Last fall, I had an incredibly strong compulsion to apply to return to school for my PhD. It was something I always knew I’d do; it was just a question of timing. I’d finally found a program that made sense to me, as well as a proposal I felt compelled to work on. Although I’d always assumed my PhD would entail work in the arts, when I sat down to give it serious consideration and write a proposal, I found myself putting forth an idea combining the work I’ve been doing since 2000 in medical communication and the care giving I’ve done for my parents these last few years. Although it was a bit of a surprise to me, it also made a lot of sense. It’s work of larger social value, but it’s also necessary personal processing, so it’s a win-win proposition.
After a lengthy wait and despite the odds, I was accepted into the Communication & Culture joint program at Ryerson-York Universities this fall. Ryerson campus in downtown Toronto is my very dynamic and happening home base. Although I was very excited to return to school and it felt really right, there was also a great deal of anxiety. I completed my MA twelve years ago and hadn’t done any classroom work for about fifteen. It’s a much larger university than Trent was. I didn’t know any of the profs and had only one contact among the students. Electronic media and computers have radically changed the academic environment and I had to learn whole new ways of researching, administering and compiling data. It was an intimidating course of action to engage with. But having survived the stresses of the last few years, nothing really scares me anymore.
Few stresses equal that of care giving. School is a very different kind of thing. While care giving is incredibly demanding physically and psycho-emotionally, it’s not particularly demanding intellectually; of course school is intellectually demanding, but lighter on the physical and psycho-emotional demands. I’d spent years in the company of geriatrics, in and out of seniors’ residences and hospitals. I felt old and tired and deeply exhausted. Back on campus, I was surrounded by youths (although some of my peers are similar in age to myself). My energy has greatly improved. I’m feeling more able and more hopeful than I have in years. On some levels it feels like a karmic readjustment, a rebalancing of energies. After having spent several years under the stress of care giving and the first nine months of 2008 recovering, I was suddenly thrust into this bright new world.
The first week of classes, I was so excited I could hardly sleep! I don’t recall ever being quite this thrilled about going back to school. But it took a good month for my brain to start functioning and making connections to previous studies. By the end of term, I felt like I was almost back on track, with hundreds of pages of theoretical reading accomplished, many small assignments and a couple of essays and seminar presentations behind me. It’s like trying to flex a muscle you know you used to have, but feeling unsure if the neurons are still firing to make it work.
So now the first term of my PhD is completed. Because it’s semestered, that means I actually have two credits toward the requirements. I haven’t received my marks yet, but am confident that I’ve passed. I’m signed up for another three credits next term and hope to accomplish the remaining two in the summer. From there, I’ll sit comprehensive exams, get my dissertation proposal approved and then research and write the dissertation itself. As a fulltime student (how weird is that?) I’m hoping to complete in the minimum time of four years. But we’ll see how it all shakes out. Although I’m pumped about engaging with this work, I’m also past the point in my life of beating myself up if I don’t quite meet a goal. And now that I’m in it, this feels incredibly right. The timing couldn’t have been better. I’m in a space where I can engage without distraction; I have research that will sustain me through the process. And I’m in a safe environment I know how to engage with at a time when I’m still feeling kind of shaky and vulnerable. School is a good place for me to regain strength and direction, while simultaneously accomplishing something of value.
After such a busy fall, in which I had very little time for my own writing, I’m hoping the winter term will be a little more manageable, allowing me to re-engage with the non-fiction manuscript, The Wisdom of Aging Gracefully. I’d like to complete it by next fall, but certainly before I begin serious work on the dissertation.
I hope you’ve all had a wonderful holiday season. My good friend, Kathy Mac (whose new poetry collection is forthcoming this spring!), was here for a visit the weekend before Christmas and helped me decorate my three-foot-tall tree on Yule eve, the Solstice. I plan to leave the decorations up until Twelfth Night, Epiphany eve. I had an orphans’ Christmas at my place; I made roast beast and friends came with some fine potluck additions. So we had food, wine and good company. It was a very relaxed, warm way to celebrate. It also means I now have enough turkey soup and stew in the freezer to last well into the next school term.
It’s been fun having the holidays at home. I’ve enjoyed visits with lots of friends, but have also had some quiet time to myself at home, or wandering through the cold, clear, bright air and snow. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on the year that’s passed and focus on the year to come. I’m easing into what I think is going to be the wonderful year of 2009. Wishing you and yours the best of the season and a happy, healthy, prosperous and successful New Year!