I’ve always been somewhat of a giant. Being the tallest kid in every class made me a bit shy, and so I retreated often into my head, where all of my favorite stories lived. In kindergarten, I loved going to the bushes at the edge of the playground during recess and collecting the ladybugs that lived there. I would let them crawl around on my hands with their tickly little legs as I gave them names and invented stories about their lives. Every now and then the other kids would ask if I wanted to swing, or play house, or do other things kids did, but I was obsessed with the ladybug game, so I thanked them and promised next time I would.
One day, a boy came up to me and asked me what I was doing. I knew him as kind of a mean boy, but he had never done anything to me, and truth be told, though I was shy, I had my meangirl moments so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I explained the ladybug game to him, catching him up on the latest drama in bugland.
“That’s really neat,” he said. “Can I hold one?”
None of the other kids had ever expressed interest in my game. Eager for a friend to share in the joys of my ladybugs, I held my hand to his and nudged Esmerelda onto his thumb as I explained her backstory. She was going to become the first ladybug in space.
He held her up to the sun and nodded, then looked into my eyes. His squinted as the right side of his mouth curled up into a smirk. He dropped the ladybug onto the ground, then stomped it while looking at me in glee.
Everything inside of me screeched with the injustice of it. He hadn’t just ruined my game, he had ended a life. It was unforgiveable.
I think maybe he expected me to cry. Or to run and tell the teacher. Instead, in one fluid movement, I shook the other ladybugs off of my hands, grabbed his hair, and threw him to the ground. Then I put my little pink sneaker on his throat and held it there until he started to cry and the teacher intervened.
Now, why am I sharing this story that paints five year old me in an incredibly unflattering and violent light?
Even though Virginia Woolf’s famous essay about the importance of creative space for women (both public and private) was published in 1929, it wasn’t until 2013, after the birth of my daughter, that I finally claimed a room of my own.
I lost myself a bit after becoming a mother and I struggled while my body, mind, and purpose felt as if they were no longer fully my own. Personal space suddenly became more important as I grappled with identity and nagging doubts about career and choices, in general. So I staked a claim in my home to help me retake my place in the world. This was also important for legitimizing my work, to others and myself. My contingent faculty career status had often been maligned, and this often made me question my place and worth. Both became stronger after I added “mother” to my list of jobs. “Maybe now you should focus on something more worthwhile?” “Maybe this could be a chance to switch careers?” “Are you even going back to work?” “When?” “How?” “Why?”
I did go back to work because I love what I do, and I didn’t switch jobs because I’m also good at it. However, I needed to find equilibrium between my career and my new role as caregiver. To do this I needed space. I found a tiny section of my already cramped home and tried to carve it into something. I ripped up carpet, scrubbed floors on hands and knees, stripped wall paper, patched walls with joint compound, painted newly sanded surfaces and trim, hauled books, dragged furniture, hung curtains, and remade the space as I tried to remake myself.
It’s not perfect, and it’s a bit chaotic, but it reflects me: who I have been, who I am despite the changes I have undergone, who I may become. My actual work space, a narrow desk with an obsolete X-Files mouse pad, is surrounded by objects that make me contented: books, art, notes, papers, mementos, trifles. Tomes on art, popular culture, programming, science, culture, politics, and religion are stacked below art made by my grandmother, my sister, my students, and my daughter. (The drawing by my daughter depicts me, fighting a dinosaur with a sword. Totally bad ass.) Mismatched bookcases and sills hold some of my most prized keepsakes. An antique typewriter found at a garage sale was given to me by my parents. They had high hopes that I would write my first book with it. I won’t, but it is a sign of the support I have from family and friends. A guitar built by my great-uncle from an old stump that was half rotting in the backyard of my childhood home serves as a reminder to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places, and to make something beautiful and useful. My collection of running medals, all earned during road races of varying distances, reminds me to put in the work no matter how tedious.
Not everyone has the luxury of a room of their own and sometimes I still don’t. I began writing this post on one of those yellow legal pads because my daughter had commandeered both my desk and my laptop. In addition, my office now temporarily houses her new kitten and all his kitten accouterments. However, the process of making that space my own resulted in an important change of mindset about room and my need to make some for myself in the world. It’s okay to take up space.
I know it doesn’t look like it, because my home desk is an eccentric travesty (or the desk of a maverick, as one of my super kind friends always says), but I spent a good 15 minutes cleaning up this desk. I was throwing out a half-empty vial of bubbles given to me during a Pride parade, tossing the 14 lipsticks (yes, there were 14) into a bag rather than having them strewn all over my stuff, hiding a fast food wrapper (my writing requires weekly crunchwraps, with plenty of Bajan pepper sauce, which, if you look closely, you’ll see I forgot to take back to the kitchen), stacking random papers and placing a clean notebook over the top of them as if it always looks like that, and blowing the dust off the top of my ancient speaker so no one would judge me.
