Remodeling, Part Two

There has got to be a metaphor here.

It's been weeks since I did anything remotely resembling academic work, which is not to say that things haven't been busy. First there was getting ready for Christmas, decorating the tree, shopping for presents, wrapping the presents, writing prayers for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, baking altar bread for communion on Christmas Eve. Then there was Christmas itself, with stockings and the Queen's Speech and presents, a big feast and then games to play and videos to watch ("The Sweeney," just to keep the English theme going). Boxing Day my family and I did our first ever jigsaw puzzle together--appropriately enough, given what was to come, on a dog theme. And then the packing and cleaning and tidying and rearranging started.

It took all week last week to clear out the back bedroom and bathroom and kitchen and butler's pantry and utility pantry, day after day after day of sorting what we wanted to keep from what we could give or throw away (bags and bags of the stuff), moving furniture out of the dining room so as to make room for the boxes of stuff to come out of the kitchen, rearranging our living space so as to accommodate both ourselves during the remodeling and (glorious to think!) our new puppy. Somehow, everything fits; somehow, there is still room in the dining room for the table, although the only thing we can cook is toast. Somehow, it was all ready in time for the workmen on Monday, who have now spent the last three days stripping our kitchen and the adjoining pantries down to their proverbial bones.

Meanwhile, I've been cleaning up poop. It's amazing how much poop can come out of one little dog. Actually, no, she does manage to eat more than she poops so some of the food must be turning into her. But she is still so little that poop comes at astonishingly regular intervals, every other hour or so. Which, since our backdoor opens through the kitchen, means either going through the zipper door into the now bare-walled and rubble-filled room or, if the workmen are busy making more rubble, downstairs and through the building basement and out into the back. The alternative, of course, is encouraging her to poop on the paper, but that's not really our long-term goal. So it is better for the moment to make the trek as often as possible. Hopefully, it won't take her more than (gasp!) a week or two (or three?) to catch on.

Should I be worried? Should I be trying to do more work? I'm not really sure anymore. "I should be working." Is this true? Maybe I really did need this total break, time to take care of our physical space (which, to judge from the number of bags of trash that we threw out, really was in some need of attention). Maybe I am actually supposed to be ("supposed to be") doing exactly what I am right now, sitting here in the living room on the chaise longue from the dining room watching my puppy sleep, waiting for the plumber to show up to turn off the water. But how can I know for sure? Can I absolutely know that it's true that it's okay for me to be doing what I'm doing now and not something else, say, reading those books that I am scheduled to review?

Okay, so do The Work. Oh, dear, I'm scared. I know I'm wrong to be spending my days this way, attending to the bodily essentials of my puppy and my home. That's not what the University pays me for. Mind you, technically speaking, the University doesn't pay me for writing book reviews either. Technically speaking, the University only pays me to teach. Oh, and do that amorphous thing called "my research." But how do I know that sitting here watching my puppy sleep isn't part of my research? Maybe what my research is calling me to do is to learn more about puppies. Is this accepting what is--or simply rationalizing my own procrastination?

How do I react when I believe the thought "I should be doing my academic work"? Panic. I don't know what "my academic work" is anymore. It "should" be writing a book on prayer and the Virgin Mary, but, of course, it doesn't have to be. That was just the project that I thought I should be doing given the story I had been telling myself about what I knew. Um. That's not quite right. The problem is, there are projects that fit the label "my academic work" and there are others (like spending the autumn learning as much as possible about dogs) that don't, despite the fact that, oddly enough, both can easily involve what others might describe as "research." And, indeed, spending so much time thinking about dogs last quarter gave me an idea for a new course that I am planning on teaching next year on, you guessed it, "Animals in the Middle Ages." Which, if I had believed the story about "my academic work" involving only devotion and prayer, I would most likely have never thought of. So there.

And yet, it still does feel like a rationalization, not a recognition of reality. I "should" be publishing more, I "should" be churning out books and articles at a much more impressive rate. I "should" simply get on with it, stop all this soul-searching and questioning. But, again, can I absolutely know that this is true? Maybe the (academic) writer's block I've been experiencing these past six or so months is what I am supposed to be going through. It is, after all, reality that that's what's been going on. But I worry when I allow myself to think this thought: "I'm learning things about myself that will enrich my work." But what if I'm not? What if throwing myself into learning about countertops and cabinets and flooring and building permits, not to mention dog training and dog psychology, is all just an elaborate ruse on my part to convince myself that I'm not wasting my time? See, I don't really trust myself to choose my activities properly. This is the story I do believe: "If I just do whatever seems to be most interesting at the moment, I will never do any truly productive work."

You could say, of course, that I am exaggerating. Even in quarters when I have not been planning a kitchen remodel or preparing to adopt a puppy, I've rarely managed to do anything remotely close to "real" research, other than what I have needed to do for my teaching. Nor is it the case that I did not spend a great deal of time this past quarter preparing for class and grading; quite the reverse. If I were not convinced that there was something else I "should" have been doing (aha!) then I would say that I had a very good quarter; certainly, my students did some of the best work I have ever received, and that doesn't happen (consistently, at least) unless the course is at least moderately well-presented and the assignments properly structured. But, but, but...I "should" be doing more.

