There’s a story that I haven’t told you. The story of being rejected from every doctoral program that I applied to.
Last year I had a baby. A baby that my husband and I planned for and dearly wanted. Freshly graduated from my graduate program, I was ready to have her. With her as an infant, life was slow and all of my unmanageable expectations about motherhood had been seared off with my first two children. I nursed and rocked Ruby to sleep. I was patient with her, with our two older boys. I looked to the future really proud of what I had just accomplished in school and I waited. Looking back on that time it feels so luxurious. Sweet babies. Time spent well. Patience. Freedom.
When it was time, and what I mean by that is when we needed the money and I needed to boost my CV, I started back to teaching writing and literature in the university as an adjunct. Or, as our department so eminently bestows upon us, as an affiliate faculty member. With all of the time it demanded away from my baby, she slowly started to wean. Much sooner than I had ever wanted. But I knew that it was all for a dream that I had stashed away in my heart. I began to slowly build my application packages for a handful of doctoral programs. Programs at Universities far too prestigious and important for me and any of my work. That is what probably makes me the most embarrassed; feeling so worthy of those places. Jason and I were ready. We put our garden back to grass. Started looking at houses in all of the different cities that we might go. I dreamed of the classes and the writing and the books that I’d be reading. Chiefly, I felt important. Bigger than my body could hold. And maybe that’s what was wrong. My grandma always used to tell me that I was too big for my breeches. She saw it in me then; a desire to be bigger than I am. To burst out of my skin. To give the world something that they haven’t yet seen.
Well, nothing is more humbling than having rejection letters stream into your in-box week after week. I expected a few. I didn’t, however, expect for all of them to be rejections. In the back of my mind there is a handful people snickering at my loss. People happy and glad and full of I-told-you-so’s. And honestly, it makes me think of my mom and my dad who I haven’t talked to in years and how if they knew, they’d probably laugh and be glad, too. It serves me right; me and my big ol’ breeches.
When I was 5 or 6, I would stand on top of my plastic Mickey Mouse table in the basement of my grandparent’s house and sit them both around me as my admiring spectators. Ed McMahon called out my name, introduced me to the judges, and I belted “Over the Rainbow” into my plastic microphone. 3 and 3/4 stars! he declared. My grandparent’s clapped and cheered and I took my bow. My parents, however, rarely sat and listened. And if they did, I sensed their annoyance. Little children have a way of sensing those things. Or maybe it was my step dad mock singing at home in our kitchen and telling me that all I thought about was myself and that it was my grandparent’s fault. Maybe that’s what tipped me off.
But isn’t it annoying when grown adults have childhood issues? Blaming their lives and failures on a past filled with flawed, imperfect people? I’ve never blamed my parents for anything wrong with me or my life. Not that there’s much to complain about. But in moments like these, when I’m feeling rejected and embarrassed, I hear a deep ugly laugh and a terrible rendition of “Over the Rainbow” being sung at me. As if to say, how dare you think you’re important? And often I believe it.
A few days before Easter this year we attended a Maundy Thursday service at a house filled with people from our church. Our pastor was there and he’s been keeping up with this academic journey of mine and checking in on me, praying for me and my family, asking how it’s going. When I told him, again, about another rejection, he got real close to me, as he tends to do, looked at me and said, “Ashley, the Lord is just so proud of you. He sees you and your work and is just so, so proud.” And my goodness, did my heart ever swell and tears fall down my face. Words of grace that I needed to hear. Not that everything happens for a reason. Or that God has other plans. Or that those places are missing out. Or that they made a mistake or that I should try again. But that who I am and all that I’ve done makes the Lord proud. No mocking. No laughing. No rejection. No oversized breeches. Only love and an embrace.
And just like that, my desire to impress and meet other’s expectations and my embarrassment for failing fell away. At least for now.
Right now I’m deciding to not reapply next year. There are lots of reasons why I’ve made this decision, and maybe I’m making it too soon and irrationally off the heels of rejection. That’s probably right. I’m rethinking what my priorities are for me and my family and what I will do. But I’m trying to not make that important right now. I’ll be writing. Both here and personally. Taking life slow. Caring for my kids. Doing average, menial, not very valued stuff. And you all will just have to be okay with that.