The greatest thing about education is that it makes you begin to see the world differently. ( We visited the Boston Museum of Science – here I was trying to figure out perspective in an exhibit.)
I’m home and feeling as if I have had a shot of B-12 or something, because I am full of energy and have this profound sense of relief that my two year stint in the academic world is over.
Would I do it again? Yes.
Am I glad I don’t have too? Double yes.
I don’t know that I am cut out for the academic world, but I’d be lying if I said that pursuing a formal education hasn’t had a profound effect on me. Stretching my mind and being forced to consider things I would not necessarily consider on my own makes me see the world differently. It makes me see ME differently. Getting a masters makes me feel pride, but really, the emotion connected is more profound.
Perhaps I’m someone who values the input of philosophical thought and classic theory, as it is presented by professors who dig deep to unveil all the nuisances of intellectual debate. It certainly provides me opportunity to challenge what I believe on instinct. A broader view allows me to come to my own conclusions about what I truly think, believe, and care about in art, the world, and humanity. Also, a comprehensive view gives me the confidence to stand by my personal likes and dislikes, because when you have that underlying concern that you just are not sophisticated enough, or educated enough, or exposed to enough great theory, you start questioning your instincts, wondering if you are indeed missing some piece of the puzzle that misleads you so you read the world wrong. You worry that you just are not savvy enough to “get it” when you disagree with a more educated writer’s or reader’s view. (That makes me sound like an intellectual wimp, but it is true that I sometimes question my position when faced with someone with far more experience and/or education. I know I don’t agree with them, but it is hard to pinpoint why.) Getting a formal education for me is like gaining permission to have my own literary and world convictions. No one can dismiss me with a shrug and say, “Well, that is because you are just a common hack…” or some other negation of my contradictory view, simply because I have no concrete information to back up what I feel.
In the case of literature, I now have very strong feelings about what defines a “literary” novel and what exemplifies art. It is not unlike the conclusions I came to regarding dance and how I balanced a respect for classical work with embracing commercial venues. I think “commercial art” is actually a product of our society and reflective of real life issues (art reflects life, and we live in a world where cultural influences alter what we produce and how we express ourselves (this was subject of my blog seminar). In a nutshell, it’s true that great art can not usually be manifested by a formula, quick methods or by catering to mass taste in lieu of unique expression, but it isn’t as simple as determining that all commercial art is unworthy either. At least for me, a literary education was key to seeing the whole picture and putting all the pieces in perspective.
As such, this dumb MFA means more to me than I could describe. I’ve thought a lot about why I’ve had such a strong reaction to what is really “no big deal”- and I think it has something to do with the fact that I pursued a masters in a subject I deeply love. The first round of college at age 35 was for a business degree- but that was all about practicality and gaining some basic understanding of commerce and business. I went to school out of necessity (I was not surviving as a business owner with the mindset of an artist and something HAD to change or I would have had to leave dance altogether) My bachelor’s degree was not about following my heart – albeit it was life altering. This first foray into academia widened my world view, and changed my perceptions regarding art and its relationship to business in a serious way.
There is also the fact that I feel such personal joy over accomplishing this particular degree. When I was small, I proclaimed that I wanted to be a dancer and a writer. I did the dance thing and it brought me great happiness. Nevertheless, there is something very primal within me that takes pride in the fact that I didn’t let one dream go in lieu of another and that, even at my ripe middle-age, I am willing to start at the beginning to accomplish something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child. Being a “trained” writer means a great deal to me, because a million years ago, when I graduated from high school, I looked into colleges. I was looking at schools for writing, but chose to go to New York to dance instead. This second chapter of my life is a bit like being able to take the “other road” to see where it leads. How many of us get to take both roads in a fork in one lifetime – without having to backup to start over? I no longer feel that by making the choice to dance I was sentenced to a lifetime as an uneducated person or that I had to forgo writing all together and play the “Gee, I could have been . . ” game.
