Some time two falls ago, I met up with my college suitemate. I hadn’t seen her in a while, so our walk was two miles of rapid-fire updates on what we were up to, what new questions were facing us in this season of life, what was new with mutual friends. She asked me about the partner of an acquaintance who’d just gotten married and I said something about how he was, in many ways, what I would have imagined—“he’s the kind of person I’d have pictured her ending up with, you know? Occupation, personality, lifestyle, their life together.” I paused. “It’s like that with [our other friend], too—if you’d asked me in college what she’d be up to five years after graduation, I would have described pretty much what she’s doing now.”
I’ve been turning this over for months and now years: the ways in which we’re fulfilling destinies, or expectations, or whatever you want to call it. I ran into a college mentor a few months after this conversation who, upon hearing I was in a Ph.D. program studying English and education, said of course. “That’s who you’ve always been. You were always into that stuff.”
I think it was a compliment, but I bristled anyway. I’d felt a little pigeon-holed by this person in that earlier season. I had wanted very desperately to be someone a good deal braver and less encumbered than I was, and I had also consistently felt that who I was, the stuff I was into, didn’t have much currency with the people I was most trying to impress. But his assessment wasn’t wrong. I have always been into this stuff—I have cared hugely about learning and have loved doing it, I have been deeply invested in fairness and equity and justice, I have been taken with language and stories and what they can do in the world. I can turn around and read all those things into the choices that have led me to Ann Arbor, my program, to Nathan, to the rhythms of our life. Even my pandemic life of dog walks and vegetarian cookbooks and British crime dramas and the red Patagonia fleece I wear nearly every day. It’s who I’ve always been. And much of the last, oh, ten years of my life has been about making peace with that person. I say sometimes that I am relentlessly myself. Can’t seem to shake it.
But I still feel a little stifled by the idea that we’re out here just fulfilling what was in us all along. There’s not much room for us to surprise ourselves or each other in that kind of worldview; not a lot of space for transformation or growth. And it feels sometimes as if it magnifies our differences. I don’t want to believe that my trajectory was set so early that my actions and experiences didn’t affect it. I don’t like looking back at old relationships and seeing their seemingly inevitable dissolution because of a difference or tension that was denied, or just not very salient, at the outset. And I resist the idea that my life now is “fitting” in part because it would make it all seem easy, I guess. And unremarkable. Each of my choices has felt very real to me. Each one mattered.
I read something a few weeks ago—I thought it was this story but now I can’t find it—that advocated telling yourself that there is no alternate universe—that if COVID hadn’t happened or you’d gotten that job or moved to this city or pursued that relationship, you could be someone else. The idea was that if you told yourself there is no alternate universe and tried to believe it, you could turn away from the false nostalgia of “what if” and accept what actually is. Then I had a conversation with a friend last Thursday about academia as a place that emphasizes sociology when talking about what makes people who they are, which can obscure the power of that peculiar spark of personhood in each of us. I’m not sure if I’m looking to determine what’s true or if I just want to settle on a belief that affords me the sense of purpose and agency I need to keep putting that fleece on every morning and editing each day’s many documents. But I’m wondering, persistently now—is it more alarming if I never really chose my life? Or if I did choose every day, each possibility was a live wire, and I am responsible for all of it?
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.