Have questions or a topic you’d like me cover? Shoot me a comment on the page or send me an email at cimminneeholt(at)gmail(dot)com.
Have questions or a topic you’d like me cover? Shoot me a comment on the page or send me an email at cimminneeholt(at)gmail(dot)com.
This is a fun one. Check out my glib, superficial, and barely scratching the surface interview with Reverend Campbell on the topic of the Devil in Religion.
All my fans know that I love the show American Gods, so both of you may appreciate this post. As the second season evolves from the book, it demonstrates by its very storytelling how religions actually change in human societies. That is, religions are continually adapting to the social, political, economic, and geographical circumstances as they move throughout time and space.
One of my favourite things to do when I teach courses on New Religious Movements (otherwise known as “cults,” though scholars use the acronym NRM in order minimize the automatic and often incorrect biases against them) is to introduce the topic via the beginnings of Christianity. The early Jesus followers were viewed with suspicion, not only by other Jews, but also by the surrounding Roman rulers. The accusations against them ranged from being cannibals (because they ate of the body and drank from the blood of Jesus during the Eucharist); incestuous (Athenagoras claims they faced Oedipal allegations); and suspect because they engaged in bizarre secret rituals like eating among their dead in the catacombs (because Christianity was illegal, they retreated to areas few people ventured).
Romans and Jews alike saw them as strange and a threat. Two thousand years later, and it is one of the major influences of the “western” world, whether you are Christian or not, whether you realize it or not.
This example demonstrates a pattern in human behaviour: newly introduced ideas are often viewed with suspicion and vitriol. Once an idea takes hold, it becomes familiar, and it is then subsumed into the larger culture. In the 1960s, yoga and vegetarianism were considered dangerous “cult” practices luring American youth into deviant lifestyles. Today, most people reading this (both of you) will view them as largely innocuous if not personally appealing.
Ideas change over time. This is not a radical claim. What is, perhaps, (mildly) radical, is to suggest that when religious ideas inevitably do change they are just as much influenced by popular culture as they are theological elites. In my subfields of magic, ritual, new religions, and pop culture from a religious studies perspective (which means it’s secular-ish) the distinctions between high and low cultures are being challenged and uprooted, as they are in many academic subfields, to greater and lesser reception and resistance.
Keep all this in mind as we discuss American Gods.
When I first watched the show I was slightly disappointed that actual American new religions were not represented at all (Scientologists, Mormons, Satanists, what have you). Instead, Gaiman presents our obsession with pop culture as the New Gods (Media/New Media, Technical Boy, Mr. World, etc.). On the surface, new religions are not present in an overt way on the show, but they are present tangentially because of the prime feature of many American New Religions: they develop incorporating and responding to narratives from popular culture.
America is the birthplace of several new religions centered around aliens and science. They emerge alongside the genre of science fiction, which produced books, zines, newsletters, comics, and cartoons. It was a popular obsession. One result is an outcropping of these smaller religious groups, and another is the USA going to the moon. “Elite” and “popular” culture are exchanging ideas with each other. While Technical Boy doesn’t address these religions, he is actually the one they could potentially worship, because many centre around the idea that humans have the technological capacity to achieve various religious ends: measure a person’s mental state (Scientology); overcome death and illness (transhumanist movement); clone ourselves like aliens cloned us (Raeliens); or evolve into the next level of human achievement and fly away on a spacecraft hidden behind a comet (Heaven’s Gate). Pop culture intersecting with religion.
Mr. Wednesday, in his quest to revive his worship, never mentions the contemporary neo-Pagan movements that incorporate him into their pantheon. But he has certainly experienced a “revival”—which is more accurately called a “reconstruction” as there is no unbroken link between his ancient popularity until today. What we actually have is people using modern research methods to educate themselves on ancient Norse religions, and then altering these ideas to suit their respective modern religious interests. It’s a “do-it-yourself” type of practice, studied under the broad umbrella of “magic” and/or “new religious movements.” The most fascinating aspect of contemporary pagan or magical religious groups and individuals is that they are heavily influenced by popular culture. Even if many self-understand as harkening back to a “pure” ancient knowledge, the aesthetics, ritual objects, chants, and spells evolve with and mirror shows like American Horror Story: Coven, Charmed, Vikings, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. They inform and reflect each other. [Note: Ostara features prominently in these pantheons as well.]