I approached life events in a different order. In the end, I followed my heart and lived a life that was authentically “me” and what do you know, I ended up well rounded and complete despite it all. (Which explains why I didn’t freak out when my daughter came home after her Sophomore year of college and told me she wanted to quit. I believe that we each know what we need and when, and I trust her instincts. I said, “I hope you go back someday, because I’ve come to believe that education plays a powerful role in our personal development.” She said, “Of course I will, but for now, I just don’t have an interest, and I am wasting my time in school, going through the motions just because everyone else my age from my socio-economic background is. I don’t feel compelled to do something else, so I’m taking classes. But I just want to figure out what I really want and pursue it, and i know that whatever that is, isn’t at school.”
How can you fight that logic? I trust she is right, and honestly, I was the same at her age. (She is going to a professional jewelery artesian school in September, by the way, to learn to work with silver. How can I be disappointed? Imagine the great, unique Christmas gifts I’ll be getting the rest of my life!)
Another element that makes my degree special hinges on something more personal – wrapped up in the basic human longing to secure a feeling of self worth. Although it shouldn’t be so, I think I need validation from respectable sources to convince me I am not stupid. This is something that drives Mark crazy, because he considers me anything but stupid and he feels that in my 48 years on earth, I’ve received enough proof of my mental aptitude, that is far past time I accept the reality that I’m smart and move on. But I battle with this question about whether or not I am intellectually inferior all the time.
I’ve guess I’ve been made to feel “intellectually insignificant” for years by people who probably have no clue they were doing it. It is one of those special family gifts we all seem to get saddled with – don’t we all have some war wounds from growing up? Well, for me this is it. Feeling dumb is the fall out from hundreds of little comments made all the time – like my Dad, who didn’t want me to move to New York to dance telling me that if I didn’t go to college I’d always be dumb. Or when I told him I wanted to go at 35, he said, “It’s too late. You missed your chance. You should have gone at 18, but it is a waste of time now. ” I’m sure he didn’t mean these things, and it was more about trying to influence me with the devil’s advocate technique, but they were said, and comments like this stick, undermining your confidence.
When my Dad disagrees on a business decision, he throws up his hands and says, “That proves you don’t know what the hell you are talking about. You certainly wasted money on that business degree because you obviously didn’t learn a damn thing .” What can you say to that? Yep. I’m just a dancer – to stupid to understand anything as complex as basic economics…. even though I graduated with honors. But heck, that was just a piece of paper. In real life, I’m stupid. Thanks for pointing that out….. again.
Of course, I could just blow a big raspberry in his face and tell him to go suck a lemon. I’m mature enough to know I have every right to my own opinion, and it may well be that I know more than he does in a given situation, but we have different perspectives due to a different inherent hierarchy of values. For example, in the dance business, I was always weighing choices with a sense of how important it was to keep artistic integrity intact, while my father was weighing choices according to business formulas. The things I cared deeply about could not be measured in monetary ways, and as such, my convictions seemed indulgent and/or stupid to him. But these choices made perfect sense to me in light of what I considered valuable and significant as an artist. There is no right or wrong in business or life. There is only right or wrong for each person. And success can not be measured entirely by what is printed a the balance sheet.
I know those kinds of comments were (are) really just angry squawlering; however, they stick with a child, and enough unkind comments make a person question their worth. It is a matter of people planting the seed of doubt, I guess. Anyway, even if it isn’t malicious or intentional, telling someone they are stupid is an unkind way to make a point. And while I am mature enough to know these comments are not indicative of my self worth, still, it leaves a negative resonance that lingers and infiltrates your confidence. Not to mention that it pisses you off.
