On February 10, 2017, I prepared to present at my first official academic colloquium. Sure, it was a small event at my home institution of Carleton University but to me it was a big deal. It was a chance for me to share my work with my academic peers and my professors in an environment that was not as intimate as office hours nor as public as the classroom. I went to the event on my own, although several of my professors and friends showed up to support me (and my fellow presenters). Now, for those of you who did not attend Carleton you might not be aware that the English Department, where the colloquium took place, is located on the 18th floor of Dunton Tower – the tallest building on campus.
Dunton is famous for its height and infamous for its elevators (at least among the student body). Out of four elevators there is usually one that isn’t working or needs a break – meaning it stays on the ground floor while you hop from foot to foot in the lobby waiting for something to transport you to class. That day I was not only nervous about my presentation I was also worried about the following: being late to the colloquium, having to climb the stairs and arriving out of breath, and eventually, once I entered an elevator, getting stuck in one for the remainder of the afternoon. Fortunately, none of those scenarios occurred.
In an effort to calm myself before entering the English Lounge and confronting the reality of my impending presentation I put in my headphones and turned up my music. I like to listen to things loud, especially when I’m anxious because the beat often overrides my feelings; music lets me drift emotionally while I go about my day. That day in February I put my music on shuffle and a song came on that helped me square my shoulders, put a smile on my face, and present my paper with confidence. That song is part of what this post is about and so, without further ado, I present to you the title of that song:
If you’re an avid reader of my blog you might recognize Sheila’s name – she is one half of the Canadian folk duo Dala – and I wrote about them when I saw them in concert (for the 3rd time) in March 2016. When Sheila’s debut solo album (All In) first appeared I swiftly bought it and consumed its content. However, as I am apt to do with music I tend to replay certain songs over and over without paying the same attention to the rest of the album. “Little Girl” was not one of my favourites prior to that day in February simply because I’d never spent a significant amount of time listening to it – my longstanding favourite from All In is “Fishing Boats” especially now, since I’m facing a move out East. Something stopped me from skipping over “Little Girl” that day in the elevator though, and I am eternally grateful that I let myself be consumed by the lyrics, if only for a brief elevator ride (and a short walk in the hallway of the 18th floor).
The song starts off with the words, “Little girl, you’ve got a lot of nerve / to use your eyes / to use your words /And little girl, you think you understand,” and they made me pause. Those words stopped the chaos of my thoughts in its tracks and I thought about what she was saying. I felt myself internalize those words as I thought about what I was doing – how it had taken nerve (or grit) to submit my piece for the colloquium – and how, that no matter how my fourth year turned out I wanted to continue using my eyes to observe and my words to report on the world from my perspective. When I entered university I thought I knew some things but I learned very quickly to own up to my ignorance. I thought I understood a lot of things yet, now that I’ve graduated, well, I’m not sure whether I understand the world any better than before. Maybe, just maybe that is the key – there is no ‘true’ understanding – there is only growth, pain, joy, loneliness, and the opposite of loneliness.
“Little girl, who do you think you are?” comes up later in the song and that line made me think of of the Alice Munro short story collection with the title, Who Do You Think You Are?, which I read when I was thirteen or fourteen. I must admit that I recall very little about the content of the stories rather I remember brief snapshots, mere sentences, and the way they made me feel. They made me feel old beyond my years and yet, also younger than my age. They made me question myself and my life in a way I was inadequately equipped to, but now I have the tools. I still don’t have an answer to the question though. “Who do I think I am?” Well, there are facts about me that I can list for you – my height, my age, my undergraduate degree, my graduate school, my cat’s name – but none of those facts are me. They are part of me and my experience in life, but they are not what makes me who I am.
The parts of me that make me who I am cannot be easily described. Those parts are things like the way music can overwhelm and consume me. The way I pay attention to nature some days and my phone on others. The way that I sometimes wish I could live inside a lyric or a line of poetry because it’s just so beautiful and I want to be just as beautiful and neat. The way I love looking at water but the silence beneath the surface is too loud. The way I like to run my hand along furniture and walls as if by touching concrete things I can better ground myself in a moment or a place. “Can your little heart do what we’re afraid to?” sings Sheila in the song, and on that day in February I took a deep breath, looked myself in the mirror (there are mirrors in Dunton’s elevators), and I said, “Yes.”
I will do the things that scare me. I will follow my passions and my logic, not simultaneously (that might lead to circles) but perhaps in quick succession. I will do what I am afraid to do. I will do what others are afraid to do. I will meet the eyes of my audience members. I will forge ahead beyond small speaking mistakes. I will live my life. I will drive a car – far, far, away. I will continue to learn. I will use my eyes. I will use my words.
“Little Girl” gave me the jumpstart I needed to psyche myself up for my presentation and it went well. I enjoyed the experience immensely.
This post isn’t about that event so much as it is about how I still have a lot to learn. It is also about how powerful and amazing Canadian music is – in one of my English classes at Carleton I actually wrote a whole paper on Dala’s song “Not Alone.” That’s a story for another day.