Seeing the light and affecting just one life

December 10, 2012 § 6 Comments

I graduated on Saturday, December 8th, 2012.

My dissertation director draped the hood across my shoulders, and I shook hands, strutting my stuff across the stage. The symbolism was great on that day. Upon entering the arena, my director walked before me. Upon approaching the stage, she walked before me. Once I stood up from my crouch to be hooded, I walked in front of her. It was a moment that I had not anticipated would have affected me quite the way that it did.

I arrived to the meeting room twenty minutes before the e-mail had instructed me to. I was nervous and antsy, so I read an athletic program, staring blankly at pictures, feeling a bit alone among all the other graduating doctoral students who seemed to be there in pairs. When I finally saw my director come into the room, I hurried over to her, feeling suddenly thrilled and excited. I felt like I belonged there. Soon, we were given instructions–hand over your hoods now (it will be on the stage waiting for you), don’t take up more than one seat (just squeeze together), don’t hug each other on the stage (keep moving quickly), and remember to smile (there will be pictures)! There was a joking promise of seeing the light (you will suddenly realize that you know everything there is to know once you get hooded).

My director and I offered muttered commentary where some of the instructions warranted it, stifling our laughter behind sarcastic smiles.

After we had chorused our understanding of the instructions, we were herded back downstairs to the arena portal where we would enter for the last time as students. My director and I muttered together about another professor’s hatred of ceremonies, confessing that we both secretly loved going to graduations. I was relieved to know that I wasn’t alone in feeling the weight of this moment. I walked past my family, seated only a few rows above me. Once I found my seat, I heard a familiar motorboat sound and looked slightly to my left: there was Melanie with Robert’s family, seated near a door for a quick get-away. I felt surrounded by my supporters, both behind me and in front of me (later I would learn my friends were seated to my left).

The familiar music swelled and ended as the departmental representatives arrived and were seated alongside the masters of the ceremony. Speakers spoke. The commencement speaker was a humble professor of poultry science who had earned several excellence in teaching awards–and well deserved. He spoke about success not requiring strength in quantity but strength in quality–it is possible to succeed by positively affecting just one life, not all lives. I took his message to heart, and I saw the light in it.

After my director and I were seated, she and I began to play the “look at the undergraduates’ shoes” game. This is a famous game, rumored to me by her previous doctoral candidates. I was delighted when I received my formal invitation to play. While she remarked on the height of heels coupled with inexperience in walking in them, I pointed out dullness of men’s shoes coupled with programs of expertise. Of course, the military men and women swept my shine score card, but that was to be expected (and was). I love a high shine.

The ceremony ended quickly–in under two hours. We were escorted out of the arena to applause and back up to the room where we first convened. After sharing my home address with my director and receiving her promise to attend the reception afterwards, I hurried down to the arena to hug my husband.

I have been flying high ever since.

A few people have asked me what it feels like to be finished. And, in fact, I must confess that I have asked my other friends the same question when they have completed their degrees. It’s a feeling that has no description. Does it feel good? Of course. Do I feel relief? Immense relief. Do I feel proud? I want to wear my hood everywhere.

But what word encapsulates all of those adjectives?

The best I can come up with is happy.

If you are working on a degree, and I know so many who are, push yourself. It will hurt. It will suck. It will make you question your decision-making skills. But this is a finite experience, as long as you end it. Finish your program, and no one will ever be able to take your degree away from you (along with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities therein pertaining).

Push yourself. Finish the degree.

This happiness is well worth it.

The Rogue (W)riter (plans to) Returneth

August 31, 2011 § 6 Comments

That, friends, is an example of a deeply desired (but masterfully failed) attempt at alliteration where alliteration has no business. Ah well. Them’s the breaks, as they say.

So, yes, I am (planning to) return to my writerly ways. (Visual alliteration but not auditory…damn you, English language.) I admit to taking a lengthy reprieve from writing on my dissertation, but I don’t feel guilty about it. I needed the time off. I needed the time to refocus, to reconnect, to recommit. I can see now how other ABDs* before me have gotten so near the defense and petered out. I would be willing to bet that their lack of motivation was more than likely externally imposed. I doubt, for instance, that someone whose writing fires had been previously stoked suddenly and without any warning whatsoever saw those same fires extinguish into barely smoldering ashes.

