Fin in a Waste of Waters

"These moments of escape are not to be despised. They come too seldom....Leaning over this parapet I see far out a waste of water. A fin turns....I note under 'F.,' therefore, 'Fin in a waste of waters.' I, who am perpetually making notes in the margin of my mind for some final statement, make this mark, waiting for some winter's evening." (from Woolf's THE WAVES)

27 July 2006

Working towards worthiness

[Note: yesterday, I attempted to post an entry; I've been reading the Hermoine Lee biography of Virginia Woolf, and wrote about the way actually living her in London has given me a more profound understanding, as if by osmosis, of Woolf's literary world, more so than my calculated efforts to visit each of her homes here, though this of course helped, too. But something happened with the computer, and it all got deleted, and I was frustrated and just needed to let it be. Sad, that.]

And today.

Last summer, at about this time, I prayed/meditated to be broken during this just-lapsed year (I can't believe it's been a year). Applying for the Fulbright (and Rhodes and Marshall and just starting grad school applications), I somehow felt sure that this year would be "my" year, that this year, I would be awarded the Fulbright. I can't explain it: I just knew it - my blood knew it, that this would be the direction it would go - before I even picked up my pen to begin drafting my preliminary notes.

But this feeling scared me. I wondered if I wasn't perhaps being a bit egotistical, assuming too much. So I began praying to be broken, and I meditated on humility and on achieving true understanding and appreciation of the Fulbright. Many (most) of the applicants for these awards come from a pool far more privileged than even mine, and unlike me, they don't apply because without it, they can't study abroad - they apply for the prestige. They apply because they're already very accomplished scholars, and they need something to set their CV apart from all of the other accomplished scholars. I didn't want this to be me. So I prayed to be broken.

And I think that perhaps I was. Apart from the year of the tumor, I think that this last year might have been the hardest year of my life in many ways (not to say that there wasn't a lot of good, too, particularly bringing Rasheed to Christmas at my family's, and spending time at his home with his family, too; swing dancing with everyone; and running randomly into Cheryl in the Gap in Chicago and getting back into touch; and of course, every Buffy Friday night with my lil bro). First, I began work at an independent bookstore that initially seemed really cool, but which I quickly learned was a really abusive environment, in which the owner controlled her managers with threats ("is it worth your JOB?!"), which then filtered down to lesser employees like myself (at least the employees had some solidarity). I was forbidden from wearing high heels ("forbidden" was the word used), and felt completely castrated for about two weeks, and then was temporarily alienated from who would soon be my fellow comrades when a manager told me that I was a snob and was alienating THEM. "Only a year" was my mantra; only a year, and I would start grad school and get out of there. But it was part of the process: by the time I left, I didn't care at all for my appearance - no make-up, no attention to my clothes, nothing. I wanted to spend my time outside of that hell on the things that really mattered to me, my research and my writing.

And then the Rhodes and the Marshall. I was a finalist for the Rhodes, and an alternate for the Marshall. But I won neither. When I lost the Marshall, I panicked a little: I wanted to have a back-up in case I didn't take the Fulbright; I HAD to get to Sussex to study Woolf and get to the Monks House papers. The Rhodes would have been amazing as well, as I hoped to study with Hermione Lee (author of the above-noted Woolf bio) at Oxford. The loss of the Rhodes didn't hit me too hard, though, especially since now, as I've learned more about Cecil Rhodes himself, and about his history with Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and colonialism and the diamond trade, and his prejudice against the African people, and where that money originally came from, I don't think I would have been comfortable with that fellowship (though to give the man some credit, he DID support Home Rule for the Irish). But: each of these interviews took me to Chicago for a weekend, and each of these weekends was so good, despite the eventual loss of the award. For the Marshall, I got to hang out with Cheryl & one of her roommates, and it was just so good to be reunited with my long-lost friend. For the Rhodes, Rasheed was actually in town, and came with and stayed with me at the hotel, where we met up with Cheryl for dinner. And the process of this interview was actually a lot of fun: we had a fancy dessert/drinks hour the night before, where the nine interviewees got to meet each other and the interview panel (4 of "us" already knew each other, having gone to Harvard together - an intimidating first few minutes for a girl from Illinois). This way, I knew the two kids that won the award, and was genuinely happy for them. And I got to discuss Freud with the circuit judge of Chicago. Also, though, after everyone was leaving at the end of the process, she pulled me aside to let me know that my interview, the things that I've done and been through, was "moving," and that if she could do anything for my future, I was to let her know. And just that quick whisper, I think, meant more to me personally than any award.

And then, the return of the seizures. And they became increasingly worse. I had gone a year after surgery with none. Now it looked like they were back for good. Anti-convulsants made me sicker the higher the dose; doctors didn't listen to me; I drooled and blacked out everywhere, at work, on the street, on my bike, in talks I still went to on the U of I campus. It's still a process, but I think that there's hope in the newest (fifth) drug we're trying.

