Exactly one month ago I began my postdoctoral fellowship adventure in Antwerp, and I think I am profoundly struggling with the passage of time. One the one hand, it is moving so quickly, and in terms of work I feel like I am racing various clocks, and feel a (most definitely internalized and only coming from me) pressure to perform. And on the other hand, as much as I am growing to love this city, and am fond of the people I have met here, I am doubly homesick, for my home with my husband in the UK, and home-home in the US, and I am oh so aware of the time spent away from them. But I also know it is just a matter of weeks until visits and before I know it I will be back in the UK for good, and the bigger source of stress will be whether or not I will have accomplished all I wished to in this period of research time.
I’ve joined the Constructing Age for Young Readers (CAFYR) team at the University of Antwerp, and while this is a step in a different direction from my PhD, I am finding that it is opening up space to pursue questions and play with texts I did not have space for during my doctoral research. I’m excited to look at fairy tales from a new angle, discover new authors, and work with new people. I’m also excited to discover who I am as an adult on my own; I might miss home but I also know that opportunities like this are rare gifts, and that few people get the chance to step sideways onto a different path, face fears, do things that scare them.
I did not have on the bingo card for my thirties that I would end up a Belgian civil servant. As much as I love the idea of travel, I never thought I would end up living in a fourth country – I would have stayed in my home state my whole life if I hadn’t stumbled onto reasons to leave. And to be honest, it has not been the easiest transition, this step farther than I had ever gone before. But it has also been one of the biggest learning experiences, in terms of me learning what I can do, who I can grow into being, what I can handle. I know well that I will miss it here when it is time to go, and I think I might be a different person at the end of this. But that too will be its own beginning, and maybe life is easier if we think less in terms of the finality of time passing, and more in terms of the change it carries with it as it passes.
As media and everyday rhetoric in the so-called West continues to focus on ‘returns to normal’ I’ve found myself more reflective about what ‘normal’ means, and who is and has been excluded from it. I think about the bodies whose blood feeds a small sector of the world’s concept of normal – from access to goods and vacation spots to which bodies need to be heavily policed for a very small segment of the world to feel safe and free.
I am thinking of who is left out when a global pandemic that has kept me from seeing my immediate family in sixteen months, that most certainly means that the last time I saw certain other friends and family members is likely the last time I will see them though we could not have known this, is declared “over” because a certain part of the world has vaccines. I’m thinking about vaccine access and how the profits of billionaires and corporations have been given preference over people, and for whom the pandemic will be extended and worsened because of that callousness.
I am thinking about borders, and who gets to take their ability to cross them for granted. I am thinking about how on paper I should be able to take border crossing for granted but reality and the past four years of rhetoric around immigration has taught me differently. I’m thinking of what it would be like to be able to travel without exit strategies, without contingency plans, without always thinking six months in advance.
I think about friends who still bear the weight and fear of the last year, whose lives were made easier by accessibility measures and the lack of need to travel or be physically present in places to be part of things, and how in the push to reclaim normal, they are now back to being excluded.
I think about people who were able to bear their jobs better, despite the pandemic, because they did not have to put their bodies in front of their coworkers. I think about people who have been broken by their jobs because others still demanded to be served in certain ways, and demanded that their bodies were put on the line for customers’ senses of normalcy and entitlement.
I think about how all the tools were right there; all the choices were right there to build back a better world. To choose to make people and their needs the focus of governing rather than corporate profits, to reshape modes of life into gentler patterns. I think of every time those choices were let go of in favor of egos and profit and self-centered patterns of thinking.
I think about sacrifice as a word, how often it is said by people who very clearly do not know its meaning. I think about sacrifice as an action and a promise to the future, and the legacy of the sacrifices of others, usually more marginalized than me, that is the only reason I am enfranchised with the freedoms I have today. I think about the communities that have given so much, that still fight for all, even as after a year indoors certain people have only found more vitriol towards that which is different to them, and scares them.
I think about fatigue, and exhaustion, and coping. I think about who is allowed to express those things in public. I think about all the people I know, coping, bearing not only the strain of a global pandemic but a world that does not want them to exist as they are.
I think about the people who are desperate to turn back the clock to times that have never existed, other than in their fantasies of their place in the passing of the universe. I think about how isolating it must be to have all the answers, to have made yourself afraid of change and new ideas.
I think people who will never get the credit for the work they have done to build communities, to protect communities this past year, and before. I think about the people for whom “normal” was never good enough. I think about the people for whom “normal” has always meant their lives stolen, their land stolen, their resources stolen, their children stolen, their culture stolen. And then put on display for people who can pay, who can even in the midst of a pandemic decide to travel to islands and resorts because they just need a break, without thinking about the ramification of their actions on others. I think about those who insist that just because something has been kept open, that it should be used, instead of thinking more broadly about why and how and what motivates decisions.
I think about people who think intentions are ethics. I think about people who don’t have to think in worst case scenarios, who are allowed to feel comfortable in the bodies they inhabit. I think about who gets second chances, and third, and fourth, and fiftieth chances, and who is never allowed to fail much less show weakness or signs of incompetence.
I think about what it means when we as adults say the kids are alright, point to the strength and conviction of youth and absolve ourselves of responsibilities for why they have no choice but to be strong. I think about how, this too, is a stolen childhood. I think about whose childhoods are stolen.
