Directional sign to Sacred Space

Yesterday was a day-long comedy of errors as I tried to submit my final, printed-on-fancy-paper dissertation before heading back to New Hampshire. We had more formatting problems: a chapter’s worth of footnotes magically appeared in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of the document, making it necessary to re-print half the diss. I’d forgotten to print an extra plain-paper copy to be microfilmed by Dissertation Abstracts, a process which required using three separate computers and two separate printers to get the proper kind of title page. There were copyright forms to complete, signatures to gather, and checks to write, and each had to be delivered to hidden offices in far-flung parts of campus: a reverse scavenger hunt where each precious item had to be delivered rather than retrieved.

At each stage of the game, various helpful, sweet-voiced clerks, administrative staff, and librarians congratulated me on the process: “You’re done! Don’t let all these details distract you from that!” After I experienced the final in a serious of ulcer-inducing moments over the precise format of my dissertation’s title page, one reference librarian consulted another about binding options. “Our New Author wants a bound copy of her dissertation: which company would you recommend?” In the process of freaking out over forms and formats, I had no energy to relish that comment until the drive home: New Author? Who, me? Yeah, I guess that’s right…I just finished my first book. And what I’ve done once I can do again if I wish, now that I know the drill…

What I want to remember about the past two days isn’t the nerve-wracking hell of depositing the diss. Similarly, I have no need to remember every last detail of the defense itself: who said what or who asked which question, or how I managed to respond (or not) to each point. In trying to give Chris a play-by-play over dinner afterwards, I found it was truly impossible to capture the precise flavor or tone of the event: all that mattered then and now is that a conversation was had in which my project was the focus, a pretty rare and wonderful thing. Partway through I remembered that I wasn’t out to impress, the point being the conversation, not my ability to answer every proffered point. And in the end the only point that mattered was that three of my now-colleagues respected my project enough to talk about it as they offered suggestions regarding its next step. Yes, it should be a book. Yes, it should be revised. Yes, I have the aptitude to do both, if I wish.

Hallway to Sacred Space

Right before the defense, I chatted briefly with one of my advisors in his book-lined office. We talked about the job market and my plans. We talked about his relief over coming out with his latest book, another step in the publish-or-perish treadmill. And he asked point-blank if I planned to return to the diss, to revise and publish it.

“You know, just last week I had the scariest thought,” I confessed. “After complaining so long about this damn diss, I had a moment of clarity where I though, ‘You know, this really should be a book. But I’d have to completely re-work it to be happy with it.'” GR nodded, and I continued. “I mean, what’s WRONG with me? I’ve struggled all these years to finish this thing, and now I want to climb right back into the saddle to re-work it?”

GR nodded again, and smiled. “Well, after all, that is the nature of the beast.” And I suppose it is. Writers write (and complain about writing) because it’s what we do: what else is there, really?

Become, Supplicate, Sing, Commune, Venerate, Congregate

What I want to remember, though, from the past two days is that spot of time when I stumbled upon grace. It was a couple of hours before the defense on Monday; I was in the Student Center at Northeastern looking for a restroom. I walked down a hallway then around the corner to find signs and a purple hallway pointing to a Sacred Space.

Now, my dissertation is all about Sacred Spaces, those liminal sites in nature where solitary seekers cross the shore between the ordinary and extraordinary. But talking about Sacred Spaces is one thing; finding them is another.

And there it was, a hallway that had been painted purple since I’d last seen it, leading to a room that used to be a dingy chapel until someone set fire to it, a cruel prank or a cowardly hate crime. Since I’d taught at Northeastern, they redesigned, reworked, and remodeled that space to be intentionally ecumenical, with movable chairs replacing pews, a movable altar, side rooms for discussion groups, a washroom for Muslim students to perform ritual ablutions before prayer.

Interior of Sacred Space

A couple hours before my defense, I found (accidentally) a space for much-needed contemplation, a sort of relief that sought-after restroom wouldn’t have provided. For in the corner of that dimly lit, intentionally tranquil place, there was a stack of meditation mats and cushions: like coming home. And so a couple hours before my defense, I sat quietly and followed my breath, focusing for the first time in days not on what needed to be done but on who I need to be: a living, breathing creature who exists solely in the present moment and no where else. Doctor or not-doctor is irrelevant; diss or no diss is not important. Just right here, right now, a Sacred Space transpires underfoot.

So this morning, the morning after, I woke up without an alarm at 4:30. Instead of rising to work on “Bill,” I got up and did bows (Buddhist prostrations). And in the process of getting heart and blood pumping, muscles moving, and skin just barely sweating, I found another Sacred Space much closer to home. This one is not marked by signs or purple hallways; this one requires no ritual ablutions, although everyday and always even our sinks and showers are themselves Sacred. This morning I bowed and then I wrote; now I blog, then I’ll shower and dress, and then I’ll spend today teaching, and recovering. Yes, I’m back in the saddle again. “Bill’s” on the shelf for now, but eventually I’ll return to him, too. It’s the nature of the beast, this ordinary life: it’s what we do. And in the end, it is this ordinariness that is through and through entirely extraordinary.

    Sincere thanks to everyone–oh-so-many of you!–who have left kind, encouraging, and congratulatory comments on my blog: I’m thoroughly grateful for the virtual community & camaraderie you’ve provided. I intend to thank each of you more personally as time permits, but in the meantime you’ve made my day, my week, my month, and my life time and again. This is it: it’s all we’ve got. And it’s pretty damn wonderful.