In which a young medievalist falls asleep while reading Chaucer and dreams herself awake.

A blog about Medieval Studies, graduate school, and beyond!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Exercise in Gratitude

When I was a little girl, and whenever I’d have a particularly bad day and found myself feeling as though nothing, absolutely nothing, was right with the world, my father would send me off to my room with a pencil and paper. My task was simple: to write down ten good things that had happened to me that day. I frequently responded to his insistence that I complete this exercise with some version of the following:

“BUT NOTHING GOOD HAPPENED TODAY! EVERYTHING IS WRONG WITH EVERYTHING!”

My father, however, is nothing if not persistent, and so off to my room I went, even though I was convinced in that moment that the paper would remain blank, the pencil just as sharp and unused as it was when he gave it to me. 

I’d sit in my room for a while, refusing to consider anything aside from all of the wrongs and hurts that had afflicted me over the course of the day. But after a while, some kind of quiet miracle would occur: I’d start to remember the beautiful birds I saw flying high above me as I walked into my school building, or the way a friend made me laugh at lunch, or the puppy I saw from my school bus window. I’d start there, and after a few minutes I’d find that recalling and writing down those ten good things wasn’t nearly as hard as I had thought.

This exercise taught me an important lesson growing up: that even when life kicks you repeatedly in the unmentionables (over and over . . . and over again in some cases), there are still a wild array of reasons to be grateful for each day that you’ve been given. 

The importance of this exercise came back to me rather suddenly a few days ago. I came home from an exhausting (and, to be honest, somewhat demoralizing) teaching day, only to find yet another quasi-rejection from a university to which I’d applied earlier this Fall.  I’ve been rather silent here on the blog over the last few months, and this silence has stemmed from the fact that I’m overwhelmed by the stresses of contingent labor as an adjunct and that I am equally overwhelmed with the job application process. There are so many aspects of both this process and adjunct life that frustrate and depress me, but as a powerless, contingent member of the academy, there is little to nothing that I can say here or elsewhere that will help me or anyone else in my position. And that realization only further adds to the anger and frustration, and leads to me feeling trapped by the very system to which I’ve devoted so much of my adult life and about which I care rather deeply.

I do a decent job on most days of keeping these broader anxieties at bay, but they creep up nevertheless, and I found myself so trodden down and beaten up a few days ago, that I retreated to my bedroom to take a wildly uncharacteristic nap. Having resisted nap taking with a vengeance since I was a toddler, however, I unsurprisingly found myself lying in bed, awake with all of my worries.

The simple truth is that I am terrified, just like any other recently-minted Ph.D. in my position. I’ve worked hard, I’m finding ways to publish and to keep my research projects afloat, and I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to continue going to conferences. I know that I’m good at what I do. But I also know that none of those things makes me any more likely to land the kind of job that I’ve worked so hard to achieve. And it terrifies me to think of having to start all over again.

As I mulled over these worries and tried to fly swat them away, I suddenly remembered the exercise that my father gave me so long ago, and I found my thoughts starting to shift. Yes, countless aspects of the job application process and the state of academy are cause for justifiable anger, depression, and resentment right now, especially for adjuncts like myself. And I am certainly entitled and justified in feeling those feelings. However, I know that what I’m really hungry for is a sense of purpose and a sense of happiness in my deeply uncertain and contingent professional life, and focusing on all of the things that enrage me (things over which I have little to no control) will not help me find either of those things. It dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, writing about what I am grateful for in the midst of this hell-storm could help buoy my spirits, and perhaps the spirits of others out there who are struggling along with me. And I say “with” because I truly believe that we are in this together, and, as a wise a wonderful friend recently observed, a win for any of us is a win for us all.

So friends, for what it’s worth, here is my list from a few days ago:

Today, I’m grateful for . . .

1. The fact that it was 41 degrees when I woke up. It finally feels a little like winter, and I now have plans to go out and purchase an obscene amount of hot chocolate and start decorating for the holidays while drinking said hot chocolate.

2.  This video, which (miracle of miracles) actually got me to crack a smile this afternoon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iehOvkO54g

3.  Nutella. Because, let’s face it – stressful days are simply made for nutella.

4. The fact that even with all of my fears about my professional future, I am still madly in love with medieval literature. Case in point: I can’t wait to curl up by my parents’ fireplace and re-read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight this Christmas.

5.  Being able to teach world literature. Where else can you help students forge meaningful comparisons between Old Norse sagas and Japanese warrior tales?

6. Being able to end the content portion of my current course with Midsummer Night’s Dream, and having a rollicking good time discussing the mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in class this week.

7.  My husband, for always being able to make me laugh, especially on a day like today.

8. My friendship with Kristi. We've swapped countless job letters, CVs, teaching statements, and the like over the past few months, all in an attempt to help each other create the best portfolios possible. That we were often applying to the same positions was never even so much as a concern, and I count myself so very, very fortunate to have her (and several others like her) in my life.

9. All of my family, friends, colleagues, especially those who have buoyed my spirits over the past few months. You might not know this, but your words of encouragement are ones I go back to immediately on hard days, and I find myself deeply humbled and truly grateful for the number of people out there who believe in me.

10. The fact that I had the opportunity to do EXACTLY what I loved most for well over seven years. Grad school was certainly brutal at times, and it came with no guarantee of an academic job; those years, however, were richer beyond anything I could have imagined, and I know that they will always be meaningful, no matter where I find myself in my professional life.  


Coda:

After I wrote this post, I asked my scholar friends on Facebook for some advice on how to survive the job market, and I was truly humbled by the warm, honest, and heartfelt responses that so many people took the time to compose. My hope is that both that conversation and this post might help others out there who are feeling similarly trodden down by the application process. I know that writing and responding to both have helped me immeasurably. And as I said to my friends on Facebook, their responses reminded me of how very grateful I am for pursuing the career that I did, because I’ve managed over the past several years to surround myself with truly wonderful people, and that makes all of the struggles I’m experiencing right now far more than worth it.


3 comments:

  1. Your father is a very wise man! I enjoyed reading your gratitude list! Anytime you want to list your thanks come visit http://www.sharingthanks.blogspot.com Good luck with your job search. You seem very passionate about literature! Your students will be lucky to have you as a professor!

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  2. He is indeed, Linda :) I'm so glad that you enjoyed the list, and many thanks for your kind words!

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  3. Thanks for the post - I look froward to taking your course this Spring! Any suggestions for readings over this Winter break?

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