Scholar, writer, editor

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The pros and cons of a life in limbo

I remember when limbo was a party game that involved music and passing under a stick. I miss those days.

Now limbo is a state of existence. It is the constant presence of the weight of waiting for opportunities or information to make decisions about where life will take us. It is the ever-present itch in one’s feet to just meet the road at the door and start walking, to move on, hopefully forward, but even just laterally into a new way of being for a little while in order to see what might yet come. I hate limbo. I hate waiting instead of doing. I hate feeling like I’ve relived the same year three times, and like I’m just waiting for my life to begin.

Famously, Einstein is meant to have commented on how it is illogical to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. But at the same time, when you have worked for years towards a certain goal, it is hard to stop trying and hoping that, well, maybe this time, this application cycle, this attempt at a grant, something might turn out differently. I think it is human nature to keep trying, for better or for worse. And I am no better than my human nature.

Trying is exhausting. Trying and applying over and over again, receiving rejections over and over again can become a heavy weight. I feel it constantly, even as I feel slightly numbed to it. How many times can one repeat the apologetic requests to referees, or let go of the feeling that when it takes so many other people’s efforts for you to try to pursue something, every time it doesn’t work out you’re not just wasting your own time and energy, but that of the people who support you? Academia is, to some people very solitary work, but in the application cycles, we can become acutely aware of how we are dependent on communities large and small, and how we are part of systems and networks though we may often work alone. When I am most tired of limbo, I think it is because I am most aware that the longer I choose this, the longer I hold people with me in this space, the longer I make other people repeat the same years over and over again.

And yet, as I come through this application season again, I have realized that I am not the same person I was when I first started trying, when I first entered this particular limbo. The longer I’ve been in this space, the more able I have become at separating the things I wanted (and still do want), from the things I need. I have had the time to step back and dream new dreams, consider myself as a whole self, instead of just focusing on pursuing the path I imagined. I’ve been able to honor parts of myself that like to make things without feeling like they need to necessarily be “good.” I’ve made concrete things, reclaimed old hobbies I’d neglected. I learned to write for me again, instead of chasing bylines. I’ve learned to help things grow, and learned that when I fail in that endeavor, it is not the end of the world. I’ve let go of the heavy bits, the things that weigh me down. We have five get-out-of-limbo plans, and when we can take action on one of them, well, I’m going to enter that new step in life a different person than I was when I thought I knew exactly what path I was meant to walk. Limbo has been a place and a state of being where I’ve learned a bit of stillness, contentment, and peace in the middle of discomfort and the unknown. I’ve learned that there is a part of me that doesn’t want a life where I am constantly evaluated, constantly weighed and measured: I have plans that take that into account. I’ve learned that there are parts of me that don’t want to charge forward into the great wide world; I have plans for that too. I’ve found boundaries. And in doing this, the past six months especially have let me truly internalize that the things I don’t want matter just as much as the things that I do want.

Is this a touch vague? Perhaps. But does it really matter? There is both a power and a happiness in giving to the world, to other people, only what you want to give, and not what it thinks or they think might be owed. Being in limbo has accidentally been a method of stepping out of what I thought I should be doing, and into what is actually the best for me and my life and my health, and my ability to build fulfilling community. I don’t know what is next, again, for the third autumn of my life (the last fellowship was a welcome change from that), but all the experiences of the last few years, both good and bad, have been their own gift. There was part of me that always felt like if I wasn’t doing everything all the time, if I wasn’t constantly moving forward, I was going to lose momentum. It has been such a wonderful thing to pause and finally really ask myself, momentum towards what, exactly?

