These heavy boots are not made for walking – meeting Oskar Schell …

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I mentioned it before, Wonderguy gave me Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer as another part of our ongoing series “Goin’ to New York”. At first I was skeptical because I fear the child protagonist: many authors I read (Brothers Grimm, anyone?) use child characters to teach their readers a lesson, and the last thing I need right now is some elaborate lesson brought to me by 300+ pages full of moralizing undertone. But Oskar is a very special child and we got along well. Much better than I had ever expected. Apart from certain quirks that make him all the more tangible (though also at least ten years older at times) and the fact that I too (like most of us) lost someone dear to me, Oskar and I share another distinctive and at times very important feature: heavy boots. 

I read the first chapter of A Brief History of Time when Dad was still alive and I got incredibly heavy boots about how relatively insignificant life is, and how, compared to the universe and compared to time, it didn’t even matter if I existed at all.

I feel ya, Oskar. I do. I will not talk much about the book itself, because this time the connection with one character feels to strong and personal, an aspect that gets more important because of my current mental constitution. I gravitate around how reading about heavy boots makes someone with very heavy boots feel at the moment…
Oskar won over my heart and mind in one passage that describes a situation I know perfectly well, even though not necessarily in this context, due to geographical differences:

It had taken us four hours to get to her home. Two of those were because Mr. Black had to convince me to get on the Staten Island Ferry. In addition to the fact that it was an obvious potential target, there had also been a ferry accident pretty recently, and in Stuff That Happened to Me I had pictures of people who had lost their arms and legs. Also, I don’t like bodies of water. Or boats, particularly. Mr. Black asked me how I would feel in bed that night if I didn’t get on the ferry. I told him, “Heavy boots, probably.” “And how will you feel if you did it?” “Like one hundred dollars.” “So?” “So what about while I’m on the ferry?? What if it sinks? What if someone pushes me off? What if it’s hit with a shoulder-fired missile? There won’t be a tonight tonight.” He said, “In which case you won’t feel anything anyway.” I though about that. 

It’s well in the second half of the book, p. 240, that Oskar describes this inner turmoil, but this was the moment I knew I will forever love this book, and this character. Because I know heavy boots, I know exactly how heavy boots feel, and I know how hard it can be to make something feel even ten dollars, let alone a hundred dollars. Sometimes it feels impossible, way out of my league. And every now and then, this ‘sometimes” becomes ‘often,’ and ‘impossible’ becomes ‘unbearable.’ Because these boots are so heavy I can hardly move. And because I’m a grown-up, I know that I’m on my own, that in the end of the day, I’m all alone in my head, alone with my thoughts, fears, and feelings. Alone with my heavy boots, custom-made for me.
And these days my boots are very heavy. Though I’m looking forward to seeing NYC again, even look forward to presenting a paper and meeting fellow academics and people interested in my field of study, I dread the emotional and physical tour de force it will take until I get there. And I dread all these thoughts, freely floating through my head and messing with my synapses, much more than the fact that I will be awake and on the way for 20 hours. Fear, so much unfounded fear and panic: terror attacks, plane crashes, murder, death, mayhem. All that is possible – hardly anything is likely to happen exactly where I am at the time I am there. After all, this is the rather safe hemisphere of this tormented planet. I’m a rational person, I know that. But I also know panic attacks, anxiety, depression. Or, as Oskar describes it so poetic and also appropriate: heavy boots.

Oskar is actively working to counter his heavy boots, mostly by keeping busy, inventing stuff, designing jewellery and the like. This seems a good strategy though Oskar’s heavy boots and mine are two totally different things and what works for a fictional nine-year-old boy might not work as well for me. I’m not good at inventing and I’m not interested in jewellery; best case scenario is reading, worst case scenario is cleaning, decluttering, or rearranging stuff like there’s no tomorrow. Because a clean and tidy environment helps me to survive my mental chaos, so if nothing else works for me, this always does.
It doesn’t work anymore. Not now. And even though I feel like a whiny kid, I feel so stupid for not being able to get through this like all those times before, I know I reached a limit. I already had a lot going on in the last few months; this additional project, though it is a great opportunity and something I really look forward to, seems to be too much. Too much for my already hyperactive mind, my perfectionism, my aim of juggling different jobs and ventures simultaneously.

So I called my therapist today. I haven’t seen him in 6 years. It’s time for a reunion. 

