Contentment; or, Writing Life As It Happens

Tonight, while talking to my mother online, I said, “I don’t know, sometimes it’s more that I’m just bowled over by how much has changed [since I came to college] than anything else. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes I just look at myself and I’m like, holy shit, really, for the first time in my life I’m not continuously depressed. I can get through a school day without bursting into tears.”

And while I’m the first to admit that I may have been being a bit melodramatic (by the end of my secondary education, I was only sobbing maybe once or twice a week!), it is true that it is only in college that I’ve found a place where I actually belong. I know I tend to go on about this perhaps a bit too much, but I assure you, dear reader, that I only do so out of sheer astonishment that the years and years of sitting alone on the outside are over, and that I can be the person I want to be and have friends and something resembling a social life in spite of it. It’s only as I piece together memories of school and that other teenage life that I realize how different things are now—and how horrible they were. I realize how much I’ve changed. I realize how much more I’m in control. I realize that, objectively, school really did suck, and it wasn’t just my overactive imagination making up the sexism and the hatred of independent thinking. I am the first to proclaim that Princeton has its faults, but I no longer live in a world where, as a girl, “smart” meant “smart-assed,” and where refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or criticizing the Vietnam War made me a traitor. If my life is circumscribed by what people think of me, it’s only because I want the people I care about—friends, and professors, and, once again, my family—to see me as intellectually curious and genuine and entertaining and interesting and worth the investment of their time. I don’t care about “cool”; “cool” will come as the rest does too. I want to spend the rest of my life in the academy, because it is here that “smart” and “cool” are, after years of self-loathing that began when I entered elementary school, finally equivalent.

My mother came to visit me this weekend, the first time that anyone in my family has come out here since I made this place my home. I have been so proud and excited these past few days to show off my life: my fourth-floor bedroom over the archway, my long meals filled with friends, my world whose compass points are library and coffeeshop and dining hall. Finally, I am living my life on my own terms. Finally, I got to show my mother who I can be, given the chance.

My mother, as you may know, went to this university too, many years ago. We’ve sat three meals now in the college dining hall—the center of my world—and talked steadily about how this place has changed since then. My mother and I have looked at each other across the long wooden (sticky) table, and across generations. She was an outsider; I, though not so very different, belong. At times it is almost impossible to describe how or why this is, but I need only look at my diaries from three or four or five or eight or ten years ago to know exactly what she means. I can relate a potted history of how this place has changed, and how people like us have gone from the margins to belonging, how we have been transplanted from the institutional rubbish-bin to the institutional center, but you’ve heard it all before—if not from me or my mother, surely from some class or lecture or book on how the world has been made easier for all sorts of people in the past thirty years. Princeton is no exception to that rule—or, on the other hand, perhaps it is. For in those thirty years, the culture I came from has not changed so much as this one; maybe this is something particular to the ivory tower, where not just women, and not just queerfolk, and not just people of color, but all the differentfolk (I am all for making a Germanic compound word out of that) can find their place.

I am working on a project for a course on life-writing (biography, autobiography, memoir, that sort of thing), which is going to be in some way about my childhood imagination. I haven’t necessarily worked out yet how it’s going to proceed thematically, but I’m trying very hard to stay away from the temptation to write my life teleologically, as something that is suddenly wonderful somewhere around February 2009. Instead I am trying to root myself in the past, in the mind of a six-year-old, in a world that was very different—one where, simply put, instead of being taller than my mother, I was short enough to cling to her metaphorical skirts (they must be metaphorical, because my mother only sometimes wears skirts). But I’m not sure whether this is going to work: all my childhood fantasies, you see, invariably led to a place like this—where nerdiness isn’t just a social curse, it’s an all-around blessing.

And so I’m sitting here just before I go to bed on another Sunday night at the end of another week, thinking this is not as tight a little essay as I’d hoped it would be, and replaying in my head not the fairies at the bottom of the garden that I’d hoped very much would make life more interesting, but my own interesting life and its two-hour dinners in the dining hall I love more than most every place I’ve spent that much time. It’s a strange thing, this caricature I’ve become of my own fantasy of student life, somehow juggling balls labeled “writer” and “historian” and “activist” and “professional gay,” yet all in that same self-important and self-serious manner my mother tells me I had when I was two. I know I’m ridiculous, of course, and I can tell that other people sometimes think so too—from the way they look at me when I say I have a thesis topic, or the bemused way in which they tell me either that I work too hard or that I spend too much time on Facebook. But ridiculousness is such a relief to revel in when you know years of every day making a conscious decision between being yourself and not feeling lonely are over. Finally I am proud, proud that I can tell my mom everything I do, and introduce her to my friends, and have us all sit down and gossip in my dining hall as if we have known each other forever.

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