Linking Past and Present - Christina Carlson

Tuesday I attended my first class of a study tour of medieval Spain, which focuses on the Camino de Santiago. It has become clear to me that this will indeed be a journey, not just through space but through time, a going back to go ahead. The course is being run by Prof Richard Gyug at Fordham University, where I earned my PhD. He has been doing this for a decade or more and I have wanted to do it with him for some time, but the scheduling was never right. However, when I found out that he is retiring this year, I recognized that it was my last opportunity to do it with him. I e-mailed him to get his thoughts on the possibility of my accompanying him, and he graciously invited me to join the group; I felt like the Chaucerian narrator at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales “I was of hir felawshipe anon.” (GP 32)

Of course, this is not a pilgrimage to Canterbury, England but one to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, and we are not beginning at a London tavern but in a classroom, FMH 322 to be exact. There is no Knight, no Miller, no creepy Pardoner (thankfully); rather a group of roughly a dozen students, almost all female, almost all Caucasian (as seems to be the trend in study abroad generally), plus a PhD student and two professors. And me. I find myself, unintentionally but perhaps not surprisingly, a bit like the Chaucerian narrator, in the sense that I am a liminal figure in the group. At this point in my life I too am a professor of medieval studies, one who has traveled with students to the pilgrimage centers of Rome and the Isle of Iona. This is in part my reason for wanting to go along, as I would like to offer a Camino course at Iona and I need to learn how it’s done. But this of course also makes me a student. It is not lost on me that it has been 20 years since I took Prof Gyug’s medieval history class, in spring 1997. The other students coming on the Camino were not yet, or just, born. As I watched the grad student offer her overview of medieval architecture (a similar overview to one I give my own students when we travel to the Cloisters, or Iona or Rome) it occurred to me that I taught my first class as a grad student in that same building, perhaps that same classroom, or one identical to it. And so I find myself (like Chaucer’s narrator) identifying with each of my fellow pilgrims on some level, and yet different, separate, from them all (and now, like him, recording the experience for you, my audience).

This difference was thrown into full relief when we all had to share the bravest thing we’ve ever done. For many of the students, just coming to Fordham, to the Bronx, was their answer (how long ago my own move seems—I came to the borough 21 years ago. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere, almost half my life). Prof Gyug admitted that volunteering to chair Fordham’s committee on core revision was his (and having just seen that process unfold here at Iona, I believe it!). Mine? Having a C-section, which was terrifying in its own right (giant needle in the back? Check. Being conscious while people are cutting you open? Check.), but also marked the beginning of motherhood, a daunting and enduring journey all its own. It was the obvious, immediate answer for me, and yet, as I looked around the room, I became acutely aware that I was the only mother in the group. I had my daughter after I had hit all my academic/professional milestones (PhD, job, tenure), so I tend to see her as separate from that process. And yet, she comes with me to campus, to the Cloisters, to the Isle of Iona, to Rome. And there she was again, creating distance between me and my fellow pilgrims, or maybe bridging it—I’m not quite sure which, maybe both.

The Camino is not just an event—it’s a process. For me, it’s multiple processes. As a professor, I’m thinking about logistics: how does the class work? How would I need to adapt it for Iona? What is the budget? What are the risk management issues? As a student, I am trying to learn. Although I suspect I know a good deal of the general information we will cover (the course is intended for undergrads), I am by no means an expert in medieval Spain and I am excited about filling in this gap in my own knowledge base, and also perhaps excavating six lost years of Spanish classes buried somewhere in my memory. Of course, I am also a pilgrim. My interest in medieval studies grew out of a desire to understand my own Catholic upbringing, and when I read or visit the texts and places of medieval Christendom, it is never with complete intellectual detachment, but rather with a sense of connection, of continuity. Our next class meeting is Tuesday, Feb 28-Mardi Gras, or Carnival. The course will span the entirety of Lent and the Easter Triduum; we will be in Spain for Pentecost. It is a time of spiritual rigor and renewal. And of course there is the physical aspect of the pilgrimage—we will be walking, 10+ miles a day, for two weeks. This is, perhaps, the most challenging aspect of the Camino (which I know from my lost Spanish simply means “walk”), the one that will require the most preparation from me. So how to prepare? Like any physical endeavor, it requires a training regimen. This is where being a professor, a student and a mother gets tricky—where do I find the time to practice being a pilgrim? And where can I walk the necessary distance in a place that is safe for me training on my own when I do find the time, as it is likely that I won’t be able to make all the group practice walks b/c of family obligations.

