Uniquely Crappy

“What would you do if nothing stood in the way of your dreams?”  a discussion card read.  Each year in WS 265, Women and Creativity, we watched Who Does She Think She Is?, a film about mothers in the creative professions.  untitled-2.jpg

“What about you, Dr. Stovall? What would you do?” a student asked.

I stood between my students and a massive metal desk.

“Um, I guess I’m living it?  I landed a tenure track job and have a family.” My cheeks heated up under this exposure.  Their faces were patient, but unconvinced.

The second year they asked, I hid my body behind the massive desk and said, “Um, write a book?”

Finally, the third year, I did not hide or blush: “Write a book, a story, something creative.”  What was I waiting for?

Write what you know, say the great authors.  I’ve known more than my share of crappy stuff: sexual assaults and harassment, depression, the sudden death of my brother, etc., but others have written about these themes.  I was waiting for something uniquely crappy to happen to me.

Then I got laid off from the career that I believed promised the most job stability.  How often does a tenured professor get laid off?

The Western Illinois University provost told the Chronicle of Higher Education that WIU laid off faculty in the early 80s.

The provost’s “assumption” is confusing and disorienting.  How important is it that we hold WIU’s upper administration to a rigorous standard for truth and accuracy?

In the 80s, I knew WIU professors pretty well:  Dr. Helwig took us to Spain; Dr. Vaughn, an accounting professor, taught my Sunday school class at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); church deacons chaired Geography and Foreign Languages and Literatures.  They did not speak of layoffs.

Many professors from the 80s still live in Macomb, so I asked them if they recalled any faculty layoffs.

Gil Belles (History, at the time) did not, nor did Sterling Kernek (History) or Jim McKinney (Spanish). Gil said that the administration told the History department to re-organize and gave them three years to do it.  Gil re-trained for RPTA.  One professor was given a dual appointment with the advising center.  Another went to the Dean’s office.  Not one was laid off.

I have asked about town if anyone knew of any faculty from anywhere in the university laid off in the 80s.  (No.)

On behalf of a representative to Faculty Senate, Annette Hamm searched the Faculty Senate archives for evidence of layoffs and did not find any.

I visited the archives in Malpass. IMG_2039

I have published a scholarly article based on archival research, so I felt confident about my ability to find evidence of layoffs.

The librarian  pulled these documents from the early 80s:

Provost Papers

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Provost Papers

Board of Governor’s minutes:

 

 

Newspapers articles about the financial situation of the 80s

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President Malpass says even in hard times, 7% faculty raise (top middle) is not enough.  Peoria Journal Star, 1/6/1984

I kept an eye out for key words:

Faculty, realignment, re-organization, reduction, layoff

I found nothing.  Maybe I just needed to brush up my research skills.  Two months later, I returned to re-read the documents.  Nothing.

So, laying off a tenured professor who’d worked at WIU 12 years and who’d invested thirty years in preparing for an academic career?  And I’m the first and only tenured professor laid off at WIU?  These facts meet my standard for uniquely crappy life event.

If my dream is to write a creative book, nothing now stands in my way.

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Recipe:  Anti-depressing Dressing with Pumpkin and Portabella

We gathered for a Thanksgiving meal yesterday.  In order to enjoy my Saturday and spare myself the temptation of an expensive Starbucks latte, I blew off a trip to Hy-Vee.  This means that Sunday morning, the turkey dressing had to be made with whatever was left in the kitchen and the garden. Luckily, my monstrous sage bush is still fresh.

I woke up and dumped about a pint of sourdough starter in a big glass bowl and stirred in almond and coconut flour (1/3 cup of each?) and some liquid poured off from plain yogurt and some milk—enough of these last two to get the consistency of cornbread batter.  Good dressing starts with bread or biscuits made from ingredients that don’t have names better suited for a bottle of weed killer.

I grew up on corn bread dressing, but in New York, I learned to make it with chunky whole wheat sourdough.  Yesterday, I was conjuring a quick hybrid of the two.

Also, because I did not want to pass several minutes cutting cold butter into my bread batter, I put a stick of butter in a sauce pan on the tiny burner—that way I could just pour the butter into the batter. I hand-brewed a large light-roast coffee and retired to my study to write in my gratitude journal:

When I finally started chopping veggies, the names and faces of various loved ones who would be missing from our table “haunted” me.  We had gotten used to the absences of those who had died 20 and 30 years ago, but the more recent ones—that’s harder.  I began to regret volunteering to host, but I got my knife out anyway.

I cut a wedge out of the sweet pumpkin my son had picked out from the CSA.

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Pie pumpkin from our CSA was almost as big as the 20 lb turkey!

