Square Peg in a Neat Arrangement of Round Holes

There are two reasons I haven’t posted since August.

The first is my mother. My beloved, my conscience, my biggest scold and most ardent defender, who lapsed into her final illness at the end of the summer and, after a series of increasingly harrowing hospitalizations, died on January 3.

Mama, almost the oldest in the family, with Kaylee, the baby of the family, in Richmond at the 2012 family reunion.

Mama, almost the oldest in the family, with Kaylee, the baby of the family, in Richmond at the 2012 family reunion.

That is a long story, and I’m willing to tell it more of it, now that I’ve had time and distance to make sense of some of those events… but that’s not the story I mean to tell today.

Today I want to talk about another reason for my silence: another powerful woman in my life, my supervisor–and how, as I was struggling to come to grips with with my mother’s agonized passage toward death, I internalized my supervisor’s judgments and, for a while at least, gave up on myself.

And all it took was four little words–said in passing about the six-year project I’ve called “The Goddess of Gumbo.”

“Not an academic’s blog.”

OK, so you’ve read the Goddess of Gumbo and presumably you became a user because it spoke to you, however fleetingly. Something in your history, your culture, the way you like to cook or garden, resonates with the way I do and talk about those things. We’re a cozy little community here of many dozens of people who are more or less on the same page–or willing to talk these things over. That phrase of my supervisor’s may not mean a lot to you–maybe it does and elicits a “Thank God!”–but coming from her, I assure you, the words were the poisoned kiss of proverb. An announcement that no one in the exclusive club called “academia” would want to be my friend. And the words hurt just like not being chosen for kickball would hurt–if you were to suffer lifelong loss of income and prestige as a result.

I tried to defend myself against her. “It’s not actually intended to be” an academic’s blog–I think that’s what I said. But it’s been so many months I don’t know if I actually articulated the words or only thought them and remained silent. And silence is so loaded when relationships of power are at play. Later you think, “I was just being strategic”–in the time-honored sense of Br’er Rabbit misdirecting the stronger animal’s gaze while scampering off into the briar patch. But a part of you also wonders, “Was I just being a coward?” And the answer is hardly ever clear.

This is what I wanted to say:

“I should hope it’s not an academic’s blog. I should hope it’s a lot better written!”

Because, I admit it, I am vain about my craft.

This is what I would have said to an ally:

“You got that–I’m so glad. This blog is my refuge from academia!”

… and then we could have had a nice conversation about why such refuges are necessary and good.

This is what an ally looks like. The opinions expressed do not appear to be the Boss Lady's gender politics.

Patrick Stewart is what an ally looks like. LOL! The opinions expressed do not appear to be the gender politics the Boss Lady practices, as opposed to preaches.


What I actually did say? Um, I don’t really know because I remember the next thing she said so much better:

“I know you’re in the middle of an academic job search, Kendra. And if you want to get a job, you’d better take it down.”

Now here, I know for sure that I uttered a squeak of protest, having only just, over a summer’s hungry struggle, figured out who and what and why I was writing my particular brand of food-and-flowers consciousness-raising feminism for. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed just rolled over my resistance.

“I’m serious, Kendra. And while you’re at it, you need to scrub your social media, too. You never know what detail a hiring committee is going to get fixated on, and a person in your position can’t afford the risk.”

Common sense words, right? Absolutely. But there it was, so subtle I nearly missed it: the appeal to fear in the language (Thank you, Cicero! Thanks Mrs. Hutto for my “classical education”!): the opposition of “position” and “risk.” No mere verbal tic, this is the very language of oppression: a hand of coercion within a soft glove of faux concern.

And I did what I’ve done many times before in that situation. I simply capitulated.

Not without heartache. There are moments we all reach, wherein the image of whatever it is we’ve idealized–a notion of fair play, an idea of what is beautiful, a belief about love–falls and shatters, like a plaster goddess tipping off a shelf in the heart. In this case the goddess was my naive “sisters-in-struggle” notion of the coolness of working in feminist studies. After being given four years to absorb the clash of the realities of life as “adjunct faculty” with the revolutionary rhetoric of folks who like to prate about “structural disadvantage” while doing nothing to challenge it, that rosy notion is no longer intact.

But that’s not actually why I capitulated. Not entirely. There was simply no fight left in me at that time–November I guess it would have been. The sting of one petty woman’s poison seemed a mere pinprick next to the saber cut dealt by every word exchanged between me and my mother as she kept her inexorable appointment with the Angel of Death. The calamity of my life was unfolding while this woman paused in her busy day to tell me she thought I was a dork. I cared. Deeply. But… distantly …

And then … Mother died. I bore it, because I had to… and, as events unfolded, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed turned out to be wrong about everything.

I was indeed offered a job–a very desirable job on a very pretty campus back home in South Carolina among a group of amazingly smart, collegial, fun(ny) teacher-scholars who shamelessly (concept!) enjoy their work. I’ll be teaching African American literature and modern poetry (my first loves) and directing the Southern Studies program (a dream I never thought would come true). And it is a dream appointment in another respect, too: The school is only 40 miles from my grandparents’ place in Ninety-Six. I could actually live on family land–craft the “Geechee Girl” local-organic-renewable life I’ve longed for with the Farm Boy I love–and commute to work that is engaging and satisfying to boot.

And all this came to me without my having to follow my chair’s well-intentioned (one hopes) advice.

