A Thanksgiving Farewell

This blog began as a writing outlet when I was processing my experiences with academia, why I left, what I’ve encountered outside of the university cloister, the trials and tribulations of my attempts to regain access, and how my ventures with independent scholarship have shaped my goals. Along the way, I’ve addressed learning and pedagogy approaches, touched on religion & spirituality, and politics, noting a few areas of interest along the way.

My writing and research are currently, self-consciously, at a crossroads between New Age metaphysical thought and academic scholarship. My new project, entry pages (a sort of ‘hybrid’ of approaches) combines literature, personal journaling, and tarot reading to reflect on these sometimes contrasting sometimes agreeing influences, neither of which I have completely been able to commit myself. Previously, I was unable to conquer an anxiety that to chose one would be to lose something crucial of the other (something to do with the requirement of belief in one direction and suspension of belief from the other direction). It took stepping away from academia to realize that the writings of Judith Butler–whose work I related to with a sort of approach-avoidance while in school–are actually in line with the metaphysical research that currently occupies my thinking–I’m not prepared to parse my understanding of this yet, and this is not the place. It has to do with the way she asks questions about language and her discussions of the psyche; I’m not sure yet that we’d agree on any answers, but I like the way she questions, which is in line with my questioning of to what degree spirituality and psychology can successfully parallel. I’m only beginning to read her work in-depth (and probably with a somewhat contrasting approach than those who read her from a strictly academic perspective). I’m increasingly conscious that it is rare to find an author who can successfully bridge both discussions, as I experience them, and it isn’t necessarily a matter of a work being branded as ‘spirituality’ or ‘theory’ or ‘religion’ or ‘academic.’ In other ways, those distinctions are as relevant as ever, and I’m becoming increasingly purest about both my approach to literary scholarship and spirituality and getting serious requires relinquishing an element of the experimental, which this blog was intended to express, so it makes sense also to bring this particular process to a close.


I have also expressed the disappointments and sometimes miseries of employment ups and downs in this blog. Not to usher the violins excessivley–I’m really fortunate to have had the opportunities to be involved in a variety of diverse work. Now, I find myself back in education, and if I have been hiding from political controversy somewhat (as discussed in the previous post “Awkward Activism” where I also referenced Butler) grading freshman comp papers requires me to stay current. These fully online classes also allow me to more easily manage some of the health and other issues that I have struggled with in traditional employment, as does freelancing. Working with animals prevents me from staying closed up indoors all day, and I love the three-fold balance of this “solution”–though none of them offers much security in terms of predictability or reliability. The hope is that if one falters, the other two will be sufficient.

The PhD question that constitutes the elephant in the room of this entire conversation will have to remain unanswered. It is increasingly conspicuous in some of my work not to have that degree, and it is increasingly irrelevant in other work whether I have a degree of any sort–sometimes it’s almost a liability. Various complications prevent me from making that decision at this time.

Thank you to those of you who have offered support and encouragement. Perhaps we will meet again in other pursuits.


©Melanie Sophia, 2017

Awkward Activism or Political Consent(?)

“What do you think?” a friend asked me on the phone the morning after the election in November.

“I’m appalled,” I answered, and I was. And I still am.

Yet my activism, which probably only minimally qualifies as such by the standards of many, has remained in a state of suspension as I reflect on the political environment during these past few months since the inauguration. I have not attended marches. Why? There’s a health reason that would explain both my absence and my resistance to the current administration.

The other reason is that I’m an awkward activist.

This post is a continuation from previous posts describing my transformation from fiction-reading to lit-theory to increasingly focused political thought. I’m not someone who is used to mobilizing politically, and political involvement to me has meant, until Newspaper_news_clipart_kid_4_-_ClipartixJanuary of this year, that I vote and that I know where I stand on most issues in mainstream discussion. After January I began occasionally calling my Congressional representatives, who happen to be Democrats and vote the way I would hope they would on most issues that I follow (that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pay more attention). I perceive I’m more effective with email and petitions than phone calls, though everyone says to call, and this sort of cognitive dissonance is probably why I’m the sort of person who has a tendency to escape into fiction instead of directly participating in political/government newspaper_clipart_-_Google_Searchmatters. If I’m not careful I’ll find myself reading Antonio Gramsci but forgetting to actually involve myself in current politics…or to read/listen to the news…because there’s probably something I don’t really want to deal with…or because I’ve been listening to so much political talk I don’t even know where to begin.

It makes sense for someone like me to turn to the writings and discussions of comparative literature/critical theory professor and political activist Judith Butler who, as of nearly three months ago, is also finding herself somewhat disoriented in the current political atmosphere. Her lecture “This is What Resistance Looks Like” at UCLA (March 2017) is available on YouTube.


She begins by saying, “We are taking in information all the time, and then it shifts, and we have to throw away whatever we were working on and try again, and it’s hard to think in the middle of this chaotic acceleration.” She goes on to discuss the “precarity” of solidarity and populism, stressing the importance of “keeping your mind” when confronted with the rhetoric of the Trump administration.

Immersion in crowded events doesn’t help me navigate my way through this process—whether it’s a show of solidarity or resistance. That statement should not be misread as a criticism of such activism, which I support and vicariously participate in through live streaming social media. But I think better when I’m removed from such an atmosphere. Someone once told me she couldn’t sleep because her “head was too loud” and that’s the aspect of this challenge that I’m speaking to.


Photo Source: Jose Luis Magana/AP http://www.wbur.org/news/2017/01/21/womens-marches-washington-boston-world


Photo Source: Jesse Costa/WBUR http://www.wbur.org/news/2017/01/21/womens-marches-washington-boston-world

Three or four years ago I would lay awake at night pondering the various reasons, which I won’t enumerate here, why I might or might not be a feminist. Recently, I decided that when Angela Merkle seems to find the concept of “feminist” something of a nuisance to her and Ivanka Trump raises her hand to claim it, I won’t lose anymore sleep weighing whether I am or I am not and instead attempt to arrive at an expression of resistance and how I am most effective as an activist (actually this re-wording is approaching a definition/”test” of feminism used by a former professor of mine, but I’ll save additional discussion of this concept for another time).