Aware of my anxious brooding, I handled the 10″ chef’s knife extra carefully.

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My chef’s knife piercing a butternut squash that I roasted for soup.

I cut the pumpkin wedge into chunks, and put it in the oven to roast.

My husband and I took a walk in the sun.

“I’m not looking forward to the afternoon,” I said.

He moved slowly, as he does when he’s sad:

“Let’s focus on the food.  And make sure your mother is happy.”

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Soggy bits of my sourdough biscuit bread mixed with roasted pumpkin, mushrooms, onion, celery, and sage

When I mixed the ingredients for the turkey dressing and poured the cream over it, I began to feel better.  Cream makes me feel good—and there’s a scientific rationale:   Sally Fallon, of the Weston Price Foundation says,

The body makes its own endocannabinoids—exactly the same substance that occurs in marijuana—and these can help the body modulate pain naturally. We make these endocannabinoids out of an omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid, which occurs uniquely in animal fats like butter, egg yolks, cream and lard.

Also, we need cholesterol for serotonin to generate good feelings and we need fat to regulate insulin.  Eat more butter and cream!

I tucked the pan of dressing in the oven above the turkey and went for a two-mile walk.  Thirty minutes later, all the cream was absorbed.  It smelled divine.  My husband walked through on his way out for a run and paused to stand over it.

“That looks really good.”

“Yes– it’s going to be a wonderful Thanksgiving.”

My mom said it was the best dressing she’d ever eaten!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Recipe: Anti-Depressing Dressing

4 to 6 TBLS of butter, plus more for greasing pan

A pound or so of torn up bread or biscuits–a day or two old if possible

One medium butternut squash or the equivalent of pie pumpkin

Salt

1 large onion, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

20 to 30 fresh sage leaves, chopped

4 medium portabella mushrooms or a combination of mushrooms, chopped

2 cups (or more) heavy cream

  1. Preheat oven to 375
  2. Butter 9X11 baking dish
  3. fill baking dish with squash or pumpkin chunks, salt generously, and bake until soft—30 to 40 minutes.  Let cool and peel.
  4. While pumpkin roasts, on medium heat, melt 2 TBLS or more of butter and sauté onion and celery with half the sage and generous amount of salt, until soft
  5. On medium heat, melt 2 TBLS or more of butter and sauté mushrooms with other half of sage, and generous amount of salt, until soft
  6. In a big bowl, mix bread, onion mixture, mushrooms, and pumpkin. Taste for salt and add if needed.
  7. Spread into greased baking dish. Pour cream over.  Pour enough cream to saturate the all the bread and vegetables.  In fact, pour so much cream that it almost spills over.
  8. Bake, uncovered for about 35 minutes.

 

POST SCRIPT:  My daughter, ever rigorous in argument and skeptical of mothers, said,

“But mom, does cream really make you feel good?”

“Did you hear Grandma?  She said I am different.  She said I am more relaxed.  I didn’t pay her to say that.”

Anyway, if drugs can change our moods, why shouldn’t foods, or a deficiency of certain foods, anyway?  And if we’re deficient in something, it’s animal fats.  Why not eat well (delicious, fatty and healthy) and forgo the pill?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once Upon a Time I Complained, a Fairy Tale by Sister Grimm

I complained to Western Illinois University.  I did so formally in June of 2016, right after the BoT conferred my tenure and eliminated the departments of African American Studies and Women’s Studies. [1]

WS and AAS were historically monumental and ever so valuable to our diversifying student body, and therefore deserved to be defended in a formal process.  I recalled Maya Lin quoting Martin Luther King quoting Amos 5:24:

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream
.

That was justification enough,  but I wonder if deeper, hidden factors also motivated my complaint.

I had seen the other tenured professors reinstated, and figured I should be treated the same.  But I knew a formal complaint put my potential reinstatement at risk.

Colleagues warned me:

“Don’t put yourself out there.”

“Stay off their radar.”

They had a point:  a university administration can, and will, make an example of witchy professors—tenure be damned.[2]   We are to simultaneously fear retaliation and deny that a university would stoop to such threats. Sister Grimm, not Disney, fashions this fairy tale.

One of my superiors said, “This is Macomb,” as if what’s wrong with you, Holly, that you can’t accept the way it is here? As if WIU’s existence between miles of industrial corn and soy fields constituted a free pass to indulge the white patriarchy.  I get WIU as well as anyone–I’m a WIU alumna!  My dead family members are memorialized on every end of campus!

 

One friend told me that for months, he had been witnessing a male faculty member aggressively refer to women as bitches, but when my friend talked to the Title IX officer, the latter said that if my friend filed a complaint, he would likely face retaliation from the bully.  Plus, he probably wouldn’t be able to prove discrimination. As he told me this story, he looked over his shoulder and frowned, then looked at me: “Holly, be careful.”

