Friday, December 17, 2010

The only thing to fear . . .

. . . is fear itself? Sometimes I wonder about that.

Last night I had what I can only call a "fear" attack--it felt a little like a panic attack: this cold, unreasoning feeling (in the back of my mind, it really did seem irrational) that I couldn't shake off. My husband finally talked me through it, but for about half an hour I felt like I wanted to curl into a tight ball and just disappear.

What was I so afraid of? Well, it almost sounds silly in black and white (and in daylight): I'd been reading predictions about the future of the university (some, like Bill Gates, maintain that in 5-10 years most of university work will be done online) and I had this terrible vision of a future where my husband and I were out of work (with no hope of employment) because we lived in this futuristic society with technology that was beyond us. Today, of course, this seems laughable: while I do think universities are going to rely increasingly on online courses, I don't know that there will be such a drastic shift so quickly--I think that the "university experience" of sitting in classes and sharing apartments with other like minded souls is such a powerful part of going to college that it will persist to some degree. Also, it's unlikely that both of us (we're smart, hard-working people) would suddenly become so inept that we couldn't learn a new trade if we had to.

Still, the feeling of fear was very real and very intense. And telling myself that it was irrational--or that it was a failure of faith on my part--didn't seem to help.

Am I the only one who ever feels like this? What do you (that is, if anyone is reading this with similar experience) do to snap out of it?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Post-Party slump

Last night, about quarter after nine, I decided officially that I must be crazy.

Why, you might ask? Well, at that point I was in the throes of frosting a cake for my soon-to-be five-year-old's birthday party. The cake was constructed, the sides and top were frosted, and all that remained was the construction and frosting of a nightfury (the main dragon from How to Train Your Dragon, for the uninitiated). That's all.

I have this little problem with over-ambitious cakes. I blame it on taking a series of cake-decorating classes several years ago (and a current fondness for Food Network's Cake Challenges, among other things): I now have delusions of grandeur. And, since I only ever make these cakes twice a year (once for each kid's birthday), I have plenty of time in between to forget that maybe I'm not quite as talented at making cakes as I'd like to believe.

But I digress. The cake was eventually finished (at close to 10 p.m.), and this morning, almost as soon as I was coherent, I was back into the swing of things, getting ready for the party this morning. I roped my husband into helping, and by 9:30 (the party was at 10 a.m.), the house was clean, the floors mopped, the activities staged, the cake ready for display.

All this preparation: and within less than an hour four little boys had swept through all of it: the snacks, the activities, the cake . . . And I find myself wondering, why do I do this? Why do we, as a culture, do this? (I'm pretty certain I wouldn't go to all this effort if there weren't a certain amount of cultural expectation attendant on birthday parties). Of course, I have my own reasons: I'm not always the most fun, or spontaneous of mothers, and I want my kids to have some memories of me from childhood as the fun mom who put on good birthday parties; I want my son to know that I love him, and some of that is reflected in the amount of effort I put into his party (and the cake); and (if I'm really honest), I want to impress people with my cake-making abilities. (Which are by no means professional, but are--if I say so myself--at least a little above par). So, a mix of selfish and altruistic motives.

Something funny happens after a party--after all the rush and enthusiasm you're left with, what? An empty house and a mess to clean up: crumpled wrapping paper on the floor, half-eaten bits of cake on plates (and on the floor), scattered party favors. Personally, I always find the aftermath a little depressing. I don't have enough perspective on the event to savor the memory (which is usually overshadowed by the effort to pull it off); the introvert in me is exhausted; and the emptiness (and the mess) are somehow daunting.

Wouldn't it, then, be easier simply to not have birthday celebrations? Or holidays? (With Christmas looming over me--and presents purchased but not yet wrapped--I can't escape the comparison). Wouldn't it be easier to simply let the days slide past in an undifferentiated, mildly pleasant haze?

I'm not so sure. Personally, most of the time I *like* the anticipation of change. I even like the challenge (if I'm not overburdened with other tasks) of pulling together a smallish event. On the whole, I think I'd rather have a life punctuated with both highs--and lows--than one that hums along monotonously (even if that might be more comfortable most of the time). Just remind me I said this next time I find myself in a post-party slump.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reflections on Christmas and Memory

It's that time of the month again (and no, I don't know what you're thinking): I've posted over at Segullah. Please come visit!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Truth hurts--so does rejection

Last night, as I was winding down an intense class-prep session (yes, I do live the high life! But with little kids, evening is really my only work time) when I checked my school email and found a message waiting for me that I'd been anticipating for some time.

See, I promised myself this summer that I'd finally send off parts of my dissertation to see if I could get them published. I didn't quite make it this summer; instead, the first weekend of the semester, I spent an evening cutting down one of my chapters, changing the introduction, and blithely sending it off. I suppose I should have seen the writing on the wall then: arrogance (in my experience) almost always begs for a set-down.

Anyway, I opened the email. Instead of the expected congratulatory line, I found a flat-out rejection. There were reasons given (in retrospect, pretty good reasons), but all I really read was: "you're not good enough for this kind of research. What made you think you could be a scholar?"

I was pretty upset about it. (Okay, I admit it: I cried. I'd like to think that had as much to do with it being late at the end of a long week with not enough sleep--on top of piles of paper, my two-year-old spent a restless night on Thursday with the croup--but it could have been largely hurt vanity).

When I tried to talk it out with my husband later, I came to the realization that part of the reason it hurt is that I still have so much of my identity--and self-value--tied up in the idea of my being a scholar. You know, that little bit of pride that lets me say, I'm not just a mom and a house-wife--I do research too! In high school, as an anxious and not very self-confident teenager, I found a lot of self-respect in being known as the smart one. I thought--wrongly, it appears--that I'd largely outgrown the need for outside validation.

My husband said, "You know, they say that the people who depend on things for their importance probably weren't very important to begin with." I know he meant to cheer me up, but this bit of wisdom actually depressed me more than it helped. Not because it meant that I wasn't important (I'm trying to come to grips with my mediocrity), but because it signaled so clearly how far I haven't come.

In our religious doctrine, we promote the idea that all individuals have inherent worth as children of God. While I know this--and teach my children and my teenage Sunday school students this--apparently I haven't internalized it. While I know my sense of self worth shouldn't depend on anyone's opinion but God's, apparently I don't really believe that. Apparently, there's a part of my teenage self that still exists inside of me, desperate for affirmation that yes, I am smart; that yes, I'm worthwhile because I'm smart. Or scholarly. (Or whatever the coveted virtue of the day is. Mostly it's being smart, because, see, I was raised in a family that privileged intelligence.)

A little bit of reflection put the rejection letter in perspective: the criticisms were valid--I'd cut down my chapter without thinking about the effects of taking a particular case study out of the context of the dissertation as a whole. And I can't be completely worthless at this scholarship thing: I did just get another paper accepted (granted, in a conference proceedings, so not nearly as competitive), and I even won an award for my dissertation. And just like that, I'm off, basing my validity as a person on external markers.

