One of my favorite writers is the German poet and philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke. You may know him from his famous collection Letters to a Young Poet, or from that giant tattoo that sits on Lady GaGa’s arm. Anyway. At one point in Letters… he says, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”
If you know me at all, you know that I’m a very impatient person. I crave answers. I crave reasons. I crave planning. I have to have a plan for everything. I hate the questions themselves. The questions themselves can go light themselves on fire.
There’s been a few things going on behind the scenes here, and I wanted to take some time today and tell you about them, so you can get more of a sense of my life over the past few weeks/months.
Most of you know that last year I applied to several PhD programs, and got waitlisted/rejected at all of them. It was a huge pain in my butt and my wallet, but I figured I should try one more time to really make sure this wasn’t something I should be doing. So with a deep breath and the gaping maw of my wallet wide open, I took both the general and subject GREs and applied to six more PhD programs, including the one at UConn.
Four rejections and one acceptance letter to Rhode Island (that I ended up declining because they don’t offer a teaching stipend), I started to find the entire thing hilarious. I had summarily bombed the subject GRE because my beloved concentration (children’s literature and feminist/gender studies), the subject I had spent so many years devoting my days/nights/weekends to, was nowhere to be found on the test. I suffered through two hours of prosody and 18th century novels from England. I nicknamed it the Dead White Guys Test. But when my beloved professors at UConn called me in for a meeting to ‘talk about my application’ i started to get dizzyingly, psychotically optimistic. Maybe this time I’ll be lucky! So I summed my bravest Sally Bowles and stomped into my future.
Cut to me sitting in a lovely open-air office, with numb feet after having walked 15 minutes from my parking spot over unplowed sidewalks like Legolas on the Redhorn Pass, listening to people I admire and respect tell me that my second time applying to the PhD program was still not enough. I wouldn’t be getting into the program.*
Last April, when I had a similar meeting, I felt like my world was crashing down around my ears and like the entirety of my life (or at least the previous four years) had been a colossal failure and I wanted to run out of the office screaming.That feeling didn’t happen this time. I just sat there, nodded as my superiors kindly laid out for my why I wouldn’t be getting into the program, and I even tried to smile. After a few moments, I quickly realized that smiling wasn’t going to work, and that’s when I dissolved and quietly began to cry. I didn’t feel the panic or the failure of the previous year, just a sense of mourning for something that died.
After that feeling passed, I felt a tremendous urge to get back up on my feet and start up with a new plan. So I couldn’t get into a PhD program. So what? I could figure out another way to teach. So I immediately thought of how my Mom always tells me I’d be great in a private school setting. Within days, I was sending out applications to all CT private schools with openings in the state.
I was being incredibly reactive. But that’s always been my fallback – when in doubt, plan the shit out of my life. No room for surprise or devastation that way. You would think with all of the yoga I do, I would be more open to change.
That was two months ago. Since then, I’ve had two school visits that went very well, but at the end of the process I realized that every private school is going to be looking for someone with high school experience. So, me being reactive/proactive/crazypants, I immediately started to research alternative certification programs in CT so I could get my teaching license. But, then, something kind of crazy happened. I actually sat still for a second and realized that I didn’t really want to get my teaching license. I like what I’m doing now – adjunct teaching English courses that I can have full autonomy over. That won’t happen in high school classes. Everything I love to teach would be essentially verboten.
Then I realized something else. I have to always be doing something. If I’m not doing something, I’m being lazy. Never mind that in the past year I’ve held up to four jobs at once in order to pay my bills, and I don’t really see my friends that often unless I specifically pencil them into my calendar (the amount of “I miss you!” messages I get from friends is super depressing). My life needs to be planned out to the last second, otherwise I experience low-grade anxiety. (It used to be high-grade, but beta blockers are great.)
I brought up these questions to Therapist two weeks ago during our session. “I feel like if I’m not doing something or planning out my life, things will just go nuts,” I said, arranging myself in my corner of the comfortable couch in her office (yes, she has a couch. And it’s insanely soft.)
“Why do you think you always need to have a plan for your life?” Therapist asked, leaning back in her chair. I thought about this for a little bit, and what ended up coming out of my mouth was completely unexpected, yet entirely accurate.
For my entire life, I knew exactly what I was going to be. From the time I was 5 years old I wanted to be an actor. It was all I thought about, it was all I worked hard at, it was the only thing that made sense. (Aside from writing, but I figured that would be a terrible profession.) But at the same time, I also felt like whatever happened would happen, and I would just coast along with the right amount of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. If you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race you know what I’m talking about.
Then, New York happened. Everything I had worked so hard for fell apart, and for the first time in my life, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Everyone tells you that that’s what your 20s are for – to be a screwup, to not know what’s going on. But for someone like me, who is so accustomed to knowing exactly how things are going to be, this was a recipe for complete disaster. I had never experienced this type of failure before and I was entirely ill-equipped to deal with it. This loss of control is what led to the year of panic attacks, an eating disorder that stripped me of my health for two and a half years, and just overall chaos. That loss is also what drove last year’s anxiety and depression, leading to weight gain and general feelings of inadequacy that I am just now pulling myself out of. I wasn’t “loving the questions themselves.” The questions were killing my spirit.
“I just don’t want that to happen again,” I said quietly, finishing off my story, looking out the window of Therapist’s office and into the parking lot, where the blazing hot sun was glaring off the hood of my car. Therapist nodded, and then said something that gave me a spark.
“I feel like you’re one of those people who should control what they can control, because that’s something that calms you down. And then you also should get to the point where you can learn to let go of the things you can’t control.”
A few days later, I did a yoga class taught by Kathryn Budig (through yogaglo.com) and after the practice, she said “Be okay with changing course. Be open to change in all forms. All forms of strength are good.”
So there’s going to be some turnover here, and I’m going to ride the wave. I’m applying to jobs at universities that deal with student support and writing centers, and also hopefully going to get some work tutoring students. And by the end of this summer, I hope to finish the first draft of my book (!!!).
Speaking of things that scratch an itch…In February I did my first full play in five years (!!!) and last week, despite a ton of fear, anxiety, and a singing voice that hasn’t seen a lesson in five years, I auditioned for a musical. Shrek the Musical to be exact. I may have sounded like Axl Rose swallowing glass, but I did it. Not only did I get in to the musical, but I got a part that’s awesome. It made me realize that I missed musical theater more than I ever thought I could miss anything. I’m starting up voice lessons again. Every single weekend from now until the end of July is jampacked with activities and weddings and stuff. So my only plan for the summer is to try to relax, sleep as much as possible, read a lot of books, spend time with my friends/BF/family, and go for a lot of swims.
I’ll never not be someone who plans things out. But change is a part of life. I may not love the questions themselves, but I’m starting to like them a lot more.
*Note: I was not interested in UConn’s PhD program because of Dad. I was interested because they are the only program in the northeast with a concentration in children’s literature. So, shove it.