Do you ever learn something important—I mean, really learn it, enough that you say it out loud and build it into your days and switch directions, if needed, to head toward its wisdom—and then forget it whole-cloth? Clean, brain as clear of the info as if somebody had set to with a power washer inside your skull, somebody with strong intentions and high-level skills in the wielding of a power-washing wand? (The latter will strip not just paint but dig gouges in wood siding, by the way, but please, don’t ask how I know this!) Have you ever done that? Known something, lived by it, taught it even, and then forgot it clean? I have. Today I bumped noses with such a creature.
In Point Last Seen, my first book, on page 2 no less, I wrote
Seldom do humans actually sit on something as memorable as a scorpion. We are far more likely to settle ourselves down on much tinier, less potent creatures, who cannot retaliate enough to break into our oblivion with a sting. Then we get up and go on our way, never having noticed them or the tracks that could have led us into a larger world. Trapped by our concepts and our languages and the utter predictability of our five senses, we often forget to wonder what we’re missing as we hurry along toward goals we may not even have chosen. [Emphasis added today, excerpt available at this link.]
So there it was, plain as day, and I knew it then, precisely as I was working toward a big ol’ goal that I believed I had chosen . . . but actually had not. Or rather, I had chosen but without attending to all the relevant details thoroughly enough: my skills, background, passions, yearnings, loves, and available resources. How do we manage such stunning feats? Lay out all the pros and cons, conduct research up the wazoo, try it on for size, match aptitudes with goals and effort with multi-staged plans and snatch the closed envelope from the vendor’s hands and Voilà! Thou art thus embarked?!
Really. Well, for me anyway, this is so. Maybe you are not as hardheaded and blindered as I can be. All I know is that 23 years ago I decided to get a Ph.D. and build a strong skill set so that I could make a reliable, secure living in academia—in effect, taking a safe route to undergird the writing that I have known for 30 years is my primary purpose for being here. So I tramped along at that effort until May of 2012, knocking my head determinedly against a hard set of walls erected about me—a prison entirely of my own making—and only slowly, after reaching the big ol’ goal itself, did I begin to reckon well with how un-hannah my path had become. Yes, I became an accomplished teacher (I’m actually really good at that, given the time and resources, good enough that serving as an adjunct makes me perpetually sad because I cannot do all I know needs to be done). I love learning and research and scholarship, adore ideas and collegial but lively and spirited debates, and I’ve cobbled together enough tools to enrich my writing across all genres, too. None of the time was wasted (though the economic costs were immense and have lain a certain swathe of my life wholly to waste as a result). The degree matters to me, my yes it does, because it says I finished this valuable project I started, so that’s all cool. The dissertation is going to make an awesome book, too, just as soon as I throw the lot out the window and completely, utterly, totally—every single word—rewrite it (quite likely now as historical fiction). So there’s all that. The pro side of the totted columns of decision-making long ago.
But the reality? Ah, there’s the nibbly rub. I was just miserable in academia, just miserable, and it wasn’t anybody’s fault. I have a creative streak a mile wide, I’ve been an autodidact from the time I could walk and string words together, and I have an unbudging unwillingness to compete with anyone on anything or to feel good about myself when someone else is struggling alongside. I also am not fond of beer. Or parties. Both of which are probably important tools for the milieu. The hierarchies of modern academia, however—especially in grad school, but also in the industrialized settings that so many institutions have now become for undergraduates as well—broke my heart every day. I envision students and teachers being genuine colleagues, working together toward learning, rather than being separated by notions of ‘expertise’ and status based on roles and desperation for grades. I believe that teaching assistants and adjuncts should be remunerated much more appropriately than is common at present for their work and that having a salary myself twice that of someone else doing a harder job (or even an equally hard one) would just drive me around the last bend. I believe that professional conferences should be held in affordable places ($180/night hotel rooms are on the moon for grad students without trust funds) or—if suitable venues (e.g. on college campuses) truly can no longer be found? That professional organizations and scholars of means (established, protected by regular salaries and benefits) should find ways to cover the costs for all who do not share their privileges and thus cannot go (or must do so on borrowed funds). I also believe that administrative and coaching salaries and business school and sciences salaries should be directly in line with the lowest paid faculty or staff member (and in this I would include the people who clean the buildings and shovel the snow and mow the lawns): no exceptions. In short, academia as it exists in the U.S. today is deeply, fundamentally out of touch with a working single mother’s reality and hard-won values and insights on how this could all be so much better for all, if we would just turn those directions . . . and I did not fit well into a structure that sees today’s practices as normal or, worse yet, necessary and good. I hasten here to say this: Some of my dearest, most beloved friends and colleagues have made their peace with what is afoot and can handle all of these things in ways I cannot, and I’m deeply grateful for that and for them. But academia as presently structured was a scalding place for someone like me, destined never to really belong.
But I put myself into that gaol. That’s the nose-to-pavement truth. I alone held the key and set the conditions and determined the times of my ‘feedings’ and so on, even as I paced its ever-compressing inner walls . . . until sometime in 2013, when I began to heed the nigglings of my poor little thrashed soul. Fate intervened, too, kindly at all times (including a three-week bout of laryngitis, which I’ve never had before or since, which knocked me out of a job interview for which I was well qualified and could’ve possibly gotten), and set me on a very different path. Sans security, yes, but I’m even learning to be okay with that now, and I no longer grieve for academia or even the parts of it that I adored and did fit well within. I’ve grown wiser now, too, and have been looking lately at the institutions who approach learning in ways more close to my own, and there are a lot of them. The little person within, who clearly hasn’t totally loosed her hold on that goal, whispers sometimes that I should keep the faith, that I may find a place to belong anyway. Or, perchance, the place may find me?
This morning, I studded my walk with ‘light pole affirmations’ as I’ve been doing lately: repeating, either in a whisper or silence, sentences affirming existence and love and compassion and contributing to the end of suffering for all. The one that came to me on waking this morning was “It is well with my soul,” a point on which I have been downright unclear for whole decades of my life, and the hymn rolled forth complete with heart-stirring melodies. Near the top of a hill, with every cell singing to me, I began to smile and then to chuckle and then, finally, to laugh out loud. Merry, unfazed, delighted. The big ol’ goal in itself—that degree I earned—was fine, better than fine, good and worthy and very much me. Expecting it to provide security in this world, though? That’s the scorpion I sat myself upon and got stung with, over and over and over again, until I finally gathered the gumption to arise and go on my derrière-informed way. And then I remembered that, once upon a time, just a few years back? I already knew about the scorpion and the “hurrying along toward goals we may not even have chosen.” What a strange and beautiful trip, no, this thing we call life on earth?! If you have forgotten something, I wish you joy on the re-findings that being here so readily provides. Joy, merry laughter, and a spring in your step for going on with.