A Sort-Of Resolution

Last Thursday my mom e-mailed me to ask whether I’d made a decision on grad school, so instead of e-mailing her back, I called her after work on my way to the library. This is (roughly) how it went.

Mom:  Have you decided on grad school yet?
Me:     Not so much.
Mom:  Well, you only have eleven days.
Me:     I am aware of this.
Mom:  You’d better make a decision.
Me:     No, really?
Mom:  I don’t have any advice for you.
Me:     You know what, this really isn’t helping. I’ll call you back when I get out of the subway.

I called her back when I got to the library, but I wasn’t sure if they had a “no cell phones” policy inside, so I stood in the lobby leaning against the railing on the wheelchair ramp for the rest of this conversation. She told me that grad school was a very practical option. A teaching degree would be useful in the future even if I decided not to be a classroom teacher. She reminded me that the job market sucks harder than a black hole and that if I chose grad school I could at least be sure that I would be doing something next year. She also reminded me that it wasn’t a lifetime commitment—which is depressing in a way, but it’s also a relief, because long-term decisions are more daunting than short-term ones. She told me that I shouldn’t be basing my decision on money at this stage.

I argued with almost everything she said: Yes, a teaching degree would be useful for multiple reasons. I know that the job market sucks but that alone is not a good reason to go to grad school next year. I shouldn’t be spending that much money on something that I’m not 100% sure about, or even 80% sure about. Being in debt makes me a prisoner of society. I’m not necessarily going to give away my possessions and go travel the world seeking truth, but I like having the option. If I were chained to a job and a loan repayment plan it would make things like that a lot harder to do. I don’t want to do what’s practical. I am scared to death of boringness and convention. I don’t want to be a “real adult.” I don’t like the system and I don’t want to work with the system. I’m tired of all the stupid rules and all the bullshit in life that I have to wade through before I can do anything that I actually want to do. It takes the joy and spontaneity out of everything.

She told me that I was just like my little brother who had told her that evening that he was going to throw himself out his bedroom window because his life was “no fun” (prompted by Mom having signed him up for a cartooning class on one afternoon during his spring break). I said maybe he had a point. If life sucks no matter what, then why bother? Then she counted up my bonds while I was on the phone. (I hadn’t been aware that I had bonds.) Everything taken into account, it turns out I’m technically only in debt about $2,000, if I wanted to be flat broke right now. I had to admit that the money wasn’t nearly as much of an issue as I’d thought it had been. She said that I could at least give grad school a try, and if I didn’t like it, I could figure out what I wanted to do from there.

Afterward, I thought it over. My mother’s reasons were very reasonable, whereas mine were emotional and instinctive. It was helpful to have someone argue for one option so that I could argue for the other one, instead of trying to compare both at once. I think the biggest convincing factor might have been the money. If I can afford it, then why not give it a shot? Worst case scenario, I discover while student teaching next spring that it really isn’t for me, and I try to find something else I might want to do. And however angry I get at society, completely dropping out just isn’t a realistic option for me, especially since I have no concrete idea of how I would want to do that.

I went online and confirmed my acceptance after work on Monday. I feel kind of like I’ve lost a battle, and half of me has—I was bound to feel like that either way. But I’m content with the decision. I have a future, at least for now, and I have dreams, too: I’m still trying to figure out how to make the two correspond.

(let’s see how far we’ve come)

Just like Counting Crows are the band by which I remember my Spain semester, Matchbox Twenty has become my band of JVC. I know what you’re thinking—What is this, 1996?—but I see no reason why nineties music should stay in the nineties. I’ve liked Matchbox Twenty for a long time, but this new kick actually began with Spirituality Night back in November or so—the one where we each played a song that was meaningful to us. Lorraine’s song was “Long Day” from Yourself or Someone Like You. As we listened I realized that I had never really heard the lyrics before.

“Reach down your hand in your pocket,
pull out some hope for me—
It’s been a long day,
always
ain’t that right.”

This song has sort of become my anthem of the year. There are many days when I blast it on my headphones on my way home from work and just give myself over to the music. I feel like it contains some important truth in it for me… like, yeah, there is a lot in the world that just plain sucks, and that’s not something you can just gloss over. Sometimes you have to embrace it for what it is—surrender yourself to the madness all around you, until someone comes along with a pocketful of hope for you again.

