Year End Reflections: What I’ve Learned

by Lynn Clement


In a prior post I wrote about my dedication to reading this year and I am happy to announce that I did reach my goal of completing 40 books.  I ended on a high note by reading Tara Westover’s memoir entitled Educated.  I greatly enjoyed this elegantly written reflection on the author’s unique upbringing and the tough choices she was forced to make as her academic quest conflicted with her family’s beliefs. I read a lot of memoirs this year, which is ironic since I spent most of the year refusing to think too deeply about my own life. (There were many quotes from Westover’s book that resonated with me and I’ve interspersed some here where I felt they summarize my feelings better than I ever could.)

I think this is one of the reasons I asked for a hiatus from my contributions to this blog when I was diagnosed with cancer is March.  Much of the year was spent actively avoiding reflection for mental self-preservation. “…I closed my journal and put it away. Journaling is contemplative, and I didn’t want to contemplate anything.”  However, my ultimate return to writing was for the same reason.

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Despite my apprehension about contemplation in 2019, I learned more this year than I’d like to admit.  I learned how to live my life when I was told I might lose it.

When I first met my oncologist, on a sunny day, in April, I was ridiculously optimistic, almost flippant, about what I was about to undergo.  The disease had just been found but I’d had no symptoms.  I assumed, falsely, that they’d caught it early and that I’d be training for another marathon in no-time.  When, instead, I heard the words “stage IV” and “aggressive treatment” and that if I chose to forego treatment I’d likely be gone in “3 to 6 months” the floor went out from under me.  I don’t know if he was looking at the wrong file (sometimes I still wonder) or if he was exaggerating to make sure I was listening (terrible yet effective), but either way I knew things were going to change.

“The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.

I call it an education.”

The first transformation, perhaps obviously, was my relationship with time.  My daily life changed very little this year: I still get my kid ready for school, I still go to work, I still watch tv and play games on my phone, I still talk to my husband about the major (and minor) plot points of our favorite TV shows.  However, I am much more protective of how I spend my time.

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Photo by Enikő Tóth on Pexels.com

Being an adjunct means always hustling. Finding new places to teach and expanding one’s contact list is essential for cobbling together enough classes to make ends meet, and this continues to be my reality despite cancer.  Recently I was stood up for an interview by a department head, twice. Prior to this years’ experience I would have agreed to a third, fourth, maybe even fifth chance at an interview. I’m an adjunct and having my time devalued is part of the game, but not this year. I knew it meant giving up a chance at more income, but more importantly, my new consciousness of time has manifest in a deeper respect for myself and a demand that my time be respected. “It has never occurred to you, he said, that you might have as much right to be here as anyone.”  It does now. I’m happy to say that I’ve also become more respectful of other people’s time and priorities.  This has not just be a reflection inward, but also outward.

In Raquelle’s most recent post she recounts a beautiful experience at a silent retreat.  That time of self-examination allowed her to reflect on how she is not entirely defined by her work and how she is able to find fulfillment in other areas of her life.  My own experiences this year have led me to a similar conclusion.  The problem with this new approach to time is the horrible pressured to live life to the fullest, while simultaneously acting like you’re totally fine. I don’t enjoy roller coasters so jumping out a plane was always out of the question, but prioritizing fulfillment was necessary. I realized that those mundane daily activities were what I wanted and needed: both the normalcy and the contentment of teaching students, but also reading and spending time with myself, my family, and my friends.  These are things I would never regret devoting precious time to.

My relationship with my body and exercise has also changed. Like the wisdom written in Angela’s post it’s now less about numbers and crazy goals and more about getting it done to stay happy with body and mind. I continue to be amazed that despite poisoning it for 4 months and then bombarding it with beams for 2 that I remain strong and well. I get on the elliptical almost every day.  I don’t go as fast or as far as I used to, but I can feel my muscles strengthen, my heart pump, my lungs expand, and that is enough. To do it at all is a success.

My relationship with people has perhaps been the largest transformation. “All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine—that the odds are better if you rely only on yourself.” Independent, self-sufficient, and private were words I lived by, but triumphing treatment truly took a village. Tanya, in her timely Thanksgivng post, wrote about gratitude and I, too, reflect upon this greatly this year. Recently a doctor asked how I was able to maintain such a good attitude through all this and the answer came easily; I am surrounded by the most amazing people.  Family and friends took care of me: they dropped off dinners, sent care packages, and sent me words and music of encouragement. Nurses watched over me and doctors healed me. My students brought me ginger candies to help with the nausea and my co-workers supported me in countless ways. To say that I am grateful is an understatement and there aren’t enough days in this year or the next 20 for me to show how thankful I am, but I still try and am much more open with my words and my gratitude.

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Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Pexels.com

For 2020 I have a lot of hopes: to be cancer free, to be done with this journey, and to finally be able to write about something other than my illness! I also want to take what I’ve learned from this experience and build upon it rather than avoid it like I tried to do this year.  Despite the scare, I know I’ll be well. I still don’t have any symptoms aside from those caused by treatment, I still feel strong, and the same oncologist that had once warned of my demise now expects full remission.   On Dec. 20th I will undergo the last phase of my journey: surgery.  Recovery will be difficult, but I plan on beating the odds.

“To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both.  It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.”

Onward and Upward.

Resolved: Let’s Move

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I have never been the most athletic person. The only marathons I’ve ever participated in have involved reading books or watching screens for hours on end. Give me a choice, and I’d always choose a story over playing outside (much to my sister’s chagrin). As a kid, I didn’t try sports until middle school; my resume includes a couple of seasons of basketball at the Y, a little bit of soccer, and one brief foray into softball. In high school, I moved to martial arts, which is where I not only earned my black belt, but also got my first teaching experience and participated in a world championship weapons competition.

That was a long time ago.

In graduate school, I flirted with the gym on and off. I don’t think it was until my third year of grad school that I really got consistent, but in the second half of grad school, working out became an almost-daily activity. I completed The New Rules of Lifting for Women, Couch to 5K, and generally spent an hour each day working out to stay in shape.

By the time I finished my PhD in 2011, I was in the best physical shape of my life. And then I started teaching full time.

Continue reading “Resolved: Let’s Move”

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)”