My question is, how can you take knowledge of a principle (like the idea that we are children of God) and turn that knowledge into actual heart-felt belief? Also, is it possible to ever entirely outgrown the need for outside affirmation? If any of my 3 readers has outgrown this need (or knows someone who has), do you want to tell me your secret?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

No Title

Well, this is starting to get embarrassing--the only times I've posted here in the last couple of months have been to advertise my posts over at Segullah. This is no different. If you want to read what I'm thinking, you'll have to go here.

Maybe someday I'll start posting more. (Like, maybe a month from now when the semester ends). In the meantime, this is what you get!

Saturday, October 16, 2010


I can see I've been neglecting this blog. (My excuse: insanely busy semester.) But I have been writing. Just not here. Today, though, you can find me over here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

anger management

I've shared part of this story elsewhere, but yesterday I had a sort of dramatic confrontation with one of the less pleasant portions of myself: the quick-tempered mom who sometimes (more than she likes) yells at her kids.

Here's what happened: Yesterday morning we spent the morning doing yard work (my husband) and cleaning the storage room (mostly me--although everyone else helped put stuff back once I was done cleaning). It hadn't ever really been arranged--we just put our food storage in around whatever boxes were left down there from moving in. All that's changed now: everything is neatly arranged by type.

The process wasn't entirely painless, however. My four-year-old offered to help me move things off the shelf, and, without thinking to give him any instructions, I agreed. Not two minutes later, he came out to where I was arranging things on the floor outside the storage room, holding a big glass jar of grape jelly. "Uh oh," he said, "Mommy, I just dropped a jar of jam." (I had had two big glass jars.)

While I may sound calm recounting this, I'm afraid I wasn't very happy at the time. I ordered the kids out of the storage room, and set about cleaning up the mess. Glass and jelly make a pretty awful combination--one I hope I don't have to repeat anytime soon!

The other calamity of the morning was mostly Evelyn's doing. I was trying to rearrange a couple of shelves and the kids were just outside the storage room, where almost everything that had been on the shelves was reposing. I heard Andrew say that Evelyn wanted a popsicle--I responded (somewhat absently) that she couldn't have one now; maybe when we were done. I assumed the subject was dropped, but I continued to hear vague murmurings of popsicles, and I suddenly remembered that an open box of otter pops (not yet frozen) was one of the things on the floor by the kids. I dashed out just in time to see Evelyn spraying green juice all over her skirt (and the carpet) as she tried to open her "popsicle" for herself. (Andrew also had a partially opened otter pop, but his hadn't spilled as much). And yes, for the second time in two hours, I found myself yelling at my children.

I don't want to be this mom. I had thought, when I reached maturity and stopped fighting with my sister, that I had finally managed to overcome my temper. Having children has taught me otherwise.

However, I don't think I'm alone. I remember reading a NYT article last fall, which suggests that this new generation of parents (the ones who are hyper conscious about their children's involvement in a variety of activities, who would *never* think to spank their kids, who carefully monitor their children's health) are, ironically, a generation that yells.

I read some of the comments--some noted that the article resonated with them. A few (the ones that stuck in my head) suggested that only people with a limited vocabulary would yell at their children. As a woman with a PhD in English and a reasonably large vocabulary, I'm more inclined to agree with the other commenters who felt that this particular individual probably didn't have children.

Still, knowing that I'm not alone doesn't exactly make me feel better about the fact that I do, sometimes, yell at my children. And I feel like those moments undo all the hard work I put into the other 90-95% of my parenting, when I try to be calm, reasoned, and rational (not all things that come easily to me, appearances to the contrary). Certainly, I'd rather yell than lash out physically, but there has to be a better option. Help?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Failure of Imagination

My son, this morning, protested getting ready for church (as he often does). He finally burst out, "I hate church! I don't want to go!" After running several responses quickly through my head, I settled on, "I'm sorry to hear that. But why do you think we go to church? Who wants us to be there?"

Grudgingly, he muttered, "Heavenly Father" (which is what we've told him in the past). Trying to be encouraging, I said, "That's right. Heavenly Father wants us to go to church."

To which my son (he's four) responded, "But he's not even there! He doesn't even live here."

For a child who's generally so imaginative, I had a hard time getting him to understand how an omniscient God can still be aware of what we do, even if he's not physically present.

And I realized, too, that I'm also guilty of imaginative failures when it comes to spiritual things. For one thing, I've been thinking lately of the concept of Heaven--not the misty place in the sky where we all rest on clouds and play harps (I certainly hope Heaven isn't really like that!), but a place where we interact with others we love in ways that are similar to the social circles we enjoy here. But I find myself drawing a blank when I try to think of how arts (particularly literary arts) translate into that sphere. I certainly believe we will take the best of us with us--that includes our artistic gifts--but what would a novel, or a poem, or a play look like without the central conflicts and tensions that define life in an imperfect world? At the same time, it seems fundamentally contradictory to suppose that anything in heaven could be *less* than something here. I can only suppose that my imagination isn't up to the task.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Post script to my last post

A good friend of mine posted recently at Segullah about an experience she had at an interview at BYU, where the interviewer asked her how she balanced feminism with being a Mormon woman. She responded that, while she enjoyed reading feminist theory, her first identity was as a Mormon woman, and she tried to see everything--including feminism, through that lens.

Her comment was a useful reminder, for me, that when I experience those moments of dissonance, it's important that I remind myself which of many identities carved out for me is the identity that I choose--and then to see myself through that identity. To borrow the example my friend used, it's more important that I use the lens of my faith to view outsiders, than to use outsiders' views to view my faith.

Friday, August 13, 2010


I should note that I'm somewhat uneasy about borrowing my title from W. E. B. DuBois--certainly my own experience with a sense of dual vision was nowhere near as difficult as the racial issues he tackled in his work. Having said that, I find his concept-- “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” ("Of Our Spiritual Strivings," p. 2)--a useful way of describing how I've felt on occasion.

I think that, on some level, many of us feel this conflict--whether it's as a country dweller temporarily seeing himself or herself through the condescending eyes of some urbanite (or vice versa), those of us who are a little more self-aware can't help but experience that unsettling moment of double vision, when we see ourselves both through the self-affirming vision of our own world-view and through the devaluing lens of someone else.

I've struggled with this dual vision on multiple occasions--as a religiously faithful woman in academia, recognizing the skepticism that most of my peers held for my religious views (and once even sitting silent in a seminar where one of my colleagues, a former member of my faith, held out for a good fifteen or twenty-minutes on the doctrinal and cultural failings of my church); but also as an academic in an audience of devout religious folks, fighting my own skepticism.

