A Lesson Learned

Hey, y’all, how are you doing? How are you feeling? How are things going in your corner of the world? I hope you’re well, and safe, and healthy, and happy.

I’m just beginning to emerge from my post-academic year recovery period, which usually spans about a week or so after the spring term ends, but this year took just over three weeks. This past year was the hardest of my teaching career, a sentiment I have no doubt is shared by many of my colleagues at all levels of education. From the pivot in Spring 2019 to now, we have all of us who teach undergone a complete transformation of what we do and how we do it. We undertook this pedagogical shift on the fly, without training, learning as we went, because we had no choice. We have all learned a lot about teaching, and about ourselves as teachers. I could write thousands of words about this experience–I think we all could. Many of us have written and will write about our pandemic pedagogy and teaching experiences. And that’s important and needs to be done, by as many of us as possible, so we can all learn from each other. But, having spent the past several weeks trying to get some distance from it so I can process things and figure out what I’ve learned and how to use it best to improve my teaching going forward, I don’t want to write about that now.

What I do want to write about now is a bit about what I’ve learned over the past year more personally as, like so many, I’ve struggled to find ways to articulate work/life balance, job/career/work/hobby distinctions. When you are living in your apartment, and wifing and parenting in your apartment, and working in your apartment, and when you are teaching asynchronously online, and then even when you are teaching hyflex online, what are the boundaries between your various life spaces and duties and responsibilities and “on” time and “off” time? This past year and a half really threw into sharp relief how much I depend on the spatial boundaries of home, office, other; and on the temporal boundaries of home time, work time, weekday, weekend, holiday, “me” time, “family” time; and how much I have relied on conference travel over the years, the space of a hotel room to myself for a few nights a few times annually, for the essential “reset” that permitted me to return to my regular routine feeling reinvigorated and able to handle everything and be successful. But all of this concern about life and schedules and routines and spaces and places is predicated on a sense of permanence that the pandemic has both exacerbated (this is never going to end!) and ravaged (nothing is certain, nothing is stable, nothing is reliable, tempus fugit!)

My family has survived. We have even thrived. We are so incredibly fortunate. I do not take any of that for granted, amidst all of the loss and trauma and grief, the upending of lives that has occurred. I am acutely aware of the tremendous amount of sheer luck involved in having stayed healthy and employed through all of this, and enormously grateful. But this has been a period of constant uncertainty, anxiety, essentially marinading in the fear of the unknown. I have watched alongside the rest of the world as people who were healthy one day died the next, as businesses and universities hemorrhaged layoffs and firings through downsizing and program cuts as the pandemic raged on, as so many people lost both lives and livelihoods. It’s not that people weren’t dying and losing their jobs before, but that it was now happening on such a massive scale and there was no sense of when or how it would end. Anything like a sense of security personally or professionally was whisked off the table right before our eyes regardless of how careful we were and how hard we worked, and suddenly we were staring down not only mortality, but also a possibility, however distant, that everything that a working class background teaches you to fear most–unemployment, financial ruin, displacement–could happen. If that sounds like dire and gross exaggeration to you, congratulations! You’ve grown up privileged enough not to have such catastrophic thoughts cross your mind when things go south. For many of us, the pandemic has been a sustained period of psychic crisis.

I’m grateful for it, TBH. The past year and a half have been so difficult in so many ways, but one wonderful thing that I’ve gained is a much clearer sense of what matters to me and how I want to spend my time. There are certain realities I have been willfully ignoring, and certain fantasies I have been stubbornly clinging to; there are certain ways of being and ways of knowing I have struggled with; and there are certain demons that have been needing eviction from my headspace for a long, long time. Chiefest among these demons is my lifelong fear of not being “safe,” of having my life yanked out from under me and upended, and having no control over it. As a highly sensitive and introverted child growing up in the itinerant lifestyle of a military family, I spent the majority of my childhood, and have since spent a large portion of my adult life, longing for stability–to stay in one place, put down roots, and just live there forever. Visions of the March family, or the Campbell clan, all living in walking distance of one another and popping in and out at will throughout the day; visions of Anne Shirley and her friends growing old together; visions of some happily-ever-after lifestyle where you and your high school buddies all get together once a week for brunch until you die. Sex and the City friendship stability. A sense of belonging to and in a particular place in some permanent way.

What was I thinking, though? I’m not that person. I’ve never been that person. Would being a homeowner somewhere for thirty, forty, fifty years make me into that person? I hardly think so. I doubt I could manage being a permanent homeowner somewhere, unless I had a couple of houses in different places that I bounced around to throughout the year, or lots of friends to visit in various cities for extended periods of time. I get antsy living in one place for more than a few years. I start looking for the next place to live. I live for the conferences that whisk me away to new places for a few days to a week. I grow restless and difficult to put up with if I’m confined to one location for too long, and especially if I have to share that space with other people with no break in our interactions. While I value a sense of security and belonging, I need space and mobility. That’s the reality. That’s my fundamental personality makeup. I like the idea of being a homebody. I even like the reality, for short spans of time. But ultimately, I am not cut of the cloth that would permit me to be a good hometown homebody. This fact should have been abundantly clear to me simply by observing the difference between myself and my sister, who is still living in our hometown, who has never lived more than an hour from our hometown. I haven’t lived in my hometown in twenty years. I love going back, I love visiting. In fact, I get really agitated when I can’t get back for a visit. I even fantasize about going back and buying a house and living there. I am deeply and profoundly jealous of my sister, that she gets to live and work in our beautiful hometown.