Another way of “keeping your mind” in these times of overthinking—with all the adrenaline, media reporting, and the emergence of “alt” groups to scrutinize also—is to attempt to calm some of the chaos through a spiritual or mind-quieting practice such as meditation. The variety described by Dr. Jay Michaelson in a recent article for Tricycle is not meant to keep you in an uninformed bubble but rather to assist your effectiveness. “Avoidance doesn’t work for liberation,” he says.

“We are more skillful and more sustainable in our activism when we’re not unconsciously playing out emotional dramas on a public stage, or unconsciously looking for fulfillment rather than acting skillfully for the benefit of others. We need to be smart, and to be smart we need to be aware of what’s happening inside and out.”

Awesome; however, his next recommendation was so counterintuitive (he says himself that it is counterintuitive) to me that I could not at first reconcile it with Butler’s “keep your mind” encouragement, nor Michaelson’s own preceding paragraph after he goes on to say:

“So sink into it. Bring the president into your meditation—or more likely, allow him to enter it. Let your loathing, fear, concern, rage, all arise. No need to stoke or prod or prompt; it will do so all on its own. Let yourself feel whatever you are feeling, noting all the way, give up all resistance; surrender to the darkness…Let President Trump take over your meditation, and maybe we can stop him from taking over the world.”

Whoa. First, let me reiterate: stop.

This article showed up on my Facebook newsfeed, and I should have taken the clue from the title of the article, “Why You Should Invite President Trump into Your Meditation Practice.” After reading the above quote, I had to pause the drafting of this post for a while and delete a few of my initial exaggerated reactions. Then I had to go back to Butler and her discussion of “withdrawing consent” politically before I could re-approach Michaelson (when Butler uses this term, she is speaking of the many systems of government and civil service that would have to consent to implement Trump’s policies—but could also refuse to do so).

My initial reaction to this urging was to think that Michaelson is advocating for exactly what he warned against in his previous paragraph. Wouldn’t allowing another consciousness to take over your meditation practice be the equivalent of allowing them to take over your world? Isn’t that exactly what we do not what to consent to? Another issue is that it is my personal belief that one must always be on guard against the subliminal. I have learned the hard way, over many years of experimenting with spiritual practices, that there are thought forms that I do not want to allow access to my consciousness, and I take great caution in an attempting to interact with the consciousness of another identity. Finally, isn’t this starting to smack of the sort of emotional drama he warns against in the paragraph above?

Let’s back up. It’s important to consider that I’m not a practicing Buddhist (though someone who has influenced my spiritual practice is)—and that’s probably partially why it’s difficult for me to relate. Michaelson’s meditation was inspired by the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discussion of mindfulness, and he is highlighting “no judgement, no denial, no avoidance.”


Considering his wording, and considering the ethical issue of attempting to interact with anther consciousness on a subliminal level, Michaelson does use the language of consent—then he uses the language of “withdrawing consent.” He is not, if I read correctly, actually consenting to Trump “taking over the world,” rather, he says, “Let President Trump take over your meditation practice, and maybe we can stop him from taking over the world.” He is addressing an approach to “mental threats.” Okay, it’s just not clear to me how the one would lead to the other. “You can notice the pleasant and the unpleasant with equanimity, and thus coexist with both,” he says, “You don’t have to be pushed and pulled by the desires and aversions that have been with us since our paramecium ancestors wriggled out of the primordial ooze.” But it still seems to me that “pushing and pulling” by “desires and aversions” is exactly what is happening in the practice he describes, and it’s not a practice that would work for me personally. Also, I’m left with questions. It makes more sense to me to keep up my resistance to such a reality.

I had not planned a blog post about meditation before I read this article, but I assure you, my meditation practice is not the personal business of President Trump nor any other president past or future—I’m not any more focused on them than I am on sending good intentions to the planet, generally. I tend to think outwardly and broadly when I’m focused on political matters (leaders, countries, people); I’m not trying to draw any particular identity to me, only to envision a governance that conceptualizes and prioritizes the issues I value. I reserve all inward meditation for personal issues and contemplation (which rarely write about for the very reason that they are issues I do not want to put “out there”). One way to think about the concept of consent in meditative practice is to question what sort of energy you want to send out into the world and what sort of energetic quality you want to allow to access you. This is also why, for instance, I do not wear a safety pin; I cannot guarantee that I’m a “safe person” to anyone in any situation. As Michaelson says we’re all just trying to co-exist together.

It’s now my procedure to scan my mind before I even begin meditating to determine what needs to “be with me” in my current consciousness and why? Often, we instinctively know who would welcome thoughts and prayers from us and who might feel intruded upon or condescended to. In times of worry or grief or distress or anticipation or during unresolved disputes and communication difficulties these sorts of thoughts are enhanced. Does it really seem appropriate to continue to “hold” whatever you might be attempting to hold in your mind?

If it does seems like there is another consciousness (i.e. not “just me”) that wants to “share” my consciousness for a while—and it seems acceptable to me to allow it to “be there” for a while—first I attempt to determine whether it has an identity I recognize. If yes, I ask myself, “How would this person respond if I told them something to the effect that I was praying for/thinking of them?” That’s how I guide the question of consent in the subliminal. If I’m not able to identify this other consciousness, I assume that it is probably something in a state of transition and not necessarily what I think it might be. Then I move my attention to a consciousness that has been deemed “safe” for people to fix their attention on—much in the way that Catholics pray to saints or Buddhists and Hindus revere deities, which by no means solves the controversy. There are many techniques for un-intrusively sending thought or “energy” to other consciousnesses or blocking other consciousnesses from accessing you if that seems necessary. Earlier this year a clash between Christian and Pagans erupted when a group of Wiccan practitioners organized a “binding spell” against Trump and fundamentalist Christians organized to render them ineffective.