I am a woman, and I happen to be Mormon, two overlapping identities that make this sense of double-consciousness particularly acute for me. As a Mormon woman, I've never felt particularly oppressed by my faith (in fact, I'm more often liberated by the religious sensitivity it has wrought in me), but I can't help being aware that most people, looking at the male-dominated hierarchy of our church, believe that it denies "equality" to women. (However, I also can't help feeling that it takes a certain kind of annoying sense of cultural superiority to tell people that their own culture "oppresses" them, when they are far from feeling that kind of oppression.) And while I admit I do wonder why God designated the priesthood for men, I have enough faith in my faith to let it rest at that for now (after all, God doesn't often explain his reasoning until after the fact--witness Abraham and Isaac, for one). Nor do I feel any less loved, or any less capable because of the organizational structure of my faith. Nothing in this organizational structure changes my essential relationship with God.

Having said all this, I have to admit it's still hard when I'm confronted with the reality that many people would think me delusional, weak, ignorant--any variation of a cooperative victim--for believing as I do. There was an interesting article in the SLTribune recently on the resurgence of Mormon feminism. I enjoyed the article (I know some of the women interviewed) and then I made the mistake of reading some of the comments. These comments don't change my faith, but they do serve as a (useful?) reminder that not everyone in my community agrees with me. And while disagreements have a fundamental part in the classical invitation to rhetoric (our differences create the problems that rhetoric seeks to resolve), that doesn't make them comfortable. Nor do I necessarily enjoy that moment of double-vision--although I do appreciate the clarity it forces on me afterward as I evaluate (inevitably) which of these visions is truer to my sense of self.

As another example, on occasion I've found myself struggling with my sense that I need to be home with my children and a personal desire (admittedly selfish and probably vain) for academic glories and more public recognition. Within my faith, women are encouraged to provide for the primary nurture of their children--often this means staying home, particularly while children are young (to be fair, both mothers and fathers are encouraged to make children their priority). But it also means that sometimes--and in my view, unfortunately--women are judged (sometimes severely) for *not* staying home with their children, unless the situation is clearly one of dire necessity--and even then some less generous souls seem to think that the direness of the situation may be a result of too little faith. (Let me make it clear that I do not think such uncharitable attitudes have anything to do with the spirit of true religion--but they have everything to do with our human failures). Sometimes, then, in trying to find my own balancing act between caring for my children and making some time for my own interests, I find myself caught in a kind of triple vision: my own vision (which tells me I'm doing the best I can with the resources I have), the vision of less charitable members of my faith who think I shouldn't be working outside the home at all, and the vision of those outside (and, admittedly, sometimes even in my faith) who believe that a woman's career should take precedence to other interests (and again, I admit that this spectrum is more polarizing than the reality probably is).

I think such dissonance can sometimes be a good thing--it keeps me from becoming too complacent, it reminds me that others have that "equivalent centre of self," and it forces me to continually articulate for myself what it is I believe in and why. That doesn't always mean that I like it (or accept it gracefully). But this kind of cognitive dissonance also gives me a great deal of hope in one of my interpretations of Paul: "now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12)--that is, if now my image of myself is fractured, one day I will see myself clearly, as God sees me. In the meantime, I strive mostly for imperfect glimpses of that self.

What about you? What kind of cultural dissonances bring that sense of double-consciousness for you? How do you resolve (or live with, or otherwise harmonize with) that sense of dissonance?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Paradoxes of faith

An acquaintance recently posed an interesting question about the paradoxes we encounter in our faith. I'm sure that paradoxes are a common part of most faiths--but they seem to be an intrinsic part of Mormon faith, in particular. (Terryl Givens, a professor of English at the University of Richmond and a faithful member of the LDS church, has even written a book on this, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture.)

One paradox: Balancing faith with submission. For instance, we're encouraged to have faith to move a mountain (or to exercise faith sufficient for healing), but we're also told that we should submit to God's will. How can we at once exercise faith in healing, for example, while submitting to God's will that an individual not be healed? (Personally, I think we negotiate this particular paradox by trying to listen carefully to the Spirit--we need to have faith, yes, but we need to also try to be sensitive as to how we should exercise that faith. Not, of course, that this makes it easy).

Another paradox--and one that I've been thinking of quite a bit recently, is the tension between standing up for your own values and still allowing others agency. One of our articles of faith maintains that we believe in the right of worshipping God according to the dictates of our own consciences--and that we allow others that same privilege. And as members of our faith, we are encouraged to stand up for the values (particularly moral ones) that we believe in--but how do we both uphold a particular value (for instance, the sanctity of life, or moral purity outside of marriage) and still allow others to act according to their own belief systems, which might include behaviors that violate our beliefs? How can we be both accepting of others and still maintain firm moral standards? This is one that I'm still working out for myself.

What about you--what are some paradoxes you find yourself confronted with in your own (or others') practices of faith?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I write like . . .

A few of my friends posted results from this fun little website on their facebook accounts, so, of course, I had to try it. It's easy (and strangely addictive): you enter in a block of text, push a button, and the site tells you what famous author you write like.

I'm not sure what my results say about me. My first entry (my most recent blog here, excepting the link to Segullah) got me the result: Stephenie Meyer. Since I found that result extremely unsettling, I tried entering in the text from "Scapegoat or Savior," from a few weeks back. This one, more reassuringly, came back: Ursula Le Guin. Of course, the second result may be suspect, since I talk about Le Guin frequently in that particular post. And when I entered in a section from my dissertation, I got H. P. Lovecraft. All of these writers have such diverse styles that I'm forced to come to the conclusion that a) like any hasty generalization (which is all this site can do, given its limited sample), the results are probably not strictly accurate and b) maybe I don't actually write like anyone but myself. I'd like to think that!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Guest post

I have a guest post over at blog Segullah, so I thought I'd link it here (might as well get credit both places, right?).

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Rhetorical listening

I've been thinking a little bit lately about the idea of listening, and I've come to the conclusion that I'm not very good at it. (Truth be told, I can think of only a handful of people who truly are good at listening). Most of us listen, I think, because we value the person who's speaking to us, or because we are waiting for our turn to speak (and since we require an audience for our thoughts, we play audience to others). I wonder how often we really listen--that is, listen without thinking at all about what we might say in response to what is being said, but just listen.

Two weeks ago I went to the Segullah writer's retreat, and in the opening session, storyteller Steffani Raff ran us through some exercises to help us tap our own storytelling potential. Among other things, she had us practice listening. For five minutes, we had to just listen to our partner. Although we could nod and murmur encouraging responses, we couldn't say anything. This was surprisingly hard--it helped me realize just how much we are programmed to respond. It was also amazing to see what kinds of things speakers could come up with when they were listened to openly, without any kind of judgment, and without interruption. This exercise made me realize, among other things, that I could do a much better job of listening to those people closest to me--my husband, and especially my kids. (How often do we listen to our kids with half an ear, while our hands and part of our attention are elsewhere?)

