Little Thoughts 2: Altars

Altars: the physical reminders of that which we often forget but cannot do without.

Brass statuettes, pebbles, pieces of wood. My mother and her mother worshipped at all manner of altar, and now I do too. I know which rock to reach for, which shell, when I’ve lost touch with some essential thing. A consciousness spread—through me—across all that surrounds, more a lake than a cup of water.

Art, tattoos, certain clothes—all imbued with meaning and yet none more than scaffolding for a soul that’s settling into place.

Candles lit, invocations, invitations to a favourite god to come and rest within, and stay. The word “trappings” makes more sense now.

I think about those people who leave behind the things that matter, confident that the quiet within them will remain regardless. To release their altars as a true test of faith. And I wonder if even they sometimes fall prey to the egoic myth that one must find calm all by oneself, without even the help of an altar. Sometimes it’s foolish to refuse the help we need to remember what’s important and true. At other times, the way forward is to let go.

I am starting to let go of my altars. I do not carry a rock in my pocket every day, as I did six months ago. More often than not, I forget to wear my rings. And in this time, the quiet has only grown. Debris have washed to the shore and, at any moment, can be swept back into the sea; for now, the waves roll clear.

Little Thoughts 1: Project Shapes

I think often about finding the shape of a project, the form it needs to inhabit.

In academic science, it is possible to avoid searching for the shape of a project altogether. The system hands us an acceptable, legible form—the scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal with a particular subject-matter scope. Of course, predetermined shapes constrain. If we only had bundt tins, we would only make one shape of cake.

Bundt cake pan by David Benbennick, Wikimedia

These days, most of the ideas that move me are not just wildly cross-disciplinary but are also built from threads of connection between the academic, the personal, and the political. Many luminous writers before me have worked with some of the same ideas as me. Many of them have placed these ideas into the form of scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. I could do the same, but I’ve realized that if I did, I’d largely be replicating their work.

I’d rather work in concert with them—I can see what they wrote, the impact their work had, and then ask myself, “how do I move us further towards our shared goal, from my particular vantage point, at an angle that plays to my strengths, in the direction of the audience that I think I can reach, want to reach, needs reaching?”

Asking myself this question has taken me far from the form of the scientific paper into a land of few, new, and confusing constraints. Exploring this land of possibility has been weird. I’ve learnt that the only way to navigate it, in the absence of a prescribed path, is to tune into the inner voice telling me which ways to go and the outer voices showing me the consequences of choosing those directions. More on listening to these voices another time 🙂

Little Thoughts: A New Series

Hi everyone!

I’ve recently decided that I would like to be someone who has written well about many different things. For better or for worse, the only way to become that person is to write about many different things! So this is a series dedicated to little thoughts on many different things. Knowing me, topics will include nature and science and people and spirituality, but expect to be surprised!

The nuts and bolts: once a week at minimum (because regularity is important) but up to three times a week, 300 words per post at maximum (because brevity is important).

Ethos: in writing about many different things, I’m specifically avoiding the aura of expertise. I’m an expert in maybe one or two things, simply by virtue of having done them a lot. But I want to write about many things! And so I will write not from a position of authority but with the intention of bringing rigorous thought and feeling to a diversity of facets of human experience.

How to follow: Subscribe to my blog by email (look for the box on the right side of this page) and you’ll get an email in your inbox when I post here. You could also follow me devotedly on twitter, where I will link to all these posts, but that sounds like quite a lot more effort. Finally all posts will be under the “Little Thoughts” category, which you can click on when you visit this page.

Thanks as always for your time and attention, your responses are always welcome!



a concrete representation of little thoughts

What We Say When We Speak of Puzzles: Part II

On one of my last long walks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I had spent six long years getting a Ph.D., I found a jigsaw puzzle on the street. It was in a sealed box, never opened, never made whole. The image was of a Van Gogh painting, not one of my favorites but a good one nonetheless. Grinning, I quickly picked up the box and found myself hugging it close—I couldn’t believe my luck. I had been so worried about missing Cambridge—physically, viscerally—when I moved, in a few days, all the way across the U.S. to Santa Barbara, California. I could immediately see how this puzzle would give my hands a way to work out the fear and loneliness that I had always known, now heightened by the impending change in circumstances. I didn’t know what to expect from my new job as a postdoctoral scholar in behavioral and evolutionary ecology, from a new city in a new state. And so I packed the puzzle into my suitcase, ensuring that I’d have it as soon as I reached, just in case I needed it. This gift from the streets of Cambridge, the city I’d reluctantly grown to love, would travel with me. It would be the bridge I needed, from the familiar to the less known.