There is another game my family plays with me. Lots of fun – (for them – certainly not for me). When I was young and absolutely obsessed by dance, they liked to point out how imbalanced I was in regards to my interests. We would be having a nice time, talking and laughing, and suddenly, my Dad would turn to me and say, “Who is the vice president of the united states?” Considering my mind was not on politics at the moment, and I was always out of tune with current events, and I have a seriously weak memory, I wouldn’t have the answer (no comments from the peanut gallery please.) This would greatly amuse the family and they would start shooting questions at me to point out how “uninformed” I was. I’d be grilled on past presidents, the dates of wars or significant world events, and asked to define the major accomplishments of famous individuals. The questions were usually about politics and sports, the two subjects I did not have a passing interest in and as result, in most cases, I would not have the answers. I’d sit there, trapped, looking stupid, as question after question was aimed at me to point out just how much I didn’t know.
Now, you can say that as a citizen I was in the wrong, and I should have cared more about our government. I agree. Perhaps I should have known more, but heck, I was working with the education my family provided me with. I got good grades in school. So if I didn’t know the basics, am I really to blame, or should we have had an intellectual debate on our educational system? And in most cases, it was information I did know at one time, but had slipped away.
I think what my family was trying to point out was that I should make more of an effort to be self educated – maybe they thought embarrassing me was a way to force me to change and start paying attention to current events, read some history and care about something other than art so I “fit in” as the average American with a list of pertinent facts stuffed into my head for a moment just like this. But there are kinder ways of expressing your concern over a family member’s narrow interests and instead, I just always felt as if they considered me stupid and I resented that they found it very amusing to point it out. Besides which, like I said, t was always information I did know, but somehow it slipped from my mind. I have a wicked bad memory. Remarkably so. It took me years to understand that problem.
Last month, my family was visiting. We were all gathering to celebrate my nephew’s graduation from college. Unlike my graduation (where I didn’t even get a card or phone call of congratulations from a single family member) I made the mistake of exclaiming my excitement and pride that I was graduating with a masters! I can’t hide how very delighted I am over this milestone in my life, nor did I think I should have too, so I made a joke about my being smart. Big mistake. I should have known better. My sister looked right at me and said, ” A degree doesn’t mean you are smart. Who is the secretary of state?”
I didn’t know (of course – my lack of interest in politics has not changed . .. When will I learn to study up before spending any time with my family since it is inevitable they will test me with politics and sports questions? If I was really smart, I’d print out a cheat sheet before every family gathering so I pass muster.)
I looked at my sister, challenging me, knowing she was compelled to take me down a peg because I dared claim I was intelligent. She wanted to make it very clear that a dumb piece of paper that says I have a master’s degree really means nothing and I am a fool to think differently.
But, all I could think was, “This is learned behavior.”
She learned this from my dad, knows how these questions disable me and as such, she can’t resist joining in the game. I wondered why she perpetuates the behavior, considering she has her own painful issues with the family dynamics. Then, I wondered what this comment does for her. Does pointing out that I don’t know something, that is to her is basic knowledge, make her feel smarter by comparison, or does she think it’s vitally important that I know just how much I don’t know? Does she think she is doing me a favor by pointing out my inadequacies? Does it amuse her really to test the extent of my accumulated facts? It is interesting, in a sad sort of way. Because what if they were right and I really was stupid as a box of rocks? Would pointing it out be of service to me somehow? Seems to me that love and family commitment should rally members to be more supportive and/or protective of the individuals in the clan. If nothing else, shouldn’t we try to build up the self esteem of those we love rather than constantly break it down? And does anyone question why I don’t have the answers, considering I have gone to college, I read incessantly, I am active in the world, etc…. Perhaps something other than my being a mental mushroom is at hand?
I thought of the zillion of questions I could shoot at her about art and literature and other things that are of interest to me and that she probably has no clue about. She is a well read individual, and very intelligent, but that does not mean she knows everything. And frankly, surface knowledge doesn’t impress me nearly as much as original thought – and I rarely hear much of that from her. It appears as if she believes what she is told and has read, she is a virtual dictionary of facts, but I don’t often hear her discuss the underlying issues of social conflict or hear her discuss unpopular world views. Not that she doesn’t have depth or a deeper understanding of the world- only that she doesn’t share such thinking with me and she seems quick to pass judgment on others. So how would I know there is more to her intellect than a surface recitation of facts?
