I'm just back from a week of research at the rare books library at my alma mater, which was a complicated experience. The research end of things was great: I put in six to eight hours every day, got through a ton of material, and feel I now have a firmer grasp on some of the background material for my second book project.
When nonspecialists ask me about my research, I usually say that it's about how we deal with the past: how people find a language to describe experiences or identities that the culture doesn't recognize; how they narrate events that even they may not understand; how they reimagine the past to cope with traumatic change. That's the big take-away and what animates both of my book projects (and no one wants to hear me talk about Early Modern religious prose for longer than it takes me to say "Early Modern religious prose").
But as I spent my week thinking about the ways sixteenth and seventeenth century ecclesiastical histories narrate the past to bring it into alignment with the present, I had a disorienting sense of going through a similar process myself.
The thing is, I don't know what my relationship to my alma mater or its city is anymore, or why I keep going back. It's surely not a city I'd think to visit if I didn't have any prior relationship to it, but given that I know the rare books library inside and out (literally, since it was one of my work-study jobs in college) and it's the major collection closest to my home, it makes sense to regard it as my default rare books library. I also have lots of friends who live or work in Grad School City or its immediate environs, as well as a deep attachment to many of the city's shops, restaurants, museums, and theatres.
But although I like going back and I'm always eager for an excuse to visit, I'm not really sure why. I was unhappy almost the entire time I lived in that city in grad school and I fled after my fourth year. (Indeed, I was so unhappy, so early, that I started saving money in my second year because I needed to believe that I'd be able to leave.) And although I say that I loved my college experience, the reality is more complex. I loved my friends, my classes, my extra-curricular activities. I believe that who I am today is profoundly shaped by that institution. But on an actual, day-to-day basis? I was anxious and stressed and often mildly depressed.
So being back is strange, although it's not as fraught these days as it was several years back, when I had a month-long research fellowship and felt I was continually running into all my past selves. Once in a while, though, I was still taken by surprise. Looking for street parking one morning I got caught in a long loop of one-way streets and found myself a couple of miles from campus alongside a building that a guy from my cohort had briefly inhabited. All at once I was thrust back to September 1999: he'd thrown a party there, that first month of grad school. There was nothing remarkable about the party; we'd only just met one another, and the ten or twelve of us sat around in a circle chatting and drinking wine out of plastic cups. I remember it as a pleasant evening. But seeing that building I felt, hard in my gut, what the rest of that year was like, and the year after.
Flashbacks like that happened a few times. More bizarre were the actual live people I stumbled across whom I'd known in grad school but had no reason to suspect were in Gradschoolandia these days--like the guy whose voice I heard from another room of a coffee shop and instantly recognized, or the woman I saw from across the library, still wearing a coat I remembered. I didn't love either of them and I don't think they loved me, and seeing them, similarly, returned me to the reasons I'd been dying to leave that town in the first place: so small, so insular, so hard to escape. What were they doing there?
For that matter, what was I doing there? Why do we all keep coming back?
I think, sometimes, that it's because I can't quite get my head around the fact that I was so unhappy somewhere I should have been happy. I don't really understand who I was in grad school, or what it says about who I am now. That's old news to long-time readers of this blog--or anyone who has perused the vast archive of posts tagged "grad school trauma." But on this visit, in an unexpected twist, I wound up talking about some of these things with my dissertation director.
We had lunch one afternoon, which was the first time we'd seen each other in perhaps three years. It was lovely from start to finish. At some point she mentioned that she was proud of my successes, and added that she was especially proud because I'd managed them without--she suspected--having gotten much support from her in the early years. I said that I wasn't going to disagree with that statement. . . but that I understood, now that I advised undergrad and M.A. theses, how complicated the advising relationship was and how prone to mismatches or misunderstandings due to different emotional and personal styles. I added that I felt I'd been a very different person in grad school, radically different not only from who I am now, but not much like who I was before grad school, either: that I saw myself as a mostly optimistic and self-assured person who for some reason had been a disaster of insecurity and timidity for most of six years.
She, in turn, did not dispute that statement. But we wound up having a nice conversation about how hard it is to predict future results--our own or anyone else's--and how interesting it is to watch and see how life turns out.
The past is a problem that can't be solved. But it can be reintegrated, renarrated, and reimagined.