divergent selves

Last evening, I had the opportunity to talk to a graduate-level writing class. The class was actually one I took as a graduate writing student, and I was excited to return to the class and see what it was like a decade later. So many memories overtook me when I entered the English Department. Even though the department has been remodeled, it’s still musty and un-airconditioned. Looking at row after row of books – poetry! nonfiction! literary novels! Shakespeare! John Dunne! Alice Walker! – and the names of professors and their office hours, I felt at best profoundly nostalgic. In the few short minutes I spent in the English Department’s lobby, I ran into three people I knew. I’d come from work, so I was still wearing my extra tall black heels and a dress that sort of looks like a water color painting, and I felt foolish. “I’m invited to be here!” I wanted to yell. “It turns out, I have expertise!”

Between undergraduate and graduate school, I spent eight years of my life pursuing degress in English Literature and writing. I know my way around English departments housed in old buildings, sunlight streaming through rarely-washed windows – I am aquainted with the late-afternoon malaise that washes over before evening classes begin, which have their own special energy. I know who coined the phrase “a willing suspension of disbelief” and I understand allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare and Mythology and lines of poetry like “one man loved the Pilgrim soul in you” and “hope is a thing with feathers” float through my mind on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I have listened to more conversations about Derrida and Foucault than I care to count. And when I think about how those years built upon one another, naturally, classes and papers and writing projects building upon one another, well, it comes as a rather crushing blow to remember that I am now in health care public relations, expected to have a Pavlovian response to my blackberry and keep my writing simple and straight forward.

My talk in front of the class went well – so well the students asked nearly an hour’s worth of questions afterward. It felt so terribly satisfying to take time out of my day to first of all, prepare for the class, second of all, rearrange the information for better delivery, third of all, deliver my talk to an engaged audience and fourth of all answer questions – I can’t even put it into words. I had so much fun – the kind of fun that made me realize maybe my working life isn’t as much fun as I sometimes think it is.

Right now, I live in fear that eventually I’m going to be made to wear google glass, or whatever the name is for that weird eye internet google thing. Years ago I swore I’d never be tied to a blackberry, and now I am. Later, I promised myself I wouldn’t ever tweet, and now I tweet regularly for work. I’ve since told myself the second someone expects me to attach a computer to my head, I’m outta here, but really, how can I even truthfully think that now? I’m so far from the girl who could spend hours studying Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats that I swear I saw the ghost of her walk by me last night, gently shaking her head, feeling sorry for thirty-six year old me. Of course, she was probably on her way to have a cigarette – it’s good that some things change.

The weird thing is, I’m not even unhappy! I like my work -often I could even claim to love it. I am compensated well, I work (mostly) reasonable hours, I love most of the people I work with and my work regularly interests me, so I’m not entirely sure where this sense of brokenheartedness comes from…maybe from not following my dreams? From some weird sense that I let the professors who so encouraged and believed in me down, even though many of them have either passed away or retired to esoteric parts of the world mainly to be left alone?

I think some of my angst over this stems from the fact that my current role in my office doesn’t particularly embrace intellect. One of the minor criticisms my boss gave me in my recent annual review was the idea that she thinks I overthink things too much. “This probably comes from your graduate school training, but you don’t have to think about things so hard!” she said. I HATE hearing that, even if it is true. Thinking about things hard – tackling complexity – those are the sorts of things I’m good at!

I’m lucky enough, though, to be able to look at the situation from the other side, as well. I’ve watched many of my friends, after our graduate degree, attempt to become freelance writers. While a few have succeeded admirably, many more have lived in a nightmare of pitches that are never responded to, completed work that is never paid for, and even projects canceled halfway through because a company suddenly cancels a project. Perhaps even more upsetting, none of the friends who pursued Ph.D.s at the time I was in school ended up in tenure track professorships, save one – the rest still live year to year renewing contracts with no hope of tenure and zero support for their research. When I think about that untraveled road, I wonder if I’d even be carrying this second child. Would I be able to afford him or her?

It’s funny, all the different lives we are capable of leading. Even if I’m experience a little buyer’s remorse, as it were, I’m grateful for the different opportunities I’ve been given, and I’m even more grateful I’m the kind of person able to adapt when necessary. I can recall more than one professor telling me “You should only get a Ph.D. if can’t imagine doing anything else,” and I felt so stymied by that declaration. Not imagine doing anything else? Why, I could imagine doing EVERYTHING else!

I’m not in any way ashamed of ending up in public relations – there is honor is simply getting up and going to work every day – and I am in the company of many writers. And a lot of the work I get to do is creative and rewarding. But I also don’t want to become the kind of person who, upon beginning Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, breathes a sigh of relief for (a.) understanding it and (b.) enjoying it (not that I would know anything about that…) – I need to revise the way I’m thinking about my work, and possibly the projects I’m taking on. I am proud of what I do, but if talking to that one class taught me anything, I could do even better work – probably kick-ass work – if some of the circumstances I’m in now change.

