Creative Outlet

May 26, 2011 § 5 Comments

This evening, after a lovely afternoon with my officemate MC, I spent some time with the girls who are in relationships with the former boys’ club. (Even though only half of us are married to the group members of the group, I call us the Wives Club in my head. One day it will be true.) We “wives” (or maybe even “future wives”) spent our evening at a place called Sips ‘n Strokes. Dubious double-entendre aside, this place invites guests to sip their beverage of choice (for us: wine) while learning how to replicate a specific painting (the strokes portion). Tonight’s painting was sunflowers in a vase.

Observe step one:

Incredibly stressful--one of the measurements was actually a hand-width. I was practically trembling!

First, we outlined the general appearance of the painting before actually filling anything in. I thought I was going to die of anxiety. (The worst part of the entire experience, in my humble opinion, is picking up the brush, dipping it in a specific color of paint, and dragging it across the canvas. I hate that part.)

Two and a half hours of “wait, what’d she say” and “damn, I almost dipped my brush in my wine” later, and we had a final product:

Ohhh...it's sunflowers! I get it now!

How this happened is utterly beyond me. But the best part is that I did all of it by myself. Of course, the single caveat to that statement is a great big one: AB helped me a lot. She kept pointing to the places where I needed to fill in more, that sort of thing. She was the brave one who pioneered the canvas while I mimicked her. What I meant to say when I said that I did all of it by myself is that I didn’t have a teacher come and touch it at all. I was definitely tempted a few times, but I plowed on through anyway. So here’s to minor achievements.

And here’s the way my home looks now:

The pretty, framed painting on the left is the watercolor my granddaddy did for me of my bridal bouquet.

And the other two paintings i've done at this place. The one on the far right is the first one I ever did, and the red poppy is the one I painted at my sister's bachelorette party.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a little creative time with the girls. I was fortunate enough to have an entire day with my girl friends. I’m a lucky one! 🙂

Happy May Day!

May 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Ah, May 1st. If we were in early modern England we might celebrate May Day with a Maypole and a festival.

Or maybe if we were in twenty-first century America, we might celebrate the eve of May Day with a BBQ among friends. And the celebration would be less for May Day and more for the triumphant return (read: brief weekend home) of a friend in FBI training.

And at this BBQ we might have brought along our dogs. Who have been utterly wiped out all day. And maybe on May Day, we might enjoy the warm, sunny day by grading the last 9 student papers, reading about 100 pages of a leisure book (what???), and possibly bathing a puppy that smells distinctly of a BBQ grill.

Or, at least, that’s what I’ve done on my May Day.

No, I got nary a new word written on my dissertation. No, I did not conduct additional research on the next chapter.

But I did relax. And recharge. I enjoyed my day off after a fairly productive day yesterday. And I do not feel guilty in the least.

Tomorrow will be a much more productive day because I relaxed on May Day.

Good Friday’s not complete without a heaping helping of guilt

April 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

I feel awful.

I have broken down twice today over the phone–once to Robert and the other time to my mom. So, what’s got this girl so gloomy?

I hate saying no to people I love.

Recently, V and I offered some words of hard-won wisdom to a fellow graduate student…and V said something that I’ve never managed to properly accept. She told him not to get so caught up in the stress of the project that he refuses to allow himself some social time. And as a married man, this is important advice to receive.

I have trouble with this particular piece of advice because I feel like I so royally fucked up that now I’m being punished for it. And part of the punishment is not hanging out with friends and family. Telling people no.

We received an invitation to dinner at a couple of friends’ house for Easter dinner (since we’ll be celebrating early with Robert’s family tomorrow…and not seeing my family at all…since March 12th). I haven’t seen these friends since February. I nearly burst into tears when I received the texted invitation. And I did burst into tears when I called Robert to talk to him about it.

I’m fairly certain I won’t be able to go because dinner is going to take a great deal of time tomorrow evening.

I feel like a horrible friend, a horrible daughter, and a horrible daughter-in-law. Not to mention the world’s worst sister–I haven’t seen my sister, who literally lives right around the corner from us, since March 12th. It makes me sick to my stomach to realize what all I am having to sacrifice in order to repay for my dilly-dallying last year.

