Monday, February 27, 2012

Internal Exile

I remember reading in the New York Times, during the last days of the Soviet Union, an article about “internal exile,” where individuals retreated within themselves, largely out of a healthy, self-protective need to conserve personal resources, psychological and otherwise, due to the burdens the crumbling, corrupt state placed on them daily. (This, in a state all too familiar with the more conventional, political definition of the term:“a state of comparative isolation imposed upon certain political dissidents within the former Soviet Union, in which the subject was forced to live in a remote and often unfamiliar place and in which freedom of movement and personal contact with family, friends, and associates were severely restricted.”)

Despite having searched, I cannot locate this piece, much as I would like to refresh my memory of this account of a unique psychological state. I am frustrated anew by my failed searches, largely because lately I have felt that I am in just such a state of internal exile, making major transitions in my work life and attempting to integrate them into the rest of my life.

My comfortable job in the familiar academic world ended as the calendar page turned from September to October. My office had been understaffed for my entire time there, and I couldn’t go full-time, needing to get family members where they have to be in the after-school hours.  I was fortunate to have several job offers before my position even ended, and made the best decision I could, based on the partial information I had.

I am now a proposal writer for a small local construction firm that bids on Department of Defense (DoD) contracts all over the world. The learning curve is as steep as any I have encountered, including (but not limited to): decoding the culture of a toy factory (Cootie or Perfection, anyone?) during a high school summer, where my boss, an alcoholic ex-con, had it in for me because I read novels during my lunch break and wouldn’t be staying on; navigating the social climate as an onboard services employee at Amtrak, one of few whites and fewer women riding the rails out of Chicago for two summers in college, sleeping in common crew cars with men from the South Side and working long days in the close quarters of the last old-time dining car with a wood burning stove; surviving an introductory paleography seminar at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, where the librarians dismissed any ideas of modernizing the system, proudly displaying huge leather-bound tomes that served as indices and card catalogue, into which tiny period-penmanship entries on back-folded slips of vellum were glued, and reglued as necessary, to accommodate new entries; deaning undergraduates at two august Ivy League colleges I had not attended, boning up on both academic and social conventions in order to best represent my students in the college.

I am learning more about the worlds of construction and the military than I ever dreamed I would. I find it to be a wholly foreign universe, but I feel lucky to be accepted as I am by (mostly) men with completely different experiences from my own, who are willing to acknowledge my good intentions and intelligence, and work with me. I am learning quickly to wrest and represent partial understanding from confusion, and to have faith and keep writing, researching, learning, even when it feels like exceedingly slow going.

I am grateful to be employed in a difficult economy, and grateful to be learning new things at a time when I could easily avoid learning anything new. I find I have limited energy for interactions outside family and work at present, in my personal “internal exile,” but I trust I will emerge from my learning curve with greater energy, and confidence.  See you on the other side!

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse


  1. "grateful to be learning new things at a time when I could easily avoid learning anything new." What a great way to look at life!

  2. Those of us who are outside your sphere of family and work look forward to your triumphant return to the other side.