It is the spring of my fifth year at Stanford, and I am engaged in the highly stressful endeavor of applying for, and then receiving acceptances from graduate programs in philosophy. It is a time that now I am thoroughly relieved is in the past. The culture of the aspiring undergraduates in our program is, retrospectively, much more like a fundamentalist religious cult (with the strange difference being enforced critical thinking) than a typical academic department. The six students applying for graduate school this year, of which I am one, have formed a tight knit if competitive cohort, fervently engaged in an almost obsessive solidarity that I find familiar enough to not question (and I still don’t want to know why.)
My peers and I routinely discuss things such as how the search for truth is the most superior calling and that we would die for our ideas. We unfortunately mean this literally. (I am glad my past self was not tested on this.) We hold that the absolute worst thing that can happen to an undergrad is to not get into grad school. We frequently proclaim our slogan “Don’t get left behind!” While outwardly we pretend to be rational autonomous agents who are not at all conforming to a bizarre conception of the world, inwardly we grapple with our fears and insecurities that we will never be enough. Admittedly, I now tend to cringe at how ridiculous we were and can’t quite figure out what came over us. But this is particularly true concerning one of my fellow cohort members who proudly confided to me that she routinely quoted Plato during sex. This, I tell her in the moment, is taking things too far, even for me, and I ask her to just keep that to herself from now on. Please?
As it happens, I am one of the five out of six fortunates who do not “get left behind.” I get into two graduate programs. My fate is secure. However, the letter offering me a place at the University of Anonymous Desert, comes only two days before I must send in my acceptance. Two hours later I’ve booked a flight for seven AM the next morning to visit the school. Despite my culture shock (which I discount as I have experienced culture shock at every grad school I’ve visited,) I decide after my whirlwind encounter that the people at the school are nice. Speaking of the wind, I also notice that I can literally hear voices on the wind that tell me which direction its blowing, and this fascinating phenomenon helps persuade me to return and investigate further. After much anxiety and tears and irritating my parents, I commit to attend the school in the desert in the fall.
Around this time, my parents sell our family home, the one I’ve grown up in since I was three years old. Then, weeks before I move to an unfamiliar state to begin my program and live self-sufficiently for the first time, my parents separate. The death of their marriage has been a slow and painful one. Though part of me recognizes their separation is probably the best thing to ever happen to our family—they brought out the worst in each other—I am also broken-hearted and devastated. Part of me wonders whether, had I never been shaken as an infant, the marriage would still be intact, though I know this is as far from the truth as the assertion in a scene of Monty Python, “The Holy Grail,” that small rocks float.
It only takes a month or two in my graduate program before I realize, my family situation notwithstanding, that I have made a terrible mistake. I can’t stand feeling like a number rather than a person. I can’t stand the three digit temperatures. I can’t stand mustering up the courage to speak up in class just to have my ideas unceremoniously dismissed without even the courtesy of an argument, and in front of my colleagues besides. I am displaced, not just from my childhood home, the security of a two-parent household, and the only state I’ve ever lived in: I also, slowly, begin to become estranged to myself. I do not recognize this woman struggling to be seen and heard, who is not respected for her ideas, who is barely surviving without sight or assistance in a literally hostile environment.
Still, I do not think of leaving, regardless of how much it is, and it really is, killing my sense of self-worth and breaking my spirit, delighting in making me small, molding me into a “presentable vegetable” courtesy of the Logical Song.
First, there is the fact of my commitment and that leaving would be to break it, and that, I am convinced, would be giving up in a shamefully dishonorable way. But secondly, where would I go? My time in the nest is over.
My dad now lives in a small apartment and is dating a woman whom he eventually marries. My mom has moved to a funky rental and is struggling to get back into the workforce after twenty-seven years as a homemaker. I will be more secure in the grad program than trying to make it in the real world where my address is from nowhere. I stay.
As one year drearily trudges numbly into the next, my grip on the core part of myself, who I am, what I stand for, what I believe in, why I am here, slowly sinks beneath the red sands, like the horse from Never Ending Story who drowned in the swamp of sadness as he was pursued by The Nothing. The Nothing is so quiet, that I never notice its gradual erosion of who I once was until no trace of it remains. Then, one morning, I awake to a day like all the rest: except I don’t know who I am. Having no energy or will to grieve such a loss, I stumble on with little sense of purpose or meaning, and even now, much of that time is lost to disassociation, out of the reach of memory.