Michaelson is evidently suggesting that by allowing inward access to President Trump there is the possibility for a neutralization of potential damage. I’d like him to discuss a bit more whether it is really President Trump—or a burgeoning vision of what Michaelson himself can do to bring about a leader in our society that is more attuned to his values—who accompanies him in his meditations because here his wording seems to invite President Trump personally. He almost crosses into the discussion of pagan magic with his ritual. John Beckett, a druid priest, wrote a response to the mass binding spell, criticizing the insistence that participating in casting such a spell was not dangerous to the caster. “Real magic is not safe,” he says,”Witchcraft is not safe. Participating in a revolution is not safe. Those who pretend it is are dangerously naive.”

In my opinion, it’s already unsettlingly easy to inadvertently give the impression of consenting to something that you have not really consented to—or to misread someone else’s signals as a consent to something they did not intend—without bringing these energies with me into my meditation practice. But I will also take his point about the ineffectiveness of avoidance.

This is all part of what Judith Butler refers to as “The Struggle” of Resistance, and she reminds us through the preface to her own lecture that, “these are thoughts in progress that may not hold.”


Works Cited:

Beckett, John. “Why I’m not participating in the mass binding of Donald Trump and what I’m doing instead.” Patheos. 26 February, 2017. Web. Accessed 22 June, 2017. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2017/02/im-not-participating-mass-binding-donald-trump-im-instead.html

Butler, Judith. “This is What Resistance Looks Like.” UCLA Luskin. 14 March, 2017. Web. Accessed 15 May, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRz0YTIw62k

Michaelson, Jay. “Why You Should Invite President Trump Into Your Meditation Practice.” Tricycle. 30 March, 2017. Web. Accessed 31 May, 2017. https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/invite-president-trump-meditation-practice/

©Melanie Sophia 2017



Just You and Your Degree

…Out there in the world.

Happy April Fools Day:


A Reflection

The degree is an MA–a particular no person’s land from many perspectives. Academic life is rather unforgiving of voluntary detours diverging from its mapping. Didn’t go onthe_fool_tarot_card_-_Google_Search.jpgto your PhD? And how exactly do you think you are going to get back on this path when you have already angered the committee gods? Off you go to your temporary corporate job where you sink lower into your chair every day as your data entry team leader shouts out the previous day’s productivity numbers and yours are dragging. “Grades” are confidential where I come from, people. To pull at a dangerously unraveling thread…why were your grades so much better than your “real world” productivity numbers? Somehow you hang in there for a year until you are called into a meeting one morning where you and several co-workers are informed that your employment is terminated, effective immediately.

What are you doing again?

Back to retail, the job you had before you went to college. No need to elaborate. You decide it’s a good idea to move to a store that offers you a full-time position–until you realize that the newly-opened store cannot possibly be supporting you and the part-time person your boss seems to prefer, your hours are somehow not what they used to be and you’re hesitant asking to make them up–or you feel guilty for not having enough to do–and your boss, who you’ve had consistent communication problems with, does not understand that quitting and being laid off are not the same thing (is it your imagination or did the real problems start about the time you began to attempt to discuss your grad school research with her?). There’s an attempted discussion about ‘mutual agreement’ that the store doesn’t need a full-time employee, and you’re willing to discuss a cut in hours, which you are willing to accommodate, but the definite answer you receive about there not being an option for you to stay on either full or part time leaves you fairly certain you’ve been laid off again and wondering why you’re trying to be so polite about it.  You don’t receive a response to an attempt at clarification (emailed), but it seems you’ve reached a sufficient understanding, and you go your separate way. This pretty much sums up the retail experience you’ve had, beginning to end, but we’re not quite there 17_Best_images_about_The_Fool__Tarot_Card__on_Pinterest___Decks__New_beginnings_and_Zen.jpgyet.

Next job interview: hired immediately.

First day: manager informs you that you are not what the customers want.

Sure…of course I understand. The sooner we know that the better.

the_fool_tarot_card_-_Google_Search.jpgNext job application response by phone to discuss a possible interview (slight paraphrase): “Are you sure you’re really interested in sales? It seems your background is…academic.” [Sounds as if she’s shuddering at the phrase].

*bristle, good-bye*

That’s right, though. I do have a degree somewhere, don’t I? Can I use it somehow? I realize I can’t compete with PhDs for teaching positions…I don’t even receive a call back…but I guess I’ll submit another application…wait, what? You would like me to interview? Yes, next week! See you then!


After a few days of fantasizing about teaching at a small arts college–

*Reads article in the newspaper about a new development affecting said college in such a way that current faculty is now wondering how long they will keep their jobs–potential new hires are thought about only as long as it takes to write an email canceling scheduled interviews.*

Next day: not surprised to receive interview cancellation email. the_fool_tarot_card_-_Google_Search.jpg

I won’t be going back to retail [sorry, do I sound as if I’m shuddering?] nor corporate data entry. I’ve thought a great deal about degrees in the past few years, and it seems to me that many of the people I know of who have achieved success with a master’s degree–and for some reason or other not gone on to a PhD–have found a place for themselves either through self-employment or somewhere separate from mainstream academic connections (or their involvement with academia for numerous years trumps the degree itself).

For several years, I’ve worked (and worked to establish myself) in freelancing writing, research, and editing; in the past few months, I have found myself in the slightly awkward and ironic position of working with PhDs on dissertations and journal articles. In spite of the minor discomfort, it’s something I really like doing. Rest assured this is only a mildly cynical view of degrees, which I respect. Mine has gotten me places. Because the work I do requires me to demonstrate a familiarity withthe_fool_tarot_card_-_Google_Search.jpg academic processes, I use the M.A. initials my degree grants on the bio for my business website. In case someone wonders why I do not use them here, it’s because I’m also required (and choose) to work with those in non-academic circles and audiences, and this is my way of finding balance. I don’t use my full name because I want the ability to separate projects (I have a third, invitation-only website/blog devoted to dream research, which I combine with literature passages, literary theory, and tarot card readings).

