Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Product of Academia, Part III: Some Musings on Privilege, Priorities, and Pie

Okay, so I won't be reflecting on pie (not directly, at least). I just needed that last "p" for the alliteration.

I've been thinking about writing this post for a while--but, speaking of academia, my time often gets eaten up by grading, projects, and failed attempts at self care. However, a discussion in today's "situating composition studies" class, paired with a few rare hours of free time, told me that now was the time to write this post.

There will be some ramblings involved. You have been warned.

If I were to take away one lesson from this year at CSU--and there have been many--I would say that I am immensely privileged to be a grad student, much less a successful one, and there is very little coincidence that I am here. My education, class, and upbringing all led me to a circumstance over which I had very little agency.

Today, my professor instructed all of her students to stand up. With each non-stereotypically academic phrase that rang true (you did not receive A's in English, you do not remember getting praised on your writing ability, you do not have parents in academia), students were asked to sit down.

I was the last one standing. To put things into perspective, I'm probably the least intellectual member of my immediate family.

To me, being inherently academic isn't an accomplishment. I got A's in English, probably partly due to genetics, but also due to my parents' enthusiasm for looking over my papers. I relied on and learned to expect praise about my academic ability. I have not one, not two, but three parents working in the English department at Penn State. Even when I hated school and thought little of my intellect, I was still good at it (yay for desperate desires to please others!). Looking back at my sixth grade journal, I refused to call myself a writer, but knew that I would "go to college, of course." In many ways, I was funneled into a community that was comfortable, a game that I knew how to play.

We often talk about systemic issues in school, and in my case, the system is working directly in my favor.

No one, least of all myself, is surprised that I'm pursuing a masters degree in English. And I've realized this past year that I carry a heavy weight of guilt for following this path. I have repeatedly heard "oh, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," and, from the more aggressive of sorts, "it's about time you had an original thought."

I consider my privilege often. I am incredibly lucky to have been encouraged to go to college, to be funded through four years of college, and to be handed the resources to do well in academia. In parts I and II of this series, I discussed how much I love having professors as parents, usually from a humorous angle.

But we're in grad school now, and we don't have time for humor.

I do still, to a certain extent, love having academic parents. As I'm currently 1800 miles away from home, I'm grateful to have teaching and writing as a point of connection. But being in this particular situation, I also wonder if I'm doing what I'm doing because I'm genuinely passionate about writing and adore school, or because it's familiar and safe.

Like my professor, I admire those who have strayed from a familiar path, who have battled a system that works against them to get to CSU. They've had to consciously consider and shift their priorities to get to a place that makes sense to them. I often feel as though priorities were handed down to me like a second cousin's sweater, and I went "cool! Guess I have a sweater now!"*

In the various households in which I've lived, school has ALWAYS come first. I was to get a job only if it didn't affect my grades. Evenings and weekends were for homework. The house was consistently quiet, usually because everyone was working on a writing project of some sort. My fuckups were usually driven by a desire to get the highest possible grade or to associate with people who had similar academic aspirations (gee, what a pretentious asshat!). These priorities guided me through good grades and awards, but they never really felt like mine.

I never truly reflected on the problematic nature of embodying these secondhand priorities until this past Thanksgiving, when I was encouraged to stay at school in lieu of family time in order to get more work done. Feeling a tad wounded after four months of severe homesickness, I openly rejected this advice, got zero work done, and ultimately felt wonderful.

In case you're wondering, this is the connection to pie. Disregard the fact that I hate pie.

I have always known that it wasn't just sheer luck that got me here, but from Thanksgiving forward, I realized that I didn't have to run with the academic privilege I was given. I could--and should, in fact--consider my own priorities and create my own visions of success. In a way, my work with digital rhetoric (a field neither parent has touched) has started this shift (although it's still within the academy...baby steps, guys).

Despite these revelations that I perhaps had it easier going into higher ed, I still feel as though I made the right choice in going to graduate school immediately after college. I have found a passion independent of external influence (gender and identity on YouTube, anyone?), and, paradoxically, it was grad school that made me understand and critically consider my privilege in the academy. It also made me consider my role in removing barriers from those who want to further their education, but who do not benefit from the systems that have been put into place (I smell elimination of standardized testing!).

