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Ghostly Matters (Avery F. Gordon)

Whenever I go to a conference (or a vacation if I’m lucky), I like to take some sort of tour of the area. Typically, my tours revolve around civil war history or ghost tours. People are more likely to understand my historical tourism, but they roll their eyes at the ghostly night walks I enjoy. Yes, the macabre tales of murder and mayhem are intriguing, but I take these tours more because I feel some sort of responsibility to visit with spirits who’ve suffered, to recognize their lives—which I’m not sure people quite understand. On a 2013 Memorial Day trip to New Orleans, I suggested that my friend and I take a tour of a couple of the plantations. When we arrived, she mentioned that she felt bad about being there, that maybe people shouldn’t visit such attractions because it attends to the lives of the whites more than the slaves. I told her that I toured plantations because I felt an ethical tug from the people whose voices have been lumped together into the single category of “slave,” that refusing to visit a plantation with the notion of boycotting the white slavers had the unintentional consequences of saying the slaves didn’t matter. And that’s why I tour plantations: because slaves matter. I deliberately use the present tense, because the history is not over, the energies have not faded away. Slave stories are at these homes and in the slaves’ descendents, and the slaves are still there on the properties, even though their names and personal information have been lost among catalogs of livestock, furniture, etc.

 

There are certain rooms of these homes that compel me take pictures but many more that don’t, mostly because my gut tells me to remember the feeling/energy of the room, forget the furniture. My experiences aren’t limited to plantations, abandoned mental institutions (long story) and sites of murders, disease, or torture have the same effect—not because of the stories that go along with the events, but because of something else. I have become physically ill in certain rooms of homes and other buildings, only to find out that something awful happened in that specific space. The energy of haunting is so alive that I sometimes wonder whose physiological response I am experiencing: the specter’s or mine.

 

Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) is a beautiful book that does a wonderful job of explaining the emotions of haunting and the significance of receiving the haunting experience. Ghosts and hauntings are pop-culture goldmines these days, and I wonder if these movies and films represent attempts to get over the haunting and/or transform our encounter of the social/historical type of haunting Gordon describes by using fantastical, gratuitous violence so that we cannot recognize an ordinary experience of ghosts or haunting in our daily lives. On the one hand, the over-the-top pop culture presentations of haunting make it easy to neglect the consequential hauntings that have resulted from generations of spirit murder. On the other, this culture that celebrates slasher films also makes it oddly easy for people to turn away from true cruelty (i.e., real life instances), for example, the many members of the Academy of Motion Pictures who admitted that, although they voted for Twelve Years as Slave as best picture, they never saw the film because they felt the violence of slavery portrayed in the story would be too disturbing. How did American culture arrive at a point where audiences flock to see the Saw horror film series, but viewers label Twelve Years a Slave “too disturbing”? As Gordon points out, the ghosts don’t leave just because we ignore them or because we acknowledge something “bad” happened—ghosts demand engagement.

 

Gordon’s discussion of photographs as significant to haunting is an important thing to keep in mind as well, particularly in an age when imagery is everywhere. Her discussion of the Mothers’ use of photos during the Argentine junta reminds me of walls of pictures that family members created in New York City after September 11, 2001, when they were searching for survivors. Or the images of kidnapped children on the side of milk cartons. I recently watched CNN’s documentary on Whitey Bulger, which repeatedly showed photos of Whitey’s (alleged) murder victims alongside interviews with the victims’ families, still haunted by events that happened thirty years ago. The ordinary act of taking a picture suddenly becomes infused with a weighty significance (both photos that show people who are present and highlight those who are missing) and adds another dimension to Cvetkovich’s utopia of ordinary life. Ordinary life suddenly becomes an existence framed by loss, violence, and fear, and the last known photos of individuals or pictures of groups/families without those people have a different meaning to those who know the back-stories that fill the lacuna toward which the images point. But what of the people who don’t know what or who is missing from photographs? How does the ghost haunt them? Ordinary life is bursting with ghosts and haunting energy that leads to the (social) depression, invisibility, grief, and melancholia Cvetkovich, Williams, and Cheng describe. Where is the utopia? Where are the rights? Do ghosts have rights?

