Grad School Hangover

The most acute contractions of our ever-birthing souls are unutterable: inward-wrung and full of psychic ache. Alan, what in heaven is an “ever-birthing soul?” It’s the phrase I concocted yesterday morning to represent the central core of personhood, a terrain beyond vocabulary. I’m leery of this kind of writing—it’s too easy for someone to sound smarter than they are. But this deep questioning of existence was the thing peeping up out of its muddy burrow on a gray Monday—the thing demanding a response. And so I’ll obey, despite the risk of entire paragraphs falling out fluffy, like the sugar-spun drivel of amateur philosophers (I’ve been that guy; I pray I’m not still). Such writing is only tolerable when poeticized by a Rilke or fictionalized by a Kafka. But this is my blog, so I’m taking liberties.

I can’t prove that our souls’ ache has a cause; perhaps it simply is. Like infinitude held hostage. I know this is neither entertaining nor touching, this self-conscious self-examination. And I know the Christian response to the first sentence of this paragraph. But as I did with my thesis, I am approaching this dilemma from a purely human place, free of doctrinal or spiritual association, just to see (just to see!) if these questions that haunt us—these mysteries of existence—can bear the weight of of honest self-directed questioning, without recourse to inherited systems. Drivel, indeed. It’s no fun to read about this stuff, unless it’s cleverly buried in poetry or fiction. This subject is too big for a blog post anyway.

So what’s really going on, I think, is a graduate school hangover. Friday night was Belmont’s December graduation, and I finally secured the master’s degree I’ve always wanted. And while the end of this four-and-a-half year foray into academia brings not only relief but also excitement about new possibilities and free time and choosing my own books to read, there is also something a little like grief. Not a blubbering bereavement, but a quiet, disorienting kind–one that’s left me unsure how to feel for several days now.

It was strange to sit inside that gymnasium at the Curb Event Center, surrounded by celebration, where families cheered as if at a sporting event; seeing all those fresh-faced undergrads brimming with their goals met; and me in the next-to-last row, growing more anxious every moment, tottering between exhilaration and depression (a sensation not unlike puberty). I wonder what the lone Ph. D. candidate behind me was feeling. The experience was so different from when I was twenty-two. The younger me would’ve assumed certain things about what the future held, but the current me holds no such convictions. The current me struggles to see past the thing I’ve lost: my status as a student. I’ve loved being a student.

My thesis advisor told me that writing a thesis changes a person, and that it may be a while before that person realizes just how. As with many things Dr. Paine says, the statement carried a whiff of indisputable wisdom (and he’s advised enough theses to know). I can attest to feeling different, but as to the nature of this difference, I haven’t a clue. Not yet. For now, what I must do is languish in the bone-white comforts of winter; in the straw-colored and misty gray promise of a season of waiting.

Uncanny

It is the day of my thesis meeting. My committee of three professors, having read my thesis, will offer suggestions and provide feedback for about an hour. If you know anything about long writing projects, then you’re acquainted with the rush of relief that comes when the final draft is submitted—the seeming swelling of everything good; the easiness of breath due to  your newly expanded air. It is a feeling that lingers for some time. Well, I turned in my thesis over a week ago, so my committee would have time to read it before today’s meeting. And that feeling did come, and it lasted for two or three days, in slowly ebbing increments. It makes me wish I always had a long paper due (not really).

Yet a different, but just as exhilarative, feeling found me this morning. The last song to play in my car, right before parking and entering work (alas, it’s still a work day), was a song that I reference in my thesis: Lou Reed’s “Make Up.” Out of the hundreds of songs in my iPod, which was set to shuffle, it chose that one! It’s as if the universe patted my shoulder, letting me know that my effort was in harmony with all of existence—like the pieces were coming together, if only for a moment, and allowing a glance at some bigger picture, whose pattern would clarify in the end. My anxiety evaporated into the cool November morning, and I listened to the whole song.

Back to School, Fifteen Years Later

On campus.
On campus.

It has been fifteen years since I strolled across the stage in Union University’s chapel, shook Dr. Dockery’s hand, and officially ended my college career.  Then began fifteen years of life experience–some of it hard, some of it triumphant, some self-inflicted, and some not.  For fifteen years I have been figuring things out.  And while many riddles remain unsolved, there is one thing that I knew it was time to do:  go back to school.  The time was ripe for pursuing that master’s degree that I had long claimed to want.

 

Returning to school was an adjustment in some unexpected ways.  Having always enjoyed that setting, I thought that I would slide back into it with ease.  But here is the thing–I am not who I was fifteen years ago.  No one is.  We are ever changing–tastes, styles, likes, dislikes, views, routines, relationships, underwear–and often imperceptibly.  Age, alone, brings about changes.  It was naive to think that I would transition so easily.  In our late teens and early twenties, we are kids who think that we are adults.  In my late thirties, I have no such illusions–the kid years are long gone.  By the way, college kids have not changed.  They still wear ridiculous hats and pajamas to class; they still stay up all night “studying”; they still sneak around and smoke cigarettes (they have to sneak at Belmont, as the campus is smoke-free).  The smell of identity-searching fills the air.  Conversely, my dress is fairly conservative, I have a wife and a two-year-old, I go to bed by ten, and I gave up smoking years ago.  Every night on campus (graduate classes are mostly all at night), I am aware that my peers and I are in the minority.  There is much less leisure for us.  Whereas the undergraduate may spend the hours between classes hanging out in the dorm or the student center or at Bongo Java across the street, having animated, idealistic discussions about the subjects on which they are now experts, I am navigating a toddler drop-off with my wife on the other side of town in rush hour traffic or arranging to be late for work so I can turn in a paper in hard copy, which my teachers unscrupulously demand, despite the age of email in which we live.  These are not complaints, however.  Let me emphasize that.  These are merely illustrations showing how the rules of the game have changed on this second go-around.  I am thrilled to be back in school, but the logistics of making it happen have become much more of a balancing act.  That said, semester’s end brings an elation like I never felt as an undergrad.  There is more reading and writing in one graduate English class than in a full course load at the undergraduate level (at least it feels that way).  A completed semester feels like an enormous accomplishment.

 

There was a point near the end of the most recent semester when I finally felt like a part of the school, integrated into the body of learners, professors, and buildings.  Walking to class from the parking garage, passing between two lines of fiery red maples, it finally hit me.  It had taken two semesters to sink in, but I now felt like a student.  Of course, I had known I was a student since summer–my student account attests to that–but I did not feel like one.  For much of those first two semesters, it felt like I was pretending to be a student, reading and writing a lot in the early morning hours and showing up once a week on campus with a backpack.  It was like a very aware dream.  So much time had been spent in frustration over a job that had grown tedious that the thought of pursuing something different seemed forever out of reach.  But it was, and is, happening.

 

Speaking of that job, it has taught me something very valuable.  It has taught me how to work when I do not feel like working.  After an inspiration-sapping shift, when the easy chair calls most vehemently, an inner voice reminds me that the schoolwork has to get done.  It just has to!  Thankfully, it is a rewarding endeavor.  Never have I regretted sitting down to my assignments.  As discipline triumphs over lethargy–a battle fought often–the academic effort becomes increasingly satisfying.  And there is something else that will be satisfying:  commencement.  The day will come when I will stroll across a different stage and shake a different hand.  That will be its own kind of elation.