It was meant to be a somewhat innocuous comment. Of all the ones said in the meeting, it was not the one I was supposed to hold onto the most. Like many meetings in academia, there was some tension in the room, but everyone was speaking calmly and clearly with the goal of making sure she or he was heard and heard the others. After I stated a couple of concerns about how a particular decision would affect some of the work my colleagues and I were doing, someone in power said, "You need to do what's best for your own career." I immediately thought, "That's what I'm doing." But the comment needled at me all weekend. I thought it was clear that I was thinking of my career, but I realized that I was spending my time talking about other people, which led to me questioning what "my career" actually was. Soon, that led to questioning what "best" could mean. I grew more and more confused. And sad. I thought I had my career path figured out at least for the next few years, but I wondered how much of those plans I could really count on.
I had been happily (and naively) riding along the river's current, letting it carry me here and there. I was starting to realize, however, how much power I was putting into other people's hands. So far, I was happy with where I had been taken, but I was also starting to hit some rocks on the river's edge. The current was picking up. The hands carrying me squeezed harder, their grip growing tighter. I had to let go. I had to move closer to the edge of the river, taking a few forays out of it before coming back. I had to start making more choices for me, which was scary since the river had been carrying me so well, but I was also seeing the signs of where the river could take me if I let it. So, this year, I started thinking of things that would benefit no one else but me. It's not that these things were going to hurt anyone. They just wouldn't help. They just wouldn't satisfy the needs of others first or alongside my own. They would put me in front, at least at times. I had to change my conception of what counted as balance, sometimes thinking of others and sometimes thinking of myself. I still don't know what that all means, but I'm closer to figuring it out than I was at the end of that meeting last January.
The instant message was ordinary, just like ones he had sent regularly over the last couple of years: "Hey, how's it going? Lunch soon?" I had been out of my office when he sent it, down the hall touching base with people about a few things and filling up my water bottle before class. He had already logged off before I saw the message. I wrote a quick note to remind myself to email him that night. But I didn't. I didn't email him that week. I didn't email him that month. It's now December, and that was September. He had never done anything wrong. Even my husband said so. Other people liked to pretend we were all still in high school and questioned why I would go out dancing or drinking with a man other than my husband. The fact that my husband does not like to go out dancing or drinking and was happy I had a friend to do those things with was irrelevant. Some people made snide comments. Some people whispered behind their hands while looking right at me. It should not have mattered, but people I liked soon started asking veiled questions. Showing up and leaving together was enough to make people imagine the worst. I was tired of it. When he grew busy, I didn't push it. Then I was busy. The husband asked why I hadn't been out in a while. He asked if I was worried about his feelings, meaning my husband's. He reminded me more than once that he really was okay with me having a friend for the occasional night out. I told him I knew that, but it was also nice not to deal with drama, not to worry about rumors or innuendo.
It's now December, and that instant message was in September. I don't like thinking that I have let go, but actions speak louder than words.