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Writer’s (Blogger’s) Block

I haven’t been blogging much recently.

And the less I blog, the more starting to blog again feels difficult. Impossible, even.

It’s the same for me and writing and researching — luckily for me, my department, and my dissertation committee I have been working on the dissertation.

But I’ve been thinking about writer’s block a lot recently, and why people get it.

Then I googled, “Why do people get writer’s block” and read a few blog posts written for writers. And was immediately exhausted. I could literally feel energy seeping out of my body as I read them.

“Writer’s block is a myth,” one blog post said. “Writer’s block is an excuse,” another one crowed.

I understand what these blog posts are trying to say: writer’s block can often be pushed through. Writing is a habit, not something that happens only when inspiration strikes.

But if so many writers experience something, what is the usefulness of writing blog posts which say that the phenomenon people are experiencing simply doesn’t exist? That if they just grit their teeth and got down to it, things would happen?

Productivity culture can be exceptionally draining. I wonder if there is an inverse relationship between how many “productivity” blogs a person reads and how satisfied they feel with the quality and quantity of their work.

 

Stressed Out Rabbis: Feeling Like I’m Coming Apart At The Seams

chair tom-van-hoogstraten-33916-unsplash

[Picture of a chair on a rocky beach above.] //Photo by Tom van Hoogstraten on Unsplash


I, somewhat embarrassingly, really like this extremely kitschy poster:

the sea of halacha

Edited by Abba Kovner. Available for purchase here: https://www.bh.org.il/shop/souvenirs-from-israel/product/sea-halacha-map/  // [Image of a map entitled “The Sea of Halacha” with different Jewish houses of learning and texts on it]

The (Babylonian) Talmud, and more broadly the Jewish Law (Halacha) that springs forth out of it, is long. The ArtScroll editions of the Talmud Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud) is comprised of seventy-three large books, which you can purchase here for the low, low price of $2,099.

And even this massive seventy-three volume is by no means the entirety of texts in rabbinic Judaism. There’s an entirely separate (albeit shorter) Talmud, the Yerushalmi or Jerusalem Talmud. There are midrashic texts, prayer books, sermons, philosophical works, discussions of the Hebrew Bible, and the Hebrew Bible itself.

It’s easy to feel unmoored when dealing with the sheer volume of texts. There isn’t any floor, nothing to grab onto. Just pulsating, living texts.


When I lived in Syracuse, I worked as a Jewish educator for a synagogue called Temple Concord. As part of that job, we occasionally had teacher-trainings: pedagogical workshops geared for part-time Jewish Sunday and Hebrew School teachers. One of these workshops was specifically about teaching children with disabilities.

While there, I learned a term that stunned me: hyposensitivity.

Hyposensitivity, like the more commonly known hypersensitivity, is a symptom some people have where they do not receive enough stimuli in the world around them:

Hyposensitivity occurs when a child is underwhelmed by the world around him or her and needs to seek out additional sensory information to feel content. Signs of this behavior could include a need to touch things excessively, always turning the volume very loud, or constantly putting objects in his or her mouth. Those who struggle with staying still for any extended period could be hyposensitive, trying to constantly seek movement stimulation.[1]

At the teacher-training, hyposensitivity wasn’t quite described like how it is above; instead it was described as the opposite of hypersensitivity. The opposite of feeling like sounds, sights, odors, touches are pressing in on a body are akin to an overwhelming attack on the body. As if one’s body can’t quite be contained by the sensations which surround it.


I, like so many others in our cultural-historical moment, have anxiety. And when I get anxious — and sometimes for no reason at all — I experience the following:

  • Sometimes I feel like there is too much space between my joints, like my bones are slowly moving away from one another and I can’t stop it.
  • Sometimes I feel like my skin can’t contain me, and that I’m slowly evaporating into the sky.
  • Sometimes I have to bite my fingers, hands, lips to remind myself that I’m real.
  • I run into things constantly, and sometimes press against things on purpose. I almost always have lots of small purple bruises on my legs. I can never remember when I got them.
  • I have a history of self-harm behaviors.
  • I feel like the girl who could turn into a puddle in The Secret World of Alex Mack. (I remember so little about this show except that it featured a pre-teen who could turn into a puddle and slide under doors.)

And I never knew how to explain these sensations before. And now there was an official-sounding word on the top of my tongue… hyposensitivity. I impressively used it with my therapist at our next appointment. (She was less impressed with me than I was with myself.)

I want to be clear here: I am not sure if I fit any kind of diagnostic criteria of hyposensitivity. But I do know that learning about hyposensitivity made me feel a little less alone.


