Someone, who hadn’t read Grace Period, asked me about my transition out of the academy. I gave the short version because the book is the long version. They considered me thoughtfully for a moment and broke into a big smile. (I knew what was going to happen next, but I’m never quite prepared for it.) They said, “Well, everything turned out fine!” Followed by a reflection on doors and windows or rivers and streams or silver linings or some other analogy that I’m equally tired of. When I tried to suggest that the happy ending was not necessarily happy or even an ending really, I got nowhere. Everything was already declared to be fine, so I must be so. It didn’t matter what I said, as long as I was sitting there, lacking obvious distress.
When this happens, I want to give them a copy of Grace Period, on the house. I want to show them everything was not fine. Everything was nowhere close to fine. Just because they declared that “my life turned out fine,” based on a few minutes of interaction, is not enough to make that true. Just because they seem to think they see a “silver lining” doesn’t mean there is one. I trained for years and years for a job I never got. Sure, I have a different job now. (It’s a job that I like and consider important work.) Sure, I can occasionally smile for a head shot and appear happy. Sure, I can seem OK.
I can seem OK because I transitioned from one type of life to another, but my survival wasn’t ever guaranteed.
It was a struggle. I was a disaster as I tried to figure out what should come after academia. I flailed. I floundered. I wanted to settle from something easier than remaking who I was. I wanted to pretend that I could cleave away the life I had and start from fresh. I wanted to ignore all the effort I put in for nothing to turn out as I imagined. I wanted to give up. And yet, I somehow didn’t. Five years after I left academia, I have a different life, a better one even. But, I had no idea that was even possible when I decided to take a year off academia. I had no idea that anything would turn out remotely close to OK. (Fine appeared out of the realm of possibility.)
It’s so weird to me that strangers, acquaintances, friends, and even some relatives think that my new career is the end to my story. It’s even weirder that what they imagine to be an ending should somehow wipe away all the pain and suffering I endured to get where I am now.
I wrote Grace Period, essay by essay, to document the struggles, raw emotions, and heartbreak that I experienced, not as an attempt to minimize them. Transitions are hard, and I hoped to detail what hard looked like for me. After my partner read an early draft, he noted that Grace Period felt a bit like a roller coaster because of the ups and downs. Things appear to work out, and then, they don’t. Over and over and over again.
So, I get angry when people assume that “everything is fine now” because I have a job, I seem cheerful and friendly, or I manage to smile in some author photos online.
Assuming “everything is fine” because I seem fine now ignores the pain and grief in my story. It ignores what actually happened and replaces it with an easier to narrate story about ultimate success in the face of adversity. Those are the stories that people want to hear. More ambivalent stories get glossed over, pushed away, or avoided.
And yet, my story is ambivalent. I wrote a whole book to come to terms with the loss of the life I dreamed of and all my attempts to move on. It took me almost 38,000 words to come to grips with had happened to me and how I felt about the ups and downs of transition. I had to write that whole book to eventually be okay—not fine, not adjusted, not happy—just okay.
After I finally decided to leave academia, good things started to happen, and I found the space to figure out what would happen next. Overall, I’m happier than I was as an academic, but, I still had to come to terms with the career, the life, I left behind. I had to live through the disappointment, anger, depression, anxiety, and fear that my life was decidedly off the path I envisioned. I was a hot mess for a long time (and I still am much of the time). Writing Grace Period and wrestling with my feelings saved me from myself.
In a lot of ways, writing Grace Period was the way I chose to save my life. But, I still didn’t know how my life was unfolding as I wrote each essay.
What’s crucial is that there was a point, near the end of Grace Period,were things took a turn that I didn’t think I would recover from. I had applied for a job and received an offer for that job. Then, I found out that the employer chose to revise the job and launched a new search.
This job, which I had pinned my hopes and future on, was suddenly gone, and I pretty much lost my shit. I was ready to give up on writing. I was ready to give up on applying for jobs. I was ready to give up on everything.
I was done with being me because being me was synonymous with rejection and failure. It was huge step backward that I couldn’t help but take. I decided watching Netflix and eating chips was the total of my life goals. I parked myself on my couch, pretty much determined that I would never move again.
Now, before I left academia, I used to bottle up these feelings and keep moving along like everyone assumed that I should. But, this time, I decided nope. I was sitting on the couch. I was eating salt and vinegar chips. And no one could stop me.
I would feel every awful feeling about what had happened to me and cry alongside teen melodramas.
My partner let me do this for a few days (bless him), but then encouraged me to apply for the revised job. I wasn’t convinced, but he was convincing that I still apply and that I would be great at the job, revised description or not. So, I did apply and assumed I would never get it. But, I got the job. And other opportunities suddenly started appearing. And things seemed to be moving forward. My life finally appeared to be on some sort of track, but it was one I would have never really imagined.
To this day, I’ve never been able to forget how terrible everything with that particular rejection and how things could have turned out differently.
This is why I bristle at “everything turned out fine” because it was so close to not being fine at all. And I continue to be not close to fine because life is unrelenting and hard. Once we think we have everything figured out, everything changes. We shouldn’t assume to know other peoples’ lives better than they do, and we especially shouldn’t decide what some is or isn’t over.
I only knew there was light at the end of the tunnel when I was standing in it. I couldn’t see it otherwise. And it still wasn’t quite an ending. And I’m still ambivalent about where my life is now. There was no silver lining. There was no clear reason. There was just slow, halting steps toward new possibilities.