 

 

Gordon relates ghosts and haunting through and to women (Sabina Spielrein, Luisa Valenzuela, and Toni Morrison). Is haunting, then, an experience that women are well suited to intuit and feel/sense? I don’t think haunting is exclusively the domain of women, but there seems to be a sense of openness that might make women more accepting of ghostly encounters (unless, perhaps a man is taught by his mother not to reject such experiences as ridiculous). Or, speaking of mothers, do women (biologically designed to grow life) have a nurturing sense that makes us more likely to take haunting seriously, or to at least protect the haunting ghost from rejection and neglect?

 

Looking at the relationship between haunting from the other side, Spielrein, Valenzuela, and Morrison do the haunting as well. Spielrein haunts the lives and work of Freud and Jung (as well as the development of psychoanalysis and depth psychology), while Valenzuela and Morrison write narratives of historically situated haunting that haunt readers in and of themselves. Beloved is a difficult book to leave behind, and it becomes a “rememory” for readers itself. (While I haven’t read Como en la Guerra, it seems that rememory may apply to Valenzuela as well.) In this focus on the feminine reception and dissemination of ghost/haunting stories, is Gordon suggesting that women bear a particular responsibility in the transmission of narratives? She mentions that white women were the primary readers of slave narratives, but doesn’t explicitly state that passing on the rememory is women’s work. The implication of looking at women as the haunted/haunting ghosts, women as haunted writers, and women as haunted readers suggests that perhaps women play a larger role in the dissemination of rememory (or at the very least, perhaps they should). Writing about and reading of ghosts haunting conjures the rememory of the disappeared (or the rememory of spirit murder) such that energy responsible for the haunting can remain socially alive. Maybe there is a strength in women’s ability to handle ghostly encounters, and a ferocity in women’s ability to haunt as well.

 

We approach the events that caused ghosts as grievances that can be solved; however, haunting reminds us that the grief has an energy of its own. And that energy of haunting, if we are not mindful, can possess the living. Perhaps, possession is the only way to realize the sincerity and realness of the haunting; perhaps possession of the living is the forthcoming consequence of neglecting the ghostly encounter.

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The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (Anne Anlin Cheng)

The first real class day of Intro to Peace Studies, we spend time discussing the various types of peace that scholars have identified. People tend to assume that peace is peace, and that “peace” means no war or physical conflict. Charles Webel identifies three forms of peace: (1) strong peace—a utopia where everyone lives in constant harmony, (2) weak peace—where there is an absence of war, but discrimination, inequality, and oppression exist, and (3) imperfect peace—a relative strong peace punctuated by moments of weak peace that are recognized and corrected in order to return to the strong peace. Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race, I felt, spoke to the affect weak peace has on those oppressed by the privileged. While Cheng does not offer explicit ways to correct weak peace, the evidence of the existence of weak peace in American culture seems to suggest that we can at least strive to correct these issues and aim for an imperfect peace.

 

Cheng highlights the effects oppression has on the groups living under the shadow of weak peace (i.e., internalization of rejection and performance of the stereotype). Part of the problem with weak peace is that those doing the oppressing believe they live in a strong peace full of harmony, yet, as Cheng points out, there is a systematic refusal to accept the grief that can disturb the illusion of strong peace. Grievances are acceptable because they can be “addressed” in a timely manner, while grief requires time, acknowledgment, and empathy. Grievances can be dealt with, and checked off the list systematically, which is really just like applying a band-aid to someone who needs surgery to remove or treat an infected organ. Grief, on the other hand, is difficult for the privileged to accept because acknowledging grief means (1) the grief and the events that caused the grief are real, (2) the events that caused the grief hurt people, and (3) the events that caused the grief need to be corrected, and that requires a great deal of time, attention, and patience. Grievance is a symptom of grief, and focusing solely on the symptom does not cure the dis-ease of grief.

 

While the privileged seem to believe that addressing grief means the destruction of their privileged position, not dealing with the grief and slapping quick fixes on grievances is the real cancer that stands to take everyone down, not just the groups being oppressed. Recognizing, addressing, and healing grief lifts everyone, not just the group experiencing the grief, and this can reconciliation of grief can be the process that initiates a more stable, harmonious, albeit imperfect, peace. However, learning how to cope, handle, and live with grief (because grief does not always disappear) means transforming our lifestyle. Change is scary, and it seems that when the idea of transformation comes into the equation, people (especially those in positions of privilege) fear that change means the loss of their privilege and, therefore, do what they can to stop it. Unfortunately, weak peace also transforms the lifestyle of those who are oppressed, leading to what Cheng describes: invisibility, internalization of rejection, and performance of the stereotype.

