Fascinated always by watching the slow rise out of a slough of despond. I'm seldom in any doubt about whether I'm going in or coming out (though I should be; I'm often wrong). But the shift, though subtle, is radical. Perhaps the heart of it is doubting whether I'll be able to do all that is expected of me.
So much of it, almost all of it, is expectation, and a sense of the momentum, whether I'm making headway or falling behind. Which is why the worst time of all is the day after some triumph. Backsliding, doing worse, is practically guaranteed. It used to drive Martha nuts, when I was in school, that upon receiving good grades and favorable comments at the end of a semester – upon discovering that my anxiety was groundless – I pitched straight into gloom and depression. As soon as the initial happiness and relief wore off, my response was – all this work, for this? Nothing has really changed, except that now I'm higher up, so now I'll fall the harder. It must have been awfully exasperating to live with.
I am ordinarily a cheerful soul, though, full of delight in whatever comes along. The gloom was temporary. I loved the beginning of a new semester, brand new books, new skills to master, new things to find out. I was natural student, in many ways: I positively like dropping my point of view and adopting someone else's, I love listening hard and following something that's complicated, difficult, involved. I'm patient with needing to build up background and foundational knowledge. Hearing to someone who is passionately involved with their topic is one of my favorite things to do.
Once again I tail off here, puzzled: why am I talking about the long ago days of being a student? Maybe because it was the last time I was actually sure that I was good at something. I go back again and again, and try to figure out where it all went off the rails. I was so promising: what happened? Oh, lots of things happened. For one thing, the American university system hit its first severe pothole right as I was coming on the to job market. To get a job I was going to have convince people, not just that I was good and knew my stuff, but that I was one of the half-dozen best people in the world. I actually may have been, but I didn't have that kind of confidence. And I didn't want to be in a world that competitive. I enjoy competing occasionally, but it's not a state of mind I want to simmer in constantly. Most of the successful academics I knew, at least the ones with personalities like mine, were deeply unhappy.
So. But enough, enough, turn, now. That's all past, it's even long past. I've made my choices, I've taken this road and no other, and barring disaster, my life is fully shaped now. What I need now is to maximize what I have, to continue jettisoning things that will not serve me or anyone else, and to bear steadily in mind that my time is finite, very finite. I never had time to waste – no one is so rich in time as that – but I do not even have much to spend, any more. I need to be slower and more deliberate, to strike less often, but more savagely and surely. I am a big old fish in my small pond, now.
My back was stiff, threatening to “go out” yesterday. Better today, and I'm daring to hope that I've dodged that bullet altogether. Many stresses, mental and physical, converged on the last few days. Now they're lifting and dispersing, one by one.
I dreamed I was at Burning Man, except that it was a resort with a swimming pool. A naked young woman leaned on a rail with me looking at the night sky flare and flicker. Then she leaned against me, and smiled when I put an arm around her. Some minutes later, with the scene somehow shifted, on a dark patio, I was emboldened enough to reach around her and put my hands on her pelvic bones, on the anterior iliac crests, with my fingertips in the soft tender inside rim of the pelvic bowl. She smiled tolerantly, but put her hands on mine and moved them decisively back to her hips. I was a friend, not a lover.
I was crushed: mortified that I had misinterpreted, distressed that I had overstepped. I felt the loss of trust and friendship like a physical wound. It struck me that all my life was of a piece: wherever the boundary was, I wanted to cross it, and the wanting was so habitual that I didn't even know what it was that I wanted any more. The dream of a land without boundaries alternated with the nightmare of a land without friendship, and both were driving me unmercifully. I woke flooded with grief. 4:00, my back aching, my eyes sore. I got carefully up out of bed, using the nightstand and the wall, straightening slowly, and stood for moment in the quiet dark.