But it doesn’t stand to reason that if I moved back there, bought a house, and settled down, it would satisfy me and bring me that ultimate sense of security I’ve been craving. I wouldn’t really belong there. It’s been twenty years or more since I lived there. And there is a reason I left in the first place. I can love it all I want, but that doesn’t mean it’s what I want or what I need. I mean it might be, who knows? It’s one of my favorite places in this world, and I’ll always love visiting. But I think the fantasy of some semblance of permanence is the real draw in the end, that because that’s where I lived the longest it feels most stable to me. I think, too, for a long time I have been utterly enamored of the promise of stability that comes with the idea of buying of a house. But, I mean, we did that, my husband and I. We moved from the city where we met to a new town, got new jobs, got married, bought a house, started our family. We lived there for ten years. It wasn’t permanent. We don’t have those jobs now. We don’t own that house now. We don’t live in that town now. We will most likely never live in that town again. Since then, we have lived in apartments in two different cities. I loved the last city, but it wasn’t a permanent move–we were there for me to complete my PhD so I could seek out a full-time position and find career security, and then had to go where the job offer took me. I love this current city, but there is no guarantee it will be a permanent move, that depends on our employers and my institution doesn’t offer tenure. I can only hope they like me enough to keep me around for a while. The more academia devolves from stable career path into a gig economy, the more that hope of permanence I’ve clung to for so long, the dream of a tenured position where you put down roots in a community and teach in the same place for thirty years, fades into fantasy. I think, though, the reality is that sort of stable lifestyle was always only a fantasy of mine and never going to be a reality, at least not in the way I envisioned it in my mind’s eye–if not because of circumstances then certainly because of my own proclivities towards restlessness, my fear that any moment now, my employers will decide to take it all away and I need to do and be more to stave off that inevitability. What can I say? Working class terror of unemployment and financial ruin runs through my veins, y’all. Coded in my DNA.

I don’t know why I’ve clung for so long to this dream of permanence in this utterly, utterly impermanent world, except that it offered some sort of comfort, an ideal to strive and work for. Well, one thing the pandemic has certainly done has been to cut those particular apron strings. There is no guarantee anywhere of safety, stability, security, or permanence–not in terms of health, not in terms of employment, not in terms of finances, not in terms of living arrangements. And that’s terrifying to this working-class person, but also, it’s been the story of my life. It’s the story of most of our lives. How many of us are still where we were five, ten, twenty, thirty years ago? How many of us only ever own one home and have one job in our lifetime? And would I really want that, truly? Well, I think about it a lot, and it seems pretty great to me, but if it were my reality and not a dream I was chasing, I’m pretty sure–like, 80% sure–I’d hate it and want something else from my life. So, taking this DOA lifelong dream of a sense of permanence and stability off the table, and (besides my family, whom I love and adore beyond all reason and will happily continue to cherish and serve for as long as I humanly can) what’s left to wish and want and work for?

Perhaps to the surprise of no one besides me, the answer to that question has been right under my nose, hiding in plain sight. The only truly enduring aspects of my life, the only through lines linking my earliest childhood memories to the present moment, have been curiosity–a drive to know, to ask Why? Yes, why? But why? What now? what comes next? and find the answers–and a burning urge, a need, to write, to make, to create. I’ve left and returned to writing over, and over, and over again–sometimes writing every day for months, sometimes not writing for years at a time, my attention and energies occupied elsewhere–but I always return to it. Typically, when I’m not writing regularly, it is because I have thrown myself into some other enterprise that has promised some degree of anchoring, a semblance of security. Mostly, that’s been education, or job-related activity, although at times it’s also various hobbies or community endeavors; sometimes it’s just good old-fashioned burnout. And that’s my own fault. I have burned off so much of my energy and attention over the years in pursuit of what I’ve come to understand is an impossible sense of safety in place and person. I have burned off far less energy writing and making by comparison, and I think that’s been my greatest mistake. Over the past few years, from just before and through this pandemic, I’ve returned in earnest to writing and making, and it’s been crucial for my ability to weather everything; more importantly, perhaps, writing more regularly has instilled within me a sense of well-being, of existing wholly and essentially in my own person and my own here and now, that has been sorely lacking for a long time now, lost in my hustle to secure–something, anything.

Well, lesson learned. This pandemic has taught me that my hustle, all the doing-doing-doing and achieving- achieving-achieving, has not been in vain, but it has largely been mis-employed. While rewarding in many ways, it will never result in that strange, shadowy sense of security I’ve spent a lifetime chasing, and not only is that okay, it is the way of things. Time, health, employment, safety, financial and personal security–they’re all constantly moving, all passing states and conditions. Energy spent trying desperately to force their conversion into something permanent is wasted energy. Uncertainty in life is right, and true, and holds greater meaning and promise for me than any permanence of place or job could, when I am being honest about who I am and how I am. If I cannot hope for permanence, I can harness everything in service to my creativity and convert the uncertainty and anxiety and fear into art. Uncertainty is a form of not-knowing, not-knowing breeds curiosity, and curiosity has always been a foundational characteristic for me as a person, as a teacher, as a writer. And so I’m brought full-circle: curiosity and writing, writing and curiosity, these are my constant and steady life companions, no matter who else and what else comes, remains, or goes, no matter what else I’m doing or being. These are where I want and need to put the majority of my time and energy. I’ve spent too much of my life not honoring that truth in my efforts to procure some form of security, but that is my most primal form of security: the drive to know, and the drive to create texts based on what I know. It cannot be taken from me, except by myself. For a long time I did take it from myself, for reasons that are no longer important. Now, I’m giving it back.

About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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2 Responses to A Lesson Learned

  1. alovelylifetolive says:

    Thank you for such a wonderfully honesty article, Melissa! I really identify with what you wrote. I can’t wait to see what you produce in the future.

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