my mother

December 5, 2010 at 1:29 am (brain)

there are some things that i need to admit.

one reason i haven’t been writing here much is that several things in my life have shifted in recent years, and not everything is suitable for public consumption. it’s not that they’re personal. nothing of the sort. i have no problem telling the whole world about the crazy, different and sometimes quite intimate interesting details of my life. i have in my head a vague picture of who might be listening, who would possibly read this, and i have no problem telling them how strange i am. they already know, and that’s probably why they like me.

but now, the things that i feel the need to tell people are not those things. i’m not quite normal enough to be understood quite well enough by the nice friendly straight normal people around me; i can discuss the exciting parts of having a house at length, and it’s great, but the just don’t understand why i’m embarrassed about it. but that’s the theme of several half finished posts, not this one.

what i’m going to admit today is that, while i’ve built my life on academia; doing higher degrees and working in research, i can’t do any of it alone.

sometimes i wonder how independence has become such a big thing. we’re social creatures, can’t exist in isolation, and indeed, teamwork is the thing to be able to do, these days. but i keep doing study where i need to write essays that compete with everyone else’s, where you have to prove it’s your own work, where it’s risky to even discuss your work with your classmates. at least it’s not quite as much of a competition at uts as it was at mac, where everything was norm curved.

i also work alone on my project at work. in fact i work on most projects somewhat alone. i naturally gravitate to the projects that noone else is doing, the ideas that aren’t current, the minority populations. multiple minorities, no less. i find niches for myself, where i can do my own thing in my own way, without the same competition or scrutiny that you get running with a pack. there are several disadvantages to this, but a big one is that i often have too little support.

in academia i have always had my strategies and ways of coping. i learnt early to get to know my teachers, both so i could learn more from them, and so i could get the extensions i couldn’t live without. more time to work, and adjustments to the question until it made sense for my life, my priorities and my brain.

one strategy i have always fought against, however, was needing help with the actual writeup. tooth and nail. i remember in year ten, refusing to hand in my commerce assignment that was probably ninety percent paragraphs of gibberish that my overenthusiastic father had written. they weren’t on topic, they didn’t always make sense and they most certainly didn’t follow eachother and they just weren’t my work, but i was made to hand it in, or i wouldn’t have gotten my school certificate. i can see it now, a thick wad of zigzag folded paper with tractor feed edges still attached, chunks of dot matrix text ranged sporadically its length, interspersed with empty white fields of shame.

Several people have helped me write over the years. cross legged at the computer on the floor at my boyfriend’s place. flat on the bed with my hands stretched above my head to the keyboard on the desk in a late night skype session with my long distance girlfriend. side by side at a desk in a stuffy room with my father’s friend’s wife who we paid to help, until my next essay is on aboriginal education and it turned out she was racist. study groups and emailed draft exchanges with a few amazing classmates. at the top of my voice with my father, ‘what are you crazy? that doesn’t make any sense at all, why would i want to say something like that, it’s ridiculous, it goes like this – scribble scribble scribble – shut up don’t break my concentration i’ve got a sentence.’ and in random social situations with several wonderful friends who let me ramble on about my topic until i found a bit more clarity and enthusiasm.

it was all a bit embarrassing and made me wonder about my self worth, but i gradually began turning in a better standard of work, and all in my own voice, whatever help i’d needed in order to get there. what i really became worried about was the interaction with my father. i let him get me so frustrated with his strange ideas, stranger articulation and relentless ‘help’ that i was screaming the house down, and somehow i could get past the blocks in my brain and get the right words out, in the appropriate format. would i always have to experience that level of anger to be able to write anything? how did that even work? it seems illogical, untenable and downright insane.

unfortunately it hasn’t much changed. he can somehow break the block if i’m in such a panic that i can barely function, but i never want to be in that position ever again. with my mother, however, things have changed. originally she would complain if i asked her anything about anything. she would say she hated philosophy, and would complain if anything had big words that she wasn’t comfortable with. post modernism. epistemology. she was perfectly capable of working with them, of course, but she wasn’t willing to be a person who wasn’t threatened by something she didn’t know. i never figured out why it was important to her.

some time when i was taking less theoretical subjects, she started doing that final edit for me, the one where you’ve seen your words so many times that you no longer notice typos so need someone else to do it. it wasn’t with particularly good grace most of the time, but i can’t complain when i was forever late and emailing her in the middle of the night, or hoping she was free to drop everything at some unspecified time so that she could look through it in the ten minutes before i had to be out the door to hand it in a little less late that it could’ve been. and of course much of the time i couldn’t even manage that, and went without; trusting that the fact that the paragraphs were evenly shaped meant there were no sentence offcuts or notes left in.

now, however, she’s been really helpful, and i’m so grateful. i can make a time when she’s free, to email her a copy of whatever i have, and sit on the phone as we hammer it out. the setup is important; trying to be comfortable and stay still in their dining room as we peer at a screen is uncomfortable for both of us. each making ourselves comfortable in our own homes, with a copy each, a speaker phone and google chat open for me to pass sentences to her for appraisal, just seems to work. i don’t want to do it, to bother her when i don’t feel i have enough to show, to rely on my mother, to take up her time. i really need to get over that though, then maybe i could manage to initiate contact more than three days before the absolute final due date, and make it easier on both of us.

she’s a good editor, as pedantic as i am about grammar, style and punctuation, and we’re learning how to disagree. there are times i just want to stand by my long sentence or marked forms, especially when there really is no time left to contemplate non essentials.

she’s also very good at suggesting vocabulary when i’m stuck, i know what the next sentence needs to say but i can’t explain it in under five hundred words. the snippet i type to her might not actually make sense, but it’s logged and won’t float away in my colander brain, and slowly we can shuffle in words, reorganise clauses and finally smooth edges. then i get inspiration and go silent for a while as i work on a totally new sentence using half the old material yet being twice as long and bridging the gap to the next thought. that’s good too.

i can’t express how grateful i am to have help, to not spend any more time sitting alone in absolute meltdown and paralysis. but possibly even more, i’m overjoyed that we’re communicating. i’ve rarely gotten a sense from her that she loved me all that much. or even liked me, for that matter. she’s not the warmest and most open person in the world, though it has been improving. yet when we sit on the phone, i think we’re both trying. we understand eachother on a certain level. we both need that word to be right before we can move on, because it affects what the next one has to do. i can go on for ten minutes about the fine details about why that word just doesn’t express the full implications that i need it to, and she will listen, digest and come up with a suggestion. even if it’s about post modernism or epistemology.

and then we slide into chatting about something, and find out what’s really going on in eachother’s lives. like i like to do with my friends. fancy that!

i still wish for a day when i can write easily enough to it alone. but maybe i shouldn’t worry so much, and should appreciate the opportunity i’m being given. thankfulness is so much more worthwhile than shame.


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