I was mulling over this question when inspiration struck. As Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz observed (and I’m paraphrasing), sometimes you need to travel to discover what is in your own backyard. Or, since I (still) live in the Bronx and don’t have a backyard, in the park across the street. I live at the corner of Van Cortlandt Park and Broadway, at the end of the #1 subway line. I looked it up—Broadway is 13 miles through Manhattan, another two here in the Bronx. That’s about the distance we need to be able to cover each day of the pilgrimage. And so I’ve decided to start with what I know and practice by walking the length of Broadway. From a practical standpoint, it’s perfect—it is literally right outside my door. It is paved, busy, safer then trekking the Putnam Trail on my own. And I would never be more than a few blocks from a subway station if I needed to get home. But I also love the idea of being a tourist in my own city. I have probably at some point or other traversed most of the length of Broadway, but I’ve never done it intentionally, or comprehensively. I expect to take lots of photos on the Camino, but why not start with the Great White Way—I’ve heard rumors that it’s a travel destination as well. But apart from being safe and convenient and interesting, there is also a personal aspect to it as well. I now live at one end of Broadway, the northern terminus of the #1 Subway. But there was a time, growing up in Staten Island, when South Ferry, the southern terminus, was the beginning. A time in grad school when I would visit my dad at his office at 17 Battery Place, a short walk from the start of Broadway, and let him take me to lunch or dinner. And then 9/11 happened. A week after I began working at Iona. I have not really been to the southern tip of Manhattan since, beyond driving under and past it, with one notable exception—I traveled from Iona to the SI ferry via public transit to meet my dad and go with him to his oncologist on SI during Heritage Week 2009. I was 4 ½ months pregnant. We found out he had a cancer that could not be cured, a cancer that may well have been caused by the toxic fallout of the Twin Towers.

Childhood, motherhood, academia, all converged and collapsed in that moment. Since then, my daughter has entered the world, my dad departed it. And I find myself staring at Broadway and seeing in it an opportunity to link my own past and present with a ribbon of asphalt, to draw it all together by experiencing the length as a whole rather than discrete parts. And all this in the service of preparing for the Camino, which also has me linking past and present in a different way, against the backdrop of the liturgical calendar, which medievalists will tell you is both linear and cyclical (it is quite possible I picked that up in Prof Gyug’s class in 1997). It all seems right and fitting.

So this week I start walking. I saw one of the Van Cortlandt Park hawks flying up to a tree with her breakfast, all shaggy with her warm winter feathers—I haven’t seen her since October, assumed she had migrated. But there she was. I watched her as she surveyed her domain from her perch in Van Cortlandt’s Tail, the little greenspace next to my building, just south of the park proper, on the corner of Broadway. I used to watch the hawks at Fordham, nesting high on the façade of Collins Hall. I just taught the book H is for Hawk, about an academic who loses her father. I took it as a good sign.


Procrastination and How to Overcome It - Ivy Stabell


In college, I was the Empress of the All-Nighter. An absolute champ. I’d open up a blank Word document, spread my class notes and books around me in a 360-degree rubbish heap of thoughts, crack a Red Bull, and just go, for hours and hours. I’d mutter to myself, half nobly and half self-pityingly, the lines of Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” The deadline pressure made me focused and strong, and I’d crank out page after page in the sortof silence of a college dorm at 2am. I even liked it. There’s a particular pleasure that comes with the next-day weariness of enormous academic output, and the nap I’d take the next afternoon when classes were done for the day – oh yeah, that was good stuff.

