Thursday, January 2, 2014

Not Even Water

I'm sitting in a pizzeria. I decided on a slice and a glass of chardonnay and a water. It's the end of another long day, and I'm trying to prepare for the dissertation defense. My mind keeps wandering to the evening meal, the groceries I need to stop and pick up. My attention is drawn to every pedestrian outside the glass and every voice within. I wish I could just blink and it would be over. I re-read the story of Carmen and the little boy holding onto her leg, begging her "Please Ms. Carmen--don't make me . . .". I didn't think it would be this emotional.

     "Sorry--we don't have any."
     "You don't have any?" I catch a hint of anger in the question. I glance up and see a man dressed in a tattered jacket. He's wearing a ball cap and brown work boots. He has a backpack slung over his left shoulder. The waitress is talking to him from behind the barrier of a table and four chairs.
     "Only for customers." I wonder what he's asked for--to use the bathroom?
     "You don't have WATER? WATER is for customers?" Water? He's asked for water? I look down at my full glass--

The last few months have been a whirlwind for me. As planned, I finished writing my dissertation and defended it in October 2013. As of November 21, 2013, I am now officially a "Dr." Despite a background in writing, I have to admit, the process was far from easy. The discipline it took to finish the research and write the manuscript is difficult to put into words. Everyone who has gone through it--or intimately watched someone go through it--has heard others speak of it as grueling, but I honestly did not think it would be that way. I thought, "this is the fun part!" And . . . for much of my data collection process, it was. The hard part came in trying to organize the work into something others would a) be willing to read fully, and b) have some hope of doing justice to the participants. Research participants share themselves with you in a way they wouldn't otherwise. They know you're asking them to tell their stories because you're a "researcher," and in that role, there is this layer of responsibility that I really didn't anticipate. I interviewed fourteen women preschool educators. They shared some truly difficult material with me, and the enormity of the task just hit me full force. What if they put in all this time to this project--experiencing a sense of risk as they admit things they haven't been able to share aloud with anyone outside their intimate groups of family or friends--and nothing happens? What if it's all for nothing? And part of me sort of knew the reality of that nothingness. How many of us can say we sat down to read a good dissertation over the winter break? No one outside of a select few in academia. That's sad. It's really sad. The women I spoke with deserve to have their stories heard, and after I got over the initial fright of taking on that responsibility seriously, I resolved to see it through. I finished writing it. I defended it, and now, I have to find outlets for the work.

I wanted to hand the gentleman my water. It wasn't plastic, and for some stupid reason, I couldn't think fast enough. I could have asked the waitress for a to-go cup or I could have just offered to pay for a glass of water or soda for the man. Instead, I froze. I watched him leave, and I felt angry at the waitress and angrier at myself. Do you know how many dog-friendly establishments I passed along the way to that pizzeria? Do you know how I knew they were "dog-friendly?" Water. Bowls of water are set outside shops for the thirsty canine passing by, but this man was refused. Turned away. And I was caught daydreaming. I was worrying about passing my dissertation defense while a thirsty fellowman--possibly homeless, possibly jobless--was treated as less than a dog. The image stayed with me. I left the pizzeria and haven't returned, but the moment passed me by.

We all are handed obligations. Some of these obligations we earn; some we volunteer to take on; and some land in our laps unexpectedly. I can't go back and think fast. I can't buy that gentleman a drink, but what I can do is hold on to the way I felt guilty over my passivity. That's the feeling I've resolved to avoid. I distinctly remember that day and the way my mind just wouldn't sit still. I got nothing done--no studying, no preparing, and my research participants, like Carmen, were on the verge of being left silent. My inactivity that day left a mark in me like a signpost. Every time I think back on it, an inaudible alarm goes off in me. I remember that day because it was an aesthetic experience for me--that man, my passivity, and the task I had come there for. All tied up together in my memory. I don't know where the stories of my participants will end up, but the emotion I re-experience when I look back on that day reminds me that it's work worth doing--to satisfy my own thirst for goodness.