That is why, I think, I identified so strongly with the “Sea of Talmud”/”Sea of the Halacha” language. I could easily imagine a poor rabbi, stressed out about some halachic ruling they were asked to make, trying to reach out and ground their body on something, anything, but being unable to. Feeling as if they were about to drown. In the air of the study hall.

And here I am sitting now, in a library, feeling stressed out about my dissertation. I have been slipping down my chair for minutes, and my head is almost at the top of the chair. I’m a puddle. I keep biting the my inner cheeks to remind myself I’m alive.

I feel unmoored. I do not know what to do. I have not written a dissertation before. The only way to stop being scared and anxious about my dissertation is to write it.

Five hundred words at a time.


[1] “The Differences between Hyposensitivities and Hypersensitivies in Sensory Processing Disorder,” Chicago Speech Therapy, LLC, last modified 2016. https://www.chicagospeechtherapy.com/the-differences-between-hyposensitivities-and-hypersensitivities-in-sensory-processing-disorder/

 

Liminality, Memory, and Patrilineal Jews

My Jewish identity depends on the theological positions of those who gaze at me

“Are you Jewish?” Someone, usually Jewish asks another person they suspect is also a member of the tribe.

“Well, I’m half Jewish.”

“The right half?”

I’ve overheard this “joke” several times before. What it refers to is the traditional definition of a Jew: someone who has a Jewish mother, or someone who has converted to Judaism. (And usually, people forget that second part.)

Because not all American Jews now use this traditional definition to determine “Jewishness,” this can be a point of tension in the contemporary American scene. Patrilineal Jews can be liminal Jews: accepted as Jewish in some synagogues, and considered Gentile in others. As a liberal convert to Judaism, I experience many of these same issues. My Jewish identity depends on the theological positions of those who gaze at me, not on my own relationship to my people or my own convictions.

jewish star of david architecture

Photo by Dhruv Weaver on Unsplash [Black and white photo of an architectural detail of wires which, when looked at from below, makes a large image of Star of David.]

I was reading Regina Stein’s “The Road to Bat Mitzvah in America” in Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives when I read something that stunned me.

One major distinction between the Reform and Conservative views on bat mitzvah did emerge in the late 1950s. Within the Reform movement alone, bat mitzvah as well as bar mitzvah came to embody the public acknowledgement that a child, thought not born to a Jewish mother and therefore not Jewish according to the traditional definition, was to be accepted by the community.[1]

“In the 1950s?!” I exclaimed aloud, bewildered.


1950s

Photo by Sahar Mann on Unsplash [Photograph of a 1950s-style diner booth with Venetian blinds leaving shadows on the table.]

“In the 1950s?!” I exclaimed aloud, bewildered.

The Reform movement of the United States officially passed a statement indicating that patrilineal Jews (that is, Jews with a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother) who were raised Jewish were to be considered Jewish. In 1983.

And it’s still by no means a “settled” or “done” decision. Sue Fishkoff wrote in the Baltimore Jewish Times in 2011 how non-American Reform communities still generally did not accept patrilineal Jews; Some communities were afraid that if they did so they would lose potential members. Jean-Francois Levy, a former president of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France was quoted as saying: “We meet people sympathetic to us, and I’m afraid that those who might join us would not do so if we embrace patrilineality. …They would say ‘Look, they don’t even know the most basic Jewish traditions’ “[2]

The article even discusses how some Reform organizations in Costa Rica and Panama have accepted patrilineal Jews in the past, only to change back to the more traditional position of requiring conversion after the appointment of more conservative rabbis.[3]

Historicizing Orthodox reactions to Reform Judaism, Adam S. Ferziger notes that the decision to accept patrilineal Jews may have been even more upsetting to Orthodox leaders than the decisions Reform Judaism has made involving gender equality, officiating same-sex marriages, and officiating at mixed marriages.

However, the willingness of Reform rabbis to officiate at mixed marriages and to
endorse same-sex unions, and particularly the landmark decision to sanction patrilineal descent as a basis for defining Jewishness, have highlighted the far more radical departure of Reform ideology from traditional Jewish norms. Such Reform policies brought even liberal-thinking Orthodox leaders such as Jonathan Sacks, the British United Synagogue chief rabbi, to remark in 1993 that “[t]hey increase the likelihood that at some time Orthodoxy will see Reform as it saw
Christianity: as a separate religion.”[Emphasis mine][4]

It is this question moreso than other theological or social issues that gets under the skin of those involved: what exactly makes someone Jewish?


What exactly makes someone Jewish?

