Life update No. 152 (approx.)

Hello, lovelies!

It’s been awhile. The last couple of months have been an intense period of decision-making, introspection, experimentation, and self-discovery, and I’ve been so engaged with the zigs and zags of daily life that it’s been difficult to push an idea through the requisite layers of edits into publishable form— it seems that my life, or at least my attitude toward life, has been changing more quickly than the time it takes to finish a draft.

I’ve been told that’s how your early 20’s are supposed to be, and in a bizarre paradoxical twist it seems it’s taken leaving the city for a quiet life in the country for me to finally feel properly young. Medication is helping, for sure, but it’s really the sense of community that does it— feeling like a valued member of my household, town, and local arts community reifies my sense of accountability and lends meaning to my daily actions on good days and less-good-ones alike. In the city, I felt a bit homeless; a sense of fundamental restiveness and perpetual difficulty in feeling like I belonged in the world distanced me from the goings-on at Columbia and around my neighborhood. Some people feel suffocated by small-town life, but here, with the support of close friends and family nearby, I feel less unmoored and more free. I know, bittersweetly, that I must eventually outgrow this phase, that I have further things to do and places to go in my life, that I want a degree or three and a performance career and a relationship and who knows what else, but I also feel a new and wonderful sense of belonging. Returning to my hometown as one of not so many young single adults in a community of new families, deeply rooted local artisans, and aging farmers, I sense that I am not an anomaly or a failure but an integral part of a centuries-old cultural ecosystem, a fundamental structure for teaching and learning and passing on traditions, and I can learn from and teach those around me who are in different stages of life just as I learned from and taught my older and younger peers in the multi-age classrooms of my Montessori school.

All this being said, my formal education is currently on hold, though I’m learning more than ever. I am technically on a semester-long leave of absence from Columbia, though I have little desire to return— I hate to give up on anything, especially my vestigial-yet-romantic dream of the Ivy League, after just a year, but GS too expensive to continue attending unless it’s truly the right fit for who I am now, and it isn’t.

Columbia is an excellent place for those who enter college already knowing exactly what they want to pursue. Nearly all courses there require previous knowledge in the subject area, if not actual course prerequisites, and the extensive list of core requirements plus an even longer list of major-track courses leaves very little room for academic experimentation. I returned to academia after four years away, and I’ve just begun to think about what a career that isn’t only dance might look like; I’m not in a place where I can commit to a major without trying out a whole lot of classes first. Also, and perhaps most importantly, I sincerely doubt that a single-subject major supplemented by a standardized core curriculum is the best possible structure for my education. My love of learning is fundamentally interdisciplinary; no matter what I choose to do with my degree, it will draw from the humanities, arts, and sciences. I can’t imagine picking just one discipline; it’s entirely contrary to the primary value I see in the disciplines as a whole, which is the ability to use them against and within each other as triggers for new modes of thinking, breaking out of unproductive thought patterns and cycles, and providing contrasting yet symbiotic systems of metaphor and comparison by which to inform the worldview perpetuated by each. I believe that interdisciplinary knowledge makes for success in any chosen field; the poet Mary Oliver has a biologist’s eye for the natural world, bringing a scientific lens to her artful verse; today’s jazz musicians interact with fMRI technology to lend science new insight into the neurobiology of creativity; and recent performances by Pilobolus and other prominent dance groups at TED conferences have demonstrated the glorious aesthetic beauty and insight that comes from the union of art and science as a teaching tool and catalyst for progressive thought.

I am not sure what form my future career will take, but I imagine that my professional self will reflect this intrinsic part of who I am as a learner, drawing from disparate fields to generate unique ways of helping others. If I am to develop this blog, which is essentially a creative project that I hope can be used as a therapeutic resource, I need to know more about creative writing, psychology, marketing, and programming; to develop as a dance teacher I would like to deepen my knowledge of anatomy and physiology; to work as a professor-researcher in the humanities and become a “militant intellectual” in the style of Foucault (a more serious goal than you might think) I must develop my knowledge of history, philosophy, and foreign languages. I am recreationally intrigued by German literature, quantum mechanics, Japanese, and computational linguistics; equally by choreography, sustainable agriculture and design, and fine art. This semester I have been incredibly lucky to be able to pursue some of my interests informally, taking an online course in Pre-Calculus to get my math foundation securely under me, auditing an Intro to Computer Science course at Bennington College, and being tutored in written and spoken Japanese by a friend in preparation for a six-week-long trip to Japan this winter. I am also in conversation with the coordinators of the Justice in Education program at Columbia, which I was involved with as one of two non-incarcerated students in a joint Humanities seminar integrating formerly incarcerated and non-incarcerated Columbia students, about developing an iPad-based coding education program for inmates at Rikers using Apple’s new Playgrounds app. I hope to continue my performance career in dance as well.

I know that I am a serious paradox; learning and anxiety, the two guiding elements of my life, are often mutually-exclusive opposites, from the ideological all the way down to the chemical level, Fight-Or-Flight vs DHEA. Panic shuts down the higher learning processes of the brain, while taking in knowledge is a fundamental part of feeling safe in one’s environment. Paralyzing fear of failure, which I have suffered from all too often (especially in high school math), is learning’s greatest inhibitor; when I feel too stressed by my environment, my affective filter kicks in, and my mind goes summarily blank. This, of course, leads to a vicious cycle of intimidation when presented with new material, hence my belief that I am fundamentally incapable of higher math when in reality I was only fundamentally terrified of it. The last couple of months have taught me that, if I surmount the fear, comprehension and command do follow— I have an A in pre-calc at the moment, a course I nearly failed in high school, and I intend to move into Calculus next semester, either online or at school.

My one goal in life used to be overcoming anxiety; I worked on this by putting myself in anxiety-inducing situations and attempting to stick it out without fleeing. This form of exposure therapy is effective on a small scale, but spending all day every day fighting anxiety was anxiety-inducing in and of itself, and made other aspects of my life feel meaningless. Daily existence was an endurance mission and left me emotionally depleted, with little energy reserve to channel toward social activities or facing challenging subject areas in the classroom. Thus I stuck to courses in fields— humanities, dance, art— with which I was already comfortable, dropping math and science courses for which I was emotionally and practically under-qualified. I lasted exactly one day in Columbia’s Intro- level Computer Science course, a massive lecture-hall of 400-plus students, before deciding that CS wasn’t going to happen for me.

This fall I tried a different approach, fighting anxiety not with grim determination but by placing myself in situations where my values could outweigh my fears. I am now nearly halfway through my Intro to CS class at Bennington, a small course of 16 students and one TA which allows for extremely high levels of student-teacher interaction. I am happy to say that I am now seriously considering using CS in some capacity in my future career. Classroom culture is an incredibly important factor in my success here— far more than so-called talent or aptitude. I would likely not have returned to CS if I hadn’t had a friend strongly suggest that I enroll in this course, and it’s now a huge part of my life and a major interest of mine.

I now know that I need school to be above all a safe space to explore the subjects that feel frighteningly — intriguingly — beyond me. I loved my Columbia classes, but they played essentially to my strengths, and the feeling of imbalance I’d suffered from when I was solely dancing lingered despite my return to academia. Moving forward, I hope to study somewhere where I am limited only by my own creativity and the amount of energy I am willing to invest. I am ready to fight fear not with brute endurance but with learning, to replace the isolation of extreme anxiety with the intellectual and social connections engendered by a self-made, interdisciplinary plan of study. At least, that’s my hope!

As always, I love to read your reactions in the comments!

(Sorry this got so long!!)

S

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