This brings me to New Media—a welcome deviation from the book as she encapsulates how religions shift and expand under new circumstances. As she’s the God of social media, entertainment, and mass communications, some of my favourite outlier religions are her constituents. Consider the Otherkin (people who believe they are partially non-human, such as part dragon, vampire, unicorn, etc.) and Therianthropes (people who believe their true selves are animals, such as wolf, eagle, cat, etc.), two groups that first developed in online chat rooms and early Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs is where us old school non-digital natives first went online to find other freaks like ourselves). As there is an understanding that they cannot ever be a “kin self” in their current body, online interactions with others like them and role playing in online forums becomes the format by which they express their desired true nature. New Media not only allows for interaction with co-religionists, it is their virtual ultimate form. New Media is the avatar of their true “religious” selves.
It’s not farfetched to conceive of an actual religion that develops around media and mass communications. It may ring weird at first, especially to people who haven’t grown up with the internet, but eventually becomes ubiquitous. New Media (or something like it) could potentially be a central religion for future human societies. Weirder things have happened, folks. We’re a bizarre species, and I love the most strange among us.
There are a thousand different links to draw between this show and what I do: the multiple images of Jesus in global Christianity, where he is depicted from Buff Black Jesus to Twink; the notion of true faith as exhibited by Salim in tandem with his homosexuality, like many Muslim LGBTQIA groups and the scholarly studies about them; and how religions deal with those who oppose the Gods, such as the Jinn/Ifrit becoming a “demon heretic.” [Note to religion scholars: could not all demons be considered heretics, by their very nature? Is it redundant, or am I forgetting some theological discourse?]
If time and revelation permit, I’ll continue these posts, as I’m currently thinking about how to frame an article/book on American Gods, fandom, pop culture, and religion. The blog allows for a quicker processing of ideas without having to vet it via the strident rigours of my discipline. Plus, it’s fun. And academia definitely needs more of that.
Depression—I am not an outlier.
I have been an extremely high-functioning depressive most of my adult life. Until I wasn’t.
We falsely assume that all depressives are sad, melancholic. And while it may present that way, the primary symptom of my depression has always been anhedonia, which is a psychiatric term to explain an inability to feel pleasure. It’s a particular kind of numbness to the joys of life. And while I could certainly always laugh, when I look back at these depressive episodes there is a pattern of decreasing creativity where I became mechanical, dazedly executing routines of work and school. Because I have always been something of a workaholic, few people would notice when I began to feel anesthetized to life’s challenges. My default autopilot functioned in high-performing drive.
Until it didn’t.
In 2015 I began to feel bad. Not depressed, at first, just bad, with a confluence of physical symptoms. I was eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease named thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s disease, which can cause depression. [You can read the full saga here.] When the brain doesn’t get the hormones it needs from the thyroid, it causes micro-inflammation that can result in cognitive problems: memory loss, faltering for words, inability to concentrate, and, in my case, a profound, dangerous, depressive episode. I began to fantasize about being dead. Not killing myself, necessarily, but the death of my aching body. I imagined lying down and sinking beneath the floorboards, resting between the stories of buildings, slowly decomposing. Or being on the grass and disintegrating into the earth, worms eating my flesh, body becoming a liquid that seeps deep into underground caves of total darkness.
It was comforting.
Two years after my diagnosis (almost to the day) I am doing well medically and mentally. I look back at periods of depression in my life (though none were even close to being as severe as this last one) and wonder what would have been different had my thyroid disease been treated earlier? My physicians do not think that I have a mood disorder and have put anti-depressants on stand-by. For the record, I will pop those pills like candy if my doctors recommend it. I cannot risk falling into such a deep hole again, because I am barely surviving the aftermath of the last one. If it only takes one family crisis for students from poverty to drop out, I am doing my damndest to white-knuckle my way through to the end.
