Fear and Pressure

It’s nearly time to write again. By Thursday this week, I will run out of my officially sanctioned excuse, “I don’t have time to write because I’m too busy with my grad coursework.”  The big question is what happens when I get two months of free evenings.

Whenever I stop writing for a period of time, a mysterious pressure chamber appears within me. The pressure keeps building in my “you should be writing” space, until I feel a nearly explosive tension in my ribs. I’m a talented procrastinator, so I am able to ignore a great deal of internal pressure and pretend everything is all right. But when I have the leisure to stop and think about it, I am afraid.

Here I am, on the cusp of free time. It’s a huge opportunity and of course opportunity is a burden of sorts. I desperately want to write, but I don’t know that I will. I’m feeling un-practiced and anxious and I have a zillion fragments of ideas, but no big concepts I want to pursue. Of course, there’s always the option to edit and polish existing pieces. Editing is important, but I would like to write something new. There’s also submitting, and I’ve realized that submitting is hugely important, and I enjoy the process and the volumes of rejection and the occasional sliver of encouragement. I could turn my attention in that direction. However, the insecure part of me wants to know that I can still create from nothing–that I can make a fragment of a new world in my head.

My idealized version of myself would set aside time every day to write or revise. My actual self is an anxious little pony. The page is blank. The page is waiting. The threat of the blank page trumps any passing feeling of accomplishment about wrapping up my first year in my grad program. (Why are feelings of accomplishment always so fleeting? I guess the answer is fear and pressure. They have their uses. They either immobilize me or they push me forward.) Onward with the battle!

The Death of Procrastination

I have finally killed procrastination for good. Allow me to qualify this statement by adding some specificity.

I have finally mastered a student’s enemy: schoolwork-related procrastination. I’m still quite the procrastinator when it comes to several other important life arenas (cleaning, you know who you are and i curse you), but I feel that as a student, I’m making rapid headway.

Here’s my trick. I love being done with assignments ahead of schedule and not having to worry anymore far more than I love goofing off until the last possible second. I rather be calm. I rather feel a bit smug and have a cool summery beverage. I rather watch TV with lovely boyfriend in state of relaxed joy and indulgence.

It’s kind of amazing how different I am as an adult student compared to how I was as an undergrad. I think this is due to several factors. The most important factor being: I know exactly what I’m giving up in order to pursue my studies: All that time with friends and family. All that time at the movies. All those Center City Sips outings I’m not going on. All those story slams I can’t participate in. All the Free Library author events I can’t attend. They have a price. So I’m going to be as responsible to myself as I can be, and I’m going to try to reduce the stress on myself and all those I love as best I can by getting ahead whenever I can. Plus, it’s kind of fun. Yes, I also happen to be a total nerd.

Keep Breathing

It’s been an action packed week. It feels like I should have learned something. I don’t think I learned anything new, but I did reconnect with ye olde life lessons (nothing earth shattering but always humbling in constructive ways.)

  1. Monday: The endless battle. Nothing is good enough for my writing group. This is probably a good thing. They keep pushing me past my own boundaries. If I think something is good or interesting, they demand I make it better.
  2. Tuesday: Suck it up, there’s a lot of week left.
  3. Wednesday: Breathing (+). When I’m going through minor though significant discomfort, I should focus on my breathing. When I’m done breathing, it’s okay to have a margarita (salt, rocks please.)
  4. Wednesday: Acknowledge others. People in my doctor’s office really appreciate it when I tell them they’re doing a good job (when they’re doing a good job.)
  5. Wednesday. Art–time consuming but mentally refreshing. Maybe Neil LaBute is finally softening up. I saw the play Reasons to Be Pretty. I’m pretty sure the moral of the story is don’t be beautiful and keep reading.
  6. Wednesday. Grace. Lovely boyfriend remains amazingly thoughtful.
  7. Thursday: Let go. Sometimes, despite my compulsion to do homework, it’s okay if it didn’t happen.
  8. All week: When agitated, I ought to get up and take a short walk down the hallway, and go compliment someone, reconnect with humanity.

Publish and Prison

I’ve had both excellent news and one devastating experience this week. Maybe this is the shape life is supposed to take: part dream, part nightmare. Anyway, the good news is easy, I heard another piece of mine will be published–three times published makes me feel legitimate. Three times sounds like a streak, like it wasn’t an aberration or mistake. This is comforting. The devastation has to do with prisons. What should be a relatively low key experience–a class visit to a prison museum, screwed me up.

I hate the idea of prisons. I hate the fact of prisons. I hate prison architecture. I hate the notion of retribution. I hate punitive measures. I hate cages. I hate life in cages. I must have been a zoo animal in former life.

At any rate, I refused to visit Alcatraz when I lived in San Francisco, and here in Philadelphia I have refused to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary (except for once giving in to the Halloween fest activity they have there, where you’re too busy dodging made up ghouls to reflect on the nature of imprisonment.)