Take it from A.Hab., future and present grad students: set yourself up for success. Get started as early as you legitimately can so that you are able to equally divide your time between research/writing and a social life. The alternative is not pleasant. Truly.

Please don’t compliment me; I don’t think I can take it.

April 8, 2011 § 12 Comments

“I love this, A.Hab.!” V exclaims. She’s reading something I wrote. A draft of something. I can’t remember what now. I must not look convinced by her adoration of my writing. “Don’t you think this sounds good?” She reads me the section that has her so impressed. A smile cracks on my lips…I don’t really know why.

“I…guess…?” It’s not really a question, but my tone inflects up. “I mean…yeah?” I do it again.

Poor V sits across from me, paper in hand, trying so hard to get me to read what she’s reading, the way she’s reading it. She tries again and reads a different section. Afterward, she looks up at me, waiting. “It’s good!” There’s no room for arguing against her–she speaks so emphatically, already convinced that she’s not only right but that I’ll think so, too.

“Well…thank you,” I finally manage. It’s feeble. I’m pretty sure she notices it’s feeble.

“A.Hab., don’t you see that this is good?” she asks again. “I mean, it sounds intelligent. You really know what you’re talking about.”

Yeah, I want to say to her. But we’re talking about my writing here. My writing is never that good. I’m just average. Your writing on the other hand–it’s the real deal!

I don’t say that. I know it won’t go over well. V is trying to help me learn to take a compliment. I’m trying, V, I really am.

Like so many graduate and professional students out there, I suffer from what’s commonly called “Impostor Syndrome.” The imposture here is that, despite my ability to please two admissions committees enough for entrance into two graduate programs (one at the Master’s level and another at the Doctoral level), I’m really not as good as they all think I am. In fact, I know I’m not that good, and one day they’ll find out and boot me from the program. Literally. They will kick me on my rear-end with a boot. Out the door.

I’ve been in my graduate program since 2004. I graduated in 2006 with my M.A., and the same year I entered the PhD program. Maybe I just sort of snuck in under the radar? Maybe they didn’t notice how bad my seminar papers were? How horrible my thesis was? How contrived my theoretical lines of inquiry?

When I receive compliments (especially in regards to my intellect or writing ability), my first thought is an emphatic But!

Would I like to curb this tendency? Absolutely. Of course.

Do I want to value myself and the work I do? Absolutely.

But, honestly, the majority of my motivation to learn how to take a compliment is externally-driven. I would like to be able to believe what others say about me for their sake. I am keenly aware at how disappointing it is for the people who compliment me to be met with a mere shrug or shake of the head or protest. It infuriates me when others do that to the compliments I offer them. I feel embarrassed when others offer me a compliment because I know better than they do. (How arrogant!) And I want to set them straight; I want them to know just how ill-bestowed their kind words are. (Ever the teacher….)

So how do we break out of this habit? What do we do with the Impostor Within? How do we learn to embrace and love and see the Person That Other People See?

A Post-It Note Argument: a cure for the common ever-expanding diss topic

April 2, 2011 § 16 Comments

“It’s like ripples in a pond!” I exclaim over my grilled herb chicken. My director and I are at lunch at a local in-hotel Italian restaurant. The number of faculty and staff at this particular location right now is astounding–this must be the tastiest lunch deal within walking distance of campus. I’d tend to agree with them.

“Well, maybe for you it is…,” she says warily.

“I guess I have a great topic.” When she cocks her eyebrow and kind of laughs, I take it back. “Well…I have good ideas how to work on this topic. I guess I’m just worried that this topic is so huge, so unwieldy that I’ll get to the end of the dissertation and hear criticism because I didn’t talk about this point or apply my theory in that way. I’m scared of being judged for what could have been.”

“That’s fair,” she concedes. And then she pauses. I take a sip of my water realizing that I’m doing it again–rambling like a hyperactive child who discovered her mother’s sugary treat stash. “You need to come up with an elevator topic.” My eyebrows crease. “You don’t know about the elevator topic?” she asks, surprised she hasn’t already divulged this secret to me yet, over our six-year working relationship.

