In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, self-care has been an important part of my cancer treatment. Self-care can be difficult for many of us, despite how important it is, because of the expectation that we stay busy on productive, worthwhile activities. Thus, for me, self-care often means exercise and reading-both useful and relaxing. However, another soothing activity is watching television…way too much television. Needless to say, I am at odds with this habit. With access to Netflix, Hulu, AmazonPrime, HBO-GO, etc. it’s rare that I can’t find something to distract and entertain at any given moment. However, while in graduate school a beloved professor/mentor likened watching television during the day to drinking before 5pm. As someone who does most of their work at home, this slightly nagging inner voice prevented me from diversions that would have interfered with work.
However, does watching tv and doing something valuable have to be mutually exclusive? After a particularly difficult day of doctor appointments, and after having already binged the new episodes of “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, I happened upon a show entitled “Fake or Fortune”. “Fake or Fortune” is a BBC program hosted by journalist, Fiona Bruce and art dealer, Philip Mould. The two come together, along with various researching side-kicks, to investigate the style, material, and provenance of art works in order to determine their authenticity. From the start I was hooked, not only because I’m an art historian but also because the art mysteries were hugely entertaining. However, the more I watched, the more I saw the value in the series also as a teaching tool.
Bruce and Mould, along with historians, curators, art historians, scientists, gallery owners, cultural institutions, and librarians, show the lengthy and laborious process of research. What a gift this could be to students who struggle with exactly that. The hosts, and hosts of scholars who help them along, rely on interviews with collectors, connoisseurs, and curators. They dig through insurance inventories, gallery archives, and sales receipts. They travel to local libraries, foreign countries, and scientific labs to find clues in the unlikeliest of places. Perhaps most important in its accessibility to the viewer is the way they present research as a fun, and important, investigation.
Again, the more episodes I watched, the more I saw how I could use this in the classroom and how it could help my students in their approach to historical research. Although I have passed shied away from the use of videos in the classroom, and certainly pop culture programs such as this one, I plan to show my students an episode in the next few weeks. I’ll have to leave this post on a bit of a cliff-hanger (the value is currently in its theory stage), but my theory is that viewing research through this new lens will help them in their own projects. At the least, they will get a fuller sense of what goes into the research process; it’s just not lonely hours in a library with mountains of monographs. Research is also talking to people, reading journals, watching documentaries, looking at photographs, collaborating people in and outside your field, and confronting preconceived notions and hopes.
I’ve been taking a break from my own personal research projects during treatment, but watching tv has me getting excited about them again. Wait…did I just tun my only self-care guilty pleasure into work? Oh well.
It’s been a while. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I have. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and put my thoughts to paper and today I do so for release. Writing functions as such an important catharsis for me, which is why I was so desperate to get back to the page after a very long, and unexpected, writing hiatus.
I wish I could say it was for exciting reasons, but alas, it was not. As you read in my last post, 2019 started out much the same as it always has, but it did not maintain its mundanity. The next post I had planned to write was going to feature the professional conference I attended in February. Instead, directly after that conference, I was confronted with a life changing diagnosis; Colorectal Cancer, Stage IV.
I tried crying about it for about a week, contemplating my demise, but it didn’t suit me. Neither did eating my feelings instead of writing them down (although mindfully eating a bag of Doritos does have its merits). So here I am, doing something I usually loathe, making my personal life public. I’ve gone back and forth about this post, and about extending my hiatus, but then I remembered that “the personal is political”, and felt empowered by idea that one’s personal experience can help political or social discourse. Perhaps that is what I’m supposed to do with this experience.
I finished my 8th and final round of chemo at the end of July and today I start radiation as I also begin another semester teaching art history at 2 community colleges. My doctors and I have high expectations for remission, but it will be a long road until then. I remain my optimistic self and fortunately, the nature of my job has allowed me to use the summer to focus on my health and my family. I was also fortunate that, despite a demanding schedule of chemo, radiation, and surgery, I was, and continue to be, able to work, semi-normally, with the help of my family, friends, and colleagues. It truly does take a village.