And yet, that thought--"I should be doing more"--makes me suffer, so, by Katie's description, it is a thought that is at odds with reality, because if it were in harmony with reality, it would simply be what is and I wouldn't be in all of this psychological pain. I actually know why I'm stuck: I've lost faith in academia. Not, I should hasten to say, education, interestingly enough. I am still all over education, learning new skills, practicing difficult activities (like writing or thinking about history). But I can't quite see the point anymore in arguing about a past we don't actually care about, other than to distance ourselves from it. There, I've said it. I don't understand anymore why academics take the position that we do with respect to the materials that we study. At least, why academics in my field take the position that we do. Dog psychologists (of which, interestingly, there are surprisingly few, given how many people in our culture still keep dogs as pets) are actually interested in learning more about dogs in order to do something real--i.e. live with dogs--but historians? Why do we do what we do, other than out of curiosity?

Mind you, curiosity of itself isn't at all a bad thing. But, typically, in contexts outside of academia, it serves a purpose. I am curious about how dogs think and feel because I want to take good care of my dog. I am curious about the materials available for designing a kitchen because I want our kitchen to be both aesthetically pleasant and functional. There has actually been some purpose for me in learning about kitchens and dogs this past quarter, unlike, shall we say, what I've been forcing myself to learn about medieval ideas of contemplation and prayer. Because what is the point of learning about medieval ideas of contemplation and prayer unless I want to live them? And yet, as an academic, that is, of course, the last thing that I am "supposed" to do. It wouldn't be objective. It wouldn't be scholarly.

The problem goes deeper than this. So what if, as an academic, I am not supposed to get involved or to want to know something about the past so as to apply it to my present? The problem is with what I am studying in the first place: Christianity. It's the only thing I have ever cared to try to make sense of, the only thing that, following the first flush of research, actually returns to haunt me. It--not some more properly academic (if there is such a thing) interest in, I don't know, "the origins of modernity" or "the encounter with the Other"--is what drew me to want to study the Middle Ages. I imagined, rightly or wrongly, I'm still not sure, that studying Christianity as it was lived at a time in which the whole culture--no, I'm not allowed to say that, because we all know that the "Age of Faith" is a nineteenth-century fantasy; start again--in which Christianity occupied the minds of some of the greatest thinkers and artists of the day--no, again, not quite it, because it's not just that Christianity was somehow more intellectual then; start again--in which, okay, yes, it was my projection of what people seemed to believe, that looking at that would help me discover my own faith. Which it did. Or hasn't. I'm not sure which.

The problem is, the real problem is, when you get right down to it what is upsetting me is that I am afraid nobody (read, none of my academic colleagues) is actually interested in what I want to say about religion, medieval, Christian or otherwise. That I am not clever and sophisticated and above all distanced enough from my sources to show how they operate on a cultural or epistemological or mythological level. That I am not suspicious enough of the whole religious project of humanity to be an historian while at the same time not faithful enough to be a theologian. Worse, that whatever insights I may have into the problem of faith, religion or history are unnecessary, because there are others out there who have done a much, much better job discussing them than I ever could, or banal, because everybody knows them already.

I could, I realized yesterday, just side-step this whole issue and work on, I don't know, translating some of my favorite texts. But that seems to me to be a cop-out. Maybe I am meant to be struggling with these questions of faith and reality. Or maybe not. Maybe I'm just trying to aggrandize a perfectly normal case of writer's block by dressing it up as a great existential crisis. Or maybe, again, the bare walls and the poop are trying to teach me something and it really is important that I listen. I don't know. I really and truly and honestly don't know. Except that the thought that I should be doing more work makes me suffer while sitting here with my puppy brings me joy.


  1. Hello Fencing Bear.

    I also work in academia and feel your pain. As a mathematician, my struggles could be characerised slightly differently, but I believe they have a common core.

    The surface problem is that I feel as if a purely rational approach to the universe is incommensurate with the awe and wonder and I love I feel when contemplating it.

    But this masks a deeper issue concerning the connection between life and work, which is more in harmony with the issues you describe. For both of us, I feel, would like to enjoy a more complete relationship with our work. To make our work more of a contemplation of life and our place in the world, rather than a dry study of it in keeping with the fashion of our peers.

    I think you may well be right that the pain, the struggling for meaning, the trial of holding together these things which threaten to fly apart, could in fact be what we are meant to be doing, or at the least could be teaching us something about ourselves.

    I hope you find some way to peacefully hold together. Walking the dog could be good for that! But ultimately, our relationships with our research, our peers, our communities, our family, are ours to make of them as we wish.

  2. Thanks, Phil, it's good to know I'm not alone in struggling with all of this! You are exactly right: on the one hand, my work is my life, in the sense that it is what I define as having value in my life; and yet, on the other, I feel distanced from my work in my life and wish that this were not the case.


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