And, friends, that’s when my directing professor delivered the single-best advice I have ever been given. And now I will share it with you.

“The elevator topic…,” she says almost conspiratorially, leaning forward a little. “…is a method for distilling your entire dissertation argument into a single, concise sentence.”

Imagine you are at the MLA conference, the location for all humanities-related job interviews. You are in a hotel, preparing for one of your first market interviews. You’ve waited a while, and now you wait on the elevator. As the doors ding! open, another job-seeking-hopeful joins you and pleasantly engages you in conversation.

“So, what’s your dissertation about?” he asks, pushing the number 3.

You have three floors to offer the argument of a 200-page book.

What do you say?

I laugh, interrupting the magic of the moment, and say, “I’d end up having to hold the door open and would just annoy everyone.”

She laughs too. “Well, this is something you need to do. I’m concerned that your topic is attempting to do too much. Your dissertation will not be perfect. It just won’t. Even if you publish it, you will flip it open to the first page and locate an error immediately. You’ll realize that you meant to say it another way or that you should have developed your argument in a different direction. That’s the nature of a dissertation. If you focus on the perfect product that argues everything, you will never finish.”

The last four words she delivers ominously. I think the sky darkens outside the window as she speaks.

“So, an elevator topic, huh?” I ask when the sky lightens. “That is what I will devote my next 48 hours to. I will come up with an elevator topic.”

“Yes. And when you do, you need to write it down and put it on your fridge. Put it everywhere you will see it.”

After I left lunch, I felt inspired.

“V!” I probably blast off her ear when we’re on the phone. “I have this great idea. Professor Director told me about the elevator topic. Have you heard about it?” She hasn’t. I impart my newly-gained wisdom upon her. Once I finish, I say, “So I was thinking…if it’s something that should go on the fridge, it’s something that should fit on a small piece of paper, right? Like a Post-It Note!”

V knows where I’m going with this. “Oh my gosh, A.Hab., I love it!”

We agree that Saturday will be Post-It Note Argument Day. (It’s a lengthy title, but major projects deserve lengthy titles.)

This morning, V and I worked on and wrote our Post-It Note Arguments. We wrote them about four times (twice on Post-It notes, once on our notepads, and once on our laptops). We exchanged one of the two Post-It notes with our argument with each other, fully intending to help hold the other accountable for her concise argument.

I will speak for V when I say that we are relieved, better focused, and more motivated to incorporate these arguments throughout our dissertation chapters. V’s even going to apply this theory to individual chapter arguments in order to check that she is consistent from the beginning to the end of each chapter.

I’m thrilled. My first Post-It note argument draft was rough. V helped me see how it was too broad. She gave me a dose of honesty that I truly needed. My first draft, she said, read too much like a dissertation from a psychology student or a human sciences or evolutionary biology student. “Are you really going to be able to prove this by the end of your dissertation?” she asked. I shook my head. “And where’s Shakespeare?” I reworked it to include the words “select seventeenth century texts” and reevaluated my end-goal…and now I’m happy. Because my chapters are working toward this argument. I just now need to make sure I state it clearly throughout the dissertation in a way that won’t leave my readers wondering why they’re receiving a specific anecdote.

So, here’s the moral of the story:

When in doubt, write it out…on a Post-It note!

Choosing the party

March 31, 2011 § 18 Comments

Yesterday, I was sad and disappointed. I cried. A lot. I felt unvalidated by my department. Like a total loser. As though through the absence of the fellowship, they were not only giving me the middle finger but also a nice boot to the rear while sneering, “This money is only for serious scholars. You suck, and there’s no way you meet our basic qualifications to fund you.” It took several hours, a couple of long phone calls, some incredible comments from my blogosphere pals (thank you, all!!), lots of hugs, and some pretty addictive Chinese food to finally help me overcome the emotional breakdown.