It may be difficult for those who have never taken this particular journey to understand how a student (an adult, grown-up, ready-to-move-on student) could put several years toward a program only to turn tail and run the other direction right before the last big push.

If you are such a person who has difficulty understanding this phenomenon, please allow me to offer my take on it.

The stamina required to keep pushing is unlike any other I have ever known. This is not just “finish the work.” This is not “keep your nose to the grindstone.”

It’s torture yourself despite your better judgment not to.

You may think I’m overdramatizing the writing process. I can promise you that, for my particular situation at least, I am not. In fact, I may not be “dramatizing” it enough.

Remember way back in May, when I had my embarrassing gynecological exam?

My blood pressure registered as “prehypertensive,” according to the new measurements. It rang in at 130/80. At the time, I attributed the pre-high BP to an uncomfortable conversation about my weight. While that is a possibility, here’s a stunning fact. Two months later, when I went to my first prenatal exam (at the same doctor’s office), my blood pressure registered at 114/76. Way normal. About as normal as you could want. I had also apparently lost 11 pounds since getting pregnant. At my second prenatal appointment, my blood pressure was 126/70. Still normal. (I gained 9 pounds–normal!–but I blame that entirely on all the carbs I ate in order to control my “morning” sickness…I feel like my eating habits are a little more on track now. We’ll see at the next appointment on Tuesday.)

What was the one thing that changed between May 19th and July 12th? What can really be attributed to the sudden drop from 130/80 to 114/76?

I decided to postpone graduation by four months.

This meant that I could take my time on the last chapter and the revisions. It meant I didn’t have to kill myself to try to meet ridiculous self-imposed deadlines. It meant I could actually take some time to focus on myself as my body experienced something entirely new.

Attempting to meet the August deadline, writing as quickly as I did, was physically harming me. If you can look at those numbers and not agree with me, then I must suggest that you’re simply refusing to see the point.

This process has taken a toll on many of us. And it will continue to take its toll as long as students voluntarily (that’s the worst part) submit themselves to the torture. I have not decided yet if the payoff is worth the risk–I’m still involved with the risk, you see. Ask me again in five years. As of today, my answer would be a strong no: no, I would not pursue a PhD directly after my Master’s, given the opportunity for a do-over.

So, what does all of this have to do with the Rogue (W)riter Returnething? Well, probably not much. Except to say that I have recovered, and I finally feel ready to reenter the writer’s wrestling ring. (Much better alliteration…strange image, though.)

So, what does this mean for the rest of my progress? Just how far behind am I? Are we looking at a future modeled on the break-neck pace of January through May?

Hell no!

Friends, I’m probably about 20-25 pages away from completing my dissertation. I have three pieces of literature to analyze in this final chapter, and I’ve analyzed one. So I’ve got two left. And I know what I want to say about them…I have just been waiting for the motivation to sit down and say it.

Do I care if nobody understands why I needed the break? Not really.

Do I care if nobody appreciates that I am confident in meeting this new December-graduation-deadline? Nope.

Do I care if somebody chooses to judge my process and condemn me for slamming on the brakes in July? Not even a little bit.

So, what’s the point of this entire tirade if I just don’t seem to care?

It’s to say this: I’ve been there. If you are struggling through a difficult Master’s or PhD program, I’ve been there. If you have lost all motivation to finish your dissertation or thesis, despite being mere months away from graduation, I’ve been there. If you feel as though you have been chewed up, swallowed, regurgitated, spat out, stomped on, and chewed up again by your program, I’ve been there.

Much like Dan and Terry Savage’s** campaign to end suicides in response to anti-gay bullying: It. Gets. Better. Promise.

Hang in there until you either feel that you have accomplished what you have set out to accomplish, or hang in there until you work up enough gumption to say that you refuse to take the abuse any more and will pursue other dreams. Hang in there while you allow yourself to reevaluate your priorities–and reevaluate them frequently. Check your blood pressure and weight, your lifestyle, your friendships. Choose what matters in life and hang in there until you can confidently focus on them.