Returning to the resolution the Reform movement passed in 1983, the Resolution talks about the Emancipation and the Enlightenment as guiding nexuses to understand the problem:

This issue arises from the social forces set in motion by the Enlightenment and the Emancipation. They are the roots of our current struggle with mixed marriage.[5]

This is unsurprising for the Reform movement, which traces its lineage back to both the Emancipation — the time when Jews could claim citizenship of the nation-states in which they resided in — and the Enlightenment — a philosophical turn in the 18th century which emphasized personal rationality and freedom.

The resolution continues:

When, in the tradition, the marriage was considered not to be licit, the child of that marriage followed the status of the mother (Mishna Kiddushin 3.12, havalad kemotah). The decision of our ancestors thus to link the child inseparably to the mother, which makes the child of a Jewish mother Jewish and the child of a nonJewish mother non-Jewish, regardless of the father, was based upon the fact that the woman with her child had no recourse but to return to her own people. A Jewish woman could not marry a non-Jewish man (cf. Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha-ezer 4.19, la tafsei kiddushin). A Jewish man could not marry a non-Jewish woman. The only recourse in Rabbinic law for the woman in either case was to return to her own community and people.[6]

In times of matrimonial strife, women were assumed to return, with their babies, to their own communities of origin. And this, the resolution explains, is the reason for the rabbinic ruling that the status of the mother is the only determining factor in the Jewishness or non-Jewishness of a child.

But now, the resolution continues, we live in happier times. Endogamy (marrying within a particular social group) is no longer required in most communities! People fall in love and make babies with all sorts of people — isn’t that wonderful?


I was sure…

I was sure that the decision of Reform Jews to accept patrilineal Jews was new, recent. Groundbreaking, even. It’s not a settled issue, by any means:

Right there, in the Resolution itself, the Reform movement talks about previously-agreed-upon measures to accept patrilineal Jews. The Resolution summarizes an earlier statement adopted by the CCAR (the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical group of Reform Rabbis in America) in 1947:

With regard to infants, the declaration of the parents to raise them as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion. This could apply, for example, to adopted children. This decision is in line with the traditional procedure in which, according to the Talmud, the parents bring young children (the Talmud speaks of children earlier than the age of three) to be converted, and the Talmud comments that although an infant cannot give its consent, it is permissible to benefit somebody without his consent (or presence). On the same page the Talmud also speaks of a father bringing his children for conversion, and says that the children will be satisfied with the action of their father.[7]

Interestingly, things get a little muddled here. The summary of the 1947 document uses the language of “conversion”: making it clear that before the event of conversion happens, these patrilineal Jewish infants are not yet Jews. However, the traditional process of conversion (circumcision and/or submerging oneself in a ritual bath called a mikvah) is not needed. Instead, a simple declaration of intent on behalf of the parents is enough for the conversion to take place.

But then, a few words later, we see that Confirmation (a ceremony not indigenous to Judaism, but added in America based off of similar Christian traditions as a way to celebrate the end of high-school level religious education) is suddenly considered a conversion “ceremony”:

Children of religious school age should likewise not be required to undergo a special ceremony of conversion but should receive instruction as regular students in the school. The ceremony of Confirmation at the end of the school course shall be considered in lieu of a conversion ceremony.[8]

The 1983 document now discusses a Rabbinical handbook published by them in 1961. Here, the Reform position seems to have slipped towards more traditional once more:

The child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, accoridng to traditional law, is a Gentile; such a person would have to be formally converted in order to marry a Jew or become a synagogue member.[9]

Perhaps this is not a slippage-in-policy rather than a difference between how to deal with patrilineal children rather than patrilineal adults. Suddenly, when it is time for these patrilineal Jews to be more than children running around Hebrew School on Sunday morning does their Jewishness swing into full focus once more.

Ultimately, the 1983 ends relatively unambiguously:

The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.[10]

The wiggle here is how involved a patrilineal Jew has to be in formal Jewish education to be able to call themselves Jewish. In order to be considered Jewish, the Reform movement still wants the child in question to undergo some kind of Jewish education.


But I was wrong.

I’m still a bit startled by this. I was pretty sure I knew my American Jewish denominational history — but I was wrong.

I had assumed that the 1983 Resolution had been groundbreaking. Because people now are still fighting about it. But it wasn’t that groundbreaking — the Reform movement in American had been slowly inching in that direction for decades.

What this points to, I think, is something I try very hard to instill in my undergraduate classes.

