This morning, I awoke at 4:15 am. As is usual for me, I typically sleep poorly the night before I have to wake up early to catch a flight. Last night was no exception. I awoke at 11:00 pm thinking that it was morning, again at Midnight, and again at 2:00 am. I don’t know if my mind doesn’t trust that my alarm will go off or if I’m just too excited about upcoming adventures, or if perhaps, I have wound myself into a tizzy getting loose ends tied up before I leave for a trip. I suppose it is likely a combination of all of these things.
Having not slept deeply, I was able to get ready quickly. I am going out to dinner with my friend, Robin when I arrive in Raleigh. Consequently, I used my friend, Cheryl’s conference travel trick of wearing comfortable traveling clothes that will also be suitable to wear at social hours and dinners out. The comfortable clothes part was fairly easy. I have a stylish professional and dress wardrobe. However, I stopped wearing clothes that need ironing or dry cleaning years ago. So all of my dresses are pretty comfortable. I also used my trick of wearing my bulkiest pair of shoes on the plane to save room in my luggage. This morning, it was a toss-up between my blue hiking boots and my black wedge sandals. The sandals are both very cute and comfortable, having been made by a savvy shoe company that caters to the middle-aged foot. Though I am not above wearing boots or sneakers with dresses in an airport, I opted for the sandals.
I typically get to the airport about 1 ½ hours before a flight. Yeah, I know that they say to get there two hours early but seriously, who does that? The cab arrived a little early and the drive to the airport was quick, and my airline was one of the first gates. So I was at the airport 1 ¾ hours early. I went through security (shoes are coming off again), found my gate, and bought a coffee at Dilettante Chocolates (they coffee is so much better than Starbucks’ plus there was no line, they are also local, and did I mention chocolate?)
By the time I sat in the gate area, I still had 1 ½ hours to kill. I sent out some silly Facebook postings, sent an “I love you” text to hubby, and watched the rain hit the tarmac with a steady strum. Time passed quickly, I boarded, and after the usual wait, the pilot’s assurance that we would be underway in a “minute or two” (airplane-speak for waits ranging between and minute or two and a several hours), we took off.
Despite the rain, the lower skies over Seattle were clear. In the early morning darkness, the city lights sparkled like fireflies. I could see the Puget Sound and islands in the distance. It was quite lovely. The effect reminded me of the beauty of my home town as well as a nostalgic reminder of the fireflies I found so enchanting when I lived in the South, which is where I am headed today, to the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. I lived there for six years as a Clinical Psychology Ph.D. student at UNC-Chapel Hill. This Saturday, my Ph.D. program is having its first ever reunion, an idea prompted by the retirement of my dissertation adviser, Joe Lowman, after 40 years with the program, not counting his own years as a graduate student there. One of the faculty figured that since Joe had taught almost every living alumnus of the program, it was only fitting to have a reunion for all graduating years.
When I started graduate school in 1990, I was 24 years-old, and a newlywed of six months. I was one of the only married students in my class of 13 students. I had never lived out of the Seattle area having grown up in Renton, WA and attended college at the University of Washington in Seattle. I was only the second of my siblings and I to move more than a one hour long drive from my parents’ house. My younger brother, James and his wife, Meagan lived in South Bend, Indiana for three years while she was in law school at Notre Dame. But everyone knew that they were moving back and in fact they moved the day after her commencement.
At that time, I was planning to become a professor and knowing how few universities there are in the Pacific Northwest, I did not think I would ever again be more than a visitor to the part of the country I love so much. I remember at our first grad student orientation meeting, asking our department chair questions to clarify when the school breaks and vacations would be. She and my classmates probably thought I was a lazy student! The truth was that I was anxious and already homesick. I wanted reassurance that I would see my family again. All of these transitions, not to mention the fact that my childhood dog has passed at age 15 on my wedding day, created an abrupt take off to independence.
