What You Are I Was
(Part 7 of 9)
By Miriam Rosenberg Rocek
It was a few weeks after I made the move to the Temple before I sat down to work on my dissertation. I had used moving, and then my breakup with Lisa, as an excuse to procrastinate, and, like most of my excuses not to work, they both served me well until guilt finally set in. I had a meeting scheduled with my advisor lurking somewhere in the middle of the following week, and I felt that I should at least get something done before I saw him. I knew that some people developed quite close relationships with their advisors; mine kept half a disdainful eye on my lack of progress only so that he could tell me, in detail, why my vague and unfocused topic and I were a drain on faculty resources. He held ABD’s to be the lowest form of academic existence, and clearly regretted ever taking me on as an advisee. All But Dissertation, he was fond of telling me, was another way of saying Almost Bloody Dead, and I got the sense that he couldn’t wait to gloat when I fell into to my inevitable academic demise. He seemed to think I was stalling just to annoy him.
I never tried to explain to him that being a philosophy student made me, in my mind, a philosopher. To me that meant that I ought to be a marginalized societal outcast, ideally of questionable sanity and possibly questionable personal hygiene, whose presence was tolerated only by a group of fanatical disciples, and whose life was a pure and perfect illustration of the ideas he espoused, unsullied by social conventions or hypocrisy. I lacked the charisma or the unique ideas necessary to acquire disciples, and even if I hadn’t, I had yet to find an idea I was sufficiently committed to to add an “ism” to the end of my name and argue it until the day I died. There were too many ideas, and while I could believe momentarily in almost anything I read or heard argued, I had yet to find anything I could believe in permanently. An itinerant philosopher in the truest sense; my mindset moving nomadically across any and all epistemologies. I could no more settle on a philosophy or a god than I could come up with anything interesting to say about my dissertation topic. I doubted my advisor would have understood that, even if I had tried to explain it, and even if he had stopped sneering at me long enough to listen.
I did finally, a few days after Lisa and I had said goodbye, make myself a strong cup of coffee, get out the books and articles I thought I would need, and turn on my laptop. I took a sip of coffee. It was too hot, I decided, and set it resolutely down on the desk. Ten minutes after turning on the computer, I came to the conclusion that my pretense of work would be more convincing if I were to open the document labeled graduatedissertationconfirmationsoffaith.doc. That arduous task completed, I played a game of solitaire, which I lost, and tried my coffee again. Success. It was now cool enough to drink, and I sipped at it leisurely while staring out the window. Three hours later, I had reread half of what there was of the draft, played countless more games of solitaire, and fixed a formatting error in the third paragraph. Satisfied with my work for that day, I shut my laptop and went down to the basement to crank up the machine. There was a discordant creak somewhere in the upper reaches, above the prayer scrolls, and I took an oilcan and a stepladder to see if I could fix it. I didn’t go back to the dissertation for another week, and after that, not for a month. It turned out to be easier to procrastinate in the Temple than anywhere else. After all, I reasoned, how could it be considered lazy to concentrate on my duties as Elder? I began devoting more and more time to the care of the machine, and eventually even my guilt over my dissertation faded to an occasional weak twinge.
I began having dreams, though, from the time I moved in to the Temple; dreams where I watched as a tiny corner came loose on a single scroll of the machine, and the whole thing began to unravel, paper flying out, strips of it tangling and tearing, wrapping around gear shafts and being chewed apart by cogs, the words smeared away by oil and axle grease. I would feel myself become buried in the uncoiling scrolls, not wanting to rip the paper but feeling myself sink deeper and deeper as I struggled weakly for the top. The paper turned to cold, salt water. My lungs began to ache, and water forced its way in, burning my nose and throat. I choked on it, spat it out, gasping for air, but there was nothing to take in but more water. There was no real sense of panic, no fear, just resignation, and I would remember each morning after I had had the dream that I would always try to form a prayer in my mind, just as the water drowned me, but that at that last moment I could not remember what prayer I ought to say, and would wake up whispering sh’ma yisroel, hallowed be Thy name, either the wallpaper goes or I do.
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I am a graduate of Northwestern University with a BA in creative writing. Since college I have worked as a nanny, and as a tall ship sailor, helping to sail old-fashioned, traditionally rigged sailing ships from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia. I was born in New Mexico, raised in Delaware, and currently live in New York City.
Labels: Miriam Rosenberg Rocek