Sometime later, after my move and after about a month of heartbreak, he and I entered our first of many movings apart and comings together. We’re in each other’s lives now, and our break was not an ending but an essential segment of apartness in our unusual growth together. And it was in this first apartness from my first love, so unmoored and slipping into yet another of the spirals that had dogged me since adolescence, that I opened the Van Gogh puzzle. Instead of trying endlessly to reposition the pieces of my life after the excision from it someone I had grown to love, I laid out the individual pieces carefully onto the kitchen table and worked on smaller challenges, like fitting together these rolling fields of yellowed straw or finding the perfect match to that particular piece of blue sky. Spending time with the puzzle between calls to therapists, I began to appreciate how it let me be silent, how it helped me be alone when I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to keep myself company.

The puzzle lived in our kitchen for about a month, I think—had I guessed how long it would take to finish, I’d have balked at the inconvenience to my housemate, and may never have laid it out. But after just a few days, she too fell into little holes of puzzle-solving, mostly while I was asleep or out. She tackled the parts I’d dragged my feet on, and so this effort was no longer just a reflection of my sadness. Seeing our work grow through unplanned collaboration surprised and delighted me. We had found a way to share space in the slowly-solved puzzle.

When my housemate and I finished the Van Gogh puzzle, I wasn’t quite ready to break it apart, and so I framed it. I was amused at the idea of the “breakup puzzle” hanging up unbroken, in part because he and I were back in contact by then and in part because the puzzle was now more than just a symbol of a bad time. It was the start of a meditation, of finally seeking some kind of peace.

In a model of understanding the human condition called internal family systems, we think of ourselves as a family of parts. Some of these parts are protectors and other parts are exiles. The exiles have suffered some sort of trauma, and remain stuck in those moments of suffering. When faced with reminders of this trauma, the protectors try to save the exiles from getting hurt again. But in doing so, they also stop the exiles from healing, and from expressing themselves fully. In internal family systems therapy, you understand the limits, boundaries, and contours of your parts, helping them move out of their roles as protectors or exiles and into their more fully realized selves. In some ways, we are all our own puzzles, and what matters is finding ways for our pieces to fit together with ease.

Through this process of working with my parts in therapy—delving deeper into my fears and pains to uncover more and more of who my parts are, how they had been held back and how they can fit together once they are free—I have always come home to a jigsaw puzzle. I’ve distracted myself from the hardest parts of healing with the calm attention that is demanded by the tasks of pattern recognition and color matching, by becoming present in the reality of what and where these pieces are, and an irrefutable sense of where they need to be.

When you fit together two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, there is no interesting explanation for why it is the right fit—it simply is. There is no way to arrive at a solution through understanding; one simply searches, notices, fits pieces together, and moves onward. I have come to realize that one does not solve jigsaw puzzles, one builds them. 

In time I moved from Santa Barbara to Berkeley, and my new housemate was a quick convert to puzzling. She and I sometimes spent full days, in our sunshiny plant-filled home, working together on a puzzle in silence, growing consideration and trust between us. I bought a puzzle to do with him—an imagined drawing of oranges and metallic starlings, his favorite birds. He and I started the puzzle together, but my housemate and I carried it on. Some of her friends finished it when they came over to celebrate her birthday. It hangs in our living room now, unbroken. There are all kinds of community to be found in building a puzzle.

Two Christmases ago, he gave me an impossibly complex puzzle of the Earth—edgeless, unintuitive, and unending, it insists that I constantly find new ways to attend to it. More than any other, this puzzle feels like life. My life, too, is coming together with time.

