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The Work of Self-Reflection: An Excerpt from a Private Journal

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

It’s early September. I come home to find my daughter in the dining room seated in the office chair I roll out when I’m working there. Her files, books, phone, water bottle and open laptop cover the table. It’s her second day of community college, the first time she’s done any academic work in over five years. The site touches me, at first. Then I see my books, papers, and files stacked indiscriminately on the china hutch, the precious dissertation ideas I generated the past eight months piled next to the trifle bowl. I force a greeting and ask about my materials. “I couldn’t work with all of that on the chairs and floor, so I moved them,” she explains. My throat hurts.

“But those books and papers were in particular stacks in a particular order,” I say. “They’re very important to me.” She looks at me blankly. She is in school and has a lot to do. She doesn’t have a desk. She can’t work with my stuff all over the dining room. What is there to discuss?

I go upstairs. The transformative studies program at CIIS starts in four days. How can I do doctoral work with my strategic organization in a heap? I start to cry. Each of my deep ideas needs its own chair, its own file, its own books and sticky notes precisely arranged. Suddenly I feel unmoored, like I could careen anywhere. After years of wondering how I might use my gifts, I had found a program that makes sense to me. I am in conversation with former graduates, women whose minds move like mine. Having felt out of place and stalled for so long, CIIS is my last chance to do higher work, the only place from which to launch the bigger me. Then I think again of my daughter, taking her own mind seriously, demanding I set aside my paraphernalia to make room for her. In the deluge of confused tears, a truth emerges: I can’t go to back school again. This is her time. She will need not only physical space in the house, but also space in my life to help her navigate. We can’t both be in school. I have to let my dream go.

No decision is made. Reality clarifies the path and I simply follow. I cancel my program the next day. Grief sets in and I begin the work of anchoring myself in this new reality. I will never get a Ph.D., never do research at that level, never be with those people. I didn’t want any other program, and at my age will not try again. Who am I now? Who will I be? What will I do with these forces of mind and heart that possess me?

Soon, my daughter and I are working on her first English paper. She takes to the work with a determination that shocks me. I am over the moon helping her navigate the APA and MLA guides, hearing logical paragraphs she can write off the cuff, giving her suggestions for structure. I hadn’t realized the breadth of learning she’d acquired the previous five years of living, but it’s substantial. Every moment spent hearing her thoughts or showing her something delights me, even when she is irascible, which is often. She got 10 out of 10 on her first English essay. “The best in the class,” her teacher wrote. This past week, I was tired and my daughter had been a jerk the night before so I was feeling defensive, but when asked I flopped on her bed to listen to her analysis of Hsun Tzu, Seneca and Frederick Douglass on education. Within a minute I was floating blissfully in my daughter’s analysis. She can write. But not only that, she talks about Seneca like she understands him, like his way of seeing things is important to her. These writers matter. One might say, “Of course they do – she’s your daughter,” but I’ve never seen my kids as offshoots of me, or more accurately, I’ve always been in awe that a complete other person came through me. Every time my daughter engages me with her schoolwork, I feel confronted by a sort of holiness. She waited until she was ready and is unapologetically commanding her life.

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