I did not “take down” my blog–I stopped writing on it, but mostly because my voice was stopped up with grief. I did not scrub my Facebook–I drastically curtailed my activity, mostly because I don’t think of updates from a deathbed as anybody’s idea of a cheery way to start the day.

Most importantly, I did not have to pretend to be someone I wasn’t.

Now this is in part because I was too numbed with grief and shock to put on an act. I talked with folks on the phone and via Skype, met, it seemed, everyone at the school with whom I might be likely to have any kind of significant interaction–the student who was giving me my tour even buttonholed the president as he was passing to introduce me.

This community took the time to learn what I thought about my students, my community work, the commitment I have to bringing the “big ideas” universities trade in to regular folks, my forthcoming book from University of Georgia–oh yes! and my cooking and gardening and blogging interests. And I think they liked the way I failed–failed, that is, to regard my students as leeches upon my precious time and creativity, to think of “townies” as beneath my notice,  to see everyone with less than a Ph.D. as a boob–because they made me an offer despite the campus having closed due to a punishing late winter snowstorm. They chose me. Not the edited facsimile. Me.

In the weeks since that chain of events unspooled, I’ve thought often of the two women in authority whose directives and ambitions bookended the experience. Mama, a practical woman of great managerial gifts who loved her free-spirited child while also despairing of her common sense. The boss lady, a woman with a lot of power and a willingness to exercise it, not always compassionately.

Mama, a Depression kid raised on a farm who achieved her dream of becoming a librarian, knew well the implications of believing too much in the dangerous ideas one might encounter in a broad course of reading. The boss lady, having entered academia in the 1970s, had navigated some pretty treacherous waters to achieve her position, too, and probably figured she could recognize a square peg approaching a neat arrangement of round holes when she saw one.

And then there was me: seeing both of them very clearly, yet incapable of the calculated, self-inflicted violence that would be required to shave my square edges down to something remotely resembling their very different conceptions of my proper sphere.

Don’t risk it all, their insidious whispers.

And today, from the vantage point of hindsight, it looks like I’ve won it all instead.

But there’s still the question that  teases me, the one I posed at the beginning of this post. Did I give up on myself? Because, yes, I did internalize the “not good enough” message that went with my chair’s words. It resonated with the “stay safe, be smart” messages my mother has always given me, and, for a while, I fell silent. Yet the other hand, I kept slogging away. Kept my diary. Wrote poems. Taught, to the best of my ability. Kept my various projects afloat. Kept slogging through the job seeking process despite the fact that the intervals between every interview were full of anguish and sorrow. Did I, in fact, give up? Was I instead … buying time? Perhaps a bit of both?

After I got the offer, I thought of a quote I’ve long loved from Ruth Gordon, the writer (of Adam’s Rib, et al.) and actress (Thornton Wilder’s first Dolly Levi, inter alia) who won an Academy Award (for Rosemary’s Baby) and a Golden Globe (for Harold and Maude) while in her seventies.

“Never give up. Never face facts.” That’s what Ruth said.

Being a woman well acquainted with despair, I do realize, of course, that the line between faith and delusion is a fine one. The dream you cling to may seem impossible to those around you. Love may ask you to give up, grow up, face facts–end your delusion!–no less than that toxic boss who’s both jealous of your gifts and convinced you’re an idiot. Either, both–even if well-intended–can amount to oppression.

But the condition of hungering and thirsting after beauty and goodness is something George Eliot said we can never give up longing and wishing for if we are to remain “thoroughly alive.” Gosh, I’ve been very close to dead of late. I want to believe in, cling to “thoroughly alive.”

And maybe from “the other side” that’s how mama now sees it, too. The Geechee mystic in me for sure thinks she had a hand in bringing her baby girl home. 🙂

5 comments for “Square Peg in a Neat Arrangement of Round Holes

  1. MF
    April 14, 2014 at 11:55 pm

    I know your Mama called you home. Think of the trials you have faced as the initiation of the true goddess in you. It is the Birth that will allow you to grow into yourself as you experience a certain type of happiness for the first time, the happiness that welcomes your soul and builds a place for you to truly call your own.
    Love you.

    • April 15, 2014 at 1:19 am

      You’re going to make me cry, MF…

  2. April 15, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    I am so excited and happy for you. For the record, you are one of the women who inspire me to push on, to follow my dream, whatever that dream may be. Rock on sister. I’m gonna miss seeing you around here.

  3. April 16, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    Becky, I think you rock, too. Wish I were as faithful with my blogging as you are. Wish I could have worked with you on more of your fabulous ideas. I look at you and I see someone who’s living “the good life” by her own lights–and that’s inspiring, girl. Cuz it’s the opposite of that perfectionism we women get so hung up on –the perfect pie crust, the perfect dining room table, the perfect husband-child-job, whatever… From the perspective of the good life I see you living and I’m trying to live, perfect is really the enemy of good, isn’t it? Hugs forever!

  4. Dinky
    April 22, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    That was a phenomenal story…. I have always known and still believe that you are one of the most beautiful person that I have ever met in my life. I want you to know that the job in South Carolina you accepted was not a haphazard event or a luck of the draw. It was ALWAYS there for you….. God was preparing your heart & soul for the next chapter in your life. I am so happy that you persevered through the storm to begin to reap what you have already sown. I am confident that your mother is smiling down on you and saying “Well Done Kendra – That’s my girl” …. Iloveyouwithallmyheart…

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