 

The culture of grievances (and the belief that addressing the grievance solves the issue) is a systematic enforcement of weak peace (i.e., hidden oppression) that leads us to find some way to work within a system that won’t accept us. That is, to play on level ground, the oppressed or the invisible have to perform the stereotypes they have been assigned. It’s a vicious cycle of stupidity that really just shows how “privilege” is an illusion that hides insecurity and fear. For example, as a white women, men can deal with me as long as I play the “dumb-blond” role. The fact that I can get things done by pretending to me stupid or showing a little cleavage is ridiculous, but it works and I am well versed in how to use that stereotype to maneuver through the world. When I drop the stereotype, that’s when problems begin. Once I demonstrate the fact that I have a brain or can actually accomplish a physically laborious task—I am the problem, because I take away the role the other (typically a male) is meant to play.

 

In the examples Cheng offers (i.e., Invisible Man, M. Butterfly, Flower Drum Song, The Woman Warrior, etc.) performance of the stereotype seems to indicate that there is nowhere else for the individual to go, and that authenticity leads to conflict at best, invisibility at worst. If we play into the stereotypes then we gain recognition because we live down to another’s expectation of us. One thing I wonder is: it seems that general idea behind stereotypes is that the stereotype is used to put down the “other,” but can’t the stereotype placed on the “other” also be used to alleviate the insecurity and fear festering within the one who insists on and uses the stereotype (i.e., those told they are privileged)? When I play the dumb blond, it makes men feel special and when I am myself, those same men feel useless and emasculated, because they have internalized the patriarchal myth that men are stronger/smarter/more important/more valuable/etc. than women. Can privilege be considered a stereotype as well, and if so, can the oppression of others be seen as performance of the stereotype of privilege? In other words, in the context of weak peace, privilege is an illusion that forces the oppressed into performing the stereotype to the best of their ability in order to get by, because the privilege have been duped into thinking that they mean more, and have more control, than they do.

 

Cheng indicates that internalization of rejection leads to grief, which leads to the performance of the stereotype—although I’m not entirely sure what leads to what, since the system seems to represent a spiral that heads more deeply into grief with every turn (no matter where you start). Cheng’s discussion makes me think that American culture is just an example of an abusive relationship on a mass scale. The victim is invisible, until s/her gives into the abuser; the victim is berated to the point where s/he internalizes the rejection directed toward her/him; the victim’s attempts to leave the cycle, and the stereotype, lead to explosive violence, which many times leads to the victim’s death. For example, the refusal of the African-American community in Ferguson to play into the “criminal” stereotype, combined with the choice to demonstrate injustice instead, may be read as an attempt to escape the performance of the stereotype of black male criminality, which of course had to be violently ended by the white police community, who had to engage in a performance of the stereotype of “absolute power” (associated with white maleness and police culture). How might the police department’s acceptance of the African-American community’s grief at Michael Brown’s unnecessary murder have changed the situation? How might the department’s own grief at their actions have changed the emotional outcome of the situation?

 

One question I have for Cheng relates to her selection of Freudian methodology. I wonder why she did not use Jungian analytical psychology (or depth psychology), whose goal is the reconciliation of trauma? Jung adamantly felt that in order to heal, an individual has to face all of those things that create the psychological and/or affective dis-ease, especially those things that are disturbing or that we want to keep invisible from our consciousness. He called this disturbing aspect the shadow, and emphasizes that, if we chose not to attend to the shadow, the shadow will get to us no matter what. That is, ignoring a full-fledged confrontation with the shadow causes more psychic damage than facing it. The experience first elicits fear because the shadow appears as a threat, when really the shadow is just trying to show us what we have to include in our perspectives of ourselves to truly heal. Requiring the “other” to internalize the rejection and engage in a performance of the stereotype, Jung might say, is the very thing that is helping American culture maintain a weak peace. These conditioned affective responses of oppressed cultures when faced with the demands of (or neglect by) the privileged, only keep the culture from presenting itself as unique, balanced, and healthy. Jung might point to Cheng’s distinction between grief and grievance and emphasize that honest and true healing requires acknowledging and feeling grief, not just resolving one grievance after another.

