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The Year in Review: Or, a Whole Lot of Thinking That Eventually Works Its Way Around to a Point

It wouldn’t be the holidays for me without some kind of emotional crisis, I fear; if it’s not a crisis impelled by too-intense familial contact (the kind in which the internal injunction to JUST SMILE HARDER suddenly fails, the kind which can only be averted by precisely the time alone that no one will let you have), it’s the sort of crisis that comes with that slight feeling of let-down after the big holiday buildup, the sort in which you do get that time alone. Lots of time alone. To think.

“Crisis” is probably overstating it. The fact is that the end of the year will always be colored by the urge to take stock, with all of the where-have-I-been and where-am-I-going that implies. And that stock-taking can feel awfully like a crisis when the answers to those questions are less than clear.

Last year at this time, I knew precisely where I was and what I was doing. I was on sabbatical, putting the finishing touches on one book and in the earliest stages of thinking about the possibilities for the next; I had just been promoted to full professor and was beginning to plan my return to campus in that role.

And then everything got turned upside down. In a good way! I rush to add that — but the stress that comes from change that is awesome is no less stressful for the awesomeness. And while 2011 has been wonderful, and I’m absolutely thrilled with where I am, I can’t help but feel a bit dazed and dislocated by it all.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve felt that dislocation pretty acutely, and coupled with a huge pile of work, more travel than I probably should have allowed myself to take on, a ridiculous meeting schedule, and the usual holiday scene, it’s not terribly surprising that it would manifest as a crisis of sorts. How did I get here? Am I headed in the right direction? Where was I going, anyhow?

I have felt, for the last couple of weeks, utterly, totally lost.

The long holiday weekend has at last given me some time to dig into that lostness and begin to figure out, if not exactly where I’m going, at least what’s been going on. And the most interesting (to me, at least; you may well have stopped reading long before this point) part of what I’ve uncovered is this:

Even if I hadn’t changed jobs — heck, changed careers — this year, even if I hadn’t moved across the country and taken on a demanding role in a demanding city, even if I’d followed the expected path and gone back to my small town and my small college and my full professorship, I’d probably feel exactly as lost as I do right now. I’d just have more signposts around me, working to persuade me that I wasn’t as lost as I thought.

I would have a schedule that I understand. I would have clear tasks and timetables on which they need to get done. I would have a working environment in which I’ve had over a dozen years to grow completely comfortable. But I don’t think that I’d have any better a map than I do today.

What I’m babbling around saying is this: a huge percentage of my sense of who I am and what I’m doing has over the last fifteen years been bound up in whatever major writing project I’ve been working on. First, of course, the dissertation; then the first book. What I’ve managed to forget is how utterly lost I felt after my first book came out, but before I discovered that I was well on track toward my second one. Though I knew I was supposed to be working on something, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what, or why.

But the day I realized that a bunch of the small things I’d been doing were in fact part of one large thing, it suddenly came to seem that I actually was on a path — and that I’d been on it all along. That I’d never been lost after all. It was so easy to forget that this moment of epiphany was nearly three years, and a whole lot of crisis, in the making.

What I finally figured out the other day, in the midst of all this holiday-inspired stock-taking, was that with the second book now out, but the next project, whatever it might turn out to be, still murky at best, I would likely feel just as confused and dislocated as I do now. All the transition in my life has exacerbated that condition, undoubtedly, but I’m not sure that it has created it.

So I’m making a few plans for myself — I hesitate to call them resolutions — hoping less that they’ll help me find my way than that they’ll give me the freedom to wander. The key plan among them is to get back to writing every day, at least for a few minutes, to help develop a feel for what’s immediately around me, if not where I am in a larger sense.

More on those plans, I hope, over the coming days.

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