My most recent piece, The Hard Business of Letting Go, is more emotional than my other pieces. I dwell on what it is like to realize that a dream is dead. What happens when you are forced to let go and move on? How do you feel when you confront that hard truth? What if you no longer recognize yourself?
Here’s a sample:
My dream to become a professor floated away, too, in the flurry of applications and the brutal realities of the job market. The career that I trained for appears more and more untenable day by day.
Applying for a job off the tenure track, then, felt like the death knell of my dream. I stalled, not because I am a coward, but because abandoning who you think you are going to be is hard. I’ve let the dream I haven’t achieved define me more than my accomplishments. That dream turned toxic, and it is time to let it go.
It hurt to write this piece because I had to own up to the fact that my career won’t be what I imagined. I have to find new dreams. The end. Onto the next column.
But, an interesting thing happened when I posted the column on Facebook. One of my mentors, Martin Kavka, asked, “Are there such things as non-toxic dreams?” He continued:
I ask in some seriousness, and with a lot of trepidation.
I ask in seriousness because I suspect that the contingency of life means that all dreams will always be crushed.
I ask with trepidation because I fear that my suspicion ends up functioning only as a way to occlude all the structural problems of academia…
Are there such things as non-toxic dreams?
Academia was my dream, but lately, I’m not sure that I was ever really suited for it. The pursuit of an academic career turned me into a strange, neurotic woman, whom I avoided in the mirror. Frantic, busy, tired, anxious, irritable, pessimistic, and depressed. I mastered my brave, public face. It appeared as if nothing bothered me, but everything did.
When I decided to take a year off, I sort of fell apart. I cut and dyed my hair over and over, as if changing my appearance would change my life. I vacillated between anger and sadness. Slowly, I started to feel better, as I realized that my failure as an academic had very little to do with me and mostly with structural constraints of the university. Most days I’m happy with my decision to move on. Some days I’m miserable. This dream was clearly toxic.