Monday, August 22, 2011

The Richness of the Quest

I took a break midway through writing this post, and when I glanced at my Facebook news feed, it contained this quote from Joseph Campbell: "[I]f you follow your bliss, you'll have your bliss whether you have money or not. If you follow money, you may lose the money, and then you don't have even that. The secure way is really the insecure way and the way in which the richness of the quest accumulates is the right way." (courtesy of the Joseph Campbell Foundation).

Thanks for the words of wisdom from beyond the grave, Dr. Campbell. You, sir, are my hero. I'm stealing a bit of your quote for a post title.

A few days ago, Dr. Jon F. Wilkins announced his intention to start up the Ronin Institute, a non-profit research institute for independent scholars. I was immediately very excited by this idea, so I sent him an email asking if there might be a way for me to get involved. He replied positively and inquired about my current status, goals, and plans. What follows is a modified and greatly expanded version of my response, which contains more of my personal backstory than I thought Dr. Wilkins would want to have dumped in his inbox.

I have a B.A. in anthropology from a major university with a respectable department, but at present, I am working as the office girl at a local funeral home (following a miserable stint in college admissions at said university and an enjoyable and rewarding but exhausting stint as an EMS dispatcher, also at said university), and I have been out of graduate school since 2009.

I was already contemplating my escape, in the form of either a semester off or a change of degree program, for a variety of reasons; the singleminded, all-or-nothing focus of the academic department was already wearing thin for me, as I had begun graduate school with two jobs and volunteer commitments as a trainee recovery diver, a SAR technician, and an EMS dispatcher, all of which were either necessary (the jobs) or valued and important (the volunteer gigs) parts of my life, and none of which I was willing to give up to fit in with the all-nautical-archaeology, all-the-time, and-nothing-else-matters culture of my department.

I was, and am, deeply interested in the history of seafaring and captivated by the idea of the physical connection to it offered by archaeology (which, incidentally, I just read a great article about today), but I increasingly balked at the idea of defining my life and my worldview by that and restricting my interests to nothing else.

It also, to be brutally honest, became quite hard to take seriously as a life's work; my classmates' and professors' single-minded focus began to seem sheltered and elitist, especially on the days when I stumbled into class after being up all night sending ambulances to deathly ill or injured people or out all night/weekend/both searching for a missing child who more often than not turned up dead if at all; I could still hear the panicked voices on the other end of the phone, see the bodies floating the in lake and the worried, distraught families huddled at Incident Command- that was the real world, and my classmates knew only their ivory tower, and I began to think of them as naive. I began to see that branch of archaeology as fascinating and fun, something I would like to pursue avocationally, but not something I could dedicate my life to in a serious way after those experiences.

I considered taking a semester off in the fall of 2008 to complete a paramedic's license, having taken the EMT-Basic course concurrent with the end of the spring 2007 semester and the subsequent summer, but I debated and wavered until I ended up sticking with graduate school for another semester. I missed a lot of class (and a lot of my paying job) in the fall of 2008, first putting in long exhausting shifts at EMS helping dispatch ambulances to unload medical evacuees from Houston in advance of first Hurricane Gustav and then Hurricane Ike and ferry them from the DMAT shelter to the local hospitals as needed, and then after Hurricane Ike, out in the field with my SAR team at Bridge City, Crystal Beach, and Anahuac, scrambling over debris and demolished houses searching for the remains of the missing.

That was a pivotal experience in my life, and to this day it's the thing I'm most proud of- not my Cum Laude degree from Texas A&M, not my admission to graduate school, not my involvement in projects while there, but those few weeks in the fall of 2008 when I worked my ass off, walked through hell with a few good friends and colleagues, and made a difference.

I felt a need to make a real difference, not an indirect theoretical greater-good-of-humanity difference but a real, conrete, direct difference in the lives of actual individuals, as I said a few months ago in my response to my SAR team leader's blog post about our reasons for doing SAR work. After Hurricane Ike and a few more missions, my mind was made up; I wanted to do forensics, specifically human remains detection, but I still had hopes of combining it with Nautical Archaeology to work on submerged remains, with the most likely application being POW/MIA recovery (which is also a cause I have long had a soft spot for).

Unfortunately, early in the spring semester of 2009, a very close friend, who I usually describe(d) as my brother, died in a car wreck; the loss and my failure to cope well with it left me too distracted, depressed, and generally useless to finish out the semester, though I muddled through an unsuccessful attempt because I wasn't sure what else to do and wasn't thinking clearly enough to consider it.

I never even formally left. "Oops" might be an understatement.

