Solitude and “co-being”: connecting Russian and Rilke in becoming a scholar

In the fourth year of doing a PhD, different people come up into, and against, different feelings. Some become more invigorated, generating an ever-so-slight fullness of smile, a growing sense of purpose, of voice. Others seem bogged down, sagging under the weight of hours staring at one’s silly words, uncertain that anything will ever come of all of this fuss and pennilessness. Still others — many of us, myself included — traverse the space between these two poles, sometimes full up with both feelings and plenty more besides (like loneliness, acid reflux, 3rd-grader-ish pride, shoulder pain, delight at being in limbo and relatively unaccountable, unresolved desire for unspoken engagements, and so on). It’s an ambiguous, profound, alien time, much like childhood, in that no one can really track where you’re headed, as you stumble and clamor and climb up trees and over hills.

I attended a student working group with my advisor and several other of her advisees tonight. One of the group members presented his work, terrific research on social workers and the tension between their values and the structural and political realities that constrain and delimit ethical engagement with their practice. During the talk, the presenter offered the Russian word sobytie, which he translated to mean “event,” and connected it to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, philosopher of language and literary critic. Our advisor, who is from the former Soviet Union, offered more information about the word, stating that its literal meaning is “event,” yet it can be broken down into the elements so, meaning “co-,” and bytie, meaning “being,” and that “co-being” in Russian means that one’s existence is a shared ongoing experience. She explained that there are many Russian words like this, which begin with the prefix so, thus embedding the idea that communalism is a fundamental part of being human. An illuminating example of the fact that language can contain so much history, so much social vision, in a single word.

As a PhD student, it often feels that our “co-being” is diminished, as we tell our friends and family (and ourselves) that we’ll have to talk later because this paper is due or a presentation is impending. We are lonely, but we know it’s a loneliness that is relatively temporary (only 5-8 years or so) and in fact is required to discover the trees and hills we want to climb. I also think, though, that there is something transformative about this solitary life. It is a life of learning, and one where the companionship that bubbles up along the way features sharing of brilliant, thrilling dialogues and the hardest questions you’ve ever faced. Bohemian-Austrian Romantic Rainer Maria Rilke encapsulates this beautifully:

I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.


By Unknown – http://www.zeno.org/Literatur/M/Rilke,+Rainer+Maria, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7279454

This is a comforting notion. It’s a bit extreme, I’ll admit — there are people I care very much about who are not on a quest to chart unseen worlds or pen unwritten words — but I like the idea of companionship in the tender, sometime darkly-lit explorations we do as doctoral students. It makes the mental calluses, the hiccuping sleep, the yawning uncertainty of the future, seem a bit more tolerable. It reminds us that exploring is a good way to make a life.


Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2007/10/rilkes-ninth-elegy.html (artist unknown)

 

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New Year’s Resolution: Be human (+ an insomniac) first, then a PhD student

It’s been a month since I wrote, which is a much longer break than I’d anticipated. I’ve decided to write about something which is not terribly inspiring or creative, but rather which is real to me and has been for several months. I’ve been struggling with insomnia since early October, a piece of information which usually divides listeners into two camps: those who kindly sympathize, and those who have been there. Those in the latter camp tend to reflect, with a slow shake of the head and perhaps even a baggy-eyed “me, too,” compassion through their own membership in a group of people who are hidden among us.

We insomniacs – and to be clear, I’m a new member, at three months of difficulty staying asleep and counting – are a motley crew, and there seem to be many reasons why this plague of nocturnal glazed ceiling staring and doze-y thinking strikes and brings a new sufferer into the fold. Stress and anxiety seem to be major contributors to the onset and perpetuation of insomnia, as do major life changes. A simple key word search including “PhD” and “student” and “insomnia” will reveal page upon page of sites discussing how grad students flail around managing the cognitive output, pressure to perform, and anxiety about their future prospects all while trying to appear confident. I found, in a simple survey full of sampling bias (my participants were my acquaintances and friends), that many PhD students I know have struggled and continue to struggle with this issue.

A great irony of being an insomniac grad student, for whom anxiety is situationally likely and normalized as “just what we go through,” is that the insomnia effects its own cause. For PhD students, our ability to concentrate, to take in large blocks of knowledge and analyze and synthesize like little cognitive processing bots, is quite central to our success. So once the cycle of insomnia took hold, my ability to focus, let alone read and process this reading meaningfully, withered…and I got more anxious about my insomnia. Funny. Not so funny.