I considered how my family is convinced I don’t know what I am talking about when I take a stand that is very different than theirs regarding business or life decisions. I think the way I do, not because I am stupid or uninformed, but because I have a different set of values and I am motivated by different things, pulled towards different elements of a subject – in most cases I am intrigued by the emotional or artistic factors of an issue while they are more interested in obvious measurable factors such as economics or more widely accepted social attitudes. I don’t see anything wrong with their views or mine. Individualism is what makes the world an interesting place, at least to me. But man oh man, how my looking at the world differently is viewed as my being “stupid” to them.
In this case, I excused myself to go to the kitchen (always finding solace in cooking). But as I left, Mark caught my eyes, and we exchanged a look that told of just how much he understood how frustrated and sad that comment made me. The thing is, I don’t feel stupid anymore. I know enough about life to feel very knowledgeable and I have a good understanding of what makes the world tick. I also feel I contribute to the world, to conversations, to many things. But it makes me sad to think people I love want me to feel inadequate. Or maybe they really believe I am stupid and they want to make sure I know it. That is even sadder still.
Ah well, the dynamics of family is very complicated, and I’d need to get a PhD in psychology to get even an inkling of what and why we communicate as we do in such unloving ways. But that would fall in a priority line after I go get a masters in political science so I can one-up the relatives at Thanksgiving when they want to hit me with the current event test. since I don’t’ see that one happening, well….. why wrestle with the subtleties of technique regarding how to hurt your loved ones? It would be easier to just start reading the paper and trying to remember what the hell is inside whenever they visit.
Anyway, I thought about these things a lot as I listened to our keynote speaker and I walked up to get that degree. It was a very special moment for me, definitely up there with “most important life moments” along with getting married and the birth of my children. This was simply the biggest thing I’ve ever done. Because getting my MFA wasn’t about ego (hell no, because it bashed my ego to kingdom come), or work, or making a living, or setting myself up for monetary returns, or meeting other’s expectations or doing something practical. It was a hundred percent about following my heart, facing my deepest fears, and exploring what I love with candor and no small amount of wonder.
I know that getting a degree does not make a person smart. I know that there is a difference between logic and emotion and book smarts and street smarts and a formal education and life experience. I like to think I have a smattering of each of these life lessons and combined, they make me a fairly well rounded person. I accept that there is always room for growth, and that I have much to learn still. Nevertheless, I feel as if I am constantly gaining a deeper perspective on the world, so, I am pleased with my ongoing life education, even if it isn’t complete and even if I can’t answer some pretty simple questions about our working government that the average American probably can.
I do read the paper, by the way. I am greatly moved by issues and events, but for the life of me, I don’t remember details, and ten minutes after reading an article about major world events, I’ve forgotten the name of every politician at the party. Mark says it is because of the way my brain is wired. He explains that this is why I can’t spell. He has watched me closely for many years and has come to the conclusion that it isn’t that I have a bad memory, but that I apparently “skip” information that I do not consider prevalent in the moment. My mind latches on to things beneath the surface and I don’t much care for the obvious. For example, I am very interested in what a word means and how it affects a sentence, but how it is spelled is not relevant in the bigger scheme, so I don’t bother to anchor it into my mind. I can spell it for a while, then I conveniently forget. And frankly, I don’t care about spelling it correctly.
I also tend to remember things that have an emotional impact on me. I’ll remember what I feel about an issue strongly and often these moments will have a huge impact on me, but I’ll forget the particulars about other, more obvious facts. I can remember every detail about experiences in my life that were important emotionally, (both negative and positive) yet don’t ask me to remember the phone number I had for eighteen years in Florida. I forgot it ten minutes after I moved, because it wasn’t important anymore. I have a selective memory in that way. It sucks, but that is how my mind works. I can tell you what the doctor’s glasses looked like when he was delivering my baby, but don’t ask me what hospital we were in.
