Saturday, March 26, 2016

I Wrote a Thesis

I wrote a thesis.

I have said the words "thesis" a thousand times this year. A thousand. The number screams enormity, but mere words don't really convey what I've been up to for the last nine months. My last blog entry is dated September 1, 2015. That's the last time I found the strength, time, or wherewithal to blog. And I love to blog. I love to go to naturey places and come home with photos and thoughts.

But I wrote a thesis, and it consumed me.

Maybe that's not the way graduate school is supposed to be. After all, this wasn't a PhD. It wasn't supposed to be my entire life. But it quickly became so. I worked every day on the thesis, taking fewer than 20 days off all year. I did stop on Thanksgiving, at the program director's urging, and a 14-ish days at Christmas, at my thesis director's urging. And one day I had the stomach flu.

I do not recommend this strategy. It nearly killed me, and I say that facetiously, but not 100% facetiously.

Writing the thesis took everything out of me. And perhaps it would not have done so for a "normal" person, a person without mental health issues, without physical health issues. Perhaps a 23-year-old would have written for a few hours in each day and then closed the laptop and gone out to find herself a life. I have allowed myself none, and have been like a monk who can think of nothing but his manuscript, or his chants, or whatever monks focus on in their monkly existence.

I'm not 23. I'm a 36-year-old mom who abandoned her chance to follow her heart's passion when I moved away from Florida. The manatees were right there; the Everglades Restoration Project was just kicking off. And I followed a stupid, abusive alcoholic back to West Virginia and gave up my shot at being a wetlands ecologist. A measurable part of me still mourns that decision in quiet, reflective moments. When I return to Florida, I feel a physical pain of regret when I walk through a wetland or estuary. But the universe knows better. In fact, the universe knows how bad I am at pure science, and it waved it in my face during college like a deer flagging its tail. Hey idiot, you're no good at science. See that D? Stick to the humanities.

But of course I have Shawn and my kids and wouldn't change my life's path. But until recently, there were lingering questions in my mind about my future and the potential for me to leave any legacy at all in this world after I am gone. Because I think about that often. And I'm not saying that a 121-page thesis called Varmints is my legacy. Not by a long shot. But it's the first thing I've created all by myself (with tremendous assistance from my director, to be sure). It's proof that when I followed that jerky fiance up to West Virginia and abandoned what I once hoped would be my life's plan, I didn't do it in vain. Whoever was in the driver's seat knew exactly where I was going.

Enough existential baloney. I wrote a thesis, and I think it almost killed me.

The difference between becoming a writer at 36 and doing it at 23 is almost laughable to me. What does a twenty-year-old write about? More importantly, does a twenty-year-old grasp the magnitude of what they are undertaking? I paid $36,000 for this education. I paid it myself, and those were not easy checks to write. I left my children to watch television and play alone while I spent my daily hours in my office. I did not volunteer in their classrooms. I did not attend field trips. I wrote.

In these last few months, at the end when time seemed to compress into a wretched little hourglass, I stopped going to yoga. I stopped seeing friends (not that I have many here in my home town). And slowly they began to forget about me. And those who did check in couldn't understand how deeply I had fallen into my final semester. They couldn't understand how the brain of an obsessive-compulsive finds itself unable to disengage from the pursuit of absolute perfection. And, without meaning to at all, they moved on.

My thesis is not perfection, make no mistake. Yet I tried harder at this than I have ever done at anything. Because this is my thing. My life's thing. I'm here to create two beautiful little boys--which I've done--and to write. I'm keenly aware that I've found the pen I will hold for the rest of my life, and that I now have to decide where and how to use it.

The handful of people who stuck beside me during this process know how it has changed me. They know that my body has given in to auto-immune disorders made worse by stress, that I have little immunological protection against germs now, and that my lungs don't work as well as they used to. That's not the fault of the thesis; it's bad luck and it came, perhaps, a little faster than it would have were I a relaxed person with no stressors. I'm not.

The handful of people who stuck beside me know that I accepted nothing less than 100% effort from myself, that nothing was ever quite right, and that a few more hours at the computer when I was already sick were the price I was willing to pay to work harder. They know they haven't seen me in months, and I hope they forgive my absence and my obsessions.

Now, as I prepare for my defense, I find it hard to come down from this heightened emotional place. The work is done; I must still defend it, but that process will not be as difficult as the writing and the revision. And when my semester ends, when I have attended my final summer residency, I have new beginnings to anticipate, more decisions and more hard work.

I wrote a thesis, and nobody knows how much of me it has taken, how much of me bled out onto the page and cannot be replaced. If it's not in me, then it's out there, and I understand that this is the legacy I worry about leaving. I needn't worry; it's already been left.