Being given a clear eyed, highly informative account of the life of the prisoners of Eastern State did nothing to improve my sense of dread. I learned a lot. But I was filled with grief. I was filled with grief at the way ideas seize imaginative people, and how they then make reality bend to the idea, regardless of the shape of life. In this case, well intentioned Quakers thought the prisoners needed more reflection–while I typically respect the desire to encourage self reflection and insight, it seems obvious that imposing close to total human isolation is a bad idea. And yet, the idea was pursued, despite the consequences. Humanity’s ability to creepily adhere to ideas, regardless of evidence, is what terrifies me the most.

Anyway, I’ve been carrying around a grief stretched heart since my visit. The flowering trees are helping reverse my grief, but not the grief of those who are currently incarcerated.

The Appeal of Pessimism

I was sitting in a lecture last Thursday with the Dean of Penn’s School of Public Policy and Practice, and he was telling us about the US’s dismal record when it comes to child mortality due to abuse. The number of children dying from neglect and abuse has remained constant since the 1970s, despite the application of money, care, time, policy and staff.

These are the sorts of encouraging statistics and lectures one frequently encounters in social work school. The first year has been one of exceeding pessimism. Teachers and Deans are at great pains to describe the exact scope and hopelessness of the situation(s) and ask what exactly you think you can do as a lone practitioner in this big ugly world with its big ugly systems that replicate problems, stigma and power structures, or create new ones, while trying to alleviate suffering.

The Dean went on to explain in Kafkaesque detail, how bureaucracies, like all other malignant life forms, exist only to thrive and grow [not to solve problems efficiently].

{I’ll mention right now that he did wrap up the downbeat lecture on a note of possibility–that it takes coalitions and the right timing to instigate change, that the right policy at the right time can have a significant, positive effect, and he mentioned Social Security as changing the status of the elderly and dragging them out of poverty, and the GI Bill for creating the middle class in the 1950 and 1960s.}

But the reason I’m writing this post is to reflect on the lure, the allure, the temptation to listen to the litany of oft-repeated mistakes (the deadly mix of good intentions, poor policy design, restrictive benefit measures, and assorted gate-keeping and citizen shaming) and think of social ills as totally intractable. To think that having a miserable set of underclasses is part of the natural order, that no matter what we do, x% is going to be addicted, homeless, mentally ill, beaten and abused, illiterate etc.

It’s very tempting, after a couple centuries of good intentions and poor results, to think that nothing can be done. You have to be realistic.

well…

When I get in one of those dark corners of the mind, I give myself a stern talking to. I go back to home base. I question any offering of “norms”. This is the way it is and will remain is not a good enough answer. There wouldn’t be different national rates of, say, child mortality at birth, if there weren’t more or less effective approaches to dealing with pregnancy and child delivery. These national approaches to health, welfare and problem solving are societally and sociologically driven. There are structural forces at work. They have to be evaluated, confronted, mitigated, and ultimately dismantled.

I’m not calling for a revolution, I’m calling for an evidence based approach–nothing new my dear, luckily I’ve become a social worker in the age of empiricism and sound qualitative research methodologies–intelligent incrementalism, and the marriage of bottom up community work and top down policy work. There’s a lot of work to be done, but at least we have a pretty good idea of what has and has not worked to build upon.

A little freedom goes a long way

It’s spring break. What does my spring break look like, you wonder? Will I travel to Cancun and try to make out with college age peoples? Will there be moonlight skinny dipping? No. I work full time. This is grad school; my life isn’t some booze-fueled pleasure tour.

This week I get two nights back, without classes, and only half the reading to do, because I need to prep my group project. I feel like I’m playing hooky. I feel unburdened, fancy free, and kind of … lost. I’ve spent an hour and a half researching my streaming movie options on amazon and netflix, and now that I’m a bit too close to bedtime to start Mullholand Drive, I’ve decided that I shouldn’t watch a movie, I should read. I have a new kindle; I’ve loaded it with fun books; and I finally have a bit of guilt-free time on my hands. For god’s sake, I should be embracing the moment, eating bonbons while I sip fruity cocktails and curl my hair.
What did I do with my free night? I killed it researching, yes doing comparative research, on the ways I could spend my time if I had time to spend enjoying myself. Maybe the reason I’m cool on the prospect of reading has everything to do with the fact that I spend every free freaking minute I have reading. There’s a difference between required and elective reading, but my god, I don’t want to read.

Let’s recap. I’ve got free time and no attention span left. Maybe it’s time for an installment of the Daily Show.

Ryan Gosling Cheer

I find it fascinating that professionals, okay mostly women, of all stripes are using the Ryan Gosling meme to remind themselves that the work they do is important, or what they’re learning is important, or that being a feminist is important. It’s great to see popular culture re-purposed for personal cheer rather than commercial goals. Special bonus when that culture happens to have dreamy blue eyes (though I’m not one for blonds).

I love re-purposing, repackaging, re-imagining life, and if takes Ryan Gosling’s face and body to get a few more PhDs minted, then yay for them, yay for him, and yay for this online world where people with blogs can transform mass culture into something intimate, funny and unexpected again.