It is as if I don’t have room for all that information in my little brain computer, so I delete as I go to make room for more files. I read a hundred books in the last year, but in every case, when talking about them, I can’t pull the author’s name up from my memory banks. It doesn’t mean I didn’t digest these books or understand them, or that I wasn’t impacted by them. I just know I can look up the author when and if I ever need too, and so I don’t keep that kind of data at the forefront of my mind.
Nevertheless, I accept that I don’t know enough about current events and I have some mighty disturbing holes in my basic awareness of the world. Even things I’ve known well and fully, I let slip away – like who is serving as the secretary of state this term. But I rather approach life from the standpoint that we are all incomplete and must always keep learning, rather than walk around feeling like I know it all, and pointing out to others that they don’t. And I certainly don’t presume to think that what I know is more important or worthy then the things others know. There are things I wish I could forget, and even useless information I don’t need that I’ll never be able to unload – tons of it dance oriented. Anyway, I’ve learned that the people who think they know everything are really the ones that are quite clueless anyway.
The point is, I am thrilled to have graduated. I am a woman of arts and letters now.
I will share a few pictures – they don’t look like much, but in every one I am smiling. I think that says it all.
Neva has the degree in hand, I have flowers, and Kent has the wine. It was all we needed to celebrate at the graduation dinner hosted after the ceremony.
Mark says I read too fast at the reading. Well, what do you expect. I was nervous. He said, “I don’t get it. You’ve been on stage a million times, so why on earth be nervous now? I wanted to go up there and just slap you and say, stop it.” Well, thank you for your empathy, dear. What can I say… when I dance I am confident. Reading my thesis in front of an audience made me feel exposed. Like dancing naked only after gaining a hundred pounds…
This is one of my teacher’s, AJ Verdale. She said some very kind things to me regarding my writing the next morning. Heartfelt, positive comments stick too, ya know, and I was very grateful she took the time to talk to me about my potential and give me such encouragement.
This is the cake they made for the graduation dinner. it looks like I am pointing to the wrong name. That isn’t because I had finished off my bottle of wine (yet). It is mearly the angle of the camera. Nevertheless, this cake is proof that I did indeed graduate. La ti da!
No, I didn’t do any dancing at graduation. This is a hug. I had to hug someone and our program director was directly in the line of fire.
My best friends from school. Next to me is Sue, my roommate, a fine poet with a wicked sense of humor. she made the experience bearable in the best of ways. Beside her is Alice, a wonderful fiction writer who is also ran a garden business for years and who recently sold a book on gardening. She writes wonderful prose about country life and the beauty of nature. She also sees life much as Sue and I do. We were the three musketeers (not to be confused with the three stoogies.)
I loved that my family was there to celebrate with me and help make the moment fun. Um… in this picture you can see how I handed down my deep intelligence to my daughter. Oh, and Mark wanted me to point out here that it was “snowing in July” – which explains his white hair. He also suggested I mention the explosion at the powdered sugar factory next door. But who are we kidding, I know you see through the ruse. You are all thinking, “We get it . . . .no man can be married to a girl like that and NOT end up with white hair.”
Anyway – a big toast to me.
I’m loathe to share these pictures because I’ve gained ten pounds in the last two years with all the FLEX stress and school stress, and no-running stress, and stress stress. I’m gross. But, I am ready to rectify that ten times over. Began the diet yesterday….. can barely move thanks to the pump class we gave ourselves. I know I can’t do anything about the wrinkles, but I sure as hell can keep a pretty bod if I’ve a mind to, and I am determined to do just that. Now, I have presonal time that doesn’t have to be designated for school, my life has finally evened out so I can get back into a routine. FLEX and that nightmare is over. School is over. Building the house is over. Time to write. To run. To make wine and drink it. Yippee.