There is an American children’s book from the early 1900s by Eliza Orne White whose title I can never quite recall, and in what feels like typical New England story-telling, it is an instructive tale meant to teach its readers three lessons about how to live well. The crux of these lessons are to eat what one is given, to work diligently, and to rest when it is time to rest without complaint. The last six months of repeating the waiting process, the application process, the hurry-up-an-be-patient of it all have felt very much like my own version of that third lesson: to take rest, especially when there is no real choice but to do so. I can’t stop the stress of this situation, or its effects on my body in terms of pain and tension and other effects, but, I can at least learn to recognize these things and their causes and step back when needed. I can either face this moment as my own personal hellish Groundhog Day set up, or I can do things that work for me, and see myself as a whole person even when facing institutions on all sides that never will. And I think, on some level, finally learning that in a way that I apply the lessons of rest and care to myself instead of as things that other people deserve but not me, is going to be one of the most significant things about my 20s and early 30s, even more than the doctorate or anything I might do with it.

Limbo may never be only a game again, but it doesn’t have to be a wasteland either. It can be a period of rest and transformation and ongoing growth. And when it does end (and it does, eventually, end), hopefully, much as been learned about who we want to become on the other side of that leg of the journey.

Reflections on Fantasies, Once and Future

It has been a long month of being work-social (and we’re not quite done yet, either). Following an incredible Children’s Literature Summer School in Antwerp, I finally made it to an international fantasy conference – Once and Future Fantasies, hosted by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow, and IAFA. It has been a short, intense week filled with interesting talks, wonderful moments, and more wonderful people. But it has also been an revealing week, one that makes it more and more clear to me not only how much we all carry ourselves into our research and our work, but also how necessary it is for those of us who research fantasy to do so with our feet firmly planted in the world we inhabit – and all its ills, whether they touch our daily lives or not.

I’ve absolutely loved that at this conference people have been brave enough to question the foundational texts of the genre, pulling at texts and corners of the world that for many of us are not only a core part of our interests, but have become part of our identities. And to be honest, these were necessary, wonderful questions, that need asking constantly. And if I continue being honest, a byproduct of this questioning was responses that, though I’m sure unintentionally, drove home just how much of an outsider I am and have been and may well always be in these spaces. And it made me lean into my other skills, my mediator half, wishing that in certain moments I could have intervened from that skill-set, so the othering effect could have been resolved in the moment. And I wasn’t the biggest fan of having to have that internal battle in a public space that was also meant to be an open community. My reasoning for this is complex. I empathize, truly, with the need to defend academic ground and value for many reasons. I’m a Disney scholar in the worlds of children’s literature, fantasy, and media studies – of course I know intimately what it feels like when someone looks sideways at my research topics of choice, their importance, their value. I’m also deeply emotionally connected to my texts of choice, from the Disney adaptations to the fairy tale adaptations, and so many others, these books and stories have meant so much to me that I do really dislike when people poke at their worth. But, to me, academia is a place of uncertainty and curiosity first, surety maybe fifth or sixth, if ever. If we cannot separate ourselves from the work that drives us, especially when gathered in our larger and wider community, and ask deeper questions about the relative aspects or relational aspects of what we hold intellectually important, then, well, we have a little bit of a problem.

The idea of separating the self from the work is a tricky one, something I have deliberately worked on for the last three years. I firmly, firmly believe that we bring ourselves into our work, and that self inflects upon our research questions, how we investigate our topics of choice. There is no way that I can pretend that my life experiences have not informed my curiosities. But that self is present in terms of my investigations, my research, my writing. I have learned, through many a grant rejection season, a freelance writing career, and many other things in life, that when it comes to considering the place of my work in the world, I am going to have to accept that other people bring their whole selves to their consideration of my favorite things. I cannot cheekily describe my job as a researcher as “ruining everyone’s favorite childhood things” and not expect that to be a very multidirectional road. I have learned that if I don’t make room for other people’s whole selves and their criticisms, their modes of interrogation and questioning, I limit the potential of the work. All of us who push the edges of the field know what it is to be shut out of fields, to be sidelined. When we react to questions about the validity of what we might do, we need to consider where those questions come from. Are they coming from the establishment? Or are they coming from people who are also looking for their place in the wider intellectual community? Knowing the answer to those questions matters. And if we don’t answer those questions before we react to the questions, we risk passing on the negative part of academia, of making people feel like their inquiries are illegitimate and don’t belong in the spaces we hold so sacral ourselves. And that should not be part of the future we imagine for the field, or for the world.