Why do I feel the need for internet people to not judge me? I love being messy, but I hate being thought of as a messy person. Let’s just blame childhood and move on. That’s why my work desk (in an office I share with others) is very orderly. There’s a place for everything, and the ability for someone else to plug in their laptop and work without feeling like they are invading my personal space. That’s not the only reason I keep it clean, though.
At work, I have orderly thoughts. A large part of my job is helping to organize and prioritize the hundreds of pressing tasks that come to us from all of our project partners around the world- one of our Brazilian digitization teams hasn’t been paid yet, so I have to follow up with finance. An article I wrote for the Afro-Hispanic Review about cases of slave resistance in our archive needs another round of edits before it goes out, so I’ve got to make those. Our supervisor is going to Colombia, so I need to get a to-do list from her before she goes. Our grad student research assistants are due at any minute, so I need to make sure the space is ready for them to work in. A skype call is coming in in 30 minutes and there’s a grant application due soon so for the project I’ll be on in St. Eustatius. Have all of our volumes been ingested? Should we schedule a meeting with our partners at the library? Should I order lunch? What does everyone want? Having a clean desk does help to impose that vital orderliness on a project that by its very nature wants to be chaotic at all times.
My home office though, is the place where I can tap into my own chaotic, creative brain. I have the traces of several different projects there, as well as reminders of what’s important, why I’m working on them, who I am, and what I love. For example, in the top right corner, there’s a picture of Jem, an 80s cartoon show. The husband of a friend I went to grad school with worked for the same company as the woman who voiced Jem (Samantha Newark), and to surprise me got me her framed autograph. It means a lot to me- that he would know me well enough to know it’s something I would treasure.
My younger self loved Jem so much because she was, well, truly outrageous. She was the woman who had it all- She expressed herself through super femme 80s punkrock fashion, had a hunky boyfriend with purple hair (he was a bit dim, sure, but his heart was in the right place), and put her philanthropic careers first. She ran an orphanage for emotionally troubled girls, fronted an all-girl band, and worked for her record label, often doing free concerts for good causes. Though she was beautiful and stylish, that wasn’t her priority, but a means to an end. I loved that about her. I wanted to be creative and expressive and find ways for my talents to help people and resonate with them, too. Having her at my desk reminds me of what I’m working toward. And I love that right under her, is my bag of lipsticks. The stack of books hides it, but several of the colors- violet, fuchsia, orange – are colors she would wear. These are the things I keep around so that I keep doing things my child self is proud of.
There are lots of other gifts from friends at this desk- a figurine of Krampus (just a friendly little German Christmas demon who eats naughty children, given to me so that I can have a Krampus on Campus instead of Elf on a Shelf in December), a notebook with a glittery Cthulhu (just a friendly little Lovecraftian Edlrich horror abomination) who looks like swallowing the world is part of his drag performance, an incredible drawing of David Bowie as the goblin king from my favorite 80s cult classic film Labyrinth, several books gifted by friends who know the way I think and the types of thoughts I need to consume to stay well, a pirate mug, postcards from writers I love, and a rainbow patch of the Babadook (who has become somewhat of a queer icon, and as my friend said to me, “I’m Baba-shook!”). I like the thought of writing while surrounded by the things people gave me to support that habit. I think it’s important to turn toward those who do, and away from those who don’t.
Honorable mention goes to the desk itself. If you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not a desk- it’s a cheap folding table that is made of particleboard covered in a sticker of wood finishing that is peeling off. I found it leaning against a dumpster when I was a grad student. Someone had thrown it away because the legs fold weird and threaten to severely bruise your fingers if you don’t watch them.
I get asked a lot why I don’t just buy a real desk. I have a decent job. I could. But… I don’t know. I’ve written some amazing things at this table. It would feel disloyal, to just abandon it after it gave me several years of an amazing writing space. Because… you have to honor those things that help you in some way. A writer’s space isn’t just a space, it’s a carefully (or uncarefully) curated area for your fledgling ideas, for your hopes, and for your dreams that you dare put on paper and send out into the world. I’ve cried at that desk, and I’ve cursed at that desk. I’ve eaten spicy crunchwraps at that desk. I’ve slumped over it, half asleep. And yet, when I look back over my body of work, academic, technical, non-fiction, fiction, both published and not, I’m really happy with it.
Summer is in full swing and the Smart Women want to talk about what each of their summers looks like.
I’ve already had a full summer’s worth of life crammed into my summer so far, but why not live in the fast lane?
I just got back from Barbados, where I presented on the Caribbean holdings of the Slave Societies Digital Archive at the Association of Caribbean Historians’ annual meeting. Let me tell you, this group of scholars is amazing. About half come from institutions in the Caribbean itself, and the rest from everywhere else. They do simultaneous translation so that people who don’t speak English, Spanish, and French can hear the latest scholarship of the full region and ask questions of people a language barrier would prevent them from asking. And they are the only scholarly organization that I know of, that has a end-of-conference fete written directly into the constitution. Our right to party is constitutional! And what a fete. You haven’t lived until you’ve been part of a group of scholars who can both bachata and whine. Continue reading “The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1”→
I’m pretty young, and already I have more projects ideas than I will be able to write in this lifetime. This is true even if I have the fortune of living well into my 90s (which I suspect I won’t, as my family’s history is riddled with darkly comedic early deaths- too much pull toward adventure, and not enough common sense in the Sutton genes).