The past was not necessarily like today, but only more conservative. People often assume this — because the common understanding of time and society is that as time marches on, people become more accepting, more liberal. It’s a false narrative used to encourage a particular way of thinking about the world — for either conservative or liberal ends. And yes, in many cases the past was more “conservative” than it was today. But not always. And not of a matter of course.

American Rabbis were giving patrilineal Jews b’nei mitzvah in the 1950s!

The reality is messier.


[1] Regina Stein. “The Road to Bat Mitzvah in America,” in Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, ed. by Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan Sarna. (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2001), 228.

[2] Sue Fishkoff, “Reform Twist On ‘Who Is A Jew?’,” Baltimore Jewish Times, February 18, 2011, 40-41.

[3] Sue Fishkoff, “Reform Twist on ‘Who Is A Jew?'”, 40-41.

[4] Adam S. Ferziger. “From Demonic Deviant to Drowning Brother: Reform Judaism in the Eyes of American Orthodoxy,” Jewish Social Studies 15, no. 3. (Spring/Summer 2009): 60.

[5] Status of Children of Mixed Marriages. Resolution Adopted by the CCAR. Adopted on March 15th, 1983. https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-resolutions/status-of-children-of-mixed-marriages-1983/
[6] Status of Children of Mixed Marriages.

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

 

 

I am so, so funny.

despair-oscar-keys-60736-unsplash

Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

I get email updates from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity because I once did a week-long online writing boot camp with the organization.

The most recent one that caught my eye had the subject line: “Tracking Your Resistance.”

This puzzled me, because at first I thought they were talking about The Resistance to Trump’s administration. But no, they were talking about writing down one’s resistance to writing. They suggested keeping a log of all the reasons you have been procrastinating writing.

And, glancing at my clock, I realize with a sinking heart I’ve spent a full hour staring at my laptop without writing a word. Maybe two.

And so, humbly, I present to you:


My Resistance to Writing, Today

I think I need a book that’s upstairs and I’m feeling lazy.

I just want to get back to this person in an online chat real quick.

I wonder what my hair looks like today?

This is a good song. Have I heard it before? Aren’t I so interesting that I only listen to weird Finnish pop music?

Oh, man, I just thought of a hilarious tweet!

Why aren’t people liking my tweet? I am so funny.

….Aren’t I funny?

I’m doomed. I’ve procrastinated too much in my life, so being productive now won’t help anything.

Despair.


Resistance to writing is something a lot of people struggle with, I hear. But wish me luck as I switch off the wi-fi and write.

I have quiet thoughts and loud thoughts when I write. And even though writing is a lot of fun, both the quiet thoughts and the loud thoughts make me feel terribly lonely.

No Escape From Homophobia and Racism: The Ethics of “Our Radios Are Dying”

A few nights ago I was on a message-board for fans of particular tabletop role-playing games. Glancing at the ambient conversation from time-to-time, I ended up “over-reading” (as opposed to “overhearing”) a conversation about a two-player tabletop role-playing game called Our Radios Are Dying by Aura Belle.

our radios are dying

Aura Belle, 2014. Belle’s patreon can be found here.

It sounded interesting, so I looked up the the description. And almost immediately burst into tears.


In the game, two players assume the roles of lesbian lovers floating in space (in the game, the characters are aliens with some set backstories) talking to one another for an hour before their oxygen reserves run out. They had been alone on a space station they had sneaked into for a night alone, it had broken, and the two had been flung far out into space.

The game’s premise is similar to Gravity, the 2013 film starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. In Gravity, the two play astronauts also stuck in space and their attempts to return to Earth. (I don’t know if Gravity influenced Caitlynn Belle’s Our Radios Are Dying, but it was first published one year after Gravity, so I’d wager a guess that it was.)

(I assume most people reading have either seen Gravity or have no interest seeing it – but! – spoilers ahead.)

The difference between the two settings is that in Gravity there is hope of returning to Earth, and indeed Sandra Bullock’s characters does survive and return to Earth. Our Radios Are Dying, however, is specific: there is no chance for these two lovers. This is it. In the “How To Play” section of the rulebook, Belle is clear: there is no hope, and no part of the game should be spent trying to escape the inevitable:

You are deep in space with no hope of salvation, so make sure both you and your partner are aware: at the end of the game, you both die. There is no hope.[1]

My friend and colleague, Donovan Schaefer, has written how Gravity can be read as a feminist and embodied re-imagining of 2001: A Space Odyssey in “Dad Wanted a Boy: Feminism, Transcendence, and Cuarón’s Gravity.

