“You look tired.” That time it was from my friend, Paul-Lee, who I hadn’t seen in a year. The one before that was from a classmate in the elevator. The one before that was from another colleague. I’m pretty sure my cat said it a couple of times lately. I am tired. It’s my last semester of coursework (ever). And I haven’t felt like writing lately.
Every semester I tape a list of projects above my computer, and when I finish a paper I cross it off with a wide-tipped Sharpie and dance around the living room in my socks. Last week, the paper fell and got taped to the floor where it got crumpled and stepped on. I taped it back up two days ago. It fell again. Now it’s missing. This did not bode well for my current investigations of the middle ages.
You see, I’ve been living an urban legend. You know the one in which the person does a couple of years of research only to find that someone else has published a book on the exact same topic within the last three months? Yeah, that one.
So I took a little time off to mourn the loss of my research. Cleaning is good for productivity, right? I conquered my self-pity with ice cream and went on a grand cleaning-out spree. I collected things to get dry-cleaned. I started sewing buttons back on my coats. (By the way, why didn’t someone tell me my black coat has a huge hole under one arm? How long have I been wearing it like that?) I read the New York Lottery Winner’s Handbook, just in case. I even tried pseudo-homework things like starting a bibliography for my next qualifying exam and writing snarky anonymous responses to people who post inane comments on Amazon book reviews. But the pièce de résistance of Resistance came from watching the premiere episode of Game of Thrones—totally academically justifiable because it’s, like, based on medievalism, right? Ack.
So to refocus on academics I went to a lecture by Dr. George Demacopoulos, a professor of theology at Fordham University. He spoke about the translation of the relics of Saints Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom from Rome to Constantinople in 2004. Justification for the return of these relics from the Catholics to the Orthodox Christians was based largely on medieval textual accounts of how the relics got to Rome in the first place. He framed the interaction as one of great cultural importance—an event that brought two religious groups together after centuries of unease, tension, and at times even outright conflict. He also noted the significance of religious treasures being given over to the Orthodox Patriarch of Istanbul because Christians there are a small minority (about 2000 in number); if the patriarch were to go into exile for any reason, the secular Turkish government would have control over the treasures. I made a note to seek out these relics on my upcoming pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia, and Professor Demacopoulos cheerfully reminded me not to miss the Chora Monastery, either. (My things-to-see list is growing exponentially).
Inspired by the talk, I sat at a bar on the Upper West Side with a notebook, a bowl of pasta, and a glass of wine (a ritual I developed last summer) and wrote lots of words on my legal pad, but none of them were my research paper. The lecture got me thinking about the stickiness of studying religion from an academic perspective. It’s easy to wallow in “what could I, an art historian, possibly have to say about a religion that has evolved over two thousand years?” Is it necessary (or even possible) to remain neutral when studying the history of any religion? My thoughts tumbled around a bit more on this theme throughout my way home, but none of it was anything new. One of the most fascinating things about studying the history of religions is navigating ways to study deeply personal beliefs with academic, historical methods. Like art history, this is a study of human nature. So my mental stumbling block was definitely not a crisis of religion. What, then? Two cans of Coke, another cleaning spree, and an episode of Gossip Girl later, I still felt squirmy about completing my writing project. What’s the point?
Eventually the din of my inner procrastinating lunatic was muffled by the tiny voice of honesty in my head. I had lost faith in my own expertise, my own story, my own reasons for studying Byzantine art. Deep down, I didn’t believe that anyone would ever want to pay me for what I do. What if all my ideas were, unbeknownst to me, already in print? What if I never make a living? What if the weight of my student loans squashes me into a little greasy spot on the floor? What if I really suck at this and no one has noticed until now?
But at 3:01 am today I received a bill amounting to $0. Huh? It was a pre-ordered copy of Steven Pressfield’s aptly titled book about fighting creative Resistance, Do the Work. I went to Prospect Park this afternoon and lay down on the damp grass. When the sun got too bright, I rolled over and took some pictures of the trees. By then I had a better refrain echoing in my subconscious: “do the work.” Yes, I’ll get a job eventually; I’ll teach art history to many people (some of whom will like it and some who won’t) later; I’ll give lectures and make small talk and wear spiffy outfits and design PowerPoint presentations many times in the future if I’m lucky. I’ll embrace my love of art and all its revelations about human nature. But first, I must do the work. I have to write the papers before I can make a career out of them.
I dusted off my rumpled sweatpants (please don’t judge my fashion; it’s spring break), bought a coconut water, and ambled home from the park with words in my head that have finally made it to paper. Thank you, Steven Pressfield; your forward-thinking book has sent me back to Byzantium where I belong.