This will probably be the only post here about degrees, but I will continue the ongoing conversation I’ve started about education. Previous posts have described the approach I have taken to expand my scholarship outside academia. The next posts will delineate the non-academic training that has taken me to the next level of self-employment.

Happy April Fools’ Weekend–to all the fools.


©Melanie Sophia 2017


Last month I wrote about online continuing education options. When I titled the post “Alternative Classrooms” I had no thoughts of the stir of alternate reality that would descend upon the media and political culture throughout the next weeks. I chose the title “Alternative Classrooms” probably a year or more ago, and there have been several drafts of the essay that I finally posted last month. Since then, revoked official twitter accounts have been supplanted by the resistant “Alts”–the defiant and determined reappearance of the banished accounts–unofficial and unverified but in the spotlight as the public attempts to distinguish facts from “alternative facts,” as the administration of the current President has phrased their understanding.

As I mentioned in January’s post, I have developed an inclination to attempt to apply literary theory to my interpretations of such current events, and the whirlwind the_federalist_papers_-_wikipediasurrounding January’s inauguration is no exception; however, instead doing so within the sphere of the “alternative” educational atmosphere that I mentioned previously, I attempted to draw upon this thinking in a traditional (though still online) Constitutional law course discussion. I have recently diverted from the niche of continuing education and delved back into accredited courses in introductory legal studies in order to add Bluebook citations to my repertoire of writing and editing services. The first assignment asked us to reflect on the ideas and wording of the Federalist Papers authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. As I read through these documents, in the context of Women’s Marches and protests, it seemed almost impossible for me to separate past voices from current events, and I wrote a response to her discussion prompt in the vein of the relevance of their discussion in an altered context. Yes, the inspiration for my thinking was literary thinking, but I thought I was staying relevant to the parameters of the assignment.

My efforts were not well received. The professor told me (kindly but decidedly) that in her class I was to stay focused on the law and legal application.

Cliparts_Law_-_Clip_Art_Life.jpgWell, all right. When I taught there were subjects that I awkwardly told my students to leave outside the classroom also (and instances when I didn’t but probably should have). I’ve been out of traditional school for a while, I haven’t re-found my sea legs. I’m also new to legal studies. She encouraged me to rethink the approach to my discussion and then described the difficulty she had changing from a background in English to a legal degree. Perhaps it’s a good thing I’m not seeking a legal degree and only expanding my familiarity with citation styles.  But I am moving my rejected original piece to this “alt” reality of my own blog because I still like it.

In Alternative Classrooms I discussed a literary theory course available through Open Yale taught by Prof. Paul Fry. In Lecture Five of his course he speaks of New Criticism and the “Intentional Fallacy” essay of Wimsatt and Beardsley. For those unfamiliar with literary theory terminology, the abridged definition from the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory follows:

The error of criticizing and judging a work of literature by attempting to assess what the writer’s intension was and whether or not he has fufilled it rather than concentrating on the work itself.

Professor Fry selects a footnote from section IV of the essay to demonstrate its boldness. The footnote states, “And the history of words after a poem is written may contribute meanings which if relevant to the original pattern should not be ruled out by scruple about intention.” Thus, Wimsatt and Beardsley are suggesting that to read a text containing words that have taken on new meanings across the spanning decades or centuries with their current connections, rather than the one(s) the author would have understood at the time and era the document was written, is a relevant approach to textual interpretation (*ahem., unless you are in a legal studies course). This is what happened when I did just that last month as I read the Federalist Papers the week of the inauguration (revised somewhat since my original attempted post for that class). I have removed my commentary and instead provided selected text with the words in question in [my] italics.

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of black_lives_matter_-_Google_Search.jpg
pussyhat_icon_-_google_searchthe parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.lgbtq_nation_free_clip_art_-_Google_Search.jpg

planned_parenthood_-_Google_Search.jpgIt has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are reallycapable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may
affordable_healthcare_act_-_Google_Search.jpgwith propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind. ~Alexander Hamilton, Federalist, No.1

Perhaps my application of this passage would be too bold even for Prof. Fry–I have not lost sight of the fact that I’m stretching the boundaries of theoretical literary interpretation also, by including persuasive political writings discussing approaches to governance in a conversation about poetry. I’m also stretching the boundary of the point of the footnote by placing my attention on the evolved context of the wording rather than word meaning. Judge for yourself whether I have done justice to Wimsatt and Beardsley or the Founding Fathers–though you might be guilty of an intentional fallacy if you do ;).

© Melanie Demmer, 2017


Paul Fry, Introduction to the Theory of Literature (Yale University: Open Yale Courses), http://oyc.yale.edu (Accessed August 2011). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Theory. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1998.

Alternative Classrooms: Leaving Academia and Finding Theory

“I believe that reading, in its original essence, [is] that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.”

