It’s been a matter of much discussion and thought as of late, this issue of whether I will finish my dissertation.
Every day, all day, it’s on my mind. In my head, I hear the words of those who love me, “It would be such a shame to have done so much work and not be credited for it!” I also hear the words in my heart, “It would be such a shame to stay on this path when the life you want awaits you on another.”
I was 24 when this whole PhD business began. I am 33 now. In the intervening years, a sea change has occurred in me. In what I want for myself, what I value. What I think of academia, what I think of science. Where I want to take my life, and how I want to get there.
I’ve been telling myself: July is it. July is the month. You make a real effort to move on this dissertation, or you hand the data over and let it all go.
Today, I walked the house with Bennett in a sling, his legs folded like the Buddha, facing outward. He watched the house go by; I pondered the choice that lies before me. We passed the wall calendar, a work of beauty by Nikki McClure, each month assigned an action word and an accompanying image: behold, endeavor, expect, and the like. Today, June 30th.
“Tomorrow is July! Let’s change the calendar page!” I said to Bennett. “What will the word be?”
And there it was, like a directive from beyond myself, in capital letters, stark white against a black background:
I stood, looking at that word. Blinking. Stunned.
I kissed the top of Bennett’s head.
July. A good month to make a choice.
Last year, as you might recall, we caught a beaver in action down by the lake. Since the fateful night when we watched as he felled a tree in our backyard, we’d seen neither hide nor hair of the little guy, nor further evidence of his tree-chomping ways.
But yesterday, Matt called from the back steps, “I think I see the beaver swimming in the lake!” By the time I joined Matt on the porch, all that remained of the beaver’s progress through the water were ripples on the surface. We put Bennett in his wool hat (it was coolish) and into the sling, and off we went to investigate.
Turns out, down near the shore, the beaver has been busy sharpening his (or her) teeth! The photo above shows a large tree he’d been working on — we think he realized he’d quite literally been trying to bite off more than he could chew. (That, or he was just hungry for bark alone.) But the littler trees below were no match for him!
Our fingers are crossed for another sighting…
After the Farmer’s Market, we stopped for a few minutes to sit in the shade of a nearby community flower garden. A bright red cardinal hopped along the stone path, vibrant against the gray.
“Look, a male cardinal!” I said.
“And a female, too,” said Matt. I did a double take, and sure enough, there she was alongside her mate, her plain feathers blending into the background.
“Maybe this is their home,” I said.
Both birds were foraging. As we watched, the male found food and brought it to the female, who gently took it from him. They appeared to kiss.
It was very sweet.
Not long ago, I read an article in Whole Living (one of my favorite magazines, which went by the moniker Body + Soul until a recent name change) that provided me with a moment of revelation about how to live a contented life, and another moment of revelation about why I blog.
The article, “The Giving Cure” (November 2009), was written by a woman named Cami Walker. In it, Walker tells the story of the anxiety and depression she sunk into after her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis (MS), and the surprising strategy she discovered to pull herself out of it.
MS is a neurodegenerative autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord and manifests differently in every MS patient, depending on which nerves are affected. MS can ultimately lead to loss of mobility and independence. There is no known cure.
After her diagnosis, Walker was paralyzed with fear and depression, isolating herself from others and worrying about her future. One day, she had a conversation with a practitioner of integrative medicine. This woman provided a supportive shoulder to cry on as Walker vented her fears and frustrations.
Then she said to Walker, “Cami, I think you need to stop thinking about yourself… If you spend all your time and energy focusing on your pain, you’re feeding it. You’re making it worse by putting all of your attention there… [Y]ou are falling deeper and deeper into a black hole. I’m going to give you a tool to help you dig yourself out.”
The tool: to give away 29 gifts in 29 days. The gifts need not be of the material sort. Walker’s friend said, “Healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but through our interactions with other people. By giving, you are focusing on what you have to offer others, inviting more abundance into your life.”
Walker ignored the advice for awhile. She was skeptical that it would make any difference. But one day, at a desperate point, she decided to give it a try. She called another friend with MS and went for a visit. She felt wonderful afterward — light and calm. So she kept giving. She donated money to charity. She gave a meal to a homeless man. She donated unneeded belongings to the Goodwill. She filled a friend’s parking meter with quarters. She sent positive thoughts to loved ones and to struggling strangers. “I gave and gave, and and a funny thing happened: I started receiving gifts myself… All in all, I felt buoyed up by my efforts, and happier than I had previously believed I could be.”
She called the woman who had advised her to begin giving a gift daily. Walker told her, “It’s weird. I feel like I’m being supported everywhere I look… The more I give little things, the easier it’s become for me to accept assistance and love from others. Instead of being tied up in knots all the time, I’m much closer to a peaceful state.”
