By the river

This morning I mailed off the last of four batches of spring/summer semester grades: the end of an era. Although I’ll be teaching one more online class starting Monday, I have the rest of the summer off from face-to-face teaching. This marks, then, the first time I’ve really had the time to settle into my status as a newly minted Doctor, the first time I’ve really had the time to face the daunting question of “what’s next.” For ten years, you see, I’ve been on an over-worked, under-rested version of auto-pilot. Whenever the question of “what next?” arose, there was a tangible work-related answer close at hand: next I need to grade this stack of papers, next I need to revise that diss chapter, etc.

At this juncture in my life, “what’s next” raises all sorts of thorny questions, most of which I’ve ignored for a decade (yes, ten full years) while I was working on the doctorate. “What’s next” raises the question of whether or not I want to go on the drum-tight academic job market: even if I could, through some Cosmic Miracle, manage to land a tenure-track job somewhere, do I want to sign onto a rest-of-my-life commitment to teaching and the publish-or-perish expectations of academia? Ten years after starting my PhD program with starry-eyed visions of what it meant to be a college prof, I’m no longer sure what I want. I like teaching; most of the time, I love it. But after ten years of teaching way too many students at way too many colleges, I’m wondering if I’ve continued with teaching because it’s what I’m called to do or simply because I don’t know what else to do. There’s a big difference between actively choosing a career path and passively acquiescing to whatever path the Fates nudge you toward, and it feels like I’ve spent the past ten years acquiescing.


Most of all, I’m simply tired. Ten years is a long time to juggle studies, teaching, and some semblance of a life; ten years is a long time in general. Looking back from the mountain top, it feels like I’ve been holding my breath for ten whole years, putting off health, sanity, and joy for “later, after I’m finished with the PhD.” Every undergraduate has memories of the body-breaking all-nighters that mark semester’s-end, a ritual that 18- to 22-year-old-bodies rapidly bounce back from. But at 35 I’m feeling a bit less resilient: right now it feels like I’ve weathered a decade of all-nighters in a body that no longer wants to bounce. The short-term coping mechanisms that got me through my undergraduate years are fine and good, but after pushing the envelope for too long, I’ve taxed my body’s patience.

Yesterday after dropping off grades at Keene State, I walked around campus with the dog. The Ashuelot River runs through campus, and there is a grassy grove of maple trees behind one of the dormitories. For all the time I spend on campus, I’d never taken the time to explore this spot of riverside greenery. Letting the dog off leash to do his thing, I settled on a bench beside the river and simply sat, looking at trees, grass, water…

All wet

If I simply had taken a cue from the dog all these years, maybe I wouldn’t now be feeling so drained. As soon as I unclipped his leash, Reggie made a beeline through the underbrush down to the river; before I could call him back, he was in the middle of that river, swimming. Dogs have no concept of delayed gratification; dogs don’t know how to put off health, sanity, and joy for “later, after I’m finished.” Dogs know that play is essential and frequent naps even more so; dogs know that work is something to be done whole-heartedly and then shaken off with similar vigor. Dogs know that dissertations are merely piles of boring-smelling paper and that doctors walk no better nor any farther than non-docs. Even Zen Mamas can learn a new trick or two from an old dog who, despite creaky hips and steep river banks, will dive into water first and try to figure out an escape route later. Steep banks, muddy water, and thorny underbrush be damned: Reggie has never found himself in a fix that couldn’t be remedied by a hardy shake and a good long nap. As for me, I’ll stay on land and out of the underbrush: perhaps a couple months of dog-like catnapping is just what Dr. Reggie ordered.