Looking back category archive
It’s 7:30 at night and the house is quiet. I hear a car pass heading uphill in the clear, winter night. I make a cup of chamomile-peppermint tea in my favorite hand-thrown ceramic mug, and prepare a plate of chocolate cookies and almonds to nibble. Then I sit down to work on my thesis, joining the thousands of working mothers across the country whose second shift begins when the children are in bed.
This is my last semester in grad school; I file my thesis in May. The finished dissertation will be about 200 pages. I have 127 written, of which 111 are the important ones, the pages telling a story of my research into the changes immigration brought to two Barcelona schools in 2009-10. It all needs rewriting and further work, but I’m getting there. One night at a time.
What will I do when I’m done? Here is what I thought when I applied to grad school in 2005:
“In my Ph.D. study I aim to further develop my analytical skills and research expertise while looking more closely at poverty and inequality in education. Specifically, I want to learn to evaluate educational reforms using quantitative and qualitative research methods while examining issues around school funding, equality of opportunity to learn, and education and development.”
I know. Stilted, boring, and so serious! What was I really aiming for? I know I was ambitious, and hell-bent on making a different life than the one I grew up in. I’d always been good at school, and continuing to study seemed like the answer. But really, I had very mixed feelings about what I was doing.
Nearly 7 years later, in the home stretch of my program, I’ve concluded the academic life – at least as I understood it then – is not for me. I love the writing and teaching parts, but not the research. The pressures, pretentiousness and pettiness of university jobs weigh too heavy, obliterating the joy of learning, teaching, and discovering new ideas that also come with being a professor. And, it turns out, I want a life a lot closer to the creative one I grew up in than I was willing to admit at 26.
So I’m not going to be who I thought I was going to be. Most of us aren’t, it turns out. But I am loving writing my thesis. No exaggeration. Loving it. Sure, working the second shift is tiring, and I get stuck at times. But working on the thesis has shown me I really am a writer. And I’ve learned enough about self-discipline, and managing unwieldy, long-term projects to write my first book, or start my own creative business, or possibly found a school one day.
For now, another late night of writing awaits. See you next Tuesday, if not before!
I am determined to move out of this city. At the same time, I am determined to enjoy it now that my mind is made up. And there is little I enjoy more than taking walks with the camera, snapping pictures right and left, getting ice cream with JJ, or coffee, or appetizers at the Ferry Building.
Our first apartment was down by the baseball park, and we often walked along the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building and downtown, taking pictures of the bridge or the old fireboat house, talking about technology and education, or dreaming about the future. “I’ve always wanted to live in San Francisco” I said, “and here we are”. It was so right for that time in our lives.
Now, we’re in our fourth house here, counting a short-term sublet last summer. Six years have gone by, with one away in Barcelona. We’re in a quiet neighborhood, and our house is the bottom floor of a 3-story Victorian, with views of buildings climbing the hills behind, and the brown peaks of the highest point in the city. It’s very quiet for the city, with easy parking, a small back deck, and a garden down below. The neighborhood is clean, and the shops are delightful. There’s a cafe 3 blocks away where I like to go work on my dissertation, or just write.
It’s the nicest place we’ve lived so far. But this summer, I’ve finally realized that as much as I’ve enjoyed living in San Francisco, it’s not home. I am ready to grow roots, but not here. I need to be somewhere that’s warmer, wilder-feeling with more open space. Somewhere where we can own a house, paint the walls any color we want, garden and know it’s ours. I’m not a city girl, it turns out!
So we are talking about moving. And I am trying to make this feel like home in the meantime.
It makes me wonder: When did you feel like you’d really put down roots somewhere? What made you feel that way? Was it children? Buying a house? Getting a job you loved? Something else?
Remember “The Ugly Duckling” story? Do people still read that story to their children? I loved that book as a kid, the idea that the poor ugly duck who everyone teased would turn out to be a swan, the most beatiful of them all. It spoke to the ways I felt awkward as a kid, like I didn’t fit in. Watching this swan last weekend, I was remembering the story. Look forward to reading it to my own kids, seeing what it means to me now, 25 years later.
A second day working at my desk in our new house. The windows look out on a small garden of rocks and moss, awash with sun until lunchtime. We are below street level on this side of the house, so there’s a retaining wall covered with a tangle of jasmine vines. Did you know jasmine leaves turned yellow in fall?
There is also a whispy tree covered in fronds which join the balcony to frame the morning sky.
At the root of the tree, shadows gather as the morning wears on. I sit and work on a dissertation year fellowship application (I’m doing 4 this fall), struggling with how to make it different from last year’s application.
This takes me through documents of random writing from last fall, which surprisingly or not, are about many of the same things still on my mind a year later: wanting children, dreaming about writing children’s books, and struggling to find creativity in my dissertation project.
A large, black, neighborhood cat poked its head through the open window as I read, startling me with its wide green eyes and plaintive meow.
It is all making me wonder, how much do we really change in one year?