During the past couple of weeks, I’ve had more trouble sleeping than usual. I’ve identified several potential causes for my insomnia, but it ultimately comes down to anxiety. From climate change to the 2024 election, I’ve been worrying about a lot of things lately.
But if I’m really honest with myself, the most immediate source of my anxiety is the dissertation. It’s not finishing it that bothers me though. Rather, I’ve been thinking about what comes after it. As I get closer to completion, I get closer to my life undergoing significant changes. And I have mixed feelings about them.
My Life Now
Overall, my life here is good, especially nowadays. Let me be clear, I don’t speak for everyone in grad school, or even in the American Studies Program here. For far too many people, graduate school is a traumatic, demoralizing experience symptomatic of systemic power inequities. I know that my privilege as a white, married woman with some modicum of financial security has a lot to do with my outlook on the program.
But all that said, I enjoy my life here. I’m doing research that I find meaningful, even if I sometimes doubt its relevance. I’m married to a man I love deeply. I have a great circle of friends both in and out of the academy. I’ve kept up with familiar hobbies like painting and printmaking while taking up new interests such as knitting and container gardening. And let’s not forget about Iris and Gustave, our two cats and my omnipresent assistants.
In some ways, my year under the Fellowship recalls another transitional period in my life, my senior year at Lake Forest. My life was about to change then too, but I enjoyed what I already had. I relished the long walks I took around town, and regularly visited Chicago to attend museums, the opera, and other events. No longer a reticent freshman, I had friends and acquaintances I saw on campus and in the city. Graduating meant leaving behind a life I’d come to love.
A Life of Change
This isn’t the first time I’ve undergone big changes in my life. From my childhood relocation to Arizona, to my multiple cross-country moves in adulthood, my life has endured several shakeups. Yet I find myself more anxious this time because I’m in a positive place. This is different from the last big move I made, when Brandon and I exchanged New Mexico for Virginia. True, leaving a comfortable job in Roswell to return to grad school entailed massive adjustments, but I couldn’t wait for it to happen. For all that Roswell had given me, and it gave me a lot, I was unhappy there and needed to leave for the sake of my mental health.
This time though, I feel differently. Despite not having a full-time “job” in the conventional sense (though it is most definitely work), I feel I have more to lose this time. I wonder about my ability to continue my research once I’m working full-time again. After years of working from home, I have some trepidation about returning to an office setting. If I manage to find a job that lets us stay in town, I worry about what kind of commute I might have, and whether I’d need to start driving to Norfolk or Richmond on a more regular basis. Conversely, if we move someplace new, will we like it as much there as we do here? I know my life needs to change, that it will change, but I like what I already have, and am less eager to exchange it for something new.
Is It Really So Different This Time?
One of the wonderful things about Brandon is his ability to point out things I’ve overlooked. My anxiety over impending change has been no exception. When I recently told him what was bothering me, he pointed out that change has defined our life in Williamsburg. In the five years we’ve been here, we’ve lived in three different houses or apartments, witnessed a tumultuous presidential transition, lived through a pandemic, became homeowners, and got married. At the start of each academic year, I’ve had to adapt to a new assistantship. Before 2020, dolls weren’t a regular part of my curatorial practice.
Yes, things will change. I don’t know what I’ll be doing a year from now. But as Brandon pointed out, that’s been the case every year since coming to Williamsburg. True, the coming changes could be bigger than what we’ve encountered recently. But we both quit our jobs and drove cross-country to a town I’d barely visited and Brandon had never seen. I took a massive pay cut to pursue research while Brandon adjusted to working at Colonial Williamsburg, a cultural organization vastly different from the Roswell Museum. Through it all, we’ve had each other for support. And because of that, we can do it again.
Of course, acknowledging my anxiety doesn’t magically make it go away, nor does it make the sense of loss I’ve been experiencing fully evaporate. Rather than ignore that loss, I try to honor it. Like my senior year of college, I see it as an opportunity to enjoy what I have here as much as I can before things change irrevocably.
Yet in thinking about the changes ahead, I try to consider the gains as much as the losses. I may not pursue my current research as fully as I’d like, but I’ve always had eclectic interests anyway, so chances are whatever I work on next will be interesting to me. True, I have great friends now, but we can stay in touch regardless of where we end up in the future. If I was able to make friends in grad school, notorious for its isolation and loneliness, I can do it again. And I’m definitely looking forward to having a higher income.
Chances are, I’ll keep returning to these thoughts over the next year. But in writing them down, in expressing them, I also intend to release them, to let them be without weighing me down.
And hopefully, thankfully, get back to sleep.