Rhetorical scholar Krista Ratcliffe calls this kind of focused listening "rhetorical listening," which she defines as "a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture." (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that while I've read one of her articles about rhetorical listening, I haven't yet read her book-length study). I really like this idea, that listening can be rhetorical, that listening can be just as purposeful and audience-driven as our speaking and writing.

I think this kind of openness to others encourages better observation as well--focusing on listening better helps us really see others, not just the part of others that impinges most strongly on ourselves. As the quote that inspired this blog suggests, we all of us are born into a kind of extreme self-centeredness; I think one of the real signs of moral development is to begin to see outside of that self-centered fog, and listening well can help us get there.

Obviously, I'm not quite there yet. I still don't always listen as well as I should in the cases that matter the most (prayer would be an obvious example--I can pray well, eloquently even, but without real listening on my part those words don't do me much good).

What then, are some ways that we can listen better? How do we go about increasing our capacity for observation? More importantly, our capacity for generous observation? (I think it's easy to observe critically--but to observe and to listen with a kind of openness that reserves judgment is much harder). If anyone has this figured out, I wish they'd let me know!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

What, to me, is the fourth of July?

This post may raise some potentially controversial (even sensitive) points, but please hear me out before rushing to judge (or comment).

A friend of mine posted this on facebook this morning: "Patriotism, like racism, is firmly rooted in the creation of an Other based almost solely on the demographic vagaries of birth. And like racism, patriotism requires a sense of greater moral duty to one group of people than another."

I've been mulling over his point every since. While this particular friend has been known to post things solely for the purpose of getting a rise out of people, I think in this instance he's sincere about this (since this post has been followed by others with a similar theme).

And I have to admit, I am myself a little ambivalent about the Fourth of July. Do I enjoy the fireworks, bar-be-ques, gatherings with friends? Of course I do. Am I grateful to live in America? Yes. But some of the patriotic rhetoric makes me squirm, and I'm not entirely sure whether or not I'd call myself a patriot.

Although I wouldn't go so far as to equate patriotism with racism (what my friend calls "patriotism" I would actually term "jingoism," a more extreme and unpleasant version of patriotism), I can't help reflecting on the arbitrary nature of nationality. Most of us are born into a particular nationality--it's not something we choose. (For those who do choose their nationality, of course, patriotism becomes a whole different issue). Why, then, do we take such inherent pride in something that we had no control over? Worse than the pride, though, is the tendency of some to take the idea that national pride means national superiority, and this, to me, seems ridiculous, even dangerous. Why should we be better than anyone else because we were fortunate to live in a relatively wealthy, relatively democratic state? What we should be, I think, is grateful. But too often, people use patriotism as a pretext and justification for prejudice. Americans are by no means the only people guilty of this, but the relatively wide-spread nature of this tendency is no excuse for doing it.

(As a side note, I sometimes see this tendency among members of my church as well, to assume that because we have access to "truth," we are somehow better than those who do not. This is patently false; any access we might have to truth merely requires us to live according to standards that are that much higher--it doesn't give us any moral bragging rights unless we actually live up to those standards, in which case, we wouldn't *want* to have those bragging rights.)

I also struggle sometimes with the kinds of language we use to celebrate America. While I do think that the founders were divinely led, that doesn't blind me to the fact that not all of the founding fathers were perfect (they were human, after all!)--they created a government that denied democratic participation to a majority of men (initially, only land-holding white men could vote--this excluded blacks, Native Americans, even lower-class whites) and all women. Our history, too, is hardly without blemish. When we use rhetoric that glosses over (or worse, completely ignores) the truth of our flawed past, it makes me uncomfortable. (For a profound antidote to the kind of rhetoric that gets tossed about on the fourth of July, read Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"--a fourth of July oration he was asked to give, in which he meditates on the cognitive dissonance that the celebration of "Independence" creates in a former slave. In it, he also suggests that American governmental officials were in many ways perpetuating the same type of injustices in condoning slavery that provoked the colonies to rebellion in the first place)

However, I have to acknowledge that there's more to the fourth of July than self-congratulatory rhetoric. I also have to admit that some of the rhetorical stances come from the nature of the rhetorical situation: fourth of July speeches (like toasts at weddings, obituaries, and other celebratory rhetorics), these speeches are a kind of epideictic rhetoric. And it's not really in the nature of any epideictic genre to dwell on the negatives (even State of the Union addresses, if they admit to difficulties, tend to gloss over them to focus on the positive and affirm progress), so it's perhaps not really fair of me to expect more of fourth of July speeches.

I'm also reminded of John Bodnar's Remaking America (which I read for a graduate course on public memory), where he argues that how Americans "remember" America (and by America, I mean of course the United States--language which in and of itself reveals something about my own prejudices) is a highly fraught, contested thing. Essentially, he sees this conflict over memory taking place between "official" memories (government and other vested interests) and "vernacular" memories (more local, not always in harmony with official accounts). For Bodnar, this contest is particularly clear in fourth of July celebrations, where local communities (and individuals) don't always celebrate national narratives in expected ways. So perhaps, in celebrating at all, we open up occasions for discussions that can lead to revisions of national narratives. Perhaps. (I admit I'm a skeptic, but I have done enough research on counter-memories to know that counter memories can often be surprisingly resilient and show up in unexpected ways in unexpected places).

I also find myself wondering if it's possible to separate the idea of love for one's country from the kind of destructive pride that extremes of patriotism can lead to. Because I have to admit that, when I think about many of the communities and landscapes I've known in America, I love them--and a part of me *is* proud to know that I can claim association with them. And certainly, there is much to admire here: freedom of worship, freedom of expression, countless stories of heroism and selflessness among members of the armed forces. (Please don't make the mistake of thinking that because I don't think America is perfect that I count those sacrifices lightly.)

In the end, I think I'm most comfortable with an analogy that likens one's country to one's family--you may not get to choose who they are (just as you may not get to choose your nationality), but you can learn to love them, flaws and all. After all, recognizing the flaws in one's family usually doesn't inhibit our ability to love them--why can't we do the same with our country? We also usually take a few days each year to celebrate our family members (birthdays, Mother's Day, Father's Day)--and the fact that we choose to focus on their positives on these particular occasions doesn't mean we perceive our loved ones blindly. I can accept the idea of the fourth of July as a kind of Mother's Day for our country, a day when we reflect with gratitude on the good things we have available to us.

