Cancer and Contingency

by Lynn Clement


Dear Reader,

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.

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My chemo ball, worn every two weeks for three days.  My daughter dubbed it “Rolly”.

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.

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Chemo made me very tired and Hal made for a great napping buddy.

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.

However, while both those things may be true about myself, the statistics about the academic job market reflect that the academic system is also a failure.

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.

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Ringing the infusion center’s ceremonial gong to signal my last round.  More victory photos to come…

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.

             “When you come out of the storm,

               You won’t be the same person

               Who walked in.

               That’s what this storm’s all about.”

                                         -Haruki Murakami

 

 

 

Writing the Maid of Honor Speech

Oh, not everyone takes paper up with them to make their maid-of-honor speech?

Well, old habits die hard.

One of the perks of being a writer is that you’ve always got words- usually far too many- whenever they are needed. This month, I was maid of honor in the wedding of one of my closest friends. Without saying too much here, watching her move through life and appreciating just how much she has grown in so many different directions in the time we’ve known each other has been remarkable. Friendships like that make for difficult speeches, because how can you convey all of complexity in just a page or so?

Only if you are willing to let go of someone for their own good, do you become worthy of them.

While there’s no way I can condense the essence of my friend and our friendship, as well as her relationship with her husband as I understand it into a mere page, I can definitely narrow down the topic. Conventional writing rules still sort of apply:

Theme: One of the reasons why my friend and I are so close is that we see the world in similar ways. We also see relationships in similar ways. Both she and I only want to be with people who are safe to grow with, and who prioritize our growth and their own over other goals or distractions in life. The commitment aspect of a relationship isn’t to love the other person no matter what, but to always ferret out the things that will help them become who they were meant to be, and tirelessly champion them, being their safe place to explore, to fail, and to try again. And of course in turn, they do the same for us. The feeling of being in love can come and go, but the feeling of being with someone who has your best interests at heart and supports those over what is comfortable for them isn’t something that comes along every day. When you find someone like that- someone who cares enough about you to let go of their ego and the need to control an outcome and instead just facilitate your soul’s growth regardless of where it takes you both- you hold on. That’s the theme of the speech.

Plot: Like with everything good to read, stuff has to happen. There has to be an arc of narration. To ensure the speech hit all the sweet spots, the same rules apply- ensure there’s an opening, the rising action, the climax, and denouement. This gives it emotional roundness, and makes it resonate.  Rather than just listing out things, I told a story that illustrated how her growth and mine have intertwined, to show that I understand the trajectory of her life That puts me in the position of understanding how her husband is facilitating her growth and dreams.

Continue reading “Writing the Maid of Honor Speech”

When There is a Mission

This March, I took two trips for work that ended up having a profound effect on the way I see my job and my place within it. I think this is a good place to talk about that.

My job involves grants administration. Vanderbilt is part of a consortium of five universities in which the Mellon Foundation has taken an interest to facilitate digital humanities collaboration. My job is quite broadly defined- I assist the PI on the grant to do whatever is necessary to help ensure that all the things that were promised in the grant happen.  A big part of that is facilitating collaborations between faculty and staff at our partner institutions in the consortium, and the best way to do that is to build relationships in person.

Two of our universities are in Nashville as well- Fisk and TSU. Relationships between Fisk and TSU and Vanderbilt have been taking place for a long time. But we also have Berea up North in Kentucky, and Tougaloo down South in Mississippi, and the distance between the three of our campuses meant that collaborations hadn’t been as long-standing. This is exciting for me- going to new places, meeting new faces, and getting to feel like the good news fairy. I kept repeating, “I know someone at a partner institution who works on that! Let me connect you,” or “That would make an amazing collaborative grant application, write that up!” and “there’s definitely money in the grant for that kind of faculty development.”

A DH Skill-share session at Berea, with faculty, staff, and students from Berea, TSU, Fisk, and Vanderbilt.

It was also fun to help facilitate important discussions and presentations. There were Digital Humanities skill-shares, planning for future events, teaching talks, postdoctoral presentations, and so much crucial foundation-building work.

But beyond that, what was amazing about these two trips this month was the feel of both Tougaloo and Berea. Both schools are smaller and deeply mission-driven. Tougaloo College is an HBCU just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, built on the grounds of the Boddie Plantation. Just opposite the old mansion in direct juxtaposition to it, is a church that has hosted many of our world’s finest Civil Rights thinkers: MLK, Angela Davis, Joan Baez, and Stokely Carmichael, to name just a small selection. During the Civil Rights era, Tougaloo Campus sheltered Freedom Riders and other Civil Rights activists, and their Special Collections room holds a fragment of a cross that white supremacists burned on that campus as a reaction to this.