Now let me pause for a moment right here, dear reader, to assure you that this isn’t intended to be a traditional cancer post. I’m not ready to detail my treatment or any deep insights I may have gained from this humbling experience. I may never have insights. I still change the cat litter and my daughter still steals my phone to use the toilet. I guess at the the least I’ve learned to be thankful that everyone else in this house has a colon functioning better than I. In addition, I have yet to fully face the fears that come with this disease. Not yet. I need space from it and time to figure out what my relationship with cancer will be.
However, fighting cancer has heightened the lens through which I view the world and my own life. Detailing my journey (thus far) to close family and friends, I quickly noticed my over-use of the word “lucky”. Lucky that I had doctors who took me seriously when I told them my pain was unusual. Lucky that those doctors sprung to action. Lucky my co-workers stepped in to teach the classes I was unable to attend and help me finish my spring semester so I didn’t lose the already tenuous hold I have on my contingent faculty position. Lucky that my husband has good insurance and kind co-workers as well. Lucky that I’m surrounded by family that are friends and friends that are family who have come to help take care of me, my child, my house, my cooking and cleaning, because considering hiring help on an adjunct salary is laughable.
As a long-term, career, adjunct professor, I’ve always kept up with information about the status of contingent faculty experiences, but that attention is now focused even more with one question: what if this happens to someone else who isn’t so “lucky”. The answer to that question isn’t hard to find since my story is not unique. The death of Margaret Mary Vojtko sparked much debate about the treatment of adjuncts as did the death of Thea Hunter. Both women had done everything right, in terms of securing degrees and accolades, which should have garnered them success in their respective fields. Instead, they both died in poverty. In addition, there are myriad articles detailing the realities of life as a contingent employee, including data on low pay and the need to secure additional jobs to make ends meet, which is easier said than done.
Reflecting on my mortality, and how expendable I seem to be to the field I’ve devoted myself to for decades, has made me realize just how integral I am. I have been teaching part-time at community colleges and universities in the DMV for about 15 years. At the onset, I felt as many in my position probably have: adjunct work was the consolation prize. I took the abuse about failure and not being good enough to be full time or tenured because I thought I deserved it.
Luckily, I’ve stopped thinking of my position in these terms. I am great at what I do: I’m invested in my students, I’m committed to my field, I attend (on my own dime) conferences, symposia, and local lectures that keep me up to date on research and pedagogy, and perhaps most importantly, I fulfill a need in the system. That’s something that seems to be lost in this: I’m not the desperate one. The adjunct, the graduate student, the post-doc, the non-tenured are not disposable. Not only is it common decency to provide a living wage and a safety net for any worker, this respect should be given to those upon who we so desperately rely. Instead, so many of us are left to rely on luck.
Despite our part-time status, we are not contingent humans. The problem now resides in a system that has not evolved to understand our power and our worth. Academia is not doing me a favor. It’s the other way around
Again, I survive the system purely because of luck, but many others do not have the same support system. Thus, we need to come together within the profession. It’s time for us to collectively bargain for rights we deserve. We didn’t lose the game, we didn’t fail, the job system changed, so our approach to it needs to change as well. I know people will balk at the idea of unionization and detail the varied reasons it won’t fix the problem. However, at this point we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas. (There really is a Simpsons reference for every occasion).
Luckily, I know I will survive both cancer and a life as an adjunct professor, but I’d like colleagues in a position like mine to have the same outlook.
In addition to writing publicly about this very personal struggle, my cancer diagnosis caused me to do something else uncharacteristic: I purchased a book of encouraging quotes.
Raquelle’s recent post really resonates with me tonight. I’m writing here somewhat unexpectedly, but unexpectedness has been a theme around here the past couple of months, so I think I’m ready to run with it.
In January, I posted that persisting is a big thing for me right now. This week, I’d add that I’m also trying to give myself room to breathe, something I really haven’t done well since that post six weeks ago. I’m on the cusp of spring break (a mere FOUR! days away), and it’s a truth that ought to be universally acknowledged that teachers must decidedly earn their breaks. I feel like I’ve spent the last six weeks continually diving in to cold water, coming up again for brief moments but never really stopping to breathe.
The project is time sensitive. A year ago, the land upon which the fort was built was sold to developers in what I’ll euphemistically describe as a shady deal. While the fort’s future was up in the air, the neighborhoods surrounding it rapidly gentrified. Each tall and skinny in these areas surrounding Fort Negley represents a family whose story left with them as they were priced out of the neighborhoods that had been theirs for generations.