There were also the cultural adjustments. I had only been to the East Coast once not counting my changing planes in New York on the way to and from my honeymoon, from which I had just returned a week or so earlier. I had never been to the South and by that I mean the southeastern part of the U.S., which for cultural reasons, does not include Florida. (Having subsequently lived in north central Florida, I beg to differ.)
The first cultural adjustment was the humidity. It was August in North Carolina. I had just been in the dessert near the Egyptian/Sudanese border. This is one of the hottest places on Earth during the hottest time of the year. You know when people say, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity?” Word.
Okay, I know what you are thinking. Humidity is not culture; humidity is climate. Well, the humidity impacts the culture in the South, I believe, and that’s the story I am sticking to. The humidity in the South is like a character in a story. At night, walking outdoors among the outlines of live oaks and hanging Spanish moss, it feels like a seductive and exotic embrace. During the day, it is brutal, relentless, and soul-crushing. Life is lived, as much as possible, in air conditioned environments during the hot time of the year.
The second adjustment was the fact that I was only one of three students in my entire program who was from the West Coast. There was only one other student, Steve Geller, who was from Seattle but he was an advanced student who quickly left the area to complete his internship. Five years after I moved back to Seattle, I coincidentally became his office mate in our neighborhood of West Seattle, until he moved to Hawaii in the summer of 2012.
Chapel Hill is a lovely colonial college town. We don’t have colonial era architecture in Seattle. The oldest homes and buildings are from the late 1800’s and those are rare indeed. I only know of one, which is the oldest home in Seattle and the site of a small museum. In Seattle, we have totem poles that old but even Native American artifacts are not in great supply at least in western Washington due to wood being the most plentiful building material and our wet climate. Things rot. To see the old buildings in Chapel Hill, with their red brick that mirrors the color of the Georgia clay in the soil, was a lovely treat, like living in an outdoor museum.
My husband and I adjusted to living in North Carolina. In fact, we loved living there and would have considered settling there. We loved the rich history of contemporary fiction. I remember attending a short story reading in a converted 1700’s barn in Fearrington Village. These were authors who used words that painted characters with deeply saturated hues. And the music of the language was stunning. I loved it. To this day, some of my favorite authors are contemporary southern writers. Anyone who says, “Southerners are stupid” needs to pick up a damn book.
And maybe it has something to do with all of the eccentric, strong women in southern literature that allow my strong personality made waves in the South, it was not as bad as one might predict, though part of that may have been because I was in academia, an environment in which I have felt comfortable being direct and opinionated.
The last adaptation was adjusting to being in one of the most rigorous Ph.D. programs in the country. Psychology is a funny discipline. At the bachelor’s level, it is considered one of the easiest degrees to obtain. Now I took a more rigorous course of study to obtain a B.S. instead of a B.A. but even so my husband’s undergraduate program in computer science was so much harder than mine. But at the doctoral level, especially in clinical psychology, which requires both research and clinical training, psychology is a really hard course of study. Good God, the first semester kicked my ass. And it wasn’t that I performed poorly academically, it was just that I felt that I was working all of the time and running scared. For a while, I feared that I would be kicked out of the program. One of my classmates, who was an older student and therefore wiser said, “Elizabeth, you are solidly passing all of your classes (we did not get A, B, C… type grades). Why would you get kicked out?” Thank you, Craig, wherever you are. Eventually, I became a confident student. Honestly, I loved graduate school.
I have not been back North Carolina for eight years and my past trips have been brief. This is also the first time I’ve been there traveling without my husband. That makes it more of an adventure and a reminder of very exciting and important times in my early adulthood when the world opened up to a big big place.
I look forward to seeing you, my home away from home. You are the place where my husband and I built the foundation of our young marriage and shared our dreams for the future. You are the placed I learned a profession I love deeply. You taught me the importance of friendship and how friends can be like family. For awhile, you gave me a cool accent and you performed the miracle of getting me interested in spectator sports with Dean Smith and the Tarheels.
Chapel Hill, you were good to me, except for that damned humidity.