finishing up my autodidactic doctorate

Most hangovers fade into the past unremembered, or memorable only for an occasion they made more difficult. One glorious day several years ago, however, I endured what I look back on as the best hangover I ever had. I woke up knowing that there was no way I was going to do what I had planned to do that day. So what would I do instead?

This would be the day I would finally learn about the history of medicine. I was in that sort of low energy state that makes it easy to focus for
long periods of time. I was too slow and dim-witted to be distracted. I spent the day lying on the couch with my cat, reading the entire “History of Medicine” wikipedia article, following leads on topics of interest as I went. I read up on the codes of ethics for doctors in different traditions. Something jumped out at me – it takes 7 years. Universally.

Everywhere in the world, in all eras, one cannot become a doctor in less than 7 years. That clicked for me and relieved my feeling that I wasn’t a good enough herbalist yet. I was only 4 years into it, and it would take at least 7!

After that, I thought of my course of study as my autodidactic PhD, cobbled together from parts. For coursework I went to herb school and personal training school and massage school, took college courses in sciences, went to workshops and conferences. I did the field work and internship of working for other herbalists and beginning to see clients. I did my TA stint, teaching at other herbalists’ schools.

I was ready to graduate – really come into my own as an herbalist. The year had cycled 7 times and it made sense – there’s a special level of understanding that comes when one focuses on one topic for 7 years. But, no, I had made the classic mistake! I had not yet fulfilled my foreign language requirement! When I worked at UT, I saw it happen. PhD students, gnarled, twisted and pale from a decade of late nights of reading and writing, thrust into beginner level language classes with 19 year olds. The horror! How they would howl.

And so I find myself here in Berlin, struggling for over an hour to read 3 pages. In German. Staring at this paperwork, struggling to comprehend, this feeling is so familiar. I’m drawn back into a moment years ago, the year 2000. I’m walking on UT campus, under trees, by the turtle pond and greenhouses. I’m channeling my frustration by imagining a small book. On the cover, a crude, 2-color, woodblock print, depicting the UT tower in the background, and Edvard Munch’s The Scream in the foreground. The title reads: The Tower, a story in the style of Kafka. Inside the book is a chronicle of my efforts to escape from UT, in the bleak and despairing tone of The Trial and The Castle. I chuckle to myself.

That morning I had assembled the stack of documents I needed in order to “apply to graduate” – a term I thought had a certain oxymoronic flavor. In the afternoon I took the bus to campus to deliver my file – triumphantly completing the final task in a decade-long saga of undergraduate studies. “You can’t turn this in until tomorrow,” said the student worker at the desk, up in the tower. I glanced at the clock. It was 4:30. “Could you please just leave it on the desk overnight and pretend I brought it in tomorrow?” “No, I can’t do that. You have to come back. Make sure you turn it in by the deadline on Friday, or you’ll have to wait until next semester to graduate.”

These past few months have felt that same way. There is always one more document. I have given up on thinking that any particular bureaucratic obstacle is the final one. Perhaps this Kafka story is The Forest? Behind each tree is another downed log to climb over. Somewhere deep in this wintery forest, though, if I just keep going, I’m going to find my little witch hut. I just know I will. And I’ll light the fire and get to work.

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