Michelle Anya Anjirbag

Scholar, writer, editor

So, what is a ‘wayward academic’?: an introduction

In short, it is me.

Synonyms of ‘wayward’ include defiant, obdurate, contrary, headstrong, capricious, whimsical, wild, and rebellious. And while in some ways I do love academia and research and I am willing to put my head down and do what needs to be done, in many other ways, I look at the greater structures of this industry and the stated and unstated rules, and I cannot really stand to quietly exist within them. So I have a small tendency to throw the rules out of the window, and draw from the various other identities I’ve had outside of academia to inform how my life moves forward and in what directions.

I’ve worn many hats and studied across various disciplines. All of my work in experiential education, leadership training and at summer camp, and jobs in retail, publishing, and journalism have fed into my research, in some way. Academia is enriched by the richer our experiences are, and how widely we live our lives. I don’t think that my identity as a scholar is anything but bolstered by other experiences. I hope to continue wider growth, and work to bring that which is silo’d outside of the ivory tower, within it.

I came up with the idea of being a ‘wayward academic’ after a conference experience when I was between graduate programs, and there were certain attitudes towards being unaffiliated present. I figured, well, if I don’t quite fit, better to claim my asymmetry. This space is one for me to work out my own thoughts and musings, archive pieces published elsewhere on the internet, and explore my irregularity. If anything, I’ll at least learn my own mind better, and find new paths forward that I might not have thought of exploring previously.

On Surrender

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.

When I moved to Edinburgh to do my MSc, one of the things that was most dear to me was a care package sent by a friend who at this point is one of the few I have left who have known me most of my life. Along with some candy (a lot of candy) it was full of camp swag – bracelets, a sticker, and a reverse tie-dye staff tee-shirt, a piece of home that made me feel so grounded in a new space.

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.

What next, as we all have become Cassandra

I’ve started writing this countless times now. And to tell the truth, I am not quite sure what to say or how I even feel about the election. It is an odd space to be in as someone whose job was at different points covering news, or commenting on current events. Its an odd space still for someone with my varied research interests, who writes for a living, because right now the words just won’t come, or they continue to feel laden with the curse of Hecuba’s daughter. And so I join the ranks of unwilling Cassandras, screaming into various voids, unable to be heard by those unwilling to listen, to believe what their own eyes would show them if they would only look.

I guess, first, is that I can’t quite seem to stop holding my breath; its not over until there is a concession, until we see the change and the damages undone in a way that they may never be done again. I am scared for the people who I care for who are more marginalized than I am, because they are watching a lot of allies who no longer themselves feel threatened take the results of this election as a win, instead of a harbinger of how much there is left to fight for. I’m tired of analyses from the outside with no context of the greater complexities or histories behind the current state of things, of the questions, the disbelief of where we actually are, of being forced to give time, energy, and credence to the privilege of other people’s shock, and feeling obligated to listen and respond nonetheless. And yet, there remains an overwhelming weight of resignation: what is the point of writing, of speaking, if it is always going to have to be fettered and constrained by other people’s understanding, especially those who don’t know or recognize the depths of work they have to do to not make these moments feel inherently violent, to not make these conversations add to the threat I have felt for years, or recognize that what they put me through, so too have at least 50 other people as their token whatever box they have stuck me in at any given time.

And under the resignation, the smallest rise of audacious hope as I heard the newly elected leaders speak; the conflict and emotion of seeing two people whose policies I fundamentally find too weak, too flawed, and too conservative to meet the needs of the current moment speak and yet bring hope simply through the appearance of competence. And realizing that as much as I need to punch back at the centrist middle ground rhetoric for the danger it poses, 10 year old me needed so badly to see that woman on that stage, to hear Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris say:

“So Congressman John Lewis, Congressman John Lewis, before his passing, wrote: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” And what he meant was that America’s democracy is not guaranteed. It is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it, to guard it and never take it for granted. And protecting our democracy takes struggle. It takes sacrifice. But there is joy in it, and there is progress. Because we the people have the power to build a better future…Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before, but know that we will applaud you every step of the way.”

from “Transcript: kamala Harris’s victory speech

I still, several days later, cannot read that without crying. I cannot deny how gratifying it was to in a single person see the definition of what it means to be from my country expanded so much. I cannot forget the lightbulb moment, seeing her in white, of understanding why I eschew color so much, why I wear so much black to blend in and efface my difference, elide my comparative darkness which is so stark in lighter colors, why I have remained so hesitant and afraid to stand out. I cannot deny the empowerment of being given permission this far into my life to be myself, unapologetically, through a new reflection of what I might have one day strived to become if I could have ever seen that image of success as possible.

And yet I still know it is not enough; Harris might embody a new story, but as N. K. Jemisin has recently pointed out in an incredible Twitter thread, we do not know how to tell better stories than what we are up against, and too many people are too willing to buy into their own feel-good stories and simple narratives about what went wrong instead of looking at all the hard fixes, the should-dos, and the ways in which they themselves might be culpable in the ills of the nation. The Overton window keeps shifting right and the people who are not under direct threat keep accepting it all as normal without even noticing that the rights affirmed in the 1960s have been systematically chipped away in every way since then – and those dragging the country back to a time when many nations were banned from immigration and only certain people had the right to vote or even live in certain areas are aiming to take away even more. Instead, they fixate on phrasing that scares them and fight it and dismiss it even though they have no idea what it refers to nor do they have the presence of mind to learn about it before reacting. And they pull the conversation to their fears, and away from the people those conversations are meant to protect and liberate. The moderates and centrists we’re meant to appeal to, who dominate every damn analysis on the air right now, do not know that they do not know how to dream, and see any potential difference as a nightmare. And the rest of us look to the impeding nightmare, and wonder how far down this road we will need to go for them to wake up, if they ever will.