A lot of the conference focused on questions of what fantasy has been, and what it might yet become. I think the question that also needs asking along side those ideas is, who is able to be imagined in fantastic spaces? Who gets to be part of the future imaginings? Whose dreams are considered big enough to to span the vast gaps in our possible futures, and are therefore taken up by others? We have to be honest with ourselves about who we imagine in speculative spaces, because this informs our reality, in small ways that then become big ways. I wonder sometimes if when we think about problem solving if we too often think about a small group of people doing the right thing to fix everything, and everyone needs to just wait for those with main character energy to solve the problems. We think about institutionalized problems as just too big to fight alone. And we’re right. Institutional and structural problems can’t be solved be even a small group of individuals. But communities being vocal, turning out, choosing the small right things over and over and over again? That can change things. If we choose to believe in that future. If we choose to imagine even future speculative fictions where solidarity is more powerful than heroism. If its not the ordinary person called upon to go on the wondrous journey, but the ordinary community called up to help individuals who need it. I addressed the conference attendees at the closing remarks in now what feels like a fugue state; I barely can remember what I said or if it even mattered. But I know I want to be part of of an academic community, a fantasy-loving community, a human community that believes not only in the power of a single voice speaking out courageously, but the ability of everyone to speak out against the myriad layered injustices we all face that make it so hard to dream of a better, more hopeful world.

I’m writing this on a record-setting day for heat in Cambridge; I want to imagine a world where this kind of heat is fully addressed – the way the world imagined a world where the hole in the ozone could be healed if the world could all agree to outlaw CFCs. I want to imagine that we still have time to make a difference in this big world using all of our strengths together, not waiting on a hero to come fix it. But I think the first step to all of that is learning to listen to other people as they speak from their experience, their place of strength, their place of weakness. No one of us can see the whole picture, ever. But all of us can imagine a better world into being. Once, and future, fantasies can give us so much, but I hope we have the courage together to imagine futurities that allow for more people to have a voice, and a presence, in the spaces we feel so at home in.

It has been an incredible month so far: though my own future remains so uncertain I know what a gift the month has been. I have been able to do the work I love, I have been able to truly enjoy the wider community in a way that I have not had access to in quite some time. I’ve met people that I’ve loved learning from for years, and new people who have inspired me to look more broadly and deeply at my own work, to question more things more deeply, to keep challenging my assumptions. If I get the chance to keep doing this work, I know this month has been instrumental in allowing me to do it better, to honor parts of myself that I did not know I had been suppressing for so long in order to just find my feet in the field a little bit. I think, when I call for people to be courageous in the future worlds they imagine, I am on some level asking for them to be courageous in the worlds they imagine, and notice who is missing in those spaces, whose absence they might not consciously notice, but if they can start noticing and imagining those spaces differently, those absences can be rectified. I’m asking that those of us who work on the fantastic be courageous enough to imagine an equitable fantastic, where people like me, and so different from me but bearing similar weights might also find both hope and refuge.

I’m looking forward to the next conference over the next few days, looking forward to who I might meet and what conversations might arise, and for one last chance (for now) to be part of these communities, even as I’m also looking at next steps in a variety of areas. But nevertheless, I’ll carry these days with me, for many reasons not written here, many many years into my future.