 

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I sense a certain sentiment …

2017-09-09-12-32-52.jpgIn the last few days I booked a flight and my Dad found me a nice hotel in an ideal location between the university and the rest of the city I want to see and discover. Regarding the practical aspects of this little adventure everything’s already taken care of, everything’s fine. Which is wonderful and I’m so grateful that my dad, mom, and my sister, my whole family, is so supportive and helpful, even though I brought that on myself, thinking I could accomplish a conference/city trip to NYC ON MY OWN. Wonderguy too is just great, and he’s also already in the “goin’ to New York” mood (even though he is not coming with me), putting together a Spotify-playlist with songs about NY (from Sinatra’s classic to my favorite, Alicia Keys, he found some really great songs which I will listen to while out and about in NY). Furthermore, he gave me some of the novels he got that are set in New York, one being Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. I will take a closer look at this book in another blog post, soon. For now let me just say that certain fears not only Oskar but other protagonists as well talk about resonate deep with(in) my own dark places… 

And it can be dark down there … Sleepless nights filled with horrifying visions triggered by too many true crime podcasts and too much war crime material keep me awake. Have you ever seen “Mayday”? I have. Oh my, yes I have …
At the opposite end of this extreme emotional spectrum lies my longing for peace, being someplace where no one knows me and no one notices me and I will be invisible. And once again being invisible would make me invincible, at least deep down in my heart. “These streets will make you feel random” – I long for that feeling. The same feeling I loved so much when walking through the streets of New York the first time I was there, four years ago. No one cares about you, but not in a bad way. Rather like we are all parts of the surrounding, belonging to this street, this street corner, this certain place, nothin’ to fuzz about, just everyone going their ways. 

I felt safe there, always. True, I wasn’t out and about at 3am in the morning all alone as a woman, and I won’t do so in December. But still, I felt safer in New York than I felt/feel in London, though I love London just as much and I’m more familiar with the city, having been there several times. And I guess that’s the crux of the matter: because I’m less familiar with NYC I feel safer there than in London – knowing a place, being familiar with it means knowing its ‘good’ and its ‘bad’ sides; just reading about the dark sides does not change a thing. I read tons of stuff about war and war crimes and the like but I would never in a million years assume I “know” war – that’s not how it works.  Never. Of course I read about places where one should not go, what one should and should not do, especially as a woman, and that might be one reason why I can’t sleep at times, but this does not change my good memories about the place. Besides, “feeling safe” in my understanding also means being able to stay in my own little thought bubble all the time because I don’t know a single person so no one will disturb my thinking, musing, and wandering. I’m not sure if this corresponds with a general understanding of “feeling safe” but I don’t strive for unifying different views. Live and let live, wander and let wander …

For now, the “goin’ to New York”-theme is huge, listening to the playlist, reading books from/about/set in New York, most of this thanks to and inspired by Wonderguy. That’s because it’s my first trip alone to one of my most favorite cities. It’s a long flight and at average an expensive stay, so it’s not like I can see NYC whenever I want to – this is something special. And even though I feel total overwhelmed and panicky at times (thanks, weird wired brain) I really look forward to “goin’ to New York”.

Besides, let us not forget: I’m there for work as well … one more reason for sleepless nights! 🙂

Once more with … less feeling, please?

 

IMG_20170809_232328_236.jpgA few days ago I received an invitation to a conference in December. I never in a million years expected anyone to accept my paper because a) it’s not even a conference with a focus on literary studies and b) I’m no fancy academic pursuing her studies not looking left or right, but rather a freestyle academic, pursuing her studies when finding the time next to work, life, and stuff. So not exactly distinguished ivy league university material. Not even ‘attending a conference at a distinguished university I always wanted to see’ material… 

Obviously, no one ‘there’ knows that, which is why they are delighted to include my paper in their conference. And I’m delighted, happy, overwhelmed, and panicky all at once. For days now. And nights, which is worse. I sent a submission to give it a shot, “aim high”, as they say (I don’t know who “they” are, but hey, “they” for sure never suffered from anxiety disorders and shit like that) and try for universities (and cities) I always wanted to see or love to visit. I have been to New York before and missed my chance to see Columbia, at least from the outside. I may get a second chance now. 

Still, I have to finance this wonderful craziness – New York is pricey, especially in December (I guess). Also, I have to keep my shit together to go there. It’s not that I am too nervous to actually attend a conference and present a paper (I have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so that’s not the issue here); rather, the real challenge will be organizing the trip, finding a hotel and staying on top of things. I hate organizing because I’m really bad at it. Also, since receiving the invitation, tons of unfounded fears came creeping up from the shitty dark holes I forced them into; they caress my arms, creep up and down my spine, float into my semiconscious mind in the early morning hours, lay their heavy burden on my weary shoulders (yes I know, THAT sounds cheesy…). Depending on the mood I’m in, I can take them one at a time, pushing them back into the holes they came from, or I let them flow, because there’s no use in fighting it, not right now. 