November of 2007 sees the final drawing up of my parents’ divorce papers. Meanwhile, the landscape around me at the school mirrors the raw and barren, thorny, and parched landscape of my heart. Up until now, I’ve spent my whole life living in the Bay Area, California. I’m used to and love the golden hills, the green lawns and chattering trees, and most of all, the ocean. But here, here the desert sands ooze red like blood, canyons gape open like mouths fiercely begging for a rain to quench an eon of thirst; here the wind gathers itself and rumbles across the earth like a living animal. Here people promise themselves in strange awkward moments that a scientist somewhere must be hard at work at this very moment, creating a pesticide that will get rid of the vast infestation of dust that takes over their houses, floats in films onto their dishware, scurries into their clothing, sifts through their hair, settles into their ears and mouths, suffocates their souls. For like the parched clay within my heart, dried out and hardened from the intense heat of anger, frozen by my fears, stilled by the silence I keep in order to survive where I do not belong, the landscape surrounding me is hostile and defensive and sometimes literally locks its tenderness away, displaying nothing but spikes on the outside.
The philosophy department in this earth-cracked, hungry place is full of bigoted and sexist graduate students and prejudiced professors. One graduate student tells me after an argument in which I announce that if the department is going to give me ninety students to teach, it is my responsibility to give each of them an equal opportunity to learn, even if my research falls behind for this reason: “It would behoove you to adopt our values, or leave.” There is the professor not on my committee who expresses surprise that I have passed my comprehensive exams. There is the professor who insists that I have made a pact with most of her colleagues to grade me leniently due to my blindness, a statement I still have in writing. In fact, my miserable situation even seeps into my dreams: I dream that, at a department meeting, all my colleagues turn into eighth graders. True enough, my experience is very much reminiscent of middle school.
This desert, which I have now endured for two long years, leaves my bones dry and brittle, leaves my soul thread-bear and gulping for water, raw and cold like a piece of forgotten old stone. Inside or out, I am nowhere. I have no home, and for this reason, through the years in the desert, I wander like a nomad, like one of a lost people yearning for a promised land without the benefit of believing that a god will grant such a place to me.
For during this time I also shed the last vestiges of Christianity and throw myself whole-heartedly into following the earth-centered path I have always followed, whose name I have only now learned. I am ecstatic to realize that there are others like me in the here and now, and I can claim the ancient ways of my own ancestors. Somehow amidst the despair, I honor mother earth, hold sacred the land, sea, and sky, and speak to the old ones. This revelation somewhat complicates my graduate experience however as it also means living in the broom closet. According to my department members, the only sane position on spirituality is atheism and anyone deviating from this world view is stupid, irrational, and not worth anyone’s time. There is no attempt to tolerate others’ differences, and even the Christian in the program finds himself at the center of ridicule and insult. So I live a double life, unable to be honest with my colleagues, in constant fear of discovery.
At the end of spring 2011, and nearing the end of my coursework, the smoldering remains of the silent cry within myself keens so loudly for freedom that I can no longer ignore the necessity of leaving. I am so tired of wandering. I have wandered this desert for six years. I take a six month lease apartment in the fall to make sure I don’t change my mind. I’m too far along to leave the school, but I can make an exodus, like Moses out of the American Sahara back to my home in the Bay Area, where I can write my dissertation on virtue and interdependence. I will return to the rolling brown hills, green trees and winding trails, and water. Dear, inviting, vital ocean whose rhythm is my heartbeat.
Not even a new relationship, the first one in as many years as I’ve been a graduate student, can detour me from home. With tears in my eyes I leave for a long distance arrangement and for an apartment in Berkeley, surrounded by family and friends, soft mist, the silent bay, and people who won’t figuratively cut off my head if they learn I am a druid. (As a philosopher I very much value my head, thanks.)
Finally I start to grow and heal. Finally I can dissolve into a sacred space of becoming, from which I might emerge changed, but enough, re-membered into cohesion, renewed. Perhaps I will even once again be able to hear the voices on the wind and look into the world beyond the world, which now is lost to me. Perhaps, I can spin a cocoon around my broken pieces so that the withered fragments I have become can mend me, weaving themselves into new wings with which to fly.