The Alchemy of Race and Rights (Patricia J. Williams)

In The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (Harvard University Press, 1992), Patricia J. Williams draws on contemporary events to discuss her views and experiences of racism in everyday life. My first thought after reading the first three pages of The Alchemy of Race and Rights was, “Not much has changed in twenty-four years.” This made me wonder: what type of epilogue would Williams write for a 2014 edition of the book? Aside from this sad observation, three themes caught my attention: the place of (the) spirit, seeing/being seen, and polar bears.

 

(The) Spirit:

Williams addresses the commodification of humanity, or the selling of a fictionalized life to all willing to purchase it (chapter three), using terms like “buying one’s freedom” and/or “paying the price.” In chapter four, Williams introduces the term “spirit murder,” which she defines as the “disregard for others whose lives qualitatively depend on our regard” (73), and using various examples illustrates how we have successfully omitted personal responsibility from life, making the Cain and Abel motif Williams’ touches on (chapter three) our reality. “I am not my brother’s keeper” may be the motto of the20th and 21st centuries.

 

While Williams brings up the concept of buying freedom and paying the price, she does not, in the theme of spirit murder, mention the idea of “selling one’s soul” as part of paying for and/or buying what has been dressed up as freedom. We are responsible for refusing to acknowledge the spirit of humanity, yet, we have been tricked into releasing our own spirit and selling ourselves into a culture of commodification. Thus, we simultaneously ignore the indwelling Spirit (gifted to us by a God in whose image we are made), and we handover our access to spirit so that we may participate in a manufactured existence based on a system of constructed power. Everyone in the power imbalance has sold their soul: one side because they are bullied into choosing the lesser of two evils, the other, for the sake of wielding imaginary power that isn’t power at all.

 

Williams also mentions the removal of passion from law, which reminds me (rightly or wrongly) of a scene in Legally Blond. Elle Woods has just begun classes at Harvard Law, and one of her professors mentions Aristotle’s definition of the law: “The law is reason free from passion.” If passion is truly beyond the bounds of law, why then do we discuss “crimes of passion” or violent events erupting in the “heat of the moment”? While justice should be administered without bias, this certainly does not exclude passion or spirit from being involved in restitution. The passion I mean here is not the type of retaliatory justice Williams describes in chapter four (a product of fear and bias). Instead, I mean passion found in forgiveness, compassion/empathy, and reconciliation—a sense of spirit that has been removed from “law” and relegated to religion, even though the two areas are not necessarily separate. Passion is the energy of existence that ignites us to turn spirit murder into spirit celebration.

 

The book’s title refers to alchemy, a process in which fire (both physical fire and the fire of the spirit) transforms. For speculative philosophy, the goal of alchemy was to turn metals into gold and/or discover the key to immortality. Analytical psychology (i.e., C.G. Jung and depth psychology) uses alchemy in reference to the process of moving from lack of (self-) knowledge into a realm of conscious awareness of oneself as an individual in the world. While Williams seems to refer to the philosophical understanding of alchemy (163), it seems as though part of the narrative journey entails moving from a lack of knowledge (or a lack of spirit) into a conscious awareness (built on, or with the help of, spirit) of race and rights, both for herself and her readers. For Williams, this awareness seems built around seeing and being seen.

 

Seeing/Being Seen:

Williams threads her book with a discussion of her great-great-grandmother, her relationship to both this ancestor and the white slave owner who impregnated her relative, and her experience seeing reflections of herself (or, being seen as property and seeing ourselves, or others, through our own eyes). The blood that runs through each of our veins tells us a story about who we are, one that no one except our family knows about. It tells us about our resilience of spirit, what we’re capable of enduring and surviving. I am not just Alex Carroll in 2014, I have the blood of Polish farmers and factory workers in me, an Irish firefighter, a Scottish clan, and, among others, a grandmother who got her first job, after her husband died, when she was in her sixties.

 

When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we do it mainly to access our presentation to the world: Is my hair in place? Is my eye shadow smudged? Are my clothes clean? What I felt Williams call attention to, as she described seeing herself in NYC store windows, was not just a presentation but a reflection of the generations (good and bad) that contributed to making her.