I know, I sound like a whiny kid, and I don’t want to. I simply did not expect this to happen – some provincial freestyle academic presenting a paper at rather well-known university. London has already been great, and this too is a wonderful opportunity and it feels huge. Overwhelming. Unreal. And frightening.  

Greetings to my demons. 

New Hope or: the road to hell is paved with good intentions …

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Now this entry sounds way more dramatic than it actually is. Fact is, I didn’t work ‘that much’ on my thesis or academic ventures since returning from London last May. For one thing, wonderguy and I moved in together shortly afterwards and there was a lot to organize and do for weeks afterwards; secondly, I did indeed work a lot for several months, though not on my dissertation.

With the beginning of 2017 I decided to make a fresh start. Right now this means starting slowly by catching up on some reading (not that much, but still necessary) and trying to get an overview of all the material I’ve already gathered. After all, I do have about 200 pages of literary analyses (first draft, but at least this part of the dissertation is somehow finished), so for more than a year now I’m dreading to start with the historical background (more because I have to organize my information the proper way) and especially the theoretical background (because I simply cannot decide which theoretical strings to include while at the same time – OF COURSE – excluding others … which could be just as interesting, but probably not that fruitful in context of my work BUT who knows and do I really want to commit myself to just a few theoretical approaches while there are so many other brilliant and great theories and ideas out there? Won’t I risk making the wrong decision, so it’s better to not reach a decision at all because that way I won’t risk excluding brilliant positions and views?).

So it’s obvious I need some new tools, because the fact that I feel deadlocked regarding my thesis could never have anything to do with my messy, insecure brain. No, of course not.

Long story short, since I also start a new job in April and want to go back to writing more on a regular basis in general, I got completely overwhelmed by my own good intentions and imaginary work steps and bought a new laptop, or rather, notebook. It’s more portable and practical than my old MacBook and I can use Linux (heeeeelloooooo freedom of choice!!), so I can put a ton of excellent writing programs on it for free. Because, as I might have stated before, I intend to use this as my new main WORK laptop, taking it with me pretty much everywhere except the bathroom, so to not find any more excuses to NOT work or write.

You know, it all starts with good intentions, and let’s just hope it doesn’t end there as well…

 

[By the way, the picture has nothing to do with the text. Since I could not take a picture of my new notebook, I decided to try something completely different…birds. Flamingos, more precisely.]

How to organize a chaotic mind

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I’ve been working as a freelancer for years now. I started the first draft of my thesis roughly 2 years ago and there’s still much to do, as pretty much the complete theoretical framework is still missing (it’s there in my mind, at least some parts of it, but not where it should be, written down). Part of the problem is not only that I have to find a balance between work, work, and life, but also because – no, ESPECIALLY because it is very difficult for me to organize myself.

I was diagnosed with ADHD in my mid-twenties. Though I don’t like to hide behind my various issues (panic attacks, anxiety disorder, depression, extremely introverted, anyone?) this did indeed explain a lot. Most of the time I find it hard to focus on one thing; I can lose myself in hours of online research, reading about the least interesting topics ever, but I cannot sit through a two-hour-movie (or even a 50 min TV show) because it bores the shit out of me. I get some impulse for my work, jot it down and forget all about it the next minute, even forgetting WHERE I made or put the notes that could be helpful some other time. I remind myself to write another blog post only to forget it just a minute later because I there is so much going on in my head that I am overwhelmed and just give up. I often thought (and sometimes still think) that this is all about procrastination and being unorganized and chaotic, but –as my therapist liked to say – this is rather about a psychological issue and being a ‘special edition.’ Since I do not take any medication, it’s always just me and my hyperactive, multi-wired brain.

Which leads us back to the initial issue, namely how to organize myself without losing my mind?! I desperately need some planning and structure in my life, for my freelance ‘career’ and especially for my thesis. For years I’ve been looking for some way to organize myself, my tasks, my appointments, my life. I have not yet found a system that works, so I’m still waiting for a miracle…

A possible answer could be: start a bullet journal.

Wonderguy started one and told me to give it a try because it could actually work. So I googled it (of course I googled it and filled my mind with hours of bullet journal porn on Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and other sites) and was taken aback by how much work many people – and especially girls and women – put in the (graphical) creation of a bullet journal. I’ve seen journals I would never actually use because they were too beautiful to just put some common information in it. Those journals were works of art but nothing to work with since my chaotic mind would probably be too distracted with painting another elderflower in the left corner of May 12th on page 30. Also, it seemed so structured and organized (well, what a surprise!), it frightened me. I was afraid of not being able to organize myself with this system. I AM afraid of being too chaotic and unstructured to organize myself with any system. I suppose I’m looking forward to a future filled with post-its, lost notes in the corners of my life, and looking puzzled and surprised half of the time.