[O]ver the course of the film, bodies recede further and further into the background, replaced by high-tech space suits, voiceless, empty space, computers, and then, in the film’s climax, a long sequence of abstract geometric color forms and tinted, lifeless planetscapes.[2]

2001: A Space Odyssey presents this move away from bodies as a teleoligical kind of evolution: the monkeys in the first scene of the movie become humans, who become space-faring humans, who become transcendent energy-beings who no longer require a body.

No such evolutionary theme runs throughout Gravity: bodies are never transcended. In fact, as Schaefer points out, the characters become more bodily, human and animalistic as the film progresses. Gravity

begins with bodies encased in bulky spacesuits but ends in an overwhelmingly incarnated body rising to her feet on earth.  Near the midpoint of the film, when Stone enters the ISS, we see her body taking on a dancer’s pose, a body on display as a body.  We see the form of the body–limbs, joints, muscles–a human body with its architecture of limits and possibilities, the inverse of 2001’s body progressively divorced from the earth and its own animality.[3]


This understanding of 2001: A Space Odyssey as being inherently anti-bodily and Gravity being pro-bodily helps me orient my thoughts about Our Radios Are Dying, and in particular my emotional reaction to the premise of the game.

Most of my academic work uses affect theory in some way. Affect theory is a body of work which analyses the ways in which emotions, affects, and sensations are passed to and from bodies. It’s a tricky and slippery thing to define, and many theorists do not agree with one another — but generally understood as pre-linguistic: We feel affects before we can explain these feelings with words, even to ourselves.

And we can transmit these same affects to others before being able to explain them. The origin of these affects (some common ways affects are explained: micro-expressions, pheromones, subconsciously remembering past experiences) is less interesting and important to me than what they affects do.

Many people have had the experience of walking into a room of people and being sure the people in that room had just been very, very angry with one another. But it’s hard to say why — the sensation and realization of the anger happens quickly. The affects in the room – generated by the feuding people inside of the it – had been “picked up” by your own body, making you feel alarmed and on-edge.


But are there any affects in space?, I thought to myself, once I had started to cry after reading Our Radios Are Dying.

What affects can be communicated in the dark, without air, enclosed in a spacesuit? How horrific, to be with someone you love, so close to them — but also so far away?

I wondered, and am still wondering, how this is any different than a situation where two people are dying while talking on the phone or over the internet.

I think what makes the concept of people in space suits so maddening is precisely that – it’s not like interacting with someone over the internet, or over the phone. They are physically close to you – but not bodily close. Nothing can interact from one body to another – no pheromones, no sweat, no skin cells. Human bodies are porous. As uncomfortable it can be to think about our bodies consistently leave a think film of our presence on any surface we touch: skin cells, pheromones, hair. At the same time, we pick up things from our surroundings: couch fibers, the skin cells of others, bacteria, parasites. Bodies are jungles, ecosystems of their own. And we need to be jungles, ecosystems, animals. We can’t be anything else.

And the idea of putting these jungles into a sealed-off suit and throwing them into the vaccuum of space is, well, chilling. Bodies cannot be so… alone.


Donovan Schaefer’s book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power discusses how solitary confinement cruelly separates prisoners from their affective communities. He writes:

To extract animal bodies from the buzzy, blurring sources of meaning that surround us is to violently sever the ligaments of our affective economies. Bodies cannot be switched on or off by our sovereign selves.[4]

We cannot decide to not be animals, no matter how much we think or how smart we are convinced we are. We’re embodied creatures, full of potentialities and possibilities.

To my knowledge, Schaefer has not connected his interest in solitary confinement to his interest in the lost-in-space narrative of Gravity. But here I suggest they are similar: both scenarios describe the torture of being violently separated from the affective, emotional world which normally surrounds bodies.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey this violence is rewarded by transcendence: the final character has no need for a body, no need for affects. The pain is subjugated and tossed aside. In Gravity, the torture of space is endured and escaped: the movie ends with Sandra Bullock’s character embracing the earth beneath her feet as she washes up upon a sandy shore.

What happens to the violence of space in Our Radios Are Dying?


Nothing. There isn’t any escape. That’s the basic premise for the game.

There isn’t even any happiness for the players: the rulebook continues by giving a list of prompts each character is supposed to talk to the other about in their final hour. Topics range from “Remind them of something they never apologized for and ask them why” to “Tell them why they ruined you.” Not happy topics.

Who would do this? I wondered, still crying. Why would you want to bring up all this horrible stuff  when you know you are going to die? Wouldn’t you just want to remember the good times?

But what good times have these two had? The two characters are described as being from two different warring communities, where the punishment for fraternizing with the enemy is incarceration. And, significantly, the punishment for same-sex relationships is death. Their relationship has always existed within a confine of violence and psychological torture.