So I guess the second take-away from grad school would be to prioritize prioritizing. How profoundly intellectual.

As I'm at the halfway point to graduation (*gulp*), this is about the time I would be panicking about considering a next step. Professors and parents alike have recommended that I look into PhD programs. Comfort-wise, this option is tempting (although very few PhD candidates look particularly comfortable). Yet I've been challenging myself to look to other options that inspired my pre-intellectual self. As a chronic planner, this vast array of options terrifies me, but perhaps it's time to walk the plank a bit and drown just enough to solidify what I should and should not be doing with the rest of my life.

This metaphor is getting a bit morbid, so I'll stop here.

To use a favorite phrase among my students, to conclude, I cannot discredit my own achievements in considering influences that led me to academic success. But I can realize that I am not bound by things that I'm good at or experiences that come easy to me. I may be tempted by security, but I am also an advocate of character-building, which I've learned isn't always reflected on a CV.

If I write a post in two months saying "jk, I've decided to get a PhD!", please slap me.

*I actually really need sweaters, so if you have any sweaters that need a torso to live on, please let me know**
**the actual point is that my parents in no way pressured me to take certain actions, and they have instilled wonderful priorities and work-ethics in me. Which is another way of me saying "hey, I've got a great work ethic, hire me plz!"

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Things 2016/This School Year Have Taught Me: Random Life Lessons From a Grad Student Who's Just Winging Life

After another (accidental) hiatus from blogging, I wanted to do another year in review, only to realize that it's nearing April and oh doesn't time just fly right by when you get older? At this point, I can only attribute my lack of timely writing to laziness, but I'm already consumed by deadlines, so I won't feel too bad about it.

Life lesson #1. Don't feel guilty about missing imaginary deadlines.

And we're off to a profound start.

After such a jam-packed year, I've probably learned a thing or two, mostly that I like writing blogs with lists and that life is hard.

But life is harder when you're dumb, so I guess I've got that going for me.

Since we've officially exited "new year" status, this post will be a mishmash of things I've learned in this past year, in school, from friendships, and from staring at my wall for two hours. I like to call this act meditation, but let's be real, it's wall-staring.

Maybe 2017 will be the year I finally master meditation.

I find reading lists like these to be a product of spending too much time on Thought Catalog helpful, so hopefully someone somewhere on the Internet-verse will find my ramblings useful to their "life journey" as us Coloradoans like to call it.

Life lesson #1: The hype probably isn't worth it.

It's not the most serious lesson in the world, but as a self-proclaimed Gilmore Girls addict, the revival had to be in here somewhere. I've seen some quality content in the 10 years since Gilmore Girls last aired, but nothing compares to this show's witty dialogue, the show that brought my family together. When I heard that the show's creators were coming together for a revival, I thought that the entire fan base was getting a chance to "do it right."

And then I saw this.

For 10 minutes. Followed by stilted dialogue, TERRIBLE acting, and fat-shaming/homophobia.

I could go on. Somewhere in my blog hiatus, I planned on writing a formal review of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, so maybe I'll follow through with that sometime in the nearish future.

Formal review or not, I learned not to get so excited about reunions, revivals, and the like. There's something sacred about leaving childhood loves as they were. I can always hang out with Rory and Lorelai on Netflix without being scarred by awkward musicals and a tragic lack of Sookie St James.

Life Lesson #2: You will get hurt. You will have to get over yourself.

For the sensitive type, this advice sounds easy enough, but try to implement it and you'll end up feeling like you're being forced to run a 5k with a bullet in your chest.

I've never experienced either, but I can't imagine it's a pleasant feeling.

I've had my fair share of an absence of fairness or sharing, and consequently getting rather hurt about it. But in order to be a person in the world, I have to revisit the very things/people/circumstances that have hurt me. And, to put it elegantly, I have to face the fact that not everything is about me, and I have to get the fuck over myself.

Not to get overly "dear diary" on you, dear reader, but I've met quite a spread of hurt--a sadness buffet, if you will--and I must say that how you deal depends on your personality and the nature of the situation. One might necessitate getting outside of yourself and putting a goddamn smile on, and another might necessitate staying inside of yourself and leaving the critiques and remarks for other ears.

Basically, it depends. I should get paid for this.

These less-than-ideal experiences have ended up being a part of adulthood, but unlike adolescence, I have the perspective (as well as a wonderful reminder from the podcast Welcome to Nightvale) to remember that these situations are nothing more than blips in an otherwise fortunate life.

Life Lesson #3: Don't let unbreakable toxic relationships take up too much mental space.

It seems a clichéd and overly simplistic piece of advice to state that you should rid yourself of toxic relationships, but unbreakable (read: familial) contentious relationships are a bit more nuanced and tricky. I've spent far too long thinking about, writing about, and ranting about what I considered to be a broken relationship, only to realize that this particular family member was wasting zero mental space doing the same as I was. Rather, I was just spending years and years torturing myself in my head and seeing the same patterns in my life.

And now I'm 1800 miles away, I have the rest of my life ahead of me, and I'm wondering what exactly I spent so many years torturing myself for.

These frustrations don't exactly make riveting conversation starters, and honestly, they're a little self-absorbed. So I had to get the fuck over myself (I'm sensing a theme here) and devote my energy to relationships that made me happy rather than a ball of anxiety.

Life Lesson #4: Speaking of anxiety (what a segue!), it's not a made-up, first world problem. Anxiety is a serious mental issue, and as beneficial as yoga, weed (I've, erm, been told), and herbal tea may be, those are coping mechanisms, and not treatments.


Seriously. Talk to a therapist. Get on medication. Get help. Your friends and family will thank you.

Life Lesson #5: Selfies aren't inherently awful.
Social media is a lot less straightforward than many make it out to be, and I (again) plan on writing a longer blog exploring this issue. Basically though, after much selfie-based research and years of guilt for enjoying selfies, I've come to the conclusion that binaries suck, a girl can celebrate her beauty without turning into Kim Kardashian, and not every instance of narcissism can be directly linked to selfies.

Selfies can be, in fact, linked to higher self esteem. Imagine that! A platform that encourages young girls and women not to hate themselves!

Life Lesson #6: Teaching is hard. But it is also one of the best ways to get over self-consciousness.
This is the spark notes version of lessons I've learned from teaching, but TLDR, I encourage anyone with performance anxiety or anxiety in general to try teaching.

After a month of crippling fear and the slight sensation that I was going to vomit at any moment, I've had the privilege of learning that most freshmen and sophomores in college don't care if their instructor has stumbled over one word. And then an amazing, magical transition happened, in which I went from worrying what my students thought of me to wondering what I could teach them.

Don't get me wrong, there are still days that make me want to channel Obama's anger translator, but those days result in stern talks about my students' promising futures as toll booth attendants (kudos to my father for that one) and chances to drop the mic.

I don't have a mic to drop. It's the English department, you think we have money for those?

Life Lesson #7: Move. Move. Move.

Move out of your parents' house. Out of your hometown. Move to music and look like a fool. Move your mindset. Move your furniture and sit on the other side of your room. Move your car to the nearest café and people watch for an hour. Move to a yoga class and laugh at the irony of just how white it is. Move that red shirt you've had since high school out of your closet. Move in to a new apartment. Move on from an overdone past.

Move away from clichés (a meta post--how clever!).

Life Lesson #8: Prioritize prioritizing.

For most of my life, I prioritized and made decisions based on what the nearest person told me to do. It's a bit of an exaggeration, but for the most part, I never consciously sat down and considered what I wanted to get out of my life. I prioritized school over family because that's just what we did. I rarely thought that my priorities might differ from my family or friends'.

However, when I was met with vastly different priorities, that's when life started to get confusing.

It's worth taking pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, and just hammering out a few personal priorities and considering where those priorities came from. Those priorities may shift in a few years, which, as I've now realized, isn't flaky--it's evolution.

There will always ALWAYS be people who don't share or even agree with your priorities. That's when you make the mature move, stick your fingers in your ears and go "la la la la la! I can't hearrrrrrr youuuuuu!"

Life lesson #9: You're probably not as bit of a piece of shit as you think you are.

As much as I loved family visits, I also used to dread them because I felt like a lump of disappointment and wasted potential. I would stuff my face with peanuts in order to dodge the "so Kira...what ARE you up to these days?" question.

Peanuts are surprisingly helpful in awkward situations.

But maybe, just maybe, if you take some time to reflect on your accomplishments, you'll realize that you've done some cool things that your Aunt Mary would just LOVE to hear about. And even if you've had a quiet year, you haven't died yet, and that's an accomplishment unto itself. And just look how much you've grown this year!

In desperate situations, you can also brag about how great your cats are and how much you love them

Life Lesson #10: You cannot please everyone.
So perhaps I'm ending this post with a bit of a "duh" moment, but, in my experience at least, this year encompasses this lesson. If I waited for everyone's approval, I would probably be curled up in fetal position on my bed back home in PA. I sure as hell wouldn't be teaching a group of teenagers in Fort Collins. But if the aforementioned priorities meet your actions, then why wouldn't you go for it? Whatever "it" may be. Just don't do drugs or get pregnant, kids.

Or do. It's Colorado, for goodness sakes.

For the sake of your eyes and sanity, I'll stop here, but keep your eyes peeled for a part II, as I've learned some stuff and things, I suppose.

I'll see you cats and kittens later.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Visiting Ghosts: A Lesson on Coming Home

I have been home for nearly a month--I thought I would be visiting people, but I have been visiting ghosts. I have been reminded of what was, of who I used to be, yet I no longer match the outline of that girl.

When I returned home from a semester in Fort Collins, I assumed (ah! Another assumption!) that my transition would be easy--it would almost feel as though I had never left. I would be greeted by familiarity and the old relationships I had missed so dearly from afar. I thought I could slide into friendships as if nothing changed.

In my visions of coming home, I was laughing over "the good ole' days" with my parents over coffee and scones. I have never once eaten a scone with either parent.

But, as I learn time after time, visions never play out and life is rarely as easy as one imagines. I returned home, only to be reminded that ghosts are hardly romantic. Ghosts are never easy.

I did slide into relationships as though nothing changed, but only now have I realized that such a mindset is dangerous and crippling when everything has changed. Growth in a distant place throws everything off balance back home. I try on my "past self," but I no longer fit the mold of what my friends and family expect of me, how they treat me. The person my relations back home know and hold onto is angry, bitter, depressive. She is resentful, spiteful.

Going home pulls me back into a character I long to reject. I am done with her. Yet she taunts me in every corner of a claustrophobic town.

Back home, my active resistance of this past self I deplore evokes suspicion around me. Who are you really? This is a rhetorical question. They don't want to know who I am, really.

I am not only visiting a place--I am visiting a mindset, a painful reminder of the damage I caused. I am visiting hurt and disdain. I am visiting relationships that no longer make sense. I am visiting ghosts.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


When I went home for Thanksgiving, I stayed at my mother's house, a place I had refused to call home for 6 years of my life. My mirror, a wall-length monstrosity that spanned across my dresser and reflected my every move, was gone.

I have the annoying tendency to reflect on any and every part of my life, every aspect of my identity. This habit is helpful in approximately three situations: therapy, diaries, and annoying colleagues and potential friends.

This self-reflection has gotten so aggressively out of control, it's become a trope of sorts--Kira the person who sorts through her emotions and wonders, what does it mean? 

And so, as one does when trying to escape their problems, I fled across the country. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, to start a new life? To just do, without having to think? No more reflections!

When I moved to my new apartment, I was greeted by a full-sized mirror the size of my closet door. It was, as a matter of fact, my actual closet door. A quarter of my room consisted of reflections. A quarter of my LIFE consisted of reflections.

What a fantastic starting metaphor.

Besides the horrendous recognition that I would have to greet my naked face every god-awfully early morning, I realized that it wasn't realistic or feasible to get through grad school on autopilot, unthinking and unaware. After receiving my first written assignment which was to literally reflect on my life and my background, I realized that such anti-reflective rhetoric was not encouraged.

As it turns out, grad school is really therapy in disguise*. And so, the re-reflections began.

A few weeks into classes, an odd shift began to take place. By seeing what was--my classes, my weekends holed up in my room writing, my stilted biweekly calls with my father--I began to reflect on what wasn't. It's as though my past was right smack dab in the middle of my obnoxiously large mirror. As I saw my crippling imposter syndrome in teaching and writing at a graduate level, I saw an anxiety issue I had let slide, hoping it would go away. In watching myself spend Saturday after Saturday writing papers, I saw a lack of personal values. In going through the scripted small talk with my father, I saw the questions we weren't asking--that we were too afraid to ask.

I send reflections of my face to my boyfriend with our daily "good morning" selfies. I smile and look happy. What he doesn't see is the fear that I am not good enough.

I've taken these reflections to more familiar mediums: journal entries, calls with my best friend, rants to my mother. Some groundbreaking, others mundane. Yet in "mature reflections," as I like to flatter myself by coining them, I see an understanding of values I had otherwise been blind to.

As much as I humored my past self by claiming I was full of revolutionary reflections, only now do I realize I had been on autopilot and spent my free time worrying. Worrying, as it turns out, is far different and far less productive than reflecting. By observing a highly academic family, I reasoned that school and acceptance into the academic world far outweighed other priorities, be it family, self care, or love. In late high school and early college, I grew addicted to my father's pride and pats on the back when I brought home high marks and sophisticated papers. I accepted these core values, and my father's pride became my pride.

When I called my father, asking what he thought about a Thanksgiving visit home, I had not seen my family in three months. I was delighted by the prospect of coming home after spending a challenging, rigorous semester writing and trying to figure out how to teach. I was met with the following response:

I don't think that's a good idea. You'll want to use that time to focus on your work. 

Those words shattered me.

To be perfectly fair, my father is not a bad guy. He is a wonderfully kind, supportive dad and only wants the best for his kids. Yet his words reflected back to me a priority that consisted of work and an ability to climb the ivory tower. The best for his kids, in my father's eyes, reflects his own ambitions and needs: the key value here is academic success. When I talk to my dad, it's almost strictly about grad school. In relaying his graduate experiences to me as advice, he is reflecting on the glory days, the times he played guitar with his buddies and read Emerson around campfires.

He tried to give me a guitar on my trip to Colorado.

This painful reminder of what isn't, of what won't be, I can begin to reflect on and build my own core values: to always put family first. To know when to stop working. To reclaim academia as my own, and to know when it's time to leave.

As I drive to the grocery store and glance at my car's rearview mirror, I see myself leaving behind fear: fear of disappointing those around me, of being "found out."

There are times, however, to stop reflecting. To stop wondering.

There is a duck pond on CSU's campus. The water reflects the duck's faces, but the ducks remain uninterested; they continue to look forward, never down. They are aware that the water is beneath them, and yet these ducks are able to simply just be. Underneath the water, the ducks' legs are working hard to remain afloat, but to our eyes, they are happy to float. They aren't wondering where they were or where they should be. They are exactly where they need to be.

As I look at my mirror and smile on my way to class, I remind myself to be the duck. I may wonder more, but I am exactly where I need to be.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Lessons from a Graduate Student (Or, How to Pretend You Know What You're Doing When You Really Don't)

When I initially moved to "colorful Colorado" (as the state sign likes to put it), I was fooled by what seemed to me an abundance of free time. Because I spent so much time adventuring during my two weeks settling into Fort Collins,  I expected my time here to look something like this:

Instead, it looks a little something like this:
Yet enclosed in those four office walls (that used to be a dorm room--who knew?) I have gained some conclusions that result from stress and lack of sleep pearls of wisdom about what it means to be a graduate student. Let's all pretend that I haven't been a grad student for a mere two months and have no idea what I'm doing--at least that's what I've been doing with my students (ooh! A smooth transition!). 

Because a large portion of my "graduate experience," as no one ever calls it, includes teaching, I will sprinkle in some pedagogical advice, most of which includes running away from these freshmen that are cooler than you ever will be and wondering how in the hell you got this TA gig in the first place.

So that's fun.

Also, just to clarify, this is simply a compilation of coping mechanisms life strategies that I have collected throughout my time here at CSU. It is by no means a prescribed course of action for all graduate students (or even any graduate student). Except for the downing 7 bottles of wine. That is required.

When I first started school here, I was terrified that I was an imposter, and that my lack of intelligence and rhetorical knowledge would be discovered the moment I stepped into a classroom. I thought my acceptance into grad school was some kind of mistake, and I was sure I would never be able to write a coherent sentence ever again.

However. What most people learn at 16 I learn at 23, and I have finally come to the conclusion that everybody else feels the exact same way. We're all saying a bunch of theoretically smart things in class that we like, kinda understand? But not really, and then we all congregate after class and ask "what the fuck just happened? Does anybody know? What even is rhetoric?"

To clarify, we still don't know what rhetoric is. And we're studying it.

Because some of these seasoned academics are so entrenched in theory, us newbies are expected to go along for the ride. As English majors, we're well-versed in the art of bullshitting, so we survive a three hour class in which we have no idea what's going on.

Basically, just as grad school is about studying a subject in-depth and expanding our minds, sometimes it's just about plain ole' BS.

While I still had some anxieties about my ability to bullshit my way to an A, I have recognized a couple odd things about graduate-level grading. First off, anything less than a B is equal to failure of a course. BUT most professors teaching these classes really couldn't give a rat's tushy about grades, and they'll slap on an A for effort. Mostly the point of these assignments is to get students thinking about their own research and publications. In fact, there will sometimes be classes that focus so little on grades, they'll be on a pass-fail system.

Let's all ignore the fact that I haven't even begun to think about research and publications, yes?

Where grading DOES come into play, where it is heavily emphasized, is when it comes time for us to grade student papers.

Yes, I have had to give Cs and Ds. No, I am not a horrible, evil monster.

The thing about grading is that it seems like an incredible--almost honorable, even--power trip. YOU a 23 year old nobody, get to hold the future of young, impressionable minds in your hands. YOU, drunk with power (and vodka) get to decide how worthy these humans are of the sacred writing process.

It's a fun concept for about two weeks. And then you have to grade.

What actually happens, at least to me, is that I feel so invested in my students' lives, I want to give them high marks. I want to see the positives in their writing. If they participate and show a willingness to learn in class, I'm almost desperate to give them an A, and I end up crying on my desk if they've underperformed. One of these things is not true.

But, alas, their work is very rarely A-level, and they will inevitably, fail to apply the concepts I've been spending weeks of class drilling into their sleep-deprived heads.

It's even worse when they panic about their grades. I want so badly to see them succeed, it's almost like I've suddenly adopted 19 children. But like, not in a weird way.

When I give a low grade, it physically exhausts me. Especially if the student shows up to class eager and prepared. Once I assign that grade, I can only stare out the window for 20+ minutes and contemplate if life actually holds any meaning. Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but only slightly.

Speaking of students, they will try to distract you by interrogating you about every single aspect of your life. This is fun for approximately five seconds.

Much of this grading/writing/inability to eat and sleep stress can be combatted by a magical concoction. Somehow, as an undergrad, this might seem forbidden, or too fancy, too...old.

This concoction is wine. And it is beautiful. 

I may or may not be the guilty party here.
Oftentimes the only thing keeping me sane is "wine night" with my roommate, when we drown our sorrows in wine and whine about our first world problems. I suggest that all humans working towards a graduate degree do this too.

Here's to another two years of insanity.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

An Attempt at Rhetoric: The Lens of Social Media

No, I'm not about to ramble on about the evils of social media. As one who is Snapchat obsessed an avid Snapchat and Facebook user, I see the benefits of being able to connect with family and friends who are busy, attached to their phones, or hundreds of miles away.

It's that last benefit that is keeping me sane. But it also comes at a cost.

As many of you know, I recently moved from my hometown of State College, PA to Fort Collins, Colorado. Because I am someone who suffers from very real, very irritating imposter syndrome (but let's save that for another post, shall we?), I never thought I would get the opportunity to get my Masters out here, much less be granted funding for said Masters.

To me, it was a miracle. The most exciting adventure I could ever have--I would finally leave a town, just months earlier, I had deemed suffocating at best, toxic at worst, and smelling of cheap beer and disappointment.

(I suppose the irony of moving from one college town to another had not yet settled.)

The thing about making dreams happen through a series of fortunate events is that they eventually condense into reality. It sounds like a terribly obvious statement, and shouldn't I have thought this through before moving halfway across the country?

Yes, dear Internet. I should have. What sound advice: "when you make things happen, they actually happen."

The thing is, Fort Collins is absolutely gorgeous. There are more than two streets downtown. There is yoga abound. There is a restaurant that serves noodles that make me want to bow down to the carbohydrate gods and worship their noodley appendages.

To you, the people who view my life through the lens of a computer, I am having the time of my life. As the first of my immediate friend group to make such a big move, I feel responsible for setting an example: look everyone! Moving isn't so bad! It's even exciting to flee your hometown! Look at the pretty mountains and copious amounts of food! 

Copious amounts of food

What they don't see are the sobbing phone calls to my best friend and mother, the crippling loneliness, the fear that even a drive to the local supermarket will be foreign and scary.

Even though I am so incredibly grateful beyond words for this opportunity, despite the fact that we already know social media can lie, can cause unfair and untrue comparisons, I wanted to assure those who are making a similar move, that just because you chose something and just because that something is exciting, does not mean you have to remain stoic and strong. We as humans are more nuanced than that.

Outside of that little blue box are the distancing friendships, the imposed stoicism ("you chose this; you were happy about it. You left us"), the strained relationships.

I am aware that I am pressing an aggressively first-world problem here. But regardless, it is real among recent graduates. I say this not to seem ungrateful or whiny--there are days when I love it here and wouldn't regret for a second pressing forward. I simply post this to expose the days when it is hard. When it is terribly, horribly lonely. When I feel like I've made some sort of mistake for not remaining close to my friends and family. I post this because there is more than one side to the moving story.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Happiness and the American Dream

As I prepare for my upcoming departure to a new state, I've reflected on the state of my own happiness. In my need to complete everything on my ever-expanding to-do list, I've wedged "reflect on emotional stability and growth" somewhere in between transporting furniture and packing enough socks.

One can never have too many socks.

The reason that I've instructed myself to examine my emotional state, besides my persistent need to examine my emotional state of a daily basis, is because I've noticed a strange pattern among everyone I've chatted with about my upcoming graduate studies and teaching: they seem to correlate my success in academia as a victory in a personal happiness project.

Oh you've been given a teaching assistantship and you're on your way to money and publications? You must be very happy!

And I am. Sometimes. I'm grateful for this amazing, unlikely opportunity. I'm relieved that my late nights cursing frat boys beside me as I strain over an essay have amounted to something tangible, to something with which I can impress my family. I have spurts of ecstasy, I have fleeting moments of relief, as I'm perfectly aware that continuing down a straightforward path to success is what should result in profound, full-body happiness.

And yet. Happiness sits in its own corner, taunting me.

The more traditional success I achieve, the more I realize just how disjointed from happiness, from satisfaction this success actually is. It's almost as though I realize I've been in a twenty-two year conditioning experiment in which I was told that in order to be something, I must do something.

I've done a lot of things. I've been fearful and anxious for almost the whole of it. 

Yes, in order to be successful, you must achieve success. But in order to be happy you must achieve________? What?

It's arbitrary. It's vague. I could be professor of the century and still find myself reaching for that feeling of satisfaction, of having enough.

(I suppose I have just reached the "duh" moment in which I realize why capitalism functions so well in our society. But I digress).

Between my two brothers and myself, I am the kid who hasn't strayed from the traditional path to success. In a household that prides itself on ambition and drive towards that thing, that thing that makes you impressive at dinner parties and stiff interviews, it's been challenging for my brothers to be recognized as successful in the sense that they are passionate, they are wicked smart, they take great joy in the work that they produce, in the conversations they have. They are happy.

I would even go so far as arguing that they have strayed from the traditional path, and they are happier than me. *

In a world in which my drive to achieve has been largely led by crippling fear of failure and disappointment, there hasn't been much room for happiness. Instead, there's been room for anxiety. For disgust when I don't get that A. For disdain. For breakdowns. 

Is this what success looks like?

I have a distinct memory of my father asserting that he just wanted his son to be happy. He wanted to allow himself to reach his full potential by demonstrating his passion, his drive, his intellect in his academic and professional work. This is a perfectly valid concern for a parent to have.

But I also think it's time to change the metric with which we judge success and happiness.

When we live with this vision of happiness, we will constantly be reaching until we are satisfied. There will always be more to achieve. There will always be more ways to prove ourselves, more articles to publish, more money to make.

That's not to say that ambition is pointless. But it is not what allows internal satisfaction.

It's time to embrace the fact that success, that happiness, has infinite paths.

*I just want to clarify that I have never, for a second, been ungrateful for the opportunities I've been given. I'm extremely lucky, and I plan on utilizing my move to Colorado as a means to begin my search for personal happiness. :-)