Illness derailed my plans to such an extent that my finances, living, job, and school situations are all currently uncertain. This is causing a punishing amount of stress. I am far more concerned about not having a place to live than I am about my exams. I feel caught between immediate short-term essential needs and long-term goals for life. While this tension is not new, I am, admittedly, deeply exhausted that it is familiar territory. When does it end? I’ve been working since I was twelve years old. When you are poor, thirty years of work is not an investment that produces dividends, because the work you are likely doing has no mechanism for advancement. You cannot domestic-service your way up to even the working class much less the (disappearing) middle class.
Part of the reason I went to graduate school was because it can elevate your social status. It wasn’t the main reason, but a fragment of the appeal package. Twenty years ago, in my angriest days before going into therapy, my bachelor’s degree was a process of first thinking that I wasn’t good enough, then thinking everyone was stupid because they seemed far too naïve about everything, then maturing (a little) and realizing that my upbringing gave me a specific kind of perspective that was useful, and rewarded. I still think everyone’s naïve. But now I also include myself.
Here’s the rub: I’m not an outlier. A colleague of mine attempted suicide and they were withdrawn from their PhD program, and they then attempted a second time. I cannot view this incident as anything but a cruel warning to the rest of us. It’s not faculty that receives those calls from a concerned family member. They don’t get asked to be there for a twenty-four-hour suicide watch. And they are certainly not the ones that witness the intense shame that comes along with feeling like you’ve failed. [My colleague is doing well now—(un)fortunately the suicide attempts prompted expedited medical intervention.]
Graduate students are suffering from a convergence of factors that has produced statistically significant problems. It’s a crisis of mental health. Academia doesn’t know what to do with the hoards of depressed grad students wondering if they’ve wasted years of their life in pursuit of jobs that no longer exist, being not adequately financially supported, in a society that doesn’t recognize their achievements, while under political attacks on higher education from far-right rhetoric, where faculty pays lip service to addressing privileges but that is not reflected in how students are treated. Beyond the data and think pieces are actual graduate students, trying to survive this brutal environment.
Can we not do better? I sit here asking myself if I will be kicked out because I didn’t perform as well on my comprehensive exams as I admittedly know I should have. It’s not even remotely in character for me to submit sub-par work, but for the past two years, I have not been functioning at my usual high-performance badass self. And I’m okay with that. It was a deliberate decision to centralize my medical recovery over phd-ing, and so I hit the gym in favour of books. It may have been necessary, but it also means that I am now unclear of how to negotiate finishing my thesis, trying to support myself financially, and not slipping back into harmful, workaholic patterns. That’s how I got in trouble in the first place, autoimmune disease or not.
Many professors have extolled my potential and expressed that it would be a shame if academia “lost me.” I never want to appear ungrateful for their encouragement or support. I’ve received quite a bit. I mentally compose thesis acknowledgements that carefully lists everyone that encouraged and helped me. My mother has been the most consistent of emotional supports, taking money off of her high-interest credit card to pay my rent when I first got sick. [And just to be clear, I love her deeply and will defend her fiercely. I can talk shit about my childhood, but you most certainly cannot.] You can’t do this alone. You need people in your corner to survive academia, because there will be plenty of people who are not. (And to those weak-ass haters I offer a dignified *snort* and a gracious Go Fuck Yourself.)
I don’t have answers. A draft of this last section has been sitting on my laptop all week, as I was hoping for some insight into how to complete this brief miniseries of emotional exposure. None arrived.
I imagined I’d write this piece from a position of power, somewhere along the line of post-graduate and into successful professional career. That scenario is one that proves I can overcome my conditions, and a plea to help those students that I know are struggling. In my fantasy Oscar acceptance speech (for adapted screenplay of my book, naturally) I say, “Grad students, this one’s for you. Don’t let academia kill you. Don’t let it kill parts of you. Stay alive. I love you.”
Instead I offer this: if anything here has made you uncomfortable, don’t rationalize it away. Don’t blame it on my all-too-present-these-days rage or upbringing or stress-induced academic paralysis. If you are faculty or grad student or adjunct or chair, don’t feel bad or contempt, but instead sit in that unease. I am not an outlier. We are all around, looking at this system of higher education and how it fails us, choked by a problem that seems too big to fix. We are looking at you—the words you say in class, the policies you enact, the readings you assign, the students you favour and those you do not, the money you disperse, the chances you give, the blinders you put on—and we wonder if academic brilliance justifies all the times we’ve swallowed our dissent because you have far more power. Choose the tension. Because while pity may be useless, discomfort most certainly is not. And I want you to be uncomfortable.
