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Jun 18 2017

The Things We Wish For: A Cautionary Tale

At eleven pm last night, as I was finally settling down in my too hot bed (because they don’t really do A/C in England), after being awake thirty-two hours (because I have a terrible time sleeping) there began fireworks.

On a June 17…

It wasn’t a long display, but immediately after, live music kicked off.

Was it for the Queen’s birthday? I asked my English husband. No, they don’t usually do that (fireworks or live concerts in the middle of the night) for her Majesty.

It sounded like it was nearby.

The music was loud enough I could make out songs—it was a cover band. ‘Living on a Prayer’ and a manic version of ‘I Will Survive’ a la Cake were a couple choice selections. The bass was reverberating in the bed that I desperately wanted to be sleeping in.

Mystified, my husband went out to investigate while I lie there, looking through dailyinfo.co.uk, the local events schedule for Oxford. Nothing that matched this cacophony was scheduled in our suburb or in Oxford itself.

Eventually, Walter returned and reported that it was ‘so strange’ because the music seemed loudest on our street, but it wasn’t even in our suburb. As he was walking, the cars driving by and the wind seemed to be knocking the music in different directions, but it became clearest when he turned back up our street to return home.

Enigma unsolved, he got on NextDoor, a neighbourhood forum, and asked any neighbours who may be awake and aware of what was going on.

One responder didn’t know the exact reason but added jovially, ‘Oxford in summer, eh?!’

Wait. So this is normal? But why? They didn’t say.

Finally, someone else on NextDoor did know. It was the Christchurch end of year ball.

We live nowhere near Christchurch. But sure enough. Fireworks at 10.20 and live music until 3. Then a silent disco from 3 to 5am. (That’s where you wear wireless headphones to listen to the live music.)

So this is something that happens every year this time. Okay.

Of course, other colleges have them, too. Not all 33 colleges, thank the old gods and the new, but several. Enough that the upcoming weekends are going to be an emotional whirlwind.

This is a Difficult Timeline for Me

Oxford has been my happy place since I was 22. England has been my happy place since I was 16. When people have difficult childhoods they develop ways to escape—some use drink or drugs or sex, others use fantasy worlds they create or read about.

England was my escape. It was a real place I could move to one day. I understood people left you alone in public and didn’t pry, it was beautiful, liberal, and, most importantly, it was very far away from where I grew up.

So when I decided to really settle in to writing my first novel (my actual first had no plot or direction and was abandoned a few chapters in at 17 years old) it would, of course, take place in England. So I could live there in my mind at least.

I chose Oxford University as the setting and the more I learned about the city and the university, the more I loved it.
After that, Oxford was my go-to fantasy place. All of my stories were set there. It’s just where I lived in my head.

That novel was 2,400 words long and took two years to write—I learned much about England and Oxford in that time, but somehow not about these end of year balls. Or, if I did, I didn’t realise how loud they’d be. When I’d visited the city for research it had been in November so I’d missed out on the music blaring across the city.

I didn’t really think I’d ever get to move to England. And certainly not to Oxford. When it happened it was a dream come true.

But the dream wasn’t supposed to work out this way. And when you only get part of a dream you’ve had for the majority of your adult life it can be disappointing. If you want to laugh at the white woman who didn’t get everything she wanted, that’s fine. I understand how entitled that sounds. Read on—my pain can be your hilarity.

The University and Why End-of-Term is Going to Be Unpleasant

Oxford University is the second oldest university in the world. It’s the oldest English-speaking one. People have been teaching in Oxford for a thousand years.

In my first novel, my protagonist was a student at the University (New College). Because I thought I could have gone here. And I probably could have if I’d had help for the mental illnesses that kicked off when I was eight and if my alcoholic father had spent more time giving me confidence rather than telling me women couldn’t do anything.

Instead, my mother was dealing with her own burgeoning alcoholism and mental health problems—possibly due to dealing with my father. She didn’t have a lot of time to pay attention to me or my issues.

I had a high I.Q. though and everyone told me I was going to do amazing things—my parents were already saving for college when I was eight. This was something no one in my family had done before—gone to college—so saving for it seemed like they were doing something radical, but I was crazy smart, so it was going to be worth it.

