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  • Shayda Kafai

Digital Conferencing: A Journal

Pre-Conference: Today would have been comprised of travel. I would have anxiety-dashed through the airport, remembering that I forgot to write down where I parked my car. I would have fumbled my way through the airport, not because I hadn't flown before, but because my panic was leading me.

I would have flown to the city hosting the conference (last weekend, it was the Society of Disability Studies Conference at Ohio State University and this weekend it was the Tronto Queer Film Festival in Toronto, Canada). I would have found transportation to my hotel, and sat on my bed in search of calm. I would have unpacked my snacks, teas, and my instant oatmeal and soups. Conferences are expensive. Food is expensive. At most conferences, I eat in my room alone. It's an opportunity to regroup, decompress, and stop speaking; it's an opportunity to press pause on the performance.*

*Pause. Performance does not mean being inauthentic. For me, performance means being "on" all the time. It means meeting the overwhelming and persistent expectation of networking. It means the myth of togetherness: I am put together on the outside to mask the expanse of caustic and dissonant thoughtfeelings I have on the inside. On the inside, I feel explosive, brackish. I want, with everything in me, to retreat, to blend into the conference wallpaper.

There is this. And there is something else: these conference spaces nourish and feed me. Sharing space with crip and queer family rejuvenates me like no other. It brings me glittery, stimmy joy. Just as much as it teaches me, as much as I learn and get excited to write and process through what I have come into contact with, just as much as I need and appreciate the familial love of my community, the social performance of the rest of it all exhausts me.

On the first night, I am exhausted after travel. My body is achy. I take my vitamins, drink my nettle tea, and try to sleep. The next day, an excited chaos of a new kind begins.

This year, because of COVID-19, everything is online. I am not traveling. I am leisurely lingering through the day: organizing my desk, completing last-minute preparations, and realizing that I can wear cozy sweatpants tomorrow. I am finding that I am grounding myself in the joy of it all. This feels different.

Day 1: I woke up 30 minutes before my presentation, took my meds, got dressed, and walked around the corner from my bedroom to my office. If I got overstimulated during the day, I turned off my Zoom camera. When speaking felt overwhelming, I posted comments in the chatbox. If I needed a coffee refill, I went to the kitchen. Being at home alleviated so much, especially when distance and new places result in raging anxiety.

Today, I haven't once thought: will I get lost? What if my map function on my phone doesn't work? Can I afford this $7 cup of conference coffee? Do I have time to go back to my hotel room to eat food? Instead, I arrived in slowness. I presented in slowness. I listened to panelists present as I stretched on my yoga mat. I reclined.

(Image description: Shayda's right leg is extended on the right side of the screen. She is wearing dark gray sweats and is sitting on a gray and yellow yoga mat on the floor. At the center of the screen is her journal, pink pen, and red coffee mug. Her gray laptop is propped up on two blue yoga blocks.)

Day 2: At the end of the day yesterday, my spoon count was not drained nearly as much as it would have been during an in-person conference. But the exhaustion was still there.

Here's the reality: it's the end of week 12 and the semester is coming to a close. It has been an intensive semester and my bodymind still needs rest. Today I needed to sleep and I couldn't attend many of the morning sessions (the conference is on east coast time). I am grateful that the sessions are being recorded and my hope is that I will be able to watch them on my own time.

The truth is that I wouldn't have been able to attend this conference if it wasn't online. My bodymind would not have had the capacity to attend, to process.

There is something else: online conferencing has given me the flexibility to attend more than one conference this year, something I haven't been able to do. I feel liberated, able to explore and learn at my own pace without capitalistic restrictions. This type of growth, this type of colleague-knowledge sharing joy and community-building should not be inaccessible to our bodyminds or to our wallets.

I am hoping that this compassionate conferencing practice becomes a persistent ritual, an option that we carry with us far beyond the pandemic. Here's to more conferences in our socks, without shoes, to live-streaming webinars and workshops, and to conferencing while coloring and while stretching. Here's to expansive learning in comfort.

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