I found myself with a seat at the hotel bar after the Women’s March on Washington, surrounded by three fellow WVU alumni. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go when I said where I had been the entire day. Much to my relief my answer, “I’ve been at the Women’s March on Washington” was met with warm smiles and questions about how it went. Kind of reminiscent of how attending WVU was my personal salvation. On my roughest, toughest, hardest days in California I would go to sleep at night covered in hives from stress and dream of being in my small apartment in Morgantown, working hard and feeling happy. I would wake up calmer. Living in West Virginia changed everything for me.
My decision to study physics was the ultimate rebellion from an upbringing based on feelings, not facts. I was constantly exposed to the idea that the end of the world was imminent but somehow that date was always changing, that the ground beneath our feet was solid as so many bits of sand. My mother was always preparing for the end of the world. I remember the first incident, when I was four, which coincided with my father’s first nervous breakdown. There was never any reason or logic to it, she simply couldn’t be dissuaded from her harmful idea. Again and again we would find ourselves around people who deepened her resolve that the demise of earth was coming and she had better be prepared with 50 pound sacks of rice, expensive products only available to the select rapture-worthy, and a 22 that would maybe maim a squirrel and even then only if you shot it in the eye.
Science and fact was a slap in the face for her, I presume. She was not impressed or assuaged with my choice of profession. I fled from places and spaces where I was forced to pretend to speak in tongues, I fled from that time my mom sold the family home to buy up sacks of flour and rice and moved into a sketchy ramshackle home, owned by even sketchier people who knew Pat Buchannon. I remember standing in the garage there, at the dilapidated home, finding a photo of the home owners with Pat thinking, these people are really weird. This is so weird. I fled from my sister, angrily coming in to my work in Virginia, spouting off to my coworkers that West Virginia was a terrible mistake. For some reason she felt I would be better off at MIT. Which is a lovely, kind thing for her to have thought, that I was smart enough and mentally tough enough to be at such an institution. West Virginia University is THE state school. I was surrounded by great minds, taught by professors from every ivy league school. One of my classmates won the physics prize for the ENTIRE COUNTRY of Serbia when he was in the sixth grade. I was dwarfed by greatness there. I worked three jobs to pay rent and eat and learn there. Taking a job at McDonalds one semester, working there 40 hours a week so I would have one guaranteed meal each day. Working so hard and so long and getting the same grades in physics as everyone else. I’m proud of that.
The professors would say things like, “I can’t write you a letter of recommendation because you’re only in the top third of the class” in a field of 200 students. They would say “Stop working, you’re only going to hurt yourself.” But if I didn’t work, I didn’t eat, nor have a place to live. The students would say, “why don’t you just quit working so you can only go to school” or “how come your parents don’t just pay for your college” or “why can’t you give $20 for a going away gift for this professor.” Money was so tight that an extra $8 expense could throw me into ruin. I parked my car and canceled my insurance and walked everywhere for a full year. Including a many-stories-tall staircase cut into the mountainside with temps outside at negative five degrees. I had roommate after roommate, and a couple precious semesters where I had my apartment to myself. Sometimes I would have to pay my rent late, and I would tell my landlord with my deepest apologies. He was understanding of my situation, for which I’m very thankful. He knew I was working hard. That was a kindness I’ll never forget.
What possessed me to work so hard? A life of being in spaces where the world was going to end. A life of being in places where I feared my mother would try and marry me off to one terrible, ill-suited angry and controlling man after another. Where I was forced to wear a skirt down to my ankles and was rebuked for wearing makeup and earrings. Where the only opinion that mattered was hers, or the people she had thrown herself in with, this time.
She and Dad would visit my precious apartment and passive aggressively leave books about the debate between creationism and science. I would beg her “please do not spend your money on these books” but those pleas fell on deaf ears. Most of the professors were avowed christians rendering her argument invalid. Not that it mattered anyway to this atheist. How many times can you hear ‘the world is ending in 6 weeks’ before you don’t believe in empty words anymore, or faith, or god. How do you trust a parent, who tells you they hold the keys to your life or death, over and over until you flee at 17. How do you accept that helplessness to cruelty, that inability to steer your life in whatever direction you please, to do what you wish?
