I Had to Apply to MFA Programs in Order to Believe in a Future
Graduate school won't solve all my problems, but it forces me to think about what comes next
For nine years, I’d worn the same watch every time I went outside. The heft of the metal rose-gold Fossil watch on my left wrist felt like a part of me, grounding me into something secure, as if I’d fly away without it. Sometime around March last year, I noticed the watch had stopped. I made a mental note to replace the battery at the next opportunity, at the mall I visited many times before. A few days later, San Francisco issued the shelter-in-place order to curb the spread of coronavirus. Malls closed. Fear of the virus settled. I never got to replace the battery, the watch frozen in time.
Arguably, I no longer needed a watch on my body with the new pandemic lifestyle I adjusted into. All activities moved to the front of the screen, a clock visible on the upper right hand corner. I rarely went outside, if ever, and was never in a hurry to come back home to anything. Around the same time, I quit my office job to make more time for my writing, and I lost the external structure that had helped plan my days. I lived watchless, timeless, groundless. As I feared, I was floating along in life, anchored to nothing, anticipating nothing. Almost a year of living like a jellyfish, I desperately sought out rock to anchor onto. So, as one does, I applied for an MFA.
The “graduate school will solve all my problems” thought process is not unique to my personal situation. By this point, it’s almost a trope. As someone who already has a Master’s degree, I already know graduate school will not solve all my problems. But it does solve one crucial problem in my current life: it gives me something to look forward to. In fact, it makes it possible to look forward at all. Applying to MFA programs means I somehow, inherently, must believe in a future.
Having something to look forward to is important to our sense of well-being, and as many others have noted before, the pandemic has canceled so many of our rituals and plans, leaving many of us with nothing to look forward to. I must have instinctively known this to be the case. I started taking on hobbies that take a long time to finish. The ones that stuck were the ones that required initial momentum followed by a lot of waiting and watching. I learned how to bake bread for the first time. I started planting seeds and tending to seedlings until they grew to adult plants. I finally used the slow cooker that was collecting dust in my cabinets. Kneading a lump of dough on the counter provided me with the sense of anticipation that I’d have a fragrant loaf of bread in a few hours, maybe the next day, at most. Seeds planted with the right care would sprout in a week or so. Though brief, I was buying myself moments of anticipation, constantly baking a new loaf every week, trying to feel those moments all the time. Other hobbies I picked up that only served to pass the time, such as embroidery or coding, did not stick as much as bread baking or gardening, likely because they provided less of a sense of anticipation.
Right out of college, I moved to Houston, where I got my first job. It was the first time I’d lived in a subtropical climate all year round. Before, I’d only lived in places with four distinct seasons: slogging summers, piercing winters, and brief, brilliant springs and autumns in between. I hadn’t thought of myself as particularly attached to seasons as a concept, but it was disorienting to lose them. Seasons in Southeast Texas existed, albeit subtle; locals differentiate time through minute differences in humidity, the lack of hurricanes for a few months, the few shades of green changing throughout the months. But not knowing how to feel these changes, I felt like time had stopped completely. I couldn’t sense the moving of time at all.
I recall one September coming home to find an ad in the mail from a pet supply store featuring puppies in sweaters frolicking in fallen, colorful leaves. I was taken aback by the reality that it was fall. I clutched the pamphlet to my chest and cried.
I’d learned the importance of measuring time with that experience. I planned out little trips throughout the year to commemorate the changing of seasons and experience the passing of time, especially now since I moved to Northern California with its temperate weather throughout the year. Every spring we drove to see wildflowers painting the hills in bright yellows and purples. Every fall we drove to the Sierras to see leaves turn yellow and orange. Every winter we camped in the desert to experience the piercing wind and cold, the barren landscape, the jackrabbits leaving footprints in the snow.
All these, too, stopped with the pandemic, much like the watch I never wore.
My seasonal road trip schedule meant that I spent some time somewhere other than my home at least four times a year, which involves planning, logistics, and anticipation. Depending on the size of the trip, I was constantly looking forward to something for a few weeks to months at a time—markers of the season, of times passing by. In the early pandemic, I was able to find markers of time to measure hours to days ahead, stretching it to a week at most. In order to keep up the anticipation, I needed to constantly work, constantly plan my next loaf, constantly worry. This was a short-term solution that was perhaps not a solution at all, at least not for a pandemic that would stretch into a second year
Hence, the MFA applications. As I researched, I envisioned my future, thinking of where I could live, browsing photos and profiles of professors and alumni. I imagined myself trudging through snow, or living in a house with a yard, maybe another cat, definitely more plants. As I submit my applications in the winter, I am anticipating a future where the following fall exists. I’m believing that the next few years will exist, not one in which I’ll just mindlessly float, but will actively participate in. Even the Spanish Flu only lasted two years, I tell myself, as I try to stay optimistic about a future in the arts, about the U.S. The vaccine is coming, there’s a new president in office. But all those are still vague for someone cooped up in a one bedroom apartment like me. This MFA thing, this is concrete. This could be real. With these applications, I bought myself a few years of anticipation, and I’ve never felt better during this entire pandemic. It’s helped me fight the urge to succumb into hopelessness to feel like the next few months will matter. If those endless loaves of bread baked and eaten were what was needed for me to make this jump, so be it. It led me to this jump and leap of faith where I finally feel a little bit more secure. I might even buy a new watch.