[Read Part I here.]
Falling into Academia
It took me ten years to finish my bachelor’s degree. I was full time for a little while, then took several years off, travelled, worked, and wondered what do to with my life. During the entire bachelor and then magisterial degrees of full time course loads, I also worked at least forty hours a week in the healthcare field doing administration. I took out government-backed student loans to pay for tuition, and one for a computer, because the banks wouldn’t even give me a credit card, much less a student loan to support myself.
I was an alien. An avid reader since I was girl, I had no problem with comprehension of the ideas—I was rarely confused about what was being taught—but I didn’t know how to write an essay, or construct an argument, or even study properly for memory tests (I still struggle with this). Many of my earlier papers had comments such as, ‘This is a good idea, but you didn’t quite argue for it.” Or “You have a unique perspective here, and the paper is well-written but entirely unstructured and therefore also confusing.” Finally, by chance of taking an elective that fit my schedule, I registered for a class called “How to Write an Essay,” and suddenly I was a straight A student, and was being encouraged to apply for a master’s degree. I’d never thought about it before. But I was beginning to love writing. The ideas were exciting to me. I’d never liked any of my jobs. I didn’t quite hate them either. They kept me not-homeless. That was enough for a poor kid who heard her mother cry over not being able to feed us after she paid rent. I struggled mostly with that tension between having to work so much just to barely survive and the increasingly intoxicating dream of going to grad school. In academia I felt invigorated by the challenges it presented. It was rewarding. It was the first time I’d felt that.
Ideas are like a drug to me. What I love most about academia is being able to look back in time and space to trace how one small idea can morph and transform through people. How an idea discards aspects of itself, or gets encrusted with other ideas, and then embedded unto persons, nations, identities. How one idea can cause devastation or ecstasy or both, depending on how it has negotiated the inevitable shifts of time and space. Ideas are living, breathing things.
Despite this newfound appeal, fitting in was a struggle. Beyond the fact that I had no notion of how to be a student, there are several incidences that highlight how much of growing up in poverty made me feel so out-of-place in university.
In the early years of my first degree, in a Feminism and War class, the (white female) professor showed a clip of an African-American mother beaming with pride that her son had finished military academy. The young man was pictured at his graduation ceremony, face grinning, chest jutting out, and standing upright in his uniform. The instructor, pointing at the mother, admonished, “Women are just as complicit in the military industrial complex. Here’s this mother pushing her child into state-sanctioned murder for the glory of some misguided national fervour.”
And I thought, What the FUCK is this lady talking about?!?
I was flummoxed that an educated person utterly failed to see that “national fervour” was likely the least important reason that this family expressed such pride in the young man. To me, it was obvious that joining the military was an opportunity for him, a chance that offered experience, education, and respect that he might not otherwise have had. I know that face; my mother wore it too when my brother joined the military. “Finally,” my mother had thought, “this is a stable career where he can make something of himself.” And he did.
It frustrated me not only to disagree so vehemently with this professor, but that I never spoke up or felt comfortable sharing my dissent, not in the discussions, nor in our written assignments.
Nowadays, we call this particular kind of bias “White Feminism,” wherein (more often that not) middle class white feminists are oblivious to the issues faced by persons of a different race or class. Their pronouncements on the world reflect solely a concern for the well-being of other middle class white feminists, despite overt claims to wanting “equality.”
“Well, I’m certainly not a feminist,” I thought at the time.
Over and over and over again I felt alienated from what was being discussed and how it was not related to what my own experience dictated. Every time we talked about “the poor” or “disenfranchised” I would look around and think, “You stupid motherfuckers. You have no idea. You really have no clue. I am right here. Sitting right beside you. And the things you think about me are not just wrong, but insulting.” They were either bizarre claims to how lazy poor people were, or, there was this look of guilt on someone’s face, and both reactions made me nauseated. But I didn’t speak up. I was too angry to name myself as someone from this “sub-class,” because even if didn’t feel ashamed of my upbringing, I didn’t know how to argue for my perspective. I wasn’t emotionally equipped to challenge my professors and classmates, especially as I knew it would only draw pity. Fuck your pity, I would think at them. It’s useless.