 

When we look deeply at our reflection, there are times when we cannot recognize ourselves, most often when we are ill, exhausted, overworked, stressed, etc. At those times, are we even looking at ourselves, or are we looking at our blood, our ancestors refracting generations of weight and spirit murder back to us? Perhaps this is part of the problem, one that keeps us tethered to continued engagement in spirit murder, continued because we don’t know any other way of being. Or, is our inability to see the generations in our reflection a deliberate excision of the past from us, so that we believe we truly stand alone as individuals, and not on the shoulders of those who came before?

 

For example, Williams’ discusses violence incurred by the revelation that Beethoven was mulatto during a discussion between two young men (112). The perpetrator, who defaced the poster of Beethoven and then hung it as a kind of anti-icon for his African-American friend, claimed that he was aware of such dehumanization as a Jew, but ignored what that reflection told him about how to bear responsibility to others. The knowledge of the pain of generations seems to have existed in him, but the disconnection between himself and the pain of the generations that made him (one instance of spirit murder) lead him to create another incidence of spirit murder. Perhaps the action was a form of retaliation, a misplaced display of rage and pain that he could not show those who dehumanized his ancestors, so he directed it toward his contemporary. The incident itself points to the damaging effect spirit murder has on oneself, not just against others. The rage Beethoven’s lineage ignited in this young man reflects his inability to experience spirit revelation whenever it manifests.

 

The Beethoven incident points to the rage that accompanies seeing, while the conclusion of Williams’ book points to the rage of not being seen, of being ignored, and of forcing others to see you. One example demonstrates the desire to refuse the spirit (the Beethoven incident), while the other (Williams’ Dartmouth experience) presents the demands of the spirit. How do we know, in each and every instance, when anger is a product of ignoring the spirit and when it is an assertion of the spirit? Perhaps the criterion really is nothing more than the presence of dehumanization versus humanization. But, how do we fix this problem when spirit murder may be both external and internal?

 

Polar Bears:

The crux of spirit murder, passion, and seeing/being seen comes together in Williams’ concluding references to polar bears, including a brief vignette of two polar bears in captivity, who were depressed and/or went mad. While the anecdote may seem random, the images of captive animals and their madness dramatize the dangers of spirit murder, and parallel the freedom-without-freedom in which we exist. Captivity destroys the spirit, yet we insist on placing wild (i.e., free) animals into unnatural, restrictive habitats for our enjoyment. For some reason, we cannot tell that we engage in this type of behavior on a daily basis with ourselves and those around us. Those in power believe they are free and have power because they offer choices (that aren’t really choices) to others, and dictate when, where, and how others should live. These same so-called powerful people, however, cannot sense that the restrictions they place on others restrict themselves. As long as this cultural contribution to captivity goes unrecognized, spirit murder will prevail. We are living like the polar bears, in small habitats that we have constructed for ourselves, and in which we claim that one lives with the freedom of the spirit. How many generations have lived within these restrictions? Is there anyone who remembers what it is like to live in spirit and without spirit murder?

 

Part of the problem, it seems, is the belief that to achieve freedom one group must put another down, so that that “other” doesn’t impinge on the freedoms the powerful desire for themselves. By refusing to engage the spirit, however, those is power ignore the fact that there is enough freedom for everyone. Spirit does not shrink or dry up, there is enough for all. Spirit does not exist in a preset quantity, like a pizza that has only so many slices to go around. However, the perception of privilege prevents us from accepting spirit as it truly is.

 

Depression: A Public Feeling (Ann Cvetkovich)

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Depression: A Public Feeling (Duke University Press, 2012) is Ann Cvetkovich’s exploration of cultural and social causes/influences on depression, which she offers as an alternative to the medical model of depression (which emphasizes medication). She combines a memoir (Part I) that discusses her experience of academic depression (writing her dissertation, working in her first job, writing her first book), with a critical essay (Part II) that touches on spiritual despair, colonialism and slavery, queer culture, and crafting.

 

 

 

Cvetkovich’s suggestion that a cure for depression is rooted in creativity, along with her inclusion of “The Depression Journals” (or, memoir) in the text, caught my attention immediately because it relates to my research into writing as a means of addressing psychological, emotional, and spiritual crises. My dissertation was a Jungian investigation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, which he composed during a twelve-year oppression that left him unable to produce plays and publish prose works from 1927 to 1940. My thesis is based on a Jungian and Russian Orthodox religious/philosophical outlook on creativity, which argues that creativity is a psychological and spiritual catharsis that allows us to return to the depths of suffering, enter the crisis objectively, and resolve the crisis through the creation of art. Cvetkovich’s definition of creativity as something that can help move the mind around, into, or through an impasse (21) fits well with a religious and depth psychology perspective, even as she points out the existing tensions a creative-spiritual perspective has in academia. Cvetkovich also reminds me of the work done on the moral imagination, in particular, of Paul Lederach’s The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. For Lederach, transcending conflict comes through transforming anxiety and/or fear into hope through artistic means. Cvetkovich also implies a connection between creativity and hope in “The Depression Journals.”

