Moving Forward

This has been a very strange couple of months. On the one hand, my book has been more successful than I ever imagined, I was promoted to full professor, and exciting opportunities keep landing in my in-box. Basically, all my professional dreams have come true.

On the other, my capacities are clearly nowhere near where they were two years ago, I spend all my time trying to keep my body and brain more or less functional, and I don’t have a “next project,” because I’ve spent the last two years trying to 1) stay alive, 2) perform the most basic functions of my job, and 3) pursue recovery.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time lately playing the successful academic, promoting the book and responding to requests, while in real life I’m bumbling along more-or-less functional, trying to figure out how to navigate what comes next. (This is the part, I guess, that you’re not supposed to say out loud.) Because I was on sabbatical in the spring, I don’t really know how I’m going to do when a real semester starts.

There are moments when I’m optimistic that with adjustments and flexibility it will all be fine. But there are also times — like when I traveled to a two-day workshop last month, with a tiring cross-country flight and a morning-till-night schedule — when it’s clear that the gap between what I could sustain in the Before Times and what I can do now is large indeed.

At the moment, I’m trying to let go of the pressure — from both internal and external expectations — to have a next “big thing” and focus on just moving forward, however slowly. I am incredibly lucky to have an extremely secure job in an extremely well-resourced institution with a huge amount of flexibility in terms of how I actually spend my time. If I were almost anything but a tenured professor I don’t think I’d still have a job after the last two years.

(As an aside, this is a fairly radicalizing observation — how precarious most people’s lives are in the face of unexpected illness or disability. One of the many things I knew at an intellectual level but that gains a different resonance in the face of experience.)

I am pretty sure I have more to contribute. But it’s very hard to let go of internalized performance expectations — of constant productivity, of always being “on”, of operating at maximum capacity — and move at one’s own pace. And there’s the fear that I won’t be able to contribute, that I won’t even be able to perform the basic functions of my job, that the brain fog means I’ll never do good work again.

But one good thing about life-threatening illness is that it also clarifies what’s important, and what doesn’t really matter in the end. It encourages an IDGAF attitude toward the stuff — other people’s opinions, doing stuff just because you “should” — that is often just a distraction from following your own lodestar. And particularly at a time when democracy is eroding, when rights are being rolled back, when the window to respond to climate change is closing, playing the game of academia for its own sake feels dangerously solipsistic, anyway.

So I will be over here doing my own thing — taking on new challenges but also still testing the waters; hoping for long-term improvement but also coming to terms with the possibility that this may be as good as it gets; trying to live my life and figure out how I can make some positive contribution. Because, I guess, I’m constitutionally incapable of not trying.

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