, I've had a single goal, and I've worked towards it. Every decision in my life has slowly--centimeter by centimeter--brought me closer to a dream being actualized. I can look back and identify progress.  Seeing how far I've come rationalizes and justifies the work, time, and energy that has gone into the journey. It's a wonderful feeling, because I do not toss and turn in bed at night and wonder what I am going to do with my life (instead, I wonder how will do it). I have a deep sense of conviction, commitment, and passion for what I (believe) is one of my greatest life's purposes. My goal does not waver; my desire does not change; the future I envision and long for only becomes more clear and defined the closer I get to achieving it.

Yet, it's also such a terrible feeling, because it means that I have a hell of a lot to lose. The problem with desiring something so much is that if you don't get it, you're set up for the heartbreak of a lifetime. The problem with not being able to imagine yourself doing anything else is... well, that you can't imagine doing yourself anything else. I am lucky that I have clear and defined goals, a sense of purpose and calling; but, but this also leaves me scared and vulnerable, knowing that the more I want something, the greater the potential loss will be. Imagining this loss feels more than disappointing; it's literally identity-shaking.

I once heard someone say that you cannot ever adequately prepare for something while simultaneously believing that it may never happen. I understand the message behind this idea: Confidence and belief in oneself is invaluable! Self-doubt gets you nowhere! One's attitude will predict one's success! I am familiar with this talk. However, I also pride myself in being a fiercely realistic person--most days also quite cynical--and can't help but ask the gloomy (yet arguably also appropriate) questions such as, "What if I can't do this?" "What if this doesn't work out?" "What if it's not meant to be?" "Even if my own intelligence and tenacity is enough to get me through, what if the job market sets me up to fail?" "What if I waste a decade of my life just to end up in a career that I can never achieve?" I'd like to think I'll never have to answer such questions, but, the weekly cover story of The Chronicle of Higher Education often reminds me that there's a decent chance I will. (For a more graphic reality-check, just Google "Don't Get a PHD!" You can read about tons of bitter ex-academics who now work at Barnes & Nobles--which is also shutting down soon.)

The good news is that the more entrenched I get in this career, the more I want and love it. So far, I don't regret any of the time that I have invested in this pursuit; in fact, the time I spent in front of a classroom last semester as a Teaching Assistant were some of the most fulfilling moments of my professional career. The sad news is that the more entrenched I get in this career, the louder these questions become. And, every day, I (like many of my peers, I am sure) am left wondering if I can find some kind of balance between these two perspectives, find some kind of peace of mind that honors my goals yet doesn't succumb to ultimate naivety. So often we discuss how to live in the midst of not knowing what we want. Lately, my great question is, how do we live when do know?