 

Recognizing creativity’s connection to hope, Cvetkovich explicitly ties creativity to impasse, which implies that creativity exists along a spectrum between hope and despair, with “impasse” somewhere in between. Creativity cannot be removed from the equation, though its existence may be ignored, and the individual can adjust the use and influence of creativity, if she chooses. At the end of her memoir (Part I), Cvetkovich suggests that the creative solution to depression (for herself) does not lie in the external expression of the creative as an object outside the individual (i.e., the medical creativity it takes to build a drug that rebalances the brain). Rather, the solution lies in the experience of stepping creatively into the crisis and working with the chaos to alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression.

 

A medical perspective of depression conveys the idea that the depression happens to the person, while Cvetkovich’s approach to depression as a cultural product suggests depression as something done with and/or in the individual. A difference between these two views may impact the likelihood of resolving the depression: if medication does not work (and medication is what you believe will cure you), dealing with the depression might become more overwhelming. That is, if an individual places all hope in medication as the conclusive end of depression, and it doesn’t work, the individual’s experience of depression may worsen. On the other hand, Cvetkovich’s discussion of creative ways in which people handle living with depression (where depression is a part of the individual and life) offers a way of seeing the depression as something less like an enemy that needs defeating, and more like the annoying relative with whom you have to engage, even if you would rather not. You cannot get around it, so you might as well develop coping mechanisms that make depression’s presence more palatable.

 

Reading the options Cvetkovich presents for tending to the public/cultural aspect of depression in Part II, I felt a warming sense of “my academic research interests are not crazy.” Cvetkovich mentions the hostile trend toward the spiritual in academia. Coming from a religious studies background myself, the trend toward finding the spiritual in everyday activities is met with a similar hostility that I still don’t understand. Rather than being accused of bringing religion into a secular humanities subject, I have been confronted by demands to know where the spirituality/religious is in everyday activities like writing or reading. “What’s theological about it?” is a frequent question tossed to me, even though theology itself is done in artistic ways (i.e., iconography). It’s an odd thing to consider: neither side can find itself in the other. The location of the spiritual within the creative realm, I feel, is a great approach to dealing with either the private or public feelings of depression. I’m not sure if my random digression makes sense, but the crux of the point is: I strongly agree with Cvetkovich’s spiritual approach to the utopia of ordinary habit.

 

I see how the drudgery of everyday, ordinariness creates depression and anxiety in a population bombarded with messages that our lives should be X, Y, and Z. I certainly feel it, and know other people do. When I watch a movie or TV show, the ridiculous questions I keep coming back to are: Does this action hero go to the bathroom? When does that stylish woman do her laundry or clean her toilet? How does this twenty-something with that job pay for that apartment? These mundane yet necessary tasks make it seem like our lives are shabby in comparison to the glamorous figures onscreen. There is an odd need to “Keeping Up With the Jones’,” yet no recognition that the Jones’ are not real people.

 

At the same time, those tasks that seem mundane to one person are infused with an entirely different significance if they make up the content of someone’s professional life (i.e., maid, servant, cook, and housekeeper) and they remain things a woman has to do at home for herself and her own family. Does that professional experience increase the depression and anxiety brought on by ordinary habit? Cvetkovich does not say, but it could be worth exploring.

