Here is a list of things I wanted to be when I grew up: writer, painter, ballerina, fashion designer, teacher, nurse, chef, landscaper, interior decorator, film critic, translator, curator. Here is a list of things I have considered doing next year following graduation: teaching in El Paso; immigrant rights activism in San Francisco; conducting research on family-run cattle ranches in Uruguay; teaching in Jordan (yes, the country); working with the American Indian College Fund; farming or attending cooking school in Italy; teaching in Honduras; and a host of other things. Putting the two lists side by side demonstrates a remarkable lack of progress in settling on a career. The new list is just as harebrained as the old one, and I am still quite literally all over the map.
On the one hand, I am grateful almost beyond words for this incredible luxury of being able to shape my own life. If I had been born in almost any other place and at almost any other time, I wouldn’t be facing this job-search dilemma; I would be raising children and laboring to feed them. As it is, Wiliams has instilled in me confidence, diligence and creativity, as well as a sense of when it’s okay to cut corners, and I know that this combination of skills will serve me well in whatever I end up doing. More than that, this school has also alerted me to possibilities that I am convinced simply would never have occurred to me if I had attended a larger institution or one closer to home. Every time I go home and hang out with my high school friends, I get the feeling that I live with a sense of expansiveness that is completely foreign to most of them. It’s not that I’m smarter, more adventurous or more sophisticated than they are, just that Williams has given me the opportunity to consider a life that takes place outside of Texas, outside of the expectation of going to college to find a spouse – essentially, outside the parameters of everything I thought I knew in high school.
At the same time, however, this limitlessness can induce vertigo. My home church holds a service every year for its graduating high school seniors. I have, of course, forgotten most of what was said there (not that I was paying terribly close attention to begin with), but I do remember our rector, echoing John F. Kennedy’s paraphrase of Luke 12:48, telling us that “to whom much is given, much is required.” I didn’t really understand it at the time, but over the past four years I have become acutely aware of how much I have been given. I won’t go into it now for fear of sounding incredibly sanctimonious, but I will say that, with graduation looming, it suddenly becomes quite clear that we are coddled almost beyond belief here. In this context, of course, the prospect of failing to find an awesome job seems not only embarrassing and irresponsible, but almost immoral.
I’ve had an Emily Dickinson poem knocking around my head all year. I don’t claim to understand what it means, but the opening lines have haunted me since September: “I dwell in Possibility- / A fairer House than Prose,” she writes, “More numerous of Windows- / Superior – for Doors-.” I’ve always loved the stark lyricism of her poetry, and I think this quatrain exemplifies her succinctness: with just 16 words, she somehow describes the exact version of the world in which I want to live. I find the second stanza of this poem to be almost as creepy as the first is beautiful. Still talking about her life/house, she describes the rooms in it as “impregnable” and its roof as “the Gambrels of the Sky,” which seems to me to be a subtle way of saying that the world she created in the first stanza doesn’t actually exist. Moreover, “gambrel” probably refers to a gambrel roof, but a gambrel is also a rod used for suspending slaughtered animals.
It’s unlikely, to say the least, that Dickinson was writing about looking for a job, but her poem seems to have anticipated the two stages of my own job search, which has moved rather quickly from excitement (“possibility”) to vertigo (“gambrels”). If you’re like me and can imagine yourself doing any one of a thousand different things with your life, the question of how to embrace Possibility without completely overwhelming yourself poses a real problem. Deciding on one job, as we all eventually have to do, automatically rules out innumerable alternate possibilities for employment and, along with them, different versions of our lives.
And I think that’s what makes this whole process of looking for a job so profoundly unsettling for some of us, because we’re not actually looking for jobs. We’re looking for ourselves.
Elizabeth Kohout ’08 is an English and studio art major from Austin, Tex.