(Yes, my father simultaneously told me I was pointless for being female and put money aside for college for me. I don’t pretend to understand him and I didn’t cry when he died.)

The thing about achieving academic success is that you have to show up. And study. It’s much easier to do both of those things when you don’t have untreated depression and anxiety and don’t go through a period every. single. year. where you want to kill yourself.

So Oxford was the place I could have gone in the timeline where my parents weren’t shit parents but I had the exact same genetics.

Everyone in our culture receives the message that in order to be smart you have to have a degree. (I worked at a university in North Carolina—plenty of people got degrees by simply showing up and doing what they were told. Trust me—a piece of paper proves nothing.)

If you’re naturally intelligent, though, you really receive this message. You have to use your intelligence in a way that involves getting paper that can be framed. When I was converting to Judaism, after several meetings and a dinner with his wife, who was a professor at the local university, my rabbi said to me, in a rather surprised tone, ‘Rose* noticed how smart you are, too,—now we just have to get you a degree.’

Not in anything. Just a degree.

Being smart doesn’t count unless someone else says so. You have to prove it by following the rules.

The Degrees I’ve Attempted—The Money I’ve Wasted

Every dinner I had at Rose and the Rabbi’s house people would ask what I was studying (I was young enough to be a student). Then I’d have to explain I wasn’t at university (while my face turned brighter red than my hair) because I just wasn’t any good at organised education.

People don’t take your word for it, though. They never do with mental illness. They don’t see what goes into dealing with whatever you’re dealing with because it’s invisible.

‘But you’re so smart!’ They’d all exclaim.

They don’t give degrees for just being smart, though. You have to be able to walk into the classroom. And sit for the duration. And focus on the topic—not on the fact that you’re surrounded by people or your own breathing in an effort to calm down.

You have to be able to actually get out of bed and get dressed and washed and there and still have the energy to do all of those other things.

And not only once. You have to do it a lot. For many classes.

Then you can’t just go home and collapse from the exhaustion involved with all of that—you have to study and do coursework.

This is if the only thing you have to do in life is school. No chores, no family, no work to pay bills.

For a person with depression and anxiety that was impossible.

It took me six years (and three schools) to get to within two classes of an Associate’s degree, signing up every semester for full-time and winding up dropping (or just not showing up).

An Associate’s degree is usually a two-year degree that can be obtained at the easiest of easy institutions in the U.S.

I was at one of these institutions, during one of my better periods, taking a class that was easy for me and the teacher said, ‘You shouldn’t even be here—you should be at Harvard.’ He said it like he was disappointed in me for being in his class.

Professors at the university I worked at as an admin assistant would mistake me as another professor and be surprised I didn’t at least have a Masters.

Other people should really be thankful for their neurotypicalness.

It doesn’t matter if you’re intelligent, though. It’s that degree that says you can follow the rules and show up and turn things in on time. That’s what matters.

And it is so hard to not internalise this.

I offer these examples not as a way to brag, because they only made me feel good for a quarter of a second. Then, the message behind the statement gets nice and comfortable in my brain, which hates me.

‘You are a failure.’

‘You are inferior.’

‘You have a natural gift—this should be easy for you.’

‘You’re wasting your potential.’

‘If this is how you are without formal education, can you imagine what you’d know with it? Can you imagine what you could accomplish in the world?’

‘Oxford in Summer, Eh?’

Every year we’ll be able to hear those celebrations. And fair dues, those kids worked hard! They deserve to have a party.

Some part of me feels cheated, though. Years ago, I should have been at one of those celebrating my hard work and graduation from one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world.

I could feel it. Lying in bed, I could imagine being at that concert in black tie and evening gown, surrounded by other people who had their whole lives ahead of them, but at that moment, who were there, celebrating the achievement of making it as far as they had. Some coming from other countries to study here. How hard did they have to work? How proud they—and their families—must be. It must have been a night to remember.

I was jealous and miserable.

That was before learning there would be balls over the next several weekends, as well.

The Degree I Could Get

The University of London, Goldsmiths has an English literature degree that can be achieved online in three years. Unlike courses in the U.S., you only study the subject you’re there for in the U.K. Part of my difficulty in America was the requirement to take classes I had no interest in, which gave me much more time to focus on panicking or simply left me with zero motivation to show up.

