I took a final today. Two, actually. During my last final I started writing the beginning to an essay, realized the first sentence was horrible, and tried again on a clean sheet of paper. My second attempt, the sentence was still horrible, so I tried again on another clean sheet of paper. My third attempt was still not what I was looking for, but I decided to stop killing trees, cross out the phrases I didn’t like, add what I did like with arrows, and get on with the essay. The result wasn’t pretty, but it was legible, and it was better.
I went to grad school searching for perfection. I spent hours organizing my applications, making sure everything was just so. I envisioned correcting all the mistakes I made in undergrad by investing myself completely in my subject of choice, going to office hours and not being afraid of professors, asking and answering questions in class, and writing papers the week before they were due instead of the night before.
I started by orchestrating a very organized cross-country move. I kept lists of everything I put in each box I shipped from Chicago. I planned ahead to sell everything I didn’t want on Craigslist. I arrived first in San Diego, then in Los Angeles, very organized, but feeling very sick.
Very soon, my feeling very sick had a name: cancer. Instead of going to office hours to talk about all of the things that excited me about studying urban planning, I went to office hours to tell my professors I had cancer. Instead of asking and answering questions in class, I left class to answer phone calls to schedule appointments for scans and biopsies and dozens of doctor’s visits. Instead of writing papers the week before they were due, I wrote them weeks after they were due. I’m still writing one of them.
I tried to be OK with doing the best I could. In one of my classes first quarter, I learned that this type of approach to planning (and to life) had a name: muddling through. Muddling through is what you get when you try to follow a rational planning process (a very detailed, methodical, organized method of planning), but can’t due to constraints in manpower, brainpower, data, money, time, etc. What you get is muddling through. If I only remember one thing from grad school, it will be this. Trust me, though: I will remember many, many other things from grad school.
I muddled through my first quarter of grad school. I took off my second to recover from surgery. I muddled through my third. At the beginning of this school year when I found myself finally, fully recovered from surgery, feeling great, and with fewer doctor’s appointments, my search for perfection started to creep back in. I spend hours and hours in the computer lab at school learning how to make maps that displayed data. I went to office hours to tell professors I had cancer, but I also stayed longer to talk with them about what we were learning in class. I did the readings religiously. These last two quarters, it got worse. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked on anything before to get my master’s project done (last week–finally). I unashamedly became overly stressed about all of my other classes. I got a job and stressed about that too. I started dating more and stressed about that too. I’m probably being a little hyperbolic here…but i’m trying to illustrate a point.
Two weeks ago my oncologist told me my chemo had stopped working. I’m not going to say there was a correlation between my stress level and my cancer starting to grow again. My chemo worked for a year–statistically, it was on its way out. I am going to say my getting sick on Saturday was correlated. The stress and the not sleeping enough and the constant business for months and the havoc the chemo wrecked on my immune system (maybe) all came together this weekend into one of the worst colds I have had in a long time. I was out of commission for a whole day and a whole night. On the day before I had two finals and a paper to get through.
I went back to muddling through. I did minimal studying for my finals yesterday in between naps. (I’m still sick, but not quite as sick, and they went fine. Mostly, i’m glad they’re over.) I asked for another extension on the paper, and got it. I’m going to have to do something about my job, which I pledged to return to once finals were over on Tuesday. Looking ahead at my schedule for the next few weeks, i’m not sure how i’m going to fit it in. I want it to be perfect. I want to come back to it with renewed vigor now that everything that was holding me back from having time for it is over. But I’m graduating (sort of) on Friday. I have all kinds of celebratory festivities planned til then. I’m still sick. I’m seeing my oncologist again this week and I imagine we’ll decide then what my next treatment will be. I’m seeing a few doctors next week to confirm.
I was talking about this dilemma with my mom the other day. The search for perfectionism, and feeling stretched and inadequate as a result. She said this feeling was a big reason why she chose to stay at home with my sisters and me instead of going back to work. She didn’t want to do an imperfect job at work, and she didn’t want to do an imperfect job at raising us. This makes a lot of sense to me now. I don’t want to do an imperfect job at work or at school or with anything in my life. I don’t want to do an imperfect job at having cancer because then I won’t have a life.
Part of this is not just wanting to be perfect for myself, but worrying about what my bosses and professors (and classmates and friends) must think of me because I don’t always do the best job. Because I constantly turn to cancer as an excuse. I show up at school smiling and looking perfectly healthy, I go to social functions smiling and looking perfectly healthy, and then I ask for extensions and leniency because I have cancer. My friend says i’m doing a lot for being a cancer patient. Despite all my worrying, a professor (whom I admire) told me a few weeks ago that he admires my “commitment and effort and energy and good nature” while dealing with everything I deal with. Maybe i’m harder on myself than everyone else is.
I don’t want to quit work or school. I can’t quit cancer. If I must do everything, then I must just do what I can do. And try to be OK with that. And try to enjoy it. And try not to stress out about it. I must just muddle through.
This, or something with the same themes and ideas but a little less “me” and “I”, may have become my graduation speech if I was chosen to give one on Friday. The title of this post is one of my favorite yiddish proverbs.