Sunday, January 10, 2016

Setting the World on Fire: A Medieval Goal in a Modern World

5 years ago, I wrote a post called Everything is New and Shiny and it marked the beginning of Spring Semester 2011, the start of my Boston Marathon training, and the start of my gluten-free diet, having recently been diagnosed with Celiac Disease. I wrote, "Today is a fresh start. New semester, new diet, new training." It was so optimistic, and yet, there was also a lot of follow-through, despite the fact that there were many steep mountains full of challenges.
It really took me at least a year, probably closer to 18 months to really hone in on my diet and learn how live gluten-free. Now, it's nearly a reflex, and while it may take some detective work to find places to eat when traveling, when it's on my terms, I know what to do. It also helps that I've finally learned how to cook and have access to good grocery stores like Trader Joe's that have so many options. The FDA has come a long way in five years in terms of labeling, and the food industry, in part jumping on the bandwagon of gluten-free living as a trendy diet, has learned how to make and prepare many more foods gluten-free. I"m stunned by how much I actually like to eat now, and so instead of the diet limiting what I can eat, because I'm eating things that don't hurt my stomach and ballooned up immediately, I find it so much more enjoyable.
Looking back, the amount of training I did in 2011 to get ready for my PR Marathon in Boston of 3:27:00 was insane. I was rehabbing an IT band injury, and so every morning and night I did 20 minutes of stretches. Three days a week I cross trained twice a day (swimming or rowing in the mornings, and then elliptical and weights at night), and then was running 4 days a week, averaging between 40-50 miles per week. No wonder my time dropped so much! And while I'm not at that level of fitness these days, I do hope I could "get it back" once I finished my dissertation and had some extra time and energy to devote to running beyond maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Things went well with my courses that semester, I think in part because everything I was doing was so regimented - I was training hard, changing my diet, it also made sense to push hard with coursework. I even had two part-time jobs (working in residence life, serving as a Teaching Assistant).  Five years later, what has happened to that work ethic? It's changed, in part because the nature of writing a dissertation is so different from a class schedule. I also was single, and now I have a husband. There were Friday nights when I went to the library, Sundays where I worked at school, and most nights after classes, I was hitting the books. And now, the loneliness is gone, but I must admit, it's also a lot more tempting to just call it a night when my husband comes home from work, rather than push on like I used to.
So, how I go back to that semester, when so many things came together because of such hard work?
Last year, I wrote out a writing contract that I managed to uphold, at least in theory. Looking back, I think I was too regimented, and didn't take into consideration how some writing days can be unpredictable and goals may change mid-day, mid-chapter, etc.
New writing resolutions!

  • Recognizing that prepping for classes and teaching takes time, at least four days a week should be committed to dissertation writing
  • I'm going to have three sets of office hours each week. If students aren't around, this is a good opportunity to get a small, concentrated set of work accomplished. No goofing off.
  • On dissertation writing days, I should aim for between 2-3 writing sessions throughout the day, with at least a clear plan for the first session (allowing for greater flexibility as the day progresses)
  • At least two weekends a month, I should aim to spend a chunk of time (i.e. Sunday evening) planning ahead for the week and completing one writing session.
  • At least one writing session per week needs to be devoted to editing. 

But using that contract as a starting point, some goals to make this a productive semester:
I think those are reasonable, achievable goals. Looking back at what I used as a writing contract last year,what I set out to do was too ambitious, to the extent that it did not feel like I could sustain those goals beyond a few weeks. There is certainly room for flexibility, and if there are days when I can really take off with the writing, I will. But I'm not going to beat myself on days where I only got out a few hundred mediocre words.
New Year's goals should not be so hard that they cannot be achieved. The goals that are attainable are the ones that will help set the world on fire.
And I full recognize that saying a medieval dissertation on the Virgin Mary will set the world on fire may be a bit of a stretch. But some of the medieval saints who I admire so much encouraged everyone to aim to do just that, in whatever way you see your life's mission.
In the past week, once from an e-mail with a distant relative, and once with an exchange with another customer waiting for our cars to get our state inspections, I had two people with little reason to offer encouragement and demonstrate their interest in my project. The relative (my aunt's mother-in-law), wrote "If your aim is to pique ones interests, you have done a magnificent job," and that meant a lot to me. While at times I get really frustrated at my project and/or myself, I need to remember moments like that, or when random faculty (or even people I meet in social settings) ask what I'm writing on, and comment on how interesting it is. I am not finding a cure for cancer, teaching impoverished students, or ministering to those in developing countries. But I do hope that my finished project will cause people to think about Mary differently, the role of women in the Middle Ages, and the power of a woman's voice, both then and now. 
I think it would be easy to fall into the trap that a dissertation on an ancient figure, mediated through medieval Christian texts, is antiquated and has nothing to offer for our own world today. Yet, by dismissing the project as irrelevant, that brushes aside that the voices of women, all women, both the exalted and unprotected, are often silenced, or when given permission to speak, those words fade into a distant echo without the resonance they deserve.

            Mary’s voice, when illuminated from the medieval sources, should resonate in our world today. Mary was seen as a champion, as an advocate, and with a glass ceiling that continues to loom over women today, we still need a voice as an advocate. While occupying a status that is unequivocally impossible to imitate as a virgin mother, Mary still occupied (albeit briefly) the roles of a daughter, single woman, wife, and mother – positions still relevant in our own world. Mary lived in a patriarchal society, and in the medieval sources that wrote about her, continued to face limitations and scrutiny in the eyes of the male clergy. Yet, her ability to rise and remain one of the most influential women in Western history should remind us of ways that Mary can and should occupy a place in our society today.
I think her message, as well as that of St. Catherine of Siena (who exemplified political boldness to "speak truth to power" by working with the pope and other powerful members of the clergy to bring the papacy back to Rome) is still relevant and inspirational today.

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