In fact, my immediate psychological insistence that it would be more “appropriate” for these two lovers to remember “the good times” before death may be a misguided one based on our society’s adoration of happiness. In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed discusses how happiness can be weaponized to stop people from deviating from social norms. Discussing the antiracist and feminist movements, she writes: “We might even say such social movements have worked against rather than for happiness.”[5]

“Why do you always have to talk about politics at Thanksgiving?”

“It was just a joke!”

“Oh, jeez, can’t we just get along? I was just complimenting you…”

All of these are iterations of the same theme: Why won’t you be happy? Why can’t you just be happy?

Happiness can therefore be weaponized: it can be a tool of control and manipulation.

So who am I to say these two “should” try and be happy in the face of their death. They’re not happy, they’re dying. Because of their shitty society which forced them to meet secretly in dangerous locations.


The whole game can therefore be read as an allegory for the violence of casting out some relationships to the margins of society where they are discouraged from flourishing. No escape. Horror. Homophobia and racism violently cut off or demonizes the affective ligaments which connect people in interracial or homosexual relationships.

And by forcing people to enact this horror and violence, Our Radios Are Dying makes (intentionally or not) an ethical claim: work to end these violences in our society, or you are complicit in the torture and death of this lesbian couple.


[1] Aura Belle. “Our Radios Are Dying.” 2nd Edition, 2016.

Aura Belle’s patreon can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/auramakesgames

[2] Donovan Schaefer. “Dad Wanted a Boy: Feminism, Transcendence, and Cuarón’s Gravity,” Religion Bulletin. January 30th, 2015. https://bulletin.equinoxpub.com/2015/01/dad-wanted-a-boy-feminism-transcendence-and-cuarons-gravity-film-review-essay/.

[3] Donovan Schaefer. “Dad Wanted..”

[4] Donovan Schaefer. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, Power. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2015), chapter 4.

[5] Sara Ahmed. The Promise of Happiness. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), 2.

 

The Affective Labor of the Eisenhower Chart: Who Can Delegate? (And What Part of Dissertation Writing Is Urgent?)

As an academic often struggling with motivation and time-management, I frequently read articles on organization and procrastination. I usually don’t go “hunting” out for them, but rather the internet panopticon “suggests” them to me. (This makes me wonder if somehow Firefox has an opinion on the progress of my dissertation, but that is neither here nor there.)

Today I stumbled upon this newsletter in the New York Times: Why Your Brain Tricks You Into Doing Less Important Tasks. Great, I thought as I read this, this might be perfect for me. I do have a bad habit of occasionally using time cordoned-off for writing for: (1) more researching, (2) typing out bibliographic entries, (3) refining outlines that don’t really need to be refined, and (4) organizing my digital files. Sure, these things aren’t bad to do, and they are all helpful things that I will eventually need to do. But they all seem less critical than writing. Additionally, I tend to do these tasks when I am particularly nervous about a portion of my writing and would rather do anything else than face the blinking cursor.

The article discusses the “urgency” factor of various tasks: tasks that need to be done relatively quickly. For many people, these tasks are much easier to complete than long-term, boundless tasks.

The author, Tim Herrera, suggests using an Eisenhower planning box to chart out which of your tasks are important, unimportant, urgent, and non-urgent. Herrera links to this visual, created by James Clear.

The simple grid plots things like “watching TV” in “Non-urgent” and “unimportant,” meaning you should remove these things from your life. (Who wants to remove pleasure from their lives?) “Writing an article” falls into “urgent” and “important”, meaning that you should do the item immediately. “Exercising” and “Talking to family and friends” are deemed to be “non-urgent” yet “important,” and time should be scheduled to do these.

The box that shocked me the most is the box labeled “urgent” but “not important.” Here are the items that fall in this box: Scheduling interviews, booking flights, sharing articles, answering certain emails, and approving comments. The course of action for these is, bafflingly, to delegate.

Who on earth can delegate all those tasks? Almost exclusively people with personal assistants or secretaries?

What are those of us without secretaries supposed to do?

Looking at other examples of Eisenhower grids, I noticed that some of them replace the term “delegation” with “delegate or avoid.” Even more perplexing. Certainly we can’t avoid these kinds of tasks!

In an earlier post I talked a bit about affective labor – generally understood as labor which deals with managing and manipulating the emotions and affectscapes of others. Looking at these horrid Eisenhower grids I thought of all the administrative assistants, secretaries, and personal assistants who are performing this huge amount of affective labor. What if they looked at this grid one day and saw that the bulk of their work was considered “unimportant”?