I’ve spent six years now actively, if not longer in truth, watching people turn away, turn to conspiracies, bury their heads in whatever comforting lies they need to in order to keep their days ‘normal’ their connections with others ‘civil’, and feeling the sense of doom rising. When faced with the unfathomable they turn to the stories that shore them up individually instead of grasping the pen and creating new ones that might give safe harbor to everyone. And so I guess I remain among the ranks of unwilling Cassandras; we are many, often women, often marginalized in some way, often othered one way or another, still fighting to be heard, to encourage people to step forward into truth so that a new reality might be built once the one we are actually in is faced. But I cannot force anyone to look any more than I can for them to see, nor can force anyone to hear us any more than I can beseech them to listen. I can only hope, in the most audacious ways, that there will be a lesson learned from the history we know before we become ourselves even more of a cautionary tale.

Beginnings and Endings (and beginnings again)

I remember when I used to be a lot more active, I would go open water or lake swimming or running early in the morning with friends, and I would be so hungry afterwards that I would eat a four egg omelette, pancakes or waffles, bacon, a fruit smoothie, and either orange juice or tea or coffee afterwards. There was this feeling of joyous depletion afterwards, of having worked hard and pushed my limits, and an awe of what a body took to function after that kind of expenditure. That part of my life is over for now, but I felt that hunger again this week – after the successful defense of my dissertation with minor corrections, the culmination of either three years or a lifetime of mental preparation come to fruition.

As an ending, this was a beautiful moment. I had one of the best conversations of my life with two people I greatly respect, while marveling at the amount of interest that people like them might take in the things I find most interesting. I cannot express how grateful I am to my examiners for this, or how much I am still buzzing from it, even as it all blurs together in the following days. It was also a complete turn around from how I felt when I arrived in Cambridge three years ago, very lost and overwhelmed and unsure of what I was going to do. It has been a long road, but in that online meeting room, I could understand how much growth I have experienced, and how much I have found myself on the journey.

My dissertation finished in such a different space than it began, in terms of its topic, the angles, and what I wanted to do with it. I feel very accomplished with what I produced, what I learned that I wanted to say with my experience and my time. And at the same time, my viva showed me how much more there still was to say on these topics, how many more articles I still might write while considering further future directions. But what I am most grateful for is how at the end of almost two hours of talking about it, I realized how much I love what I do – the work of academia in terms of the research, the writing, the deep thinking about everything and tracing all the different little threads as they weave themselves together. It was both exhausting and energizing.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CGlOqjEpnA7/

I was expecting to feel like I was walking off the edge of a cliff – a sense of, well, what next? And to be honest, I’m not feeling that way at all. It could be, in part, that the viva is not really the end – just the beginning of the end. There are still the corrections, the approval of those corrections, getting the hardbound copies, and graduating (most likely in absentia for me given the state of the world). And yet, it is also a profound new beginning. In ten days, I’ve got a slightly altered name and I’ve changed titles twice: from Ms. to Mrs. and now, Dr. I’m no longer in that half-existence of apprenticeship; I can hold my own and join these conversations that are much bigger than my own ideas, and continue to learn, but also, help others learn and think about things in new ways. All the open space ahead, all the possibility to come, is exciting.

There is another layer of new beginnings; the hunger to do more, to learn more, and then the hunger of the day after the viva, of realizing the depths to which I had to reach to do this thing, and achieve this goal. And I know this is not sustainable. That feeling of hunger and depletion was a welcome marker of what had been done, and that this has been a long process of hard work, which I have trouble acknowledging. And it was good work, which I also have trouble acknowledging. So the hardest thing as I am resting and starting to feel more relaxed, has been to not let myself jump straight back in, not keep acting like I’m fighting to prove that I am enough on some undefined measure to do what I do with my life and my time. Rest is a hard habit to learn; to let my mind recover so that my body can recover, until I am ready to start again, and this time, learn to work at a different pace. A friend recommended a book called Rest to be read in the time between hand in, and the wedding and the viva, and a few weeks ago I would have thought it was just good advice. Rest in order to work better. But now, it is realizing that rest is about living, having space to live around the work. And if I can use the next few months to learn that around a small handful of already existing projects and deadlines, without adding any (realistically speaking, too many) more, I am going to be set up better for longer in whatever adventure comes next. That’s the other beginning at play here: not finding the next thing, but beginning the next phase of my life the way I mean to go on. There is no cliff edge, no uncertainty, just many potential ways forward. The viva process as a beginning is, for me, truly a beautiful one, even as it means I am on some level saying goodbye to something, or even, someone I used to be.

I am going to hold on to October 2020 as a bunch of beautiful moments. Success and joy, endings and beginnings coming together in ways I could not have imagined even a year ago. Trust me, as I am now a doctor of things fantastic and Disney fairy tale, there is so much more potential to be claimed from life, from things that bring joy and are fulfilling, that deplete us in a good way so we learn how we are strong and might be built back up. We gain from the things that make us hungry, for knowledge, or food, or community, or anything else, because when that hunger is sated again, we will grow from that experience, and most importantly, we learn what it is we crave and what will satiate us. And from there, we can always begin again.

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