I don’t really remember why I was swearing, in particular, except for the fact that I was trying to bake a cake, from scratch, from a new recipe, with limited counter space and limited time. Oh, and the cake had to be the right color on the inside.
You see, in a few hours, I would be hosting a Ph.D. Institution Reveal Party, at which I would cut the chocolate frosted cake, disclosing to my dear friends exactly what school and city would own the next four years of my life. Never mind the fact that I was questioning my decision every other moment, as well as my choice to host a party after being gone three weekends in a row. Oh, and I was having major doubt about my ability to use food coloring.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The plan wasn’t always to get a Ph.D. Three years ago, I applied for master’s degree programs, not doctoral programs, for a few reasons. One, I didn’t know if I wanted to get a Ph.D. Two, I didn’t know what I wanted to get a doctorate in, if I did want one. And three, I didn’t know if I could do it.
So I applied to master’s programs, got into a few, chose the one with the best funding, and moved to Waco, Texas, where I knew absolutely no one. I left a full-time job and a community that loved me for… the unknown.
The last three years have been an experience. I’ve worked hard and played hard, met new folks and turned them into good friends, grown to love an odd and unlovable place. I’ve experienced new things and those things have become familiar.
After writing a thesis, I got a master’s degree. Then I taught for two wonderful and stress-filled semesters. I loved my students, and at some points, I think they perhaps liked me. And I thought, I don’t know what to do with my life, but I think I could keep doing this. So. I applied for Ph.D. programs in rhetoric and composition so that I can study and teach writing for the foreseeable future.
I applied to six places, because I had no idea if any of them would want me. Diverse places: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana. Oh, and one place in Texas, just because my rhet/comp professors would say, “You know, TCU has a really good program.”
The acceptances started with Texas Christian University, of course, and I thought, Nope. I’m not staying in Texas. Other acceptances came, but the problem was that TCU gave me a better offer. Plus, the more I looked into their program, the more I liked it. They pursued me; they knew my work; they wanted me to come.
After visiting the campus, I thought, so what if it’s in Texas? Four years isn’t too long. And in a city, no less! With coffeeshops and art museums and Indian food restaurants! I decided I would say yes to TCU after Easter.
Well, then the game changed. On the flight to Boston for Easter, I got an email from the University of Louisville. Acceptance with a great offer, almost equal to TCU’s.
So, the next weekend, I was on a plane to Louisville. I had a great time in Louisville. I met fantastic people, I drank bourbon, I visited the Kentucky Derby Museum. I liked the school and the program. Obviously, my enjoyment of the place was upsetting to me.
I was stuck. I had to decide between two good options. And my kind, loving people kept telling me, you can’t make a wrong decision. This was true, but not helpful, because I had to make a decision, and how was I supposed to do so if there wasn’t a wrong one? How does one choose between two good things?
My deadline for deciding was Tuesday evening, 10pm. I arrived back to my apartment from Kentucky at 9pm. The day had been spent writing lists, crying, writing journal entries, staring, praying, and being mired in indecision. I texted everyone I knew, I emailed every spiritual leader I’ve ever had, and I talked on the phone to my parents and my thesis advisor. No clarity. No certainty.
Two good things. What’s a girl to do with such a problem? It’s a great problem, but it’s still a problem, and I wrestled with the decision over and over again, like a rock tumbler trying to smooth out the edges of a shard of glass. Each time it tumbled, it broke again, more pieces to put together. More sharp edges. More uncertainty.
Let me pause for a moment here and state the obvious: I’m not great with decisions. I prefer decisions that are a) made for me, or b) easily returned within 90 days with the tags still on and original receipt. I know as a grown, independent, single, strong woman I should be the captain of my own ship, the maker of my destiny, but most of the time I still want my Mom to tell me I don’t have to go to school because I don’t feel well. Decisions are hard, and they hurt. They create a crossroads, two possible pathways of which the end is foggy and undetermined. I don’t do foggy and undetermined.
And so I sat in the Atlanta airport, waiting: on God, on my mother, on some sign to emerge to tell me what to do. Nothing happened. The pros/cons lists were still there, still equal.
