Scholar, writer, editor

Tag: Reflections (Page 1 of 2)

Swan songs and saying goodbye

There is a little belief about swans that right before they die, they sing the most beautiful song – perhaps because they are not known as the most musical of birds in life, I don’t really know why. I sometimes wonder if there was a similar belief about humans, how would we react if we heard someone’s swan song, if we had notice through a moment of beauty that we were about to be left behind?

There are few times in my life that I have been faced with the gravity of where earlier whims and choices have led me. I don’t think that I’ve made a mistake in certain choices that I made, but, rather that I didn’t fully understand that its not always easy to get home when we need to the most. I’ve celebrated holidays and birthdays apart from my family and oldest friends and it is always bittersweet, a little pull of longing in the happiness and celebration; but there is a different edge to when the bad things are happening over there, and you, alas, are here. It stings differently; like every surface is slightly salted and lemon juiced and you keep forgetting that your hands have little cuts on them because you can see the wounds, but you touch something the wrong way at the wrong moment and you can damn well feel them. Little cuts and scrapes that you know will heal, but because you keep reopening them, you know you’re going to see the light trace of scars across your fingertips and palms forever. Its a pain that is distant, until it is not. And in those moments, though you know your presence never had any chance of changing anything at all, you wonder why you didn’t go back more often, why you didn’t stay put.

I’ve been really lucky in my life that I have made friends across generational lines for the last few decades. I’ve been luckier still that it is only recently that I have had to contend with the realities of what it means to know and care for many people who are further along in their journey through life than I am, and that, when the inevitable has happened, its either been after a fulfilled life, or the relief at the end of a long illness. It is only recently that I have instead been faced with the other kinds of losses, the other kinds of griefs that can be borne, where you’re both angry that something has come as an Event that is too early, too out of nowhere, too unexpected, and yet also holding space and gratitude for the time that has been spent with those people, grateful for choices made even in the last year to linger and chat because as humans and not swans we don’t give notice of the end through song. No one ever truly knows how much time we have to enjoy the company of those we care about, and who care about us.

I have had two moments early this year that I don’t think I will ever forget in terms of receiving news that mark a before and an after in my life. Where there was once a then, there is only a now, a new reality that cannot be undone or unwritten. News at my midnight but their daytime that opened a whole range of possible futures that were not ever on the radar of things I thought life would bring; news on a bright Saturday morning in town just a few weeks later, while the sounds of a few overlapping protests ranged nearby, the white dust that almost did not come off my jacket because I sank against a wall with a wet paint sign I did not see because I could not believe what I was hearing. I think my heart cracked both times; I think I lost pieces of my surety in life. It’s a small ache compared to others closer to the losses, for one of them, but I feel it all the same. I don’t think I will ever put this down.

I’ve somehow always been someone who apparently has a face for holding grief; I have had too many encounters when working odd jobs or standing in lines at the bank or supermarket where a hello while waiting becomes a moment where someone else feels able to put down a bit of what they have been carrying with them and implicitly ask me to carry it for a moment. Even more so with people I know, whether I know them well or not. And I don’t mind it. I know how to listen; its a skill I was taught deliberately in several different parts of my life. But I don’t know how to carry my own grief well, not when it is this ebb and flow of news, of waiting, of life-changing, of moving into a time in life when the news that comes in has more to do with possible endings than new beginnings. I carry the ache outwards; it was what I was taught to do. I turn to the people not holding the same ache, or even any other ache of their own. Grief is like the ripples left behind when a stone strikes a lake surface, and we all encounter them at different stages as they spread. I carry mine to people with more distance from any epicenter, and I’ve been lucky to find people who carry me as I find my way through the waves; I’m lucky to have a community that also has made space for my grief from the margins.

I don’t have words to describe the person I lost: a friend, a mentor, but even more than that, someone who taught me what it means to respect people to their core. Someone who lived an ideal of kindness and seeing the best in people. Someone who made it safe to learn and make mistakes. Someone who I looked up to so much as a child, who remained an approachable giant in my adulthood. Someone who taught me the stars, who never really stopped teaching me things. Someone who filled a gap that was missing in my life, and so now, if I poke the wound, I feel that gap twice over. Someone who helped raise one of my dearest friends, who has in the past couple months gone out of her way to check on me and make sure that I was also cared for, and recognize my loss even as she grapples with her own. And if Rumi is right and the wound is the place the light enters, that is where I will feel the light entering for the rest of my life. The care from someone in the middle of the ripples is both the salt, and the light, the promise that the loss is not infinite, that this person lives on in this world through all of us who knew him.

