Tonight I was sitting at a dinner table, and someone there made a comment that in your early twenties, you’re at your prime of life. You’re the strongest, the healthiest that you’ll ever be. You think that you know everything. You feel that you can take on the world. It’s the moment of invincibility.
I didn’t have much reaction to that. I know that that is the typical experience for the average American, and that those moments after college can feel exhilarating and invigorating.
Then a third person at the table commented while looking at me, Not everyone’s experience is quite like that. Some people have suffered a lot or have known limitation by that age.
And it got me thinking. It’s true. I had been through a lot by the time I had graduated from college. I had a very serious long-term illness that impacted my career opportunities. I had a tense relationship with family that made home life very uncomfortable. I was dealing with depression that had not yet been brought under control and chronic fatigue that was nearly paralyzing. In a sense, I was greatly misunderstood by a large number of people.
However, I’m not sure that my experience was all that different from everyone else’s. I graduated in a major recession where my classmates were lucky if they got jobs. A lot of people ended up moving back home and working for hourly wages or getting part-time gigs as census workers or election officials. Several people even landed part-time nanny gigs to make ends meet. All of us wondered aloud to each other if we had been fed this big lie. After nearly 18 years of education, we still might not be able to secure a job? We might not have enough experience for an “entry-level” job?
The moment of truth comes at different times for each person. For some people it came during college. For some people it came after college. For some people it came much later.
I have enough distance from the experience to know that it’s not the illness that made my experience special. It’s not a disability that has rendered the landscape of my life to be different. I had a classmate who worked in a warehouse on the early morning shift so that he could support his family & then went to school the rest of the day and did research in the afternoon and evening so he could pursue his dream of going to medical school. Another classmate of mine struggled with maintaining a relationship with his parents who were petty drug dealers and lived in the area. A third classmate had to face the reality that in a two month period, she went from having a father who lived in one state and a mother who lived in another to attending her father’s funeral, knowing that her mother had remarried, now had stepchildren, and didn’t have space for her in her life any more; in other words, what little family she had was non-existent.
The point is that life is messy. Things don’t turn out the way that we think they ought to. It’s not a competition to see who has endured the biggest suffering. It’s not about whose resilience is stood the bigger test of time. And no one is immune to hardship.
I’ve realized that I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself that I didn’t have the typical post-college experience. Not because I think mine is better than everyone else’s. Or because I’ve convinced myself that I deserved what I got. But because that’s not really what life is about.
Your own experience is valid for what is it — your experience. Life is not about striving for perfection or the ideal life experience. It’s about making the most of what you are given. About becoming the person that you’re meant to be. Whatever that looks like.
Breakups are a fantastic time to think about relationship status. How soon are you ready to be back on the dating market? Have you revised your list of qualities you’re looking for in a mate? Are you more picky? Less? On the sliding scale between the worst-date-ever and prince-charming, where would you be content to land? At one point is a relationship not worth further investment? Ever ponder those thoughts?
Oddly enough, sometimes I turn to fiction to solve these questions for myself. And it’s an interesting conclusion I’ve landed for myself. I’ve discovered that unlike most single girls who are desiring marriage, I am not #waitingforMrDarcy. Surprised? Allow me to explain.
“Why should you be surprised, my dear Eliza?—Do you think it incredible that Mr. Collins should be able to procure any woman’s good opinion, because he was not so happy as to succeed with you?”
— Charlotte Lucas, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, chapter 12
Elizabeth Bennet is astonished to learn of the engagement of her best friend, Charlotte Lucas, particularly because the fiance in question had asked her — Elizabeth — for her hand only the day before. That would be astonishing for any woman. No one likes to feel that they can be easily passed over, even if they so chose the rejection.
“Certainly not,” said Anne, who had no desire whatever to publish abroad the fact that Billy Andrews wanted to marry her, preferring her, when all was said and done, to Nettie Blewett. Nettie Blewett!”