However, like all analogies, this one is not quite perfect. Where it's generally not considered a good idea to meddle with the perceived faults in our loved ones, we have a civic duty (both a religious and secular one) to work towards improving the faults in our country. My fear is that once we begin to say with too much confidence that America is the best place on earth, we've already begun to lose moral ground (just as when one begins to boast of personal righteousness, one is most vulnerable). Rather, I think we can take this one day to celebrate the strengths of America, but then we should move on to tackle the weaknesses in our homes, our communities and our nation, not letting our affection for our country blind ourselves to the fact that it is not yet what it could be.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Unfounded Fears

In this case, I'm happy to support that my husband was right--the Segullah Writer's conference was much less daunting than I'd anticipated. I had a few moments in the morning where I looked around the room at all these attractive, well-dressed women and wondered if I'd really come to the right place. (Aren't writers supposed to be, well, above sordid worldly concerns?)

The truth, I suppose, is that, like most things in life, the conference was not what I expected--in some ways (like the social inadequacy), much better; in other ways, not quite what I'd hoped. I think it's all my sister's fault--see, she's been going to these week-long YA writing conferences at BYU the last couple of years, and every year she comes away raving about how much she learned and (more to the point) the great friends she's made. (I'm not sure why I thought I'd have the same bonding experience in 10 hours that she had over the course of five days, when I was surrounded by 50 or 60 women, and she was in a group of 15 or so--you see what I mean about unrealistic expectations). I guess I had this rosy vision that I would come away with a handful of new friends that would fill in the social gap I've felt since leaving graduate school.

It wasn't quite like that.

But, I did meet some pretty cool people (and made at least one new friend!) and I learned some great tips on how to be not only a better writer but a better teacher (I came away with some great ideas for teaching this fall--for praising my students more and for better strategies to teach personal narratives. For one thing, I finally get the distinction between memoir and personal essay!)

My favorite tips on writing personal essays: build your essay around scenes, not summaries, and you'll be less tempted to pontificate. Also, start with a story and let the meaning emerge. (This was particularly helpful for me, since I tend to approach personal essays as I do academic essays, which is, you start with a point or a question you're exploring--in other words, you start with meaning and then amass the evidence.) And I got some great advice from one of the editors on what they look for in a personal essay, so when and if I get the time to flesh out the essay that's been percolating in my brain for the last month, I might actually have a shot at getting it published!

On the downside, I was also reminded that I can sometimes be less charitable than I'd like! I get annoyed with people sometimes. (Okay, frequently). And sometimes it's easier to get annoyed with strangers, because you know fewer facts to their benefit. By now you're probably wondering what I'm talking about, so I'll cut to the chase. I'm talking about audience members--I think there should be an etiquette of audiences that should be strictly enforced at conferences.

Among my biggest pet-peeves? Derailing the speaker's point with your own personal story or agenda. (I see that frequently in questions at academic conferences, where the question is basically: how does your research relate to my project? I.e., let me use your presentation as a platform for me to showcase my own work). But I hadn't expected to see it so much here. Don't get me wrong, there's a place for stories, but when the presenter is obviously pressed for time, don't make such a long comment!

Another, but lesser, pet-peeve: people who talk too much. I think comments can add a lot to any discussion, but when any one commenter begins to dominate the discussion, it's too much. (I think this is why I have such a fierce internal editor that tells me to shut up after I've made more than one or two comments in a discussion. Although why it then follows that others should have the same internal editor, I have no idea.)

At any rate, these were minor flies in the ointment--and if they were flaws, they were really my own. I really need to learn how to be more generous with others. (Of course, even as I write this, I can't help but wonder if it is so wrong to think some commenting behaviors are a form of rudeness?)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Social uncertainties

Tomorrow, I am going to the Segullah Writer's Retreat. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Segullah, it's an organization for literary LDS women with two basic forums: an online blog and a print journal. I only discovered it a few months ago, but I have loved the community I found there: smart, articulate women who share similar interests. When I found out about the retreat, I was thrilled--here was a chance to meet in real time with a community the likes of which I haven't found since graduate school.

Since then, however, nerves have set in. Oh, don't get me wrong: I'm still excited and I'm still going, but I've also been fighting a plaguing sense of social inferiority that I haven't dealt with in a long time (since we left Pennsylvania three years ago, most of my social time has been spent with family, and in our new area I've had the luxury of meeting my neighbors mostly one on one, a social event I can handle). But this? I feel a little bit like the kid in elementary school waiting to get picked for dodgeball teams--I have a sneaking suspicion I may get picked last (I usually was), but I can't help hoping for better. Or, for another painful analogy, like the teenage girl at a dance, hanging by the wall with her friends, waiting to get asked to dance. (Or, like me, finding an excuse to leave the room when slow songs started--for some reason I was always thirsty!--so that I wouldn't have to face those painful moments of anticipation for an event that, in all likelihood, wouldn't happen).

I'm not quite sure how it happens that I can be 33 years old, married, a mother of two delightful children, with a handful of degrees (three, if you're curious: BA, MA, PhD), and still be fighting demons of insecurity. Wasn't I supposed to outgrow this with those skin blemishes from adolescence? (Oh, right, I haven't quite outgrown those either). It's true that I'm much more comfortable in my skin than I was as a teenager, which gives me some hope for the future, but I wonder if I will ever reach a point where I don't care at all what other people think of me. (What if I'm too nerdy? What if my clothes are wrong? What if I'm not really as smart as I sometimes like to think I am). And what is the trick to not caring?

At any rate, I'll find out tomorrow if my fears are well-grounded, or if, as my husband says, I'm just creating monsters where none really exist.

Monday, June 14, 2010

To love oneself is the start of a truly great romance

Or so said Oscar Wilde.

Still, I think that loving oneself is an art form--one that, unfortunately, often eludes me (and many of the women I know. While I'm sure men are also guilty of self-loathing, they don't seem to do so on nearly the same scale that women do. I wonder why that is?)

I just read an interesting bit of chick lit (The Frog Prince, by Jane Porter)--not necessarily the most stellar work of fiction, but it was fairly well written and the premise was interesting. The heroine, after a series of personal and professional disasters, finally comes to realize that the key for her happiness was not going to be found in someone else, because no one else (not family, not lovers) was going to be able to love her in quite the way that she wanted or needed. Her best shot at happiness, she decided, was in really learning how to love herself.

But while I like, and even applaud, this moral (it's much better than the typical happily-ever-after of the genre; and don't get me wrong, I like me some happily-ever-after, but the realism here appealed to me) still doesn't quite get it. I think we do need to love ourselves--I think we need to know that we are inherently lovable. To borrow a somewhat cliche'd and cheesy idea from a poster I saw years ago, "I know I'm somebody, because God don't make no junk." But the core of that is true: if we believe that we are children of God, doesn't that also mean that all of us are inherently lovable? God loves us, so there must be something in each of us worth loving.

Along the same lines, I read a talk by Elder Holland on the prodigal son--specifically, about the other son, the one who has spent his life in his father's service but feels jealous, threatened even, by the return of his brother. In this talk, Elder Holland makes some good points about the insidiousness of envy. But the most compelling point he makes (for me) is the idea that we are not diminished by someone else's gifts--because someone else is beautiful, intelligent, talented, does not make me any less of a person. Nor does praise showered on anyone make us less praise-worthy. (Although it's hard, seeing life through a worldly lens as it's so often easy to do, to remember this.) At any rate, I found the article a useful personal reminder that I am loved, warts and all.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Scapegoat or Savior?

