Monday, December 31, 2007
new year's wish
The old year ends, and tonight we try to remember what we have liked about this year. I celebrate that I am now half way through law school. I am happy that the embryo we are hatching is now officially a fetus. New Hampshire, a bastion of right-wing Republicans when I was growing up there, adopted same-sex civil unions. New Jersey rolled back the death penalty. MLA came to town, and while I feared it would bum me out, the reality of it was much more festive, with houseguests who ventured downtown in the morning and came back in the evening overstimulated and full of gossip. GF and I, aided in no small part by the toll the writer's strike took on our television time, began to read novels at night, staying up till all hours sometimes just to follow a thrilling plot.
Lots of other things happened this year, but pleasure reading is one of the things that is making us really, really happy right now. Pleasure reading makes me hyper-aware that I am swimming in narrative all the time. I have thought more than once that much of the psychic well-being I have felt since starting law school--despite its horrors, including the recognition that my creative, daydreamy personality is ill-suited to the sternly disciplined pursuit of law--has everything to do with being caught up in a narrative of becoming. This, I think, is why so many of us stay in school so long, and even go back. This, too, is why teaching for years and years can grind us down, as it becomes clear we are no longer part of that river of transformation coursing around us. In my last job, I felt like a boat that had run aground. In law school, I am surrounded by people--mostly young people--in the midst of fashioning their own stories. Everything is in front of them. They stand, as their hokey graduation speeches remind them, at the beginning of their journey. Even older students like me feel the infectious optimism of this structure. Though we may have already started their lives, or had whole other lives before this moment, we feel a breathless hopefulness at the destruction of the old predictable routine and the possibility that new and different paths might deposit us on strange doorsteps.
This morning the paper argued that John and Elizabeth Edwards took up politics when their son died in a car crash because they needed to focus on something greater than themselves, and they wanted a way of affecting more than a few lives at a time. This is probably true, but I think taking up politics was also the beginning of a new story for them, and they desperately needed to have new stories at that moment in their lives. It was telling, too, that at the same time they decided to start a completely new professional story, they also decided to have more children, not to mention renewing their vows. They wanted to get back in the boat and sail off once more with a whole saga in front of them, like Tennyson's Ulysses. And in spite of the cynicism around them (and inside them as well), and even despite a terrible diagnosis of cancer, they are caught up in optimism.
I was miserable in graduate school when I was on the job market, and the biggest reason was that because it was so hard to get an academic job, year after year went by without anything happening. Four years, actually. The story of me was stalled. My life felt like it had no trajectory. I just kept writing my dissertation and waiting, waiting for another year and another job list, living in a place where I knew I couldn't put down roots. I remember one winter night, my then girlfriend and I were driving to Macy's to buy silverware because we were so damned bored we couldn't think of anything else to do, and we found an injured cat sitting on the side of the road. That cat ended up infesting two separate houses with the worst fleas you ever saw, but at the time, the whole thing, including the vet bills, seemed wonderful, because something had actually happened.
When I found out this year that GF really wanted to go through with getting pregnant I began to sense what it would be like to have a new story. Courtship and marriage and pregnancy are freighted elements of narrative generation, of course, because they function as intelligible markers of the ways people make new stories in their lives (even if it's the same old story). The point is, it feels new to you, when it's your life, because it hasn't happened to you before. I think this is one of the reasons parents want their grown children to reproduce. Feminists used to point out the irony of marriage as the beginning of the story for women, when for so many it felt like the end; ditto for children. I suppose domestic privacy helped cause this, as adventures in the home replaced adventures in the world for women stuck raising the kids. Maybe the world has changed, but that silence seems to be broken. While people have always talked about marriage and children, they seem to be doing a more interesting and critical job of it these days, so it doesn't feel like the end of the story, but the beginning of a whole new bunch of stories. It could be that they feel more comfortable talking about conception, childbirth, and the work of maintaining intimate relationships because this is part of a conservative moment, and this is what we are all supposed to talk about instead of politics. Maybe I am not only part of a conservative moment, but conservative in many ways. But it feels important, somehow, not because it has replaced politics but because it is going to go on anyway somewhere and we might as well think hard about it and figure out whether it is part of our lives. Non-normative people's lives as well as more normative lives. If a non-normative person makes a life that has elements that are similar to normative people's lives, is that normative? Can it ever be?
Yesterday I finished reading Sarah Waters' Fingersmith, which I had tried to read once a long time ago then put down. This time I found myself relishing not only her various tributes to Bleak House, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, and Tom Jones, but delighting in the new story she makes those stories tell: namely, the story of sexual passion and emotional loyalty between women that may be a possibility in those other books but never gets realized. She takes the pieces of those stories and puts them together in a way that is anything but conventional. I felt pleasure not only in reading that particular story, and the way she rewrites other stories I love, but in my own sense I have when reading her that I am swimming in her swimming. I feel like she is doing something marvelous for lesbians with that book. As she rewrites these stories, she rewrites our rewriting of all the stories around us into our narratives, with plots often fashioned by others, perhaps, and borrowed by us as our own. Feeling alive depends on this sense of fashioning, and she captures it beautifully, but she also shows the tension of belonging and apartness that is part of so many queer novels.
So I look into the new year wondering how my life will be changed by this time next year. I wonder if I will have a child, a job, a sense of the future. All I know is that everything is up in the air, and that is the best thing. Hooray for plots and counterplots, twists and allusions, citations and doublings and triplings of all kinds! If we are lucky, all of our lives will feel like stories we are taking in new directions, and the new year will be filled with the sense that anything at all that can happen, might.