In Which We Turn a Corner; or, Reflections at the End of Another Year

I don’t need this space anymore. This fact occurred to me one of these evenings of the holiday fortnight, as I sat plowing through page after page of secondary literature on Victorian sexuality—my mind not off in the land of my own identity construction, but rather very much focused on the task at hand, trying to ensure that I can satisfy my advisor and myself with my synthesis of the historiography underlying the first major project that will certify me as a historian.

I have been turning a corner, all this long 2010: a year spent quietly in bedrooms and libraries and at dinner-tables, but a year I’ve spent thus because I find myself, slowly but surely, coming home. I haven’t spent so very long away, to be sure, but in my mind over the past few years I’ve been working through different ways of thinking, different ways of being, and different ways of wanting. Over this year I’ve been tying those threads together just the way I’ve been coalescing disparate historical ideas into a thesis project. I’ve been realizing that when I grow up I want to live the life I lived when I was three years old and happy, full of intellectual and imaginative pursuits and domestic, family warmth. I’ve been building homes wherever I go: little nests of coziness that stretch from British Columbia to New Jersey, from Rhode Island to California, and more besides; picking up families other than the one into which I was born; and learning to appreciate the one in which I was born more than I ever have before. In just two scarily short weeks, I’ll carry that process in a 747 over the Atlantic, and I’ll build a new home in Trinity College, Oxford. The enduring nature of my tendency to make homes means it is always heart-wrenchingly hard to leave them, and sometimes (well, most of the time) I don’t know how it is that anyone could ever conceive of the art of losing as not being hard to master. I certainly felt trying to master it reduce me to tears six months ago, when I packed into boxes one Princeton home with a window seat on the fourth floor over an archway. I certainly have begun to feel it beat upon me as I think about the grim task that awaits me when I return to reduce to boxes another Princeton home with a couch on the second floor on a quiet quad. No doubt I’ll feel it six months hence when I must reduce home to boxes again, and return to this side of the Atlantic.

But with every home I break to bits, I find myself inching closer to the home inside. I find myself becoming more grounded, more certain. When I read my books and write my words, I no longer need a parent or a professor to tell me every step of the way that I’m a precious snowflake and that I sound cleverer than any of the other snowflakes. This year, I’ve developed an inner core of self-reliance, I’ve begun to see myself as a scholar with a vocation, and I’ve begun to harden myself against the paranoid delusion that the people I love and esteem most are the ones who think I’m the stupidest. I’ve started to turn the mentoring tables, to give back to my parents actual and surrogate by adopting some charges and watching them grow into intellectually curious, discerning, humane people who care for others and for themselves with extraordinary depth. I’ve begun to understand, really, what people mean when they say they are thankful. I’ve edged closer to beginning to wrap my head around what people mean when they say they love someone. I’ve begun to guess that I’m not quite ready to read Middlemarch now, but that I will be very soon.

It is troubling, though, that with all this identification of what I have has also come identification of what I lack. 2010 has not been without its aching absences, its empty voids less immediately soul-shattering but ultimately far more disconcerting than the difficulties of saying goodbye before another move. With the other trappings of early adulthood come the sharp stabbing paralyzing fear of loneliness: if it is home for which I am looking, home for which I am headed, with whom will I share home? If I am beginning to know what it means to love, how do I say so in plain English? How can I whose province is words marshal all my verbal faculties to communicate to those who need to know—and only they—what emotional fulfillment I yearn for aside from the joy of seeing my “students” think and grow?

I don’t yet know the answers to these questions, and though it worries me how slow my progress on them seems, I do know that with time comes resolution to the crises of time itself, of growing older. I also know that the time has gone when I felt so alone that the only way I had to prevent my fears from eating away at my insides was to broadcast them to the entire internet, and I hope it has gone forever. Though I am profoundly grateful to the internet for being my lifeline when I had nothing else, I no longer need it for the same reasons. On Facebook, I communicate with many people whose names I know, for whom I care, and who care about me; via email, with its attendant .edu or suffix, I stay connected to the goings-on of my institution(s) of higher learning. Anonymity isn’t something I need right now—hopefully, the next time I’ll need to assume its cloak online, it’s because I’ll be up for tenure.

In March 2008, when I was a senior in high school, I so badly felt the need to teach, that I started a “People’s School” in which to do it. Its life was brief—it lasted two full-Saturday sessions—but in those two Saturdays I brought together every teenager I could convince to come to my house and teach the group something, whether it be crocheting or Beatles trivia or math games or coffee connoisseurship. I myself only taught one rather unsuccessful topic, a brief lecture and singalong on the music of the civil rights movement, which I’d improvised at the last minute because someone didn’t show. I was too nervous to debut my lecture on the history of gay activism that would in the years to come morph into a much more theoretical disquisition on how we construct politicized minority identities, and would become a dinner-table staple. But though I only partially realized it at the time, my People’s School topic was the “meta” one: my friends learned that they had the power to teach and to learn, and that intellectual engagement was valuable for its own sake, a lesson our assessment-outcomes-based high school certainly wasn’t teaching us. When I was 18 and doubted I’d get into college, much less be proud of myself when I got there, I knew what I was doing to rebel against my high school. It was the only world I knew, and I hated it. But the idea that what I was doing to empower my friends as teachers could also be empowering me didn’t really stick. Now 2010 is ending, and there have been five semesters of college, and I am spending the Christmas holiday doing original research, and through everything that I have learned in reading and writing and researching since March 2008 it’s become clear I don’t need to post on a blog to tell myself that I’ve been learning and teaching since I was three years old—and that after all these years, I’m coming home.

I started out this disquisition by saying that I don’t need this blog anymore, and I finished this disquisition on a familiar self-reflective, self-absorbed, interior-monologue note that suggests I haven’t left years of self-fashioning too far behind quite yet. So what do I mean? Well, I am going to release myself of any sense of obligation to post here; my feeling that I ought to do an end-of-the-year post, as I have every year since 2004, may be the last “assignment” I set myself. I’ll have enough of those in the coming terms, when I’ll have to produce an essay a week.

Instead, I am going to return to reading and writing about Victorian sexuality, and as the spirit moves me I will post to tell my audience how I find Oxford. Every student studying abroad needs a blog for photos and for culture shock and for the expression of surprise that after years of listening to Radio 4 and other symptoms of inveterate Anglophilia, she isn’t as inured to British culture as she might have thought. So no, I’m not going anywhere—and actually, all things said, I expect I’ll continue on very much as before. After all, I might have programmed “home” into the metaphorical GPS, but it’s still “calculating route.” I’m certainly not there yet.

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