Michelle Anya Anjirbag

Scholar, writer, editor

Page 2 of 11

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.


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.

On Learning Gentleness

I have a really hard time allowing myself space to breathe. I’ve operated for years thinking that the ultimate goal of anything was to consistently prove my resilience, my capacity to be resilient in any circumstance. Over the last few years, for reasons both personal and related to the Larger Scheme of Things, I’ve begun to realize that, perhaps, I have been very wrong in my approach to life.

Part of this reckoning has come from a number of good mentors who have appeared in my life, and part from becoming better able to listen to advice from respected friends and family members that though I’ve heard it often, I was never at a place where I could understand it. A good deal of being ready to reconsider things has come about simply because this is a year of milestones for me: a decade crossed, a degree finished, a new stage of life entered, and such change lends one to reflection. It did not come about overnight, rather, several years of building a set of habits centered around my mental and emotional wellbeing, including therapy, yoga, exercise, and designated work and rest times, has slowly made me more aware of how long I have lived in a paradigm that does not value gentleness – and how I need to apply that value, actively, every day to how I choose to exist in the world.

We do not exist in a global society that emphasizes or values gentleness, care, or protecting those who might not have a potential commercial value in some way, and so we do not learn to apply that lens of care to ourselves. While there have been recently published books on the importance of sleep or rest in the context of this kind of world, these are ideas always framed in the context of increasing productivity: work less to make more. At their hearts, these books, these ideas do not actually allow us to be gentle with ourselves, and understand our mental, physical, and emotional needs, but rather, are still about some kind of optimization.

I no longer want to optimize. I no longer want to be valued because of my capacity to produce, or withstand. I no longer want to feel defined by some kind of resilience.

I no longer feel like I have to, and it is such a gift to let go of that pressure to be more, rather than to simply be. I already do enough. I am not competing; there is nothing to be won by becoming more busy. Being busy or busy-seeming, or constantly engaged has nothing in actuality to do with my ambitions. In this year, I have finally found to some small extent the ability to give myself permission to stop, and only worry about where I am, not where someone else expects me to be.

In the face of two major life milestones in the same month, and a confusion of not exactly feelings, but the awareness that some feelings should maybe be there, beyond the current spate of sleeplessness and mild panic at the State of Things, a good friend keeps telling me that whatever I am feeling in this moment is probably valid. That, I don’t have to be feeling immense amounts of excitement or anticipation, and the pragmatism I’m facing the world with right now doesn’t change how I feel about the bigger contexts of things happening or what they signify, ultimately. Other friends are ready to be excited for me, while I muddle through the messiness a little while longer, holding on to my planning and organizing, and continuing to make contingency plans for everything that has to come afterwards. On one hand, I’m grateful to have people in my life like this; on the other hand, I do have to question why I keep waiting for permission to be kind to myself in whatever moment I find myself in.

It’s not just about knowing when not to run, or when to take a day off because one is sick, though those things are important. It is about learning the little signs of one’s whole self trying to alert you to the fact that part of you needs to stop, and while you might be able to push through, well, what is the point of such a push? It’s about recognizing needs before they become desperate, and then not punishing oneself for having those needs in the first place, no matter how they might disrupt other plans.

I think that learning gentleness, truly, will require a letting go of expectations more fully, especially of those I hold for myself. It means being okay with passing on opportunities or deadlines, on not being able to do everything I want for everyone I want to do it for at all times. It means letting myself breath, and not being down on myself because the intention to start the day with a couple hours of yoga became sleeping in and engaging in thirty minutes of breathing exercises instead. It means being okay with not being an optimized machine, with sometimes not being able to execute logistical plans, and with asking for help. Because as hard as all these things and more are for me to balance conceptually with my lived reality, I also know that if I don’t learn to be gentle with myself, no one else is going to extend that gentleness to me. And if I cannot learn to do this for myself, how do I help to build a world where gentleness, not optimization, becomes more normalized? After all, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang notes in Rest, when Malcom Gladwell wrote about the 10,000 hours it takes to reach a certain degree of proficiency in any thing, Gladwell focused on the hours of work only, and glossed over the greater proportion of time spent in deliberate rest, and the even greater proportion of time spent sleeping. Imagine how the paradigm of discourse around success might have been different if such glossing had not happened. Could the insight touted from that book shifted the gears towards a far more different world than the one we live in now?

Gentleness is a muscle to be stretched, a skill to be learned much like napping or playing piano. You cannot progress at anyone’s pace but your own, but regular practice makes things easier. Being gentle with others is often easier than being gentle with oneself, and sometimes a better place to start. Gentleness, in this paradigm, is not this same as forgiveness: the latter implies that there has been an error or a failure. In fact, in these moments it is more necessary for me to realize I have not actually done anything wrong nor have I somehow failed; in essence, there is nothing to forgive. I am slowly learning this; I wish I had started much earlier.

This month is full of big moments for me, and this year is full of milestones and change. I don’t always act with the grace I should, but I am going to try to learn to extend a little more of it to myself. I have nothing left to prove to anyone, including myself, so I might as well allow myself the space, the breathing room, to learn to live and enjoy my life fully. I write this after a day of deliberate rest, at least my version of it. I baked biscotti and challah for one set of gifts. I prepped cookie dough for a gift waiting to be made and gifted later this week. And then I sat and read a book like I had not read in years. It was not for work; it was not for anything but pleasure, and I devoured it in almost a single sitting, interrupted only by an oven timer every so often. For the first time in a long time, I did not begrudge myself doing things for my soul, because they made me feel more me than anything else. I am not tallying work not done to make up for it tomorrow. And to do this with any degree of success for one day, is what I am right now calling enough. And maybe another day will follow, or it won’t. But I can hold on to this day, knowing that when I am ready it will happen again as I slowly continue to learn to be gentle with my whole self.

« Older posts Newer posts »