At the office I drank out of a mug that someone had forgotten or intentionally left for communal use. It had a flowery design surrounding words in cursive: ‘If friends were flowers, I’d pick you.’ The surface sentiment was nice, but I always think how literally that means that if friends were flowers, I’d end your life for my own enjoyment, since that’s what picking flowers actually is. I would go refill my coffee and carry the mug back and forth from the office kitchen and sort of laugh about it when my coworkers walked by, like I had this inside joke with the mug.
I thought about the mug a lot because I spent a lot of time sitting at my desk looking at it, looking out the window, looking at my postcards, especially as the sheet of paper on my desk that said ‘separation date: August 10, 2016’ glared up at me. My summer had just started and was now—instantly—over. I’m writing this from the kitchen of my new apartment back at college. Everything here is so familiar that the summer feels like it didn’t happen. The smell of my car, the coffee shop down the street, the fact that I’ve been here three days and you can’t walk from the door of my apartment to my bed without tripping on something. I have been separated from the summer of my civil service, as I called it briefly on instagram, before I deleted my instagram account in a futile attempt to stop comparing myself to others.
I keep trying to write this post and to find a unifying moral or reflective thought to tie it up and conclude with at the end. But I can’t, and I think it’s just because that feels so fake to me. Life doesn’t work that way—every experience doesn’t get a bow put on at the end, you don’t think back and have one overall impression about the whole thing. I did x and I learned y. But I can’t let this internship pass without saying at least something about it, because it was important to me, it was significant.
Now that I’m not there anymore and am not worried about stalkers, I can say that this summer I interned for the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C. It’s a place that is twofold depressing and encouraging—the size of our budget and the problems we’re addressing are a daily reminder of the decline of the humanities in society; on the other hand, the fact that we have a budget and that there are people employed by the government to address the decline of humanities in society is really encouraging. Those people are excellent, by the way, if I had to choose anyone to be working day in and day out to promote the idea that The Humanities are Important and wisdom is necessary in the public sphere, I would pick them. I was always treated like an equal, like I was just as smart or worth talking to as the twenty other people in the room who had PhDs, even though I’m just an undergrad who doesn’t know anything. In panels with academics, I was blown over every time about how anyone can know so much. It was humbling, but then again, also encouraging because these incredibly smart people expect me to do great things, chose me to work with them, put me in a lineup of interns from Stanford and Oxford and Notre Dame, while my college continues to be an unregistered blip on the oft-overlooked map of the Midwest.
I guess there was maybe this theme of feeling like I don’t belong and yet belonging; I was constantly balancing the tightrope of thinking that this was a place where people were like me, and yet I didn’t have the same qualifications or even the same goals as them, either my coworkers or the other interns. I got conflicting advice—you should be attending conferences vs. you should really only be worried about next semester; you need to go to one of the top four grad schools to get a job vs. don’t worry, there are plenty of good grad schools. I started the summer seeing a correlation between the quality of your school and the quality of you/your scholarship and ended it seeing a lot of lazy or bad work from top scholars and good work from unknowns. It makes me think there isn’t really a Right Way to do academia. At the end of the day you really just have to get lucky, in a really dire job environment and a daily increasing number of people who think my major is worthless.
I almost cried on my last day saying thank you to my boss. I am grateful. I am grateful to have been surrounded by people who care about what I care about. To people who took a chance on me despite the fact that my college might as well be in Area 51 given how many people know what goes on here. I am grateful to my professors here who taught me how to write an essay well enough that despite my immature CV, I was chosen to work at an amazing, well-known academic and government institution. I’m grateful to each and every one of my coworkers who never doubted for a second that I belonged at the NEH. I’m grateful to the woman who opened her doors to me, a stranger, for three months and became a very good friend.
I need to shower and hang up my coats in my new front closet. I’m overwhelmed by the amount of things I don’t have that I never thought about: for example, a colander. I’m only praying I don’t lose the minimal good habits I gained over the summer; I am hoping I’ll lose the weight.
Until next time.