Experience precedes meaning

From the outside (and with distance) life can look like a series of well-planned choices. But from the inside (and in the moment), it feels like a series of well-timed stumblings.

While I was in my twenties I can say for certain I wasn’t following any plan or clear, goal-oriented route from college to jobs to grad school to jobs…. In fact, I often felt like things were just “happening” and I was lucky to be along for the ride.

I didn’t even know what graduate school was until after I had earned my B.A. when a history professor then at SUNY New Paltz, Carole Levin, stayed in touch with me and encouraged me to apply. Then one day, acceptance letter in hand and pissed-off at my boss, I took the leap to move half-way across the country, to seek the mysterious “Master’s Degree.” It was a bit impulsive.

Once in graduate school, I figured I’d quickly get the “medieval” requirement out of the way and begrudgingly signed up for Old English—the Anglo Saxon Language. Surprisingly, I fell in love with it! Seeing the way that nuances can’t be carried cleanly from one language to another, hearing the way sounds and rhythms work together to create meaning—I was hooked.

So, I became a medievalist because of a kind professor, a crappy boss, and a curricular requirement.

Now in my forties looking back, however, I make narrative sense of the past and draw meaningful connections between intentions and choices. I see agency or unconscious drives undulating, ocean-like, under seemingly random events. I can imagine it wasn’t just a series of meetings and mistakes that brought me to grad school and Medieval Studies, but rather, among other things, nostalgia.

In graduate school, in a new state, I was nearly drowning in a whole new world of really smart people. I hadn’t personally known anyone who had gone to grad school and my parents hadn’t gone to college. Perhaps the medieval world with its saints, iconography, morality, and low-brow humor felt like a little bit of home.

I was raised Catholic and had fallen away from the church while my parents remained deeply committed to it. Was Medieval Studies creating a way for me to tap back into those early, pious roots, to build a bridge back to my parents, to their love and acceptance? Maybe this discipline is my penance for my angsty, moody teen-aged years.

Here, at the end of another year, at the end of another semester, I’m grateful for whatever happy accidents, impulsive decisions, and unconscious cravings landed me in this cozy, book-filled office, surrounded by smart colleagues and sweet students, reading great literature and snuggling an awesome pup.

But I’m also curious to see what kind of meanings my future-self will weave a decade hence. What deep-seated, invisible drives propel me now that will be so clear to her then?