Last Christmas, he gave me a puzzle that I found impossible to build, but it had the colors of a sunrise; this Christmas, a simple puzzle of a leafy fern that nearly fits in the palm of my hand.

Form and Feeling

When I planned this essay in my head some hours ago, I was happy. Then, a few little things happened, and I’m no longer there. This ebb and flow of feeling is something the poet Mary Oliver knew well. What her poetry reminds me to do, always, is to reach outward from the specifics of what I’m feeling into a more enduring connection with the world around me, with something divine.

In the latest installment of his weekly poetry essays, Devin Kelly writes beautifully about Mary Oliver’s sentimentality. He celebrates her depth of feeling, and the big revelations she comes to from what she sees in the world. But these lessons are never hers alone—they can be ours too, and she offers them to us. As Kelly puts it,

There’s something about Oliver’s work that lets you know, almost intuitively, that she is living in the house she has built for you out of her poems. And that she is inviting you in — not to stay forever, but to stay for a little while, just to see what you make of it. And that’s why I love Mary Oliver… Because Mary Oliver is Mary Oliver, and you know, when you crack a book of hers open, that you’re apt to find the complicated world and the complicated heart rendered in generous and beautiful terms.

When I was in college, I wrote an essay about poems that reckon with transitions and transience in nature. Somewhere in the essay was a little idea that I still think about often: that nature poems work because we too can experience the same thing that the poet was experiencing when they wrote their poem. And for this reason, my favourite poems about nature stay with me. I think of Wilbur’s Crow’s Nests every time I see a crow’s nest, or of Robert Frost when I see a spring pool or new bud. I think of Ada Limon’s Instructions on Not Giving Up too, every spring, and it carries me.

In a long essay I wrote last year about nature, loneliness and the science of behavioral ecology, I thought of Mary Oliver, in a way that I hope will give you a sense of the kind of kinship we can forge with one another, through nature and through poems. Part of that essay is going to be published soon (!!), but this section didn’t make it into the soon-to-be-published version.

The poet Mary Oliver described herself once as “one of many thousands who’ve had insufficient childhoods.” She spent a lot of her time as a child walking around the woods in Ohio, which she says saved her life, that she was saved by the beauty of the world. Like Mary Oliver, so many of us who come from difficult homes find our healing in nature, in its reliability and abundance.

When she writes about nature, Mary Oliver invites us to engage with the world, in all its difficult complexity and wondrous beauty. She insists, gently and yet unrelentingly, that we can see ourselves in nature, that we can see our lives reflected back to us and so we can connect. That we too are worthy of connection.

It is 2009. Somewhere else, at a different time, Mary Oliver is writing of the world that “offers itself to your imagination,” a world that “calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-/over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” I am barefoot, standing in the grass of a baseball field in Amherst, Massachusetts, looking up. Rain drizzles onto my upturned face, a breeze nudges me gently into acknowledging it, and overhead, flying geese call to one another, heading somewhere home-like, together. I am more myself than I have ever been.

In 2009, I am not yet a fully trained behavioral ecologist, but I’ve begun to learn the questions that a behavioral ecologist must ask of these geese. Why don’t they just fly alone? What might each individual gain from this coordination? Why does one goose fly at the tip of their V-shaped formation, even though to lead the way is to face the worst of the buffeting wind?

It is 2017. At some other time, in a different place, Mary Oliver is writing of loss and loon-song, the leaden feeling of the world and of a bird dead upon the shore. The feelings that break your heart open, irreparably and for the better. I am on a foggy grey beach in Santa Barbara, California, feet sinking into sand. The wind chilly, despite the summer. I am standing above the corpse of a loon. Scavengers and decomposers have left little behind but feathers, beak, and bone. Once, far away and a while ago, I had seen and heard a loon in its full living magnificence, its black and white patterning stark against greenish Vermont water, its long call, resonant with eerie sadness, carrying clearly across the lake’s expanse. And now, one of its kin is here, dead.

In 2017, I am a fully trained behavioral ecologist, and I am told by my profession that the task before me, as I stand in front of this dead bird, is a reckoning. Did it live a successful life before it died? Did it bear chicks of its own, ensuring the persistence of its lineage? Did it die before the other loons, from some fault that its peers did not suffer? These questions circle my mind as I walk home from the beach; I am sad, but I do not notice how the questions stoke my sadness.