About halfway through my breakdown, in the midst of one of Robert’s awesome hugs, I remembered the promise I had made myself to surprise and thank my students…when I got the fellowship. Weeks ago, when I had to sacrifice time spent on them (grading, coming up with kick-ass lesson plans) to work on chapters for the fellowship application, I decided that I would thank them with treats. I would bring in cookies and maybe a movie, if I could find one. We would have a celebratory party because together we did it! When it struck me that I would not be able to keep my promise to myself (and secretly to my students), I cried more. I really wanted to have a party with them. I really wanted to thank them for their patience with me this semester.

And that’s when I realized:

I could still choose the party!

“You know what?” I sniffled, reluctantly pulling away from Robert’s hug. “I really don’t have it in me to lesson plan right now. I want to rent Persepolis for class tomorrow, watch the first half, and bring cookies to my students.”

Regardless the outcome, my students were still patient with me and have been rooting for me since I told them I applied for the fellowship. Why shouldn’t they get a little recognition?

So, Robert and I got ourselves some dinner, we went to the store to rent Persepolis (we’re reading volume 1–her childhood story–in class right now), and then we bought two packages of fresh-baked cookies (one was sugar, the other chocolate chip). When I walked into my classroom at 8 a.m., my students practically lifted out of their seats, craning their necks in order to see if I did indeed have a DVD in my hand and…cookies??

I took roll. I put the DVD in the computer and the cookies on the table.

“Well, yesterday I got some bad news.” My students seemed to collectively hold their breath. “Do you remember the funding that I applied for this summer in order to finish my dissertation? Remember how I had to write those chapters instead of grade your papers?” They nodded. “Well, I didn’t get the fellowship.”

All together, in chorus, I heard sighing and whispers of “oh no….”

“It’s okay,” I said cheerily. “I had decided weeks ago that I would thank you guys by bringing in cookies and watching a movie if I got the fellowship. But you know what? We’re going to have the party anyway! Screw ’em! I’m still very grateful that you guys have been patient with me and didn’t give me a hard time about getting your grades to you late. You’ve been awesome, and I want to recognize that. So, even if they don’t think we should be happy, screw ’em! I have a great class. Let’s relax today!”

They dove into the cookies (I borrowed a joke from one of Cosby’s early routines about how cookies [his joke was about chocolate cake] were basically like breakfast…eggs, milk, bread…sugar…), I gave them a quick (and really easy) quiz, and then we settled down to watch Persepolis.

Look, here’s the thing.

Does it suck when you work your ass off for no recognition? Of course.
Does it hurt like hell when you feel so utterly rejected? Yup.
Does it cut to the quick to realize you have to go with Plan B? Yes, indeed.

But does it prevent you from still choosing the party regardless? Nope.

And, with that, this is the last post you’ll get about the fellowship. It’s over. I’m done with it. The committee made their decision; there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m kicking the dust off my heels and walking on.

Anyone wanna join me in the party?

I am pleased to inform you…I regret to inform you…

March 30, 2011 § 11 Comments

This entry will not be long because I don’t want to take away from V’s happiness.

This entry is just to inform you that I did not receive the summer writing fellowship.

Please, in lieu of condolence comments, leave congratulatory comments to V here. They will not hurt my feelings or rub it in–I love V and truly believe that she absolutely deserves the fellowship. In fact, I have a feeling that your congratulatory messages to her will lift my spirits.

V, I am so happy for you and proud of you! 🙂 You absolutely deserved it! We’ll discover who the other fellowship recipient was in a couple of days, I’m sure. This does not change anything for my plans, and I have Robert’s incredible work ethic to thank for that. (More on that sentence’s vague meaning later.)

Join me, won’t you, in celebrating with my dear friend V? 🙂

(P.S. Please don’t think for a second that V and I were competing against each other for this fellowship. According to the application announcement, the committee had up to three fellowships to award. They chose to award two–one to V and one to this mysterious other person. V did not steal this from me. I am not angry at her or bitter toward her. So, you all better not be either. ;))

Yoga with a budding yogini

March 20, 2011 § 13 Comments

My friend, V, is training to be a yoga instructor–she’s already a Level 1! And tonight, she led four of us through a “gentle yoga” (or “restorative yoga” or “yin yoga”) practice that she choreographed and set to music herself. It was both instructive, peaceful, and absolutely restorative.

