hush, Tine

March is proving to be quite a fretful month, as its circumstances push me to confront personality issues I would otherwise ignore. For instance, a tendency for petulance and snark when pressured, hangry, or bored, a sense of arrogance conveyed by every tweet complaining about other people’s messy citations or bad writing—which is rich, considering that I haven’t been writing much myself (I always complain as a reader).

When I think about the whys and wherefores of my unbridled testiness, I conclude with my own frustrations about research and writing, which boil down to: I never feel like I am doing enough, even if I fill my days and nights with work. When I received the acceptance letters for a research fellowship and three conferences I’d applied for (one at the end of this month, and the rest in the summer), my first feeling, before relief or gladness, was worry that I’d prove my insufficiency.

A week ago, I got dumped again, it’s the same story every year. I cried that night for four hours from 1 to 5 a.m., fell asleep, and headed to work upon waking with a migraine that I nursed for two days, until I thought to take painkillers for my head and for my heart. The consuelo de bobo of dealing with rejection so routinely is that at some point one stops romanticizing it. One remembers that this, like all things, will pass, and we’ll all die soon enough. In the meantime, one could have coffee and Panadol to hand.

I’ve also realized that I have a penchant for bribing myself out of sadness. If you don’t cry over lunch, I will buy you ice-cream. If you can stop thinking about him for a month I will buy you a gold necklace.

It doesn’t work that way, Tine.

Nevertheless, I buy for myself, in the space of a week, with the speed with which impulses are actualized by the digital: three beaded bracelets made of garnet, chrysocolla, dumortierite, and lapis; two silver rings, one with an onyx cabochon and the other with a labradorite teardrop; a thin gold-plated band with an enamel heart; a pair of cloisonne earrings in the image of gilded blue peacocks; and a helluva lot of guilt over throwing money on what are but metals and stones that can’t love me back.

In a WhatsApp reading group, somebody mentions Judith Butler’s “Doubting Love.” I scan and send the copy of “Response: Performative Reflections on Love and Commitment” that I keep in my journal.

What I like about this essay: it gives not a definitional notion of love, but discusses its performance, embodiedness, and temporality as a speech act that carries the possibility of changing the circumstances into which it is introduced at the moment of utterance. Focusing on the performative nature of love, in a way, makes the question “What is love?” irrelevant, because love as an experience becomes ineffable and incomplete, only known and felt in and through the body of one who acts in love. With time and repetition, with every act of loving-kindness, love as affect through duration becomes sedimented in the body. I could try to bring this experience into words, but words would always fail me—thus I “submit to a cliché” (Butler 236). Such embodied performativity is also why “moving on” is difficult, for in love I have oriented myself in certain ways. I may say, Now I will walk away; I may cover a distance, separate “I” and “he,” and yet—still—unconsciously—gravitate toward the sounds and tastes and colors that pleased him.

I lay myself down in bed, pull the covers over my head. I turn to the side facing the wall, hold my right hand with my left, and ask, What’s wrong, Tine? Why are you so sad and mad with me and everyone else these days? I listen patiently to a litany of her grievances: We haven’t been sleeping before 4 a.m. since February 25. We haven’t been studying Spanish for two weeks. We haven’t gone to the gym since last Saturday, you’ve just been feeding me kimchi and eggs and Weet-bix in almond milk, and my body aches in so many places. You say you love me, but I don’t feel it—you treat other people with more kindness and respect and justice than you do me.

I squeeze her hand and say that I’m sorry. I’ve been acting like a total asshole! I’ve been ignoring your needs and shushing your complaints and not taking your side when I should be the first to take your side. Listen, I promise, I’ll stop treating you so badly. We will sleep enough, eat something tasty and nutritious, make time for activities we enjoy. I’ll learn to draw, articulate, and protect your boundaries, and take better care of you. So please don’t cry anymore.

When I feel too many feelings, I like to take my copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and flip it open to a random page. These are from Books Eight and Eleven.

book 8-01

book 11

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for A, on Slowly

Dear A,

I hope that you’ve been well these past months, and that this year brings you something to long for and look forward to.

I have been thinking, on and off, about what it means to try to be, as you said, a “welcoming house.” (I noticed that you didn’t use “home” — which reminds me of lines from Warsan Shire: “you can’t make homes out of human beings / someone should have already told you that”.) Tonight, I think that welcoming means keeping certain rooms open, airy and bright, pleasing to the sort of guests one would like to gather. And keeping certain other rooms closed.