Wild Geese by Kinsey Brock

I’m glad I planned this essay when I was happy; I’m glad I wrote it sad. I don’t feel happier having written it, but I do not feel alone.

Coming to terms with ice in Colorado

I’ve lived in Boulder, Colorado a few months now and I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not sure how I feel about it. There’s much to love here, and equally much I am challenged by, though the two much-es barely overlap. Which leaves a strange, fractured existence, half of me joyous at the sunrise lighting up the hills and the other half angry at every car, for each of them seems hellbent on endangering my life as a pedestrian.

I am not built for this town. I don’t want to own a car. I love being outdoors but pursue no activities that take me there. I am not white, or straight. I’ve stopped pretending to fit in anywhere, let alone in a place that seems to treasure conformity. I dress weird. I once thrived in that intangible indescribable thing I snobbishly (and with more than a hint of rose-tinted nostalgia) call real community; I now wilt in the faint approximations of community I seem to find here, unsure if all I’m seeing is the view from the outside or if there really is no there there. I love my job, though, and there’s a way in which I am grateful for the person that Colorado is forcing me to become—a person who has surrendered more than ever before to something like fate. But everything and everyone else feels…distant.

People ask me often if I’m going to learn to ski now that I live here. “No, hell no!” I reply quickly. There are many reasons I don’t want to ski, even some reasonable ones, most of which I can’t explain. I’ve only recently learnt that explaining myself—my likes, dislikes, hopes and wants—isn’t really necessary most of the time. Maybe the distance I feel here is changing me after all, into someone unapologetic. But by failing to muster any enthusiasm for skiing, I know I’m being stubborn and missing out, electing to avoid an experience that will make me more of this place, an experience that might even be fun.

So be it, I say today, because I now know how to shovel ice off a fucking sidewalk, and that’s the specific Ambika-meets-Colorado experience I needed instead. Not shoveling the day after snowfall when it’s easy. No, seven days later rather, when the first ten inches of snow has packed down into ice and then another ten inches have fallen atop it and then the next day is somehow more than twenty degrees warmer and every shovelful of what was cotton yesterday is now lead. The ice should yield to that perfect mixture of salt and sunshine, muscle and care, persistence. I ask my quiet neighbor’s advice on strategy, and while he approves of my plan he seems bewildered too, at the whole exercise. Surely it’ll melt in today’s balmy weather? I’m certain it won’t—I have never done this before, so your guess is as good as mine where this certainty is coming from. Some vague recollection of the physics of water in its solid forms, I suppose. But the quiet neighbor says, expose the pavement, that’ll help, and he’s right, so I get to work.

I admire the shovel’s metal edge, perfect for the job. I watch and feel underfoot the snow crush and melt and freeze and harden, shapeshifting within moments as I work. It all begins to feel like a dance where you need to know just how your partner moves in response to the slightest shifts in pressure. Something like respect grows within me for the ice and for the task at hand; as my back bends, I know this ache to be worthwhile.

A sidewalk, shoveled.

I’m learning to be an individual in Colorado, sometimes individualistic even. Most of the time I hate this transformation, but as I chip away at the ice, doggedly and alone in strange warm weather, I sort of see the appeal of some kind of individualism. My distance from everyone here, and the distance I trust they’ll keep from me, means that I owe no one an explanation for my actions. I could, like my other neighbor, have chosen to do nothing about the ice. In all likelihood, it would have melted fully sometime this next warm week. No one is going to thank me for shoveling. But this only proves that I’m not shoveling to be thanked, I’m shoveling because its the right thing to do.

I had worried that living here would leach from me all of my commitment to the collective—I mean, I’m not even sure I like public transit here, which is a sentence I never believed myself capable of uttering. And so I’m grateful for the goddamned snow that collapsed under the weight of booted feet and, in it, the chance to remind myself that even here, I am who I am, still mostly me. I recognize myself in Colorado, finally, reflected in some sidewalk ice.

