Three weeks ago, I defended my dissertation and graduated from PhD school and for the last two weeks I’ve been hiding at my mom’s house in Iowa, reflecting on the last five years of life and planning ahead for my move to Maryland and the start of my new job. Okay AND I’ve been watching a lot of cable TV and reading guilty-pleasure books in the hammock. Kitchen Cousins, Million Dollar Listing and Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James if you really want to know. But anyway: reflections.
Fourteen years ago, about this time, I was graduating from college. Many things were different. I had never lived alone or paid rent or had a salaried job or lost a friend. I clubbed. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living, but I knew I had to make a decision and I knew that decision would define me to the very core of my being. Everything had led up to this. We all knew it. A friend of mine at Harvard said, with the kind of authority an A.B. from Harvard affords, that if you didn’t know what you were by 27, your whole life was basically over.
Back then, if you went to a fancy school on the East Coast you had two main options: consulting or investment banking. Your fancy school would set you up with interviews and cocktail meet-and-greets if you were interested in either of these avenues to employment, but the fancy school’s career assistance sort of began and ended at this fork. After all, this was the late ’90s–everyone was making money (so much money!), it seemed petulant to thumb your nose at these short roads to riches. Hence, my choices: Consultant. I-banker. Which would I be? Consulting seemed so vague. Consulting for what, for whom? And why would anyone want my opinion–I was 22, which was just old enough to know I didn’t know anything. That left I-banking, but I’d already heard the stories of the 120-hour work weeks, the de rigeur sexual harrassment. Plus, all the I-bankers I’d ever met seemed like assholes. I-banking was also out.
I had been an English major, I liked books. Everyone I knew was moving to New York, which was where the books were made, so it seemed like a smart thing to go there and try to get a job as a [something to do with books which I had not yet even imagined]. I had some false starts–my first job was at Wiley & Sons. I worked for a mean ego-maniac who edited computer textbooks. He liked to tell me how stupid I was and I obliged him by disengaging from the job and forgetting to do almost everything he asked of me. Everyone who has ever worked in publishing in New York has some version of this story to tell. My best friend and roommate moved to L.A. My estranged college boyfriend began to die of cancer. It seemed like a good time to move to Cape Cod with the heavily tattooed bouncer from the bar down the street from my Alphabet City apartment.
Eventually, I ended up back in New York, back in publishing, this time working under several wonderful fiction editors, including the brilliant and groundbreaking Leona Nevler. But something wasn’t right. I wanted to write but I wasn’t writing. I wanted to be in a supportive, committed relationship with someone who respected and encouraged me, but that was also not really happening. Instead, over and over again, I found myself going through the motions at work. I sacrificed writing time and sublimated my own ambitions in order to throw myself body and soul into the sinking wrecks of my relationships. That was something else I didn’t know yet: how a good man doesn’t *let* you sacrifice your body and soul to him. How a good man reads you and edits you and gets you and pushes you to be a better version of yourself and maybe even makes some of his own sacrifices for you. This lesson would take the longest to learn. It went on this way for quite a while.
I think of those posts around the internet that involve women (almost always women) writing letters to their younger selves and giving those selves advice based on what they know now about being a person in the world. But the letters are inherently flawed–if the young self had not had the doubts and insecurities and failures she had, the older self would be impossible, would be incomplete. I don’t regret how I spent my twenties–that fog of indecision and emotional cliff-jumping–because I would not be so excited, so grateful, so ready as I am, right now, for the brand new thing ahead. It’s my first do-over and I only got it after and because of years of dissatisfaction and difficulty. This time, I’m everything my younger, fresh-out-of-college self wished for but didn’t know how to get: I’m a writer, and a teacher (technically an expert in my field! And no one can take that away, not even if I turn out to be a double agent or a serial killer). I’m a month away from closing on my first house, two months away from eloping with The One, three from becoming a professor. For the first time in my life, I feel like I understand where I am and how I got here. And I know I am tempting fate by saying so, and I’m sure this will change completely, just come crashing down, at any minute, so I want to mark it before it disappears. Here I am now, for the first time in my adult life, exactly where I want to be.