I’m assessing 2016: the good, the bad, and the apocalyptic (you know. When He-Who-Tweets-Recklessly was elected).
Probably the biggest thing of my year—besides loving my husband and son more every day and treating every new thing my son does as the most amazing thing that anyone in the world has ever done, ever—was writing my book. If I think about how this happened from a practical perspective, this is what I come up with: I dropped out of my English PhD program-->failed to land a job outside of the home in the few months that I looked-->decided that I might as well see if I could write a book since I had the time, interest, and motivation-->wrote and self-published a book.
Your path to creative and/or professional fulfillment may not look like mine. (And you might think that my path looks relatively privileged and/or easy. More on that topic below).
I’m not advising that everyone reading this post immediately quit whatever it is that’s sucking up so much of your time, but I am asking you to think about chasing something that makes you happy, even if you only chase it for an hour or less a day.
I’ve been lucky enough to know women and men who have re-invented themselves professionally and found great happiness and satisfaction as a result. One of my best friends, Mary Catherine Starr, quit her 9-5 job in order to professionally embrace her yoga and artistic pursuits. Perhaps my biggest example is my mom, Jane, who tried on various jobs for size throughout my adolescence and adulthood. She never did this frivolously; she was slowly making her way to her true calling: nursing.
For a long time I was quietly envious of these two and others like them, but I thought that they could not be me. I would eventually figure out what made me happiest, I thought. I would stumble upon my ideal career. I would decide one day what I should be doing, and in the meantime, I would keep plodding along.
That’s exactly what I was doing in my English Literature PhD program, and before that, in my English Literature Master’s program. I was a good student. I made As in my classes and I got mostly positive feedback on my papers and presentations. I got mostly positive feedback on my student evaluations, too, except for the occasional “she was the worst teacher who has ever existed” and “her class was boring and I learned nothing in it” responses.
I got an article published and I did a couple of conference presentations.
In other words, I don’t think that I was a failure in the world of academia. But my heart wasn’t in it.
After all, it’s one thing to love reading books, talking about books, and performing historical and cultural research. It’s quite another to love writing conference papers and journal articles. By the same token, it’s one thing to enjoy teaching students at various moments and another to feel the bone-deep certainty that you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing.
It’s hard to explain to others how bad it can feel when you’re doing something that you’re not failing at, but that does not make you happy. It was particularly difficult to explain this to my husband, who is my biggest supporter and who worried, not unreasonably, that I would regret dropping out of my program and not completing my PhD.
But this is what I knew:
I don’t mind stress or responsibility. In fact, I’m probably busier (or just as busy) now as a work-from-home mom reading, blogging, and writing than I was before. But I minded the specific stresses and responsibilities associated with the world of academia. It was like trying to force my foot into the wrong-size shoe.
So this spring I made the huge decision to drop out of the English PhD program that I was part of and look for other employment. While I’m sorry that I essentially took another person’s spot in the program and perhaps wasted someone’s time, this was the best professional decision that I’ve ever made.
I recognize that I’m not the best writer (of romance, or anything) who has ever lived. But the thing is, that matters less to me now than the fact that this feels like me. I feel creatively and professionally fulfilled in ways that I did not expect. I have a lot that I'm trying to do, but I am having so much fun. I’m 32 years old and this is the first time that I’ve ever felt this way.
I realize that not everyone has the luxury to single-mindedly pursue the interests that are most fulfilling to them. And make no mistake, while I encourage everyone to find something which professionally and/or creatively fulfills them, I also recognize that the ability to do that is not something we should take for granted. There are a lot of people who wish that they had a job, even if it was one that they hated or disliked. There are probably a lot of people who wish that they were paid to discuss books, to teach college students, and to do research (although the graduate student/teacher job was certainly not as cushy as some people think it is).
Let’s also talk practically about my specific factors which might have made my transition less challenging. I was not exactly making a lot of money or working a lot of hours as a graduate student, so perhaps it was a smaller professional leap. My family also did not rely solely on my income, a fact which I think definitely made it so much easier for me to quit.
In addition, I have an extremely supportive partner, who is feeding our son breakfast right now so that I can finish this post. And it’s pretty much a fact that the time you spend pursuing something that you love/something that fulfills you is time taken away from something else. Blogging means less time writing a second book. Writing means less time for reading (which I often blog about), and vice versa. Writing and/or reading at night often means less time with my husband and/or son.
But I also don’t want to discount that I think my decision took at least some measure of bravery and faith in myself. And I also don’t want to discount that there is something wonderfully special about doing something for yourself. Investing your time in what makes you happy. I don’t think that you have to quit your job to get that feeling. But if there’s something that you’re doing that you think that you could cut out, or ways that you think that you could re-direct any of your free time to pursue something that you’re really invested in, do it.
If you knew my Dad, you knew that he was funny. But maybe what you didn’t know was how far he was willing to go for a joke or to make his friends and family happy. Like that time we were sitting in a Myrtle Beach hotel room (Myrtle Beach = our childhood beach of choice) and my Dad came screaming out of the bathroom wearing my step-mom’s bathing suit. Or the many times that he used to honk the horn when we walked in front of the car (that one was only funny if you were one of the people sitting inside the car).
Or the time that he told my sister, brother, and I in the dimly lit interior of the truck that he was planning on proposing to his partner of ten years, Robin, and did we have any ideas for the proposal. Because he wanted this to be our proposal too, he let us sing Diamond Rio’s song “Norma Jean” with amended lyrics to Robin, and then he jumped up on the coffee table, held the ring box out with one hand, and sang to her: “Robin Way, would you marry me.” This particular method of proposal was my idea, and he didn’t fight it one bit. And maybe he should have. After all, Robin was so surprised by the proposal and by our performance that, in answer to his repeated inquiries, she would only say “Yes, if you’re serious. But I can’t tell if you’re serious.”
