it wasn’t a conference (thank goodness), it was ‘Listen to Your Mother’

I love the idea of an academic conference: like-minded folks gathered to feed off one another’s knowledge and enthusiasm. Great!

But the reality of it? Not so much.

In my first experience, I presented with a panel of fellow-students from a rhetoric class. Our session occurred on Friday afternoon, before the keynote. Three people attended. Had I really paid all that money for registration fees, lodging, and travel so that I could stand at a lonely podium and listen to the sound of my voice travel unfettered over the cheap and dirty carpet of an unpopulated hotel meeting-room?

I marveled at how nervous I’d been for what turned out to be an exercise in the ridiculous. To rub salt in the wound, a professor of mine presented my ideas as her own in a different session the next day. I listened in stunned silence as her lying cheating voice rang out over the thrumming of my heart.

She didn’t look at me once.

I made three additional conference presentations in my esteemed career. The others were better attended, but still, I’d say I never had more than 30-40 people in a session. Regardless, I’m not sure that it matters. Academic presentations, with their poor delivery and dense verbiage, don’t really aim to inform. Where are the visual aids and the eye contact? Where are the PowerPoints people?

The academy cheapens conferences by emphasizing quantity over quality. Like the imperative to publish, the imperative to present funnels scholars into the conference circuit like Sneetches lined up for a turn in the star-on machine. They come, in large part, to get their bellies stamped.

I actually have no complaint about the jargon, or the theory, or the nit-picky citations of the scholarly work I did. I loved all that stuff. The problem isn’t the work itself, it’s the perpetual isolation of the scholar–the fact that this work so rarely gets translated to the mainstream. The imperative to publish and present keeps scholars from participating in less formal venues.  It also creates a glut of scholarly work–more than the scholars themselves could ever consume.

So who’s it all for?

Certainly not the public. Ironically, unfair university hiring practices could help to blur these hard-drawn lines between academics and the mainstream. As universities shed new Ph.Ds. like so many flakes of old skin, they force intellectuals out into the real world where they have no choice but to mingle and work–in numbers. That is interesting!

Of course, I’m one of those folks.

I’m happy to say I haven’t given a conference presentation in something close to ten years, but I did get up in front of an audience to make a very different kind of presentation this past weekend. I read a four-minute piece called the boys next door in the DC production of a show called, Listen to Your Mother. It recounts a conversation I had with my teen son about rape culture, college parties, and friendship.

I didn’t need a bibliography or the Chicago Manual of Style to pull it off. I didn’t use any jargon. I didn’t cite Foucault, Derrida or even Freud in the telling. But I’ll say that even with years of scholarly untraining in the art of public speaking, I did make eye-contact, and I did invoke my audience (no PowerPoint, however!). I wish I could say I was spectacular, but before long, a video will emerge. I’m afraid it will tell its own story, whatever that may be.

Despite having rejected so much else about academia, however, you can bet that when formulating my ideas about this piece, I drew on the things I learned in graduate school. Theories about discipline, the gaze, the unconscious, and a healthy understanding of oppressive binaries such as good/bad, male/female, virgin/whore and agent/object.

I hope that doesn’t surprise you. Although university life serves up its fair share of humiliations, the departure doesn’t happen like a layoff. The provost doesn’t force you to leave your files locked in cabinets while he/she escorts you out of the building like a criminal. You get to take the knowledge with you!  In fact, you can’t help but do so, right?

Nearly 300 people attended this year’s Listen to Your Mother Show. That means I addressed more people in those few minutes than I did in all four of my conference presentations combined (and I’m pretty sure we could throw in my scholarly readership as well). Not only did I get to share my ideas with this much broader audience, but I also had the chance to learn from them and my fellow cast members.

Motherhood has long been the thorn in the side of feminism–the thing we have forever struggled to reconcile with our ideals of equality and independence. We can theorize, expound, and pontificate about this dilemma at feminist theory conferences and in feminist journals, but that won’t be enough. We’d also be wise to round out our research and “listen to [our] mother[s].”

I felt so privileged to share the stage with a group of people brought together, not by our varying degrees or professional credentials, but by our desire to share our thoughts about motherhood (thoughts that are surely also informed by our varying degrees and professional credentials). From stories of what happens to the body of a childbearing or breastfeeding woman, to what happens to the heart and soul of a parent who loses a child, to struggles with the race and gender stereotypes our kids face, to the recognition of the humanity, vulnerability and power of our own mothers, to struggles with anxiety, the “empty nest,” the shape of the family, and the gender of the “mom,” to the downright hilarity of the mundane, this show brought not just the joy and pain of motherhood to life, but the very philosophical and intellectual aspects of parenting fully into light.

If we want mothers to enjoy equity, respect and independence in our society, then our first step should be to truly understand what motherhood means.  “Giving Mother’s Day a microphone,” as Listen to Your Mother aims to do, takes a big step in that direction, and I was so honored to be part of it (and not cloistered in a conference room somewhere reading monotonously for 25 whole pages to nobody but a blank wall!).

Listen to Your Mother shows occur in cities across the country every spring.  Check out their main page for a show near you!  

“you don’t have anything if you don’t have stories”

I know I just posted 1,131 words on how grief severed the cord between me and fiction, but if you must know the truth, I am prone to these crises.  In fact, they linger around me, like a nagging cough I just can’t shake.