Last year, I watched David Lowery’s film A Ghost Story, about a specter haunting the house he had lived in with his wife, long after she left it to rebuild her life with another man. When she leaves, the house is let to a new family. In a scene that seems right out of Poltergeist, the ghost flings dishes in the kitchen, at the mother and her children who recently moved in.

I suppose being a welcoming house also means exorcising the ghosts of one’s past that threaten to harm the present, and if one can’t exorcise them, then make peace with them.

You know, the moon will wax full tonight, amplifying emotional states and intentions. To render this energy useful, I was told to imagine being in a place of healing, and from that place, to tell a new story I would like for my life, get rid of the old fictions, the ones that no longer serve or fit. There is, indeed, a narrative I would like to stop telling. Perhaps this is the year I will learn how to love (and receive love) without fear, clinging, or pushing away.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to in the coming months? I wonder, do you like the place (geographical, psychological) you are in now?

 

All the best,
K

research resolutions for 2019

(because my studies is my primary concern right now — even as I imagine that it will not be so again after graduate school)

  1. Write first, read more later. It is so easy to get sucked into the abyss of endless reading and have no essay to show for it. Because often, “I need to read more” functions as an excuse to avoid the more difficult work of sitting down and facing a blank screen, thinking your way through a problem, sentence by painful sentence.
  2. Read literature or book reviews instead of entire books (unless truly necessary). This would give you a broad survey of extant thought on your topic, as well as the opinion of more seasoned scholars on the value of a work. Yes, going through all the sources mentioned in these reviews might be the more rigorous thing to do, and yes, this could limit the formation of your own perspective on a work, but you ain’t got a lifetime for PhD. You need to be picky about what to read in a sea of publications.
  3. Read purposefully — filter all information through the questions, arguments, and conversations you’re engaging with. As a Libra moon (hehe) I tend to want to survey all existing perspectives before staking my position, but as I said in #2 I ain’t got a lifetime for PhD.
  4. Read selectively — not just in terms of content, but style. If the argument laid out in the abstract is trite or uninteresting, the first couple of paragraphs dull and needlessly verbose, the “literature review” a mere laundry list of names and titles and summaries, why go on reading? What you consume, you tend to regurgitate. Be sure to prioritize good writing.
  5. Read through different modalities. Not everything has to be close-read! Skim for keywords, telling factoids, relevant references. Discard guilt over not reading “everything” written on your topic “in full.” That simply is not possible.
  6. Have a daily quota for reading, writing, and editing (decide whether to measure this in terms of output, like the number of words or pages written, or time spent). Work is endless, so to guard against overwhelm, set a baseline for “productivity,” and try to go a little above that each day.
  7. Minimize distractions. Just delete Instagram! You might be surprised at how much more you’d be able to read or write if you weren’t double-tapping posts or watching stories. Do you really need to keep up with others’ virtual lives? Or broadcast what’s happening in yours? The people who matter will check in with you from time to time. You do check in with the people who matter to you from time to time. Figure out who and what is important here, right now.
  8. On drafting: as Super said, “Write your chapters, instead of writing about what you’ll write in your chapters.” There ought to be a limit to planning. Often the recursive process of writing takes you to directions you hadn’t foreseen. That’s okay. Just write, and figure out how you can massage your work into coherence and elegance later.
  9. Get your sources in order! File and label them according to the chapter you’ll use them for, or the problematic you’re engaging with. Use folders physical and digital in building your personal archive, and regularly update your records, i.e. running bibliography. Research consists in weaving a narrative web of various, and sometimes, seemingly unrelated information. If you leave a massive amount of material in a steadily growing, undifferentiated pile — or worse, if you forget or lose track of sources, which can easily happen when they’re digital — you’re fucked.
  10. PhD research is a long, arduous process that often yields no immediate, palpable rewards. It can feel lonely and tedious and meaningless sometimes. So have a hobby that can give you a concrete sense of achievement — KonMari your possessions, learn a new language, build muscles in the gym, go hiking on weekends. Anything to remind you that your life is infinitely richer than a dissertation. (But don’t get too distracted, see #7.)

Ultimately, keep in mind that you are more than what you write, more than what you know and think about. The PhD is not your endgame, but a means to more involved and informed forms of engagement — in the classroom, in social and political affairs. As a professor in our department once remarked, think of academia not as an object, but as a method for the kind of life you want to live. Live well.