I remember when I used to be a lot more active, I would go open water or lake swimming or running early in the morning with friends, and I would be so hungry afterwards that I would eat a four egg omelette, pancakes or waffles, bacon, a fruit smoothie, and either orange juice or tea or coffee afterwards. There was this feeling of joyous depletion afterwards, of having worked hard and pushed my limits, and an awe of what a body took to function after that kind of expenditure. That part of my life is over for now, but I felt that hunger again this week – after the successful defense of my dissertation with minor corrections, the culmination of either three years or a lifetime of mental preparation come to fruition.
As an ending, this was a beautiful moment. I had one of the best conversations of my life with two people I greatly respect, while marveling at the amount of interest that people like them might take in the things I find most interesting. I cannot express how grateful I am to my examiners for this, or how much I am still buzzing from it, even as it all blurs together in the following days. It was also a complete turn around from how I felt when I arrived in Cambridge three years ago, very lost and overwhelmed and unsure of what I was going to do. It has been a long road, but in that online meeting room, I could understand how much growth I have experienced, and how much I have found myself on the journey.
My dissertation finished in such a different space than it began, in terms of its topic, the angles, and what I wanted to do with it. I feel very accomplished with what I produced, what I learned that I wanted to say with my experience and my time. And at the same time, my viva showed me how much more there still was to say on these topics, how many more articles I still might write while considering further future directions. But what I am most grateful for is how at the end of almost two hours of talking about it, I realized how much I love what I do – the work of academia in terms of the research, the writing, the deep thinking about everything and tracing all the different little threads as they weave themselves together. It was both exhausting and energizing.
I was expecting to feel like I was walking off the edge of a cliff – a sense of, well, what next? And to be honest, I’m not feeling that way at all. It could be, in part, that the viva is not really the end – just the beginning of the end. There are still the corrections, the approval of those corrections, getting the hardbound copies, and graduating (most likely in absentia for me given the state of the world). And yet, it is also a profound new beginning. In ten days, I’ve got a slightly altered name and I’ve changed titles twice: from Ms. to Mrs. and now, Dr. I’m no longer in that half-existence of apprenticeship; I can hold my own and join these conversations that are much bigger than my own ideas, and continue to learn, but also, help others learn and think about things in new ways. All the open space ahead, all the possibility to come, is exciting.
There is another layer of new beginnings; the hunger to do more, to learn more, and then the hunger of the day after the viva, of realizing the depths to which I had to reach to do this thing, and achieve this goal. And I know this is not sustainable. That feeling of hunger and depletion was a welcome marker of what had been done, and that this has been a long process of hard work, which I have trouble acknowledging. And it was good work, which I also have trouble acknowledging. So the hardest thing as I am resting and starting to feel more relaxed, has been to not let myself jump straight back in, not keep acting like I’m fighting to prove that I am enough on some undefined measure to do what I do with my life and my time. Rest is a hard habit to learn; to let my mind recover so that my body can recover, until I am ready to start again, and this time, learn to work at a different pace. A friend recommended a book called Rest to be read in the time between hand in, and the wedding and the viva, and a few weeks ago I would have thought it was just good advice. Rest in order to work better. But now, it is realizing that rest is about living, having space to live around the work. And if I can use the next few months to learn that around a small handful of already existing projects and deadlines, without adding any (realistically speaking, too many) more, I am going to be set up better for longer in whatever adventure comes next. That’s the other beginning at play here: not finding the next thing, but beginning the next phase of my life the way I mean to go on. There is no cliff edge, no uncertainty, just many potential ways forward. The viva process as a beginning is, for me, truly a beautiful one, even as it means I am on some level saying goodbye to something, or even, someone I used to be.
I am going to hold on to October 2020 as a bunch of beautiful moments. Success and joy, endings and beginnings coming together in ways I could not have imagined even a year ago. Trust me, as I am now a doctor of things fantastic and Disney fairy tale, there is so much more potential to be claimed from life, from things that bring joy and are fulfilling, that deplete us in a good way so we learn how we are strong and might be built back up. We gain from the things that make us hungry, for knowledge, or food, or community, or anything else, because when that hunger is sated again, we will grow from that experience, and most importantly, we learn what it is we crave and what will satiate us. And from there, we can always begin again.