~Marcel Proust, quoted in Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Several years ago, at a conference, a professor from Yale mentioned to a group of us at dinner that his introductory literary theory course was available online (or soon would be). I kept his reference in the back of my mind for a few months until after I had completed my master’s degree and left academia, thinking I had reached a personal saturation point on that track. I was not an unsuccessful student, but sometime during my final year of coursework and teaching, the academic atmosphere became something I couldn’t seem to continue with any longer, and I decided not to pursue a PhD. I did not realize then that this alternative access to a theory classroom would continue as a connection to an atmosphere of education that has been an important aspect of what has propelled me forward in articulating ideas that I want to research and develop and has additionally assisted in revealing the process of learning that may make the difference between “getting it” or…not.iPhoto

After a move from a university to a corporate job market, I was still not sure I’d found the right path and additionally unsure of my decision not to pursue an academic career. I was beginning to think that I could not grasp something crucial to success in institutionalized settings. As I contemplated whether or not to go back to school and what sort of job/career might suit me better, I began reading about alternative teaching and learning methods, thinking I might want to return to teaching or tutoring. I also swallowed my share of pride as I began investigating as an adult in my thirties why both reading and audio processing might be presenting hurdles in my experiences.  In her book, Overcoming Dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz (coincidentally also from Yale and co-director of The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity along with Bennet Shaywitz) assures readers that it is not uncommon for such challenges to go undetected until adulthood (10).  Please note: I have not been tested for or diagnosed with a learning disability, nor am I attempting to self-diagnose. I’m retracing the steps that led me to a greater understanding of how I learn and how altering my exposure to a subject transformed my experience with it.

As I wondered whether I might rather be back in a classroom than at a data entry desk, I also recalled the online availability of Prof. Fry’s theory course. I re-immersed myself in study, going back to basics with the recorded sessions of his 101 course on the subject that caused me the most ambivalence towards my degree: the infamous pursuit of literary theory. I’d had theory classes and professors who utilized theory as well as those who didn’t exactly encourage it. I wasn’t really sure how to position myself. I didn’t shun Structuralism_and_Saussure.jpgtheory but, until I found Prof. Fry’s course, I didn’t seek it more than was necessary. When I began listening to these recorded and transcribes lectures, available at Open Yale,
theory took on new qualities from my altered perspective and allowed me to return to ideas I had stepped away from, providing an atmosphere that was comforting and familiar as well as a continued intellectual challenge, helping me transition from an ambivalent attitude towards theory to an embrace of approaches I now actively seek as a means of attempting to make sense of–not only literature–but of the events of everyday life.

lit_theory_lectures_pptxProf. Fry’s introductory question of what reading is and how it happens underlined Dr. Shaywitz’s descriptions of the neurological functions of the reading brain. I joined a discussion group for reading tutors, and someone suggested Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf. “We were never born to read,” she states in her opening sentence. “Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ inventiolit_theory_lectures_pptxn could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become” (3). I was becoming a person increasingly self-conscious of a process that my brain seems to require—or prefer—in its attainment of information.

Researchers of alternative learning often stress the necessity of accommodation and an adapted method of teaching. Even though a current trend in pedagogy promotes a break with the traditional lecture format, I appreciate that his classes are lectured and additionally available with playback options and transcription. Since I was not in school and had no homework at the time, I was at liberty to apply the multi-sensory techniques that speak to me individually. I created reading lists from his syllabus and crafted my own visuals to go along with my notes to help me retain and conceptualize. I reviewed material and discovered material that had slipped past me (or that I never got to) during my years in school. I branched out from Prof. Fry’s class, seeking additional discussions by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristeva on YouTube or in print. Perhaps this non-traditional approach makes sense for a previous home-schooler such as myself, even though I’m glad I participated in traditional programs during my college and graduate years.

Lit_Theory_Lectures_pptx.jpgFurthermore, this alternative access to a theory classroom afforded me the ability to absorb it in contexts away from academia: a city atmosphere in Chicago while I worked in a corporate atmosphere and then during my lunch break walks while working in retail (after I moved back to the Southwest). I haven’t done anything exceptionally unique or different or revolutionary with these materials other than permitting myself the luxury of assessing and reassessing them in my own way outside of the stresses and rigor of academic life, and I like the ability to do so as I make decisions about my next steps.

I have sought other options for online continuing education as well from such organizations as The Ashville Jung Center, ed2go, Future Learn and Udemy. MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) offerings are really sort of staggering. Such recordings from various universities could be an easy and affordable way for prospective students to ‘observe’ classes and familiarize themselves with faculty (important for letters of intent!) as they are deciding where to apply.

These observations did not fall into place quite so chronologically. It is only now as I think back over several years of this inquiry since I left an academic path that I realize I have, in a way, never separated myself from the subject matter that I connected with as the work I sensed I wanted to involve myself with but couldn’t seem to keep ahold of as a career track. All this has contributed to the recent establishment of my new writing and editing business venture, which relies upon my academic background of the study of language and my retail/service experiences. Self-employment might be the career path suited to me, and I look to online learning options when I begin to wish for a classroom environment. Prof. Fry’s course is still my roadmap for theory, as I ponder literary and non-literary occurrences and events…attempting to “get it.”lit_theory_lectures_pptx

In this way online continuing education unintentionally became a field of observation for me; now I’m shifting my attention to an intentional focus and hope to write additional posts pertaining to this topic throughout this next year. I invite you to check back and offer your insights here as well!

Happy New Year!

© Melanie S. Demmer 2017

Prof. Fry’s course materials are attributed to:

Paul Fry, Introduction to the Theory of Literature (Yale University: Open Yale Courses), http://oyc.yale.edu (Accessed December 14, 2016). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

as required by the Open Yale Terms of Use.

Works Cited:

McEldowney, Brooke. 9 Chickweed Lane. Comic Strip. Web.

Shaywitz, Sally. Overcoming Dyslexia. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Print.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York:     Harper Perrenial, 2007. Print.

Steampunk Journaling: Diary Writing in the Digital Age

“As we try to understand the past, we try to understand ourselves in relation to the past.”

~Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians (quoted in Steffen Hantke’s “Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk.”)

background-1485658_640Steampunk is not usually associated with journaling. It’s a sub-genre of “punk”sci-fi/fantasy fiction characterized by futuristic nostalgia. The reader isn’t quite sure if the atmospheric sentiment is for days-gone-by or “technologies that never were” as phrased by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant in their introduction to Steampunk! An Anthology. Steampunk has never left the Victorian era; the machines are steam powered and the ambiance  gas-lit, and yet the genre is propelled by inventions and technologies and science we’ve never encountered as such. If leeches are required for medicinal purposes, they may be of the robotic variety as in Cassandra Clare’s short story “Some Fortunate Future Day” (if you read it we can discuss whether or not she gets there). Carriages may be the most popular mode of transportation; however, horses might be mechanized automatons. “So, does your yarn have an alternative power source?” asks Martine Lillycrop in her essay,  5 Elements of Steampunk. Felix Gilman’s novel The Revolutions travels from an epic storm sweeping London’s streets through astral travel  and extraterrestrials.

When I refer to “Steampunk journaling,” I’m not saying I structure journal writing as I would if I were to write Steampunk fiction.  I started reading Steampunk stories after and somewhat simultaneous to a period of re-reading old journals (the diary variety) I’ve written. I was wary of the stagnant elaborations of previous years entrapped in inked pages–just sitting there doing nothing–and my impulse was to change them because things had changed since I wrote them. I needed, I realized, to digitalize these notebooks so I could reevaluate and continue working with them.  I had partially transferred my journaling practice to my computer by this time, in an effort to conserve physical storage room, and I liked how I could add additional comments and rephrase or delete previously composed thoughts with ease. I began typing from the handwritten pages. I’ve been re-visioning and rephrasing previous journal writing for several years. This process has developed into sub-projects. Much of my current writing is an extension of journaling.

Initially, this approach had no system of organization whatsoever. I was recovering from an illness that impaired my concentration, and my mind resisted traditionally-taught organized writing. I didn’t have the patience to switch back and forth between documents, so I used a single document as a sort of catch-all for what I was transcribing along with my current thoughts. A system developed as I went along. I used dates and changes of font color to indicate the discrepancies of years. Entries look something like the following:

12/1 (current journal document)steampunk-1321055_640


6/3/08 (Inserted typed passages from previous years’ notebooks)


Current reaction to or interpretation of the above

12/7 (current journaling)

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&  additional explanation or rewrite. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<Shift of subject<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

6/5/08 (inserted typed pages from previous years’ journaling)

################################################################################################################Current reaction or interpretation#######################################

12/15 (current journaling)


<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<Quote or passage from another author>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Weird isn’t it?

I’m sure other journal writers have developed other equally weird or perhaps superior techniques, but this is how portions of my journal are structured.

Weirder still, I began noticing that the patchwork of old and new writings, interwoven with other people’s writing, created an unexpected intertextuality that I had not intended–but I’ll save that analysis for a different post. One of the observations I’m demonstrating is that Steampunk, much like the tensions that often appear on the pages of personal journals, portrays a mentality that gets too far ahead of itself before it has untangled from the past. The result is a murky blend of innovation, technology, and history that is struggling to offer “improvement” but does nothing to actually advance the culture or the individual. In an article for The Guardian, “Going back to the future with steampunk,” David Barnett says, “common steampunk tropes include advanced technology within the parameters of what was reasonably do-able at the time.” The time–from our readership perspective–is going backward and forward. We’re kind of stuck and kind of trapped, and we’re trying to create and invent our way out of it. Are we going anywhere? It’s not without conflict.


My re-visioned journaling attempts to retell “stories” that I recorded in old journals in order to produce a different effect of an experience. What happens if I change, “The influence of that group of people was really bad and hurt my self-esteem” to “That challenging social situation helped to prepare me for the time later when I encountered those other difficult people.” Is it better? healthier? less ‘negative’? In a way, maybe. But what am I going to do about it now? Go back to that first group and say, “I’m sorry” or “thank you?”  Or say, “That was all so nice. Everything is just so nice.” Really? Am I sure? Okay, do I still want all that sweetness and light–is there a difficulty somewhere? About those other people…Perhaps I should just walk away from all that because it doesn’t seem to get better…it might be getting worse.

There. Is it better now? Actually, it might be.

Opps. Maybe not. Better continue working on that.

Ultimately, we don’t want to think that we are not capable of advancement or that our experiences have taken us nowhere, and we find ways to reinterpret what has happened to us and realize what we might not be done with and what does not get another chance. Steampunk is a manifestation of this perspective also, and part of the point is that this sort of journaling enables a form of time travel that is easier to do with a gadget than with pen and ink. It doesn’t solve the problem that I still often want to shove my computer aside and say, “Enough with the rephrasing already, move on with your life.”

When these writings were on paper with ink I sometimes wanted to burn or shred pages steampunk-1182929_640from them, and I sometimes did and that was sometimes liberating. If I had done that with all of them, I wouldn’t now have this project of rephrasing and rethinking that I have created for myself.  But I have developed a process that works for me. This method allows me to find connectors of past to present that seem somehow also less threatening to my (imagined) future self. It’s a way of re-visioning.

One of these connectors has turned me back to paper and ink.  There’s a quality to writing by hand that typing on a machine does not replace. I may have abandoned pen for keyboard for a while, but something of the fluidity of handwriting is lacking, and there’s a stream of creativity and consciousness less prone to writer’s block that I’m often able to access when I shut off the computer. But this sort of anti-technology, though contradictory, is another component of Steampunk, especially as it is contrasted with its counterpart, Cyberpunk–also a relevant genre to this discussion of digitalizing information.

I’ve learned to separate my hand journaling from my mechanized journaling. I only record in ink what I’m confident I would not want to go back and re-write. I’ve also reduced current journaling, now that I see how much time and emotional investment can be sucked into combing through previous volumes. I don’t know if it’s always helpful or bebutterfly-998295_640.jpgneficial.

“Steampunk journaling” to me means that we can invent various methods of process, but we continue to be challenged with figuring out where we’ve come from, what we are doing here, where we’re going, and how to get to where we’d like to be. These issues are the stuff of Steampunk as it advances as a cultural genre–along with us as individuals.