— Anne Shirley, Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery, chapter 8
But Elizabeth’s reaction to Charlotte’s news is not merely the insult that Anne felt when she realizes she could be easily replaced with Nettie Blewett. Elizabeth’s shock comes from the notion that Charlotte could accept Mr. Collins’ proposal, particularly because she views Mr. Collins as insensible, arrogant, and a bore. How could Charlotte settle for that?
“When you have had time to think it all over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”
— Charlotte Lucas, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, chapter 12
I’ve thought about Elizabeth & Charlotte’s situation a lot… particularly when it’s come to the world of exchanging tales of dating with my close friends. It’s easy to view this conversation between Elizabeth and Charlotte as a straightforward dichotomy. Elizabeth had a higher standard and refused to compromise; in the end, she got Mr. Darcy, the man with the money, the love, and the intellect — the modern equivalent of Prince Charming, the man of our dreams. Charlotte was a desperate spinster who jumped at the opportunity to get married; she settled, and therefore, she had only herself to blame when she found her husband annoying and insipid.
But I think there’s a lot more depth to Austen’s characters. I don’t think Charlotte settled. I believe that Charlotte got exactly what she was looking for. Mr. Collins was the man who Charlotte needed. If she had married Mr. Darcy’s twin, she would have been incredibly unhappy. And that’s an important possibility to consider.
So what was Charlotte looking for? And what kind of person did she need?
Charlotte admitted right off the bat that she wanted a person who was settled in a career. She wanted someone who could provide her with financial stability, with an honorable reputation, with security in her social rank, and with a home of her own. She wanted to be able to raise a family in a stable environment, have a name to be proud of, and to be in a position to serve her community (rather than be served by them.) She wanted someone who was honest and attentive but also someone who let her be herself. She wanted someone who worshiped her without trying to change her and without drawing attention to herself.
Mr. Collins offered her all of these things in a partner. He had a respectable career in the clergy with a (nearly) guaranteed position for the rest of his life. He had a very eligible patron who would continue to provide for him. At some point, he would inherit the Bennett estate of Longbourne, which would provide a reasonable income for their family and would place her close to her own family in retirement. A clergyman’s wife would give her a position of respectability and allow her to visit the villagers and attend to people’s needs without attention being drawn to herself. Mr. Collins would always hold her in the highest esteem and praise her without end, but he would never pay too careful attention to exactly what she was doing or how she did it, which meant that she could run her own household freely. He would certainly always be proud of her accomplishments and their family.
Any person who married Mr. Collins would have to put up with his pompous attitude and his incessant need to hear the sound of his own voice. And certainly his wife would always be subservient to his patron since that was the source of their livelihood. But all relationships come with compromise, and Charlotte demonstrates an agility in this regard that is remarkable.
Just imagine that scenario if Charlotte had married Mr. Darcy’s identical twin (we’ll call him D’ for short): The wife of D’ would need to be well-read and engage with witty conversation with D’ and his friends on a regular basis. She would need to be able to challenge him and his long-held ideas. She would travel on a regular basis as D’ would own a substantial estate as well as a house in town; besides D’ would also visit his friends regularly, including the Darcys and the Bingleys. Furthermore, as the wife of the richest man in the county, Mrs. D’ would not only be the center of attention for D’, but she would also be admired by all the villagefolk who she no doubt visited on a regular basis to give alms and counsel. (Mrs. Collins the clergy’s wife could do this as a humble servant of God or a loving pastor’s wife who was a busybody or an unusually helpful soul. Mrs. D’ would be the wealthy mistress coming as the judgment police or as the wealthy benefactor bestowing her riches on the populace.) Mrs. D’ would have to entertain some groups of people on a regular basis, including but not limited to family members, friends, and business partners of D’. D’ would also expect his wife to have a working knowledge of his business and be able to converse with his business contacts’ spouses. Furthermore, as a collector of art and a lover of music and the theater, D’ and his wife would shop in the finest establishments and continue to build their fine collection of fine art to complete their exquisite and ever-growing library. Mrs. D’ would spend much quality time with her husband, following him in his travels and business affairs and engaging in deep intellectual conversations, leisure time made possible by the servants who would cook their meals, keep their house, clean their laundry, and look after their children.
All of the above would be work and a burden for Charlotte. Charlotte didn’t want a husband who would follow her every move and want to be involved in her daily living. She wanted to be able to send him outdoors to garden and for him to think that was a splendid idea without questioning her. She wanted to be able to entertain whoever she wanted in whatever way she felt possible. As the wife of Mr. Collins, she likely had a lot of freedom in how she raised her children. No need to consult the wisest of physicians or the latest baby-raising fad. Of course, Lady Catherine would always be present to give her own advice, but without servants, Mrs. Collins could no doubt stay home more often with her children and just roll her eyes at the rest of Lady Catherine’s advice/commands. Charlotte wouldn’t have been happy to spend her life collecting antiques or looking at fine sculpture. She wasn’t a showy person and didn’t like attention on herself. That’s why she was always analyzing Lizzie’s life rather than talking about her own.
I do believe that Charlotte settled in one critical area: she married a man who didn’t love her. If Mr. Collins had actually loved her, he would have been a more perfect spouse for her. She knew that he didn’t love her and that he probably never would, but she also knew that he thought that he loved her. Which counts for something. At least he wouldn’t be looking to replace her. She might not have loved him and might never love him, but she liked him and the opportunities that he gave her. And that was sufficient. It would sustain her.
It’s easy to read a story like Pride and Prejudice and walk away as an idealist, looking for the perfect fairy-tale romance where the princess always has blonde hair and the prince is always mounted on a white stallion. In that fantasy world, we know that the princess needs to keep waiting for the guy to ride up on that white stallion. Perfectly good guy on a brown horse? Pass. Perfectly adequate prince with long fancy title who twirls his mustache? Forget it. Parched and fatigued traveler on a white horse? Hmmmm, give him some soup and see if he sits and the table and eats like well-educated royalty. Yes? Marry him, no questions asked.
Real life isn’t like that. Marriage is not a one-size fits all package. We aren’t all looking for the same thing. The same way people go to college for different reasons. And pick different careers. And do different things on spring break. And have different priorities.
And you know what? It’s a good thing. Otherwise, there would be 10,000 girls all competing for the one man on the one white stallion. And, in that scenario, odds are that you’re going to be one of the 9,999 girls left behind. And no one needs to see that in their future.
Charlotte isn’t happy because she makes the best of a bad situation. This isn’t the lemonade out of lemons scenario that Elizabeth convinces herself has to be in place. (Remember that P&P is told in third-person limited narration from Elizabeth’s point of view. How do I know? Eleventh grade English class, and the fact that the narrator only visits the scenes that Elizabeth is in but also knows what she is thinking. E.g. We don’t get to witness Collins’ proposal to Charlotte but we do know what goes through Lizzie’s head when she finds out about it.) Charlotte is happy because she is where she’s meant to be. She wants a symbiotic relationship where someone finally values her and she can run her own home and boss someone around for a change without being the center of attention. As Mrs. Collins, she finally gets to host people for a change and manage someone else’s life for once. No one gives her any credit for it to be sure, but she doesn’t want credit; she just wants the space and the resources to do so. Which Lizzie doesn’t understand because Lizzie needs that verbalization; she needs Darcy to appreciate her intellect and to acknowledge it to himself, to her, and to his friends and relations. Because Lizzie doesn’t recognize that in Charlotte, she cannot understand that Charlotte’s engagement is an opportunity seized for Charlotte. Charlotte’s disappointment is less in Lizzie’s shock at the proposal but more in Lizzie’s insistence to understand Charlotte as someone who has needs just like Lizzie. For all his faults, Mr. Collins has very few expectations of anyone, mostly because he never looks to see if his expectations match real life. And that’s what Charlotte needs in order to flourish — someone who believes in her and in her potential and can give her the resources to flourish. And that’s beautiful. Even if Lizzie never has the capacity to understand it.
I’m just like the next girl in thinking that Mr. Darcy is pretty dreamy. He’s smart, he’s well-read, he’s wealthy, and he’s romantic. But I don’t think he’s meant for everyone. Certainly not for Charlotte and definitely not for Jane nor Lydia. And so that as why I am so bold to counter the tread and say that I’m #NOTwaitingforMrDarcy. I’m waiting for #MrAbigail and I’m not ashamed to say it.
Before I started talking to the boy, I actually went on a first date with someone from my university. That date can only be described as a total failure. He was late, and then he spent the entire date asking me questions about myself, so I felt like I was doing all the talking and that there wasn’t really a conversation. This guy didn’t understand having follow up questions. And he was totally clueless that the date was a failure; he thought it was a success. sigh.
My sisters and I have a running joke now about first dates. One of the questions I asked this guy was what he did in his free time. His answer? Nothing. After a long time, he added, Well, I suppose you could say that I like walking. So I followed up by asking him if he liked walking around Beaverville. His answer? No. After a pause, he added, I guess you could say that I only walk to and from school. In other words, even if you thought walking counted as a hobby, it still doesn’t really count here because it’s just something that he has to do as part of going to school/work every day. In other words, his only hobby is also a chore.
At the time, I figured that any walking was better than having no hobbies (although still pretty boring.) And then the boy came along, and we started talking. And want to know what one of his favorite hobbies was? That’s right, class; it was walking. Granted he liked walking in the park by his house, and he did quite a lot more walking than the average young adult. But still. Walking. He had other hobbies, but this was definitely one that he talked a lot about. Walking.
Now as I think back across the past couple of months, I think I might add walking as primary hobby to my list of red flags for potential boyfriends. If the most exciting thing in your life is walking and you can’t even identify anything else in your life that’s remotely interesting, you might be really boring. Or just plain lazy.
So next time you see me, I may introduce myself: Hello. My name is Abigail. And walking is not my hobby. And then you’ll know why.
So the short version is that the boy and I parted ways earlier this week. We wanted different things out of life, so it didn’t make sense to continue pursuing a relationship together. Unfortunately, although we had closure in the breakup, it went down in a fashion that can only be properly described as mean. So I’ve been taking some time to recover, to process, and to heal.
Part of me regrets posting about him here because now it’s just another space where I have to explain what happened and let people down again. But I’m actually really glad that I did it. Because it helped me sort through some of the emotions that I was feeling. It gave me a space to write down how I was feeling as I was feeling those feelings, and then I was able to revisit them at critical moments later.
Some of the protected posts wound up being letters from me to the boy as reflections. And I’m not going to lie. In our last face-to-face conversation, I actually shoved my phone at him and told him to read two paragraphs from one of those letters. Because I didn’t know how to articulate what I was thinking. And writing it down made it more concrete for me… and also for him. I didn’t expect that that’s how I would show him this blog or even those letters. I don’t know that I really expected to even show him that particular one. But at that moment, it was perfect, and I’m glad that I had it in my pocket: both to look at myself to remind myself what I needed and also to show him what was going on in my head.
Relationships are risky. They involve being vulnerable and letting someone in to a part of your life where you’ve been self-sufficient before. It’s really scary. And that fear of rejection and shame can be paralyzing. There’s nothing like being told that you aren’t good enough for someone or that your faults overshadow any of your positive qualities. But there’s an interesting duality here: risk and reward. With great risk comes the potential for great reward and the possibility for significant hurt. As much as I wish that I could take back the past because I did not like the outcome, I realize that the person who I am and the choices that I’ve made have both provided an opportunity for such a scenario to unfold and give the potential for something else beautiful to blossom in the future.
It’ll make a great story some day. One of my professors mentioned that I seem to be juggling a lot this semester. That’s how I responded to him. Well, at least that was the conclusion. Allow me to elaborate.
Setting: Professor’s Office. Abigail and Professor are talking. Context has already been established that Abigail is trying to reach ABD status by the end of the term and that includes mastering sixty books. At the moment, this meeting is about the final paper due at the end of the term for the professor’s class, which Abigail is trying to figure out how to fit into her schedule.
Abigail: Yes, definitely. This conversation helps me a lot to figure out what it is that I’m trying to do. At least how I can meet your expectations while also accomplishing something helpful.
Professor: Yes, well, that’s the goal. It’s good to get started now.
A: Yes, well, you see, I wasn’t planning to come back to school. So I’m still wrapping my mind around the fact that I’m here. Now I’m right in the middle of all of this.
Prof: Wow. You certainly have a lot of things that you’re trying to accomplish in one semester.
A: (thinks about trying to learn a language, take this class outside her field, read 60 boxes, and TA a class) Yes, well, it’s certainly a lot. It’s going to a whirlwind and a LOT of work, but I’ll get through it. And then, it’ll make a great story!
Prof: Uhhh, yeah, I suppose that it will.
A: Oh, it most definitely will.
Yeah, so it is a ridiculous amount of work. And I’m already behind. But I’m happy (when I’m not overwhelmed). And it’s going to be a great story. Not just because I can finally laugh at the ravenous lion. But because it will be my story. And showcase who I’m becoming. And that, dear reader, is exciting!!
I’ve been waiting a LONG time to write this post because it just seemed all too good to be true. :::::DRUMROLL::::: I am officially a third year graduate student in history, taking classes, studying for comprehensive exams, writing a dissertation proposal, and on track to be ABD* soon.
I honestly never thought this day would come, or at least, only thought this day would come in a dream world. But it’s real. I’m here, back in the same program, picking up more or less where I left off. Of course, some things have changed. I’m doing better physically. I have much more teaching experience. I know what I want out of the program. Plus, I have a new adviser who is really smart but also generous. He’s also very excited about my project, and we’ve made a lot of progress already considering class has only been in session for 6 days.
I love studying and thinking about grand thoughts, but I honestly miss teaching already. I miss the interaction with students, seeing those lightbulb moments, and wish I had more time in the classroom organizing activities that have definite purposes instead of just marking time. But I have a first year graduate student who has requested to shadow me, so perhaps that will give me an opportunity to walk into the teacher role again. We start tomorrow with office hours!!
Grappling with the dissertation topic again is hard, mostly because I’ve been away for over two years. I haven’t thought about these issues for a long time. Reading some secondary literature last week, I stumbled across the term “millennialism”. Now I used to know not just what that meant, but also what the different schools of millennialism were and how each of them were associated with different expectations of family, responsibility, society, slavery, etc. It’s taking time to refresh everything that I do know. So part of it has been adjusting to being a student. Part of it is about adjusting to being back.
Besides that, being back has been hard. Being in graduate school at the stage I’m in is very fast paced. I’m supposed to read something like 50 books this semester, which is kind of ridiculous, especially when you pair that with the fact that I’m taking two classes and TAing and also polishing a dissertation prospectus. Add to that the fact that I also have a life outside of school, and you’ve got an Abigail pulled in seventeen directions. It’s not just the fact that I want to be active in church and have time for my hobbies or just want to sit down and read about Kate Middleton for a second. It’s also the fact that I have to get a new driver’s license and deal with my car insurance and worry about not having the proper furniture, etc. Plus, throw on top of that the fact that router decides to stop working or one of the toilets in our apartment just decided to spontaneous flood the entire bathroom for no reason, and I have to drop whatever things I’m trying to do and attend to that.
A lot of my old friends are here, which has been helpful. And I’ve been meeting new people. Timothy & Grace have moved, but Aaron’s still here. He’s married now with a baby, so that’s exciting. Joseph and Erica are still here, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time with them already. Diana’s still here; she was actually scheduled to spend a large portion of the term abroad, but those planned were nixed at the last minute, so she’s actually in my neck of the woods. I wish Tabitha was here, but her little brother just started school down the road, so he’s a pretty good substitute.** And all my doctors are still here — Drs. Mark, Leo, Samuel, Harold. It’s nice to have some grounding.
It’s definitely going to be quite the ride, but I’m excited overall.
*grad school has its own nicknames for everything; ABD stands for “all but dissertation”.