I’m here. The summer is passing, the weather is cooling, and I am here in Kalamazoo, officially a Graduate Student at the Medieval Institute of Western Michigan University. It feels like very little has changed. And it feels like everything has been upended and turned out and flung wide and strewn far and nothing is familiar anymore. It feels like going back to college–like every other autumn for the past four years. It feels like the week I spent in California once, or the three-day visit to Mississippi–I knew these places were part of my own country, but for all this New England yankee hick could tell, she may as well have left the planet.
It feels like standing out under the raging blue sky when the sun is high and hot and there are no clouds, yet just over the horizon, just out of sight, a storm brews. I can feel the air pressure changing. I can smell the torrents of rain. The thunder rolls around the hills like it did when I was a little girl, growing up cradled in the hollow palm of the Green Mountains, and I can hear it, I can feel the vibrations in the earth. And yet, as far as I can see and as hard as I can look, all there is above me is this cheerful sky, bright and blazing and pressing into me hard with its normalcy, its okay-ness, its you’ve-done-this-before-you’re-all-right-ness.
Every evening, when I come back at last from long days of work and classes, I check the mail. Usually it’s empty; sometimes it’s filled with fliers advertising credit card companies, internet services, yet another way to get free pizza. Sometimes there’s a package from home. This week there was a letter with three stamps and no return address, the name of my street written in an unfamiliar hand. I brought it up to my room, curled into my pillows, opened it carefully. It contained a handful of hay, a note from family–you weren’t here to help put up the hay this year, so we’ve sent some on to you. We know you miss us. Don’t forget. Don’t forget to come back. The hay smells golden and green, like the fields in late summer, like the barn in mid-winter, like the warm breath of the lambs, contented, chewing their cud on a cold April morning next year, far, far away from the city.
Kalamazoo is more city than I’d like to have. It’s complicated and huge–full of one-way roads, no-left-turns, and strange dead-ends. Western Michigan University is too big for me, too–too big for anyone. A strange mix of dilapidated high-school-style buildings slowly sinking into dated oblivion and new feats of engineering with suspended walkways, sparkling facades like the Met or the Lincoln Center in far-off New York, and blown-glass art filling the atria. There is a hidden amphitheater, lingering in dappled green light, hugged on all sides by cement-block buildings. There are funny bricked crosswalks. There is no easy way to get from one side of campus to the other. There is a wide, open space, half paved-over, with a few trees and an enormous, jubilant fountain that no one is allowed to play in. I saw a girl running through it yesterday, rebellious, bare feet dancing, face radiant with the glow of the setting sun and the joy of being a child and not caring.
I have only found one difference between graduate and undergraduate school so far. It is this: that the Medieval Institute wants to lay claim on every spare moment of my time. As an undergraduate student, I was expected to participate in off-campus bible studies and extracurricular activities. I was expected to go on walks, write emails and play my guitar, stand still in the middle of campus and simply look up. Here, the only expectation is that I deliver myself, body and soul, to the Institute. This is not school or work. This is all of life. This is what I do all day, where I eat lunch, do my job or homework. This is where I spend my evenings, what I do on the weekends, where I go after class and before work. The idea that I be involved in anything outside the Medieval Institute’s realm of authority is preposterous. It baffled the Director to discover that I dance, and that I am trying still to do that even now, even here, even while I earn my degree under her tutelage, even if it’s only forty-five minutes one evening a week. Because why would anyone do anything outside the Institute? How can there be anything outside the Institute that is worth anyone’s time?
For a shy introvert, the offering of a whole life, already planned out and put together, is a fantastic gift of great beauty. But though I am an introvert, I am no longer so shy as I once was, and I’m not willing to give the Institute as much time as it demands. I want to carry on with my own life. I want to call home. I want to write this blog post. I want to take walks, write letters, play my guitar, sing while I vacuum, make good food, have time to be alone in a quiet place with no demands weighing on my guilty shoulders. I want to run in the fountain, climb the tree, examine the glass, fall asleep in the amphitheater. I want to tear open the envelope and smell the hay like sunlight and winter and promises and fall back on my pillows and close my eyes and dream of the places I have come from. I want to remember.
Graduate students don’t have time for remembering.
Instead, I am caught in this whirlwind of fascinating classes that have no bearing on my life, an important job in an office so air-conditioned I almost don’t need to refrigerate my lunch, a flurry of meetings I didn’t plan on and event invitations I forgot to respond to.
I am caught enjoying myself as I get to know my fellow students over bagels and tea, caught feeling brave and smart and maybe even good enough as I lead a small group of freshmen through the Council of Nicaea, caught shamed as I realize that part of the reason I am uncomfortable here is that I come from a place where diversity does not exist and Kalamazoo is a city full of it and it is overwhelming to one who has rarely stepped beyond the borders of her own parochial shire.
I am caught searching for a reason to even be here, wondering what will happen if I don’t find one, staring at my hands as motivation spills and dribbles away and all I want is to walk long outdoors under stars with people I know and care for.
It is too much to ask for this to be easy. I know that I will learn and grow and enjoy so much of what I will do here. I know that I am ready for a home, for a normal bedtime, for a garden to weed and grass to mow. Ready to dance again, as much as I like. Ready for the next two years to pass. I do not want to lose a moment of this time, because this time is good, and this time is filled and made beautiful by the sheer wonder of knowing someone, of old friends and new, of unexpected relationships and my hall neighbor’s cat. I do not want to miss the ways I will grow here, and the people I will see, and the friends who will visit me and who I will visit in return.
These two years will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know if I will finish with a degree or turn off on some different path before I reach the end. I don’t know if I will like my professors or make friends with the other students. I don’t know if I will be able to walk to campus all winter. I don’t know if there is a place here for the part of me that comes from the mountains and the dirt and the sky, the part of me that reads Tolkien and writes, the part of me that dances. I know that I am discouraged. I know that I am willful, that I resist environmental changes with all I’m worth, that I have always hated goodbyes and the new unfamiliar hellos that follow them. And I know that I am utterly exhausted by these first two weeks and that I have no desire to make this work, but that I am not one to give up so easily and that two years really isn’t so long, in the grand scheme of things. I know that somehow, some way, the time will pass.
And I know that on the other side of these next two years, I’ll be done. I can rest. I can pick myself up and begin again, and start to find my place on the far horizon.