Walker finished her first 29 days of giving, and was so transformed, she has kept on giving ever since. She says, “I wish I could say that sharing gifts cured my MS, but that would be dishonest. I still live with the effects of the disease, but I cope a lot better and feel significantly less pain. I still inject myself daily with a drug that has slowed the progression of MS, according to my latest MRI. Most importantly, the pain no longer controls me.” She has even started a website where others who choose to try her “29-Day Giving Challenge” can share their stories.
Walker’s article outlines these six secrets to giving — all of them important aspects of the practice:
1. Start with gratitude. Write down what you’re most thankful for and make a point to share at least one item on your list.
2. Keep it simple. Small gestures often make the biggest impact. Smile at a stranger, offer a coworker a sincere compliment, or buy someone lunch for no reason.
3. Give up expectations. Let go of judgments about how your gift will be put to use. Once you’ve given it, your gift will take care of itself.
4. Receive graciously. Giving without receiving will deplete your energy. Remember to be receptive to what others are eager to share.
5. Wing it. Resist the urge to plan all 29 gifts in one sitting. Stay open to the gift-giving opportunities that occur naturally throughout any given day.
6. Challenge yourself. What are you hesitant to give? Your time? Unconditional love? Ask yourself why and try to let those hang-ups go.
As I read Walker’s article, I realized that, over the last seven months, through the writing of this blog, I had experienced the very transformation of which she spoke.
I did not know at the time I began A Life in Season that I was following the 29 Gifts path, but in retrospect, I was. I started this blog during a sad time, during which I was very focused on Read the rest of this entry »
“We are out of eggs!” These were the first words I uttered upon waking, and in our household, they signal a dire situation. Eggs are a breakfast requisite around here. Over the course of the week, we’d let our grocery supply dwindle to a comically meager state. (Last night, we had oranges, hummus with celery, and potato chips for dinner.) Too hungry to go shopping before we ate, we decided there was only one option for us this Saturday morning: breakfast out.
Breakfast is my favorite meal to head out for. Morning is such a cheerful time of day, and at the right place, breakfast is an experience in loveliness. Sunshine, streaming through big windows. Heavy white café mugs steaming with good coffee and tea. Charming little pitchers of cream to match. Bright glasses of fresh-squeezed juice. Savory omelettes embellished with veggies, fine cheeses, herbs. Fruit plates studded with berries and melon. Tasty, hearty breads spread with real butter. Homemade Belgian waffles and rich, flaky pastries. The sound of laughter and happy eaters and softly clinking cutlery.
We had thought that Williamsburg hosted no such place — until this morning, when we found it, completely by chance! We’d resigned ourselves to breakfast at the nearest greasy spoon, but it was packed. So we drove on, hopeful that a hip lunch spot we liked would be open for breakfast. It wasn’t. But just down the street, Art Café 26 was. “Let’s go in!” Matt said. And so, we did.
Art Café 26 is a European-style eatery and gallery that has intrigued us for awhile. It consistently wins rave reviews and is owned and run by a warm and lovely chef and art historian. It is out of our price range for dinner, but not, we discovered, for breakfast! Matt had the Lotti Adaimi Omelette (goat cheese, olives, tomatoes, and spinach) and multigrain toast. I had scrambled eggs with a organic green salad (hooray — greens for breakfast!) and roasted potatoes.
It was all delicious. And it made us very, very happy.
What a glorious Saturday surprise! Sometimes, it pays to slack off on the grocery shopping.
Every potato salad enthusiast has a potato-and-dressing combination that they adore and staunchly defend. My favored combo is a batch of waxy potatoes dressed in lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and thyme — a recipe which we whipped up this afternoon, and which I cannot stop eating. I think I’ve been into the refrigerator for potato salad at least five times today.
This tendency for willpowerlessness in the presence of potato salad runs in my family. A sibling of mine once threw away a carton of creamy potato salad one evening in an effort to stop eating it, only to dig it out of the trash the next morning for one more helping (with no negative gastrointestinal consequences, I might add — this sibling has a stomach of steel and an admirable and hardworking gut flora.)
Ah, potato salad, you wonderful summertime staple. We are prostrate before you!
[Update: see comments below for the recipe!]
Last month, a friend kindly gave me and Matt some heirloom tomato seedlings, which we happily potted up in containers on our front porch, a location which neighbors suggested would help protect the plants from the lips of the many hungry deer who share our neighborhood with us.
All was well until my strangest and strongest pregnancy aversion hit: to tomatoes, in all forms — the fruits, sauces, and scents, the plants, and even pictures of the plants. I couldn’t bear to see or smell any of them! Walking up the steps to our front porch — flanked by those growing tomato plants — became an exercise in controlling my gag reflex. It was wild!