In her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," Ursula Le Guin describes a seemingly utopian society, Omelas, where there is no disease, no poverty, no unhappiness--except for that of one small child (a child who is mentally deficient and who may not be completely aware of its circumstances), a scapegoat whose unhappiness makes the happiness of everyone else possible. And because there are a few members of this society who will not accept their own well-being at so high a cost, there are those who walk away from Omelas.

Of course, Le Guin tells the story much more beautifully than this summary can suggest, and the story is harrowing. But I've also had niggling moments where the story is disturbing on a deeper level even than the moral questions it raises for readers (to what extent are we willing to accept our happiness at the expense of others?). You see, sometimes I find the line between a scapegoat and a savior to be a blurry line--sometimes (and it almost seems blasphemous to write this), I've even wondered if I am somehow morally compromised when I accept the idea that Jesus Christ bought my spiritual salvation at such excruciating expense. Is it right for me to be so complacent about that idea? How can I justify the idea of someone else suffering for me? Is it possible that in my own spiritual life I'm reenacting my own Omelas?

I have to admit that this isn't something I spend a lot of time thinking about--for one thing, I find the idea of a Savior moving on so many levels that it's hard for me to even entertain negative questions. For another, I am, at heart, somewhat conventional and blasphemy makes me squirm. (And these kinds of questions seem borderline blasphemy to me). But now that I've raised the spectre of the question, I think I have to entertain it.

Ultimately, though (and much to my relief), I don't think that the seeming parallels between the scapegoat of Omelas and the savior of the world hold up. You see, there's a crucial difference between those two stories, a difference that was driven home to me today as I prepared to teach a lesson on the sacrament. Jesus Christ knowingly chose his role as a savior; the child in Omelas had no choice. And that ability to choose is, I think, crucial. In the garden of Gethsemane, Christ prayed to have the "cup pass from [him]," but he accepted the will of God if this was not possible. He accepted the possibility of pain because, to Him, the cost was minimal compared to the outcome. The child in Omelas, uncomprehending, had no such option available.

But. The fact that the Savior was complicit in his sacrifice doesn't change the fact that I do still have some moral responsibility in the situation. He may have chosen his sacrifice willingly, but I still benefit from his pain, which makes me somehow complicit in his suffering. But I can't walk away from this kind of spiritual Omelas because I need it too much. So what do I do? Agonizing over it (harboring some kind of spiritual guilt akin to the "white liberal guilt" that so many liberals feel over the ills of their colonial past) doesn't seem to accomplish much. I suppose first I have to recognize my complicity--but I also have to accept my responsibility. If I do indeed believe that Christ died for my sins (and I do), then I also have to accept that I need to do my level best to ensure that the sacrifice was not in vain.

Some days, that seems like a big responsibility. Walking away might be easier. But I choose, instead, to yield.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Love is Not Blind

I recently stumbled across a link to a talk Bruce C. Hafen gave when he was president of (then) Ricks College. In it, he talks about developing a kind of spiritual maturity that is neither blindly optimistic or unduly pessimistic, but that deals courageously with ambiguity and still holds on to faith. I thought it was beautiful, and wanted to share it here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Do I contradict myself?

I am, by turns,

a scholar
a mother
an artist

and also

lacking creative impulse

Does this seem contradictory? It's nonetheless true. I suppose that one of the illuminating (and terrifying) things about writing (about any form of creating, really) is that it can expose for you the limits of whatever self-hood you think you possess.

In graduate school, I read a fair number of theoretical texts on identity. Most scholars now eschew the term, preferring instead "subject position," arguing that identity (as a sense of a self that is whole) is a fiction. In reality, they say, individuals have multiple identities, multiples selves that are called into being. While I have a hard time accepting their final tenet--that the "I" that speaks is just a discursive construct (I may contradict myself on occasion, but I still have some sense that there is more to me than just a socially configured set of ideas and mechanisms), I do think that there are different facets of my "self" that are called into greater prominence by different contexts.

And so yes, I can be both wise and unwise, depending on the day, the place, the situation, the people I am with (even whether or not I've eaten recently, or slept well the night before).

I was thinking about this, the other night: our strange ability as humans to live with and embrace contradictions. My husband and I read Philippians 4 the other night, and I was moved by Paul's declaration: "I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need" (v. 12).

Psychoanalysts (Lacan, I'm looking at you here!) maintain that the self is always fragmented, always imperfect, and that we spend much of our lives in pursuit of an illusory sense of wholeness. And while I'm not sure about much of Lacan's theories, I am pretty sure that we are imperfect (our inner contradictions, much less our moral weaknesses, point to this).

But Paul suggests that we need not be paralyzed by contradictions; that wholeness need not be always illusory. If we can be both abased and abound, if we can be both full and hungry, if we can be all things in one (alpha and omega), then I think we do this only on the terms Paul set: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."

I have to admit, I find much of the Pauline letters obscure or confusing. But this, for me, was both clear and illuminating.

Friday, May 21, 2010

You shall be ordinary

When I was younger, I loved M. M. Kaye's lovely children's story, The Ordinary Princess. In it, one of the fairy-godmothers arrives late (and cranky) to the christening of the seventh daughter of the king (Amethyst, who later goes by Amy). The fairy looks over the impressive list of virtues that the child has already been endowed with, snorts, and says, "I'm going to give you something that will make you happier than all these fal-lals and fripperies put together. You shall be ordinary."(Or she says something like that--I don't have my copy at hand to check). And so Amy becomes ordinary--her lovely golden curls turn straight and mousy, her nose turns up, and her cheeks are dusted with freckles. But because she is ordinary, she learns how to have an adventurous life that ends up unexpectedly rewarding.

I laughed at the story, enjoyed the romance, and secretly felt rather smug. You see, I wasn't ordinary. Or so I thought. In high school, even in college (and on rare occasions, in graduate school) I had been told that I was smart. Articulate. (I once had a complete stranger stop me and marvel at how clearly I enunciated. It was a strange experience). And a good writer. Somehow, this combination of abilities made me feel as if I was an unusual quantity.

Sure, I knew I wasn't unique. There were lots of people who were smarter, more articulate, better writers. But I still thought I was special.

But recently I've made a disconcerting discovery. Because I'm still new enough to my community to not know lots of people, I've been spending a little more time in online communities (mostly places like Segullah and the Mormon Women Project). And maybe because these efforts tend to concentrate smart, articulate women who are also good writers, my perceptions may be a little skewed. But I've discovered that there are actually lots of Mormon women who share my favorite triumvirate of characteristics. And I mean LOTS. I always knew they were out there--I've met my share of them at school and in various wards. But I didn't realize there were so many of them. And while I realize that this is a good thing for the church, it's also kind of a sad thing for me.

