Sobriquet 41.4

The following post was originally published on 4/5/08.

Today sort of made up for yesterday, I think. I wrote more this afternoon than I did yesterday and, all things considered, feel fairly satisfied with the result. So it was a good day, a productive day.

Today's internal struggle, unlike yesterday's, had relatively little to do with the writing process, though it is quite closely linked to the dissertation or, rather, to what the dissertation represents. It may have been the proverbial April showers that prompted the mood that swept over me this evening by reminding me of the cool drizzles I'd experienced in Bergen some twelve years ago or it could have been the Sugar (Copper Blue, to be precise) playing on my iPod, I don't know but, regardless of the cause, I've spent the past few hours really missing some of the places I've called home over the years.

Nostalgia, that gross over-romanticizing of the past, certainly has a big role in the persistent, even stubborn, refusal of this mood to dissipate, but it extends beyond a mere dissatisfaction with my present circumstances. As I said earlier (like two sentences ago), a major contributing factor to this semi-wistful, strangely pleasant melancholy is my reflection upon the semiotic value of my dissertation. This paper, this huge, hulking beast of an assignment marks the end of my formal education and so, as I contemplate finishing it, I cannot help but look back on the events that led me to where I am.

I've often said--if not on this blog, then certainly to my friends and family in person or on the telephone--that I wish I had never gone to graduate school, that I would have stayed in St. Paul, that I would have done something else with my life. I also know full well that had I not gone to graduate school, had I not worked my way through a master's program and a doctoral program, I would have spent those years regretting my decision not to go. So, essentially, when I say I wish I never attended graduate school, it sounds like I am saying I wish I wasn't me, which is ludicrous. I like being me. So, what am I really saying?

What it comes down to is that, like Rod Stewart, I wish I knew then what I know now, namely that fulfillment in one area of my life can contribute to a significant lack of fulfillment in other, more important areas. So, while I was living in Montreal, reading Joseph Heller and eating smoked meat and poutine, my friends moved on with their lives. Sure, we stayed in touch. I even visited Minnesota a few times and welcomed old friends into my home, but I always felt as if I was putting my life, my "real life," on hold. A part of me always felt Minnesota and Norway, for a variety of reasons, were my real homes, that Quebec and upstate New York were merely places in which I would study for a few years before returning. On days like today, I still feel that way. Then I remember nostalgia is more about the present than the past. Longing for the past is really no more than a discomfort with the present.

I also know that those people I love, those people whose presence made those places home, have spread out and live in New York City, southern Mississippi, Santa Fe, Oslo, and a slew of other spots even the most accurate of pushpinning cartophiles wouldn't be able to locate. Home, after all, is where the heart is and, in this case, home is both a place and a time. In other words--or, rather, in the words of Thomas Wolfe--you can't go home again.

Another huge component of this mood is the fact that I never really took to the Southern Tier of New York. I mean, sure, I love the topography and the well-preserved Painted Ladies poking out of centuries-old deciduous forest. As someone who was born in New England and raised in rural New Jersey, the appeal of living among houses dating back to the Boston Tea Party and among woods and rolling almost-mountains has always been strong. The problem, for me, is that this particular swath of America is so economically depressed, so overpopulated and underemployed, that it might as well be called America's stretch mark. I mean, as the nation grew large and prosperous, places like Binghamton and Elmira boomed. Business thrived and the affluent population built stately homes and other monuments to their pecuniary status. Then, for a number of different reasons, the economy began to recede and once-proud industries went bye-bye, leaving factories and storefronts empty and sucking the population out of their homes. Now, thanks to the inevitable forces of entropy coupled with an inability or unwillingness to systematically renovate decrepit buildings, the area is the ugly scar of America's once fat belly too quickly made thin again by disease and age. In other words, the region is a poignant reminder that everything (including friendships and one's own happiness) breaks down when neglected.

And now, having spent nearly five years here, I look back and really want to leave. While I could pick up and go, it is easier to stay here to finish my dissertation. So, to make a long story a bit longer, the dissertation represents the last wall, the final gate I must pass through before my life is mine again. What I mean by this is that, when I decided to take the route that I have taken, I made a commitment to myself to work and work until I finished my doctorate, no matter where it took me. That was my choice, but it set a course I could not allow myself to swerve away from. That's just tenacious ol' me, I guess. But when the dissertation is done, I will not "have" to stay away from the places I love. I will no longer have to live in a situation that feels more and more like exile. What the whole thing comes down to, I suppose, what it really amounts to, is that I am tired of being a student. I've grown weary of living paycheck to paycheck, of putting my life on hold until I can afford to live in a nice home with a bank account large enough to make visiting my distant friends possible. That's what the dissertation has grown to signify for me. I chose a path seven years ago, a road leading away from the places and faces most dear to me, and the dissertation is the last leg of that path, the part that will swing around and join the original road. And there's a freedom there that I've not experienced in quite some time: whereas grad school was more or less mapped out for me, point by point from master's seminars to the dissertation, the future is emphatically not planned, there is no set course and I welcome that. I can take a job or not take a job. I can choose not to take a job in a region I do not think I would like. I can apply for jobs only in places in which I would want to reside (this, of course, will be mitigated by the dearth of the sort of jobs I want, but let me dream for now). I could even, in a quixotic move, return to Minnesota or Norway.

At the same time, I wouldn't trade what I have done or where I have been for the world. Sure, there are things I would rather not have seen, people I would rather not have met, far-away events I would have liked to have seen, but it's been a worthwhile journey. I'm just eager for it to end so I can start the next one.

For tomorrow and Sunday: I'm gonna be busy the next few days so if I cannot get any writing done, at least get some reading out of the way.


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