I drove approximately 1,000 miles (~1,600 km) over the past two days. I was taking a dear friend to his new home at a university where he will attend grad school, and helping him move in. Coincidentally, our path crossed within just a couple of miles of my old undergraduate alma mater, so I asked him if he would like to stop there for lunch and to have a quick walk around.
Having just completed my PhD, five years of hard work, I have said a lot of goodbyes to friends and colleagues lately. The head of my department shook my hand, made eye contact, and said, “It is amazing how much you have changed in five years. From mousey, stuttering, and nervous into a composed professional…a colleague and fellow scientist.”
One of my committee members said that, in all his time in academia, he has never seen such a complete transformation. And one of my best friends said that I have “ten times the personality” (whatever that means).
But none of them know what my time as an undergraduate was like, and how hard it was for me. At just over 90 lbs (~41 kg) and 5’5” (165 cm), I was a shadow of myself.
I bring all this up not for sympathy, but so that there is some context for when I say that when I set foot in that old town, I was unprepared for the instantaneous impact, like a blow to my heart, of ghosts of the past.
There are very few things that can seriously faze me. But I was shaking as I showed my friend my old running trail (completely unchanged). I spent three years in that town, but the only friend I wanted to see again was that trail. Seeing it again was like meeting an old companion, “Oh…you cut your hair! It looks…nice.”
I ran on that trail almost every day, even at my lowest weight, even when the temperatures dropped below -20 F (-28 C) and the plastic headphones on my radio shattered. I would run for hours until my hands were so numb that I couldn’t use the key cards to get back into the dorm buildings and I had to wait until someone woke up to let me in, tears freezing on my eyelashes. I used to imagine that one day I would put my foot down and I would just keep falling, my leg breaking into splinters of glass, my body fracturing into shards of ice.
We stopped by a restaurant to have lunch and I took one look inside and then staggered back out, my friend following me in confusion. I had just seen my old undergraduate advisor. I don’t think he recognized me. I am probably 30-40 pounds heavier, wearing nice clothing (I used to wear nothing but bulky t-shirts and loose jeans), and I haven’t spoken to him in five years.
I loved my undergraduate advisor, and I think most people in my position would have walked up and hugged him and mentioned how they had just received their PhD in Ecology, thanks to his inspiration.
But I ran away, my friend trailing unhappily behind. We had lunch somewhere else and then quickly left the town…on the way back I passed its exit with barely a glance.
Grad school was a transformative time for me, an act of metamorphosis. I’ve learned a lot in 5 years. I’ve gotten a lot stronger. I’ve traveled around the world; I’ve recovered from injuries that others thought would sideline me forever.
But I’m still not strong enough (or brave enough) to face my own ghosts.
What Kind of Times are These?
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
– Adrienne Rich