Church Signs: "Welcome Home"
Last week, I met with a former professor of mine from college. He was my major advisor, my favorite professor, and chair of his department for an unprecedented period of time—about a decade longer than is expected. He is gentle, brilliant, accomplished, and beloved by students past and present.
I have always felt respected and appreciated by him, partly because I felt it in his manner, and partly because I knew I'd earned it. I won a very competitive academic prize in the field of my major my junior year; I graduated with Latin honors; I made the dean's list every semester after my first year. I was passionate, dogged, and enthusiastic as a student.
He demonstrated his approval of me in many ways. There were good grades and recommendations, of course. And then, when a few students were selected from our department by this professor to dine with important visitors, I was among them. When the department re-designed its Web site, I was among a handful of alumnae chosen to represent the major. When I needed a place to live in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, he let me stay (for free) in a small apartment in the basement of his home while he and his family were away. Several years ago, when a teaching position opened up in his department—one class, a senior writing seminar—he asked me to apply, even though I was definitely under-qualified.
I have always felt that he considered me to be special and this has meant a great deal to me. It has helped me to push my limits, to maintain confidence in any setting requiring a formidable intellect, and to walk in the world feeling accomplished.
When I was an undergrad, he didn't know what I had come from; but when I applied for the teaching position, I gave him a portion of my manuscript to read, and he discovered the truth of my impoverished rural upbringing. Later, he visited my hometown and told me, "I can't believe you come from here."
My professor and I met up for tea last week at the student center. It had been a few years since we last saw each other and he asked me how things were. I told him I was good, still writing.
He asked if I made enough money. I answered honestly. I told him, "No."
He asked what happened to law school. (A few years ago when I was applying, he had written me a recommendation.) I answered honestly. I told him that I got in to my first choice, UC Davis, a tier one school, but that for a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out. For starters, I couldn't afford it. Two digits of my social security number were transposed on my application for financial aid, and I found myself thrown into a bureaucratic nightmare as I attempted to prove that I was, in fact, an American citizen who qualified for aid. I also lost my in-state residency in California by voting in Northampton. My bank accounts, permanent address, car registration, and worldly belongings were in San Francisco, but I voted in Northampton since I happened to be there during an election, and the State of California considered this to be a relinquishment of my right to claim residency in its state. Although, I still had to pay California income tax…
I didn't mention that I was also carrying a monstrous debt load, and that there was no way for me to pay for law school and meet my living expenses when you factored in the credit card and student loan bills I was paying.
I also told him that, at the time, I felt I had to choose between law and art; I chose art. I wrote a book. I founded a nonprofit organization and obtained 501(c)3 status for it. I began writing and performing poetry.
He asked me if I had an agent. I said, "No."
He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him, with a smile, that I wasn't sure; that I was a bit lost; that I was working on it.
I told him I love studying law and that I still think of applying, but that I just can't pull the trigger. I'm not certain it's what I want to do, at my age. I just paid off my undergraduate loans last year. I don't know if I want to take on another $80,000 in student loan debt or commit to a three-year program I may not enjoy.
He asked if I was partnered. I told him that I wasn't; that my last real relationship ended nearly a decade ago.
I said these things unselfconsciously, almost cheerfully. I am good-natured about my circumstance. I told him that on the plus side, I was free to do anything I wanted because my life wasn't tethered to another's. I was not defensive or self-protective because I trusted him to accept and understand me, to offer guidance, to see my great potential, and perhaps to offer some answers that would help to guide me into the perfect port.
Instead, he said, "Oh…Naomi…" and there was pity in his voice.
He asked more questions about law school, like what my LSAT scores were. I told him. He didn't even pretend to hide his reaction. (They were poor.)
He asked about my dream job. I told him I'd like to be a Supreme Court Justice, or an actor, or that I might like to be a speech writer, but that I wasn't sure how one does that. He shook his head in minor disbelief at the first two ideas, but said that if you want to be a speechwriter, you go to DC for 90 days. You have lunches. You stay on someone's couch. You make connections. You find your way in.
I said I wasn't sure I was willing to do that, just now.
"Do you have health insurance?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "I do now."
"How?" he asked.
"Through the state…through Commonwealth Care…"
Again…the look of pity and concern. He made me feel frightened for my safety. He made me feel old and inadequate. And no matter what I said, the conversation kept turning back to my lack and to what he seemed to see as my failure to reach my potential. He kept coming back to law school. He thought I should apply again, find a way to afford it. He thought I should move to a state with a state law school (Massachusetts doesn't have one) so that I could establish residency, get in, and attend at a lower cost. I told him that was a big commitment and I just wasn't sure it was the right thing for me.