Discouraging reporting to Title IX is not what the feminist civil rights activists had in mind when they advocated for an equal playing field in the 1960s and 70s.

Another colleague told me that complaining to the office of Equal Opportunity and Access and its Title IX officer would be like asking the Gestapo for help.  My friend said “Gestapo” matter-of-factly, without irony or disdain, as if everyone knows that Title IX exists to protect upper administration, not members of the professional union.  Again, not what Patsi, Pauli, and the other feminist activists had in mind.

 

I decided to assume WIU’s office of Title IX cared about justice.  I wanted to use every institutional channel available to defend Women’s Studies.  If I had not been laid off, I might have acted more complicitly.

Today, as I’ve been peeling away layers of anger and shame at not having had the opportunity to report the sexual assault I sustained in 8th grade, I wonder if a primary motivation for filing a formal complaint was to take advantage of Title IX reporting, an option I didn’t have in the 1980s.  If silence led to depression, a formal complaint would prevent it.

But standing up for my beliefs did not shield me from anxiety and depression.  I ruminated–  even while camping with friends in Wisconsin.  I argued with them about Simone De Beauvoir and fussed about sunburns.  Instead of taking down camp, I yelled at my daughter in front of everyone.

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Summer of 2015, we made stir-fry together on a camp stove, but summer of 2016 I was so anxious and angry that we didn’t even take pictures.

Justice was not rolling down like water—rather it was trapped with twisted fish hooks below the whirl of a defunct dam.  My ruminations about the complaint interrupted the flow that I had, until then, tapped into during summer vacations.

When WIU’s Title IX officer spun the numbers, she didn’t find any sex discrimination.  No surprise, but her decision disappointed me anyway.

A year has passed.  Today, I feel  peace and freedom for having done what I could to defend the values I know to be good and true.

I write every day and, if I’m lucky, tap into flow.  Flow is healing, but requires daily practice, and that is justice for now.

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Amos 5:24 at the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya  Lin, in Montgomery

 

[1] (Note that the first-person voice of this fairy tale is fictional.)  I said that the elimination of African American Studies and Women’s Studies forced the burden of cuts on women, especially women of color.  Interestingly, the Diversity Council (led by WIU’s Title IX’s officer and an Assistant Provost For “Random Things with Random Sub-Duties, Such As Chief Diversity Officer for Academic Affairs”) also disapproved of the eliminations of WS and AAS:  they encouraged the APER to save WS and AAS.  In my complaint, I said about ¾ of the students who took Women’s Studies classes were women of color.  AAS was similar.  Eliminating philosophy, popular with white men, didn’t level the playing field for two reasons:  first, Philosophy served a smaller number of students than WS or AAS, and secondly, WIU already offered a variety of Gen Ed courses and majors that placed men, especially white ones, at the center of curriculum, and that were not being eliminated.  Why take the subjects to which women of color flocked and eliminate their majors and Gen. Eds?

In order to teach in Women’s Studies, I sacrificed a more efficient career advancement:  my two publications in Hispanic literature would have met requirements for tenure in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. In that department, I would have earned tenure sooner and not have been a target for layoff.

[2] The historical justification for tenure is to protect the right of scholars to dissent.  Tenure’s architects never intended it to serve as a reward for silence or complicity.

 

G Minor to G Major

After almost two years, my arbitration remains unresolved, but I’m going ahead with the healing process.  I shift my perspective.  The practice of shifting perspective on my history of depression and anxiety puts me at ease.

The first time I saw my depression recognized, it was on an 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper that had arrived in a business envelope.  I was living in Fort Worth, Texas, and preparing to resume an M.Div. program at Brite Theological Seminary.  A routine evaluation indicated a significant drop in my “energy level” compared to 2 ½ years before, when I had left for Argentina.  The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)) would pay for psychotherapy.

I was scared—not of the depression, which, like an old couch, was easy to sink into, but scared that someone cared enough to see it named and remedied.  I was also curious.

I looked at the tall stack of theology books I’d bought for my Fall classes.  I did not want to read a single one of them.

The therapist suggested I take Effexor, to jumpstart my mood, she said–to take the edge off.  Effexor made me feel even edgier, as if I couldn’t respond to gravity.  Plus, it interfered with sleep.

The therapist cut out an ad for an M.A. in Women’s Studies.

I loved Sarah Lawrence College and New York City, but my depression didn’t disappear.  A therapist in the SLC counseling center prescribed Prozac.  I hated it.  The therapist said I was healthy enough for psychoanalysis and told me how I could do it affordably.

