A while back I was reading Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, and for a time I was twenty-five again, heart, mind, body, soul, remembering my joy on first seeing an illuminated manuscript in the Morgan Library in NYC, a trip I took as a graduate student to attend a humanities conference.
The first morning I sat in a classroom and opened Bright’s Old English grammar, six or maybe eight of us around the seminar table, and Michael Cherniss talking about the theme of exile, which up until then I had never realized was the story of my life.
The afternoon I collected my doctoral hood from the vendor at a long table under the football stands, and he said, “Congratulations. That’s a lot of work.”
People sometimes think it’s too bad I never got to pursue an academic career. They think having a sick baby derailed me. And they’re right, that is what happened, or part of what happened. But some things you come to understand about yourself you couldn’t have learned from a book. Like what it means to love without conditions. Or why you would want to sacrifice for another. Or how it feels to sit under a palm tree because you finally made a dream come true just by choosing it and not taking shit from anybody.
We always think the alternative path we didn’t take would be better than the road we did take, but that’s a lie we tell ourselves because life is messy. I know where I would be if I had pursued an academic career. If I were really extraordinarily extremely lucky I’d be at some state university trying to get my students to care about Beowulf. Maybe I’d be tenured but probably not.
If I were like most humanities instructors these days, I’d be cobbling together a bunch of adjunct positions and trying not to piss anyone off. If it’s Tuesday at nine a.m., it must be Johnson County Community College.
So I don’t spend much time thinking about What ifs? I know what what would have happened. Whereas what I am now and what I do has no roadmap or GPS, which means I never know what will happen next.