At present, my intention is to return to school for an eventual doctorate in physical anthropology, but both finances and geography are a challenge; my husband is in the Army, so we don't get much choice about our location, and committing to a traditional academic program at this point would be highly impractical even if we could afford it. My hope is that within the next few years we can some financial issues sorted out and perhaps even get stationed somewhere near a university with a suitable program, and then I can work quickly enough to complete a degree before we get sent elsewhere again. In the meantime, I find that I miss the academic community and involvement in research and the exchange of ideas, even more than I expected that I would. Once I get this graduate school thing sorted out, I hope and intend and plan and want to work in my actual field; I would enjoy working for JPAC, maybe, or an ME's office wherever we end up, but I do not forsee an academic career in my future- I'm not willing enough to sacrifice the rest of my interests and goals for it- but I do forsee and hope for continued involvement in research.

Where and how I see myself in terms of goals, ambitious, and interests has come into focus in a much more useful way in the past few months, so that I have a good idea of what I want to be doing, and who I want to be, in the short term, on the way to my return to school, and how I would like that to fit into the transition back into a degree program and the shape I would like my career to take afterward. I am beginning to finally take to heart the advice my father once gave me when he said that I shouldn't try to make a career out of every passing interest- but I'm mingling that with my own recent discovery that inability to make a career out of an interest doesn't make it any less a valid and important part of my life, my work, and my identity. I'm a happier person, and a more productive one (in whatever sense you want to define "productive", which I'm learning is also a highly variable word) for that combined realization.

It really is about what Joseph Campbell called "the richness of the quest," and productive endeavors are endeavors that contribute to that for me, whether or they're professional, paid, and/or institutionally supported.

SAR will always be one of those productive endeavors for me. I enjoy the occasional adventure, the fieldwork, the camaraderie, and the dogs; I thrive on the sense of purpose. It's what I live for and an essential part of who I am.

Another of those endeavors, which suffered somewhat during my time in graduate school and which I am only recently returning to in any serious way, is writing. I have wanted to be a writer since third grade; I remember almost the exact moment when I discovered writing was fun, and I have been obsessed with telling stories and shaping words ever since. I need the creative outlet, and I find that I am happier and feel better about myself on days when I get a substantial amount of writing done; only recently have I figured out that I have to let myself see this as a valid productive activity so I can give myself the time for it and feel good about getting it done and proud of the results.

Blogging is sort of an extension of that; it's a different kind of outlet, which lets me tell slightly different stories- true ones- in more appropriate ways; it also gives me a place to vent, a place to put ideas that aren't fully developed enough for other venues and may never be, and a way to stay at least somewhat connected with an intellectual and academic community.

I do miss that sort of connection, and I miss involvement in interesting research. My research interests are somewhat scattered, but my primary interest, the one I hope to focus on in my eventual career, is human remains / clandestine grave detection. This is primarily an outgrowth of my volunteer work, as several years of observations and experiences in the field have both given me theoretical curiosity about these things, and emphasized the need for answers to certain questions and improvements in certain methods and procedures. I can easily see a life's work in finding the missing, bringing closure if not comfort to the bereaved, and maybe even bringing the bad guys to justice.

I have a secondary set of research interests, which I mostly intend to be avocational, in mortuary iconography, gravestone and historic cemetery documentation and preservation, and historic grave detection and documentation. At the moment I'm finding an outlet for that through Find-A-Grave and my related blog Last Words; this is also a much easier area to pursue independent research in than forensics,
so I am currently working on a couple of independent projects on changes in iconography patterns across time and region.

None of that alters or replaces the basic fact that I have to earn a living, and that my husband and I both would like to be living a bit more comfortably than we presently are, so as much as I might like to, I can't abandon all monetary concerns and become a self-unemployed bliss-following writer/researcher/emergency responder/philosopher. That does sound like a lovely retirement plan, but in the meantime, I've come to some realizations about work, as well. First, I can be essentially content with my life, if not my work hours, doing even the relatively unfulfilling, degree-irrelevant sorts of work that Liberal Arts and Humanities BA's often get stuck with, so long as I have those other productive, fulfilling aspects of my life to give me a sense of identity, progress, involvement, purpose, and self-worth.

Second, it's easier than I originally thought to find interesting and/or fulfilling work now that pays decently, even if it doesn't directly bear on either my current or future degree; that's where having a diverse set of interests helps. My job at the funeral home, for instance, has its challenges, but it's not the sort of thing anyone needs a degree of any sort for, and it's solidly below the level of responsibility that I'm technically qualified for- but it's interesting work, and it's deeply fulfilling to go home at the end of the day knowing that I have helped someone, even if only in a small way, at a moment when they badly needed it, so I am content; this is a good place to be for now, on my way to another eventual destination.

In A Pirate Looks at Fifty, Jimmy Buffett commented that when he was a child, a frustrated adult demanded to know what he wanted to do with his life; the young Buffett replied that he wanted to live a damned interesting one.

Me too.

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