I haven’t been able to do much schoolwork all summer, because the voices of insecurity and despair that came into my head with grad school have only gotten louder in recent months. For months I couldn’t read a book without feeling like it was all just a futile exercise; I couldn’t write a sentence without envisioning the scene several months down the road in which my professors tell me that my ideas all suck. It has just occurred to me, this very minute, that this is exactly what writer Anne Lamott calls “radio station KFKD,” the one that plays constantly in your head to remind you that you’re f***ed before you even begin. How can anyone work under such relentless self-generated criticism? I can’t.

But things are looking up now – how is it that I can never write about these things until after the fact? until they’re history, ha ha – due to a happy chronological convergence of several incidents*, one being a conversation I had at Patrick’s apartment last night.

Last night Jason, Erik and I were at Patrick’s for a party. It was a very funny party involving a ukelele and some prank emails, but it was also the first time we’d seen Patrick in months. We talked lightly and joked, but we also asked seriously after each other’s lives and work. Naturally when it came my turn to say how my research was going, there wasn’t much to say. But in the company of good friends who are asking sincerely – not just conversationally – I found relief in being able to honestly say what there was to be said.

Normally, when people ask how school is going, I give some noncommital-but-friendly response, like “Oh, you know. I’m hanging in there,” or “It’s going. Things are okay.” Polite responses that don’t really have much to do with how I actually feel about it. After all when someone asks casually, I can’t very well reply, “I hate it. I don’t know what I’m doing here and I don’t know what to do with my life…” They don’t want to hear it, and I don’t particularly want to talk about it either. When a thought won’t leave me alone in my head nearly all day every day, it doesn’t give me much pleasure to talk about it out loud as well.

But with my fellow cohort members, it is blessedly different. We came into this silly pursuit together, we’ve survived together, bitching and moaning all the way, and with that comes understanding – of the depressing self-imposed misery that is grad school, but also of each other and how this has affected all of us. While it can sometimes be good to tell my woes to a fresh listener, it is a far greater comfort to speak with someone to whom I do not have to tell the entire backstory of my angst just to explain what’s going on with me now.** Even more particularly, it is a relief to speak with friends with whom I’ve been sharing my woes since they began, people who have been listening and supporting and advising me every step of the way through every iteration of this angst that I’ve gone through, to date.

This particular joy of unburdening is what I experienced last night, when in a lull of joking and laughing my friends wanted to know, seriously and sincerely, how I was doing. For a split instant I began to respond with that let’s-keep-it-simple reticence I’m so used to in replying to people’s queries about school. Then I realized to whom I was speaking and relief clicked into my brain and I remembered that that polite reticence had no place here. I knew I could say what I was feeling and I wouldn’t be hearing the conventional gestures of kindness, but the true consideration and understanding of my situation that is the most heartening sympathy I know. And instead of offering advice, which they know I’ve been given in abundance, they gave me their faith in me, the best gift a friend can bestow in circumstances like these. Knowing that this whole crisis of mine is due to my struggle to find my own path in life, they simply expressed their certainty that I would find it.

The loveliest thing about this is that this gift of faith turns out to be just what I needed most, because today, the day after, I’ve been more motivated than I have been all summer. I guess everyone runs better when they’ve got a cheering squad. To be completely honest, no, I didn’t actually do any research… but I did properly organize my desk for the first time in a year, and I did get started on an action plan for the rest of my summer.*** And I didn’t once stop to ask myself whether all this had any point, or whether my project would ever work out in the future.

In one afternoon I accomplished more than I have in the past two months. That’s a depressing thought on the past, but a hopeful note for the future. For months I’ve been feeling like everything else in my life has been slowly coming together; now, I hope, the academic piece falls into place too.

*Some of the others being: many many conversations with Erik, conversations and rants with Ying, essentially sharing my daily life with Jason, meeting with my fellow 2006-07 TACs on campus, and finally getting my official offer letter for next year’s TAC job.

**It’s like talking to my old friends who have known me forever, or to my family. There is no understanding like the understanding that comes from knowing what someone was like in middle school, or better yet, before middle school. Talk about backstory.

***And if you think this is anything to sneeze at, you haven’t seen what my desk looked like before the reorganization. I haven’t been able to use it properly for years.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]