The air is cool as three-year-old Marshall and I step out into the dark blue night for an Autumnal Walk down to the wrought-iron bench in front of the English-style pub just a few blocks away from our apartment.
The Autumnal Walk is a formal excursion usually reserved for Friday nights or Saturday mornings, always accompanied by hot cocoa or cider. Today is Tuesday: the day of the PhD interview. But the Skype interview with the UCPH faculty is over now--it has been for several hours. My nerves are just beginning to quiet.
As we walk, I feel relief in the realization of powerlessness. The week of practice and preparation, and the careful, but nerve-wracking performance of the interview are all over. It is out of my hands. I have no power over the outcome, and I know there is nothing more I can do to influence the result. I no longer feel the burden of responsibility.
Tension and release. Mad, rhythmic work, and then surrender, elation, dissipation. Stories are like that. And maybe the self is, too. Muscles straining, stretching, burning. Then wild flight, body soaring above and within itself, then down, down, down. Plummeting again and again.
As Marshall and I sip warm spiced cider from mugs and meander toward the bench, I look up at the silent dark blue sky. And I remember how much I love autumn nights--how magical they've always felt to me. Sad nights, these cold stretches of dark blue sky dusted with stars. So full of longing to pull everything into myself, and for everything to pull me into it. Lonely nights, dark and lovely.
I go to bed Tuesday night, knowing I will hear back about the position very soon.
I awake the next morning to an email from the University of Copenhagen about my PhD application. Out of twenty applicants, they have only interviewed four--the decision is made quickly.
I'd imagined both scenarios: what I might feel and say if I was accepted and how I'd react if I didn't get the PhD job.
For acceptance, I'd planned jubilant, but tempered rejoicing. As much as I believe in education, I don't believe in the rat race that is academia. If I got in, I knew it wouldn't be just because I was hard working or some nonsense like that. Fully-funded gigs are rare. If Copenhagen worked out, it would be an incredibly fantastic opportunity, almost a fluke in the system, too good to be true.
For rejection, well--I'd imagined it, but wasn't really quite sure how I'd feel. I guess I figured I'd cross that bridge if/when I came to it.
Now that I'm here, on the other side of the long-awaited decision from the university, it strikes me how ready I was to use acceptance into a PhD program as a justification for all my choices about academia leading up to it. It's amazing how easy it is, when we think we've succeeded, to imagine that it legitimizes the road we've taken to get there. Conversely, when we think we've failed, we imagine there's a problem with the steps we've taken. If we've really made the right decisions, we think, how did we end up here?
It's a dangerous way to think, one that will leave us constantly judging ourselves for contingencies over which we never had real or complete power. We measure our days by their end, erasing the in-between and robbing our memories of the startlingly raw beauty of the unfinished.
As I reflect on the road to Copenhagen and a career in biblical studies that (at least for now) can't be taken, I wonder that I am disappointed, but not devastated.
I was ready to get back into the academic swing of things. I was ready to take on that role again. When I presented a paper at a conference in Copenhagen back in August, I remembered how much I love academic work in Hebrew Bible. While there's so much I hate about the academic system as a bureaucracy, the act of study and scholarship--the reading and writing and conversation--has always felt right to me. I had a beautiful next three years of researching, writing, teaching, and studying envisioned.
But now that this door is closed and I sense the opacity of the future, I just feel sad. I'm not devastated because I already know how it feels to have my identity as an academic obliterated. It's been over three years since I realized that I would need to build a new identity for myself that wasn't dependent on my success as a professional scholar.
I think I've stopped (mostly) being angry at the academic system for shaping my identity and then ousting me from it. I've stopped being angry at it for giving me an identity and then snatching it away, leaving me to fashion a new face for myself, a new vision.
I'm still very young, but I'm old enough to know that our faces change. There are some periods of time when we feel like we see ourselves (and our futures) clearly, and other times we feel opaque and faceless. Tension and release. Light and dark. Clarity and blurred vision. This is the way of things in a world teeming with life.
I write an email to an old mentor telling him the outcome of my application. He is a wise and cherished friend that we don't see often, but who always seems delighted by our dreaming and scheming. We go out for milkshakes together just about every 1-2 years.
"I'm so sorry to hear about the news," he writes back, "and share your disappointment. But I also remain hopeful. I believe your path--with all of its twists and turns--is a good one."
Your path is a good one.
It's wildly wonderful counter to the burdensome philosophy of the static life and unchanging self. What if we really believed that our path was good, with all of its twists and turns? What if we stopped being preoccupied with reaching an ideal place or an ideal self and, instead, enjoyed the delights of the wide and wandering path right here, right now? What if we stopped seeking a world without tension and release, but leaned into this one wild and precious life?
Marshall and I reach the bench by the pub and sit a while. He keeps his eyes fixed on the road in hopes of sighting an ice cream truck, but I look across the road and up into the dark blue night.
I don't know what's next or where I will go or who I will be. But I know that my path, with all of its twists and turns, is a good one.