My Dad was my best friend, and I mean that sincerely. He was hilarious and sometimes he thought that I was funny too. He was generous with his time and his money, although he didn’t suffer fools and he expected us to work for our money, too. (Like collecting the rocks on our farm, helping run a buffalo festival, or growing an acre of tobacco.) He had a temper but he also had the biggest heart, and it beat for his family and friends. His words to some could occasionally be cutting, but he was ultimately a nurturer, someone who would give someone a hand a first, second, third, and fourth time because he cared and he believed that people were capable of anything: even changing less desirable habits.
He was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia when I was in high school, but the disease didn’t define him, and it only limited him as much as was strictly necessary. He told us that we should make him keep walking around the hospital, even if he didn’t want to, and that maybe we could show other people not to give up through our example. He sent pizzas to the nursing staff and joked with them when they came to our room. He complained because I brought him roast beef sandwiches from Arby's but somehow didn’t know to include “worshtie sauce.” He let us wear his black ribbed slippers with the plaid lining and slip into bed next to him, and we turned our backs occasionally when he had to pee but couldn't comfortably make it to the bathroom.
He made my sister and I promise that after he was in remission we would write a book about cancer. He was not only worried about himself, but how we could help others.
I don’t think that when I was a teenager that I thought that much about getting married and having children, even if I was obsessed with the thought of falling in love. But if I did think about it, I certainly didn’t think that we would lose my dad before his 41st Birthday and that he would die never having met my future husband (despite the cruel fact that on the last day he was alive Daniel stood over the couch where he slept but I didn’t want to wake Dad up), or my beloved son, Sam. When I stop to think about these facts, as I am now, they almost rip my insides apart with sadness.
We lost Dad over twelve years ago—a fact which seems very strange—particularly when I remember that I lost him at nineteen. But I remember so much about him and fiercely wish that he were here, and the nights that I dream that he’s still alive are both among the best and worst dreams that I have.
I’m writing this because I’m home on a Christmas visit, and because at home, even more there where I currently live outside of Knoxville, I’m reminded of Dad and how we have tried to re-fashion our family after his passing without neglecting the memory of someone who was, and remains, so integral to what I know about a family.
I’m also writing because I want to say that I know how hard the holidays can be if you’ve experienced loss. Some of my friends have lost parents, many of them dads, and I know that life goes on but you never lose that understanding that you’ve lost something incredible in your life and that you want it back. If you’ve written about losing a parent on Facebook, please know that I’ve read your posts and commiserated, and I’m missing your parent too. When you say that you had the best dad (or mom) in the world, I know how you feel, and I’m happy that you’ve experienced that feeling, too.
This is a sad post, but I also hope that it’s somewhat happy. I’ve been blessed beyond belief with the people in my life: my dad, my mom, step-mom, my sister and brother and adopted sister and step-siblings and step-fathers, my in-laws, and best friends and friends, among others, and of course, most of all, my amazing husband and son. I wish that dad were here—and I’d do almost anything to change the fact that he isn’t—but I also love knowing that someone lived who was so wonderful and meant so much to me, that I still miss him this much even now.
I hope that you have a wonderful Christmas with the people that you love most. I know that I will.
I learned the truth about Santa Claus in the fourth grade.
Yes, the fourth grade. That means that I was probably ten years old, people.
And it went down in the worst possible way. My fourth-grade teacher had gathered us around her rocking chair so that she could discuss our next writing assignment. We were going to write a personal narrative, she said, about how we found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real.
You can imagine my shock, confusion, and horror at the assignment, given that only seconds before I would have wagered any amount of money that there was a person named Santa who had a bottomless bag of gifts and who visited every child, as long as they were good and believed in him.
Desperate to continue believing—and thus, to keep getting those presents—I held onto my shreds of hope throughout the rest of the school day until my mom told me that of course Santa wasn’t real.
That was also the night that I found out the bad news about the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.
[I fabricated a story for my personal narrative assignment and made it very, very clear that I had known the truth about Santa for quite some time.]
Despite how I learned the unfortunate news about Santa, it didn’t change how I felt about Christmas: that it was, and is, a magical time of year. I recognize that not everyone feels the same way about Christmas, and I want you to know that I respect that. My own life experiences—being raised in a Christian household, as well as being a privileged child who was spoiled on Christmas morning—have certainly colored my view of the holiday.
But the fact remains that for me, it’s a special, wonderful time of year that does still mean opening presents (I’m an unrepentant present-lover), but more important, gathering with my beloved friends and family and actually investing time in each other. Since my siblings and I began leaving for college my family has been separated geographically, and particularly now that I’m the only person living away, I treasure each moment that I get to spend with them. Even the moments when my son squeezes an entire miniature Hershey’s Bar out of the package and onto his clothes. Even the moments when my Sis and Brother tell Daniel that I am a DQ (Drama Queen) and Daniel agrees. Even the moments when I remember the people who should be here, but who aren’t.
If you celebrate Christmas, I hope that you have the best day ever. And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope that you have the best day ever, too. Whatever your beliefs, I hope that you’re able to enjoy a slower pace and have whatever kind of time you need to re-charge you for the next year.
And if you have children who have reached a suitable age to be told the truth, please do it. I’m just thankful that I had that personal narrative assignment or I might be a 32-year old woman going to bed at 10:00 pm on Christmas Eve so that I wouldn’t keep Santa away.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.