The problem is that I knew I would end up different, depending on whether I would spent the next four years in Kentucky, or in Fort Worth. I would be a different person on the other side. I didn’t know which one would be a better version of myself. I wanted to become the best version of me.
What I often forget, mired in the swamp of indecision, is that there will be hundreds of decisions between the me I am now and “four years later” me. Each of those decisions will change me, slightly. Or hugely. This Ph.D. decision was just the next step in a long line of decisions that had been made by me and for me for years. The journey is now. It was, it is, and it will be. I just needed to decide.
So. I got back to my apartment. My dear friend Sara came over. She looked at my lists, and then turned them over. I cried a little more, and she held my hand. Then I wrote an email, and clicked Send. We went to Chick-fil-a at 10:30pm to eat fried chicken in celebration.
But before we did that, I burned my pro/con lists. They didn’t go up in flames, but rather smoldered away, little by little, turning to embers and flying into the sky.
At some point in this long process, I realized at no point had I celebrated. People kept telling me congratulations for all of these acceptances, and I would look at them, confused as to why they would congratulate me for the torment caused by the decision-making process. I would sigh, and say, it’s a hard decision. At no point, did I feel like I had accomplished anything.
Because of this, I decided to throw myself a party.
I invited all of the people who had been listening to my neverending processing about cost of living and public transportation and the price of health insurance. I told them that the party would be like those baby gender reveal parties, where I wouldn’t tell anyone my decision, but rather I would bake it into a cake. We would cut the cake, everyone would cheer, we’d drink champagne, and I’d feel proud. I’d celebrate.
The day had come, and I was swearing at the cake. I had no idea what color it was inside. I know what color I had tried to make the batter, but my cheap food coloring plus a slightly yellow cake and my lack of baking prowess was throwing off all of my plans. I had no way of checking what color the cake was without cutting it open. And people were coming over in mere hours.
I hurriedly made chocolate frosting and covered the whole darn thing, before running around my apartment like a mad woman, looking for belts and lipstick, and my master’s hood, which I was going to wear, because I paid for that thing in blood/sweat/tears and there are very few occasions on which a master’s hood is an appropriate accessory.
My friends arrived with seemingly endless bottles of champagne. Joseph brought his world-class guacamole. In the center of the table was the cake.
Would it be red, for the University of Louisville Cardinals? Or would it be purple, for the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs (that’s right, I said horned frogs)?
They all took a poll, and of the twelve individuals present, they were almost split down the middle. Everyone was nervous, excited, including me. On the video (below), you can see my lack of certainty: in my cake-cutting abilities, in my food-coloring abilities, in my decision-making abilities.
But I had to cut the cake. It was waiting to be cut, to be claimed, to be celebrated.
I looked around and knew that even though I would never trust my own decisions, my friends thought me wise, capable, and intelligent. And I trust them. At that moment, for a split second before I doubted myself again, I knew I made the right choice, because I had simply made a choice. And I would become the woman I have always hoped to be, by sheer force of will and bold decision-making.
So, along with of a celebration of myself and my future, I chose, in that moment, to celebrate those around me in person and afar: my advisors, my playmates, my audience. My friends. My family. My fellow journeyers toward truth, goodness, and beauty. The people who came to celebrate me, even while I was determined to celebrate them.
I cut the cake. It was a dull blue-grey. One could say, practically purple.
Cue the champagne.
So, I’m doing it. I’m going for my Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at Texas Christian University. That means four more years in the great state of Texas. Fort Worth has museums, art, music, coffee shops, tacos, and an airport (or two). The program at TCU is top-notch, and I cannot wait to begin the next phase of my academic journey, learning more about the composition and rhetoric discipline in which I plan to make my mark. I look forward to investing in the TCU graduate community, and eventually teaching the students at TCU (after my first year fellowship).
Most of all, I’m excited to take my next steps, say good-bye to Waco, and move 100 miles north to the big city. I can’t promise certainty at any step along the way, but I can promise a healthy amount of swearing at baked goods.
If you want to see the reveal, here it is!