I’m confronting a strange sense of déjà vu. This week, I’ve alternated between studying for the GRE, writing a personal statement, wrangling both kids by myself (Chris is on travel for work), and relying on coffee to keep me mostly alert.
I feel that I have done this process of applying for graduate school before because I have. In 2001, I applied for my MA in Religion. Now 14 years later, I’m applying yet again, but this time for an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on creative nonfiction. The process feels simultaneously familiar and strange. I know what’s expected of my application. I can prepare. I can still get hives from worrying about a test. Yet, I never expected to consider graduate training again in the middle of my 30s. I imagined a different life than the one I have.
My life changed significantly in 14 years. I’m married with two children. Our 14th anniversary is in December. The cat remains mean, but she’s less playful. The first dog is older, grayer, and deaf. There’s a younger dog, but she’s already middle-aged by canine standards. My sister got married, so did my brother. I now have a niece and nephews. My grandmother died. I haven’t spoken to my biological father since 2007. I earned a PhD and never found that career I trained for. I started freelance writing.
At 35, I find myself wondering less about what happened to deliver me to this particular point and more about what comes next. What are the possibilities? What are my constraints? The last time I wrote a personal statement I was 21. I was earnest, naive, confident, and ambitious. Life would go according to my plans even if I had to force things to happen the way I wanted them to. I was in control. (I needed the illusion of control). The world would obviously cater to my whims if I worked hard and did what I was supposed to.
I still encounter glimmers of that younger version of me. I feel her need for certainty and assurance. I still give into her desire for control and order, especially in the chaos of a seven-year-old and a two-year-old. Her deep yearning to belong somewhere still resides in my bones, but feels less urgent and demanding. I’m no longer her. Until I started writing my personal statement for my MFA application, I didn’t realize how far gone she was.
This new statement about me reads differently from the previous version. I had to find the words to explain where I had been to signal where I wanted to be. The present must reckon with the past and the future. Where had I been? was a deceptively easy question. I knew this story. I’ve been telling some version of it for two years. It is rote and comforting. I went to grad school, got a PhD, found only contingent jobs, took a couple years off, “quit” academia, and now freelance write. Nothing new to see here. Move along. You’ve heard it all before.
What I realized is that this story of who I am is too convenient. It misses all my starts, stops, flailing, and attempts to change direction. It ignores that I couldn’t cleave off my academic identity even when I tried to and that I still hoped for the future I worked toward for years. It misses the mourning, grief, and anguish with an easy resolution (new career!).
The timing was also off. This story began at the wrong place. It started too late. I should have pushed back further to that anxious girl from Jackson County, Florida who was never sure of her place in the world. How she clung so tightly to a version of success that would take her away from home. How she loved home and hated it for as long as she could remember. How far, far away seemed so appealing and safe. How she desperately hoped getting away would make life easier. How tired she was of hard and complicated and divorce. How she learned to run away. How the distance would come to break her heart.
This story also tried to end before the end. The girl was no longer a girl. She was a woman, a partner, and a mother. Running away couldn’t save her from suffering, and she did suffer because we all suffer. She finally realized that she had always been a writer, but this wasn’t the end. This was not redemption. This was not the page turn she hoped for. She writes to pay for daycare and other bills. She writes to have something to do. She writes to fight off boredom and melancholy. She writes because there are things she still needs to say. She writes as a way to live in this world. She writes to find meaning. She writes to face her suffering because running away never really helped. She writes because there are moments where she still feels lonely and lost and unmoored. Lately, she writes to understand where she came from and who she would like to be. She writes to express what she can’t make herself say aloud. She writes to live.
This story I’ve told myself is no longer enough. It doesn’t reach. It doesn’t say where I want to go. It is too tidy. Too neat. Too emotionally removed. Partially, that’s because I’ve been unsure of what I wanted to do next. I had been avoiding the future and trudging cautiously through the present. I feared new dreams because previous ones only lead to disappointment. Not dreaming is a safe and terrible way to live. The fear of failure kept me from imagining what is possible. I’m done with those fears. If I fail, at least I’ll know I’ve done something.
I’m applying for an MFA because it is nice to dream again: to imagine what might come next and dwell in the possibilities.
Years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined my life as it stands now. My options were narrow and strict. And now, I’m grateful for all of the possibilities. I’m surprised by the narrowness of my vision. Life shifted and offered up different possibilities that I wouldn’t have ever considered. I had fall off my desired path to be able to see the other paths available to me.
I had to get lost to be found.
Writing my personal statement brought me clarity that I’ve been seeking for months. My story isn’t working for me anymore, so I need to work toward a new one.
Yesterday, my toddler found the Post-It notes that I used to brainstorm my personal statement and put them all over his belly. He was so proud of his “stickers,” as he showed them to me. His sister and I giggled at his choice of body art, and I couldn’t help but think this is my life right now. My story’s unfolding, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.