I am so grateful to V for helping to recenter me. I have been out of my yoga practice since last August…which is embarrassing, considering how far I’d come since last February. Since I started practicing in 2004, I always come back to yoga at some time or other in my life. And, coincidentally, it seems to find me when I’m at my lowest, most stressful places. There’s a saying among the yoga practitioners that “yoga meets you where you are.” It does. It meets you when you are tired, sore, stiff. It meets you when you are stressed, sad, unmotivated. It meets you when you are flexible, energetic, centered. It meets you when you are calm, rested, happy.

Yoga meets you where you are, and you are left to answer: are you ready to meet yoga?

Thank you, V, for tonight’s practice. I needed it, and I’m confident I will be prepared for tomorrow’s demands.

Learning to say “no”…like you mean it

March 19, 2011 § 7 Comments

It’s Tuesday, March 15th, and I let my phone ring until the caller leaves a message. I don’t recognize the number, and I’m in “the zone” with my chapter. If it’s important, they’ll say so.

“Hey Amanda, it’s M. Listen, I’m going to be out of town on Saturday the 19th for the day, and I was wondering if you and Robert would be able to watch Penelope for me. Give me a call back as soon as you can and let me know. Thanks.”

As I listen to the message (twice), my insides twist up. I don’t want to call M back because I know I will have to deliver a disappointing response. I like M, I really do. He’s a funny guy and really kind. I love Penelope, his Boston terrier (who is no longer a pup but who I’ll always see as an itty-bitty baby, like when I first met her). I know Penny and Milton enjoy each other’s company, and I’m anxious for her to meet Annie. (I figure the more exposure Annie gets to dogs of all sizes, the better socialized she’ll be.) But this is not a good time. In fact, it’s really a rather bad time for us to be watching one more dog.

I take a deep breath and call M back.

“Hey! Did you get my message?” he asks happily, unsuspecting the rejection he’s about to receive.

I try to let him down easy.

“Yeah…about that, M…I just don’t think we can do it this weekend.”

Think??? I chastise myself. Never say think when you know! Lord knows that causes enough confusion!

There’s silence on his side of the phone. My brain frantically tries to rewrite a script, excising all instances of the word “think.”

“It’s just that…well,” I stammer. “My director wants a new chapter draft on Tuesday after break, and I was out of town this past weekend, so I’m really trying to use this coming weekend to make up for the lack of work I did.”

He’s still silent, so I just keep rambling, my tone reaching a higher octave, and…laughing? Why was I laughing?

“Heh, you know…to be honest, I haven’t even written it yet!”

LIAR! I shout internally. J’accuse! You have too written on it! Why are you lying to him??

Finally, he speaks.

“So, you’re graduating this May?” The light-hearted tone that I’ve come to characterize with M has entirely left his voice.

Shit. It dawns on me: I was probably his last or only option. Shit, shit, shit!

“No,” I titter.

Seriously, am I tittering??

I clear my throat. “No. I’m graduating in August.”

“Oh.” It’s such a pregnant “oh”…so filled with meaning…and is that judgment I hear? Or am I projecting judgment onto him from my own guilt?

Oh, God, I hate this!

“Yeah…but this weekend is really bad for us. It’s not Penny, of course–we adore her! It’s just that Annie is potty-trained and all, but sometimes she still has accidents if we don’t get to her fast enough. And because I’m writing all the time, Robert’s really been in charge of taking care of the animals…and I just can’t ask him to keep an eye on Annie and watch Milton and Penny, too. I am so sorry.”

I think I overemphasized the “so”…he’ll think it’s not sincere…. Shit.

“Oh, that’s okay.”

We chat for a few more minutes about his plan for Saturday–a day-trip, really; he’d be home before dark, so Penny wouldn’t become an overnight guest–until I just can’t stand to be on the phone with this awkwardness any more. I make up an excuse, and we hang up.

