Saturday, March 14, 2015

Dreams at the edge of a long winter

On Thursday I finally passed my comps exams and advanced to candidacy. It was the single scariest moment of my life as a student. But it is behind me now, and I can continue forward.  I had never really thought about what else I should do if I didn't pass, because I put all my eggs into this PhD basket, and there was no Plan B. Grad school is a huge investment in time and effort, and the pressure to succeed is enormously stressful.  I had invested six months of preparation, including three months of rewrites, and it was beginning to erode my heath and self-esteem to the point where I felt it would make or break me physically and mentally for the rest of my life.

To try to ground myself the night before and calm my fears, I prayed. I'm not religious, but it's funny how people turn to the idea of higher powers when we're most afraid. I recited a prayer that I heard in the 1970 movie: "Little Big Man." If you're not familiar with the movie, I suggest you see it. Soon.

It's a story about a white boy raised by the Cheyenne in the frontier days. His adoptive father, the chief of their village, prepares to face death by reciting a prayer, the first part of which inspired me to recite it at sunset, and again at dawn:

Thank you for making me a human being! Thank you for helping me to become a warrior! Thank you for all my victories and all my defeats! Thank you for my vision and for the blindness in which I saw further!

With increasing dread, I had only just started to think about Plan B. What if I don't pass my comps? How will I ever have the energy and will to face it again? If I can't hack it, where do I go, what do I do?

The warrior's prayer made me see that defeat is honorable.  And, when defeat is allowed to be an honorable part of life, suddenly all choices in life become valid, all are equal. All are good.

I began to see real options: One, just stay put and keep on working. Two, take a semester off and then resume afresh. Three, quit grad school and go do something else. I had many reasons not to pick Number Three. But it became a good, valid choice once I allowed myself to realize that nothing--nothing!---is worth sacrificing your health for.

By putting my own heath at the top of the list, it gave me the freedom to choose to opt out. On the morning of my comps I was prepared to face the day and accept whatever outcome lay hidden before me.  I know that I stumbled a few times during the exam. But I also know that I answered other questions well.  I may not be the most brilliant grad student that ever faced a dissertation committee, but I love my project and I work very hard.

I had to go out in the hall for the committee's deliberation. While trying to eat a bagel that I couldn't taste, I looked out the window at the snow and the trees and told the Universe that I accepted whatever happened from that moment forward, and I would still do my best to be happy.

And then Donie came out and gave me the thumbs up. I almost couldn't believe it. It was like I suddenly lost a thousand pounds.

And then twice in the same day I had champagne. Really nice champagne. Donie and her husband threw a little party for me in their office that evening. And later that night I shared another fancy bottle with my neighbors, who brought food--and jello shots. I'm not from the jello shots generation, but I'm beginning to realize jello shots are just as important as a good bottle of bubbles.

And finally, at the end of the long week, while splitting wood in the yard it struck me that man, I have it made in the shade. I have a great project where I get to study the Arctic and live in a beautiful little house in the woods where I can see moose and the aurora from my couch, I have good friends and neighbors, a great graduate advisor and committee, and a nice big pile of firewood.  It may not be somebody else's dream, but it's really what I want right now. Where it will all lead is not yet known to me, but I am thankful for the uncertainty.

1 comment:

  1. One’s limitations are an important thing to grasp. Great things are accomplished by working hard over the long term. This can only be accomplished if you achieve balance. I hope you enjoy this new beginning. May your work be challenging but worth the effort.