It means that really I'm pretty ordinary; there's nothing particularly unusual about me or my abilities.

Even this blog, which I started as a place to solidify thinking that would otherwise stay sort of amorphous, isn't particularly deep, particularly profound, or particularly well-written. I won't be winning any literary awards with it.



All of this is humbling for me (always a good thing), but I'm still going to keep writing. I'm still going to think. And I'm still going to be articulate as I can be. I write because I enjoy it, because it makes me feel as though I and my life matter a little bit more. And I think because I can't help it. Even if I am more ordinary than not, I still have things to say, things to contribute, even if the scope is smaller than I may have once wished. (After all, my gifts are still gifts--if I was given two talents instead of five, that's still no excuse for squandering them.)

Besides, there are worse fates than being ordinary.


As a post-script to yesterday's post, today I was reading a wonderful article on the church website ( by Terry Warner and his wife on helping young children recognize the spirit. Among other things, they include this telling quote by President Joseph F. Smith:

“You can’t force your boys, nor your girls into heaven. You may force them to hell by using harsh means in the efforts to make them good, when you yourselves are not as good as you should be. … You can only correct your children by love, in kindness, by love unfeigned, and reason” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971, p. 317). This may require listening to children’s complaints or frustrations patiently while we fight the urge to force them to behave correctly. It may mean confessing our shortcomings to them and asking their forgiveness. It may cause us to weep with them over whatever has gone wrong. It may require that we leave what we are doing, however important we may think it is, and attend to our children’s needs.

Last fall I had a student in my class whose story broke my heart: he had grown up in an LDS home and then left the church, in large part (or so it seemed from his written descriptions) because his parents had tried to *force* him to church. Teaching my children to want to choose good through example and love seems infinitely harder than doing so by force, but the end results seem much more promising.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Agents unto ourselves

Agency is a funny thing. It was so important that God let Lucifer, the Son of the Morning, fall rather than coerce obedience. In theory, I can accept this idea quite easily--I like the idea that God will defend to the point of damnation my right to choose my own way.

But it's not always so easy in practice.

For one thing, there's always the question of how much of our own actions we control, how much of our actions or choices are the result of social conditioning. Some of the extremists that I read in graduate school would suggest that very little of what we do is really the result of our own free will. While I don't accept this--I think people are more complex than that--I do have to acknowledge that some degree of social conditioning influences me, particularly when my actions are more reflexive than thoughtful.

But more than that, I think my issue with agency is not really with the question of how much agency I have, but with the fact that accepting my own agency means accepting that other people have agency too.

That's the part I don't like as much.

My mission was really the first point in my life where I was confronted with other people's agency. Up to that point, I'd been able to accomplish pretty much anything I wanted in my life if I just worked hard enough. (School was nice that way.) But conversion doesn't work like that (and in my more honest moments, I have to admit that I wouldn't want it to work like that). People have to choose to be converted of their own free will--no amount of willing, working, or praying on my part made any difference. All I could influence was my own end of things: my efforts could help invite the Spirit, but that was about it. Everything else depended on the other person.

I learned that sometimes agency could be heart-breaking. I remember meeting with a sixteen-year-old girl. She was beautiful, in the way that so many young Hungarian women were, with clear skin, dark eyes, dark hair and just the slightest hint of mystery. She listened to our lessons (in English, because she wanted to practice), she clearly felt the Spirit, and she was eager to learn more. But she wept when we got to the law of chastity and confessed that she had slept with her boyfriend because she didn't believe he would love her if she didn't. And despite our protestations that she deserved more than that, despite her own intense feelings of Catholic guilt, she couldn't find the strength to change. She was too afraid of not being loved. Eventually, she stopped meeting with us.

Sometimes agency is difficult. Sometimes we'd rather not choose. I still remember reading Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" from The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. In it, Christ returns unexpectedly during the Spanish Inquisition and the Grand Inquisitor accuses him of ruining everything. He tells Christ that the people don't want agency--they just want to be fed. If I remember right, he says something along the lines of: "If you'd loved them more, you would have given them less."

The Grand Inquisitor had it precisely wrong. It was precisely because Christ (and God) loved us that they gave us agency. They trusted us enough to let us get it wrong some of the time in the belief that ultimately we'd be better people for it. I believe this.

But somehow I don't seem to get it in practice, particularly with my kids. I can accept that other people have agency, even if I don't always like their choices. But why, having finally learned this home truth, do I so frequently find myself engaged in a battle of wills with my four-year-old, as if I could somehow compel him--by sheer force of will alone--to conform to my own wishes? Why do I so often find myself offering him choices that are not really choices, like you can do what I want or you can go into time out?

To be honest, I struggle with this. I know that a four-year-old is not--in many respects--equipped to deal with the full responsibility for his own life. Part of my job as a parent is to give my son enough choices so that he can learn about responsibility and accountability, but to also set appropriate limits. But sometimes I have a hard time differentiating from choices that teach responsibility, and choices that are really just about me trying to exert my own control over the situation. And I have a nagging suspicion that this will get even trickier as Andrew gets older.

So the question I'm currently puzzling over (and don't have a good answer to yet) is: How do I allow Andrew to be his own agent (in age appropriate ways)? How do I know when I'm letting him learn versus when I'm just trying to get my own way?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Death be not proud . . .

I found out Monday morning (via Facebook, of all places) that a colleague of mine from my time at BYU, Gary Hatch, had passed away unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism. The shock of it momentarily took my breath away--after all, he was only 45, a good 14-15 years younger than my parents. And plus, for someone like me who has a genetic blood-clotting disorder, the thought of a pulmonary embolism made my own mortality so much more vivid.

I can't seem to stop thinking about his death, not only because he was a good man and a sound scholar who will be missed on many levels (his family, certainly, but also the university and rhet/comp fields), but because of all the things his death (anyone's death, really) leaves undone. One of the most poignant examples of this, to me, is his to-read list on Goodreads. For anyone unfamiliar with this site, Goodreads is a kind of social networking site for book-lovers, allowing you to share book recommendations and reviews with "friends" and to keep track of your own reading. I was "friends" with Gary and found him to be one of the most regular and prolific posters of my online friends. In particular, he was assiduous about noting the books that he meant to read. When he died, he had nearly 1200 books in his "to-read" list. Now, I don't know exactly what Heaven looks like, or whether he'll have a chance to read these books there (chances are, he'll have better things to do), but this list reminds of how easily death interrupts the trajectory of life and its plans.

