Tonight begins Purim and I can’t help but think of where I was a year ago. Last Purim, as I gathered materials to make a homemade grogger and packed up my poppy seed hamantaschen filled with lemon custard, I received official word of my rejection from the history graduate program at Brandeis University. I had sensed it was coming given the late date, but that did not make the news any less devastating. I broke down in sobs. I was determined to not let the news ruin my joyful holiday. Still, I cried all the way to the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center where I was currently working as a temporary emergency hire. With permission from my boss, I shared my cookies, dressed in costume in a green cotton calico dress, and shook my homemade grogger. My co-workers all gathered to hear a work-friendly version of Queen Esther’s story and I spent the day making people around me laugh. I did not feel joyful but I acted that way because I so desperately wanted to be.
The truth is that I had self-sabotaged my application. I felt the fragility of my health last January while finishing my application. Having just returned from a Birthright trip, where I had fully expected to gain some weight, I was instead exhausted and racked with pain. The physically demanding trip coupled with my fear of buffet-style food left me frail and underweight. My mind filled with memories of being stuck in my apartment in Lincoln while pursuing my Master’s, passing a kidney stone for a month while my classmates finished their course work and set themselves up to graduate on time. I remembered the stress and pushing myself to the limits to meet expectations and keep pace with the program, yet everywhere I turned was another weight pulling me under. Accidental run-ins with my allergen stacked up against me by the plenty. With the loss of my Grandma and getting in and out of an unhealthy relationship, I felt isolated. My reaction was further isolation—shutting off my phone for three months. I sobbed the day I turned it back on, so afraid even to talk to my friends. I couldn’t face my own disappointment. Eventually, I did. I slowly integrated myself back with my friends. I finished my thesis, defended it and graduated. Yet, in the back of my mind, these memories of struggle nagged at me. Did I really want to go back to grad school? Would Brandeis really be a healthier place for me just because it was more Jewish? I had just returned from Israel in worse health than when I left for it and wasn’t Israel the most Jewish place?
With doubts looming, finishing my application to Brandeis took a backseat to commenting on the SAT essays of every student in the three classes I was subbing at the time. I didn’t have to do it—I certainly was not getting paid for it, but the kids benefited and I eagerly used the distraction. I exhausted myself, staying up late, reading and commenting. I took up my last proofreading days, thinking about how to give useful advice instead of how to best communicate the importance of my research.
There were silly mistakes that I let slip through but mostly I ignored the advice I routinely give to students, to write for their audience. When I finished it, the purpose statement was clearly for me and not the committee deciding my fate. My purpose statement spoke of community—outside and inside the university, religious and academic—I wrote why I wanted to move to Waltham to get healthy—I talked about my research and replied with foolhardy optimism to the dismal job market… I even talked about antisemitism. It was more personal than any Ph.D. application statement should be. It was a statement I had to make for myself—it was my optimistic version of the truth.
I viewed Brandeis as the only way forward. I dreamed of a supportive academic community and vowed to be more vulnerable with my advisers and cohort. I saw the mistakes I had made in Nebraska and hoped I could avoid them. But what I wanted most from Brandeis wasn’t from Brandeis at all. I researched doctors and found the allergy specialist I most wanted to see. I looked up kosher restaurants and synagogues, daydreaming about immersing myself further into Judaism. Underneath all that, I let myself pine for someone I have never met. A rugged and rural Jewish man, I wasn’t sure if he existed but I had a better chance of finding him in a larger Jewish community. Maybe someone from the city, who I could convince to come back out West with me where we could build a bookish cabin by a lake, surrounded by trees with no neighbors in sight. Maybe he would be someone introduced to me at Shabbat dinner by some kind family who opened their kosher home to us. We would spend cozy evenings reading and creating art together. Brandeis represented an escape to start the life that I want to be living. It would be a temporary trial of educating myself to the extreme while doing meaningful work and at the end of it, I would be healthy, paired, and ready to engage in Tikkun Olam, with degree in hand. Or so I dreamed.
What do you do when you fail? When the dream you were so looking forward to fails?
You keep moving forward.
I decided to embrace Wyoming, with her rich history of enterprising women. Last summer I applied for my business license and began booking myself out to give presentations on the Wyoming State Flag. I made greeting cards and started selling them in stores. I embraced forging my own path as a historian for hire.
This afternoon I am teaching my first class for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Casper College. My class is called Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard and the Pursuit of Wyoming. I am excited to work with students and to share my research. Currently, Wyoming’s Secretary of State office is looking over my artwork for the WY Flag and hopefully, within the next few months, I will be selling flags.
This isn’t something I daydreamed about doing or even really something I planned on. I have never been big on 5-year plans because I have always found life to be too unpredictable for that kind of long-term planning. After all, we make plans and G-d laughs, or so I heard growing up. I would have never predicted this pursuit for myself, not even a year ago.
How do you leave behind a failure?
You don’t. Or at least, I can’t. I still believe in my scholarship on Judaism and slavery in the U.S. South. I have something to contribute, to move the conversation forward in a positive way and I will not give up completely on that even with this setback. Failure reminds us of what we value, and for me, that is my scholarship. A rejection from a grad-program does not change the significance of my work.
For now, though, I will set that work aside and focus on Wyoming, which I have plenty of work concerning. I will try my best not to isolate myself and to improve my health the best I can. I will pursue the life I want to be living.
I have faced many disappointments, losing loved ones, struggling with my health, and numerous rejections. I think this is a part of life that is unavoidable—not everything will go your way. Failure is inevitable, but it is never truly the end of the story. Usually, it is just an unexpected new beginning.