As I write my first draft of my first blog post in over a year, I can help but think how much I’ve changed. Where am I as I write this? Strangely, a bowling alley during the horrible Polar Vortex that has descended on America. The bowling alley is mostly quiet as I sit and type in a corner. Things surely have changed in the last year.
The year 2018 was generally terrible. The politics that constantly pervaded the air didn’t help lighten the millions of melancholy hearts in America. I don’t want to dwell on the Orange Puppet, but every day seemed to bear out a new and horrible bit of information tweeted by this idiot. It was frustrating and demoralizing, to say the least. But that is news that everyone knows and most shared a role in; what about me?
My 2018 started off badly. I had a set of very important exams and I totally bombed them. Like—Completely, Fully, Horribly BOMBED! These written exams determined if I could earn my MA in English. Failing them would mean no degree and nearly three years of wasted time. But I had another chance at them in April. While I had felt prepared for these exams my first time around, I knew better the second time. With the help of a few key people and great advice, I buckled down and focused incredibly hard on preparing. I wrote mock practice exams and timed myself. A professor of mine then graded them and gave me feedback. (I’m extremely grateful for this person.) I read more books on the reading list, but I also included works that I had to read anyway for my classes. I thought deeply about themes and how they I could connect various, seemingly disparate, works. I also asked for help with the environment I would be taking the exams in. The first round had been in a room with several other test-takers and the noise and distracted had not help me when it came time for me to focus. I didn’t have headphones or anything that could block out the noise. I contacted my university’s disability services and they accommodated me with a private room (nothing fancy) and an hour of extra time for each exam. These accommodations, while they may seem trifle, were of great help to me as I had more time to think and didn’t feel rushed and anxious.
Guess what? I nailed them the second time around. Okay, there was really no “nailing them” because that’s not the kind of exams I was taking but I did pass. I was able to complete my degree.
I also completed the other element of my MA degree, which was writing a 70+ page thesis. I had been thinking about this thesis for years, but I didn’t really think I could use that material as a thesis. I have been writing and journaling for a while now, on topics like my mental health and my family. I didn’t imagine anyone wanted to read these stories but when I pitched the idea to my thesis chair, she thought it was a good idea. While there are stories about mental illness in the world, it doesn’t hurt to add one more voice to the group. I could add my unique tale to the list of writers who have come before me and opened up to the world. I was nervous about writing such personal things that would then be analyzed by my professors in my thesis committee. I started my first draft with shallow nonsense that didn’t get to the essence of what I wanted to tell the world. After much debate and immense hesitation, I threw that draft out (well, I buried it in my computer files). I started to brainstorm events from my life that would be a good story. I managed to fill 72 pages and I still have more to add. I just need to work on the structure of the manuscript, which for me is the hardest part. I wrote essays about my life experiences and purged a lot of sadness and anger that I—who is fairly self-aware—didn’t realize I had in me. It was great.
Then the day came to defend my thesis in front of my committee. I felt sick and nervous. I didn’t do my statement correctly, but I did pass the defense. I just had to resubmit my statement and I would get me degree. After looking up templates and examples online and actually reading the requirements from the student handbook, my statement was approved. I then submitted the whole thesis for registration at the Library of Congress.
Then tragedy struck. My Aunt Judith was diagnosed with cancer and she didn’t have long to live. I rushed back to my hometown to see her and say goodbye. But I had to go back to my college town, as I hadn’t done my retake exams yet. I was torn but didn’t have any options but to stay in South Dakota and take my exams. I regret this decision, as I missed her funeral and my chance to grieve with my family. I still feel like she isn’t gone sometimes. Like she’s just on vacation and will return some day. I had trouble with tenses when I speak about her. She was my Mom’s eldest sister and the two of them were very close. My Mom moved back to our hometown to care for her after she had cared for their mother for over twenty years. There is a hole in my family now and it cannot be filled. This is the second sibling my Mom has lost, not included those who did not survive childhood. My aunt was a figure who loomed large in this town and she was a presence to be reckoned with. She had a great personality and a caring heart. I didn’t tell her this but after my grandmother (her mother) went senile when I was a toddler, I always thought of my aunt as more of a grandma to me. Her own grandkids are my age and, although she was my aunt, she was always grandmotherly to me. I wish I would have told her this—I thought about it while driving the four hours between South Dakota and Marshalltown, IA. But I didn’t. I held her hand that seemed so small and she winked at me and I said goodbye. It was the first time since losing my grandma Louise that I felt a piece of me fade away. (Even as I write this, my eyes are watery and my mouth tastes of salty tears.)
I graduated in May and walked at the ceremony with a few fellow MA students. One of my friends (a PhD student in English) took pictures from the audience. My family and friends cheered me on as my name was called. I thought of everything it took to get to this point and all the people who were there for me along the way. But I knew that I couldn’t continue to stay in South Dakota for much longer after Judith passed away. I needed to be closer to my family, who were mostly all in central Iowa. With my parents both nearing the age of 70, I realized that my next step would be to move to Iowa.
Despite being born in Iowa, I didn’t actually grow up in this state. I lived most of my formative life in South Dakota, on the very edge of the south-eastern part of the state. Although I consider myself an Iowan, I’m fibbing only a little. Where I grew up was a 10-minute drive from Sioux City, IA and everything that we did took place in this city. The mall, the arcade (inside the one and only mall), and the sports were all in Sioux City. Any movie or concert was there too. So, although I told people I grew up in South Dakota, it was more like an offshoot of Iowa that happened to be located in the state of South Dakota.