These days I’m somewhat reformed. I no longer cram major intellectual labor into one epic night, now knowing with age and experiences of both triumph and shame, that I’ve got better ideas when they’ve percolated over days, weeks, even months, and I’m more crafty in my delivery when I’ve been through several careful revisions. I break projects up into daily tasks and try to get through them all, one at a time, at a reasonable pace. And generally speaking, when I finish my work these days, I’m proud of what I’ve written, and it’s done on time. Maybe not well in advance of the deadline, but at least on the right day, by 11:59pm, Pacific Standard Time.

But I’ve still not conquered the day-to-day procrastination problem. I’m the worst. I’ll call random friends, make 19 cups of tea, answer not-at-all-urgent emails, and of course, click on random internet bullshit.

Here’s my list of the Top 5 Categories of Internet Distraction I am Likely to Click On:

1) shark or orca videos. Never cats. Gross.

2) photo galleries of Kate Middleton’s outfits.

3) 100% of

4) political articles, especially the kind that make me angry

5) personality quizzes, all varieties. Today I discovered in the “Which British Film Acting Legend Are You?” quiz that I’m Dame Judy Dench. Unexpected, but I’ll take it.

Recently, I asked one of my classes to write for a few minutes about what their writing process looks like, what they like about it, and what they hoped to change. There were lots of cool things in that stack of papers, but one frustration shared by many was a penchant for procrastination. Over the years, I’ve had many a student sheepishly admit to this problem. But never fear. I assure you, this particular brand of self-loathing is widely shared amongst students and faculty. I therefore dedicate this blog post you, my people! My fellow distracted, stalling people! Solidarity!

But also, mentorship. Procrastination is far from the deadliest of sins, and we shouldn’t feel too terrible about being engaged in non-work things that give us joy. Joy, I think, is downright essential. But, beyond the penalties that go with missing deadlines, procrastination can have another harsh consequence. When I was in college, I was smart, engaged, and interested. I did all my work and was invested in the ideas my courses engaged me in. But because I was overbooked, bad at planning, and a terrible daytime procrastinator, I wrote all my papers at the last minute. I always got good grades, but I never had the satisfaction of knowing I’d drained the tank on a particular task. Each time, I knew I could have done more. So let me share my very best anti-procrastination tips with you, as one who knows the struggle, and as one who knows the lingering disappointment that comes at the end, when you know you had more to give. We can’t get it right every time, but my goal for myself and for us all: feel this way as little as possible.

Top 5 Procrastination Curbing Practices:

1) The Buddy System: find a friend who is far better at focusing than you are, and beg them to be your work buddy. Ideally someone whose disapproval you dread enough to shape up and buckle down. Clark and Moretti are both good picks, for the record.

2) Internet-Free: so important. Find an Iona wireless deadspot or a cheap-o coffee shop that won’t give you their password, or if all else fails, turn off your wifi. If you can’t bear the idea of leaving your phone behind, bury it somewhere in an inconvenient corner of your bag.

3) Inspiring Environment: I like spaces that make me feel like its time to be SERIOUS. The Harry Potter room on campus is pretty good, or find the fanciest local library you’ve got.

4) 3 hour Chunks of Time: never write, study, etc. for more than 3 hours of a time. Take a break. But also, really crank during those three hours so that you deserve it.

5) Take Inspiration in Your Successes: when I’m starting something new and feel like I’ve completely forgotten how to write a good sentence, or whatever the task may be, I look into my archives of Done Work. It’s so reassuring to remember that I know how to survive this task and even do it well.

Reading Black Women Writers Saved My Life - Timothy Lyle

“Reading Black Women Writers Saved My Life”

I remember the first time I uttered these words aloud to an audience. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever said them or, honestly, had ever thought them at all—at least in the frank and urgent manner in which I delivered them at that moment. I was in the middle of an academic job interview, and one of the committee members focused on my embodiment of whiteness and my relationship to the literary and cultural traditions that I study. The curiosity, shock, or even resistance that I often navigate in these moments was not what was troubling in that moment. It was her insistence that I did not—could not—have a relationship to the literary tradition that I’ve spent most of my life studying that gave me pause. The interviewer’s commentary and its undercurrent felt very wrong to me. It was wrong.

