Saturday, June 29, 2013

Strange Mourning

I got to spend last night and most of today with this guy, pictured here with my sis Oprah:

Okay, there were a few dozen other people there, too, and my bestie N., who had the wisdom to get us tickets in the first place.  I'm still feeling a little soft and woozy and overwhelmed with the love and humility and sweetness this guy oozes from his every pore, and I couldn't begin to capture what the experience was like, it was just that incredible and life-changing.

But here's one little piece that I want to share because it feels big and important and is helping me to make sense of that really terrible wonderful thing that happened this spring: getting tenure.  Remember that?  And remember how I inexplicably fell into a tremendous funk after I found out I got tenure?  This thing that I had work for for six years, or maybe longer, maybe since I got into grad school, or maybe longer, since I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, even when I was a little kid, and so I learned to set goals and excel at my schoolwork and grub for the A and reach for the awards and the accolades and just crawled and clawed my way to this, the finish line, this tenure, the ultimate pat on the back, the supreme thumbs up, the marker that everything would finally. be. okay.?

And then I felt guilty because E. wanted to throw me a party and my friend J. wanted to go out for drinks to celebrate and N. (my other bestie) wanted to have a ceremony to mark this thing, and I couldn't do any of it because I inexplicably felt like I was dying.  This thing I thought I wanted more than anything happened, and I felt terrible.  This thing I was so privileged to achieve and that so many people sacrificed for me to achieve, and maybe I didn't want it?

Then I felt terrible for feeling terrible, like some spoiled rich king who has everything he wants and still finds he is all empty and bored inside.  Ew.  Who likes that person?  Anyone who is an adjunct without pay or benefits, or who doesn't have a job, or who has anything slightly more troublesome than a hangnail, should pretty much just hate me.  My life is perfect and still I felt like someone was killing me from the inside out.

In case you want to sing along with my sad, sad song:  Garth Brooks' "Unanswered Prayers," Karoake Version.

I had to make up some sort of story to explain my horrifying response to this "good news" and the best I could do was to make the joke that I was reacting to having "walked down the aisle with the wrong man," which considering our domestic apocalypse last year is not only not funny but also extremely tasteless and made everyone very uncomfortable.  What I was trying to figure out is if I was reacting to being permanently hitched to the university (my groom), and since I don't always loooove my university, maybe that was why I was upset.  It can't be me with the problem, I figured.  It must be all those crazy engineers.  Or the oil companies.  Or something.

Mostly, though, that explanation just didn't feel true.  It at least wasn't the whole truth.

Then I go to see this Mark Nepo fellow [buy this book immediately] this weekend, though, and, bam, ton of bricks, I get it.  I felt like I was dying because getting tenure was in fact a kind of death.

What died?

I think this:  the me that lived for the next goal.  The me that always ticked all the boxes.  The striving me.  The me that said yes to doing all sorts of stuff I didn't want to do in order to get the golden ring.  The me that wanted all the A's on the report cards in perpetuity.  The me that believed in things happening in a linear order, straight and neat and logical, with one thing coming after the other, until one reached the apex, was handed a flute of champagne and some applause, and then could finally feel at peace.

I all of a sudden couldn't stand to check my email or facebook or read books that didn't involve horny faeries or rapacious vampires or commit to any new projects at work.  Because the girl who used to do all of those things like it was who she was, in total, was dying.

I'm not saying that I evolved in any way into someone who doesn't care about accolades or task lists or achievement.  Not there yet.  What I am saying is that the me who really defined herself in terms of all these things started to die when I got tenure because I had made it to the top of that mountain and fuck there were no more mountains, and the view was shrouded by clouds and the champagne tasted like mud.

Maybe I am evolved, a little, because the easy answer would have been to take a breath and then simply make up some more mountains:  set some goals!  Get some grants!  Write some books!  Apply for full professor!  Count and count and count some more.  Then I'll feel okay.

But that's not the answer for me.  Not anymore.  I'm actually inclined to let the girl with all of the goals and the boxes and the As go.  Do not resuscitate.

And here's how I know I'm ready to pull the plug:  my back has been aching like a son of a bitch the last few weeks, because I have known that the girl with the goals is in a coma, and I have wanted to let her fade away, but she's got a fistful of my spine and won't let go.

I'm giving her permission to let go of me, though.  I'm telling her right now that everything is going to be okay.

As soon as I realized that this morning, the back pain eased.  The extraordinary measures ceased.  The mourning stopped.

Listen, I'm still in the muck.  I don't know what's next.  I might grasp at some crazy things, or revert, or struggle.  In fact, I know I will.  And I can hear the voices of all the angry Republicans who want to slash education funding and the armchair critics who want to bitch about tenure and the bean-counters who want to count my publications--they are not happy about this turn of events, and see it as an example of me sucking off the teat of the taxpayer dollar.  Whatever.

Because things are different.  This is a death, but it's also a rebirth.  There will be more mountains, but I'm going to figure out which ones I want to climb, and when.  One I'm playing with is how to be a more wholehearted teacher, for example.  Another is finally beginning work on a book with a colleague who has been wanting to write about living a fuller life as an academic.  I want to read more, and play with writing more.  I want to continue to work with people who inspire and delight me.  I want to be a more pleasant, grounded colleague, a more present mom, a more passionate wife.  Those are the mountains that are starting to look interesting to me now.  I might start to climb some of them.

So maybe it's this perspective that is the real gift of tenure, and the thing to celebrate.

Even if the celebration does involve a casket and a black dress.

1 comment:

  1. Don't ever stop blogging! It's far better than FB or anything else. You have know how much it gives to my life.