“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” ~J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” ~Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
For me, graduate school brought with it traumas and scars, but none of those experiences left as bold an impression on me as the story about the buzzards from movie Hud (1963). As I heard the story, during filming, director, Matt Ritt commissioned a flock of vultures to sit on a wire and only fly away when Paul Newman drove a Cadillac underneath them. The problem for Ritt? His hired buzzards refused to sit still and wait for Newman to drive by. In movie language, despite the film crew’s insistence, the vultures would not hit their marks. Nothing worked. Finally, Ritt decided to tie the birds legs to the wire in order to keep them still long enough for the buildup to his shot. However, once tied down, instead of standing upright, the vultures hung upside down from the wire, again, ruining his scene. Ritt’s vultures would not obey.
Frustrated, Ritt ordered his crew to untie the buzzards, but then something odd and rather tragic happened. Despite being free, the buzzards refused to fly. Loud noises did not budge them nor did Newman driving underneath their wire. The birds behaved as though they were still tied down. The point in telling a group of burgeoning, young historians that story was to caution us not to let the rules of academia break us as writers. The truth is that most academic monographs are detailed, banal, and cautious. We were suppose to be different. We were not to let the Ivory Tower tie us to wire.
At the time I heard that story, I was still sarcastic, confidant, and headed toward my oral exams. In my youthful arrogance, I believed no one could succeed in tying me down. To prove that point to myself and my classmates, during my final semester of course work, I wrote an essay that flew in the face of my most conservative professor’s groundbreaking book just to emphasize my freedom. Brad Gregory gave me a C,the graduate equivalent of an F, on his assignment for my giving him the metaphorical finger. I laughed it off. Good luck controlling me with your boring narrative about the Anabaptists, Brad!
A little over two years later, my world came crashing down. A combination of stress from teaching, a verbally abusive doctoral adviser, and mental illness stripped me of all the effusive confidence and drive I once possessed. I was scared. Tied to the wire and afraid to let go. Eventually, the illness worsened and the terrible treatment became more than I could bear. Hearing statements like, “This job is difficult for people who DO have talent, Jennifer” or that my illness was a “woman’s issue” one too many times took its toll. There were meetings. Disability services had to be called in. More drama. More pain. I left Notre Dame as an ABD doctoral candidate. I’d never have my PhD.
I finished out that final year, and then moved to Lexington in the summer of 2014. I stopped writing during August of 2013. For two years, I had no words. I would sit down and try to produce a blog post. Nothing came. All my words were wrong, inadequate. Nothing worth anyone’s time. My new friends would laugh at me if I ever showed them my writing. They would know how talentless and stupid I really was. I couldn’t let them know. I was a poser, a fake. This job is hard for people who DO have talent.
Up until today, I’ve remained tied to the wire. Letting go is terrifying. What if the people I care about pity me? What if it changes the way others see me? What if they see how talentless and stupid I am? What if? As recently as last week, those fears were enough to keep me clinging to the wire, but, lately, I really miss flying and maybe that is what this post is about: Transitioning from academia into a new life; regaining my self esteem; learning new talents and rediscovering old ones, but, mostly, its about remembering how to fly.