This is the Rhine in Cologne. It’s wide and separates one city from another, the river is dark and dirty and fast-flowing. It’s no river to prettily lilt along in the summer dusk like the Thames does in Oxford, this river has a job to do, and it works hard. Boats carrying goods, boats carrying passengers steam along with the occasional breather on the bank. Cruise-ship-tourists stand idly in their golden windows and look at you standing on the pavement looking back at them. It’s a busy river, an ugly shoreline, and yet looking at it all calmed me.
That was three and a half weeks ago. I could use a little Rhine now, a walk along the concrete bank, across the metal bridges, beneath the street-lamps whose light collects in the water and seems to be siphoned away by murky eddies and fast-flowing streams. Life’s been a bit much since I got back what with little complications and bigger ones, and all those damn questions. ‘Who am I now that I’m not a student?’ ‘Where do I want to live?’ ‘What is good for me?’ ‘Who is good for me?’ ‘Why does the Sun rise so late and set so early now?’ and ‘What will I do today?’. It’s not all bad, not by any means. Much good can come out of confusion and uncertainty because it frees you from your habits and opens you up to change, but I do still long for the quiet confidence of the Rhine.
Three months ago today I wrote an e-mail to the head of graduate admissions in the linguistics department of Oxford, respectfully turning down a place to study for two more years at the university and in the town which have been my home and sanctuary for four years already. Don’t get me wrong, Oxford has been emotional and workload hell many times, but I always felt somehow safe there: the constant attention of tutorials, the boarding school environment which prolongs adolescence, the knowledge that you are part of a community even if that community can be claustrophobic at times. But instead of staying in that bubble, I was going to take a Year Out and just kind of, you know, figure things out and stuff, before doing a master’s degree elsewhere in 2016. I felt brave, confident, and not that worried about the enormous decision I’d just made.
Not that I really had a plan for the year, either: what drove me was an urge to avoid taking the safe route (BA at Oxford – MPhil at Oxford – DPhil at Oxford – BAM! one more cookie-cutter Oxford academic*) just because it was easy and it was there. I remember the night I got the offer. I woke up crying and shaking because I felt so strongly that it was wrong for me. So at the time, turning the place down was imperative, just to let me breathe easy again. There was a half-baked notion that I’d go to Norway and Iceland in January to work on horse farms in exchange for food and board, and live at my parental home in Reading earning money in the meantime, but the main motivator was that strong gut-feeling that I’d be ‘free’. Free from what? And to do what? My gut did not specify.
But as it turns out, the state of ‘being free’ is much more difficult than the act of ‘choosing freedom’.
I should know this, because I did a similar thing five years ago, deferring my undergrad at Oxford in favour of a gap year in Iceland. That year turned out to actually last three increasingly miserable months, and then I spent eight more crying myself to sleep in my childhood bed and not being able to find work while my parents stood by and worried. It was shit, but it made me stronger and far more motivated to be proactive in seeking fun and love and purpose, which I went on to do with ferocity in the four years that followed. Nevertheless, despite the fact that that year birthed such revelations, I do not want a repeat. Freedom when interpreted as ‘not having to do anything and so not doing anything’ is no good. You have to keep busy.
Fortunately, I have been keeping very busy this summer with a job at a summer school, which was followed by a holiday in Germany (see: Rhine, above), all of which did a marvellous job of allowing me to put off thinking about this horrifically empty year I’d crafted for myself. With the inevitable result that when I got back from holiday, I was hit by a tidal wave of loneliness, fear and self-doubt. So much doubt that I nearly ended up begging to take up my place at Oxford – the one I had so confidently turned down in June. Luckily I didn’t, and am now facing the year with a renewed vigour. Being an adult is hard, but most people seem to manage it. I will not crumble. Cue the clichéd Mandela quote, ‘The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear’.
So what am I doing? Travelling in Norway and Iceland from January is no longer the plan, because realistically speaking it will be dark and cold and very lonely and the horses will sleep a lot and I won’t have much to say to middle-aged Scandinavian farmers, no matter how lovely the north-folk generally are. Instead, this month, I’ll be doing a daily, intensive course in London which will land me with a qualification saying I am a certified Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Next month, I’m not sure where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing but it will hopefully involve earning money, seeing friends, and starting to apply for postgraduate programmes and scholarships. Looking further ahead is a somewhat futile endeavour: 2016 is currently shrouded in a thick fog, but may involve me trying to set up camp in Berlin. I want to get started on my career like my friends are, but my chosen path is academia and will involve about four or five more years of me working incredibly hard by myself in libraries and paying for the privilege. I’m not bitter, but I’m aware that I’ve made a choice to pursue a lonely and expensive career.
In the short term, in Berlin (perhaps), I would like to see if I can help in some small way with the refugee crisis in Germany – that’s my country doing good things and I want to be part of making sure it works. But that’s just a thought and a dream right now and I’m not saying I will or will not do anything. In fact, I’m trying not to think or plan too much AT ALL, but just make choices that will make me happy in the moment and the moments that follow.
I’m still afraid of next year: afraid that academia will be lonely, afraid that if I move away I’ll lose my friends, afraid that if I stay in the UK I’m a coward, afraid that if I pick the wrong field to go into I’ll lose my passion for studying. And I’m afraid of this year: afraid of working some uninspiring temp-job just to earn money to live and be near friends I don’t see often enough; afraid of going off travelling alone only to be struck by shyness and not experience any of the things you should when travelling alone; afraid of running out of money; afraid of missing my family and my friends.
Most of all, I’m afraid of committing to the wrong thing when there’s always the gauzy promise of ‘something better’ on the horizon. But that fear is a part of finding your way and I’m trying not to hate or fear the fear itself. I’m just going to apply to so many things that I have enough options to ensure that whatever I choose will be Good Enough, and I’m going to try to ignore the Fata Morgana of ‘something better’.
Whatever happens, I will remind myself ‘you chose this’, and will try not to lose the courage to keep choosing scary, wonderful things. And if it all gets too much, maybe I’ll just stand for a few minutes and simply watch the Rhine.
*I know it’s not easy to be an Oxford academic, or an academic of any sort, and only a very small number of the many wonderful teachers, tutors, lecturers, researchers and professors I met during my time at Oxford have been anything resembling cookie-cutter individuals. I was merely facetiously describing my own unfounded fear of being in one place too long. Please be forgiving.