I’m not a person who moves slowly. Growing up, I spent many years taking piano lessons and practicing for hours. I always added a bit more speed to the songs than they really needed. When I started learning how to type, my mother told me she wanted me to type at least 60 words per minute; I figured that was too slow. I walk quickly, I talk fast, and even in graduate school, I often worked at breakneck speed. I have a lot I want to do, and I get a lot done.
How do you make time to write when you’ve got a day job?
I think it’s something every working writer struggles with. Most of my friends write, some of them full-time, and others on the side of a full or part-time job, and it looks really different for everyone. Here’s how I found the best way for my current life:
First of all, I had to face that I have many more ideas and dreams than I can feasibly turn into reality. But rather than being sad about all the ideas that won’t get written, I try to be excited that I’m in such a position of opportunity. I have the desire and ability to write academic articles, non-fiction trade books, encyclopedia articles, think-pieces, creative non-fiction essays, novels, short stories, screenplays, blog posts, and more. I have ideas for all of these things, and most of them are exciting to me and allow me to examine something I am interested in or passionate about.
That said, my other goals in life- personal, financial, career- mean that most of my time is spoken for, and there’s not really much I can move around or give up. Every piece I chose to write takes time away from a career development opportunity, time with family and friends, or time I could have spent earning money. Radical honesty means being honest about my shifting collection of needs and how they conflict: my needs for creative expression, versus my needs to feel like I’m doing a good job at work, versus my need to pay bills, versus my need to connect with the people I love. So realistically, I can only give up about an hour a day to writing projects that are not connected to finances or career.
Knowing that means that I have to pick and choose my projects more carefully. I have to be honest about how many hours something will take to complete and how many weeks that will take at the rate of one hour per day. Or actually, less than an hour per day, because most days I use part of that hour to write morning pages.
And by “writing morning pages,” I mean, I scrawl some stuff longhand into a notebook, just to dump all the miscellaneous thoughts that are taking up valuable brain space. Morning pages (the idea comes from Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, and is discussed on this blog) are a way for me to stay connected to the page and explore how I feel about my writing and the things that get in the way of my writing. I don’t fully understand why they work, or how exactly, but I do know that when I write them, my writing goes more smoothly and I produce more of it, and when I get away from that habit, I start to be more blocked and writing feels like squeezing blood from a stone, so I avoid it. I’ve lived long enough to know that when something works (and doesn’t hurt anyone), you don’t question it, you just do it.
In order for me to wrest that daily hour away for myself and my writing, it helps me, sometimes, to have a routine. I’m definitely not religious about it, and I don’t always need it, but I find that during the semester especially when my to-do list is a mile long, having a routine helps. I take my writing time as seriously as I take my savings- I pay myself first. First thing in the morning, I don’t get online to check emails, I get straight to the morning pages and then transition into my writing project of choice. After an hour, I feel connected to it, and am much less begrudging of the other tasks I have to do for the day.
Since I only have that daily hour to write, I don’t have time to waste on projects that I don’t love. If I’m being paid for a project, I don’t do it in that hour- I count it toward my career and do it during the workday. That daily hour is for my passion project. These projects may never see the light of day or result in a paycheck. I write them for sake of doing it- for the sake of being involved in a creative pursuit, for investigating something that is important to me, and for keeping me tethered to my interests on days when my job or personal life don’t do that as much. It’s a creative, artistic, and spiritual pursuit that I do completely independently of expectations. No matter how successful a writer I become, no matter how many publications I rack up, no matter how much money I get for my writing, I want to always set aside this hour to just do what I feel like doing. If it later ends up becoming a viable project that sells, that’s great, but it’s also ok if it never amounts to anything more than my own enjoyment. Ironically, since I’ve been squishing expectations, a lot of my writing-hour projects have seen publication.
Now it’s disclaimer time- I have the type of job (a postdoc) where writing is built into it. I have set tasks I do in exchange for my salary, and then I have more abstract expectations of what I should be doing with the rest of my work week. This gives me tremendous flexibility in terms of my writing projects. It means that once a project I’m working on in that morning hour becomes a viable project that either will further my career or get me paid, I have the flexibility to incorporate it into my work hours and then use that personal hour of writing time for something else. The way I structure my day makes sense for my day job right now, but this won’t always be my job. Writing, on the other hand, will. I think setting up a habit for daily writing outside of my job hours sets me up for continuing this habit regardless of my day job.