Finally, as a way of defending my lack of willingness to uproot myself and take a brave stab at a new career, I also told him that I have struggled with serious health issues. That there is more at stake for me than simply choosing a new profession. I told him that I was too sick to work for 26 weeks last year; that when one is facing that sort of debilitation, one cannot launch into a new career. One cannot go to Washington, DC, sleep on a couch, and meet people for lunch. Even if one survived that experience and succeeded in landing a job, one couldn't promise one's employer, with any confidence, that one would be able to fulfill one's duties. And what about health insurance? And caregivers? In the Valley, I have found practitioners who I couldn't easily replace in another state. I want to stay near them. And Smith—being near Smith allows me to have affordable access to yoga classes and athletic facilities and other things. It's not the right time for me to pull up my life and move someplace for a high stakes career I'm not sure I want.
I dropped into the conversation that I have been published in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. That I have published more than 300 stories. But this didn't seem to shake his worry.
"You never seemed to me to lack confidence," he said, "but perhaps you have a problem with your self-esteem?" He made this assertion several times. What does one say to this?
"I don't think that's it…" I said, turning up the wattage on my smile, sitting up straighter, trying to broadcast confidence.
Eventually, I turned the conversation back to him, to the state of affairs at Smith. We talked about the massive failings of the current President, the extent to which the faculty, staff, and student body are displeased. It was an enlightening talk. Discouraging, but enlightening.
He ended the conversation abruptly when he realized he was going to be late to meet his wife. I walked with him for a while, then thanked him for his time, wished him well, and headed back across campus to my car. It was dark and damp and the cold bit at my thighs as I clomped my boots on the pavement. I phoned my best friend immediately and left him a distraught voice mail. I didn't think it was possible that I could stand on this campus, walk past the buildings where I had done so well and learned so much, and feel like a failure, but I did.
I nearly cried. I felt a sinkhole open in my gut, a cramping pain gripped my neck and shoulders, a vice clamped down on my temples.
"He pities me," I realized. The sound of his voice saying, "Ohhh…Naomi…" as though I had just been fired or dropped a Faberge egg…it played over and over in my mind. I was nauseous.
In my yoga practice, we learn to value our hearts. We learn to breath into our feelings. The memory of this practice came to me and I breathed into my heart. I breathed into my gut. I breathed into my neck and shoulders and temples. And as I breathed, a new awareness poured into me: he was wrong.
This man who I revered and cared for. This man who had been something of a father—or perhaps good uncle—figure to me. This man who was a brilliant academic. He was wrong about this.
My life is not a failure. There is no reason to worry for me. I am still young and curious. I am still determined and bright and capable. There is no shame in feeling lost, particularly if you are working hard on finding your way. Law school is not the way for me. Not now, not yet. My way is in finding stillness, in getting well. My way is in learning to listen to myself, to value what I bring to the world, to treat myself with loving kindness, always.
My grandfather couldn't read the newspaper. My grandmother de-throated chickens with her bare hands in a factory while her six children waited in the car. My father has a high school diploma (and a strong cadre of skills like masonry and heavy equipment operation). I went to Smith College. I got myself there and I put myself through. I graduated with honors. If I do nothing else with my life, this is enough. This is enough.
And there is no way to quantify all the brave choices, all the rising up that has occurred after terrible falls, all the attempts at self-discovery, all the lives that I have changed by offering compassion, friendship, art, and joy. There is no accounting for Love in my professor's assessment of my success.
I am learning to be at home in my body and my life. I am making peace with my past and my present and my future. I am learning what it means to be me. I have not yet put any new letters before or after my name. But choosing not to enter into a marriage or a graduate program before it is my time—these things are victories, too. In the same way that the silences between notes give music its rhythm, so, too, are the absences in my life an essential part of my song.
And let's not forget that I am grateful simply to be alive. I come from homelessness and poverty, from illiteracy and isolation. I emerged from rural Maine and I became something. I became a woman who is a force for good in the world. I am not making a comfortable living, but I have kept myself alive all by myself. I have forged this existence without the safety of a trust fund or an influential surname or the gift of a free car/home/down payment/education or anything else from my parents.
It took only twenty minutes for all of this to sink in. I walked away from my professor feeling like a failure, depressed and anxious. Twenty minutes later, I stood in the kitchen of my little apartment and I called my best friend again.
"I know who I am," I said. "I know what I am worth. I know what I have done. I have not yet become all that I can be, and this is just as it should be. My professor is wrong about me. He comes from a place where one's value, one's progress can be measured in advanced degrees, in spouses, houses, and income. I do not live in that place. I live in a place where my value comes from my ability to heal, to forgive, to listen. It comes from my ability to love, to learn, to stay alive."
I left that place—the place where my value is immeasurable and does not depend on advanced degrees or spouses or income or accolades--while I was talking to my professor. But after 20 minutes of breathing and thinking, I returned to it again. And when I arrived back in that healthy state of mind, I understood from the deepest most inner parts of my being all the way up to my conscious self, what it means to hear, "Welcome Home."
Labels: church signs, Smith