It got better in grad school in terms of the content, the professors’ awareness, and the class discussions. At least there I was reading scholars that wrote about things in a way I resonated with. They echoed similar frustrations and problems within academia. But here’s the thing about higher education; the ideas written about and discussed in grad schools across North America do not reflect the institutional ethos. The entire system is based on the model of a privileged elite class of a student that is solely a student (not also working, or also a single parent, or also taking care of family members, or poor, or facing institutional sexism and racism). The demographics of university attendees have changed drastically, but the structure and policies are slower to adjust. So when a student fails out, universities never quite look at the systemic factors that contributed to this. I cannot tell you how many times in my life someone told me, “But you’re so smart!” when they learned I dropped out of a high school, or had difficulties in my bachelor’s (and now again, having real issues in my PhD). My mental response was always, “Intelligence has nothing to do with it.” My verbal response was usually some non-committal deflection.
The blunt truth is, you need far more than talent to succeed in academia. You need external financial support (even if you’re funded), and strong emotional support across the board (your family, your professors, your friends). The odd outlier makes it through without these things, sure. But they are the extreme exception.
There is an extensive list of Things Poor Kids Don’t Know about higher education, because they are either too embarrassed, and more often than not, don’t know which questions to ask. Most of these things have to do with money.
I didn’t know that you might not get paid right away if you start a job at the university in September, because it can take up to two months to get you on the payroll. If you have no savings and no one in your family has money, how do you pay your rent when you’re waiting for Accounts Services to process your funds?
I didn’t know that good grades could equal cash. How would I know that? It’s not clearly written anywhere because every school has a different budget and undisclosed process for how they disperse funds. No one told me. I didn’t know enough to ask. It’s just one of those things Everyone Knows (except for poor kids).
I didn’t know that I was expected to build my academic CV without being remunerated for the work. They tell you to apply for conferences, but what you find out is that you have to pay up front (conference fees, airfare, hotel, etc.) and only get reimbursed (maybe!) several months later and not in full. They tell you to submit papers for publication, but you will likely not get paid for them. I haven’t received one penny for any of my published articles or book chapters. They tell you to get involved in activities (student conferences, editing the graduate journal, etc.) but that is as a volunteer. None of these things contribute to credits on your transcript. All the things that you are expected to do take time and effort, but detract from your schoolwork, and also cost you money. But they sure do help you get a job after you graduate (so you are told).
I didn’t know that I should prepare, somehow, for unexpected illness. I’ll discuss more of these details in the next post, but the gist of it is, when I got ill (physically ill with an autoimmune disease but followed by a far more serious and dangerous depression) as my funding was running out, it derailed my entire life because I couldn’t work and didn’t have enough money to support myself. I literally paid my rent off of my (co-signed by my brother!) credit card because my meager savings barely lasted a few months and as a student I was in this non-class of a social category, ineligible for unemployment insurance, disability, or even welfare. And even then, my disdain and self-hatred for even considering going on welfare given how I grew up made me feel like a failure. I never want to go back to those conditions. They were traumatic enough the first time around.
Now, today, I feel profound humiliation that I have to convince my department that the stress from not knowing if I will have rent money affects my schoolwork. I try to give myself practical pep-talks: you have friends you can stay with if you don’t find a job; no one is going to let you go homeless; your animals will be okay because you’ll never let anything bad happen to them; you are a trained professional with exceptional skills and that is valued; you love teaching and can do that in many non-academic capacities; your health is amazing right now because you’ve spent the past two years actively working at getting physically and mentally better and you did that shit so good for you; and finally, you’re still a bitch that knows how to hustle when she needs to, and that shit never goes away.
These series of posts are profoundly embarrassing to write. It’s about me being poor. In academia. With depression. And the ensuing shame that comes in tandem with this avalanche of circumstances. But I think it’s worth the risk for the greater conversation about academia and poverty. Over the next few days I will post parts II and III.
First, let’s discuss poverty.