So I guess I should give it a shot. It really can’t get much worse…I think. And I do have a fair number of notebooks, I can spare one to substantiate my hopes in a more organized future…

Fast Forward: MIA for some reasons

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I have not been around for quite some time and this does nothing for my “go on and write regularly for someone else than yourself and your journal/diary/notebook/mazy mind”–plan. Of course there are reasons for this, though none of those reasons are good enough to explain my being MIA for such a long time.

First, of course, there was the conference; my trip to London followed shortly after my last entry, my talk went well (though there were only a few people in the attendance, but those who were there seemed interested and attentive) and I loved the atmosphere at the university. Of course we stayed for a few days, enjoying one of my favorite cities ever. London was amazing as always (I have been there 5 times, and maybe I can think of some interesting stuff to share in another post), and returning to this small provincial town where I live was hard (AS ALWAYS).

But coming home was not that hard for long because…

…second, I moved to a new apartment which I now share with wonderguy (and our cat!). This new apartment is pretty much downtown, and it is just wonderful. So in a way I returned home only to find a new and–in some way at least–improved home to return to in the future. Moving took some time, 6 weeks to be more precise, and it was exhausting. I seized this excellent opportunity to throw out tons of stuff I have not used in years – having read enough “declutter your life”-blog posts for a lifetime, this 6-week-move was the perfect outlet for all my idle knowledge.

Still, within all this chaos I found some time to read, even more than earlier this year. Also, I started writing and “writing” again, so there appear some light at the end of this tunnel I call PhD studies…Hence I will return regularly, finally (even if this includes hasty drafts like this one). Because that’s the plan, and now there are no excuses left. Not even bad ones.

Never finishing anything at all – 4 (or more) steps to succeed

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I have finished my talk some weeks ago, ready to edit it a bit here and there and in the end having weeks to rehearse it (…something that is reallyreallyreally important for non-native-speakers!!!) – at least that was my plan. Of course, quite the opposite happened. After finishing my first ‘draft,’ my supervisor and wonderguy (who is also my colleague, a fellow comparative literature graduate) both added their two cents, poignantly remarking that this paper will be great for all those who already know what I am working on – everyone else may feel a bit puzzled, asking him/herself what that chick out there is actually talking about. So I was obviously NOT finished. Not at all. It took me two more nights to recreate a sort of “finally finished”-feeling, and I still think it’s more a feeling than a fact. Especially since I’ve started rehearsing, realizing that I’m still changing certain passages to make them more understandable (and easier to read, to be more precise). So again, the final version is not so final after all. But editing can be tricky and a never-ending-story – it has always been very difficult for me to constrain my pedantic inner critic and carefully approach a final version I really ‘like’…

I know a lot of people are only too familiar with this struggle. For the lucky ones who NEVER had the joyous experience of questioning one’s own intellect and sanity over one small passage on page 5 of a) the last chapter of the second novel you wrote at the age of 22/31/40/53 OR b) the 235th paper you wanted to submit to a prestigious journal where you already published three other papers but still, this time they could finally realize just how awful and inapt you actually are … For those lucky ones I may offer some valuable instructions on how to finally stop finalizing stuff:

  1. Decide to work in a foreign language (at least NOT your first language) OR a jargon you are in no way familiar with – no matter how good you get and how hard you study, you will always feel inadequate, insecure, and not sure of even the most basic expressions. Always.
  2. Pursue new opportunities. Find some side aspect of your work you never before thought of investigating further, combine your familiar knowledge with new discoveries and realize that you might have missed some very important stuff which could have been really, really important for your study/thesis/paper at some earlier stage, meaning you should rework pretty much everything. This seems overwhelming, so you decide to go for a beer/coffee/tea/vegansoychailattewithextracinnamon to do some brainstorming, after which you decide to just never ever return.
  3. Purchase the book How to disappear completely and live free. It’s from the 1970ies, providing information totally unsatisfactory nowadays, and no matter what you work on, you will forget everything you ever wanted to find out about that thing you work on, instead imagining to live on some Mexican beach, selling homemade tequila. Then purchase the book How to disappear: Erase your digital footprint, leave false trails, and vanish without a trace.
  4. Realize there was a mix-up at Amazon after receiving How to disappear completely: On Modern Anorexia instead. Or maybe you mixed something up. Anyway, after reading it you decide that disappearing might not be that desirable after all and return to your research/work projects.
  5. Edit your paper/talk/thesis as much as seems necessary, but don‘t overdo it. Then give it to some trusted friends and colleagues, ask for their opinions, fear their opinions, and start editing again until either your deadline arrives or you retire.

If you need additional inspiration, go play catch in a parking lot, because you obviously missed the point of never-ever-finishing-anything at all. And yes I know, this apparently does not make any sense.  Welcome to my world!