I remember the first time I saw my elementary school teacher in the grocery store.
I was about 7 years old, and my instinct was to hide behind my mother. In my mind, my teacher and I belonged in the same frame only in the classroom. I never imagined it was possible for her to have a life outside the school walls. This was not a judgment on her; it had simply never occurred to me to picture her life in other settings. Childhood enables that comfortable separation: a perfect compartmentalization.
During my first semester of college, I enrolled in Introduction to Philosophy. The experience reeked of first-semester-of-college-ness: there was something naively hopeful and beautiful (and so very cliché) about expecting that Intro to Philosophy may hold the key to the dilemmas of my future. I hadn’t yet realized that professors rarely bore the full burden of education at my university — not for the undergraduates anyway, and not most professors. They did lecture, but the responsibility for drilling the material in and making it accessible and grading and writing letters of recommendation and supporting dreams of futures primarily fell on PhD students whose livelihood depended on the role. When I visited the office of the Teaching Fellow for Intro to Philosophy, I was struck by how lived in it felt, as though the trappings of the class occupied more space than I would have imagined. More than a decade later, and now a PhD candidate myself, I recognize that it was not Intro to Philosophy that was taking up space: that office housed the Teaching Fellow’s research and all the anxiety that accompanies it. I now know the space these swallow.
Surrounded by papers and books turned upside down and more books with Post-it notes peeking out of them, the Teaching Fellow appeared to be in his natural habitat. Three weeks later, I saw him at the university gym. It was jarring that he was there (in retrospect, it was more jarring that I was). Nearly a decade after the instinct to hide behind my mother at the grocery store, lives still appeared to live in compartments in my head. I did not imagine bodies that move and run and sweat to be the same bodies that teach and grade and bookmark pages for their research.
This recurred throughout university, throughout life: A professor invites you to dinner at their house and you are surprised to see them in their daily life clothes, chopping tomatoes, making easy conversation with their spouse. You run into a work colleague at CVS and you both have a split second of non-recognition, as though you are embarrassed for the otherwise benign yogurt in your carts. You attend the wedding of a coworker, and you enjoy the surprise that comes with the stories of her living in ways with which you have not yet interacted. The person whose desk is next to yours is an ice climber. The woman with whom you trudged through northern Uganda documenting human rights abuses is a scrapbooker.
The expectation (illusion?) of privacy, coupled with an attachment to propriety, has made it easy to separate lives, even within one self. There is a professional self, a professional voice, and we put them on like an outfit. There is a body that runs and moves and makes love and gets sick. There is a heart that aches and rejoices and a voice that teaches and asks questions. There are hands that type love letters, and they are the same-but-different hands as those that write the essays, or the ones that write academic articles, or the ones that cook. These selves inhabit the same body. It’s all one body and, for those of us who aspire to a semblance of authentic coherence, one self too. And yet, they seem to be imagined and treated as comfortably severable and separate: fragments of a self. Blending the compartments is jarring. Our imaginations struggle to stretch in that direction, even when our hearts do.
Once I appreciated that compartmentalization takes effort–like patriarchy, like militarization, like all the -isms and -ations and -archies that appear effortless but actually require lots of invisible-seeming effort to be sustainable– I also cherished it. It felt like a privilege to be able to wear only part of a self to an occasion, as though an invisible cloak could drape the rest. When the rest of you is grieving acutely, it feels like a treat to show up and teach. Just teach. Just teach what you are supposed to teach. You do not need to bring your whole self to the classroom. You can write an academic article, and you do not need to show up whole on the page. Your job today is to document cases of gender-based violence, household to household. You show up to it. Your heart stays elsewhere.
There is a dehumanizing convenience to fragmented selves — for you, for others. Your inconvenient desires, aches, dreams can reside elsewhere. And–here is the dehumanizing part of it–you can also meet others where they are, or where they are showing you to be, without curiosity (or empathy) for what lies beyond.
As it is wont to do, grief exposes the farce. Grief, ever the honesty-maker. I failed at keeping the compartments airtight. Loss flooded everything, and with it came a sense of unexpected relief. I grieved in class, I grieved at birthday parties and graduation and through my first year of work. “I grieved in the beaches and on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets…” Through the first years of leading a more coherent, if monochromatic, existence, I felt compelled to comfort the people I subjected to it. I felt I owed them an apology for not putting away that which is meant to reside somewhere private, at an undefined, unimagined elsewhere. As time passed, I realized that the poet Mary Oliver is right: “tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” I was slowly becoming a container for others’ stories of honest pain and loss, from the loss of family members to the loss of a love or a particular vision of the future. I slid from ‘failing at compartmentalization’ to not valorizing it anymore, to actively resisting it.