All things are healed with saltwater, be it sweat, tears, or the sea. Two of them are my companions, and the third I will have again when I am home. When I can walk both the sea and lake beaches where I became myself again, and I can remember all the promise of the then. All the promise before the two moments that split the world. When I can say goodbye in two ways, to two different things, to a person, and to what I thought the next decades would bring that is now changed forever. And I will say goodbye, too, to a more innocent younger self that was unprepared for how life would start to change. And this will happen again in my life, I’m sure, without the warning of a swan song. But there were songs by a lakeside once, and once again by a river under the stars, and I hold them with me, and know that they will continue to ripple outwards.

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.

So this is the new year….

It is almost 11pm as I have sat down to write this, on 1 Jan 2022, or, one of the times on the turn of the sun that we call the new year. I felt the urge for a late-night workout about an hour and an half ago, Tom has been fiddling on his guitars through the evening, and we spent the day relaxing, walking, and decorating gingerbread Moomin with a friend after a pretty tame evening watching trivia shows and reading. And I don’t feel any different.

Of course, everything is Different. The Gregorian calendar that dominates global day-to-day life and keeps us all on the same page across cultures, religions, and time zones says it is now 2022, but in all honesty, a part of me keeps writing 2020 or 2019 when I need to manually write the date. January 2021 feels like it was only one month ago. In some ways, I don’t really feel like time has moved at all over the last few years, although I logically know it must have, as too much has happened. More importantly, I know how much I have grown and changed over the last little while, as have those I am close with.

I’ve only realized how much I’ve grown more into myself over the last year or two over the last day. Our New Year’s Eve was a comedy of errors. It started with relaxing and a beautiful walk, deciding to ignore our phones and other people, and really leaning in (blergh) to our last day of both technically being on vacation before work begins again on Monday. We had decided to just spend the evening together, cook something new for a romantic breakfast/brunch the next day, and watch a movie with some takeout. Despite best planning, we had a massive bake-fail for our next-morning showstopper, and three dinner plan fails: the first choice closed early, the second never showed up with the order, the grocery store closed early (which was fair enough) so plan three fell apart, and the Domino’s finally arrived around 10pm. None of this is earth-shattering or a terrible problem, or even necessarily an event worth noting in itself. But what truly hit home last night is that two plan-centric, over-organized, usually-very-stressed-about-logistics people watched things fall apart over and over again, and just laughed and shrugged. Truly, if we are together and we can find something to smile at, it is enough and everything else can float away. After so much uncertainty over the past two years on all fronts, to be so malleable, to let change small and large roll off us, is a gift. And that has somehow minimized the New Year, or at least, made me look at it in a very different way.

I’ve never been a resolution person. Nor dry January, nor Veganuary, nor anything that requires change on someone else’s timetable. While I can understand why some might participate, for me, change has to come when you’re ready for it, not because one of the many overlapping calendars in existence has told you it is time for it. And really, this is only one time of year that I find myself wishing people a happy new year, just within my own cultural sphere. The turn of the year on paper might come now, but it just as easily comes with the rise of spring, or with the harvest seasons of different parts of the world. Each time we acknowledge it, we have the same chance to renew ourselves, renew our sense of self, look forward to what might come with a new outlook. The turning of the year, to me, invites a moment of acknowledging of the unity of the past, present, and future: who we were, who we are, and who we might yet be. Sure, it can be this moment to party, but I think I prefer looking at it as an opportunity to pause, and to breathe.

In many ways, January is simply the middle of the year; I am currently somehow a working academic after all. And beyond that, the Zoroastrian year is far from over, no matter which calendar one might follow. Never mind all the different reckonings of what entails a financial year when your bureaucratic life is currently split across three countries. But nevertheless it is nice to be able to look at change in a positive way; I’m more sure, I’m more confident, I’m ready to know when I need to draw limits around certain behavior and treatment and more importantly I’m willing to enforce those boundaries. I’m less afraid of being on my own; after about a year of learning to be a wife while bored and just waiting for anything to change in life while also being locked in the house with my new husband, I suddenly had to learn to be on my own again. I had to learn who I was, and who I was going to be in my thirties without all the other noise and pressure and expectation and distraction. I took a job and a chance on a new place, but, what I really did was meet myself all over again. And I think I really, really like her. And I think I really like who she might yet become.

I think about becoming a lot for my current work, and about aging, about how it can be viewed as a decline, or a period of loss, or equally, a period to regain things that perhaps were lost with so-called maturity and socialization. I’ve realized that I actually welcome it because I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling just like myself, no matter who I continue to grow into. I also realize I have been lucky in my role models; formidable women who just, continue, just keep living through the passage of years. Because what is a year, anyways, or even several? Just a moment to catch one’s breath before continuing onwards, in the knowledge that we might do this again in just a few months, as another way to mark a new year arrives with the next season.

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