What’s even worse is that as a fledgling scholar, I found plenty of fuel to add to the fire of anxiety and stress in my already-sleepless brain. I tend to look up research to understand the phenomena I cannot explain. Within the first two weeks, I found connections between insomnia and all of the following: heart attack, shortened life span, bad skin, depression, and a whole host of other health problems.

By Mikael Häggström – All used images are in public domain., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6716058

Great. Not so great. What bothers me about the way this is talked about is that there are lots of people who have lived their whole lives with occasional, even self-inflicted bouts of insomnia. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg apparently has fought for equality between the sexes and many other progressive stances on U.S. legal decisions during periods of little sleep. I’m certainly not lionizing the notorious RBG, or anyone else – apparently, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, and Salvador Dali thought fighting sleep was beneficial – for doing this, but I like to think that not sleeping for a while is not the worst thing that could happen to me.


Isaac Newton. By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=198284

Well, it’s 2018 and I am very much still figuring out the insomnia with the help of several professionals and nonprofessional supports. People love to give advice: drink tea, take baths, drink alcohol, try reading, try smoking a joint, listen to classical music, and on and on ad nauseum. But I can’t blame them. I’ve been drawing late at night, which has helped, or at least helped me to feel a little more human.

Smelly Girl has a lot to talk about late at night. Maybe I’ll start to listen and see if she can help me remember that this PhD thing is, at the end of the day, just one chapter of my story, and not the end of the world.

Be(com)ing a professor

My professors at the Graduate Center tell me that my work as a scholar and a new professor — I work as an adjunct at two colleges in the CUNY system — is a process of socialization, one which involves me becoming a professor as I learn, experience, and grow by doing. I love this idea. I think it speaks to what is most true about learning: that it is personal, meaningful but differently so according to where and who we each are, and transformative.

Tonight, my students showed me this, yet again. It’s been a fantastic class and a blessing in my life, one which I look forward to every week. Our last meeting tonight was a sad one for me, and I thanked them for everything the course has meant and all the great work they’ve done, as well the community we’ve built together. I handed out Self-Evaluation forms for my students to complete, as a means of reflecting on the semester and pulling together the ideas we’re taking away from class. Reading them on the way home, one comment struck me, and made me realize how far we’d all come together:

new doc 60_1

I always thought that the highest compliment a teacher could receive was, “I loved this class” or “My teacher was the best.”

I stand corrected.

The 38-year-old brain

More writing today, and my apologies for the self-indulgent posts. Too much of life in one day, somehow, and so my 38-year-old brain shut off mid-afternoon. Couldn’t try to study at the cafe where I was sitting — I’ve learned I can’t study in public with hipsters singing Eddie Money and making chai lattes — and couldn’t shake the feeling that while I can work and work and work, it’s still just humanness I’m wearing at the end of the day. Plain Jane, burning-rice-on-the-stove, humanness.

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Here’s me and all of us, carrying the thing we carry, a devil behind, the moon beyond. What dreams stand to be gained? What histories whisper to us to stop, and weep?

Finalzzzzz…

No post tonight, not because I haven’t been loyal to my commitment to write for 365 days starting on October 1st, but because I don’t have anything like a blog post to share. Working on a research proposal for a critical discourse analysis within the research paradigm of participatory action research (PAR). It’s actually more fun than it sounds…which maybe isn’t saying much.

Here’s an image to enjoy in the meantime. I look just like this sitting on my couch tonight.

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Good luck to everyone else in the midst of finals at the moment.

Day of thanks-action

A silly title for what I hope will be a simple post. It’s Thanksgiving, though in Spain (and perhaps other hispanoparlante parts of the world) the holiday is called “Día de Acción de Gracias.” As in, getting your thanks on.

Since this is an education blog (see About), I am taking a moment to be thankful to some of the people in my life who have been educators in my life.

I want to thank my mom for reading my blog. She is an amazing mother, and even when she doesn’t have time or energy for herself, she always has both for me.

I want to thank my family and friends for supporting and loving me through my moves to Spain, my tattoos and piercings, my punk hairstyles, my uncertain love life, and my many other changes. I have learned from you through tough conversations, losses, and surprisingly strong bonds through hard times.

And I want to thank my 91-year-old grandma who today reminded me that no matter how serious and important I think my writing, work, or career should be, all I need to do is look at the tie she gave me as a gift for the holiday:

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I mean, what else do you need to know when you have a frog yoga tie to keep things in perspective? Thanks, Grandma.

And thanks to everyone who reads. I am learning as I write and you are a part of that. It’s an honor to know you’re out there.