"Our chief goal in life is to find someone to help us find
Today, I had my last meeting with my former dissertation advisor. It was high time for me to officially (and respectfully) tell her that I have not only received a fellowship to complete my dissertation abroad (without her help), but that I'm working with another faculty member who gives me concrete responses, supports my intellectual and creative work, and does not send me in a month-long emotional tailspin every time we meet. Of course, I didn't say it this way. Instead, I said that I'm working well with my new chair. I told her that I am in good hands and that I'm feeling "confident and productive about my project". What I didn't say is that this is because my new advisor doesn't rip me to shreds every time I walk into his office, or tell me that I'm incapable of ever mastering the Arabic language, or ever question my loyalty to him and his work, or, best of all, ever remind me that if I want to ever have children, that I better hurry up, but that I can't rush my dissertation, because it's definitely going to take me another 5 years to finish and by then I'll be past child-bearing age...
Overall, the meeting went well, although I must say that it was both difficult and painfully liberating to finally dissolve the relationship that held me for 5 years. Oddly, I realized that I am still dealing with a case of Stockholm Syndrome--I'm perhaps giving more credit than is due to the person who abused me the most, because somehow I see her interest in me as a foundation for many of my successes. I wouldn't be half the scholar I am today if it wasn't for modeling my endeavors after her. Perhaps it's my optimism. I can't help but always turn the most rotten of lemons into sweet lemonade. I'm completely certain that if I didn't do this, I would be living under a bridge by now. Although, honestly, it is tempting sometimes to fantasize about living an irresponsible and unremarkable life of self-absorbtion, marked only by total emotional instability.
Over the course of the last 5 years, there have been several near-breaking points for me. Every time I tried expressing my thoughts and fears to my advisor, she uncomfortably squirmed in her chair and looked at me like I was insane. While she demanded true authenticity of me as a scholar, apparently feelings aren't something that exist in the land of the scholarly. These moments often left me wondering if maybe she was once like me when she started the process of the PhD, and if I was being groomed to ultimately become a woman like her.
Ironically, however, once upon a time, I thought I wanted to be this woman. It's a version of myself that I thought I was becoming. I was going to be the woman academic with the large office library in her home, who had both the financial ability and intellectual freedom to never be too far from her family. The PhD seemed to make sense for me because of my genuine thirst for knowledge coupled with my vision of being able to raise a family while staying true to my own passion. In fact, I still see it very clearly, only I see my own life as considerably less dogmatic, if not entirely juicy and organic...and goddess forbid--fun! In the next 20 years, I'll be writing books, raising babies, and possibly teaching college if not working as a intellectual consultant somewhere. But I won't be so egoistically consumed with my external successes. Rather, I'll always be in the process of becoming, and so my externality will always be an expression of the good things evolving from within.
I still don't think it's entirely impossible to be the woman academic with the books, the babies, and the soup simmering in the kitchen, but I will say that my last academic advisor, despite the life that she has, did a fantastic job of dashing my dreams. Instead of saying, "Look kiddo, academic life is hard and grueling, but if I can do it, so can you", she constantly threatened my tenuous success--and highly mortgaged--future with her own insecurities: "You're not good enough, you're not strong enough, you're not smart enough, it's a shame you got a late start on languages, you will never succeed or surpass me....because you lack the discipline and drive."
The irony, of course, is that in my quest for a supportive female mentor and role model, I discovered more about myself in my contrast to her than in our similarities or in our supposedly overlapping research interests. For starters, I discovered that my heart can't possibly be broken any more than it already has been, that my spirit is still capable of remaining strong despite its atomization, and that my future is now more viable and lovely than ever. I have found that I may never be able to speak the 7 languages that she does, or even successfully alienate a room of 50 people in one fell swoop, and I think I'm ok with this. I've also found that I'm more of a teacher and mentor than she'll ever be, and that's cool, too.
In this process, I've learned that no matter what I do, I can only go as far as my commitment will take me, and the teachers who will ultimately be credited for offering assistance to me along the way will come in the most bizarre, unexpected, if not strangely disguised forms.
Off to the Middle East in 12 days.