[Princeton, the day after Dean's Date and after my soul felt so much lighter to get rid of those papers.]
I can hear you all cheering. Thank you, thank you.
But before you cheer too much, can I get real for a second? This semester was one of the hardest semesters of my academic career. (It's up there with the first half of second grade, which, yes, totally counts as part of my academic career, and which, as my mother will attest, was incredibly hard.)
Hard doesn't mean awful. (Though, to be honest, there have been some pretty awful things this semester--like getting double pneumonia halfway through the semester. That was the definition of pretty awful.) But it does mean hard. Moving across the country is hard. Reading 1500-2000 pages a week is hard. Making new friends is hard. Dealing with imposter syndrome is hard. Figuring out a new schedule is hard. Wondering if you've made the right decision is hard.
I'm not chronicling these as a tale of woe. Nor was this semester only full of hard things. Because making new friends is also exciting. Exploring a new place is thrilling. Challenging classes are also intellect-stretching. And there were (and are) moments when I stand in the courtyard between the Firestone Library, the Princeton University Chapel, and Chancellor Green and think, "Wow. I'm actually here."
But I mention what is hard because I hope that for someone, it is helpful to hear and realize that they're not alone.
Because I know how scary it can be to admit that things are hard. It is especially scary when it seems like everyone else knows exactly what they're doing.
But most of us are just barely hanging in there, too. This is at least what I've gathered from friends I've talked with (inside and outside of Princeton). We're all just making it through and figuring this out as we go--all of us are scared and no one knows exactly what they're doing. And there is power in that solidarity. (Even if it is shared suffering, there is power in that.) And supporting each other in the unknown, uncertain, and unfair is a brave thing to do.
There's a picture I discovered recently by the artist Caitlin Connolly. I really, really love her work for a variety of reasons. But one reason I like her artwork is because of its unique simplicity. This one is a sketch called, "I'm Doing a Normal Brave Thing."
I'm doing a normal brave thing.
I like the tension in this sketch--her head points one way while her feet walk in the other direction. Sometimes, our head desperately wants to go back to the way it ways, but our feet carry us forward. Also, sometimes things that appear normal to us appear brave to others. Sometimes things that appear brave to us seem normal to others.
I also like the quiet repose on her face. This is just life. This is normal. The tension is normal. The uncertainty is normal. But so is the peace which comes from quiet bravery--by choosing to live with those tensions and ambiguities.
I've thought about that phrase in the past few months, and how it applies to so many stages of life: I'm doing a normal brave thing. I'm going to school. I'm learning how to drive. I'm experiencing heartbreak. I'm learning to love again. I'm traveling somewhere across the globe to visit a friend. I'm driving across the neighborhood to help a stranger. I'm listening. I'm forgiving. I'm living.
The tension is real. The uncertainty is real. The desire to turn back is real. But so is the desire for change, mobility, possibility, and success.
Living life--and choosing to live life deliberately--is a normal brave thing.
But for me, it's both normal and brave. Normal, in that so many people have done this and so many will do it in the future. I'm part of a continuous line of students that have done hard things--and harder things. I'm a normal part of this circle of PhD life.
But it's brave in that I'm the first woman in my line of women--from mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc.--to pursue a PhD. It's brave in the way every story is unique and every challenge is new, since I have not done it before. It's brave in that it takes resilience and hope to keep moving forward.
Coming back onto campus after Christmas Break, I did feel hopeful. As I walked past Dickinson Hall, I felt a sense of, Yes, this is where I need to be and it is right. It's a feeling that gives me courage.
I'm sure that this coming semester will be hard, too. It will be easier in some ways and harder in different ways than my first semester. But I believe I can do it. And I believe that all of us--no matter our challenges this year--can face the new year with bravery.