For five years, I lay on the analyst’s couch 4 days a week.  When I taught K-12 Spanish, I met her at her office in White Plains at 6:00 am.  Like a gentle voice in my head, she sat behind me.

While in psychoanalysis, I functioned well enough—I got married and taught Spanish.  I maintained steady progress towards my PhD while I grieved my brother’s death.

With my psychoanalyst, I finally talked about the depression and anorexia I endured as an adolescent:  an asshole in the hallway had grabbed my crotch, hard, while I was trying to get to math class.  Before, talking about it was not a possibility.  There was no language for that–no #MeToo.  Shame was the only language, and I didn’t want anyone to discover my shame.

What saved me during those years—8th to 11th grades—was my grand piano.

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At the Young Chang before and after the Hallway Assault. Before, my back is easily straight and shoulders wide. After, I wear a lot of makeup to cover my shame and frilly clothes to hide my anger. After, the camera looms from above,  and I pose  modestly –hands together! legs together!

Thank god my teacher assigned me a powerful Grieg concerto in G minor.  I didn’t master the concerto, but I could hit the right notes, and my unacknowledged anger flowed into those giant chords.  I hammered my Young Chang for four hours a day. My right shoulder ached. My parents made sacrifices to buy the Young Chang, but none of us knew it would save me.

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Summer after 9th grade: In world where any perpetrator can grab your crotch anywhere, mild anorexia affords a sense of control.

When we direct anger inward, it makes us depressed, and that can kill us.  But feminine anger, outwardly expressed, is not lady like, not nice, not professional.  Boys learn to direct their anger outwardly (boys will be boys).  Men have a right to anger.  Our society punishes displays of feminine anger, and I didn’t need punishment.

My current piano teacher says for a small lady, I have a heavy touch.  She is teaching me to play lightly.

I’m learning a gentle Baroque Sarabande in G Major.  It is from Bach’s 5th French Suite.  Murray Perahia (whom I saw perform in Western Illinois University’s Grand Ball Room in the 80s) says G Major is the “tender” key.  Practicing the Sarabande (link to Perahia’s recording), I feel that all shall be well.

 

 

 

Practicing Self-Compassion

I could surf the web, never reading an entire article, or try to give something to you, my dear readers.  I mean, give you something.

I force myself up the stairs to turn off the modem.  Now it is just me and you, my dear readers.

At my side–a heavy-cream latte made by the baristas in Hy-Vee. I am nervous but I should be fine.

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Heavy-cream latte at my side. I’ll get to the spider webs later.

I am anxious and ruminate constantly, I told my therapist.  She already knew about my layoff and unresolved arbitration.  When she suggested I learn about the practice of self-compassion, I balked—it sounded like trendy self-help—like surfing, not really diving into the wreck.  I had already read my share of books on mindfulness and the like.

“Kristin Neff,” my therapist was firm.  Skeptically, I watched one of Neff’s Ted Talks, and then ordered her book.

Give yourself compassion for the wave of pain you are suffering, says Neff.  Pause, acknowledge your pain, recognize how hard it is to feel pain, how your own suffering connects you with all of humanity.

Maybe I don’t want to be connected with humanity—especially not if we are all suffering, all vulnerable, all so imperfect.  Maybe if I keep myself cut off from you, dear reader, I can be perfect and not suffer!

Except that my anger is bottomless and I lash out at my kids. Losing my temper feels both terrible and sublime, but shame (how could I act that way in front of my children???) stalks me and sucks me down into a toxic flush.  I log on to Neff’s self-compassion website, close my eyes, and follow one of her guided meditations.

The New York Times had been reporting on the science of ruminating: women ruminate more than men (this is because the playing field of life is not level and women have to be on watch, and we have to excel–only to be laid off or lose an important election), and people who ruminate are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.

I begin to notice how frequently I ruminate about Western Illinois University:

in the middle of the night,

when I wake up in the morning,

when I go for a walk,

a run,

when I drive to a Cross Country meet,

Shopping in Aldi

when I try to meditate,

when I cook,

when I play Chopin

And why can’t my brother still be alive to help me?  Chad, why did you have to get yourself sucked into an ice-cold river whose flow had been rudely interrupted by a defunct dam?

This is a moment of pain. 

Everyone suffers.

May I hold my pain with tenderness.

I no longer wake up at 2:00 am to ruminate.  In the mornings, my thoughts are calm.

What I can give to you is recognition of the waves of suffering that define what it means to be alive.  There is happiness as well.  I cannot give you self-compassion–you have to give that to yourself.  I’m still working on it.

Thank you, dear reader.