I'm sure, if he were asked, the list of books he's read are among the least of the accomplishments he hopes to leave behind. For me, it's interesting about how the question of death puts my own priorities into focus--if I knew that I were going to die soon, what would I be concerned about? Would I worry about teaching and research? Almost certainly not. About writing? Maybe, but only because I'd like that writing to speak to my family (especially my children) when I was gone. Mostly, I think I'd be concerned that my family--my children in particular--know that I loved them. I should say, I don't expect to die anytime soon (but then, who knows?) but I did want to note here, at least semi-publicly, how important my family is to me.

When I pass away, I hope that somewhere, among the glorified list of things I have done, it reads prominently that I loved my children well. Even if I don't get around to all the other things on my to-do list.

What about you? What do you most want to be remembered for?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Robes of the false priesthood?

Hugh Nibley is famously said to have told BYU graduates at a commencement that they were wearing the robes of the false priesthood (If I wasn't feeling lazy I'd actually try to look up the exact quote). At any rate, I couldn't help thinking of this today as we lined up in the cold to watch the incoming ranks of SUU's 2010 graduates.

I've spent a little bit of time since then (in between being exasperated at my children) puzzling over my response. A little bit of me was nostalgic for my own graduation; a bit of me was moved by the promise inherent in graduation--empty pomp and circumstance, false priesthood or no, it's one of our few remaining collective social rituals. But mostly, I was jealous.

Not of the graduates--I had that moment in the limelight. No, as I struggled to keep my unruly children in line (Andrew kept pushing himself in between the robed faculty and almost got trampled twice by trying to run in front of students to get to his dad, who was lined up on the side of the sidewalk facing us), I found myself mostly envious of the faculty, looking dignified and imperious in their robes. Even though I know these people are just individuals, there's something about the regalia . . . And I suppose a part of me resented the fact that any onlooker to the scene would see me just as a mother of small children--children I wasn't even keeping in very good order--but I was acutely conscious of the fact that I had the same degree as most of the faculty there. Pride, I know. And I know too that there's probably deeper messages I could be taking away from this scene (for one, the annoying quote my high school biology teacher had posted on his wall, "You give up the right to complain about that which you have chosen"). Those very children who identify me to outsiders are accomplishments that I value more than my dissertation (most of the time).

But the part of me that identified itself (and to a degree, still does) as an academic for so long was jealous, and wistful. After all, I never did get to go to my own PhD graduation (because the ceremony was across the country and my two-week-old baby was still in the NICU). And the robes do look impressive.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Narcissism of Reading

In my first post I talked about finding myself in Middlemarch; recently, I’ve been finding myself in Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to read this book—in all honesty, I’m surprised no one on my dissertation committee told me to read it. (The friend who invited me to her book club said she thought I’d like it, because it sounded like my dissertation. And in fact, when I read it, I couldn’t help thinking how perfectly the novel illustrated some of the issues of place that I grappled with. And I still think that Mary Hallock Foote—the real-life model for Susan Burling Ward in the novel—might be an ideal candidate for a future chapter of this dissertation, should it evolve into a real book project. But I digress.)

For those of you who aren't familiar with the novel, it essentially tells the story of two marriages: the failed marriage of Lyman Ward, the narrator, who from the perspective of a crippled almost-sixty-year old historian attempts to piece together the story of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, a talented nineteenth-century writer and illustrator. He is not, as he tells his assistant, so much interested in the history of Susan Ward, as he is in understanding what happened to her relationship with his grandfather, Oliver. In retelling her story, he carefully maps out the ways that living in the West at times strengthened and at times tested their relationship.

Perhaps most obviously, I see myself in Susan Ward, in her desire to be refined, her yearning after the intellectual life and all that it represents for her. (Although it might be more accurate to say that I see in her a younger version of myself; I think my yearning after the intellectual life was somewhat tempered by graduate school. Unlike Susan Ward, I’ve also learned to respect other ways of life that aren’t so bound up in the life of the mind.) I can even see myself, a little, in her perpetual struggle to appreciate her husband’s gifts. Where Susan Ward was a talented, thoroughly refined lady, her husband was evolving into a true westerner—a smart man, sure, but a quiet one, a man more likely to work out his frustrations than talk about them. Here, though, I think our differences also emerge—if I was initially unsure about Dan because he wasn’t the intellectual I’d always vaguely imagined I’d marry, I have long-since learned that his other abilities, like his groundedness, are much more important qualities for a healthy marriage. (Plus, I have a sneaking suspicion that I might resent the limelight I’d have to share with a more intellectually-leaning partner.) But the similarities, tenuous though they might be, were enough to draw me into the novel, where I fell in love with the gorgeous prose, the thoughtful and generous narrative voice, and the vivid evocations of nineteenth-century places.

This particular experience with reading has made me think more about my (our) motivations for reading. What is it that we do when we read? What are we in search of? Even in the books that we are somehow compelled to read, I can’t think that the experience of reading is simply passive—we don’t simply let the words slide across our eyes. Even in the most mundane or driveling prose, I think we search (consciously or subconsciously) for something.

In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis’s character tells a struggling student that “we read to know that we are not alone.” (According to Bruce Young, the BYU professor who taught my senior course on Lewis, Lewis himself never actually said this. But it sounds like something he should have said). I think this is true—the books that I like best are books that do something for me—entertain me, move me. But the very best of books are those in which I find myself somehow reflected, able to see myself in a particular character, or—better still—able to find new truths about my own life from the narrative truths of someone else’s life. I read—and I enjoy reading—because reading connects me to a world larger than my own immediate frame of reference. I read, in fact, to remind myself that I am not alone. A friend from graduate school frequently calls his research “me-search,” because the questions that we explore often matter to us precisely because they are in some way or shape personal.

This tendency to find myself in the novels I read is an inherently narcissistic tendency, and one that I find difficult to avoid. I’m not sure that we can help this kind of narcissistic lens. I’m not sure, ultimately, if I even should try to avoid it—for one thing, such unnatural contortions would make it extremely difficult for me to enjoy reading. For another thing, my own perspective is, in the final analysis, the most coherent perspective I have available for analysis. In the most recent book I read (one of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series), the main character finds herself thinking about what it would be like if we were able to record all of our thoughts for a day. She reflects, somewhat despondently, that most of those thoughts would likely be selfish, but then wonders if that is really a bad thing. After all, our own lives and views are the most easily-accessed framework we have available for interpreting our experiences. . I would add, too, that most of us find our own lives and needs fairly engrossing. While we can access other frameworks (and this is what most of us do when we engage in literary criticism), those frameworks will always be, to some extent, foreign.

Some might argue that other ways of reading are somehow higher, more valuable—that is, we need to somehow divest ourselves of personal agendas in order to truly appreciate what we read. Me, I’m not sure that’s ever possible. While I can imagine some other ways of reading (like applying a particular theoretical lens), I’m not sure I can imagine any way—even a theoretical lens—that still isn’t, in some way, a reflection of myself. Does this ultimately make me just incredibly narcissistic? Or just realistic?

What about you? How do you read? What motivates you when you read a book? What do you look for?