Questions and answers

These days when people ask me, “What do you do?” — as my yoga teacher did, this morning — I just tell them about the adult literacy job, because the way I really feel about the question is just too complicated to explain. Any “what do I do” answer feels inadequate unless I also go into the story of what I do not do (namely: grad school), but even if I were to tell that part, it’s still not a complete answer to the question. I suppose the most honest reply would be, “I’m a part-time adult literacy coordinator for the LA Public Library — and the rest of the time, I search.” But most people don’t need an answer that raises more questions, so even though this second part is important to me, I leave it off. Nevertheless, the “What do you do?” question always leaves me uneasy.

Lately, especially after reading Messud’s book and Jennifer’s blog, I’ve been thinking about the value of higher education, or rather, the value of ever-higher education. When have I had enough? And what then, after I’ve finished? The problem for me is that I never expected to have to answer either of these questions; as a high-school student, then a college student, then a grad student, the answers were meant to unfold without my having to seek them. But no longer. Now, even after six months of being out of school, I still feel confused sometimes that these questions are here staring me in the face, waiting to be answered.

When I left school, I did so to pursue other paths, mostly writing and art. People have asked me why I didn’t just transfer to art school. That, I can answer. First, I’ve had enough school for the time being. Second, I don’t like art students en masse. Third and most crucial, I’ve spent too many years of my life already letting school be a crutch. As long as I stayed in school, doing pretty well, I never needed to ask the big self questions: Am I doing what’s best for me? Is this what I want? (And of course:) How much school is enough? What will I do after I’ve finished? Going to art school would have been a step in answering these questions, true, but it would also have allowed me to delay really answering them for a few more years. No matter what I do, as long as it’s not academia (and I do know I don’t want that), there will come a time when I must answer these questions. So what’s the point in putting off the task?

In leaving grad school but refusing to begin yet another academic education, I made my first and most scary step toward facing these questions and finding their answers. But answers have been slow in coming! So slow, that I’ve begun to wonder whether solid black-or-white answers exist at all. I am happy out of grad school; this is for certain. But with contentment comes apathy, and that’s no good either. If I’m happy right now, my entropic self asks, why push myself to strive harder and seek more? My answer to that is yet another question: My current life is enjoyable, yes, but is it fulfilling? And the answer to that is not, or at least is not 100%, affirmative.

Leaving grad school, alone, was not sufficient for me to find fulfillment. That then begs the question (not really asked, but always tacit) of possibly going back to school. Again, though I’m happier not being a grad student, I can’t say 100% that I’m better off without it. There are things I miss: the intellectual stimulus of seminars and colloquiums, the obvious sense of purpose, the feeling of belonging that came from being part of a cohort…

Now wait just a second! That sounds fabulous, but it never happened. I didn’t like seminars and colloquiums, and I never felt a sense of purpose. Even though I loved my cohort, I always felt like the dumb/quiet/wrong one (in spite of their reassurances). I doodled my way through classes, and in everything, I felt like an impostor probably 95% of the time. But when I could understand the discussions in colloquium, I found them stimulating; when I actually participated, I found it exciting. I enjoyed writing papers about topics that interested me. That feeling of intellectual involvement helped me feel purposeful, as did my belonging in the cohort. We had all gone through the same things, we all wanted to help each other, and we all expected to come out together on the other side. In a very real sense, we were all living the same life, and that kind of camaraderie is hard to find in the “real world.” That doesn’t mean I should go back to grad school — my days are ever so much more delightful without that miserable 95% hanging over me! — but I have to admit, that remaining 5% is an empty place in my present life. And I have absolutely no idea where to look for substitutes.

The truth is — at risk of sounding like a sad little playground outcast — I just don’t feel like I belong anywhere. And I can’t help but wonder whether that will always be true. I’m not a grad student anymore, and I’m glad not to be. But having once been one, I don’t feel like I can be a “civilian” either! The things I want in my life just don’t seem to line up with anybody else’s life that I’ve seen, and that makes me feel weird and alone. What does an intelligent, creative, independent person do with herself when she doesn’t go into an academic/professional discipline? I don’t know! Sometimes I wish I had some role models, but then I think they’d just be another crutch, like school; they’d just create more illusions that I don’t need to forge my own path. And of course, I know that that is the true answer, that I need to find my own path, but I do wish I felt more confident about how to do that. But I suppose that uncertainty is all part of the path-making.

At any rate, one thing I have realized, after all this pondering on higher education and my non-desire to pursue it, is that I do have some sense of how I want my life to be. I have no clue how to achieve it, but its character at least is beginning to take shape. Behold my truths:

1. I have to use my brain, otherwise I stagnate.
2. If I use only my brain, I am miserable.
3. I need to express myself.
4. If I feel that I am being forced to play by others’ rules, I stress constantly and become rebellious.
5. If I don’t feel joy and heart in what I do, I lose all motivation.
6. If I don’t take care of my body, I loathe myself.
7. I can be outgoing sometimes, but I need to have some space to be reserved and introspective, otherwise I feel lost.
8. If I don’t remind myself of all these things, all the time and with strenuous effort, I will spend all my time eating, socializing, buying things, and playing computer games. Because that’s easier than trying to remake the path all over again.

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

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2 responses to “Questions and answers

  1. hi lisa, oh before i forget i have that cat photo book for you, will bring it back with me in may. where exactly do you live now?? i will be in SJ and SD, but will be doing bridesmaid stuffs while in socal so dunno how logistically feasible it is for me to meet up with you there… hrm… maybe erik’s parents?! haha oh well we’ll figure something out. πŸ™‚

    and oh yes, before i get any more sidetracked, i do understand what you mean about not “belonging” anywhere. i also miss being part of a group like when i was in CYS. but i’m also lucky in the sense that i was able to re-create that to a certain extent at work, since a lot of my working experience has been team-centered. *head tilt* is that something that is possible for you? it may not be, since it sounds like you’re working a bit outside of the regular library system…

    in which case, maybe you can try and make friends at your yoga class or something. i started going to this gym before i moved to tokyo, and while it was pretty lonely at first, i was able to make friends with a couple ppl at the swimming pool and then in my aerobics class. small things maybe in the beginning, but it built up to be something quite nice towards the end.

    here in tokyo i have been struggling quite a lot with this kinda lonely/outcast feeling, and it is something i’m not quite sure what to do about… δΈ€η·’γ«γŒγ‚“γ°γ‚γ†γ­οΌŸ

    • Hi Judy! πŸ˜€ Thank you for commenting and for getting the kitty book!!! If you have some free time when you’re down in SD, we could even meet you there, or Erik’s parents are an option. πŸ™‚ Or, if it comes to that, mail!

      Yah, my work environment is very isolated. I’m not part of the regular library staff, and the team that I do work for is scattered across the entire library system (I’m supposed to see them once a month for meetings, but every single one of those has been cancelled since I started!). I like the independence, but definitely work doesn’t make me feel like part of a group.

      Yoga people are nice. We do a lot of partner work in the classes I go to, so I’m meeting lots more people there than in most of my previous yoga classes! πŸ™‚ But I already have a social group of sorts — the friends I get together with almost every Saturday night to play board games and eat lots of food πŸ™‚ — so it’s not so much the social belonging I miss. I think it really is the sense of being part of a group who all has the same lifestyle. But maybe that’s part of being a grown-up/out of school, at least until we have kids and center our social lives around that? ;b Bleh! ;b

      Hope you are doing well! πŸ™‚

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