So, yes, I have been hanging in there. And my dissertation has taken a new priority. Rather than being at the top of the list, it’s toward the top of the middle of the list. Still important, but not my everything.

And I’m much happier that way.

* Refresher time: ABD stands for “All But Dissertation,” meaning that all other requirements have been completed satisfactorily except for the dissertation. I am currently ABD. If I were to bow out of my program now, I would forever be an ABD.

** I am blanking now on whether or not Terry has taken Dan’s last name…. I made an editorial judgment call for the sake of completing a blog post. If I’m wrong, please feel free to correct me, but don’t be offended if I smile, shrug, and say “that’s nice.” (Point is this: it doesn’t matter, does it?)

Soy-Free Taco Night!

April 25, 2011 § 8 Comments

So, on Easter Sunday, Robert and I made from scratch flour tortillas, and tonight we had our first Taco Night in a very long time. Since we discovered that soy is everywhere (including taco shells, most tortillas, and taco seasoning packets), we hadn’t had a Taco Night.

And then I found this recipe in 5 Ingredients or Less!
Homemade flour tortillas
6 c. all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/4 c. shortening (if you’re going soy-free, try Spectrum shortening–they use palm oil instead of vegetable oil)
2 c. hot water

Combine ingredients together until small crumbs form; gradually add 2 c. hot water. Knead until well blended; divide dough into 1- to 2-inch balls. Roll out into thin circles; heat until golden in a very hot, dry skillet. Flip and heat other side; repeat with remaining dough balls. Makes about 2 dozen. (And it really does!)

I ended up using so much flour! The dough is extremely sticky, so I sprinkled flour on my tea towel, and then sprinkled a little additional flour on the dough ball before rolling it out with with the rolling pin. (A little tip: “smush” out the dough ball before going at it with the rolling pin. And don’t ever roll backwards–just do it the way Alton Brown does it; from the center and out until you attain your desired thickness.)

These tortillas are delicious! I’m excited to try additional versions of these tortillas–baked tortilla chips…baked tortilla salad bowls…yum!

But tonight, we had soft tacos that ended up looking more like burritos. For the seasoning, we used Lawry’s taco seasoning (also, Ortega is soy-free, but we haven’t tried that one yet). It was amazing.

This is Robert’s delicious dinner plate:

Yum! Ground beef, shredded cheese, a dollop of Rotel dip, and Pace Picante sauce.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: what on earth does soy even add to food? Because I certainly don’t taste a difference when we eat soy-free!

Yesterday afternoon, I left my flour-y tea towel in a laundry basket. And then Annie nosed it out. And then we found Annie.

I think she looks like an adorable culprit. Robert thinks she looks like she has an expensive habit.

She guzzled a ton of water after I took the towel away from her. I guess the flour dried out her tongue! Haha.

So, there you have it. Soy-free Taco Night. Culprit Puppy. All-in-all, an awesome 48 hours!

Quaint, home-grown Easter Sunday

April 24, 2011 § 12 Comments

“I’m hungry,” I whined to Robert sometime around 9 this morning. “There’s no food in this whole house!” This is an exaggeration, of course, but what I meant to say was that there was no food I wanted to eat for breakfast in this whole house.

So, my loving husband loaded me in the car and off we went to the grocery store for a quick pick-up of a “couple” of items. A “couple” of items turned into “should we make pancakes or biscuits for breakfast this morning?” and “maybe we should have soy-free tacos for dinner this week….” (More on that tomorrow night!)

We shopped for close to an hour, starving along the way, and once home: we baked.

I rolled out Heart Smart Bisquick (it’s soy-free), popped the gooey-delicious disks into the oven while Robert cooked himself bacon and eggs (I can’t seem to eat them in the morning…I feel sick for the rest of the day), and then I set to work on preparing for Monday night’s dinner.

“You know,” I told my starving husband at 10:15. “I think we should go ahead and make the homemade tortilla shells right now, since we’re baking…that way we won’t have to try to do it tomorrow when we’re exhausted from work.”

Robert agreed. And then lived to regret his agreement.