 

The areas of artistic expression that Cvetkovich offers (writing and crochet) as examples of the utopia of ordinary habit are exactly what I have encountered in my life. I see writing (i.e., fiction, memoir, journaling) as a form of therapy that offers a spiritual connection, if the writer is paying attention. Funnily enough, I am also a crocheter. I have an Etsy shop. My stock consists of projects I make when I’m trying to unwind (no pun intended—although I am cognizant of the bizarre process of taking a ball of yarn and purposely tying it into knots as a form of stress relief). The original stock for my Etsy shop came out of the crochet breaks I took while writing my dissertation in 2011-12. I started the shop in 2009 but it was empty until 2011—just when my stress of the job search and writing began. Last year, I starting investigating crochet as a form of meditation, and wrote a (still homeless) freelance article about meditative crochet as a daily, ordinary habit the average crocheter could convert into a calming spiritual exercise. I appreciate her including crafting in her book, because I think it too often gets overlooked as something women do to keep busy or to be domestic. The new approaches to crafting (particularly in the most recent feminist wave) represent a cultural reversal: taking the very tasks that were meant to confine women (which lead to “hysteria”) and transforming them into actions of freedom (which alleviate depression).

 

Cvetkovich touches on the public nature of crochet as a form of performance art, although I wish she had discussed the social significance of crafting as well. For example, coded messages female slaves incorporated into imagery on quilts used by the Underground Railroad, or quilting bees and sewing circles, which provided times for socializing and creating solidarity among women.

 

I would have liked Cvetkovich to include play/sport in her discussion of creativity and of the utopia of ordinary habit. She mentions individual exercise (i.e., yoga), but not group play or organized sports as a means of participating in the ordinary. Anyone with children knows that play is part of their day. We’ve done much to cut play from life as we age, and many women have told their children “I don’t have time to play with you now” when they are tackling household or work-related duties. As much as the brain needs crafting, the brain also needs play. Play creates solidarity and emotional bonds, and increases endorphins, which are important for emotional health. Play and participating in organized sport is not just about exercise, since play allows us to escape the bubble of cultural conformity that might contribute to depression. Play and sport also provide a means of approaching impasse creatively and in the spur of the moment, which might be helpful when confronting an impasse such as depression, both privately and publically.

 

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The Year in Review: Favorite Fiction

2013 was a slow year in my fiction reading pursuits, being waylaid by the job search, moving, presenting at conferences, commuting to work, etc. I read six novels this year and half of a collection of short stories, which I will finish up in the beginning of 2014. This is barely above my record low in 2011 when I read five novels. I was writing my dissertation then, so I’ve forgiven myself the sad number.

Here are a few of my favorites.

One TwoI have been on an Agatha Christie binge for about two years, ever since I read a piece about Agatha Christie in Smithsonian magazine and watched a documentary claiming to decode Christie’s writing (The Agatha Christie Code, 2007). I have been a fan of Christie’s mysteries since childhood and always tune in when Masterpiece Mysteries airs a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple series. This year I read One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, which centers on Hercule Porot’s visit to his dentist. The dentist winds up dead due to an apparent suicide. Of course, things are never as they seem in Christie’s world, and the case is no different here for Poirot.  I won’t give more details away, since that would spoil the narrative. If you’re a fan of Christie, you’ll enjoy finding out what unnerves Poirot. Every hero has a weak spot, and Poirot’s turns out to be the dentist.

Last Cato

Matilde Asensi’s 2001 novel The Last Cato made my list of good reads this year. I picked up the book a few years ago, and it sat in what I affectionately refer to as The Pile for a while. When I finally got to it, I couldn’t put it down. If you’re a Dante lover, hopefully you’ll enjoy this book. The plot follows Dr. Ottavia Salina (a paleographer and Roman Catholic nun working in the Vatican archives), an archaeologist, and the head of the Swiss Guard as they race to find and protect the True Cross. Dante’s Inferno acts as the cipher for the journey.  The funny thing is that Dan Brown’s most recent novel, Inferno, where Robert Langdon has to use Dante’s work to save the world. It’s a shame that Brown’s novel has received more attention than Asensi’s.

Finally, Lauren Weisberger’s  Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns (2013) is just plan fun. RevengeFor those of you who read The Devil Wears Prada, you’ll enjoy returning to familiar faces to see what’s happened with Andy, Emily, and of course Miranda Priestly. Weisberger waited over a decade to bring the sequel, which I think was smart. We’ve had a chance to image what happened with these characters. What happens is a marriage, a business adventure, and the realization that life can throw us in some unanticipated directions. No one enjoys a true happily ever after, and the novel demonstrates that life is very, very messy but not unsalvageable.

If you don’t have a lot of time, and like short stories, I also recommend Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories. Although I’m only about half-way through, the stories demonstrate the save Christie-mystery charm as her novels.

What were your favorite fiction reads of 2013?

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