For me, the seeds of my rebellion started in the second grade. I was placed in a summer program taught by a wonderful woman who changed my life by teaching me computer programming on a TRS 80, put a camera into my hands, and had a beautiful, polished loom with as many pedals as a church pipe organ that she let us children work. Soon after that summer I began reading every book I could get my hands on, and my reading choices went uncensored, thanks to my father. These experiences gave me resilience, they laid the foundation to what I love to do most in life. Creation, and the search for truth and beauty. That next summer a close relative put a camera in my hands and my brother came to visit, exposing me to art on a level few get to experience.
Those experiences, those adults who cared enough to show me my escape route from religion and dysfunctional upbringing, they changed me, they shaped me. They gave me my own voice. So when the time came, I left my family behind, my upbringing behind, and I moved to Morgantown to attend WVU and study numbers, and figures, and facts in my search for a higher power. Physics was my personal endeavor to find god. I was not successful. My search included high pressure criticism, the expectation to perform, the need to work to provide for myself, meaning less time to study. It built my character, it built my strength, it shaped my anxiety. And, to be frank and honest, when I got my first B in a course, I gave up the need to be perfect. I probably worked less hard than I needed to, because the shining ideal of my perfection developed a patina and had a bad attitude. When I learned that all of Quantum Mechanics was based on an approximation of the hydrogen atom, I wanted to take to my bed for a week. That answers are something you approached with sequences and series of data and calculations to get closer and closer to an answer, and that sometimes there was more than one answer, that did not appeal to my idealistic view of “how everything should be.” That people could use computers to work calculus problems that are so tough I wanted to cry, that those problems could be solved literally in one instant. That people cheated and looked up answers on the internet, just like in real life. That groups of foreign nationals worked together to do homework so everyone got their answers perfect, except for you, who did your homework by yourself, as specified and you got a bad grade. Then the lens of disillusionment became scratched and worn, it was almost like being in physics was like you were living your life, day by day, just like everyone else. With the same damn problems as everyone else. Like there was no escaping the realities of life. When I heard men say things like “women just aren’t genetically meant to do physics.” It felt a lot like “women should wear skirts that cover their ankles and shouldn’t wear makeup or earrings.” Funny how real life finds a way to creep in, even when you’re fooling yourself with the idea of what is the pursuit of perfection. How there isn’t one real path to solving every problem. Personal, interpersonal, and mathematical. I began to sense that there just isn’t a perfect anything to solve anything.
So I specialized in sensing equipment to see if I couldn’t get close to some answers. For my undergraduate senior project I used a 14″ Celestron scope with a ccd camera slapped on the end which I manually adjusted to half second of arc to study the spectra of 7 different stars. For graduate school I used an atomic force microscope to study proteins in a fluid environment. Both pieces of equipment divvied up data in to buckets, kind of like how a camera has millions of tiny buckets of light. It’s no coincidence that I used types of cameras for my undergraduate and graduate work because I had been accustomed to them since the age of 7. I used a camera to see the world at that instant in time, like I almost always have, kind of like how I’ve always used writing to see inside myself. Sometimes I look at old photos of myself and I can see what I couldn’t see then, and that’s how I was feeling at the time. The chaos of my spiritual upbringing had me caring for everyone else’s needs and neglecting my own. Even in my time in physics, the woman becomes the group mom. But fiber saved me. Photography saved me. Programming saved me. These seeds planted when I was only 7, they saved me from a life of dysfunction, unhappiness, and fear and shame passed down in my family. Somehow, through all of it, I saved myself.
Finally I can look in the mirror and in a photograph and see how I’m feeling right now. Or I can ask myself how I’m feeling and get a precise answer. Not something approaching an answer or an approximation of an answer. A discrete, actual answer. These dreams I have, where I’m in Morgantown, unpacking the hurts of the past, working my ass off, leaving perfection behind, accepting my realities, these are my dreams of happiness. I haltingly play the piano in these dreams. I stretch out the quilt that is my life and look at the pieces. I look out the window and assess the mountains. I look at the small place that is my very own and I feel content, relaxed, at ease, even though it was a time where I worked harder than I ever had to before. Those difficult and uncertain times, upon reflection, were challenging and beautiful and happy, and that’s why I go there in my dreams.
But today, finally, after working so hard on myself, learning to take care of my own needs before I take care of everyone else, and even with all of the huge, troubling things we have to unpack to deal with in our current reality, I can look at myself, awake, and sense that I’m happy NOW even though I must work really hard and have a lot on my plate and go through the same shit everyone else is going through. And I don’t have to wait for the refuge of sleep to sense and feel it. And I am thankful. For all of it.