Another Day, Another Self-Reflective Pause

When I was about twelve, I had a rich inner life as an apprentice in a guild of tradespeople, into whose society I was welcome and whose social cues I was able to intuit. I wrote many stories—even a short novel—about myself and this guild and its culture, and every day as I went through the motions of my middle-school life, a constant interior monologue transplanted those motions into the world of my guild and my apprenticeship.

This week in my historiography seminar, we read Robert Darnton’s classic cultural history The Great Cat Massacre, and we talked for three hours, in part about guilds and tradespeople and their world. My professor made a joking analogy between the world of 18th-century printers and the world of 21st-century academics, but it wasn’t until I was sitting this afternoon in a windowless storage room in the library basement, affixing Princeton University Library bookplates to shipments from Blackwells for $12.95 an hour, that my interior monologue began to shape my life according to the metaphor of apprenticeship. My cautious forays into the forms and contents of historical scholarship, my careful attention to the details of social behavior (and self-hatred when I screw up those details and the rules by which they operate), and my constant sense that I stand on the edge of a culture to which I almost-but-not-quite belong, all seem to me to have the characteristics of apprenticeship, as do the clearly laid-out steps I must take on the road to professorship and the simultaneous probability that I will drop off the path before I actually attain that goal.

I have been thinking this week about how challenging I find change, and the processes of letting go and moving on and moving away, and the way my life at times, absent any home base or sense of real rootedness, seems at times to be a constant quest for home. (We are studying the Freudian uncanny this week in my psychoanalytic theory class, but it wasn’t until I realized how I have so many unheimlich homes, and so many heimlich points of transience, that I saw beyond the immediate gothic implications of the term.) In recent months I’ve found the question “Where are you from?” harder and harder to answer, as I add to my list of experiences more and more places where I’ve felt at home for a time, and then suddenly felt sense of home ripped away from me, as it was when I left the fourth floor over the archway with its attendant window seat last June. The art of losing is very hard indeed to master, and it is just as hard to accept the lack of rootedness that comes with being in one’s early twenties and going very much through the process of trying to define who and what one is.

It is for this reason that, while bookplating this afternoon, I found the apprenticeship metaphor comforting. If each leaving of home is another step in the route back home, along the road to professorship and perhaps someday a life where I stay long enough in one place to acquire a cat or a dog and maybe even a little house, it becomes a little less terrifying and traumatizing to float all by oneself in a haze of uncertainty, constantly hovering on the outside of social situations and consumed by nervousness about plunging in. If I know that I will arrive back home someday, I can feel freer to assume a sense of agency and to pursue my own life, independent of my worries about whether anyone else thinks I’m clever or likable or good at critical theory.

And of course, since I try not to be needlessly self-indulgent in this space, I would recommend this approach to my readers, should there be any, as well—particularly those who (and I think this happens more often than we let on) see their real adult lives to bear a striking familiarity to their imaginary childhood ones.

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