Elusive horizons

I remember that when I was a kid learning to swim, sometimes I would swim to my Mom or Dad, and they would slowly back up in order to get me to go further.  It annoyed the hell out of me at the time, which is no doubt why I remember it now, but as an adult, I understand the motivation to try to help your child do more than they they believe they can.

Writing a dissertation is not like that.  I’ve thought of the swimming incident alot recently as I’ve tried to come to terms with my ever-moving dissertation deadlines.  I thought I would graduate in December, and then in May, and now it is August.  I’ve been “almost done” for almost a year.

Now, I keep telling myself I’m almost done, as do my friends and family, in attempts at encouragement and motivation.  But it feels hollow when my deadline keeps moving just out of my reach.  I will finish this summer, but it is hard to believe when I’ve thought I was so close so many times.  I feel like the girl who cried dissertation, and I’ve done it so many times that I no longer believe it when it is finally true (the haunting voice . . . is it? why this time?  how is it any different than before? . . . ).

It also means that I’ve consistently been living my life as if I’m about to finish.  I’ll only have to keep splitting my attention a little bit longer.  I will only have to keep working at night and on the evenings just a little bit longer.  But a little bit longer has stretched into almost a year, and so I’ve spent that time dividing and splitting my attention until I don’t have nearly enough to go around (like butter scraped over too much bread.  I need a holiday . .  a very long holiday . . . )

So I feel desperately behind in all the other areas of my life, while being unable to quite catch up to the dissertation deadlines.  When I finally swam long enough to reach my parent, I remember being proud and pleased at how far I had come, even if I remained a little irritated at the deception.  But when I finally do hit that last dissertation deadline, I don’t really expect to feel that same sort of accomplishment.  The always distant dissertation horizons make me feel consistently inadequate and perpetually behind.  When I finally do reach them, I can’t believe I will feel anything but a sense of relief that I have finally done what I should have accomplished months ago.  And then get to the pile of things that I’ve neglected over the past several years.

So how do I convince myself now that I really am almost done?  How do I find the energy to do the last bit of work to finally finish the damn thing when it feels like I’ve been purposelessly treading water for so long?  How do I reach for that horizon when it has slipped out of my grasp so many times?


Sunday night, 10 pm

After my initial complete meltdown, I’m settling back into some sort of normal routine.  I’m trying a battery of things to deal with keeping my mental/physical state in some sort of manageable place (therapy, exercise, acupuncture, eating more vegetables, deep breaths, looking at internet pictures of kittens, etc. etc. etc.) and trying to just plow through the next couple of months.

A draft is written, I’ve got the nausea-inducing pile of advisorial comments (received several months after I initially sent them in, but hey, who’s counting), so now I’ve just got to jump through my advisor’s hoops of editing and revision to get this thing finally finished.  I’m trying to get my 100th or whatever wind to get some energy for this thing, but mostly I sit down and listlessly work on it.

I had planned to graduate this semester.  In order to get my paperwork in on time, I quite literally had to trudge through the snow in order to turn in the paperwork.  When I told my advisor that I was turning in the forms, the first thing ze said was, “well, what happens if you don’t finish this semester?” which I should have realized was code for “if I haven’t bothered to read your dissertation up to now, what makes you think I will read it in the next few months?”  So now, I am beginning to see my initial deadlines float by me as I continue to work on this worthless piece of crap.  The deadline for turning in preliminary drafts, for having my defense, for turning in the final draft, for the oh-so-sweet returning of all my library books. Watching those dates go by hurts.  

So does sitting here at 9:45 on a Sunday night, when I know that I have to get some more work done on this thing in order to stay on my revision schedule.  I remember a time when I would have seen the clock hit 10 pm, and I would have been motivated to blast through the end of a paper, doing obscene amounts of work in tiny amounts of time to hit the next day deadline.  Now I see 10 pm come on my clock, and I really just want to read and go to bed with my husband.  The husband has one of these real office-y type jobs that pays our rent, our grocery bill, and gives us some really enviable health insurance.  It also means that it keeps him on a regular schedule.  10 pm on a Sunday means it is time to eke out a little more weekend free time, then get into bed.  10 pm for me means you-have-to-keep-working-you-loser-because-you-went-out-to-breakfast-and-went-to-the-gym-which-means-you’re-behind-and-if-you-go-to-bed-now-you-will-feel-like-today-was-a-failure.  

Needless to say, I am really sick of measuring my days by how much work on the dissertation I got done, and then using that as a yardstick for my self-worth.  This is all to say, that I have to get back to work now.  Le sigh.

How it Began

After I graduated from college, I moved back in with my mom for awhile.  She lives in a small town, quite unlike the city where we spent much of our adolescence.  I lived there for two years, and mostly hated it.   It didn’t have a bookstore or a real coffee shop and my sister and I used to drive 45 minutes for Indian food.  I worked 2 jobs and liked them both well enough.  But I felt I was destined for something else. Eventually the siren call of academia lured me away from small town to the university for fame and fortune.  AHAHAHAHAHA.  Ahem.  Anyway.

Now I look back at both of those jobs, and think about how I could have spun a solid, worthwhile job out of either of them.  I’m a little astonished at how blind I was to those early opportunities.  I remember inwardly scoffing when, at a meeting with one of my bosses, ze suggested the value of my job as a future career.  But neither job related to my “major” or to “intellectual pursuits.”  And I persisted in thinking that I was “too smart” for that kind of career. The combined falsity and pretentiousness of that belief still blows me away.

So I left for the Ivory Tower.

I went out of some pompous deep-seated belief that I was too smart to do anything other than academia.  I think I stayed because I didn’t know what else to do.  That and continuing to believe that I should be a professor, a goal based on some vague idea that I liked to teach conflated with a complete lack of knowledge about the realities of work in academia.

I have moments of regretting not staying in either of those jobs.  It would certainly have been more cost-effective to start my career at the age of 23 or 24.  I might have earned raises and promotions and developed a real career.  But I really do believe that had I stayed there, I certainly would have been haunted by the belief that I had missed my calling.  I think that I would have been plagued by some seductive vision of myself as a teacher at some idyllic liberal arts school, imparting wisdom upon my bright-eyed and attentive students.  I think that dream would have made me vaguely dissatisfied my entire life, and would have prevented any full-fledged commitment or joy in any career I could have developed.

If it took going to grad school to cure me of that alluring lie, so be it.  It cured me of my pretention too.  Had I stayed, I would have remained a pompous, dissatisfied melancholic convinced I was working in a job beneath my talents.  Grad school taught me that the life I had imagined had become virtually non-existent, and that I wasn’t nearly as special as I thought.  Eventually my profound dissatisfaction with academia would open up all sorts of new doors to me.  But it took the complete destruction of my ego, coupled with a realization of academia’s broken promise, to make me look for those doors at all.