When waiting for change becomes stasis

I’ve somehow entered a time in my life where I’ve never written more, and yet, I have grown out of being a regular writer. I look back at the last post I wrote, so full of hope and openness, and while I don’t think that person disappeared over the first half of 2022, she’s certainly become more tired, less made of patience (not that she had too much to start with), and if anything, more impatient for some sort of sign as to what to do next and how to keep moving forward in any direction. She’s more frustrated, less hopeful and more aware of how much she needs a break from smiling and trying only to get her teeth kicked in by the universe. She’s tired of looking at a board full of deadlines that seems to simultaneously stagnate and multiply, when what she wants is a fresh start. In short, she feels stuck.

It’s a muddy sort of stuck, like walking familiar woodland paths after a hard rain and the mud just keeps slightly pulling at your shoes. I’m not stopped from doing anything, just highly aware that I’m trudging the same routes and not only are they not opening up new vistas, but, they also just seem to pull at me, with just enough weight that I feel a constant pressure. It’s just short of irritating, just enough to feel mildly fatiguing. Just enough to make both stopping full out or continuing onwards feel like equally bad decisions. No matter what I choose, I still feel things pulling at me, still feel a bit sticky.

There is something about summer in adulthood — it’s almost like we were all trained to look forward to the absence of school and in that training never noticed how busy this season remains, while also languishing. If the efforts of the winter and spring were unsuccessful, summer is where we learn to sit with it. The heat and humidity make it hard to physically want to move and can drive home lack of movement in other areas of life. It is the lull between application opportunities, between waiting for things to start in full swing. It is when I most feel on a hamster wheel, uncertain of if I should try to get off, or even how to get off. In several years now of waiting for the right moment and opportunity for change, of being poised to leap into the unknown, I’m realizing that I actually feel less ready to jump and more frozen in a single set of movements.

There is also something incredibly draining about only being able to make a decisions a year at a time. Where we live, what we do, what our future looks like – I used to think in five and ten year spans and for the last few years, my planning has been determined in 6 month blocks instead. It makes it difficult to feel like there is any kind of wide open sense of possibility ahead. Whether wanting ‘adventure in a great wide somewhere’ or wanting to be able to build something long term, neither is possible with knowing where you might stand. But that is just the problem, I’m not really standing anywhere; I don’t have a fixed point from where I can make plans, and move forward. I just have that hamster wheel, that well-worn track to either nowhere or continually approaching the same starting point. Someone said something about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing and expecting something different. It is interesting how the norms of my chosen profession expect us to do just that. It is interesting too how so much in this world expects us to respond to changes in such ways that the world manages to stay exactly the same for those comfortable with how things are or have been. These things are not unrelated; I feel them more in this season’s restless yet languishing humidity.

I have a satin pothos which seems to be struggling as much as I am in this season. I had bought him last winter. I named him Philippe. I only know what sort of plant he is because he went from full and vibrant to limp and struggling over the last month and I had to start doing some research. But when a plant is ailing, the solutions are pretty straightforward. Prune, repot, maybe take some cuttings from the healthy part for propagation as a backup. I have five such cuttings sitting in shot glasses on my table at the moment. But unlike those cuttings, I can’t chop off bits of myself, divide myself, and just wait for each separate self to take root. Humans just don’t work that way. But I like to imagine it might be possible, that I might be able to compartmentalize a little bit – not shut things away but rather set parts of myself to the side and maybe focus on sides that have been ignored in the relentless pursuit of a singular goal.

But even if I do find a way to grow in more directions, for now, it will be still with one foot on that treadmill, one shoe clinging to the muddy track. The truth is, I don’t know how to make this change, or what I might change to. What I do know is that I have a whiteboard with obligations and deadlines. I have things I have meant to do, and things to write in the next six months. Maybe by midwinter things will feel different. Or maybe, the most I can hope for is a new version of Philippe the satin pothos to be thriving despite the decline of the original. But for now it is the last Friday in June, two cuttings have sprouts, we know where we’re living for the next year, and in the next thirty days, I will be closer to done with abstract things that were set in motion anywhere from six months to two years ago, and can then turn my attention more closely to my more concrete everyday life and my thoughts of how I want to live it going forward.

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