Monday, November 20, 2006

Take a Bite

I'm not really doing much of anything these days. I said this to a friend recently, and her response was the incredibly sweet (but, in this case, dead wrong) "You're doing more than you think."

I'm not actually. I'm doing considerably less than anyone thinks. I'm not thinking about my dissertation at all. Part of it is that I'm preparing to go out of town for quite a while and the logistics of the trip are taking up enough time that I don't do the work that calls my name in a particular, demanding hiss. But the other part of it is that I'm just not engaged in it right now. I will be again, I'm sure. I should probably stress about it, but I'm not doing that, either. I'm working on a quilt for a niece to be born next month, going for trail runs with Bug, baking a good bit for the fast-approaching holiday. I'm staying up late and watching episodes of Battlestar Galactica and plotting how I might join the colonial fleet so Starbuck can teach me to fly (ahem.) I'm going for long walks and longer drives and talking to friends and vacuuming the living room rug. In short, everything other than working on my dissertation.

The common grad school response to my confession of what I'm really doing with my time is that I deserve this down time. The responses are definitely well-meaning, but deserve has nothing to do with this. I have worked hard, yes, but what we do and do not deserve as human beings is almost always, in my opinion, light-years distant from what we actually receive. I'm sure that, on the day my niece is born, there will be another baby born, likely in the same zip code, that will deserve every bit of the love and advantage that my niece will be offered. That baby might get that love or it might get a lifetime of neglect and bitterness. On a fundamental level, there is no deserve. There's only grab with greedy hands the sunlight and hope and desire that pass by and thank god you looked up at the right moment to take hold of it.

On another level, I also hate the idea that graduate students must earn comfort or time outside our academic lives. There's a pervasive emotional undercurrent that we should each be proving ourselves worthy of the academy, not just because we do good work, but because we work longer, harder, and are more miserable than others. Our poverty and discomfort are somehow badges of just how much we deserve what we want in the future, and because what we want in the future feels so big and so beyond believing (at least for me), we feel that if we falter it's a grand sign of whether we're up for this is a big picture, long term sort of way. I often feel as if I'm supposed to be a character in a modern-day jeremiad, dangling over the fires of academic judgment, waiting for an angry god to dump me in at the first sign that I'm Not Supposed to Survive. If we get or take a break, it is either a sign that we're doomed or that we've been so good, so disciplined and hard-working and producing that we must deserve it on some fundamental level; the universe has tallied our accounts and granted us a day off.

Of course this is bullshit of the complete and utter variety. Being a graduate student is my job. It's a phenomenal job with rewards that make me blink with surprise on a regular basis. It is defining and engrossing and encompassing. It's still just a job. I no more deserve a day off from that job than I deserve the job in the first place and I don't deserve that any more than I deserve a family that loves me or friends that give me hope that the world is a place of fundamental decency. If we succeed, it will be be because we are successful, not because some cosmic force has chosen us. We don't have to prove that to ourselves or anyone else day after day. There is no deserve. There is only live our lives and the hope we won't waste them.


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