Last evening, my husband and I were looking through our book collection. We’re very proud of it (even if he does worry, quite vocally, about where it’s all going to go if we keep expanding it; personally, I’ll sleep on the street if it ensures my books are safe!), and we love it. We amused ourselves going through the various piles of ‘to-be-reads’, working out how many lifetimes it might take us to read everything we want to read, remembering where and when we had purchased, or been given, some of our favourite items, and we had some nostalgic moments, too. He pointed out a slim volume, ‘Aucassin et Nicolette’ (1887, London) which he had given me as a present when our relationship was new and quite unsure of itself. It remains one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received. My eyes fell on a book of Irish poetry, unremarkable in itself, but it bears an inscription from my late grandmother, which makes it one of my most precious possessions. And then I noticed the hulking, black-spined behemoth, tall and imposing, intimidating all the smaller books around it, and I was ripped in two with emotion.
My Ph.D. thesis. It had been years since I’d even looked at it.
Out of nothing but sheer curiosity, I took it off the shelf and sat with it on my knee for a while. I flicked through the bibliography, and it was like looking through a cherished photograph album; each title brought back a memory. I stifled my misgivings and opened it at the Introduction, and I read. And kept reading. I remembered writing it, by which I mean whole paragraphs seemed so familiar to me, almost as if I could recite them without looking at the page. I was transported back to the library of my old University, and if I closed my eyes I could bring myself from my familiar desk, down past the computer area, right towards the History shelves, left to bring you back around to the Large Books… this had been my domain, for years, and I had loved it. I was dumbfounded to note that as I read my old thesis, I was enjoying it – I still understood my argument, and the bits I’d forgotten were not buried deep. My thoughts were like songbirds dancing in a garden – they flitted from this branch to that, hopped lightly between the ground and the gate, before they finally fluttered into the sky, and away.
That hefty document, bound in heavy covers, embossed with the impressive title (over which I languished long), belongs to a different life. It’s not the life I’m living now. Even the name on the cover is different to the one I bear now, as I wrote the thesis as an unmarried stripling. I think it has taken me all these years to finally look through it again with a light heart because I’ve taken such a long time to really put it away – not on a shelf, but in my mind. My younger self wrote these words, full of hope and dreams of a life in academia; that’s not where I ended up, and for that I am grateful beyond measure.
I have a life that I love. Doing my Ph.D. gave me this life, but in an entirely unexpected way, as I would not have met my husband without it. My thesis no longer symbolises failure, or the end of a dream. I can look at my husband, and the life we’re building together, and know that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. On our bookshelves, we have a quote from Douglas Adams which goes: ‘I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.’ I like to think of that quote from time to time, and remind myself how lucky I am to be just where I’m supposed to be.