Wednesday, April 4, 2012

When the Fat Lady Sings

This is not at all the way I imagined I'd feel after defending my dissertation. In this strange new world, I'm feeling a lot of things I never imagined feeling. I just pictured a little more joy and a lot less weariness.

I remember the first time I understood the meaning of the expression "bone tired." I was traveling with friends, and we had spent a day walking around Amsterdam after three days in London (and a channel crossing) with little or no sleep. Jet-lagged, irritable, and looking a bit worse for the wear, we climbed endless flights of stairs in our very vertical hotel (Dante's Purgatorio had nothing on that place). We had to get up early the next morning to catch a train to Berlin, so prospects for R & R were not looking good. I remember falling into the huge bed, thinking, "So, this is bone tired."

If I had known I could ever feel more tired, I think I would have just stayed in that bed, which would have been a shame because I would have missed Salzburg, Italy, the Venus de Milo, and several pounds of really good European chocolate.

Who knew a dissertation could take so much out of you?

I started my degree program with excitement, anxiety, and uncertainty, but especially I remember the excitement. I knew I was doing something big and kind of daring, and I recognized the same feeling in most of the faces around me those first days at school. We heard the poem by Rumi, "Unfold Your Own Myth," which pretty much told the whole story, better than we could have imagined. We had all jumped into the rabbit hole, and there was no telling what we'd see or where we'd go on the way to our degrees. There was a part of me that, out of caution, held back a little, whispering, "Just take it a quarter at a time. This is putting you into debt, so be sure it's what you want." But two sessions into the first quarter, and I knew I'd be staying.

Our campus is a beautiful place, with gorgeous gardens and trees, glorious views of the mountains, and even a glimpse of the ocean if you know where to look. I always thought of it as kind of a Garden of Eden, a magical place I had finally managed to find after many hard years of searching. Yet, as I was telling a friend last night, as mythologists we are also aware that the snake was a part of the story. Now, there are many ways to look at the snake from a Jungian point of view, and in some interpretations this creature is a necessary means to achieving greater consciousness, a consciousness that could never be attained in a state of blissful unawareness. It's always been hard for me to accept the idea of treachery in the midst of so much beauty, but after all, ignorance is not bliss. If you were asleep, no matter how beautiful the dream, wouldn't you rather be awake? I would.

So there were many bumps along the way, and some disappointments. Still, it was the work itself that was so sustaining, and that never changed. All of the sacrifices made to go the distance were absolutely worth it, and I would do it all again (perhaps a bit less sweetly and with a lot more attitude). Those hours in the classroom and the talks with friends over meals, around campus, and during walks on the beach were golden. Even now, all of those memories are lit with a beautiful light in my mind, a light that will never grow dim.

I enjoyed the classes so much that I didn't think a lot about the dissertation until our final year. Although my topic had already chosen me, I think, I was not aware of that, and the process of closing in on it was painful. Although I had confidence in my ability as a writer, I had never written a long academic piece, and the idea was increasingly daunting as it became more real. Even though the dissertation formulation process was painful, I'm glad now that it happened the way it did because I was forced to really think through what I wanted to say. For a writer who writes intuitively and not from a plan, this was a challenge, but by the time I had finished my concept paper, I knew I had something solid to work with. Whether I could make it fly the way I wanted it to was a different matter.

Writing the dissertation was a lonely process. I knew it would be, but I didn't know just how lonely lonely could be. There were times when I felt like the last person standing on earth, wondering where everyone else had gotten to. My long-standing interest in mazes and labyrinths took on a much more sober air when I actually entered the labyrinth of writing about them. It's suddenly not a lark once you're in one for real, wondering, "How do I find my way out?" "When will I find my way out?" "WILL I find my way out?" And after a certain point, "When I DO find my way out, what will be waiting for me on the outside?"

So now, having struggled through and emerged, not always in perfect form, but determined, like Childe Roland, to the last paragraph -- here I am. I've done it the best way I know how, I've learned a lot about myself, and I'm hoping for a bestseller when I turn this sucker into a book. Maybe one of these days, I'll recover some of the carefree feeling I used to have and shake off the tiredness. I always wanted to be a full-time writer on my own terms, so maybe my dream will be realized now that I've finished my degree.

So, would I recommend that YOU get a Ph.D.? Well . . . that's a question only you can answer.