Working is so weird, really, especially if you are lucky enough to do something you enjoy even halfway. You have to do it for a long time unless you are independently wealthy so you should probably do your damndest to make sure it’s something you like. I constantly waiver between considering myself relatively competitive and wanting to a be a leader at work, with visions of someday working for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or or the World Health Organization, and wishing I had a more laid-back career – maybe a free lance writing gig combined with teaching yoga, or something like that. That said, in my mid-thirties I can see a lot more possibilities for converging my interests than I ever did in my mid-twenties, and I’ve realized nothing has to be an either/or situation. I have a lot of friends who don’t like growing older, but so far, I am a fan of it – I like the perspective it gives and the opportunity it offers for incorporating what I used to think of as my many divergent interests into one full, fascinating life.

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7 thoughts on “divergent selves

  1. I feel a lot of that nostalgia too lately – life never turns out the way we expect it to, and whilst reality isn’t all that bad, those youthful dreams had a particularly burnished sheen to them that made them very beautiful and precious. I think we sort of expect ourselves to take everything in our stride, and yet negotiating the forks in the road is a big deal. I look back at all the years of chronic fatigue, and then the end of the study support job and to the place I now stand with nothing left to me at all – apart from my husband and some hope – and realise that it has been a big thing, all this change, and that I shouldn’t expect myself to simply shoulder it and assume no profound processing has to be done.

    But it sounds to me as if your talk went fantastically well, and your posts remain so beautiful and wise, I can promise you that you still have a hundred different choices open to you in the future, wherever that road takes you.

  2. Mid-thirties. I won’t be around to read your reflections when you’re in your mid-sixties, but I hope they’re as satisifying and interesting as mine are.

    By my mid-forties, I’d received two degrees in widely divergent fields. I’d worked in the Texas Medical Center, done public health work in Liberia, studied in Berkeley, been married and divorced, moved back to Texas for a new career, followed life in inner-city Houston with life in rural Texas, taught sailing and cruised the Carribean.

    At 44, I started my own business. I made it a success, moved my mom down to Texas and took care of her until her death. Today, I work as much as I need to and write as much as I want to. I’m not financially “secure”, but I don’t have to dig in the sofa cushions for spare change to buy gas.

    And I hope someday you have a favorite song that’s something like mine .

  3. It’s hard to love and embrace our choices when they don’t exactly match our dreams. I think you are one of the lucky ones, in that your dreams were clear and real to you. And when you emerge from baby and toddler world, which you will do, you will find that your beautiful and lovely children will give you time to chase those dreams again.

    Speaking as a fellow PR professional, of course.

  4. Congrats on teaching the class! Glad to hear it went so well.

    I certainly am not doing what I set out to do when I was young. When I look around the office sometimes, I think to myself “How the hell did I end up here?” And it’s not a bad thing, or a good thing. It just is. It’s certainly not where I thought I’d be, but then again things happen daily in my life that I just never would have expected. I think when we are young it’s easy to have plans – to go to school, to study xyz, to get married, etc. But it’s in the execution of those plans when we start making real decisions that our life kind of unfolds for us, and sometimes in ways we never expected. And it’s also because we’re just different people now than we were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  5. Litlove, I wrote you a whole long response and somehow wordpress ate it. Stupid internet. Anyway, i wanted to say I completely agree – we shouldn’t be expected to shoulder every disappointment and carry on as though it doesn’t matter – these kinds of disappointments DO matter. And I think processing them and learning how to deal with them is incredibly important. You’ve had an enormously tough year and I think you deserve that time – but don’t you ever think you don’t have anything left – the contribution to my life and the lives of countless readers that you have made is immeasurable!

    Shoreacres – I love Jimmy Buffett! What a great pick me up! I wonder if will still be blogging in my mid-sixties – right now I say yes, if I had to guess…

    Charlotte – coming from a fellow PR professional AND published book author! I am so proud to know you! I can’t wait until your book comes out in English – I totally regret now ignoring my grandmother’s attempts to teach me German…

    Jen – I agree. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be different now than I was fifteen years ago, but there are fundamental parts of my personality that remain in place and I want to make sure I honor those. Well, you know my struggles. I holler them across the cube to you every day!

  6. I am, obviously, just a bit behind on posts in my reader – hundreds of them, in fact. I’m so glad I didn’t skip over this wonderful post. Wouldn’t life be incredibly boring if everything turned out exactly as we thought it would? Seeing possibilities and pursuing alternate paths is a completely different thing than not chasing our dreams. It’s being open to new dreams, new visions, and taking risks when – especially when – we don’t know where our roads will lead us. Sometimes I regret that I didn’t pursue a PhD, but – goodness! – I ended up having a career in information technology, something that I didn’t even know existed when I was finishing up my undergrad before the days of PCs. When I “retired” a few years ago – a word I still feel uneasy using – I had no idea what I would do next. I still don’t but I’m not as concerned that I don’t know what will happen down the line. Just that I hope I am open to opportunities as they present themselves and that I continue to do things that I’m passionate about. How lucky for you that you are doing this now in your mid 30s. Go Courtney! Go!

  7. Don’t know if you’ve seen this advice to graduates http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/05/24/advice-for-college-grads-from-two-sociologists/ but I thought it was excellent “It’s ok to set your sights just a tad below occupational ecstasy. Just find a job that you like. Use that job to help you have a full life with lots of good things and pleasure and helping others and stuff. A great life is pretty good, even if it’s not perfect.

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