When I started answering her exact question, I began with familiar talking points, but before I realized what was happening, I experienced a sobering moment of vulnerability and verbalized a deep truth. Admittedly, it was an accident, but one I realized too late to stop. Causing visible shock to everyone in the room, I said it: “honestly, reading black women writers saved my life.”

As a young child growing up in a lower-income part of rural Georgia, I had a father who, however well-intentioned, was unable to love or to affirm his family, particularly not his oldest child and only son who could not—for whatever reason—conform to rigid ideas of American masculinity. Couple an unhealthy father-son relationship with the fact that I was a gender non-conforming young person in the deep south with an emerging but fraught queer sexual orientation, and you have prime conditions for haunting familiar results: troubled self-worth, difficulty building sustaining community, and a fundamental absence of specific and relevant resources to navigate the world. (Even though this was certainly a different historical era, some of these realities persist, especially in certain remote parts of the country).

Finally, because I was reared in a strict, conservative Southern Baptist religious circle, I was convinced that God was not on my side either. Similar to a young Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, I was not sure if a God was listening to me either.

Without affirming models that reflected my worth, without visible alternative narratives to counter negative, derogating ones, and without recognizable, available community, I struggled to move through childhood and my emerging adolescence. And, of course, when my body started freaking out and feeling like an enemy (the usual suspects here—unrelenting acne, teeth that needed braces, and a voice that could not make up its mind about its tonal qualities), I fell deeper into myself and into the oppressive thoughts that never yielded messages of care. Indeed, it would be easy to highlight my whiteness and my maleness to undercut all that I share now, but do remember that the person charged with my care—the person who indelibly shaped my worldview—reminded me daily, hourly, by the minute—that I did not qualify. And, to be sure, other adults and even children in my community regularly reminded me of how and why I did not count in their conceptualizations of valuable folks either.

It was in this emotional and mental state that I began to encounter and to engage with the writings of black women. The abbreviated version of this lengthy story follows a young, inquisitive (one might substitute nosey as an accurate descriptor) boy who regularly asked too many questions of his conservative, southern educators. Growing tired of asking his teachers repeatedly about black writers and consistently receiving frustrating, unsatisfactory answers, he looked outside of formal educational spaces to find answers. Using silly, uninformed phrases at the local library like “can you show me the black books, please,” this young man makes me both laugh and flush with the redness of embarrassment today. Nonetheless, he fortunately met a kind, no-fuss librarian at the local library about half-a-mile from his house who was kind enough to lead him to the near-back portion of the small library to a collection of books that might interest him.

Now, memory starts to fail me a bit here because I cannot, hard as I try, recall all that was on those shelves or specific details about how the classification of materials actually worked. Was it African American writers? African writers? Writers that might fall under the broader umbrella of “minority literature?” I cannot be sure. What I do remember is a comfy beanbag chair on the floor right next to a window that flooded that portion of the room with the warmth and light of the Georgia sun. And I recall profoundly the characters, the plots, and the emotions that I experienced in those pages.

Because I was unable to acquire a library card without parental supervision, the librarian let me read the books while in the library, which provided me with the perfect excuse to leave a household that felt less than safe and stay gone for extended periods of time. We often hear phrases like “books are my refuge” or “reading introduces you to new worlds.” While I believe that those phrases have a lot of truth in them and regularly share the memes along with other book lovers on social media, when I think back on the contours of my childhood, I see clearly the literal applications of those phrases. I see how the library and, more importantly, how the writings of black women that captivated me daily for hours and hours at a time were actually a refuge. One that served as a (temporary) buffer from the abusive behavior of my father and one that provided an invaluable escape from my own whirlpool of negative thoughts and emotions. The closest thing that I could imagine to “safety.”

I should pause here to be abundantly clear about something. This is not some scene from The Help or some 1990s-version of Imitation of Life (even though I do make space for subversive readings even of those films). Nor am I conflating my—however crappy—circumstances with the trauma endured by black women in America. These writers were not writing about me. They were, in large part, not writing to me or for me either. Their careers do not exist to assuage the pang of my violent childhood necessarily, and they certainly do not acquire their value because a white male reader learned how to love himself in and through them. But their work did accomplish those things as well, however obliquely.