©Melanie S. Demmer 2016


Works Cited

Barnet, David. “Going Back into the Future with Steampunk,” The Guardian.  4 Feb.     2010. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.

Clare, Cassandra. “Some Fortunate Future Day.” Link, Kelly and Gavin Grant, eds. Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2013. Print.

Gilman, Felix. The Revolutions. New York: Tor Books, 2014. Print.

Hantke, Steffen. “Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk.” Extrapolation 40.3 (Fall 1999): 244-254. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Lillycrop, Martine. The 5 Elements of Steampunk. Writer’s Anon: Taunton’s Writing Group. 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 Nov. 2016. <https://writersanontaunton.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/5-elements-of-steampunk/&gt;

Link, Kelly and Gavin Grant, eds. Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2013. Print.

Witches: ‘Old Ways’ and ‘New Age’

free_fall_clip_art_-_google_searchSeasons have shifted with a turn of color, a shift of lighting, and a drop in temperature. I startled a flock of ravens perched in trees overhead while I was out walking the other day; their beating wings and caws of alarm ushering an additional atmospheric effect. We’ve recently seen a full moon, mercury retrograde, and two new moons within a single month (known as ‘black moon’). The energies of mystery and enchantment have always seemed to me to increase at this time of year in ways that inspire my imagination and challenge my enthusiasm as the shifting seasons accentuate transitions and the impermanence inherent as leaves fall, many flowers cease blooming, and preparation for hibernation begins.

This year I’m renewing a book review that has been some time in the works and is a seasonally-apt discussion for this month of costume preparation when we alter-egos, thinking of our identities not so much in terms of who we are but who we wish we could be or even who we are happy we are not. The figure who represents both of these attraction/aversion impulses?

The figure who represents both of these attraction/aversion impulses?

The Witch.


I’ve been accumulating witch books the past few years, and I have been a student of religion (Judeo-Christian and pagan) and spiritual practices for many years. For this reason, I do not associate witches only with Halloween costuming. I think of such an identity as a question of belief. A year or so ago, as I read the introduction to The Penguin Book of Witches (Penguin Books 2014), I latched onto a question articulated by the editor, Katherine Howe. Her’s is a question of identity dependent on distinction:

“The figure of the witch, the idea of the witch, and the need to flush her out of her hiding place and into the light served as a binding agent among fragile communities that were subject to waves of arrival and departure, living with uncertain rights in unsecured territories. The witch—ever the embodiment of the oppositional—served a vital role in the formation of what would eventually be a new united nation. That’s one of the reasons that she and the events of Salem persist in our political discourse and in our popular culture. We need her to in order to know who we are not so that we can begin to imagine who we are (xiii).”

After reading the quote above I realized I would not be writing a review of her book, as I had planned, so much as a discussion of several books as a means of approaching this notion of individual and cultural identification (or refrainment from) as it applies to the figure of the witch.

Howe formulates her question with an academic distance from her subject. For this discussion, I’d like to rephrase her wording to question her assumption that the witch is not to be identified with. It is significant to my counter argument that I’m approaching this question from outside of academia, influenced by the literature of practicing pagans. Howe is not ignorant of such influences—she describes finding a stash of “post-New Age” witchcraft books at the home of a deceased neighbor (xv)—but the neopagan and Wiccan movements and their challenges are not the focus of her book. In a way, it’s a disservice to her work to discuss it in this context, but I do so ultimately in order to show a similarity and agreement of thought.

penguin_book_of_witches_-_google_searchHowe’s anthology is an annotated collection of primary and secondary source documents pertinent to definitions of and reactions to witchcraft. Each section contains a paragraph or two of her commentary, addressing both the writings and the scholarship that has shaped contemporary ideas. “In the historiographic tendency to interpret witch trials as proxies for other, real conflicts,” Howe writes, “the fact that witchcraft itself was a category of reality for early modern Christians gets lost…The reality of the Devil was never in question. The reality of his ability to affect change in human lives was also never in question (182-3).”

As a collection of English-language historical documents relevant through the 1700s, The Penguin Book of Witches is difficult to fault, but the loss Howe refers to is a loss of a connecting thread to contemporary belief systems in her own interpretations also. Although this mentality may also have seeped into Howe’s reading, as first quoted, she is conscious of her own blind spot in the quote above. She does not entirely want to negate witchcraft to a category of non-reality, though she’s unsure of what makes it a reality or how to discuss witchcraft as a reality (perhaps an effect of also being the author of supernatural young adult fiction). She says of finding the above-mentioned books at the home of her neighbor:

“Even after witchcraft disappeared as a deadly legal problem, the belief in witchcraft persists, continuing to do its cultural work, hiding in plain sight in the staid bedroom communities of Boston (xv).”

free_witch_clipart_-_public_domain_halloween_clip_art__images_and_graphicsActually, witchcraft is still a legal problem and civil rights/religious freedoms organizations such as The Lady Liberty League struggle to correct the misconceptions of the above-mentioned persistent beliefs in witchcraft—for a recent example, read the response posted on their facebook page to a much-publicized triple murder in Pensacola, Florida that has been said to have motives of “witchcraft.” Earlier this year, a man was convicted in Taos, NM for killing a woman he thought was a witch (the victim was a practitioner of Wicca and the person who killed her a self-professed witch hunter, according to a witness.) These reports are among numerous other reports of violence attributed either to witchcraft or witch hunts.

If the present day ‘cultural work’ of witchcraft (according to Howe’s quote in the first paragraph) is to assist us in separating from our past so that we can shape our future, Contemporary Wicca is articulating and re-visioning its identity as much as those who distinguish themselves from it. Voices from communities of belief demonstrate that witchcraft is still a “category of reality,” and they are also concerned with what a witch is and what she isn’t, though such a category remains shifting and challenging to define (just as it was in the 17th C when rivaling branches of Christianity pointed fingers in witch accusations).

