Being Present, Taking Time
One chilly day in November, with a few morning hours surprisingly free of meetings or classes, I decided to stay home later into the day than usual due to what felt like an impending sinus infection (thereby putting the lie to all my fantasies of omnipotence). I lead a book discussion group on women's life writing at a local public library, and in honor of election season our selection this month was Janny Scott's A Singular Woman, the biography of Barack Obama's mother Stanley Ann Dunham.
One chilly day in November, with a few morning hours surprisingly free of meetings or classes, I decided to stay home later into the day than usual due to what felt like an impending sinus infection (thereby putting the lie to all my fantasies of omnipotence). I lead a book discussion group on women's life writing at a local public library, and in honor of election season our selection this month was Janny Scott's A Singular Woman, the biography of Barack Obama's mother Stanley Ann Dunham. I was inspired by her story, the life of an iconoclastic woman who was able to balance academia and activism, who began her days writing before dawn and kept a bustling household full of intellectuals in Indonesia.
Despite my appreciation for this unconventional woman, when I got to feeling antsy after several hours of reading, I decided to take advantage of the unusual hours at home to do something pretty conventional: some light housekeeping. I don't know about you, but housekeeping is not high on my list of priorities; I do what needs to be done to keep total squalor at bay and not much else, especially in the middle of the fall semester. So I washed the kitchen floor, de-toxed the bathroom, watered the plants, and thought about Stanley Ann Dunham and what I might say about her.
Over the course of my chores, I thought less about my reading and started to realize there was something kind of satisfying about making sure things were tidy. Now, have no fear -- my installments for University of Venus are not going to turn into "Hints from Heloise" (useful as they are: the seltzer and Tide stick I keep in my desk drawer for sudden laundry emergencies have benefited students and colleagues as much as myself, and for a last resort there's always the extra scarf to cover up the coffee stain that mysteriously appears on the shoulder of your ivory sweater). What came to mind in the hour or so I snatched to order my apartment was that making sure your space is livable is a way of being present. And it's this reminder of the necessity of being present that we (I) might need at this point in the semester.
Kathleen Norris writes in Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life that sometimes our inability to be present fills our lives with torpor, plunging us into a depressed state and rendering us incapable of doing anything fulfilling, or even appreciating the ordinary beauty that surrounds us. Acedia means in Greek "the lack of care," but it is hard to really capture the nuances in English: torpor, lassitude, apathy, sloth, melancholia. In a state of acedia, a person might feel that the simplest rituals of everyday life are meaningless: why make my bed if I'm just going to get into it again and mess it up? Instead of seeing ordinary order-keeping as a gift to the self that makes life livable, she might see these as insufferably meaningless, Sisyphean tasks that only serve to exemplify the pointlessness of day to day existence and its routines. Instead of finding rhythm and ritual and structure -- even beauty -- in ordinary time, she finds herself wanting to leave time, incapable of moving forward or back while finding the present intolerably stultifying.
In the crush of the semester, especially (for many of us) with only a month or so to go, it can feel natural to experience the sensation of acedia: rounds of grading and troubleshooting, noticing that on yet another set of papers one has to make yet again the same comments. This is when I am actually most keen to get students into my office. My writing of this post comes at the end of a week of student conferences devoted to brainstorming topics for a final paper; the deadline is a month away, but everyone is already feeling a crunch -- why should they think about something so far off when there are more pressing tasks at hand? Of course I want to nudge towards some early mindfulness of the work: I say, you'll be more effective if you don't wait till the last minute! Do your reading with an eye towards an interesting paper! Go back over your notes so far!
But these conferences are for me, too. Like a bright morning taken to make sure the floors are clean and the plants will live to see another day, the conferences, while forward-looking, are a time set aside to be present -- to reflect on what we've done with an eye to the future. And like that found morning, the conferences are in some ways a gift to myself and my students, a moment to check in but also surprising in what those appointments reveal and how meaningful they can be. The students too have to pause and reflect on what they have learned, at a moment before they are (justifiably) too swamped to be thoughtful and intentional about it. They are surprised at their own insightfulness and creativity, and I have the opportunity to stop everything and do nothing but focus on that bright spot.
It can be hard to be present all the time, in the demands of the everyday and with many people to attend to; whether we build the time into our calendars or take it, embrace it, when it offers itself unexpectedly, it is necessary and its rewards are great. And even as I start to look back over a semester that is almost finished and see where I might have fallen short, and look ahead to projects for the break and courses to come, I value opportunities to be present in where I am now, and mindful of the students for whom I responsible. It is a kind of housekeeping of the mind and spirit that I am happy to make a priority.
Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.
Janine Utell is Chair and Associate Professor of English at Widener University and a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her on Twitter @janineutell.
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