When the rest of my palate began reemerging from under clouds of grief, the repertoire of stories I began to collect became more colorful. I have started to fill my life with people whose singing self lives alongside their climbing self alongside their report-writing self alongside their badass achievements and darker days. This coherence of self, and my community’s willingness to show it, does not make them less professional. I do not respect them less — only more. I do not feel jarred by seeing a fuller version of their life. These are whole humans, dedicated to showing the world a wider spectrum of themselves with less regard for the compartments in which we are each supposed to dress ourselves. We have not completely burned the compartments; we still retreat into them when we need to. Not everyone wants to wear their failing marriage or sick parent or financial portfolio to work every day. But we know we can shed them, and we know we would choose to, and somehow, that makes life slightly more human and livable.
During the mandatory career counseling program in my first year of graduate school, we had a peer reviewing session for each other’s resumes. Catch an errant comma for a friend, and good professional karma will come your way. We did not know each other yet then, so it was more about the errant comma than the gentle encouragements to sell yourself better on the page. My resume peer review buddy was going through his checklist:
“Do you have a website or a blog?”
I said yes with hesitation. The blog belonged to a different self.
“Is it professional?,” he asked in the same tone.
My intuition was to vigorously shake my head no. Is it professional? Do I write about my professional life here? Only in crumbs, only as context for the larger story. The stories I encounter in my ‘professional hat’ rarely belong to me, and this has rarely felt like the appropriate space to share them directly. Do I write in a professional manner? If professional is intended as the opposite of personal, then no. There is grief, and love, and a whole lot of “I” statements about a wholer self than we expect to show up at a workplace. Is “is it professional” even the question that feels true?
“Let’s leave it off then. Better safe than sorry,” my peer review buddy offers, and I agree.
As our career counselor reminded us, “in this day and age…”, your resume is not the only piece of information about you. You exist “on the internet” — yet another space, another self. Leaving this site off my resume felt like an illusionary choice. It is not like an employer can hire a self insulated from grief and migration and love and hope. At best, my choice served as a quiet signal to the resume reader that I did not feel this space to be germane to my professional self. Yet, that reader permeates the words I write here. More acutely, that reader permeates the words I do not write.
Imagine an abstract audience of people you do not know for long enough and you will never write another word. My assumptions and aspirations of a whole, coherent, authentic self collapse in abstraction and anonymity. So on a good day, you try to show up as yourself, as the body that sweats and loves and aches from typing for too long, to your friends and community. On an excellent day, you try to bring that whole self to the world too, the world you do not know, the world that does not know you.
But the latter days are rare for me, and I cannot help but notice the silencing–the quiet, persistent, almost invisible but very present self-silencing that unfolds. In the past few months, I have begun many sentences to friends with “one day, remind me to write about……” The ellipses–the public ellipses–are often deeply personal. They more accurately reflect my lived experience than many words I have put on public pages. And in their truthful intimacy, they feel illegitimate for public viewing, much as I feel a yearning to tell their story. Perhaps it takes a type of courage I lack: a courage to be a writer, a public truth-teller, or at least a more public teller of what one imagines to be her own truth and, on a good day, that truth resonates outside herself too.
In one of my worlds, in a world that feels increasingly narrow and oppressive, but true and relevant nonetheless, the same person does not write academically about atrocities and personally about her love life. [In the more oppressive iteration of this, she does not even write academically about vastly different subjects, for she–like a lifestyle blog, ironically–needs a ‘cohesive brand’ and a ‘focus’ and a curated corner of atrocities to make her own.] The same person does not publicly share thoughts about her personal (and political, feminists would remind us) and ‘high politics’ (with those same feminists again reminding us about the status-making quotation marks and the designations of ‘high’ and ‘low’). I am those feminists, I have to remind myself.
Feminism provides one of the more consistent voices in my life: it is a self I wear unabashedly at work and at home, in public and in private, a self I rarely feel compelled to package, even when it is inconvenient. Writing, on the other hand, is easy to stow. The words get filed away until other, more ‘proper words’ come by, more suitable for public consumption. Less brave words, or at least less jarring. Or those words get filed away until they are forgotten, until they no longer bubble up with the urgency to be written down and shared. The act of writing down itself feels separate from the sharing. They satisfy different yearnings of documentation and truth-telling and memory-making and community and coherence.
Most of my words these days get filed away. I still live them, as coherently and authentically as I know how to live. I share some of them over tea and wine, others over tears and emails and endless streams of WhatsApp. But the truthful public words have recently evaded me–not because I do not know what they are or how to string them next to each other, but because I do not have the courage in this moment to ignore the world of fragmented selves in which we live. Nor can I ignore a few other truths that have emerged: It seems that this fragmentation of the self, the delineation of the compartments, makes me–us, I would venture, in a brave moment–lonelier. And it also seems that words that want to be uttered but are stifled, in the invisible-making passive voice, do not go quietly. They remind you they are there. They demand that you grow some courage and find a way to let them out. Or, at the very least, that you grieve for them.