Sunday, September 20, 2015

It's Autumn and Nobody's Smiling

Many moons ago, in my late twenties, I found myself feeling isolated and deeply unhappy. I had graduated from college a few years earlier and had married my college boyfriend, but I found myself frustrated and depressed most of the time.  I turned to my diary as a sort of confessional, because I felt nobody else could really help me. Part of my problem was that I thought the misfortunes I suffered were completely out of my control, that life was meant to be “against me,” thus nobody else could truly understand my situation.  I had no awareness that my ability to control my feelings and choices could be the key to a happier life. In other words, my lack of self-awareness, my ignorance of where my own powers lay, left me feeling like a boat at the mercy of inhospitable seas.  It got so bad that I actually ran away from home.  The first time, I took all the money from the joint savings account my husband and I had, and I drove out west for 100 days, hiking in the mountains and sleeping in motels and campgrounds. The second time, I was divorced and living on my own, and I decided I’d had enough of my life again, and headed out west again for the summer.  Why I ever returned to Chicago is something of a mystery, but it probably had to do with the fact that I’d run out of money and ideas.  Once I learned that I had the power to navigate my little boat, my life began to become less of a struggle and more of an adventure.

Without these skills of navigation I doubt I would ever have landed in Alaska to study the Arctic. Sometimes I feel like pinching myself at how lucky I am.

Even so, every autumn in Fairbanks I feel myself internally bracing for an invisible storm. Not necessarily the coming of winter (although that’s surely part of it), but certainly the combination of the stress of the fall semester, the demands of my graduate program and all its attendant commitments and meetings and obligations.  Grad students at UAF who are awarded a TA assignment are expected to run two labs per week, attend all the lectures, and do all the assignments to keep up with student questions. I confess I have never looked forward to it. The only thing that gives me a sense of excitement is the idea that my data will show me something unexpected and wonderful, that it will one day be published, and that I will go on to other as-yet unknown adventures, hopefully having something to do with the Arctic.

Even so, after three years in this program, all the steps still required to earn my PhD seem as remote and untested as the steps to the summit of Everest. And some days I’m just not up for the challenge.

It’s helped tremendously to have good neighbors, people to hang out with and share a meal and some laughs and forget the frustrations of academia.  But nothing lasts forever. Recently, some my Alaskan friends have decided to leave Fairbanks to pursue other adventures.

I know that life goes on, but it is sad to see them go.

Gareth and Ryanne left last month to seek their fortune in the Lower 48. And tomorrow, Joanne is heading down to the lower 48 to work for the next eight months in Idaho and Washington. She’s sublet her cabin to yet another new face who comes and goes about her own business, and it isn’t clear if Joanne will be back in the spring to stay or to wrap things up and take off for good.

The undergraduates I’m TAing this semester will graduate and move on in a few short years, and who knows, I may even be done before they are. Right now it seems hard to imagine. There’s so much to juggle with my dissertation and the demands of the TA assignment, and I know my fellow grad students bear the same weight of their own tasks.

 The worse thing about graduate school is—hands down--the utterly disheartening look on the unsmiling faces of graduate students; these are people you pass everyday on campus who don’t look at you or speak to you. If you should dare to say “Good morning” or even just “Hi” they look as though you threw cold water on them.  These days I think about what it would feel like to drive out of Fairbanks to Delta Junction and then east into Canada, cutting south to cross over into Montana or North Dakota, or continue further on to Minnesota or Wisconsin, never looking back.  I have no idea what I’d do once I got to wherever I think I would go, but that isn’t the point. These are the days I just want to run away from the pileup of darkness and cold and grad school duties in this pressure cooker world of academia. Sometimes I worry that I am sacrificing my health and happiness for the right to be called a doctor of philosophy. But then I tell myself: if you walk away from all this work, you will have nothing to feel good about--so you might as well get those three letters after your name to compensate for all this suffering.

And then I go outside and I’m startled by the sight of a squirrel that has landed somehow in my rain barrel and drowned. I mean, it’s not like Alaska is in a drought. It’s been cloudy and rainy for the past ten days. Why did he end up in here? Squirrels are not what comes to mind when you think of accident-prone klutzbags. So what happened here, little buddy? Did you just decide to take the plunge like your lemming cousins? Was it just all too much to bear?  Or did you see a tasty-looking giant spruce cone, magnified in the lens of the water?


  1. I think the poor creature just got into something of which he/she could not get out.

    I considered your stressful situation and I think the following is the best course of action. I would eat healthy, get rest, and concentration on a future reward. Thinking about the degree is good, but I think it is too distant. I would tell myself, if I get my work done then I can do something fun this weekend. I would also think about what I would be able to do during an upcoming break.

    Those who succeed in life are the ones who push themselves to do what they need to get done even when they are alone and have no direction. You are lucky that you face neither at the moment.

  2. James, thanks so much for the words of encouragement.