On Other Shoulders

I’m working on a strange longform writing project, and I hover between two states of being about it:

  1. HOW on earth am I going to weave together all the ideas I’m interested in??
  2. WHAT IF my project is boring and derivative??

It isn’t hard to discern that these two fears are a little bit incompatible with one another, for if the project were in fact boring and derivative, then weaving together the ideas together wouldn’t be all that hard, and vice versa. But I’m a dialectical thinker now, so I have no problem holding them both. Ha!

But seriously though, in an effort to inoculate myself against both these fears, I’ve been meaning for a while to gather the books I’m working in conversation with and take a picture of them. To remind myself that it’s pretty unlikely that anyone else is working with this same combination of ideas. And if I can arrange them in some kind of resonance with the baffling flow of thoughts in my head, then maybe I’ll start to see how the idea-weaving needs to happen.

Anyway, here are some of the books, in some kind of order! I’m pretty excited about this project now 🙂

Lessons for DEI from Union Organizing

Here is a talk I just gave on what we can learn about how to enact cultural change in academia from the nuts and bolts of labor union organizing. Approximate script below!

Hello, and thank you for being at my talk today, and thank you to the SSB diversity committee for inviting me to speak at this symposium! My name is Ambika and I’m a postdoc at UC Berkeley, soon to be faculty at CU Boulder. I’m also a member of UAW Local 5810 and am excited to soon be a member of United Campus Workers Colorado though I should be absolutely clear that everything I’m saying today comes from my individual perspective, and is not spoken on behalf of these unions.

My talk today is about how our approaches to work in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI can perhaps benefit from the principles underlying labor union organizing. This talk is based on an essay I wrote about a year ago, which you can find on my blog, at this link.

I became really serious about DEI in 2014 during grad school, where I ran workshops, wrote blogposts, and volunteered as a liaison with more centralized efforts at the university, all with the intention of beginning as many conversations amongst my peers as I could about the importance of DEI. Which is to say that, for a while now, I have been committed to the work of creating diverse, inclusive, just, and equitable spaces in which we can do academic research. And I’m sure that many of you who are listening as well share in this deep commitment.

And yet, I am coming to understand that many of us have wildly different approaches to this work that we so deeply believe in. This variation in strategy has become apparent to me as DEI work has grown more widespread within academia, and as DEI statements have become commonplace across various levels of hiring.

Simultaneously, through becoming an active labor union organizer, I have come to a new understanding of how we are doing this work of changing our institutions for the better, which I want to share with you today.

Labor unions are a long-established way of bringing about positive change in the workplace. For decades, they have made tremendous strides in diversifying workplaces, by engaging in collective bargaining for better working conditions that include protections for workers from discrimination and harassment, and using collective power to push for legislative advances. I am not going to be talking about those broader political processes today. Rather, I want to talk more about the nuts and bolts of some strategies that underly the process of actually organizing to build collective power, and put those into the context of DEI.

I am going to make four main points, and go into each of them in a little depth. And I think a lot of what I’m saying, many of you may already know or feel to be true, I just hope that putting them all into one place helps to make our shared vision a little more concrete.

First is the basic premise of labor organizing: that workers know best, that the people involved in the day-to-day activities of the workplace are well-positioned to have excellent ideas on how that workplace should function. In the context of research labs, for example, this means that grad students, undergrad research assistants, lab technicians and postdocs may have unique and often better insights into how research takes place than a PI, a dean, or a university president. In the context of DEI, the message of this point is: the people affected by the culture of an institution need to have real power in deciding how that culture needs to change.

So for those of us doing the work of DEI, at some point, it’s going to be important for us to reflect realistically on the extent of our power, the situations in which we are, in labor-union-speak, workers or management. And the message is different for the two.

So if you are a worker, someone with less individual power in an institution, I want to tell you that your voice and your demands matter, and you can make them matter more by coming together. Coming together means articulating what you think needs changing and ALSO talking to your peers about their thoughts, finding common ground, and then making demands with a unified voice. Giving everyone a chance to voice their thoughts does not mean that everyone will get what they want, including you. But the more transparent you are about your decision-making processes, the more you all will feel heard and the more likely you will all commit to working towards the eventual outcome, even if it’s not exactly what you all envisioned. You do have to agree enough, though, that you can put forward real and concrete demands to the people with power.

