Friday should mark an auspicious anniversary. Instead, the feelings are…complicated.
When I graduated from high school, I did so at the top of my class. My senior year had been full of overcoming the challenges of some of the toughest classes available at my high school and coming out with my perfect grade point average intact. I had wonderful friends, a boyfriend, a full tuition scholarship to Ohio State (and a second one that would cover books), and what I thought was a plan for the future.
Five years later, I graduated from Ohio State. Having changed course halfway through to focus on history and classics, I again found myself one of the top students in my field of study, having done an honours thesis, been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and received a full-ride scholarship to continue my graduate studies at the University of Toronto–the school of my dreams in the city of my dreams.
On the 24th of May, 1999, I defended my doctoral thesis (or what many other schools term a dissertation). This marked the completion of my graduate studies. I had reached the pinnacle of academic scholarship. After the defense, my committee and I gathered at a pub, and they bought me Scotch – Macallan 25-year-old Scotch, in fact, and we drank to the past and the future.
The defense, as those who have walked that path before know, is in many senses a valedictory exercise. No supervisor worth his or her salt lets one of his or her students go to a defense unless they believe in the soundness of the work. There were a few conditions I had to meet to finalize the work, conditions that tightened up the research and made it better. And at the end, you’re a Doctor of Philosophy. A PhD. Those don’t grow on trees. I had survived, changed my advisor and field of focus, taught, given papers at conferences, done all of the things one does as a grad student, including racking up student loans. This was a victory. I had done it.
Three months before, I’d relocated back to Columbus, as much to have a safety net while I started my job search as to be near my ailing mother, who no longer recognized me. Those student loans weren’t going to pay themselves, and I was not about to ask my parents for more money. Living space, on the other hand–that I felt I could ask for, at least for a time. My husband had accompanied me, and since we were in the process of applying for his residency, he could not come back with me. I stayed, alone, in the Thorncliffe Park apartment we had vacated but which still had time left on its lease, empty but for the enormous plaid second-hand couch we had left there. It made a good cheap hotel room.
In the aftermath, it didn’t feel like a celebration. It felt sad. I had exiled myself back to my hometown, away from the wonderful community I had found in Toronto, away from all of my friends. And while I would make new friends in Columbus during the time I was there again, I never stopped yearning deeply for what I had left behind.
That included academia. My entire life, I had defined myself by my studies. Now, suddenly, that was gone.
I had no idea at the time that the absence would become permanent.
For awhile, it was vaguely exciting. I got a library card at the OSU libraries through my alumni membership, and finished up the polishing work on my thesis before making the final submission in June. Going through the process of having it bound so it could be stored at the U of T Library, and having it microfilmed–that felt like an accomplishment. I worked on some freelance writing projects, then signed up for temp work as I began to prepare for the job market. That was June. Things had changed five months later.
On November 25 of the same year, I was awarded my doctorate. My parents, who had always believed in me, supported me, been there for me–could not be there. My mother was just seven months away from death (not that we had any inkling at the time). My father, who was her primary caregiver with the assistance of nursing help, could thus not attend. My husband’s parents attended instead.
I have no real memories of the ceremony, other than the president of the university stumbled over the Latin words that conferred degrees. The rented robe was flimsy–not the red-paneled doctoral robes we were entitled to wear. I did receive my doctoral hood–bright red, lined with white–for what seemed like a few minutes (it, too was rented). And afterwards, I burst into tears.The one photo of me from that day (aside from the official one I received from the university) shows me red-faced and a little too bright-eyed. I don’t remember precisely why–it had something to do with a feeling that no one (my husband in particular) cared. There was no real celebration of this milestone. After labouring for over seven years, it just…ended.
I didn’t ever feel like I had accomplished something. Or anything.
This is probably one of the reasons I abandoned the academic search so quickly when another option came up. Best to jump at a chance to make decent money. Not like companies are lining up to hire history PhDs. And I didn’t have the heart to put myself out there in academia when I did not believe in myself. I didn’t think anyone else did, either. The perfection I had always sought had eluded me. It still does.
And then, as I wrote this evening, the radio gave me this lyric, from Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Cohen explained it this way:
“The future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them.
This situation does not admit of solution of perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect.
And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together: Physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.”
There is a brokenness in my past. A brokenness of dreams, of expectations, of potential, of joy, of innocence, of love. A mourning of what was not to be. A dirge for those who were not there. And yet, the light got in, somehow, through that crack.
And I ask myself: Have I ever abandoned what, at the core, is the key to my existence–my relentless curiosity, my drive to understand, and my passions and desire to engage with that which moves me? Have I settled for a lesser life–or have I refused to ever stop searching?
It occurs to me, that through my own efforts (along with the legacy my parents left me and certain privileges of my birth), I have never not been able to follow the life I wanted to lead. I have been able to prioritize that which is important to me. I travel. I read. I go to concerts. I make art. And I write. Not everyone gets that. Not everyone can sit for a few hours on a weekday evening and spend time thinking.
And, I realize, the crack works both ways. It lets the light in, but it also allows the light to shine forth. If I had not been in some way broken, I would have continued on blithely convinced of my infallibility and utter brilliance, and likely content to never challenge myself.
I have an account on academia.edu. From time to time, it informs me that someone at some university has mentioned my name in a paper. I haven’t yet bothered to buy a paid subscription to read what they’re saying, but somewhere out there, the work I did is remembered and cited. Someone else found it useful. I did not spend seven years in vain. And, no matter how small a thing it is, that feels like the victory I felt I was denied twenty years ago.
I’ll take it.
And on Friday night, while I’m at a restaurant before the Blue Jays game I’ll be attending with a group from work, perhaps I’ll order a Scotch, and toast the past and the future, and smile at the brokeness that let the light through.