By: Timothy Shiner, Senior Associate Dean, Student Support Services
My kitchen table, Pawtucket, RI
Back in 2005, I was asked to write a brief informal reflection as part of a journal published for students and alums of my graduate school program. At the time, I was working at the University of Vermont Women’s Center, focusing largely on sexual violence prevention and response, and my self-care skills were not very good. While I had been out for many years, I was struggling with my identity as a queer man and where I fit in the LGBTQ community. I was burnt out and carrying a lot of personal and vicarious trauma. There was so much inequity and injustice in the world and having finished my graduate degree and worked a few years in the “real world”, I was disappointed to learn that “adulthood” didn’t mean inherent stability, peace of mind, or an ability to control my circumstances and prevent bad things from happening to me or others.
I didn’t really know how to write such a reflection at that moment. Being aware of even a fraction of the struggle which happens in the world, I had never really been able to believe that “everything happens for a reason.” But I had become deeply impacted by feminist and womanist thinkers like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Ursula LeGuin, and Gloria Anzaldúa and I had come to believe that whether things happen for a reason or not, we can make meaning out of the most difficult circumstances. And while I had been looking to these and other sources (some of them accepted as “scholarship” by the academy) for comfort during that difficult time, it wasn’t until a series of moments outside the traditional academy; an art show, a performance art piece, reading a series of children’s novels; that I started being able to make a little meaning of my own. The reflection I had been asked to write became an outline of my process at that moment; an exploration of Nontraditional References and how they can help us make meaning.
Fifteen years later, like many of us, I find myself catching up on shows I’ve been meaning to watch, returning to old favorite works, and spending a lot of time in the kitchen. One of the shows was the first season of the adaptation of those same children’s novels from 15 years ago; HBO’s His Dark Materials. The adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s books is very good, I think, but it is a later point in the novels that the viewing reminded me of and that I have returned to again and again over time to reground myself in difficult moments (so minor spoiler alert…).
In my piece from 2005, I wrote, “In Pullman’s fantasy world, children are being severed from their spirit. A force called Dust fights for consciousness, for the end of oppression, and for balance and harmony with other humans and with the world itself” (Shiner, 2005, p. 137). As the novels progress, this force of Dust is endangered and is being siphoned away but near the end of the story, a wise character tells the protagonists:
Conscious beings make Dust – they renew it all the time, by thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on. And if you help everyone else in your world to do that, by helping them learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works, and by showing them how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep their minds open and free and curious…Then you will renew enough to replace what is lost…” (Pullman, 2000, p. 491-492)
This moment in a fantasy novel, this charge, continues to bring me purpose and hope in difficult moments and to remind me of the simple goals of why I work in education. Whether in novel or television format, this work of fiction has helped me make meaning for almost two decades.
The worlds of science fiction and fantasy have always been a lens of meaning making for me and no one has shaped my worldview with this tool more than Octavia Butler. She wrote words and captured ways of thinking I return to again and again. “All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change” (Butler, p. 81). In this world that seems changed beyond recognition, how do we make meaning? Butler reminds me that change is constant, and that I need to accept that. I need to accept that I cannot control change. But I also need to bring intentionality about the way I impact every person I interact with as everything that you touch, you change.
One of the things that has changed dramatically for me in the past 15 years is that I no longer view my life in terms of work only. The simple things of life that restore me have become just as important as the meaningful work which I do each day on campus. And nowhere does this practice feel more salient than in my kitchen. For me, cooking and baking ground me. It is an opportunity to be creative, to feel the satisfaction of working with my hands, and to engage in a practice that nourishes my body and my soul. And, it is a deep connection to my mother.
As a child, I was often in the kitchen while my mother (and on many occasions, my grandmother and aunt) cooked. Whether it was a nightly meal or the once annual two-day process of canning grape jelly from the vines in my great aunt’s yard, the warmth, aromas, and conversation were “home.” The recipes she taught me are still part of my rotation: oatmeal scotchie cookies, cornbread and chili, and my all-time favorite meal, homemade baked mac and cheese. But now it is an exchange of recipes and conversation, we are mother and son, but also friends. She calls me from 2000 miles away when I’ve had a rough day even if I didn’t tell her I was having one. She just knows. During this time of isolation, we are speaking every day. Our conversations range but we always talk about what we are cooking. The food and the relationships nourish us both.
A television adaptation of my favorite books…returning to writings that have shaped my worldview…a recipe and a conversation…nontraditional references continue to help me make meaning out of difficult moments in life. They help me to find peace of mind, to let go of things I cannot control, to feel grounded and connected. They help me to hope.
I closed my 2005 piece reflecting on a performance art piece I had seen by Arab-Canadian feminist author Joanna Kadi entitled Hope is a Four-Letter Word. As I try to make meaning in this moment, to find peace of mind, and to reground myself, her words seem more important than ever.
We are plunked down at the crossroads of past, present, and present. Not past, present, and future. A crossroad is comprised of two places, not three. We need to let go of the future. We need to let go of the 8,741 negative, scary, awful futures we have been composing in our minds night after night. We need to look at the ground under our feet…touch Mother Earth, touch healing soil, seek prairie remnant. Understand our past, understand our present, understand that we are not present in the future. Make our choice about whether to include hope in our present. In the actions we take to change the world, to create the world, in the personal movement we make and the larger movement we make, let us bring hope with us, let us insist on her presence. Above the door write, “Seize hope all who enter here.” (Kadi, 2004)
Image credits: Banner image by maradon 333/Shutterstock.com; lasagna image by Timothy Shiner
Butler, O. (2012). Parable of the Sower. Open Road Media.
Kadi, J. (April 20, 2004). Hope is a four-letter word. Live performance at the University of Vermont, Burlington, VT.
Pullman, P. (2000). His dark materials: The amber spyglass. Alfred A. Knopf.
Shiner, T. (2005). Nontraditional References. The Vermont Connection, 26, 136-141.