Poverty limits long-term thinking. If your entire lifetime has been living paycheck to paycheck, immediate need to immediate need, you do not develop the imaginative skills to conceive of a future, let alone a successful, fulfilling future. My mother was alone, had three children, and a serious un-diagnosed and thus untreated mental illness. As a child we lived in tents, cabins, and shitty, rundown houses that often lacked heating, electricity, and plumbing. She had major depressive episodes and sometimes screamed in the middle of the night, for hours (we would lie in bed, fearful, until it passed). She struggled to feed and clothe us on her welfare check. The dishes would pile up for days and weeks on end, until we were eating out of old margarine containers and lids, and then pots and pans. She did try to enforce organization and chores. They never stuck. We learned that we could easily break her down, and did so regularly. (I’m sorry, mum. What a little bitch I probably was. Snarky, smart-mouthed, and manipulative from the get-go.)
We had no rules. I mean that quite literally. I cannot remember a time that I was forbidden to do something. It is easy to hide this under the guise of my mother’s apparent hippie tendencies. But the reality is, she had difficulties with parenthood. It was overwhelming to her. We, her children, developed a particular kind of constrained maturity common to kids living in unstable households.
On drugs my mother said, “I did a lot of drugs and half my friends are dead. So take that into consideration if you try them.” She was clean by the time she had kids. My father continued to use well into his fifties, and died from complications from Hepatitis C three years ago (we were estranged; he never once contributed financially). On sex my mother said discouragingly, “I hope you are in love when you lose your virginity because I sure wasn’t.” I never discussed my sexual or romantic life with my mother because from an early age she openly shared hers with me. This is not that unusual, I learned much later when I went to psychotherapy (which I highly recommend). It’s called parentification, whereby a child assumes the role of the primary caregiver. Our dynamic was not quite that reversed, but I certainly bore the brunt of my mother’s emotional turmoil, learning about her codependency viscerally far before I could put a name to the behavior.
So I became an extremely responsible adolescent, but in a skewed way. I dropped out of high school at the age of fourteen and worked as a full time nanny for about a decade.
Those homes taught me a lot. I wasn’t simply a “mother’s helper.” At that young age I ran the full activities of an active daytime household. I changed diapers and sprinted after toddlers. I read stories and played. Brought kids to school and sports games. I cooked and cleaned. Wiped tears and snot and vomit and piss and shit and blood from their constantly spewing bodies. I have heard that high-pitched scream from an unsatisfied child far too many times. It still irritates my eardrums and the back of my throat. When some asshole would make a comment about how I “probably watched soaps all day” I was deeply resentful and angry. Childcare is tough work. Good childcare is grueling. (Go thank your mothers for doing it and not strangling you.)
I took pride in my work. I enjoyed it. The parents commended me for my competency, maturity, and resourcefulness, and I liked that praise. It felt good to be thought of as responsible, smart, and capable. In retrospect, it also allowed me to witness how these children’s behavior differed from my own. They played and spoke with a freedom that was alien to me. Their daily conduct did not contain looming anxieties or pressures. Home stability allows this kind of freedom—they were at liberty to imagine any kind of future they wanted because they had the absolute (and entirely unacknowledged) confidence that their parents would take care of them. I was jealous of that.
I did eventually take high school equivalency classes due to unusual circumstances. My mother insisted that I consult a psychologist because of my truancy, where I tested at the collegiate level for language and imagination (though poorly in mathematics). Because of this, the psychologist recommended me for a scholarship at a private night school. I wish I had fully understood what that meant at the time. The name of that school—an elite one, accessible solely to the wealthy—could have propelled me into academia sooner (or another career entirely). But I was incapable of conceiving the true nature of the social boost I had received. I recognize it only now that I am in academia. In an alternate timeline, I hide my upbringing, use the name of the school to get into a posh bachelor’s program, network with the rich kids, get hooked up with a well-paying job, and am well on my way to legitimate wealth.
But that’s not how any of this works. My terrible teeth and awkward second-hand clothing choices betrayed my impoverished upbringing. I was articulate, perceptive, and just a little too honest in a way that signaled I was “not one of them.” This is still true. Though now I use it to my advantage. That kind of insight is one of the things that academia truly does reward. I mean, if you make it through. Because the other reality of poverty is: poor kids in higher education are one family crisis away from dropping out.
