I write this from my home in San Jose, California, where I am currently not able to open my windows. The wildfires raging to the east and west of me have rendered the air quality positively dismal. A layer of ash coats every surface, and the air is thick with smoke. I check the news each morning to make sure the evacuation zones haven’t spread to include my house. I call my friends who have been displaced and ask if there is anything I can do. But, there isn’t really anything beyond my ability to listen and empathize. The state of California is still under shelter-in-place orders from the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping us isolated, shut in. I cry on the phone with my best friend as the forest home we lived in for 10 years all but burns to the ground while we sit in our separate, temperature regulated houses, helpless.
All this suffering almost feels normal these days. Our nation has been in the midst of chaos for the better part of a calendar year, and all of us have had to grieve an old way of life; and ultimately, learn to adapt to our current reality. It just so happens that this year was also the first I spent in graduate school.
Before I began my MLIS program, I spent a lot of time searching the internet and asking my colleagues about their degrees, trying to create a plan that would ensure I had the best graduate school experience possible. I spent months pouring over books and blog posts (not unlike this one) and message boards articulating the pros and cons of entering graduate school, which programs are best, what classes to take, and which conferences to attend. I made several spreadsheets, Google Calendars, and to do lists. I could not have had a more robust plan on my first day of my first semester. I felt as ready as I could possibly be.
But then, things fell apart. And then fell apart again. And again. Even before the pandemic began, my plan started to feel mostly useless. Every new thing I learned in class complicated the steps I had previously drawn up. Suddenly, I didn’t want the same things anymore. And soon, my life didn’t look the same anymore either. And now, 12 months later, the person who made that plan is not the same one who sits here, writing this article.
Truthfully, this made me pretty mad at first. I hardly think I’m alone, especially amongst a group of aspiring librarians, in feeling somewhat attached to my above average organizational abilities. I’ve made countless plans in my life, for myself and others, that have been executed fabulously, with excellent results. Having a plan is how I’ve managed to feel a modicum of control over my life when other strategies have failed me.
And I realize now, this is exactly the problem. I don’t have much wisdom to offer about the maddening world we have found ourselves in, but I can say for sure that I didn’t see most of it coming. And even if I had, there was very little I could have done about any of it. Trying to control our lives in order to dictate a certain outcome is a fruitless endeavor when the control we have is mostly an illusion. Perhaps what we can embrace in this moment is our ability to change when it is demanded of us, rather than stay rigidly fixed to a certain way of thinking that no longer makes sense.
Here’s what I now wish someone had told me a year ago:
Go to graduate school because you want to go. Choose the program that makes the most sense for you (not for that guy on Reddit). Take classes that sound fun and interesting. Stop worrying about what will happen after you graduate, that’s none of your business. Read everything you’re assigned. Stop trying to get everything right. Ask the dumb questions. Ask for help when you need help. Take breaks before you need them. Drink lots of water.
Trust the process.
Mary Elizabeth Allen is an MLIS student at San Jose State University. She holds a B.A. in Literature with an emphasis in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her professional interests include the intersections between critical librarianship and social justice, the history of information sharing, and radical feminist scholarship. Follow her on Twitter @marylizallen for a random collection of depressing thoughts and cat memes.