Modern Wicca takes pains to distinguish itself from Devil worship, emphasizing that Satan is a Judeo-Christian construction and therefore not recognized by pagan religions, but that’s not to say they don’t see wrongdoing. I have not encountered a Wiccan text that suggests you find benevolence anywhere and everywhere you look. Indeed, some of the incidents recounted in the depositions and trial transcripts [reprinted in Howe’s book] describe physical and psychological violence on both sides of the issue. Conversely passages of trial transcripts are so exaggerated, they are difficult to take seriously, beckoning sarcasm and satire. Attempts at humor do not resolve the difficulties, though.

Confusing the issue of Wicca and Satanism, are the writings of Anton Szandor LaVey, founder of The Church of Satan and the author of the Satanic Bible and The Satanic Witch. (As a disclaimer, I have not read either title nor am I expressing an opinion of them.)  LaVey was influenced by Aleister Crowley, who was among the same social and intellectual circles as Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca as a modern practice. LaVey’s Satanism is also misunderstood. It’s an extension of 1960’s pop culture and occultism, a reaction against the restrictions of traditional Christian morality, which he thought was more harm than good.

witchcraft_for_tomorrow_-_google_searchDoreen Valiente, who studied with Gardiner for years and who is sometimes referred to as the “mother of modern witchcraft,” states in a title of hers, Witchcraft for Tomorrow (1978):

“Contrary to the picture of witchcraft drawn by the sensational Press, genuine witches do not indulge in ‘devil worship’ or Satan. They believe that their Old Religion is the aboriginal creed of Western Europe, and far, far, older than Christianity; whereas ‘Satan’ is part of a Christian mythology and ‘Satanists’ are just mixed-up Christians (20).”

George Gifford, an author highlighted by Howe, may have been attempting a similar point when he stressed in 1593 that to prosecute witches was simply another expression of the devil at work (23).

Valiente doesn’t mention LaVey, but she says:

“Satanism, in so far as it is genuine and not either a literary invention or an excuse for an orgy, seems most probably to have arisen from the oppressiveness of the Church, in either Roman Catholic or Puritanically Protestant counties, which engendered a spirit of revolt…Sometimes the expression of this spirit of revolt took on much darker hues. When it shaded into real black magic, an aberrant mind might conceive the idea of deliberately committing evil deeds, and even ritual murder, in order to propitiate that evil power which some religious people believed to be everywhere…This ghastly belief, however, is really nothing to do with the old religion of witchcraft, nor is it really very much to do with Christianity, or at any rate the Christianity Jesus taught (36).”

On the other hand, Valiente’s remarks beg the question, what prompted such authoritative and condemnatory remarks in Biblical writings as:
“There shalt not be found among you any one that maketh his son or daughter pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations, the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.” Deuteronomy 18:10-12 (quoted in Howe 4).holy_bible_free_clipart_-_google_search

Both sides could be asserting something to the effect of: “You have to be careful with that stuff; I learned that already.”

wicca_for_the_solitary_practitioner_-_Google_Search.jpgIn the context of such an ambiguous and uncomfortable question, I find it helpful to include Scott Cunningham’s insistence in the preface to his book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (2004):

“The Wicca as described here is ‘new.’ It is not a revelation of ancient rituals handed down for thousands of years (ix).”

He recognizes that not all contemporary minds are going to resonate with ancient teachings—whether pagan or biblical or from the Koran. Although Valiente has a tendency to stress the ‘old ways,’ her title is also an indication that she is moving away from the traditions of “yesterday.” In a way, then, Howe is in agreement with a New Age/post-New Age Wiccan authors/practitioners that there is a need to establish a category for the witch that was, the witch that is, and how our own identities may or may not be influenced by these archetypes and conscious or subconscious cultural imprints.

I’m not advocating a religion or a spiritual practice, although I have argued partially in favor of identification with the archetype of the witch and recognition of contemporary communities and individuals from whom such issues are quite real, I haven’t much been compelled to costume myself (as a witch or anything else) as an adult. There are many identities out there that carry qualities with them that I don’t care to explore. I’m only highlighting what seems to me a common thread of each of these writings–an almost cautionary tone when (in play or in seriousness) navigating channels of reality and identity.

I’ll leave you with that thought and wish you a happy and safe Samhain/Halloween as you disguise yourself–or opt not to dress up–this October. If you’d like to explore the historical aspects of witch trials, Howe’s book provides a varied selection of primary and secondary source documents from England and the American colonies along with her thoughtful commentary. For a sampling of the modern spiritual practice of Wicca, titles by either Valiente or Cunningham are a good place to begin.


© Melanie S. Demmer 2016




Leighann Goodwin, a former co-worker at the metaphysical bookstore where I previously worked, is one of the people who brought Katherine Howe’s book to my attention. Also with thanks to my friend Melissa Cigoi for directing me to resources pertaining to civil rights and religious freedoms in regard to pagan religions.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Woodbury:

Llewellyn Publications, 2004.

Howe, Katherine. The Penguin Book of Witches. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

Valiente, Doreen. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. London: Robert Hale Limited, 1978.

Suggested further reading:

Backe, Emma Louise. “Damsels & Demons: Women in Horror Part 1” The Geek Anthropologist.

Beckett, John. “Must Paganism Be Transgressive?” Patheos. (Curtesy Melissa Cigoi).

Blair, Elizabeth. “Why Are Old Women Often the Face of Evil in Fairy Tales and Folklore?” NPR.

Ortberg, Mallory.  “Painting of Witches Sabbats that Resemble Parties I Have Attended.” The Toast.

Schultz, Cara. “Exploring Pagan Ethical Codes.” The Wild Hunt.



Another name was on the door:

I lingered; all within was noise

Of songs, and clapping hands, and boys

That crashed the glass and beat the floor;

Where once we held debate, a band

Of youthful friends, on mind and art,

And labour, and the changing mart,

And all the framework of the land…

–from “In Memoriam A.H.H.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson