Sunday, December 12, 2010


I had the wonderful experience this week of having lunch with someone I greatly admire and whom I hadn't seen in 14 years. We were in grad school together back in the dark ages, and she always made me smile, even though we were in a bloody shark tank. She is brilliant--one of the smartest people I know, but like me, she is often loath to bring attention to it.

As we sat together and talked about the time we spent together from 1992 to 1996, we discovered even more things we had in common. Academic faux pas we had made, how we often felt we had nothing to contribute to conversations when we were around certain people, how the cliquishness and back-biting were beyond belief in the magnitude of their cruelty. I walked into the department sight-unseen, coming from an undergraduate college where students were always encouraged to think independently and develop their own interests, rather than groomed to be clones of professors. My friend had been an undergraduate in the department and decided to stay to pursue an M.A./Ph.D. Graduate school is murderously feudal: basically it's indentured servitude, with your adviser controlling your finances and future. If you are unlucky in your choice of adviser, you are pretty much screwed. Especially when your adviser is not the strongest player in the department or field at large. The 10 years I spent suffering there was definitely not the best time of my life, although meeting a certain handful of people and having unfettered time to read and research came closest to making me feel at peace with myself.

I remember writing my M.A. thesis, on a topic that I really loved, and getting wonderful feedback from this friend of mine. Her field was ancient art, which had been my focus for my B.A. Classical scholars tend to be very focused, with photographic recall of thousands of ancient texts. I definitely do not have the same access, nor did my friend. We were quite green together, and having her with me in seminars and lectures was lovely.

She is also 10 years older than I am, and I appreciated her maturity at a time when I was all over the map with myself. My 20's were definitely a lost period in which my adoption baggage was compounded by self-hatred from feeling all at sea in graduate school. The unwanted adoptee advisee.

When my friend and I were talking on Friday, she said that she sees me as more mature (one would hope) but very much the same in terms of my interests, openness, and sunny personality. When I told her that the personality was a mask, she was stunned. She listened to everything that's been going on with such love and support. It felt comforting on many levels, and I do hope it won't be 14 years before we see each other again.

Some comments she made about me being the same have fueled introspection. I've been trying to figure out what parts of myself are molded by my aparents, and which are genetic, from my nparents. Then I realized I forgot a something big, something I often forget: there is also the variable of ME. Some things are just me. I am not a clone of them, just as I had a bad time in graduate school because I refused to be a clone of anyone.

When I was talking to C about the curious way I stand with my right leg out at an angle, it makes sense that I got that from her. She agreed. She didn't agree that she passed along her facility for languages to me. She doesn't believe in genetics for things such as interests and talents. I told her that my aparents aren't into languages the same way that she and I are. She pointed out that her parents weren't either. While I disagree with her about the genetic component of language skills, I do see her point about reading too much into genetics. After all I am a intellectual, latte drinking left-winger who lives in the Bay Area. My nfamily is Republican and conservative, dyed-in-the-wool.

My amom was an English teacher and a stickler for good grammar. Rightly so. I write well in part because of what she taught me, partly because I do so intuitively, and partly because I have done quite an apprenticeship in thinking and writing over the years: from daily writing assignments at my high school that had to be corrected and corrected and corrected, to crafting my Ph.D. thesis in painful increments over five years.

Surrounding myself with smart, witty people was probably also a helpful act. People who love me, warts and all, and who know me inside out. It never stops amazing me that I have such compassionate friends who let me know how much I mean to them. I understand that most all people deserve love, but I just can't get over the hurdle of accepting that *I* am worthy of people's love. I seem to keep reaching for those green figs on the tree that are out of reach rather than enjoying the rich bounty of what I have. Regret and self-doubt are terrible, destructive vices.

I am stumbling around trying to deal with the fragments of myself I've been collecting. I feel like I have discovered increasing numbers of these fragments, sometimes in unexpected places. My current task is to try to reassemble them in a way that is meaningful and helps me feel less anxious and depressed. I know I will never feel complete, and the cracks will always be there, but sometimes imperfection has its own beauty.


Amanda Woolston said...

You ARE worthy of love, and I love you :-)

Like you so eloquently mentioned, don't forget that wonderful, often overlooked in the nature vs. nuture debate, variable: you! You can inspect the pieces of yourself and think of where they might have come from...nparents, aparents....but who you are is even more than what those pieces combined make.

And I am glad to know that some day when I embark to get my Master's and/or PH.D, I will have an empathetic should to cry on :-)

Unknown said...

It's hard to tell where we get certain traits of character/personality/etc. And perhaps you're right. Maybe it really doesn't matter after all. Each of us is unique anyway - an assemblage of thousands of years of genetic shuffling and recombining, seasoned with environmental variations. I really liked your last few lines - very poetic.

Jen said...

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sostinkinhappy said...

"Graduate school is murderously feudal....If you are unlucky in your choice of adviser, you are pretty much screwed."

Amen, my pointy-headed sister. Had I known how hard this was going to be, I don't think I would have ventured down this path! At least not with small children tagging along beside me.

Love this post - I am going to pass it along to my dear friend I have made during our four 1/2 years of PhD work. I think she will appreciate it too.

Melynda (from over at Letters to Ms. Feverfew)