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Has College Ruined Christmas?

December 2, 2015
'Homesick' by Ani-Bee via

‘Homesick’ by Ani-Bee via

“What do you think of when it comes to December?” my partner asked me over a dinner of Chinese takeout.

“Finals,” I blurted out.

His face tightened. “Don’t you think of magic and beauty and holidays and get excited with that anything-could-happen feeling?” he pressed.

“No,” I sighed. “Not until after finals.”

First, there’s Thanksgiving break. Thanksgiving is for term papers. It’s also for turkey if family is close, but if I spend the entire weekend with family, term papers will not get written. I have learned this from bitter, repeated experience.

Then, there’s finals, which are usually the second week of December (on the semester system). For me, finals means those term papers I started over Thanksgiving are due, but in the past it has also meant design project due dates and exams.

Once finals is over, there’s about a week of exhausted relief. Sleep, shower, catch up on all the chores I put off since before Thanksgiving, and veg out in front of the television. Now, that’s also the week I have to grade the papers from the classes I taught.

Finally, my energy levels begin to recover enough to start getting excited for the coming holidays. I start to feel a little bit of that December magic, at last, about a week before Christmas.

So, no, on December 2nd, I’m clearly not feeling it. I’m deep in the grip of finals.

To make matters worse, all the signals of the approaching holiday are blunted. This is Southern California, not the Great Plains. Yes, there’s holiday music in the stores and it gets dark rather early now, but the air doesn’t have that crisp bite (I’m sorry Angelinos, this is not “cold”), most of the trees still have their leaves, and there hasn’t been a hint of snow. It just doesn’t look or feel like the holidays are approaching. It feels like September. Psychologically, my sense of seasons is distorted. That changes the minute my plane touches down in Nebraska, but most years, I don’t go home for Christmas.

I remember what my partner is talking about, almost lost in the haze of childhood. Sure, I used to start getting excited about now. We’d go sledding and build snow forts and decorate the house. But since I was 18, all that energy has been rerouted. For 17 years, December has meant finals.

I stopped celebrating Christmas in 1998 and started celebrating the end of fall semester instead. It’s sort of like celebrating parole or shore leave.

Another student joked that all dukkha-s (sufferings) would come to an end in two weeks. Then, five weeks later, they would be reborn. Each semester is a microcosm of samsara. Each break is a tiny bit of bardo between lives. Grim humor of lifetime academics. Everyone laughed.

We weren’t laughing last night when Colin asked about putting up the Christmas tree and I brushed it off. Even though neither of us are religiously Christian anymore (I guess you could say we’re culturally christian), we still participate with our families and the magic of the holiday means a lot to Colin. And I’m being a killjoy.

The problem is, I really, honestly don’t have the energy for this. I’m not trying to be a grinch out of some lingering religious resentment. I do understand what he is talking about, if vaguely, at this point, and I still get that feeling on December 24th and 25th. But I don’t know how to change my present reality.

I have two papers due tomorrow, an exam next Tuesday, and a longer final paper due in eight days. And I work full time. At the moment this is the end-all, be-all of my existence. If I get to pause in the midst of that for Chinese takeout with my sweetheart and a couple hours of mindless television before bed, I’m grateful. For me, that’s the pinnacle of awesome right now.

I still realize that I’m disappointing him. To some degree, I’m disappointing myself. I’ve promised myself for years that “next semester will be better,” but it never quite seems to work out that way. To make matters worse, a young faculty colleague just commiserated over the same complaint – and he’s completed his PhD! This is my final semester of doctoral coursework. Isn’t it supposed to get better after this?

Maybe it will, but only if I really fight for it. Academia has habituated me to accept the grind, to perceive it as “normal,” and to disregard the other important rituals of human existence. Being in a relationship is good for me because it reminds me to keep my priorities straight.

People matter more than papers. People make magic happen. It’s time to reclaim my Decembers.

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