Rooted in their fundamental particularity, women like Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, Ann Petry, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, Lucille Clifton, and so many others taught me lessons that became life-giving. By engaging with their fictive communities and worlds, I encountered models of communal care, palpable examples of deliberate revaluations of self, vibrant meditations on the dynamics of love without possession, ruminations on the dangers of viral quests for power and domination, and roadmaps for how to navigate a world not ready for you (or not even built for you to thrive).

Their reverence for orality captured the ears of an emerging young reader. Their language always said “come on in and sit for a spell. Let’s talk.” Their characters offered testimonies of healing. And, from a very young age, their narratives exposed me to complicated ideas like “intersectionality” in practice—even if I would not have the theoretical or political vocabulary to describe them until graduate school and beyond.

Though I know clearly that I did not even begin to scratch the surface of these stories and their complexities in those early readings, I did develop a life-long appreciation for, dedication to, and deep love of writing by black women writers. I am happy to share today that that relationship has never dissipated. These women writers taught me what it means to belong to communities, how to love self and others, and how to exist with the natural phenomena that surrounds me in ethically sound ways. How to “get right” when I forget.

When I was twenty-six years old, I was packing to make my move to Washington, DC to begin my Ph.D. program in African American literature at Howard University, and I came across two journals from days gone by that I was sure I had destroyed. I immediately panicked. Had my mom read these? Who—for whatever reason—had ventured through them without my knowing? While I was successful in destroying most of them years before (perhaps a cardinal sin for an English Professor, I now realize), two remained because I had hidden them so well that I forgot where they were.

Honestly, I did not have the courage to read them all cover-to-cover, but I did read enough to remind myself of the darkest of times when my understandings of self were the most polluted and when the future seemed completely out of view.

As I sort of marveled at how this young person managed to persist, I came across a line that I had written down and surrounded in quotes in one of my more defiant entries: “I found god in myself, and I loved her fiercely.” Even though I neglected to attribute the quote according to MLA format like a dutiful scholar, the incoming doctoral student in me immediately recognized Ntozake Shange’s words from her famous choreopoem: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Though I knew that I wasn’t the lady in red, brown, green, blue, orange, yellow, or purple, I still bore witness to their boldly black feminist testimonies, and I thank a pro-feminist, pro-queer, and unapologetically pro-black spiritual being that I did.

If you had asked me years ago how I avoided self-harm throughout my adolescence, I might have half-seriously answered “a combination of accident and the internet.” While I still believe that online communities were vital, I realized during that moment of consciousness raising in my job interview that it was the writing of black women that somehow kept me pushing forward to claim a future that I now firmly know that I deserve and that the world can benefit from.

In my larger career development, I eventually learned how to engage with the field professionally and how to hold myself accountable for producing responsible scholarship that is theoretically informed and robust, but affective studies has shown us time and time again that these emotional dimensions matter as well. Theoretically and otherwise. We should be cognizant of how and why they impact our complicated relationships with texts.

Though great emphasis is often put on detached, “objective” scholarly inquiry, I would be remiss if I did not—at least in some spaces—refuse that professional position as my only engagement. In fact, the development of the literary traditions that I study found their earliest manifestations by writing for life and death situations and by using experimental knowledge as a critical way of knowing. A way of knowing that has substantial value. And I am not sure that the tradition has ever lost that sense of urgency—that fundamental effort to help folks get free. To make life more livable. It might, actually, form part of its essential life-blood. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Writing about this even today, I realize that when I uttered the words “reading black women writers saved my life,” I was not being hyperbolic or offering dramatic effect. I accidentally but sincerely articulated one of my most important life truths about my relationship to narrative. And I have trouble imagining who I would be as a person or a professional without it. Thankfully, I don’t have to.

TEN LIFE-GIVING READS (in no particular order)

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

Toni Morrison, Sula

Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place

Audre Lorde, Zami: a New Spelling of My Name

Lucille Clifton, Good News about the Earth

Janet Mock, Redefining Realness

Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings