The Woman Who Rode Away

Photo of Frida Kahlo by Isamu Noguchi
Pic for cuteness (just kidding, Photo of Frida Kahlo by Isamu Noguchi)

This was the title of an entirely different blog, but since I recently read that short story by DH Lawrence and I'm talking about my own existential angst in this post, I decided to keep it. If you like florid, visually decadent writing infused with spirituality and liberally seasoned with exoticism, I recommend it. Nice poolside reading while your kids play.

Recently a friend posted publicly about how she failed quals and dropped out of her PhD program. She felt like it was definitive proof that she wasn't intelligent enough. This was my response:

Graduate school is in no way a measure of intelligence or how smart you are. It's completely politicized. You have to know certain people, and get x number of publications and present at x number of conferences and "be visible in the department" - this is about 8000 times harder if you have a family and children. Then square that if you have a child with special needs.

I've been repeatedly warned about my lack of visibility in the department (so I showed up to a meeting with all the other grad students WITH [eldest child who has autism] in tow and monopolized the conversation while managing him by using the iPad mini, Doritos, Gatorade and popcorn chicken.) It's taking a toll on my body and my sanity and I wouldn't wish this on anyone. I just happen to have given in to my type of insanity years ago so I will probably crawl across the stage to get my diploma and then promptly drop dead.

so no. I don't think it's about how smart you are. it's about how well you play a game whose rules are made up as you go by people in positions of power of you who may or may not behave in ethical manners. It is ENTIRELY a craps shoot, like so many things in life.

I know a lot of people with PhDs who are complete and utter muppets! The colloquial modifier "a lot" is not used with any intention of literary hyperbole, here, either. I've sat through presentations that were utter shite, I've bitterly gnashed my teeth about the fact that getting an NIH grant has nothing to do with the fantastic innovation or idea but is entirely dependent on your ability to sell your idea and who of the two people selected from the study section happen to skim the proposal that you pour your soul into.

I'm having an existential crisis moment over here, don't mind me. I'm a year from quals and feel like I'm dying

So, two years from now I could be dunzo with this whole PhD program's stress and strife. I don't want to quit because I can honestly see how tremendously I have grown as a professional, academic, student, human being. I can see myself applying things I am doing now in the real world.

But I'm also struggling through a "dark night of the soul" a la St. John the Cross.

John of St. Mattias (later, of the Cross) lived in 16th Century Spain. He had a reputation for being mystical and actively taught contemplative prayer techniques similar to modern day "mindfulness methods". The people in power of the church at the time were not happy with his idea that regular folk could commune with God without the assistance of some intermediary (read: priest). He refused to stop, so they persecuted him, flogged him, and eventually imprisoned him in a 6 x 10 foot room where he was fed nothing but bread and water. Also, he was occasionally removed from his isolation to be publicly flogged again, weekly, over the course of  9 months. He somehow managed to escape his torment by squeezing through the small window of a cell.

I supposed this was the time honored tradition of forcing a person to relent by tormenting them. Yay Catholic church, good on ya for that one.

John continued to write poetry to God, and these poems/prayers were later titled "Dark Night of the Soul" - but it's somewhat of a misnomer. I've heard comparisons drawn between Mother Teresa and John of the Cross, but Mother Teresa had some serious doubts about God's existence. According to some sources, John never wavered in faith. He was tortured because he loved Jesus, but the Lord didn't rescue him. He prayed for delivery, but his prayers went unanswered. He got out of his predicament through his own actions, and went on to do more work with the charismatic Teresa of Jesus, but eventually fell ill and died of Erysipelas, a particularly painful and gruesome way to die.

"What matters most to an active man is to do the right thing; whether the right thing comes to pass should not bother him." (Goethe)

The entertainment industry has poisoned me. I have this persistent belief that no matter what, if I just try hard enough, I will find that happy ending. But this is "special snowflake" type thinking, right? The self-esteem bolstering of the 1990s Western parenting style led to narcissism and an inability to empathize with others.

People work their entire life for things that crumble into nothing and fade away. They spend their life building a career that they thought was meaningful and saw it drift away into dust. They put everything into a fight and lost. They endured tremendous pain, suffering, agony, and died horrible, painful deaths for no good reason, even if they were the brightest, most beautiful pure light in the world for their short time.

So I have scanned the government job listings for agency positions that my current level of education could qualify me for. I could waste away into blahness shuffling pieces of paper from one entity to another and attending employee enrichment seminars.

Indeed, in DH Lawrence's short story, the woman rode away (the title is not witty). She left her children and husband behind in relative comfort and lost herself in the wilderness with no more than a naive wish to "know the Gods of the natives". She was, in turn, very viscerally allow to know their God as she is sacrificed and passes into oblivion in a way that struck me as similar to Albert Camus' The Stranger. There is an existential ecstasy that is only approached with literary description.

Lawrence's unnamed heroine is also weirdly blank and laconic, only moved to rage in the face of perceived insult to herself, but otherwise blank, passive, struck mute by the intensity and richness of experience that had previously eluded her in her 33 years of life? Or maybe mute out of sheer dullness?

This is where I am right now. I have flashes of emotions, clouds that skitter across a blank sky. Why am I doing this work? It's important. I love it. I have a mind that is uniquely suited to observing systems in large scale.

I can't expect success. I can't expect anything. I can just do the work, and do it in a manner than sets my heart at ease, listening to that tightness in my chest and using it as a compass.

I don't do this work because I have any faith that things will shift in the direction that I wish things would move toward. I do this work because I do the work. Full stop.

I am working on the second part of that Goethe quote, still not there. It matters lots to me that the right thing comes to pass. It matters tons.

This was an unsuccessful essay. I am still unconvinced by my own stated position, that it simply shouldn't matter what happens as long as I fight the good fight, as long as I can be featured in some 3 minute AJ+ uplifting viral video that shudders through the digiverse in a manner of nanoseconds.

But I'll post this blog anyway as part of my commitment to share failures and successes.


  1. The presentation of the post is really nice. The heading and topic of the main text are quite different but this is probably a tactic to capture the reader's attention. Nicely done overall.


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