Here’s the real goddamn kicker that few people realize: even if you do possess the ingenuity to visualize a prosperous future, your survival instinct is so strong that it strangles that potential dream. “Do not dare to hope,” that voice says, “Lofty ideas aren’t for people like us.” Your entire experience has dictated that you will be let down, because those kinds of Good Things—you know, the good jobs and the opportunities—do not belong to you. It is not solely that you don’t have an uncle/sister/cousin that could get you a job interview and put in a good word (though this is also true), it’s that you have to re-train your hardened survival instincts to act as if those things belong to you. The impulse is to immediately shut down any thought about improving your circumstances because it’s painful to picture something better. You cannot bear that kind of disappointment. It’s not that you think you don’t deserve it, it’s that you have noticed that people who don’t deserve it get it all the time. You know that the world is unfair and unjust. Buck up. You are a hardened bitch that no one can hurt (anymore).
If you are never asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” you don’t begin the process of wanting to be anything at all. I was in my twenties before I even allowed myself to daydream about more. And I did that because I was profoundly unhappy in my secretarial jobs (one of my first depressions). The work did not challenge me in any intellectual or innovative way beyond me being “good with people,” and I was good with people because I had been a nanny. A tantrum is the same at any age, whether the person is two or sixty-two, and I could always maintain my cool and deescalate tense situations. I was also perceptive. Precarious childhood circumstances attracts dangerous characters with unsavoury motives, so when I clock someone correctly it is because that type of radar is now embedded. But this also means that I am too cautious, too guarded, and am sometimes jealous of friends for their ability to take risks, fall in love, move to another country, and be bold in ways my predisposition tells me not to be.
In order to succeed, kids from poverty have to re-learn the borders of acceptable risk. Re-programming is all the more difficult without financial stability. When you are living on the margins, where one small bad step could mean homelessness or worse, even that tiny little step towards something better seems too great. Risk-taking is a luxury that poor kids cannot easily afford.
I am a highly trained professional with exceptional skills.
Academia both creates and erodes confidence in this fact. Yes, fact. (For those that need to hear it.) If you’ve made it through a PhD program (or even if you didn’t) you have demonstrated all those wonderful buzzwords such as talent, drive, ambition, hard work, and dedication. But between you and I, just us squirrel friends, every PhD student I know views systematic issues within academia as personal failures. And when we interpret these broader problems as somehow a lack of individual moral character and integrity, the ensuing depression and self-doubt corrodes our very motivation for being in academia in the first place.
I don’t know all the reasons others decided to do a PhD. I did it because I fell into it, of sorts, then embraced it, and then loved it. Loved it so much that as I sit in my current beleaguered limbo—uncertain of where to direct my energies next—I mourn the potential loss of an academic career if I go elsewhere. If academic professions can be parsed, they come in three general compartments: teaching, research and writing, and administration. When I first entered the doctoral program I considered my prospects in these areas to be excellent: I thoroughly enjoy teaching and am enthusiastic about student ideas; researching was and continues to be a creative and fulfilling act; and I have fifteen years of admin experience in the healthcare field.
But as I near the end, facing some difficult choices, broke, tired, and frustrated with systemic failures to address the issues of doctoral programs and the dismal reality of the academic job market, I am considering all my options and asking, “What kind of work allows me to research, write, teach, and also be a funny bitch on Twitter without getting fired?” I think about how all my online content could be a detriment for some professions, but when I fantasize about my ideal job I imagine someone valuing my dick-and-fart jokes as much as they do my considerable academic skills.
My humour keeps me sane. It makes me a better teacher, too. Not because I’m entertaining, but because when I lecture I’m having fun. There is a distinct rush in being able to break down complex ideas and communicate them in clear and concise ways. This is a small talent I had before grad school, but higher education has improved and then refined this skill. And when I doubt myself all I have to do is have a conversation about religion with…anyone.
I do not teach religion. I teach people how to think about religion: how to ask critical questions, how to re-examine the questions themselves, how to challenge one’s own perceptions. One of my greatest joys in academia is to write on a student’s paper, “Good idea!” because after reading thousands of similar opinions, when I come across one that challenges me I become genuinely excited for the future of scholarship. Provided it all doesn’t come crashing down, of course. (Though it needs that, too.)
