The wisest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say
I think to myself pretty often about dropping out of graduate school. There are times when I mean it more seriously than others—times where I’ve actually started the job search—but it’s a more or less constant thought of mine. I picture going to do data analysis for some giant, soulless corporation instead of the giant, soulless University system that I currently do research for. ‘$50,000’, I think to myself. ‘Woweee’. [This is how much money I make in my fantasy world. It’s not all that great of a fantasy, but somehow it’s still better than grad school].
It’s been on my mind lately because I’m not really sure how I’m going to pay my July rent this summer. Also, it would be incredibly easy to quit. I do data analysis all day already, so in my head the only difference is that it’s someone else’s data now. Data about the company’s energy consumption or a profit projection or some such nonsense. I wouldn’t care what the numbers were about because I would have a 9-5 job with weekends and evenings free. And I would have no soul, probably. And no intellectual stimulation.
But it’s difficult to think about intellectual stimulation when I need a new washer and dryer, and when I want frames for all of my paintings and posters, and when I want a window air conditioning unit for my bedroom because I live above a garage and I’m going to boil like a lobster this summer. It’s difficult because I am so tired of being so fucking poor.
I never do it though. I don’t quit; I keep doing research and teaching and I slide a little bit more into debt every month. I think it must be because I love what I’m researching, and somehow it turns out that the intellectual stimulation is worth more than my image of all the money I could have and the debt I could be paying off and the clothes I could be washing in my front-loading washer and dryer.
Because, to tell you the truth, I’m doing the coolest research. I study autobiographical memory–the memories that we have and share about ourselves. Why do we have a memory system that allows us to recall past, personal events so vividly, and for what purpose? And I’m about to start a study and collect massive amounts of data, which mostly involves meeting with old people and having them tell me their life histories.
And old people are so cool. Beneath all that wrinkly, papery skin and liver spots are people who lived through the most amazing shit. Interviewing them is like talking to secret agents. They all have these pasts that you could never have guessed from their appearances. They were young, and some of them were gorgeous, and they had these vibrant lives.
I did my first interview the other week, and the woman I was interviewing said probably the wisest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say in real life. And she was so offhand about it. I don’t think she had any idea that she was dropping a knowledge bomb on me. I can’t quote her directly for ethical reasons, but she was reviewing her life and we were almost done with the interview and she said, [sort of]
“I have these threads running through my life that have come together in completely unexpected ways. They all braided together and worked out, and I never could have imagined that happening.” And then she looked at me all old and smug and knowing and said, “When I was your age, I had all these ideas about how I had to make everything work. I had all those threads in my hands and it was up to me to make all these different threads of relationships and ambitions and hopes all come together correctly. And it does take a little effort, but mostly everything just ends up coming together on its own, without you having to do anything.”
Like life would be better once you let go of the reins. And I’ve thought about her saying that ever since. I can see her point; even at 24 I know that she’s right. I’ve had friendships that went south, injustices, embarrassments, fears, a boy I thought I would never get over—that I was going to be bitter and sad about forever—and without me doing much of anything except living, it all just panned out. And I’m not bitter, and I’m not sad, and the friendships that went south…came back north? They worked out fine, too. All of those threads braided together and came out with a pretty little pattern in the end. [Or in the beginning of the middle, I guess. 24 had better not be the end].
I think there’s a freedom in thinking about things from that perspective. And this lady’s life was not great; she had some big shit go down in her life, and despite that, the message was still that miserable things can happen, but even they work out somehow. I don’t know if it’s possible to think about things that way in the moment, but it sure would be helpful if we could. What a useful way to get your head out of drama. We get so wound up in things; our small dramas become the center of the fucking universe and I think we would all be a little cooler if we could think about how much things actually matter. Because some things do. They really do. But so many things don’t, and I feel like we can’t distinguish between the two most of the time.
Or maybe we can’t live in that way. Maybe you have to be almost 70 to have any kind of grace about human interactions.
I’m planning to do about 40 more interviews, and maybe I’ll end up being really wise. But probably not so much.
The other project I’m working on is about vicarious memories—memories that other people have told you, and you weren’t there, but you can picture the memory as vividly as if it were your own. For example, while parking his car, this guy I used to know lightly bumped into the curb and it caused the airbag to pop out and smack him in the face, even though he just sitting there, parked. And there were people all over the parking lot who witnessed it. I wasn’t there, but I can picture it like I was.
I know that people can do this easily for their friends, but I’m curious about whether people can do this for their parents or for their children, and what kinds of memories people come up with if they can. I was quizzing my mom about this, to see if she could come up with any, and she gave me possibly the funniest story I’ve heard about my maternal grandmother.
Mamaw, as I knew her, was fat, and she always wore these sleeveless vests as shirts and her boobs were just enormous, so she’s just this very fleshy kind of person in my memory. She had cataracts, and so she also always had on a visor–like the green visor that people wear when they’re dealing poker in the 1960’s.
And she was loud and she lumbered around everywhere just talking and talking and talking. [When I was a small child, I used to talk so much—just this nonstop toddler monologue—that my mother taped my hands together. I got so interested in getting my hands free that I shut-up. So the talking gene is from that side of the family and it terrifies me that I will one day also be lumbering around in sleeveless vests and green visors]. Mamaw worked a factory job, which, from personal experience, is the perfect occupation for someone who likes to gab. And this woman was always late. Every day she would have to run into work; she’d sprint to the punch clock in order to make it on time, and all the other factory girls would heckle and cheer as she ran to make it.
But in this memory that my mom gave me, Mamaw was a child. It is so difficult to think of your grandparents as children. I end up with a fat, vest-wearing little girl in my head, even though I know that’s wrong. Mamaw lived with her parents and grandparents, and the grandparents were fresh off the boat from Germany and very stoic and solemn and German, apparently. Only German was allowed to be spoken at the dinner table and it was this very serious dining affair. Not the kind of situation that children do well in, and especially not my grandmother.
They ate this thick, dark German bread for dinner and Mamaw hated the crusts. She would pick out the soft insides, roll it up into tiny balls, and then finally eat it. She made such a production out of eating the bread that the rest of the family had cleared from the table when she was done. And when no one was looking, Mamaw would take her bread crusts that she didn’t want to eat and stuff them under the tablecloth in between the leaves of the table, in the cracks. And she did that for a long time, so there were many, many dinner’s worth of crusts in between those table leaves.
One day, my great-grandmother went to dust the table or add another leaf and out fell 50 stale, half eaten old bread crusts from in between all the cracks in the leaves where Mamaw had shoved them.
This happened about 90 years ago, but I can picture it so, so clearly. I have no idea what they were wearing or what the room looked like. But I can just see the expression on my great-grandmother’s face as all the bread crusts fall out from the table, and how much trouble Mamaw probably got in, and even her expression when my great grandmother confronts her about the crusts, like “Vera! Did you do this? Did you stick all these crusts in the table?” only in German and Mamaw being like “Nein. Never seen those before.” Just lying and probably getting smacked in the face for it.
But I see it. Across 3 generations and about 90 years.
And I guess this is the whole reason that I don’t think I’ll drop out of school and make money crunching numbers for some company. Because, although I am dirt poor and will continue to be for at least two more years, I get to hear the most interesting stories all day, every day.