But why should I get this degree now? I’d finally have one and I’m sure I’d learn a lot—Goldsmiths is highly respected. But the chief reason I’d go for it is to be able to say I had the degree. I would have to put my new business on hold (or at least devote far less time to it), just when I’ve finally found what I want to do with my life.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want a degree. Those voices up there are still there. But, rationally, I don’t have good reason to spend the money or time getting this one.

This Timeline, Man. It Gives and It Takes.

I’m writing this in the tiny back garden of our bizarre little terraced house in suburban Oxford, where I never thought I’d live.

Neighbour’s lives in every direction are audible, because people live right up next to one another, but it’s not stifling like it would be in mid-June in coastal North Carolina, which is A+. A posh couple has just moved in next door and hearing the woman say ‘Funky’ in her accent makes my day.

I’m ridiculously happily married (to a man?!) and we had our eleventh anniversary last month. He’s having some sort of male menopause at the age of forty and has become obsessed with grilling chicken on the barbecue—something he’s never cared about before in his life.

He’s just worked out how to warm English marshmallows (3/4th the size of U.S. type) on the prongs of the tool he uses for moving the meat around and offers one to me. ‘Gooey,’ he says, offering one. They’re excellent.

If it weren’t for his financial wherewithal I’d be in who knows how much debt, as I like to shop when depressed or drunk. Now we’re completely out of debt. We have no savings to speak of, but we don’t owe anyone anything. This is basically fantasyland for me.

I’d probably also be a raging alcoholic—it was a lot easier to stop drinking with his help.

Or dead. Honestly. I’ve been suicidal in the time we’ve known one another and he got me to the hospital when I was unconscious and vomiting.

When I finally worked out what I wanted to do with my life—a podcast and website about kink education—he’s been enthusiastically supportive from the start.

It was through his English citizenship we were able to move to England. Neither of us could believe when he got the job at Oxford University, as he doesn’t have a degree, either, and U.S. institutions wouldn’t give him an interview without even a Bachelor’s.

They flew him out for an interview—the first time he’d been to the city as an adult—and he loved it. He was as in love with it as I was by the time he left.

So we got to move here. For weeks—maybe a few months—I’d wake up in the morning and think, ‘I live in England!’ I still have these moments.

He was so happy to have been able to bring me back. He was happy to be here with me, too.

And we both love Oxford. It’s beautiful and has such history and so many things to do.

But after dreaming about living here for twenty-two years, I relocated just in time for Brexit. For the Tories to try to dismantle the NHS. For a coalition government with the DUP (?!)

Americans, imagine if the Tea Party (picture the most right-wing humans you can) was its own party and they only had three senators, but in order to have a majority number of votes in the Senate, moderate Republicans formed a whole government that included teaming up with them in order to secure their votes when they needed them.

And for the Digital Economy Bill to pass.

I finally work out what I want to do with my life, after nearly forty years of a philosophy of, ‘Everything is a way of marking time until we die,’ and that thing revolves around kink and sex education and the DEB happens.

The DEB aims to ‘protect the children!’ by banning all sorts of things on the internet that anyone with VPN or Tumblr can still see. It’s poorly thought out and misogynistic. This country is supposed to be liberal. Are they going to bring back capital punishment and handguns next?

The Big Blue Tick Mark of External Validation

I’ve never been more myself or more of an adult—I have solid plans for growing a business I’m serious about that I feel has value. For the first time, I look forward to working. There are so many ideas jostling for attention it’s difficult to focus on just one sometimes.

That doesn’t stop the voices saying what I do isn’t worth as much or that I’m not living up to my potential because I don’t have that piece of paper and that I didn’t get it when I was supposed to. That I’m not doing something more conventional that can be written about in the paper. That I can’t get that blue tick mark—that I can’t be verified by life.

When your worth is measured by external validation from a young age—by a degree, for example—you value verification over your own feelings of self worth or accomplishment. Perhaps I don’t trust my own ability to judge my achievements. I just have to be happy being happy. I’m working on it.

*Not her real name.

2 comments

  1. Orange Joe

    I really like Cake’s version of “I will survive”. 🙂

    1. thepageist

      It’s all right, just not when I’m trying to sleep at midnight on a Saturday.

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