on jury duty and stories

I made the three & a half hour drive last night back to Richmond for the start of school. But first, I have to go to the courthouse for jury duty. I’ve been called to serve on Monday in August.

Last week I had to serve as a juror on a criminal case. I don’t want to serve today – not because I don’t want to spend the day at the courthouse. I don’t want to listen to the stories again – the crime, the case I have to decide, weighing the evidence and negotiating a decision with a group of strangers.

The stories hang with me … they feel sticky and don’t easily wash away. The oral histories have a similar effect, although I invite those stories into my life and I enjoy hearing them. But they also stick with me long after I’ve driven home. Something about the act of listening carefully to another person’s story – it somehow becomes woven with my own.

I spent yesterday afternoon scanning family photographs. They felt sticky too, with a slightly different web consistency.

That’s what I want to explore in my dissertation. Stories and photography and how we use them to weave a life story, to give our lives meaning and connection. Like a performance, stories aren’t real until they’re shared.

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the melancholy of summer’s end

I’m feeling melancholy about the start of the semester – or at least I was until I acknowledged where my funk was coming from. Taking a walk with the dog this morning, I could tell fall is headed toward us. There was a cool breeze and some storm clouds, but mostly I could hear the insects and birds signaling the end of summer.

Next week I’ll be meeting with my new boss about the first projects she wants me to work on. I’ll be earning my degree, financially speaking, through a graduate teaching assistantship doing communications work for the dean’s office. I love teaching, so I have mixed feelings about being out of the classroom, but I think it will be good to concentrate on my studies and creative work for a few years. This assistantship could also be a lot of fun.

Of course, with the oral history project and the bookmaking course, my summer wasn’t quite as free, lazy, open-ended as past summers have been when I’ve had a clear break from work. Still – it’s all good. Next week I officially start year two of the MATX program – and I’m still excited about it.

living in exile and going ABD

With every farm life oral history I do, my desire to move back to the rural Virginia county where I grew up increases. My family roots in this place go back hundreds of years, on both sides of my family. They were farmers and shopkeepers and schoolteachers in several rural counties sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and the ocean. Not wealthy, not exactly poor. Living in Richmond has felt like living in exile for twenty years.

I have to put my dissertation ideas on paper in the next few weeks … a two-page coherent discussion of my plan. I want to explore the importance of narrative and oral history and photography in the creation of identity, especially geo-cultural identity (identity connected to place) and group identity. I think my ultimate project will be a combination of performance and written reflection. This sounds quite erudite, doesn’t it.

By next year this time, I could be ABD (all but dissertation). I have many, many tasks to complete before I’m ABD, but it is possible, especially since they’ve moved comps to January and our bib exam to May. When those two are out of the way, and my courses are completed, I only have to pass a second competency and craft a thirty-page proposal that’s acceptable to my committee and I’m ABD.

Someone told me not long ago that 60% of all PhD students never get beyond ABD. I believe it. I’ve been having a crisis of “what’s this for” lately. I love the work, perhaps that’s the point, the sign that I’m in the right place doing the right thing. Mostly I want to teach and to write. The writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I hope this isn’t another distraction.

been bookmaking, not blogging

Took a week off blogging and farm life interviews to take an intensive bookmaking course at VCU. And I finally made it to the National Gallery of Art to see the illuminated manuscripts. The pigments, especially the blues and the gold leaf, really need to be seen to appreciate their vivid materiality. Reproductions, in this case, don’t capture the beauty, the aura of the object. Sometime in the next few months I’m going to try a hand at my own Book of Hours.

This is a Jenny Saville piece from a fantastic special exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle … Paint Made Flesh. It’s worth a special trip to DC. It’ll be up through September 13.