Michelle Anya Anjirbag

Scholar, writer, editor

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.

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.

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