I think about whose safety, whose grief, whose feelings are given preference and airspace. I think about forests being chopped down for funeral pyres.
I’m thinking about who feels entitled to speak over people about the issues their people face. I’m thinking about people who think that their google searches are the same as practical and academic experience and expertise, and who is ultimately given space to speak.
I’m thinking about the audacity of never having to consider positionality before carefully folding thoughts into words and letting them slip past lips. I’m thinking about the audacity of considering oneself the universal, and who is allowed to do this. I think about who has the right to be fragile, to be less than perfect, to crack at any point. I think about what counts as stress, or duress, or pain, and how often its legitimacy is decided by those outside the body experiencing it. I think about what it would be like to consider my mind without the implications of the body it is attached to. I think about what it would be like to be embodied of legitimacy.
I think about what it would be like to not be aware of my body also standing in for so many other bodies. I think about the freedom of not being aware of being the only in a space, and what that does for what I might do or say. I think about how my normal is not the normal that is being cried out for. My old normal is so much more restricted; my new normal is still so much more free than others. I don’t want to think about normalcy anymore.
No, not quite like the Cheap Trick song… But I have been thinking about the idea of letting go much more recently.
I actually started writing this a few months ago, as I was moving through the “clean out everything” stage of a second? third? lockdown, but what I really was meditating on did not quite emerge until after this week, and really, not until I was in the middle of this yin yoga session this evening, and the word “surrender” kept being repeated. Surrender into the pose, into the ground, become heavy – take up space, take up time, take up breath, let the ground support you, let go. To indulge in being fully embodied and release everything, to luxuriate in a single pose for several minutes just breathing, feels rarely permissible in a world that did not even allow people to breath or reduce their outputs in the middle of a global pandemic. But if I have learned anything over the last year, it is that we need that kind of space more than ever, space to just claim our own needs despite other peoples’ demands and claims on our time. But to do that we need to be more attuned to letting go, to giving ourselves permission to let go.
Those camp t-shirts were something that I thought I would never run out of. I’ve had piles of them for years that always seemed to grow. But at one point over the winter I put on the one that I had brought with me for my PhD (not the one in the photo), and realized that it did not fit the same anymore. I had been spending the winter reorganizing our apartment. After the super-structure of wedding planning and finishing a thesis, the sudden gap in my life needed to be filled with something, and I had watched many organizing shows on Netflix through the summer. I launched myself into making things easier to find and access, and declaring war on things that had been nearly unused during the years we had now been here. Clutter needed abolishing. There would be a vision for closets and spaces and an overall guiding aesthetic focused on being able to have either of us use any room for any purpose easily. But while I had flung myself into all the other closets in the house, and even gone through the bookshelves before we moved everything around, I had yet to face my own clothes.
When it comes down to it, I have a tendency to feel like my stuff roots me, and I hate to let it go. And I hate being reminded of change, that life implicitly changes whether I want it to or not. Unfortunately, when you start to go through clothing you packed into suitcases about three years ago, inevitably, things will have changed. Like this t-shirt. So I spent a couple days in January trying everything on, letting go of things that either no longer fit right, or had been worn through, or even things that did not make me feel like me. It felt indulgent, but also refreshing. In a way, I was making space for me in the moment, but also space for who I wanted to become, how that person might change or grow, or shop differently. I was not letting my past choices weigh me down. I was not forcing myself to hold on to things as if losing the things would somehow even take away the nostalgia I had for them.
Moving forward a few months, still in a period of life-limbo, moving out of this stage of being where constant overachievement and production coincides with constantly feeling not enough, I finally had a four day writing workshop I had applied to in the fall begin. And suddenly, I was not the only person in my life looking for release. Over the span of four days, what started as a class turned into some kind of international group therapy, where suddenly, we all had permission not to produce things, but just write for us. Just play on the page, in ways that no one would see unless we wanted to. The performance of writing was eliminated. And for me at least, there was an ability to surrender to a joy that was buried under so many other more negative emotions.
Surrendering to joy, to creativity, to what we want to do and the stories that just have to get out is something that is conditioned out of us so often. And by letting go of what we should do or ought to do, we make more space to become what we need to be. We have to be allowed to outgrow our past selves and our past choices, and do so without guilt. It does not mean that we reject who we were, it just means we keep giving ourselves permission to keep growing, transforming. I needed this workshop to relearn this. The image of me and my future in the back of my mind is a bit like that old camp t-shirt that I have worn to bits. I keep squeezing into it, but it does not quite fit anymore. And I have to let go of it to make room for what might come next.
So what might surrender mean for me, going forward? It means being selfish with my time, my space, without guilt. It means not holding on to things that are not fulfilling. It means making choices based on my own needs rather than other peoples’ ideas of what and who should be making demands on my time. It might mean trying new things, or making space for the workshop experience to continue. It will mean giving myself up to the spaces and people who are supportive and nurturing. And what I think I want out of life ultimately is to be able to have the space to become not the best version of myself, but the version of myself that makes me the happiest. If that means learning even more to let go, to surrender more deeply to what might yet come, then that is what I need to keep practicing. But while I do that, I am going to hold on to the joy of that workshop experience, hold on to the satisfaction that putting the house in order after some major life events gave me, and I’m going to let those two emotions be what drives me going forward.