And if you are closer to being management, someone with more individual power, the message to you is, simply, move out of the way. Work to support demands made by those with less power than you. Listen, ask good questions, and work to understand where these demands are coming from, then ask how you can help.

All of this means that, whether you are a worker or management, the outcome of your DEI efforts will be different than you initially imagined, that you lose tight control over the outcome. But, what you have instead of control is input and investment from stakeholders across the institution in your endeavor, which makes it more likely to succeed.

Second, local context matters tremendously. What works for one lab, department, or university may not work for another. While we can be inspired by what others have done and certainly can and should find ways to work together, we also may need to come to our own solutions or adapt solutions to our local contexts.

This leads me to a very specific critique of how we use DEI statements during hiring in academia. I’m going to take as an example the rubric for assessing DEI statements from my own institution, UC Berkeley, where they say that the highest number of points should be assigned to a candidate who “Identifies existing programs they would get involved with” and “Clearly formulates new ideas for advancing equity and inclusion at Berkeley”. I applaud the intention here of demanding specific actions rather than vague platitudes, but I’d actually suggest that this part of the rubric is counter-productive, because a candidate for a job who is not aware of local context cannot genuinely be expected to know how they can best improve that context. So this rubric actually encourages candidates to make guesses about institutions that they cannot yet know from within, and to make claims that they don’t know if they can back up, simply for the sake of checking off a box.

In contrast, what we learn from organizing is that your effectiveness at bringing about change depends on how you are situated, your specific connections, in a particular setting. This brings us another really important lesson—every single one of us can have a role to play in this work of cultural change, precisely because of our unique positions and connections. And the best way to leverage these connections in the direction of equity and justice is by joining in the work with those who share your vision of the kind of institution you want to build.

My problems with this rubric also lead directly to my third point, which is that the work of change is usually not glamorous or even especially novel.

So when our rubrics focus on new and big ideas, they don’t necessarily select for the those crucial people who can repeatedly identify and then act upon opportunities, often tiny opportunities, to push in the direction of justice. What we learn from organizing is that the work of cultural change involves speaking up, often in small ways, over and over again. It involves participating and successfully persuading others to participate, over and over again, because you have a shared vision for the kind of workplace you want to create and you are willing to put in the work to create it.

So how can we shift hiring to reflect this? One option is to give candidates prompts for their DEI statements that encourage them to describe small and repeated contributions, explaining their intended impact in the context of a broader vision of the kind of culture they are working towards. Another option is to ask candidates to write brief responses that describe how they would act in particular situations that you present them with. These situations could be a real problem that you in your department have encountered. By giving people local context and asking them how they would engage with that situation, you have the opportunity to seek out people that will contribute positively to your collective efforts. And at promotion, instead of or in addition to an individual letter, candidates could submit a letter from members of the department (not just other faculty but also students, staff, and other affiliates) that describes how the candidate has contributed to the collective efforts and goals of the department in improving equity and inclusion.

And finally, this whole endeavor of changing culture within academia is not going to be risk free. For all of us, in some contexts, the incentives we are presented with are not going to align with what we need to do to chip away at systems of oppression. And I think this is often a sticking point when people consider whether or not to join into DEI efforts—we want the incentives to be aligned in ways that allow this work to be easy. And while we can certainly fight for them to be that way, we cannot expect it to be that way already, without hard work. AND, most importantly, this work is easier if we don’t do it alone—the risk is lower when we act together.

So in sum, I think the lessons for DEI that I take away from labor organizing are that workers know best, local context matters and your position in that context matters, YOUR small and repeated actions matter so you don’t need to worry about being a hero, and there is risk to the work of changing our institutions but we can lessen the risk when we work together.

I want to thank Didem, Lydia, and Ned for their feedback, and also point you to a newly launched initiative called Collective Action for Better Science (not yet live), where we discuss the power of all of us working together to improve working conditions across science, and so improve the science that we do—I hope to see you there.