And perhaps my darkest few months: I was turned down at all of my grad schools in the States. I was shocked. The night I heard back from Berkeley, the first, my brother and I watched hours of bad TV and ate the ENTIRE contents of my fridge and cupboard (I put chocolate syrup on popcorn). My professors were shocked. A few immediately asked me if I'd mentioned my "condition" in any of my personal statements. I had. I believed it showed my dedication to my work, as I had continued with school even after the diagnosis of the tumor, finishing the semester with straight As/A+s. They told me that schools not only looked at their applicants as potential scholars, but as potential employees, TAs, and they didn't want someone who would perhaps be sick too often. They believed I had been discriminated against. It made me sick. One by one, my prospects slipped away. My safety net: now I would have NOWHERE to go if I didn't get the Fulbright and couldn't afford to attend Sussex (the only school I was accepted at, and also, the only school to whom I didn't mention my "condition"). In the meantime, though, I applied for yet another award, the Jack Kent Cooke, just in case.

And then, a major turning moment: I returned from an arts & humanities conference in Hawaii where I had presented two papers, and my abusive boss had slashed all of my hours for the week (I'd actually only have missed Monday because of my trip). My comrades told me that this was a common Susan-thing, to slash hours as a way of both punishing her employees and saving money on payroll. My reaction? I resolved to move to London with Rasheed. In a month, I sublet my apartment, consolidated my bank accounts, quit my job, and bought my ticket. On 6 March (our one-year anniversary), I boarded the plane.

And then. Amazing London. Rasheed took me around the city I'd been waiting my whole life to see.

Things began to turn around more. I was given an interview for the Fulbright. I made it to the final round of the Jack Kent Cooke. I met the professor I would work with at Sussex if any of this funding came through.

But then. Another jolt: I was named an alternate for the Fulbright - I was first alternate, but only an alternate. I resolved to live in a tent in South America for three months if I had nowhere to go. I was honored in a far greater way, though. One of my favorite neighbors - the neighbor who was the neighborhood - passed away. He died a day before a postcard I had just sent to him and his wife arrived. (And it was SUCH a Mr. G card!!) But, when Doris got it, she passed it around all of the family who had come to the visitation, and everyone chuckled at it (it was def Mr. G's humor), but then...she put it in the casket with him to be buried. I was so humbled that this tiny little thing I'd sent them was helping to see him off to eternity. This was honor.

And just as suddenly: I won the Fulbright; and then, not long after, I won the Jack Kent Cooke. My funding at Brighton will be taken care of, and now, wherever I go to grad school in the U.S. (after another round of applications, of course), most, if not all, of my Ph.D. will be covered.

It didn't hit me for a long time. Rasheed and I had planned to celebrate the Fulbright by going to this waffle house in our neighborhood, and we still haven't; for weeks, I still had walked by it longingly, still not understanding that I'd already won the Fulbright. It only just now is beginning to, only now, since I leave in less than a week for a JKC scholars' weekend in D.C., and then have only a month at home before returning to London for Fulbright orienation, and then, on to the dream! On to Brighton!

And suddenly I feel so small. The press release for the Fulbright has gone out; newspapers are already running things or contacting me; I've just approved my press release for the JKC. "You live such an exciting life, girl," my mom said to me on the phone last night. It's keeping me up at night, this excitement. I am excited (birthday-excited!), but at the same time, I feel so humbled by it all. These things are so big. Too big? And I'm so afraid that something will happen to take it all away (when my seizures were at their worst, right after I won the Ful., I was afraid something was "coming back," and I'd have to sacrifice Sussex to my health, but I've gotten beyond that now). And I think about all of the amazing people who have come before me...Sylvia Plath was a Fulbrighter, for example. It just blows me away, this amazing heritage I've stepped into. And I feel so small. Will I live up to it? There is so much pressure. I know that my love for my study and my crazy work ethic will drive me through, but I'm so afraid to disappoint, to somehow not live up to it. This is what I lay awake thinking about.

Is this true appreciation, I wonder? I look back on the year, and I feel as if I were pretty soundly broken.

I think it must be.


At 1:56 PM, Anonymous Holly said...

Ah, my darling Tessa. Words cannot express how I adore you. Your light is just so warm.

Interesting choice of word; broken. Perfect I think, but only if we do not consider the break to be something that should be fixed. I think life breaks us all in order to form a place that we can see the beauty of the light pouring in through the crack into our lives. Without the break, we don't even look for the magic.

You ask, "is it too big?" Good heavens, NO. Nothing is too big and you have the courage and the spirit to take it on with a smile and a song. Do not fear you will somehow disappoint or not live up. Just live it. It will be what is intended to be. It is a gift, no question, but one that you should embrace and love, not fear.

A word here on your "condition" and life in general. *Everyone has a story.* Each person you pass during the day has one and some of those stories are painful and sad. For certain people, like yourself, difficult pages in your life book make you stronger, more purposeful, more loving. For others, it makes them angry and ugly and sad. One thing that is does NOT make any of us is special. I do not mean to in any way lesson what you have overcome, because it was huge and you should be proud, just remember that you are not alone. You are an inspiration to many, like myself. When you mix that ability to inspire with empathy you are unstoppable.

I am so proud of you. Know that I walk with you in spirit.

At 4:34 AM, Anonymous cheryl said...

i loved this post tessa. and i was so happy that you randomly walked into gap that day. everything happens for a reason, even strange reasons. i echo holly's words: so so so proud of you girl. enjoy life and love it! you deserve it!!


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