I do periodically root out the “bad” ideas- the ones that wouldn’t work because of the mediums I write in, or the zeitgeist, or because they would be better expressed non-verbally, or by someone who isn’t me, or the ones that go beyond my current skillset, or the ones that wouldn’t help along any of my personal or career goals. I hesitate to call them bad though, as any idea can be good under the right circumstances. But I’m all about efficiency. Do I have time or inclination to cultivate new circumstances? Not right now. Let’s work with the circumstances I’ve already got.
Actually, I’m not sorry. I’m late with my post because I am on the beautiful Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius for work, and it is so heart-breakingly breathtaking that I needed a minute to just appreciate being here and learning.
You see, the formerly Dutch island is also a location in the nonfiction history book I’m writing. Known as the “Golden Rock,” it was the center of Atlantic Commerce in the 1700s, and a lot of that was deemed illicit by the other European superpowers of the time. It was filled to the gills with pirates, and plunder, and esoteric objects from around the world.
The island isn’t a big tourist destination (outside of a small and devoted group of returning diving and nature enthusiasts), and doesn’t have a place for larger cruise ships to dock, so much of the material remnants of this history remain. Down every alley, over every cliff, is evidence of corrupt governors, the enslaved, plantations, merchant homes, warehouses, etc. Yellow bricks imported from the Ijssel River regions in the Netherlands comprise some of the most important ruins. Sherds of blue and white Delftware can be seen embedded in the runoff from several forts and plantations. Divers still regularly find glass beads used in trading in the sand. Many residents live in or on top of historically important buildings and sites. Everything is free and open to be viewed by anyone who cares enough to look. Every breath you take, is saltwater and history.
Thankfully this island also has people who appreciate all they have, and work hard to keep it safe for the future. I had the fortune of meeting them, and seeing the history through their eyes. And you know what happened? I discovered that several of the things historians like to repeat about this island in the literature, had to have been written in error if they weren’t outright falsification. When you can tangibly step into a place that you only before knew from the documents, a whole new truth unfolds right in front of your eyes.
This happened to me when I visited Ghana in 2010: many of the slave forts I wrote about, I had discovered in documents in The Hague, where most Dutch imperial materials are kept. From reading them, I had an idea in my head about what it must have been like. But actually going there, showed me that many of the things people wrote about would have been impossible. I walked several of the trails mentioned in the documents to see how long it took. I looked at the distances between forts, and how far away they were from the ocean, to see which cannon shots claimed in the literature could have made it, and which wouldn’t have. I saw the way the vegetation grew. I looked at how ruins were positioned. I realized at what points of the day which way the shadows would lie. I made note of the directions the wind blew. All of the sudden, a whole new world of what would have been possible and what wouldn’t opened up.
It’s the same here. Seeing the bays makes it obvious which could have sustained ships, and which would have wrecked them against the rocks. Seeing the plantation setups allows me to make guesses as to how many enslaved workers there could have been at any one time. Seeing the steep immensity of the inactive volcano known as the Quill (pictured above) makes it clear that no planting could have happened on its sides without some serious twenty-first century landscape architecture. Going to the ruins of the governor’s mansion helped me to see the types of things he could and could not see from his desk. All of these facts are incredibly helpful, and will breathe life into my book that I wasn’t even aware was missing.
For everyone in our circles, 2017 was filled with too much gin, not enough vegetables, and eternal guilt for not doing more: not resisting more, not creating more, not exercising more, not inspiring others more, not loving ourselves more.
But we muddled through, didn’t we? Not all of us, but many of us. And in times of desperation, unashamedly being yourself and getting stuff done is brave, and it is resisting. Every time we didn’t succumb to despair and instead lived our lives with compassion and truth, we succeeded.
And we believe we can all do one better in 2018.
We can let go of the guilt, for starters. We can recognize and really feel that we are living in unusual times, and that takes its toll. The feelings we are all experiencing- sadness, anxiety, powerlessness, concern, anger- are perfectly reasonable. We can make space for those feelings, honor them as typical reactions to abnormal situations, and find ways to press on and be effective in our lives despite them.
This Holiday season and into 2018, we are going to take the time to process these feelings, honor them, and figure out how to best adapt. We don’t accept the current political and social climate in the World, but we acknowledge its existence and effect on our lives. And we will fight to be more proactive rather than reactive. We will fight to find a balance between giving to those more affected than us, and putting time into things that help us nurture ourselves and grow. We will pare down that which no longer feels necessary and orient toward who we have always wanted to be.
And as always, we’d like to give you permission to do the same, if you want it. From three smart women to a whole lot more (and our men and non-binary readers as well, we love you, too), stay safe, grab happiness where you can, and find a way to make 2018 the very best it can be.