So when I get glum about my future, I dream of my graduation party. I fantasize about a convocation bacchanal the way some people dream of their marriage rite. I’m wearing a hot pink metallic 70s inspired spaghetti strap wrap dress. And vintage 70s pink sneakers. And body glitter. LOTS OF IT. Shiny green eye shadow and a wickedly perfect cat eye. Big hair. Hoop earrings.
My mom’s there. She’s in sexy new boots that she can move in. She’s the first person I dance with. Enthusiastically. Giddily. With abandon. We got through this shit together, dammit. My brothers mope in the corner until they get tipsy enough to join the fun. All my close friends are there and they better not goddamn cancel because they’re too tired or busy. This is my major life event. Consider this shit my wedding and you’re all my fucking bridesmaids. So show up and rock out with your tits out.
The DJ goes through eras to please everyone. Maybe starts with some Motown to get everybody grooving. Then moves into 70s funk. Some deep groove stanky funk too, not just the pop hits. Because my DJ is skilled, she can mix in heavy guitar riffs from Black Sabbath to please the goths. We jitterbug and shuffle, bogo and air guitar. In the 80s set it’s synth wave pop and pop pop, because Cindy Lauper and Madonna are timeless. Depeche Mode and Wham. Prince and the NPG.
But the 90s/2000s hip hop is where the party really comes alive. We get Tribe, Bahamadia, Pharaohe Monch, Jean Grae, Dead Prez, Mobb Deep, Snoop, Dre, Ice Cube, Heltah Skeltah, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Black Moon, and any beat by Premier or Dilla. Erick Sermon, Black Rob, Missy, OutKast, Rah Digga, Lil Kim, Biggie, Beanie Seagal, Necro, EPMD, Jay Z, Wu-Tang, Apani, Beastie Boys, LL, Nas, and Saul Williams.
Then there’s an interlude with RnB where everyone gets to dance like Ginuwine in Pony. I MEAN EVERYONE, DAMMIT. You better practice your moves now because we are partying away the stress of eight years of the PhD, one autoimmune disease, and one severe depression.
Ideally it’s a barn party. I can miraculously afford a nearby hotel room for everyone. The bar is open and weed is legal so get as fucked up as you want. Midnight poutine is passed around to keep the dancers fuelled ‘til dawn.
At some point, at the height of the frenzy, all my religious studies colleagues perform a ritual to mark my rite of passage. They flank me as I walk between them. I am ceremoniously whipped with marked essays and printed out student evaluations, before I grab them all, throw them in a bin, and light them on fire. A crown of laurels is placed on my head. I throw pomegranates and apples into the crowd.
(In the fantasy, past students are there too and hand me papers I’ve actually graded where they didn’t like the mark and tell me, “You did your fucking job well and now you get to BURN THIS SHIT!” and push me towards the fire, papers in hand.)
Then someone yells “MOSH PIT!” and I finally get to experience this staple of white culture and launch myself into the throng of enthusiastic headbangers.
I periodically throw my middle fingers in the air as a message to all the haters, especially if I’m grinding on someone hot. There are streamers. And cake. And maybe even a food fight. (I have put down a large deposit and also grossly overpaid the cleaning staff.)
Exhausted, delirious, happy, and sweaty, we emerge at dawn to sausages and pancakes and coffee before heading to crash into a soft, down bed. Maybe the next day there’s a chill bonfire with hot dogs and marshmallows. I wear jeans and flannel. I make out with a crush or three.
I take a solo midnight nude swim in a cold lake. Plunging as deep as I can, I compel my lungs to breathe underwater—the way I imagined doing as a girl. This time it works. And I stay for hours, exploring the muddy depths, growing webbed fingers and gills behind my ears.
When I return to the quiet, comfortable gathering of loved ones murmuring around the dimming fire I never tell them that I am now transformed, part amphibian. I keep this secret. It’s mine.
Life continues. I work. I make decisions towards my goals. I flirt. Pay bills. Help my mom. But now I am a Doctor.