One of the trip’s highlights was getting to meet John Johnson, who worked with Professor Phoenix Savage to produce an exhibit funded by one of the collaborative grants.

John Johnson poses with some of his photographs for the “Black at Brown” exhibit for Tougaloo’s Humanities Week, funded by the Mellon Collaborative grant through Professor Phoenix Savage.

Berea College has a similarly inspiring history. It was founded by a white Southern abolitionist, the son of a slaveholder. He was disinherited for this, and his family threatened often. Berea’s mission was to educate black and white students together, and it was the first co-ed institution in the South to accomplish this. In addition to that, the founders of Berea wanted their students to never have to pay tuition, so they committed to fundraising to ensure none would. That promise lasts to this day, and as a result the majority of Berea’s students are first-generation students and/or come from households with limited income. In rural Appalachia, where opportunities for economic advancement are few and far between, Berea College stands out as a beacon of hope.

Though Berea and Tougaloo each have their own distinct feels, they both share a vibrant commitment to mission. Each person I spoke with cared deeply about students, about social justice, and about creating a better world through education. They reminded me of why I was attracted to this world, and of how far education has propelled me. I too was the first person in my family to go to college, and the school in which I landed (the University of Stirling in Scotland) was also an institution with a mission. Set in Scotland’s coal country after the closure of the mines, it too attracted faculty who cared about reversing the economic depression of the region through teaching a specific population of students. All of my professors were so cognizant of the additional challenges first generation students faced, and despite being overworked and underpaid, they gave so generously of themselves to ensure that we could reach our goals. They did so much with what they have, just like the faculty at Tougaloo and Berea.

March should have zapped my energy with two additional business trips thrown into the busiest part of the semester. Instead, I came away feeling renewed, hopeful, and excited about the future. Visiting these two places helped remind me of why I do what I do, and why the long hours are so incredibly worth it.

Writing With A Day Job

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:

Radical Honesty

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.

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.

Routine (maybe)

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.

Squish Expectations

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.

A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Transition (Part IV)

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Thank goodness for this obligation opportunity to reflect. And it really is an opportunity. Because meditating on your experiences and coming up with a narrative about your progress (or lack thereof) can lead to an unexpected diagnosis or even generate a much-needed sense of accomplishment.

Reading through my co-bloggers’ posts on their year-in-writing has stirred up feelings of relief, empathy, joy, and excitement. Our relationship to writing is constantly in flux, and we are paying attention to that. We are thing-searchers, as Lynn says, and we respond to that impulse. At least we try to.

Of course we don’t always meet our writing or professional goals, and sometimes we read this as a failure (especially when we set *really* high goals for ourselves—and when we have full time jobs, loved ones, and other passions to attend to!). I met some of my goals in 2018, but not all of them. Who ever does?

I’ve been in transition this year, which has meant a lot of writing for committees (translation: I’ve written all the statements). But what else have I put on paper?  Continue reading “A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Transition (Part IV)”

A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Writing Audience (Part II)

I read about Lynn’s year of writing and my first thought was “that’s excellent! I love when people decide on a path, then walk it despite their fear.” She’s such a strong writer and the world needs more of her voice. She’s got nothing to be scared of.

My second thought was “Oh boy, how do I follow this? My 2018 writing year is a hot mess.”

It’s all over the place! I wrote… all the things. For all the people. And the range is intense:

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Sharing research with First Lutheran Church in Nashville

 

history lectures in my field for a church class, a co-written article on maps (not my field) for my crowd (professional historians),  exhibit text for a general audience interested in makerspace culture, a talk on the Slave Societies Digital Archive for scholars of religion at SORAAAD, a talk on the Fort Negley Descedants Oral History Project for the National Humanities Alliance, a Digital History Profile, an academic book review, two very different grant applications, a trade history book proposal  and sample chapters, blog posts, and more!

Unifying these incredibly diverse writing projects, is the question of audience.  For who do I write, and why? For me, 2018 was the year I spent experimenting with audiences. Continue reading “A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Writing Audience (Part II)”

A SmartWomen’s Year In Review: Writing in 2018 (Part I)

by Lynn Clement


“’I don’t know what you’ve got in mind,’ said Pippi, ‘but I’m not the sort to lie around.  I’m a thing-searcher, you see.  And that means I never have a moment to spare…The whole world is full of things, which means there’s a real need for someone to go searching for them.  And that’s exactly what a thing-searcher does.’”

-Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking, Penguin Group, Ltd. 2007 edition

As the holidays begin, and the year winds down, it’s a time for Smart Women to reflect. For this writer, 2018 has been full of highs and lows, lasts and firsts.

A few weeks ago I attended my first parent-teacher conference in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom.  It was much as I’d expected: seated in a doll-house sized chair I learned of my daughter’s exploits (both good and, let’s say, not-so-good), which, to me, reflect her can-do attitude and Pippi-like personality.

While brave, imaginative, and sharp as a tack, my daughter has “difficulty with transition” and her teacher and I discussed strategies for improvement. She is not the type of child who can easily shift gears.  Announce to her that she has 5 minutes left to finish whatever she’s immersed in and panic immediately sets in, as does the frustration, the anger, and the despondency. This is particularly the case when she is creating stories.  Already she is well aware of the feeling that there’s so much to do, but not enough time to do it.  She is a thing searcher, you see, and she feels as if she hasn’t a moment to spare.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The trait is hereditary because that summarizes my own year of writing.  In many ways it’s been exciting.  I have so many wonderful writing projects in the works, so many ideas to pursue, so many things to be researched and discovered and learned. In many ways it’s been frustrating because I have so much to say but not enough time to put it down.  I’m a thing searcher, you see, but I haven’t a moment to spare!

However, “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset” (a phrase my kid has somehow picked up, though not from me because I’m constantly pissed).  This is her way of dealing with the disappointment: the amount of ice cream in a bowl, the color of the free balloon at the supermarket, the amount of time we get and how we spend it.  Her expression (ugh. She’s already SO much smarter than me), reminds me of something very important, something I have to remember about this journey that is writing; it’s about creating threads that transcend the time I am so obsessed with.

One of my goals for 2018 was to write more and to be braver about letting people read it.  This is one of the reasons that I applied to be a contributor to Smart Women Write.  I feel so lucky that I have had this opportunity because being welcomed into this writing community has been one of my biggest writing successes.  Not only has my writing improved, but my approach to writing has improved.  I’ve fallen back in love with it, I’ve used it to get through some really tough times, and I’ve found important threads that link me to others, past, present, and hopefully future.

While 2018 was about dipping a toe into writing again, 2019 will be about jumping right in, Pippi-style.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For the first time, I will be submitting an article for publication in an academic journal.  It is terrifying.  What if it’s terrible? What if I fail?  What if they say no?  What if reviewer #2 is so harsh they make me cry?  Well, I’ll get what I get and I won’t get upset because even if it’s unsuccessful this time, the thread has been woven and it will find its way to those who need to read it.  I have been researching the Paris Commune for almost a decade now, and this is my connection to the past, my thread to the revolutionary women that predate me, but to whom I feel deeply connected.  They too were thing searchers and they were searching for equality.  I will tell their story.

In addition, for the first time I will be pursuing a more personal writing project that I also hope to get published.  I recently discovered journals written by my grandmother.  I never knew she was a writer, but apparently writing a daily journal was a lifelong exercise because there were copious wire notebooks in myriad colors. Even after she became too sick to write, my grandfather took up the mantle and did it for her.  The entry on the day that she died is heartbreaking. It is one sentence, 4 words, but it conveys all his feelings (he must have been a writer too). Long before this day though, my grandmother detailed a birthday camping trip taken in 1974 with my grandfather and her youngest daughter.  She wrote about everything: what she packed, how she packed it, when and where they got gas, their exact route, the people they met along the way, the weather, the landscape, all that she saw.  Her descriptions of the landscape, in particular, made me realize that she too was a thing searcher.  It is my plan to recreate the trip this summer on my own birthday (only days after hers) to a town in Canada that no longer goes by the same name.  I, too, will document everything.

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Photo by Jeffrey Lawton on Pexels.com

I will also be pursuing all the writing projects, here and there, that get me through my day: writing improved and inclusive lectures, learning to write code, and writing blog posts that help me to keep it all in perspective.  Perhaps nothing will ever get published, but I hope my daughter will find my writings someday.  They will be online and in randomly named documents on my laptop rather than in notebooks, but hopefully they’ll remind her that she is from a long line of thing-searchers and story-tellers.

For that’s what writers are, aren’t we?