Pregnant women report all sorts of aversions to objects and odors that might signal a potential gastrointestinal danger: raw meat, milk, vegetables, scents with notes of rot or overripeness. But I’d never heard of such a strong reaction to tomato plants. My only guess at an explanation for the strange quirk: that my pregnancy spidey-senses were responding to the fact that tomatoes are part of the Nightshade Family — Solanaceae — a plant family which famously includes many toxic plants, such as the mandrake and belladonna and, of course, nightshades (most parts of which are poisonous to humans).
In light of this, Matt kindly moved the plants to the side of the house, out of my line of sight. (Thanks, Matt.) The deer stayed away. But the squirrels didn’t!
Every day, they climb the steel tomato supports to snag little green tomatoes — and both the squirrels and the plants go toppling to the ground in the process.
I don’t know if we’ll muster the motivation to sink the plants into the ground for support, or if we’ll just keep up a daily game of you-knock-’em-down-we’ll-set-’em-up with the squirrels. (Today, it’s 99 F with 88% humidity, and the idea of digging in the garden just seems… overwhelming.)
But I DO know that I’m enjoying the sight of the beautiful spider who has taken up residence on our tomato plants. She’s admirably persistent: she sticks around, no matter how many times she’s been toppled!
Soon, I will present my essay — elementary school style — titled “What I Learned About Morning Sickness, and How It Kept Me In My Bed and Away From My Blog For Six Weeks”.
But for now, I want to share this story about Matt’s and my first appointment with one of the midwives at the great midwifery center we’ve chosen for prenatal care and beyond.
The midwife and I were chatting about the pregnancy. (Appointments with midwives are 30-45 minutes of question-answering, information-sharing, and camaraderie-building, and I LOVE THEM — they are nothing like the hurried, harried, clinical 10-15-minute appointments I’ve had with previous OB/GYNs.)
I mentioned that through my first blissfully-morning-sickness-free seven weeks of pregnancy, I’d been able to eat my favorite breakfast of eggs and kale every morning, but that ever since the morning sickness hit, I hadn’t been able even to look at most vegetables.
She reassured me that this was normal, and not a concern. “Your hunger for vegetables will have to return on its own, and it will. If it’s not back by 20 weeks, let’s talk. But otherwise, rest easy. We don’t really know, but I have a hunch there may be an evolutionary explanation for the vegetable aversion, since long ago, raw vegetables were quite likely to harbor parasites and bacteria that could sicken pregnant mothers, whose immune systems are suppressed.”
Then she added, “And I must say, you are the only other person I know who makes kale and eggs for breakfast! I eat them every morning, too!”
I clapped my hands with delight. “Oh, isn’t it a wonderful breakfast?! There is a small but growing group of us dedicated to eggs and kale in the morning — you aren’t alone!”
“I like to eat my kale raw with lemon and a little olive oil,” she said. “It’s the only thing I can put in the fridge and know that my teenagers won’t touch before I can get to it myself.”
“Sometimes I eat mine with a little brown rice or wheatberry toast,” I said. Then I sighed contentedly. “Oh, we are really going to get along!”
And that, my friends, is how a midwife won my heart. With kale. Of course.
I’m still looking forward to the day when I can eat that green wonder without turning green myself. But I am hopeful that day is coming soon! Not being able to eat vegetables in the height of summer’s bounty is a torturous thing.
Blessed are the man and the woman
who have grown beyond themselves
and no longer nourish illusions.
They delight in the way things are
and keep their hearts open, day and night.
They are like trees planted
by flowing rivers,
which bear fruit when they are ready.
Their leaves will not fall or wither.
Everything they do will succeed.
- Psalm 1, verses 1-3,
translated by Zen Buddhist Stephen Mitchell, from Into the Garden (1993)
For our wedding three New Year’s Eves ago, Matt and I chose two readings. This translation was one. The phrase which bear fruit when they are ready resonated with me from the moment I first found it, because, as friends and family can attest, I am not one to hurry or move quickly. I have always worked and moved slowly (and carefully), and accomplished things when I was ready — much to the consternation of parents and advisors, I’m sure!
Matt and I have been waiting a long time to start a family. We waited through the adventures and travel and questing and financial instability of our twenties. We waited through deaths, illnesses, and upheaval in our families, and an illness of my own. We waited through rough patches and uncertainty and interstate moves and intrastate moves and the chaos of graduate school and of Matt’s first years as a professor.
We waited until we had health and happiness and a home we loved, and life felt as right and good as it ever can. Then we decided: we are ready.
And so, this Father’s Day, Matt and I announce with joy that our first child is due near the New Year!
From birth onward, this baby will move forward in the world when it is ready.
And we will be so happy to watch and cheer that child on with love, knowing from experience that a life lived on one’s own timeline is a very fine life indeed.