I wasn’t surprised when Marie Kondo started trending on my Twitter feed. Not only did her show, “Tidying up with Marie Kondo”, recently debut on Netflix, but her approach seems to characterize what the month of January is all about: evaluation and change. I find New Year’s Eve to be annoying enough, but the rest of the month isn’t any less so. It’s filled with making room in an already crowded space, weather that space be literal or metaphorical. It’s filled with making piles: what to discard, what to pass on, what to retain, what to do with the things that fall between.
More difficult than clearing out space for things is clearing out time for self-improvement. I am not a resolutions person. I don’t like setting myself up for failure, which is usually what I associate with the pressure-filled tradition. However, as it has been in years past, I thought that maybe 2019 could be my year. What did I need to accomplish in 2019 and how would I get there? A resolution? A game plan? A promise to myself? So, while hauling some shit out of, and some shit into, my basement, I contemplated the possibility of taking part in a twitter phenomenon that I had seen off and on posted by those I follow: the goal to write (enter seemingly random number, mine would be 400) words a day.
“Yeah!” I thought to myself, while finally dumping out container after container of play-doh that had dried to crusty clumps. This will be perfect. I’ll do it, and all my writing related productivity problems would be over! On January 1st I wrote 100 words, and then promptly forgot about my resolution until January 4th. Seriously. Completely. Forgot.
This got me thinking about the nature of my resolutions and positive daily habits in general. I don’t have have many daily habits that center on my own self-care/self-improvement except for one: I run. I don’t say “I’m a runner” because that often conjures up images and personality traits that I do not assign to myself, but I do put one foot in front of the other, above an ambling pace, daily.
This is probably why I thought writing 400 words a day would be a piece of cake. As a person who runs, I have become very good at keeping myself accountable and keeping track of numbers. I have found ways to motivate myself into doing the work and logging the miles. However, what I had forgotten is that it took years of successes and failures to get to this point. Now I like it, feel good doing it, and feel the positive results of the hard work, but at the beginning it was a slog. First, it was just about getting out the door and walking around the block. When that got easier I quickened the pace or lengthened the distance. Over time, I was able to do both. It’s been an on and off relationship that has finally transformed into something beautiful and has allowed me to maintain my physical and mental health. After 12 years of serious commitment, I’ll be running my 6th marathon this year, and I’m actually looking forward to it. Although, I know when I reach mile 22 of said race I will question all the choices that have led me to attempt such a silly distance on foot because it has happened 5 times before and let’s face it, 26.2 miles is crazy and this is why humans invented cars…but I digress.
Of course during a morning run I began thinking about this journey and I questioned why I don’t approach my writing in the same way? Certainly this physical and mental endeavor is akin to running. In the same way that I don’t call myself a runner, I would never call myself a writer. I am not special. Anyone who can walk, can run, and this is not far from the assumption that anyone who can write, can, well, write. While true, it’s so much more complex than that, isn’t it? It needs to be done daily, and strengthened with proper training, equipment, and realistic goals.
Over the years I’ve read a lot of books and articles about running. Runners apparently like to write, or perhaps writers like to run? Chicken or the egg? Sure I’ve had a lot of practice, off and on, writing in my professional and personal life, but I hadn’t read a book or taken a class on writing in about 20 years. I would never attempt to run a considerable distance without training properly, why would I ever expect to spin gold when I sat down to my laptop? This is why I’m making strides to train properly as a writer and the first step I’ve taken is by reading. I am in the middle of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and I find it’s a good omen that one of his early chapters focuses on clutter.
Rest assured, I’m going to persist. I’m not ready for 400 words per day, not yet, but I’m ready to take daily actions that will help improve my writing skills like continuing to read about writing, learning more about the craft, about creativity, pursuing writing prompts, and making healthy writing practices a priority. 2018 was the year that I began to take my writing more seriously, 2019 is the year to take it a step further. However, like my approach to running it’s not going to be a New Year’s resolution, but a lifelong endeavor that will have successes, failures, setbacks, and hopefully, personal victories.
Wishing you all your own writing victories this year!