The last five minutes

One of my greatest weaknesses is my chronic, professional grade, Impatience. It’s a family illness, I think. For me, the very hardest part of any journey is the last five minutes I have to spend on the plane, after we’ve landed and pulled up to the gate, while I wait for all the slow moving parties to deplane in the typical inefficient procession. By the time I get off the plane and out the gate, I basically run through the terminal to the nearest taxi, because the journey’s not done until I’m in my home snacking on something delicious.

I feel this exact way in the last five minute, or last 10% of any given effort, before I reach my goal.

This is my least favorite place to be emotionally and mentally–trapped in my labyrinth of eagerness/anxiety/excitement/nausea. I will name it The Corridor of Impatience. Unfortunately for my constitution, I spend a lot of time roaming the length and breadth of the Corridor.

And that’s where I am right now, in The Corridor of Impatience, until 6:45pm Thursday night, when my final paper of the semester will be due. By 9pm that night, I will be released back to civilian status until the second week in January. Oh how I long for the end of this particular journey. I’m the only one deplane-ing, but it’s still an inefficient procession, as I crawl through the final paper writing process. Wish me luck.

(P.S. Meanwhile, blogging is my release valve: forgive the narrow subject area this week.)

Refreshed!

A week’s worth of procrastination, it turns out, can have a blessed effect on my productivity. Witness my ability to crank out a paper in four 40 minute chunks over three days—that’s the direct result of serious resentment and goofing off last week. I gave myself time off–I thought it was just because I was lazy, angry, and unmotivated, but in fact, it was catharsis–I didn’t even know there could be a turnaround in my mindset, but yes, after my week in revolt, I was able to move beyond my dangerously bad attitude. It’s nice knowing that sometimes waiting and distracting yourself and being inactive and unproductive can have great results. Magical goofing off.

Reality Smackdown

It’s getting to be that time when I get antsy at not writing anything more creative than student papers–student papers, as far as I can tell, require sourcing good information and then organizing and explaining that information coherently. It’s a skill set for sure, but it doesn’t give me a buzz. Okay, it does give me a buzz, but it’s not a creative buzz, it’s a “look at how well I can follow guidelines” buzz. Reasonable Girl thrives in the academic setting, she’s so reasonable it’s amazing. But Reasonable Girl secretly craves the ultra-rare big sexy rush of creative writing.

Meanwhile, I hear some gurgling in the background, and it’s not my tummy digesting cake (at least not today)–my creative wellspring is gurgling. It’s not an angry gurgle yet, but it could be, soon! The spring is telling me I have a whole backlog of weird half lived fantasies and notions that need some kind of funneling, or my dreams are going to keep getting weirder, and I’m not even taking anti malaria drugs anymore.

I’m doing the multi-identity juggling again. The worker, student, girlfriend, wannabe author smack down is in full force, plus there’s the added pressure of the holidays: I have to be a good family member in a variety of settings as well. In the next 30 days, I’ll hang out with a 5 month old. I’ll also hang out with a 91 and 90 year old. I will be flexible; I will be kind; I will be tired.

The good news is that I only have two more school papers to go. I’ve got pretty much all the pieces I need to complete my generative, academic oeuvres. And then, one blessed month from now, I will have one blessed month to goof off. That month of will be chock full of a ridiculous lack of things to do at night. I will unveil my other superhero identity yet again, the one with the small cape, the writer person who right now has been closet-ted and ignored for a bit too long. Yay small cape. I see you hanging. You’ll be dusted off in no time.

Mind blowing homework

Last night I did some homework and I’ve never had such an intense, reflective, and enthusiastic response to academic reading. I’ve landed on a planet of like-minded thinkers. My very own secret society. My brain is being stretched in good ways, really hard and really fast. Emerging notions:

1) I magically happened upon the right academic discipline–the books I’m reading are reflecting my values back to me, but in a really structured, theoretical, thoughtful academic way. It’s like there’s an alternate dimension where all my values and concerns about the structure of society are taken into account, and that dimension (for me) is called Social Work. The downside is that my homework makes me question the memoir I’ve just spent two years writing. I realize that in another three years, at the end of this training, I would write a totally different book. But maybe that’s something to look forward to–a new memoir about becoming a social worker.

2) I’m begin forced to ask some really big questions about my values and my core beliefs about American society and human life, and what I believe is the best way to go about helping society change. These questions can’t be asked without a measure of pragmatic skepticism. Caught between idealism, professionalism, and pragmatic skepticism, I feel really vulnerable. My new professional orientation speaks to a set of beliefs that will need to be examined and defended. I’m realizing my own mixed feelings. I want to help, but I am skeptical of the helping orientation because it has a such a spotty history.

3) I’ve stumbled into a conversation about theory. After a lifetime of avoiding theory, the time has come to immerse myself in theoretical mapping. I’m being pushed in my formal social work training to take theory into account and try to have a lively relationship with it, moving back and forth between theory and practice, letting each realm inform the other in an endless feedback loop.

These are the thoughts provoked after exactly 2.5 hours of class and 2.5 hours of homework. My mind is gonna get blown on a weekly basis. I guess I better get used to it.