I don’t think it’s bad or unethical to have an assistant or to outsource some of one’s labor. I even don’t think it’s a problem if you frame that box as unimportant for me to do–I.e., it may not be unimportant for the head of a company to reserve rooms for meetings themselves, but very significant for her to make public statements on behalf of the company. Sure, fine, whatever. Optics are necessary. But the labor itself isn’t unimportant.


rawpixel-559745-unsplash.jpg

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Before fully realizing my hatred of the Eisenhower chart, I tried to create one on the side of my to-do list for today. I do often need tools and systems to help me recognize which tasks are more critical for me to complete quickly and which can be put off to another day.

I found it a bizarre experience.

What part of writing a dissertation is urgent? I do have a deadline coming up in a month, which is quickly approaching… but it is still a month away. While that’s a short period of time for academics, it feels like a long period of time for most people using Eisenhower Charts.

I half-heartedly put my writing goal for today in that box. I did achieve it, so that was good, but the entire experience left me with the a bad taste in my mouth: the lingering feeling that in our late-capitalist society the work I do will never be particularly urgent or important.

And yes, yes, of course people will say that the entire point of the Eisenhower chart is to choose what things are important or significant for you and for your life, but let’s not beat around the bush here. What kind of tasks are deemed unimportant by the examples here? Almost entirely tasks historically performed by women. Maybe there’s no reforming the Eisenhower chart to make it fit into a radical politics that values all kinds of labor. Better, maybe, to leave it in the past.

 

 

 

 

Rosh Chodesh, The Sabbath, Moons, and Women (Also: A Mysterious Image!)

The Sabbath is one of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s best-known works. In it, Heschel outlines his understanding that Judaism is a religion primarily concerned with time over space. Judaism’s focus on time places Judaism in a metaphyscial tension with the broader Western world, which Heschel sees as overly-focused and overly-entrenched in the realm of space. In the space-realm people are concerned with making money, dominating the natural world, and their metaphorical and non-metaphorical “place” in society.

The sabbath or shabbat, the day of rest observed by the Jewish people, gives people the ability to suspend that kind of rush-rush-rush mentality of the space-realm. For Heschel, the observance of shabbat can and should be a transformative weekly event that reminds humans of their relationship with the Divine and their innate human ability towards reflection, prayer, and peace.

As part of my research on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic theological work on space and time, The Sabbath, I read Ron Feldman’s article “The Sabbath versus the New Moon: A Critique of Heschel’s Valorization of the Sabbath.”

The main thrust of the article is that Heschel’s emphasis on the Sabbath as a time of rest from the innate dominating nature of humanity backfires due to the fact that the seven-day workweek is not an Earth or “nature” based way to measure time. He writes:

Nevertheless, the reliance on the Sabbath as a model of “peace with nature” strikes me as problematic because, as noted by many others as well as Heschel, the temporal rhythm of the Sabbath is inherently “unnatural.” Indeed, Heschel lauds this as the ground from which the observer can “become attuned to holiness in time.”

(Ron Feldman, “The Sabbath Versus the New Moon: A Critique of Heschel’s Valorization of The Sabbath,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 54, no. 1 (January, 2005): 28.)

Feldman continues:

Therefore the endless seven-day rhythm of the Sabbath, ostensibly established by divine decree but only marked in the world by human counting, hardly seems like a moment of peace between “man and nature” or “complete harmony between man and nature.”

(Ron Feldman, “The Sabbath Versus the New Moon: A Critique of Heschel’s Valorization of The Sabbath,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 54, no. 1 (January, 2005): 29.)

What Feldman suggests instead of Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh, the monthly day of the New Moon in the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar is lunar-solar, sometimes called an “adjusted” lunar calendar. While the Jewish calendar is based on months based on the cycle of the moon, the calendar does employ a leap year to “correct” itself so that the seasons stay roughly at the same point in the calendar every year. This is unlike the Muslim calendar which does not adjust; the months in the Muslim calendar can occur at any point in the seasonal year. For example, Ramadan can come in the summer or winter, depending on the year. On the other hand, Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, will always occur roughly at the beginning of the Fall in the Northern Hemisphere.

The experience of a Jewish holiday coming “early” or “late” in a particular year (September 15th versus October 1st, for example) is discussed by Feldman:

In contrast, the Jewish holidays-dependent on the lunation-are commonly experienced as coming “early” or “late,” conveniently on the weekend or inconveniently in mid-week; every year is different from the last… Of course, the holidays of the Jewish calendar are never “early” or “late”—they simply fall when they fall, matching the rhythm of the moon.

