Well, I finished school.
But I don’t really know what to say about graduating. The experience was at once both strangely anticlimactic, and totally transformative. Since I finished mid-year, there was no official ceremony. It was just . . . one day I was working really hard on my final paper, and the next day my committee was saying “Cool, this is good, we’re done here.”
And then I sort of wandered around the department saying good bye to people, not really knowing what to do with myself. I cleaned out my desk, and I picked up my last prescription at Student Health, and I paid my outstanding parking tickets. Then I got in my car and drove away. And I just . . . never went back. That’s it.
At the same time though, I have to acknowledge how completely changed I am. I mean, I am a different human being than I was 3 years ago. Profoundly different. When I entered graduate school, I was a bit of a wreck. I was still figuring out my divorce, freshly landed in Santa Barbara, I had tried to make it work as a freelance writer and as a vegan health coach, but I just couldn’t meet the bottom line of life in oh-so-expensive southern California. I felt like a failure, like I wasn’t good at anything, and definitely like I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grow up.
I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but my new plan is to just mostly not grow up.
Here’s what I do know: I am smart. For the most part I don’t like *doing* science, but still, I am a scientist. And I do love *teaching* science. I can write a kick-ass grant proposal (100% success rate). I can lead a meeting like a boss. I can manage a project like a pro. I can oversee a team. I bring creativity and playfulness to science education. Most of my peers don’t “get” me. But my mentors and superiors respect me. I do things my own way, sometimes to my delight and often to my chagrin, but in the end: my own way works.
Those are the things I really learned in graduate school. I guess I have a bigger brain now, and I get a nifty piece of paper that says so. But mostly, for me, what this experience has been about self-building. I am confident now. I feel solid, and capable. I feel like I have skills and those skills are valuable. I am valuable.
And right now, with the world crumbling all around us, with the incredible uncertainty of what this coming year will bring, I am so, so grateful for all that I’ve gained in graduate school.
I also don’t really know what to say about Death Valley. Except that, it calls to me. This was my second pilgrimage out there this year, and I know that’s just the beginning of my relationship with this strange, sacred place.
Death Valley is a landscape of extremes. It is one of the hottest, and driest, places on earth. And when you’re standing in the valley, between two mountain ranges towering thousands of feet above you, you’re standing where dinosaurs used to swim. Can you imagine that? It all used to be under water, and dinosaurs used to do the backstroke down the valley, millions of years ago.
If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
My favorite place in the park is Badwater Basin. My partner-in-adventure and I stumbled upon it the first time we visited Death Valley, wandered out barefoot over the great salty flat, felt the crystals crunching under our toes, felt millions and millions of years of stillness surrounding us, and we knew: this is a special place.
When you stand on the salt at Badwater Basin, you’re standing at the lowest point of elevation in the entire western hemisphere. 282 feet below sea level. You are, quite literally, as close to the heart of the Earth as you can possibly get.
It’s a powerful place to practice magic. And I knew that after finally finishing my degree, after this terrible tragedy of a year where everyone good died, including The American Experiment, well — I knew that I had to go to Badwater.
So that’s just what we did. We walked out into the middle of the basin, far, far beyond the end of the path. Far, far, far away from any other people.
It’s amazing what you can discover when you open yourself up to the wisdom of the Wild. We learned so much out there. So much. Death Valley did not disappoint us, and we left the desert strengthened for what lies ahead.