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I can’t really pin down a single memory that is a favorite from my lifetime shared with my Uncle Johnny because they’re all my favorite. UJ had a way of making the mundane fun, of creating play from chore, and laughing all the while. Sweeping his shop, or getting water from the well at the cabin, or doing dishes, these were never boring when doing them for him. He teased us lovingly. He gave advice unflinchingly. He loved us unconditionally. UJ was beloved, not because he was a saintly person, but because he was intensely human. UJ lived every day fully. He died yesterday just nineteen days shy of his 91st birthday.
He was many things to many people. To me he was always my cheerleader. He was proud of me, and I know that because he told me it was so. UJ loved so many. And so many loved him back. I’m a better person for his love, and I will miss him.
God speed UJ.
The text conversation ended quickly. With the final bubble resting on my screen, taunting and ominous, I felt more of my hopes and security dripping away.
“Three classes maybe, but never four. Probably not three either. I’m not optimistic.”
It seems ridiculous that such small sentences could reduce me to a condition of self-reflection (nay self-doubt) about my value, but it happened. I felt commodified. De-coupled from the world that brings me such professional satisfaction. Reduced to a set of bubbles on a screen.
I am positive that the colleague and friend on the other side of that conversation had no intention of hurting me. In truth, I trust this person implicitly to be kind and generous. Yet, the life of contingent faculty is filled with such moments: pride one minute in one’s good fortune to be teaching in their field; despair the next upon realizing an administration can decide the limits of that joy. I am contingent faculty for a university I love. I love the departments I teach in. I love the students that honor me with their presence in my classroom. I even love the stressors of finals weeks. What I don’t love is the scrabbling I must engage in to have gainful employment each and every semester. The pin-pricks that turn into slashes; great sanguinous wounds only staunched by my stubborn refusal to leave behind the discipline that defines me.
I choose to live in this world of mist and hope. I could easily find another job to fill my existence with satisfactions. And this is where the tug-of-war plays out in my heart. I could leave behind the constant nagging fear of contingency and have stability. But what would I lose? I can answer that question easily enough. I would lose the parts of me that I won for myself.
The path to my Master’s degree wasn’t just bumpy, it was downright boulder-strewn. I almost finished my undergraduate degree when I had my first child. I took time off from school to raise him and the younger brother that came into our lives three years later. I was married at that time to a man who graciously allowed me to stay home, but then became attached to my entrenched position. I went back to school a class here, another there. But it would take a divorce, getting a full-time job, and a second marriage before I would be encouraged to finish what I started. My new husband clearly understood the driving need I had to complete my degree. With his encouragement, and two wonderful young sons cheering me on, I went back to school.
I finished by bachelor’s degree, and my master’s. I fulfilled a promise to myself, I never thought I could. My degrees stand for so much more than just the ability to get a job. They define my deep-seated goals, held since childhood, to contribute to the larger conversation of what it means, and has meant, to be human. Ten-year-old me fantasized about being a professor, and teaching a roomful of eager students in the hallowed halls of a university. When I got that chance, my head nearly imploded. I understood the tenuous position being offered: contract only, no benefits, this semester only. But I was going to teach in a university.
Each semester I know my position is not guaranteed. I hold no one responsible for this, and constantly use my time to refine my research, gain pedagogical knowledge, I write, and find uses for my skills. My husband’s full-time job affords me the small flexibility to sustain this lifestyle. We are hanging on, our needs are met, but we live modestly as a result. These are the choices we make. But…moments like the conversation above that started all this, make me catch my breath. I have to redefine myself after such exchanges. Remember I am still valuable. Disconnect myself from the bureaucracy of the academic world and reconnect to the reasons I chose to be an independent scholar. Remind myself of the folly of pursuing a Ph.D when there are no guarantees that such a path will provide anything different for me.
My post today is cathartic. Writing the demons away in a very public setting seemed the right choice, if only to feel as if I am not langouring in my despairing mood solo.