Onset began in graduate school.  I would often become so engrossed in the politics of a thing, I would forget the thing (the book – its craft, its rhythm, its aesthetics). Two hundred pages of dissertation dedicated to this art form we call literature and nary a word on aesthetics.

Quite honestly, I’m surprised I got away with that.

Occasionally, that nagging cough would evolve into a full-on cold.  At those times, I would question my path, asking between tissues and sneezes: What am I doing? Why not study political science or sociology, or foreign affairs? Literature is not real – and so, not relevant.

Then a student would tell me “I love this class,” or “This class changed my life,” and the groove of my train wheels would click back onto the track with a clunk.

Literature matters.  I knew it, even if I couldn’t always explain why.

About a year ago, I realized that my literary hiatus would not end on its own–I found myself standing on a lonely platform, waiting for a book train that wasn’t coming.  If I wanted to get down the tracks, I decided, I would have to do it myself. So without any real interest, I went to the library. I did read a few books: Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and Julia Alvarez’s Saving the World among them.  I read, but not with fever or purpose, or love. For example, I renewed the Alvarez multiple times, even returning it and checking out a different copy to extend my time because I couldn’t get through it. So sorry Julia!

Even reading Carol Shields’ Stone Diaries, an acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winner, I found myself thinking, “meh, not sure why this matters.”  Oddly, I just googled Shields’ name to double check the spelling, and one line of a New York Times book review popped up.  It said, “The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.”

Is that a sign or something?

It must be, because when I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior about a month ago, I found myself overwhelmingly reminded of something so important: the great power of the imagination.   I think Einstein planted this seed a year ago when I read his biography and learned of his infatuation with creativity and imagination.  He believed they mattered above all else, saying things like, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

I’m pretty sure I felt something flutter in my brain when I read that.

Flutter turned fittingly to “flight” when I read the Kingsolver.  What was it about Flight Behavior that woke me up? For anyone concerned with climate change, it’s no secret that a decade of misinformation from the fossil fuel industry (among other groups) has successfully derailed efforts to educate the public about the current threat to our global health.  We cannot effectively manage the environmental crises we face because of the vast disconnect that exists between scientists and the doubting public.

Kingsolver addresses this problem.  Flight Behavior intertwines the plight of a small rural town with the plight of the monarch butterfly, localizing the vast implications of climate change and, ironically, making them feel more real and more intimate than Bill McKibben or James Hansen have ever managed, despite their very valiant and nonfictionalized efforts.

While the rest of us can’t figure out how to communicate about this crisis, Kingsolver sticks a scientist, Ovid, and a 20-something high school educated mother from Appalachia, Dellarobia, together on the side of a mountain and asks them to talk to each other.

Why didn’t I think of that?  The result is just brilliant.

No, it’s not real, but Kingsolver helps us believe that it could be.  She portrays Dellarobia as uneducated but intelligent, eager but trapped.  Conversely, Ovid is educated but uncommunicative, committed, but helpless.  Kingsolver throws them together, allowing them to form an unlikely friendship and a mutual respect.

With the help of their tenuous friendship, Ovid tells Dellarobia about carbon particles per million, greenhouse gases and melting polar ice.  Later, she tells him, “You guys aren’t popular.  Maybe your medicine’s too bitter.  Or you’re not selling to us.  Maybe you’re writing us off, thinking we won’t get it” (321).  In response to Ovid’s suggestion that her people simply turn their backs on what frightens them, she responds with certainty, “My husband is not a coward,” (322).

Kingsolver removes us from a public discourse that has grown hysterical in its panic and vitriol and helps us to imagine what it would sound like if two people from these opposing camps spoke to one another openly and respectfully about what matters to them.  She shows us that the people in these two camps need each other.  She helps us see a stark reality: to save ourselves, we must dispense with judgment on both sides.

I could not have imagined these conversations on my own, and I’d say Kingsolver’s portrayal has changed my judgmental view of climate deniers because I can see myself in Ovid.  I share his inability to understand the viewpoint of those in Dellarobia’s community.  Of course, Dellarobia is imagined, but her portrayal is reasonable, interesting, and completely unfamiliar.  Consequently, I found myself listening to her, and hearing her, right along with Ovid.

This is the kind of book you finish quietly, setting the volume carefully on your lap and exhaling in a long and thoughtful breath.  It left me feeling hopeful about our chances of bridging this gap between academics and regular folks.  I also felt inspired, for the first time in a long time, by a work of fiction.

I knew without question that this book mattered, and suddenly, I wanted to read again—in earnest.

With nothing new on the shelves and no time for the library, I scanned my bookcases for something interesting enough to reread.  I chose Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony because I am still scarred by the memory of being asked about its ending during my oral exams.  Having forgotten what happened (in my usual form), I had no choice but to admit, “I don’t remember it.”  Happy to finally fill in that blank, as well as to recommit myself to reading and valuing works of fiction, I settled in on the couch with my book and my tea.

I must be onto something, because I hadn’t passed page two before I came to this:

“I will tell you something about stories,                                                                           [he said]                                                                                                                          They aren’t just entertainment.                                                                                     Don’t be fooled.                                                                                                            They are all we have, you see,                                                                                        all we have to fight off                                                                                                 illness and death.

You don’t have anything                                                                                                    if you don’t have the stories.”