My insides are twisted and knotted, and I feel a little like I could throw up. All I did was say “no” to someone, and you’d think I suddenly became Pontius Pilate and delivered him a death sentence.

Fast forward to last night….

“Oh, baby, I forgot to tell you. Mom texted me and has invited us over for a steak dinner tomorrow night. I didn’t respond yet because I wanted to talk to you about it first.” Robert is so considerate to wait to talk to me first, even when making plans with his mom.

But then my insides twist up again.

Robert reads the expression on my face and immediately reverts into what is quickly becoming a stand-by response in our house: reassure Amanda before she has a chance to freak out that she is in no way expected to be social right now.

“I can’t,” is all I can muster out.

“That’s okay! We don’t have to go,” Robert reassures me, kissing me on the forehead.

Wait! My insides are suddenly twisting into more violent contortions. That’s not what I want!

“No, no.” I shake my head. “No, you should go. I don’t want your mom to think that we’re avoiding them or that we’re only making time for my family [i.e. the BBQ we attended last weekend]. Someone should go as the ambassador for this branch of the Habs!”

Robert agrees, and you would think that would be the end of it. Oh no, self-inflicted mental torture is one of my specialities.

A few hours later, we’re lying in bed, starting to fall asleep, and I conclude our day with, “I just don’t want to be bad daughter-in-law. I already feel like a terrible wife. I don’t want your mom or dad to hate me or think that I don’t like seeing them. I feel awful.”

All Robert can do is squeeze my hand, remind me that I’m not any of those things or in danger of any of those things, and wish me good night. I fall asleep soon after he does.

On Wednesday, after I had to let M down about dog-sitting for him, V and I met at the coffee shop to work. I told her about my encounter and subsequent guilt. Her succinct response was perfect: “You and I will just have to learn to embrace saying no right now.”

That’s it!

Although I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say that I’m a people-pleaser, I do want everyone to generally be happy (at least with me and what I’m doing). [On second thought, that might be exactly what people-pleasing is….] I want to be seen as someone who has her ducks all in a row and can hold everything together effortlessly. I don’t want anyone to have a reason to judge me. I want to be the kind of person that I see in other people.

But what writing this dissertation has taught me is that I absolutely must become comfortable with the exposure of my flaws and shortcomings. Sure, I can sit here and rattle them off to you fine folks–I myself am well aware of the precise ways in which I fail so spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean I want other people to be likewise aware. It is much better for me if I feel that others look at me and think, “Amanda’s all right. She’s doing just fine.” I don’t know what I’m afraid of if they were to see the truth in my failings, but it is a fear I’m coming to grips with now.

While I write this dissertation, I have had to prioritize.

Dissertation over teaching. Done.
Dissertation over weight loss. Done.
Dissertation over social life. Done.
Dissertation over romance. Sigh.
Dissertation over family. Ugh.
Dissertation over ALL. Sob.

And we can see the degeneration–I am getting to a place of utter and bitter resentment toward this project. I want to prioritize my life in other ways. But I lived that way last year, with my dissertation taking the priority I believed it should have taken…and my progress suffered.

These next few months, on the road to graduation, I am learning to say “no.” And I have to at least sound like I mean it, even if on the inside I’m cringing, wrestling with guilt, and begging for forgiveness.

(For the record, though, I have a pretty good start on this chapter. I’m sneaking on 20 pages, and should hit around 35 by Monday, if all goes according to plan. And then the grading marathon will begin!)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

March 17, 2011 § 6 Comments

This is the first St. Patrick’s Day that I’ve celebrated with my husband in our four-year history together! Year One: he went to Panama City Beach with the guys; Year Two: he went on a bachelor party cruise before the wedding with the guys; Year Three: I was in Rochester, NY visiting a friend; Year Four: we are doing it right and going to a new-ish Irish pub with a bunch of friends! 🙂

I’m looking forward to a few hours of Irish music, some traditional Irish fare, and hopefully some green beer! Oh yeah, and of course I’ll be happy to spend St. Patrick’s Day with my husband for the first time!

Anyone else donning green as an excuse to imbibe copious amounts of green alcohol? 😉

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!

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