Contingency plans are always present for me. Writing this statement makes me laugh even when I’m feeling low: the unexpected perfection of phraseology inherent in it. I chooose this life, and for someone who is a planner by nature, I shake my head at this choice all the time.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a fundraiser for the City of Fountain’s Fairview Cemetery as a living history interpreter. My background both as an historian, and as a formally trained actress, allowed me to delve into this project, and I’ve come away from it with a distinctly profound feeling of reverence for the woman I portrayed, and in particular for her sons. The deep, meaningful connection I continue to experience toward this family I’ve never met, has made me pause in reflection, to contemplate the significance of how public history affects those who view it, and those who portray it.
I am grateful when two aspects of my life can combine so seamlessly. I have always used my historian’s mind and skills to research characters, plays, and the specifics of a theatrical production, but the ability to bring my stage skills back to my academic world is a rare and cherished event. When I was asked to portray Emma Maria McCarty Eubank for The Friends of the Fountain Fairview Cemetery’s (FFFC) annual Cemetery Crawl fundraiser I jumped at it.
The fundraiser is an event that I strongly believe in. Begun by Barbara Headle, a senior history instructor and her students four years ago after the cemetery had been vandalized, it exists to help fund conservation efforts, site improvements, and purchase equipment like surveillance cameras. The cemetery holds descendants of the first settler families in the region, some of whom still have family in the area, and is both an historical treasure and spiritual repository for the community.
The theme of this year’s fundraiser, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, centered on veterans. There are approximately 175 veterans interred at Fairview, with their service spanning the Civil War to Vietnam. Six interpreters were chosen to portray veterans, or family members of veterans, whose task it was to then convey the life story of the man or woman they represented.
The day of the fundraiser was spectacular. The sunlight filtering through the trees was buttery, and the breeze barely touched the leaves. Occasionally, a dried leaf, tanned from the summer heat and curled, would fall from above, kissing the ground with a small scratch of sound. Crows spoke to each other from the tree-heights, and though traffic was near, it faded as the Veterans of Foreign War’s Color Guard began the presentation of colors. Taps rang out in the still morning air, the notes silvery and beautiful and haunting.
Each interpreter was stationed at the gravesite of the person they portrayed. I made my way to the Eubank family plot, the sixth, and last station on the tour. The still morning was peaceful as I waited for visitors. I reviewed my presentation several times in my head, going over my lines, checking dates, listing off the names of my character’s six children. I sat. And then the enormity of what I was about to do hit me. Emma Eubank was not a character. She had been a wife, a mother. I was sitting at the foot of her grave, asked to speak in her voice about her family, about two of her sons who fought in World War I. What I knew about her and her family had been gleaned from newspaper articles, census reports, draft registration cards, birth and death certificates, meticulously researched by the FFFC. I had pieced together the various bits of information into a monologue, a narrative about Emma and her family, yet in my heart the Eubanks deserved to be more than bullet points of research.
The visitors sometimes came to my station in groups, some singly. I told them Emma’s story. With each telling I felt more, and more protective of the family. Between visitors I read the grave markers in the family plot: Robert, William, Jane, Florence (four of Emma’s six children); WT McCarty (her brother); Fred (her husband) and Emma who shared a marker together. All six markers, nine members of the family (including the girls’ husbands) together in that beautiful, shaded, peaceful ground. It was profoundly moving.
I told Emma’s tale to many visitors that day, as honestly as I could. I came to realize that public history, living history, done in the right way, can connect both historians and the general public to a deeper understanding of our past. I’ve always had great respect and appreciation for the ordinary people who don’t often make it into history books, searching for the voices who traditionally are silent in the larger narratives we tell. But the act of translating facts, data, into a voice, has reminded me how much I love being an historian, and the enormous responsibility I have to properly, ethically, and diligently, pursue the discipline.
Public history provides an open doorway that many will comfortably step through. It is a more accessible, and less intimidating medium for many who would never wish to pick up a history book, to engage with the past. My first experience with living history has inspired and humbled me, and has given me a deeper connection to the people I represent as an historian, and those who come to view the history.
Thank you Emma.