((Ron Feldman, “The Sabbath Versus the New Moon: A Critique of Heschel’s Valorization of The Sabbath,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 54, no. 1 (January, 2005): 32.)

Feldman here doesn’t touch on the fact that the Jewish calendar does adjust for leap years, which seems similar to Feldman’s earlier dislike for a purely human method of counting the days of the week. However, because the end result of the leap year is, as mentioned above, a continuity between seasons and months, this is perhaps not a strong point against the article.

Several times in the article Feldman refers to “wild time” and “tame time.” “Wild time,” for Feldman, is that time where we become accustomed to the “rhythms of nature” of which humans do not control. As much as we count, the moon wanes and waxes with or without us.

“Wild time,” therefore, is exemplified by Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon celebration in Judaism.


Rosh Chodesh is increasingly becoming practiced as women’s holiday. David M. Rosen argues in “New Myths and Meanings in Jewish New Moon Rituals” that while Jewish communities will occasionally claim that Rosh Chodesh has “always” been a women’s holiday, the reality is murkier.

While there are associations with women and femininity in literature surrounding Rosh Chodesh, the traditional liturgical blessings for the New Moon and the traditional announcement of the next New Moon both are synagogue-based rituals in which women (depending on community) are occasionally marginalized.

Contemporary women’s New Moon ceremonies, therefore, are often highly innovative. Rosen writes that some are decidedly “New Age,” writing:

Other women interviewed were profoundly alienated by rituals that introduce so-called “New Age” symbolism. In one instance, participants were asked to pierce a pomegranate whose juice was said to symbolize female fertility and fecundity. In another instance, women were asked to cut an apple in half to look at the “star” inside the fruit and contemplate the symbolism of the “stars hidden within oneself.”

(David M Rosen. “New Myths and Meanings in Jewish New Moon Rituals,” Ethnology 39, no. 3 (July 2000): 266.)

The association between the “New Age” community, the lunar cycle, and femininity, gives me pause when thinking about Feldman’s claim that the New Moon can be indicative of a “wild time.” This is reminiscent of an old trope– found in Jewish thought and elsewhere– that women and femininity are aligned with the wild, the “unhinged”, the natural.


To think more about the associations between the moon, women, and a New Age conception of wild, I (always an academic, always using the best sources) headed over to google. A quick search on google for “moon” and “woman” quickly brought me to the following image:

moon woman pregnancy 1

The image here obviously connects the concepts of motherhood, pregnancy, particular kinds of being-woman, and the moon– and all wrapped up in a “New Age” cloth, at that!

Thinking I might like to include the image, as it does speak to the commonality of associating the lunar cycle with femininity and womanhood, I clicked on the link to find the photographer’s name. I was taken to Pinterest, a site where people frequently upload images without citing the original artist.

I reverse-image searched it. This took me to yet another Pinterest page, with the following image.

moon pregnancy woman

An altered image! And this one even includes the term “wild,” the same term that Feldman used to discuss “wild time”! “I am a Wild Woman, I Dance with the Tides of the Moon,” this altered image proclaims.

Page after page of the reverse image search found this image being used for various New Age and New Age adjacent specialties: midwifery, spiritual counseling, crystal healing sessions… they all like this image. I found several other altered images, as well.

Who made the original image? I still don’t know. If you know who did, let me know. If you made it, and you want me to credit you or remove the image, let me know!

This brings me to another question– only tangentially related to the original thought(s) about the Sabbath and Rosh Chodesh. Is the association between the moon and women– particularly a “New Age” conception of womanhood that may be quite essentialist– so overdone, so tired, so obvious that it makes perfect sense for people to steal and alter this image and use it for their own projects?


Feldman also takes pains to say several times in his essay that some important Jewish environmentalists have created and generated useful political ideas out of the concept of the sabbath. He, while wondering at its use-value, still wants to appreciate those efforts.

I’m in a similar boat as Feldman. Perhaps in our current political and cultural climate the best thing is to reconnect with feminine and the natural without assuming there is some kind of inherent or essential relationship between the two. We could certainly do with caring for the earth more, as well as caring for women and feminine peoples.

While I like some of his points about shabbat, Heschel’s The Sabbath and ecology, I think his analysis desperately needs a gender intervention. The moon, and the lunar cycle are associated with a preconceived concept of “women” (albeit this seems to happen most often in various New Age communities); Rosh Chodesh is increasingly being celebrated and reinvented by women and a women’s holiday. Not taking this into account does a disservice to the article.