back to square one
Despite my grand proclamations of late (read: blog posts) that forego any kind of planning, I recently had one sneak its way into my brain and latch on with sharp, spindly fingers. What began as a whisper was soon a fully formed idea: I was going to go back to school, where I had always felt at home. I was going to start down a slow, but steady, path of academia that I could turn to when my “day job” didn’t feel like enough. I dreamt of being a professor years down the line, discussing with students in the same way my professors had discussed with me, and spurred to think in ways I hadn’t yet before. It felt like a smart move, and more than that, it felt right. It felt like I figured out what seemed off and I had a way to fix it, straighten it out, and smooth any ragged edges.
A couple weeks ago, I met with my thesis advisor seeking advice once again, as I had done so many moons before while in the midst of my undergraduate thesis. As I walked from my office to and through NYU’s campus, I felt nervous. I kept asking myself why I was nervous. I wasn’t meeting with a stranger; I was meeting with a favorite professor, someone who has always given me the wisdom I’d sought.
In that meeting I learned the slow and steady path I was imagining had all but disappeared, eroded by the batterings of a world that doesn’t value humanities like it used to, damaged, perhaps, beyond repair. Going into the meeting, my thoughts of higher education had seemed fleeting; but upon hearing what I wished for was, while not impossible, like winning a lottery, I realized somewhere along the way those thoughts had solidified into a hope. And that hope had become a plan that would likely not come to fruition.
Needless to say, I was bummed.
Going back to school now, without the same career options as there were years before, would be a way of staving off making a choice. Up until that meeting, grad school had felt like its own choice, not the absence of one. But the more she explained, the more I knew she was right, and I just had to admit it to myself.
When we stood up to hug, I was struck by how much taller I was. I had forgotten, in the months of not seeing her, how I towered over by about a foot, how she tilted her head to say bye to me when really it was I that looked up to her.
“I wish the world were better for people like you,” she said.
Those words stayed with me as I walked to Washington Square Park to think over our discussion. I spent a few moments feeling bummed, listening to the piano man in the park, and watching the students pass me by while wishing I could still be one.
And I reminded myself: Sometimes you don’t get what you want; the future does not come about in the way you expected. Not because you didn’t deserve it, or you didn’t work hard enough, or the fates were conspiring against you. But because life doesn’t always work out in the way you imagine. And to think otherwise is a dangerously entitled mindset. Even if there was nothing I could do to prevent this outcome, it still sucked.
And it still sucks letting go of that nearby future.
But it was advice I had gone looking for—and it was advice she gave me. As I try and figure out, albeit roughly, what is next, I keep what she said in mind: think of people I admire, and how they got to their positions; think of jobs that balance intellectual stimulation and doing something to make the world a better place; find something small towards what you want to do, set yourself goals, make appointments with, and for, yourself; remember there is no pressure to go from A to B to C to D; be creative. And perhaps what stuck with me most, was when me discussed my long-standing dream of being a fiction writer. I expressed my self-doubt and hesitation, but beneath that an everpresent drive. She, an academic writer, understood.
“I’m going to do this, and if it sucks, and people don’t like it, it will crush me. And I have to acknowledge that that is on the line—and I still have to do the thing anyway.”
In retrospect, I know why I was nervous going to that meeting. They were like the nerves, but even more exacerbated, that I felt a while back when I brought up exclusivity to a boy I had been dating: the nerves in anticipation of asking questions from which there is no going back.
So here I am, once again, with no major life plans. A few small goals and projects, and a broader big picture—but no clear roadmap yet on how to get there. Back to square one.