I followed the recipe to the T, mixing my six cups of AP flour, 1 1/4 cups of soy-free shortening (palm oil instead of vegetable oil, thankyouverymuch), single tablespoon of baking powder and single teaspoon of salt with two cups of hot water (gradually added once the dry mixture creates small, crumbly balls). Robert manned our electric skillet while I attempted to roll out something that was reminiscent of a tortilla shell, in shapes that are utterly mind-boggling (the last couple do look a bit circular). And by 11:30, we had made a ton of thin, gorgeous, tasty tortilla shells for our soy-free taco night tomorrow. We froze half of them so that Robert could enjoy delicious breakfast burritos…for the remainder of the year.

Sure, we didn’t have our Easter Sunday breakfast until 11:30 this morning. And sure, our kitchen looked like we’d murdered the Pillsbury Doughboy for a little while.

But we ate semi-homemade biscuits for breakfast. And we made flour tortillas from scratch together.

Home-grown? Yes. Quaint? Cooking as a couple is as quaint as it gets. But a happy Easter? You bet! 🙂

Now, back to work!

P.S. I failed to mention that I burst a blood vessel in my ring finger today. I think it was from the strain of lifting some extremely heavy glass bowls out from under the counter. It doesn’t hurt, but my finger looks a little like it was in a fight.

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?

Taking time for yourself

March 25, 2011 § 5 Comments

I ramble when I meet with my director. I don’t know why; she intimidates me in the way that brilliant people intimidate the commoners, the way that authority figures intimidate people who really want to impress them. But she doesn’t frighten me. I’m not scared of my director. (Nor should I be, just to be clear. Nor should anyone be.) My director is the kind of brilliant woman who just seems to naturally get things. Even though I ramble on and on, she manages to parse out meaning in my nonsense, whittles it into a much better point (pun fully intended, thankyouverymuch), and restates it in a way that stuns me in its innate brilliance. In her voice, my dissertation topic sounds meaningful and worthwhile.

I’m learning to take deep breaths while I meet with her. An attempt to stop rambling. An attempt to slow down so she doesn’t have to try so hard to catch my meaning.

During one of my breaths, she looked at me and said,

“Amanda, you need to be happy that you turned in a draft. That’s good.”

I made eye contact briefly. “Yeah…but…when you were writing your dissertation…did you ever feel happy when you turned in chapter drafts? I mean…I’ll be finished with them, and then I just sort of sit there thinking about how bad they are and what work they need still. Was it like that for you?”

“Yeah,” she smiled. “It was. But you have to get over that and just be happy that you finished a draft. It’s a big deal.” There was a beat. I made eye contact again. “You need to take time for yourself. Do something that you enjoy. Be kind to yourself.”

I promised her I would.

This weekend, beginning tomorrow, I fully intend to take time for myself. This includes but is not limited to the following: staying in my PJs, not doing my hair or make-up, leaving the house only to take Annie and Milton potty in the backyard, and watching the trashiest television I can find.

My weekend will be relaxing to be sure. I have done as much work on my dissertation as I intend to do over the next 48 hours, and I have caught up on all my grading. I literally have nothing to do right now.

And you know what?

It feels good.

When Nature and grad school collide

March 21, 2011 § 15 Comments

This morning, as I prepared to settle in for another day with Chapter Two, I noticed that the cats were glued to the back door, just staring out the window. As this is not particularly abnormal behavior for them, I ignored it and ate my breakfast. Until ten minutes later, they were still there…and both were looking in the same direction…obviously at something. Peeping through the closed blinds above their heads, I saw what they saw: a rather industrious and clever little male wren who discovered an unused, meant-to-have-been-thrown-away planter on a storage shelving unit. Of course, I grabbed my camera, videotaped the wren (and his mate who joins in at one point), and got to shooting.

This is the trailer for the forthcoming documentary that will detail the lives of the wrens as they build their home, lay their eggs, and raise their little family. (Of course, these are all hopes…I worry that we will frighten them because we will walk past their nest on a pretty regular basis, since that’s the door Annie goes out of to go potty. We might have to rework our habits. And, yes. I’m willing to rework habits for the sake of a little wren family.)

Enjoy!

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.

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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