many steps along the way

People: this is a superlong post. Many apologies. Chalk it up to today being the last day of the quarter. A time for reflection.

I was thinking yesterday about my life experience and how much I’ve learned even though my formal education has been a bit erratic and I’ve never had much of a ‘normal’ job. I have had experience, even if that’s just been cumulatively building inside me without so much of a formal outlet.

And I’ve also been thinking about what I want to do with my life. There’s the mundane question of my career, but then there’s the larger question of what sort of mark I want to leave on the world. What I want to accomplish before I die. What my personal philosophy is and how it guides my actions.

So in the process of muddling over these questions, I made this list of ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up’ at different stages of my life.

Young years:
I wanted to be a scientist of some sort. I was enchanted by Meg Murray’s parents (from A Wrinkle in Time). I wanted to cook meals over a bunsen burner and have a family and a huge house and a ‘ol dog named Fortinbras. I had this nebulous dream of wanting to “cure cancer.” I often told people that I wanted to be a microbiologist or a molecular geneticist when I grew up.

Middle School:
Entered my own terrible battle with bone cancer. Didn’t think too much about a career, just hoped to live through the end of the year. But in the process I was nurtured and supported by the most amazing and compassionate team of surgeons, oncologists, nurses, physical therapists, etc. That experience forged a stronger desire to go into medicine someday. I wanted to be like those great people who had cared for me. And, of course, I still wanted to cure cancer…There was this added fear, though. Many cancer survivors who had treatments like mine ended up with brain damage and memory problems. We were unsure how that might affect my future academic aspirations. But that same year while I was in cancer treatment I won the school and district spelling bee. We figured that was a good sign for future academic abilities…

High School:
This was a complex time. I was trying everything to see what ‘fit.’ I had a Biology teacher that motivated me like no other. I enjoyed chemistry, too. I learned that I really disliked math, except for geometry. My passions, though, were literature and journalism. By my senior year I was the editor of my school paper (one of the most award-winning-est school papers in the state of CA at that time). I won numerous honors for my newspaper writing. I also read voraciously. You know those lists of books they give you for ‘enrichment’ reading over the summer? I would read every single one of them that I could find in the library system. I did a summer internship with the LA Times, thinking that I would pursue journalism as a career. My junior year I won more awards in the Academic Decathlon than anyone else in the school and was 2nd in the district. As part of the AD experience I gave a speech where I imagined myself as the first woman president. My speech won top honors and I gave it at venues throughout the city afterwards. My political leanings began to galvanize. I worked avidly at the Dukakis/Bentsen campaign even though I wasn’t even old enough to vote. I started toying with the idea of a career in politics.

I applied to 10 or so schools. I selected a different major on nearly every application, totally unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up in SoCal for various reasons, most of which had to do with proximity to my parents’ home (not too far away to go home on weekends), the safe community, and the gentle climate. My major: Biology.
I learned quickly that I was only a so-so Bio student. I wasn’t competitive in classes with curved grading systems. I struggled through the required advanced math classes (a pox on you, differential calculus) and physics. What made it bearable were the English classes I took for my minor. That, and the 2 or 3 journalism classes that I took along the way where I excelled. To pay my way through school I worked as a legal secretary, a file clerk, and an ESL tutor. At times I also worked in a coffee shop and the school bookstore, was a janitor, cooked meals for foreign exchange students, and did childcare.
After five years of school, I graduated with a degree in Bio, a minor in English, a young spouse, and a newborn baby boy.

Full-time SAHM:
My saving grace during the years of being at home: the Internet (it was in its infancy way back in 1994). I found email just before my son was born–in the stone age when PINE and telnet were cutting edge (a part of me still misses my beloved PINE interface!). I joined a Mormon Literature listserv (AML-List) where I could talk books with a super-smart bunch of like-minded people from all over the world. I loved it! Before too long I started writing a regular weekly column for the AML-List. Just after my daughter was born, I presented a paper at one of the AML’s academic conferences in Salt Lake City. I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared in front of an audience! But at the same time I really loved being included with the academic crowd. I decided I would return to school and study American Lit.
In my spare time I learned HTML, just for fun. John and I and a friend had a short-lived startup business creating webpages for local businesses. I remember this moment when we were brainstorming and I had this great idea to approach car dealerships about listing vehicles online. That thought, then, was just preposterous to all of us–we couldn’t imagine any dealers taking us seriously (how things do change!).
At one point I was offered a job in the computer industry and I turned it down, but suggested that my spouse might want it. John’s career took off quickly (this was in the dotcom boom era).

The Return:
I took a few lit classes at a state university in Utah (where we lived at the time).
I applied to a PhD program in American Studies and wasn’t accepted. I decided I needed more classes if I was going to get into grad school…
We moved back to SoCal and I took a few classes at a community college. Knowing that I would need a second language if I was to enter grad school, I took French classes.
After my kids were both in school I took a Humanities class called “Journey Narratives.” The first day the prof asked us if we saw our lives as a journey, and asked us to explain why. I became pilgrimgirl shortly thereafter (a moniker that John gave me, that I used as a login for various things long before it became this blog). I also took classes in writing Short Stories, Novels, and Magazine articles. I studied the writings of Wallace Stegner, Terry Tempest Williams, and others. I joined a writing group called the “American Night Writers“–mostly SAHMs writing at night after the kids had gone to bed.
In the meantime that AML column had turned into being the Book Review Editor for the AML Journal, Irreantum.
I then started taking classes at the nearest university, which also happened to be the same school where I’d done my undergrad work. I took classes to turn my old minor in English into a second bachelor’s degree, thinking that I would need this to get into grad school in English. Because I wanted to study 19th century literature I took a History class about the 1800s. I soon bailed on English and started taking History classes exclusively. I then moved quickly from taking undergrad classes to graduate seminars. I applied to the PhD program and was accepted. Shortly after starting grad school I decided to focus on the History of Medicine. In the meantime I accepted a position as the Book Review Editor for Dialogue and became a permablogger on ExII, Sunstone, etc.

I’ve passed my Qualifying Exams for my PhD and I’m the throes of writing up the proposal for my dissertation and applying for research funds. I love historical research. I love spending time in the archive. I love reading books. I love teaching. I am passionate about the craft of writing and hope to write many books someday.

When I think about that little girl who wanted to be a scientist and cure cancer, I wonder what she thinks of this journey that I’ve been on since then. Sometimes, I think she’s a bit disappointed.

“Scientists are so important,” she says. (She doesn’t think History Teachers ever make much of a difference in the world)

“You’re probably right,” I say. (Even I know that History Teachers rarely make any difference in the world.)

But then I reply:
“I know I’m not important. But I am happy.”

4 thoughts on “many steps along the way

  1. G

    what a beautiful journey…
    actually, there were some pretty painful points there along the way, but you write about them with such grace.
    thankyou for sharing this

  2. daisies

    i loved a wrinkle in time, it was a favourite though i didn’t end up being a scientist either, i still like to read physics books …

    i loved reading this, your journey to where you are now. thank you for sharing …

  3. Anonymous

    Don’t discount History teachers. History gives our lives a context, meaning, it keeps scientists that are working on a cure for cancer from thinking that bleeding and leeches are the answer.

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