And there are days when all I see is the madness, every way I turn. People call me at work sobbing because they’re being evicted and have nowhere to go, because they have nothing to eat, because they’re convinced someone is after them and no one they talk to believes them and they have to jump through endless hoops to try to get help, if help is even out there at all. And I have to act as a messenger of the system that’s strangling them, trying to explain that we’re limited in the types of cases we can take because we have limited resources and funding. They yell at me, they cry, they hang up. They never really understand. I’m not sure I do either. There’s so much wrong with the world and there’s so little I can do about it, and nothing I do can possibly be good enough.

On my twenty-minute commute home from work, I pass an average of about three panhandlers a day. Over and over again, I’m faced with the impenetrable quandary of giving homeless people change. I often try to rush past them or pretend I don’t see them—taking the coward’s way out—because they make me feel guilty just by standing there. Then I start to get angry with them for making me feel guilty, which is followed by more guilt for feeling angry. Sometimes I give them change, and for a minute I feel marginally exonerated, having given someone a lousy dollar that might buy them a greaseburger at McDonald’s. Change, in the material sense, is not enough. (But what is enough?) And how do I decide who to give the change to? If I gave a dollar to every panhandler I saw, I wouldn’t have any money left. The line has to be drawn somewhere. But who am I to decide who should get my change and who shouldn’t? Who am I to try to assuage my guilt by giving people meager handouts, and conversely, who am I to cling so tightly to my privilege that I haven’t earned any more than they have earned their poverty? Who am I, that there should be any lines drawn between me and anyone else on this planet? I don’t have the answers for any of this, and I’m confronted with it every day. I have no idea what it’s like to be you. I have no idea what it’s like to sleep in doorways, to be denied access to indoor bathrooms, to be treated as if my very existence were an offense to society, to have acid poured on me while I’m sleeping, leaving scars that tear viciously across my skin… to be addicted to a substance stronger than caffeine. I’m insulated by my privilege, and the thinness of that barrier scares me sometimes, because we share the same humanity, underneath it all.

Not to make it warm and fuzzy, because it isn’t. People are not warm and fuzzy, and life certainly isn’t either. There’s no neat, simple way to tie this up. That’s why I deal with it by withdrawing—by retreating into the music surging through my headphones, trying to drown out thought. Even withdrawal is not a viable solution. The world doesn’t leave people alone; it will intrude on your solitude in any way it can. It will cat-call you on your way home, sometimes more aggressively than others. It will run up behind you as you fumble for your keys, walking alone at night. It will scream obscenities at you standing on street corners and on the bus. It will tell you what a piece of shit you are, that you’re a sex object, that you’re the oppressor, that you’re going to hell, that it could kick your fucking ass. The world does not leave people alone. The world is not friendly or hospitable much of the time, and the world will not let you love it the way that you want to.

There’s no real ending to this post, because there are no easy solutions. I’m no better and no worse for having written it. It’s just analysis. Just a few more paragraphs added to the digital din.

“And no, Lord, your hand won’t stop it,
just keep you trembling…”

Discernment Deliberation

While taking a shower tonight, I came to the conclusion that I should not be a teacher. I come to these sorts of conclusions a lot and then change my mind, so it might not count for a whole lot yet, but hear me out. When I examine my motivations, I start to realize that they’re all abstract—I want to become a teacher because the idea of it appeals to me, but most of its appeal does not come from specific experiences I have had teaching. Just because I like teaching in general, does not mean that it’s the right fit for me. I don’t know if I have the patience or the energy or the inner peace at this point. Also, I think that a lot of the reason I want to become a teacher is that I’ve been blessed to know a lot of amazing people who are teachers, and they’ve inspired me to want to be like them. When I think about it, though, there are a lot of amazing people who are not teachers as well—what makes people amazing, at least in the sense that I’m referring to, is that they’re doing something they’re passionate about, they’re doing it well, and they’re totally dedicated to it and energized by it. So instead of trying to emulate specific details of the lives of people I admire, maybe I should be figuring out what that one thing is for me, the thing that ignites my enthusiasm and stirs me to pursue it above all else. My roommate Julie gave me the advice that I should think about what I’m good at, what makes me happy, and what the world needs from me; the point these three intersect is where I belong. The trouble is that I don’t even know the answers to the smaller questions, much less the larger ones…

(Update:  I found out the day after I wrote this that I got into grad school.)