Refreshing

Yesterday, a friend and I went to the crafts fair together.  I love to look at crafts, admire the talent and brilliance of the artisans, feel inspired.  Amazingly (at least it felt amazing to me; it probably makes sense to rational people), there was also a booth representing the art school that I looked into attending during one of my quitting grad school phases.  I had just finished telling my friend about how I decided that what I really needed wasn’t to do art full time, but to feel balanced (as I’ve already covered here), and then we went down the next row of booths and there it was!

I exclaimed to my friend, “Here they are!”  The woman behind the table smiled and said, “Yes, here we are.”  I introduced myself and explained that I had, at one time, been interested in the Certificate they offer in Fibers, but upon exploring more of the logistics of completing the program, it didn’t really seem like a good fit for me timingwise, but the program seemed wonderful and one of a kind.  It turns out that she was the FIBERS PROFESSOR (which seems just a little bit too coincidental) and that she understood that it was a significant commitment, but wouldn’t I maybe just like to come take a few classes?  “You know,” she said, “it’s not really necessary to be enrolled full time to enjoy what you’d learn.  Maybe you’d find that it’s something you could do on your own on the side, or learn that you’d really like to pursue it more.”

So I left the booth feeling energized about the possibilities for the future and excited about the options I have really close to home.  The best part, however, is that she didn’t expect me to throw myself into creating art full time and didn’t imply that to enjoy it or be successful I needed to be dedicated to it above all else.  I think that once I’m more removed from the World of Very Significant and Important Biology Research that Could Change the World, it won’t be so surprising to meet people who don’t expect me to make their life’s work my life’s work.  Yesterday though, I was pleasantly refreshed by this lovely artist who welcomed me and valued me in spite of the obvious differences in our life path choices.

Zeda’s Story

I am obsessed with our pets.  I miss them when I’m out of town.  I talk to them like they can understand what I’m saying.  I rush them to the vet at the smallest sign of a problem (an expensive, but comforting, habit).  Each of them came to us through rescue organizations.  Each of them had to be unwanted by someone else so that they could come live with us.  And thank goodness that they were because each of our two cats and our dog are totally amazing.  They know they’re safe with us and so their “person”alities can come shining through.  I decided to write this series of posts introducing each of our animals to let everyone know that there is absolutely no need to ever buy an animal from a pet store or a breeder.  There are millions of animals of all ages and breeds (both mixed and pure) that are in shelters or foster homes just waiting for someone to give them a home, and the good majority of them are totally fantastic.

Zeda (pronounced Zee-duh) was born sometime in 2001.  I am not sure if she was adopted as a kitten, but I do know that she and her brother lived with a single woman in the midwest.  Around the time they were four or five years old, their owner went on a trip and got too sick to come home.  The person who had been looking in on the kitties presumably tired of caring for them and LET THEM OUT OF THE HOUSE.  In WINTER.

I am not sure what the thought process behind this action was, but probably even if I got a detailed explanation, I would not understand.  Luckily, Zeda and her brother were picked up by Animal Control that spring, after an estimated three months living outside.  Luckily (again), someone realized that they were Siamese mixes and/or Siamese Rescue checks shelters and both Zeda and her brother were brought into a foster home.  Each kitty was adopted separately and Zeda went to a house that already had two cats.

One of the main benefits of adopting from a rescue organization is that most of them have you sign a contract when you adopt saying that if anything does not work with your newly adopted animal, you can return it to the rescue.  They would rather you give the cat back to them than do something else (i.e. let it out of the house).  In Zeda’s case, we got REALLY lucky (third time!) because her new family did not take the time to properly integrate her with their other cats.  Zeda went back to Foster Mom’s (FM’s) house and back on the adoptable listing.

At this point in the story, it was 2007, and I was moving to start grad school in August.  I had a sweet studio apartment with a great pet policy to live in and I needed a kitty.  I grew up with Siamese cats and I’ve always thought they have the best personalities, so I checked out the available cat listings from Siamese Rescue.  Another great thing about rescue groups is that they usually know A LOT about the animals that they have rescued.  If an animal has been living in foster care, then the FM can tell you things about personality, litter box habits, phobias, and how they get along with people and other animals that a shelter might not always know.  I inquired about three cats and Zeda’s FM got back to me super quickly.  Zeda sounded perfect and I was able to officially adopt her the day after I moved in.

After a month or so of being a scaredy cat and hiding behind the litter box, Zeda started to show her personality.  A cable guy that came once right after I moved in and again six weeks later remarked on how much friendlier Zeda became in that short time.  It’s as if she finally understood that she was with her forever person and didn’t have to feel sad about being given back by the first adopters any more.

Zeda’s a surprising cat in that she likes to greet people and demand petting by climbing onto laps and nuzzling hands.  She got me through the first year of graduate school by greeting me at the end of each day, obviously glad to see me.  She is super vocal, with a very distinctive chirpy meow, to people and to Tonks.  She has never scratched or bitten anyone.  She likes to play with wand toys, look out the screen door, and eat yogurt.  Many a self-professed “not a cat person” has met her and admitted to probably being able to like cats if they were all as great as Zeda.  Not all cats are as great as she is; we are thankful every day that she’s ours.

On Therapy

I’m not sure what it is about mental health that makes it so much harder for people to talk openly about it than physical health, but to me, the unwillingness of most Americans to be honest about seeking counseling and taking medication prescribed by a mental health professional is a problem.  How can we expect to solve these problems unless we bring them out into the open, help people feel like they’re not alone, and de-stigmatize the field of mental health?  I am so thankful to Heather Armstrong for her continuing willingness to share her own experiences in such a public forum and one of her latest posts has inspired me to share with you today.

I see a counselor regularly.  I started seeing her about six months after our three-year-old nephew died suddenly (almost four years ago).  Just after he died, Hubs and I saw a counselor together that I found to be completely unhelpful (he was used to counseling students on how to get all your work done in lab, not grief).  Instead of finding a different counselor that fit me better (something you can always do), I threw myself into my first year of grad school, living in a new city, planning our wedding, and put off grieving.  I didn’t seek help again until I realized that I was completely overwhelmed by regular amounts of stress, which I was accustomed to handling well.

Luckily, our university has an awesome counseling center that is free* for students.  They do an intake interview to match you with a therapist [I cried throughout the entire 45 minutes; I wonder how often that happens].  I was matched with an amazing counselor and started seeing her every other week.  For about the first six months, I cried through each session.  We worked a lot on grief and on anxiety.  After going to counseling that regularly for nine months, I felt ready to take a break, so I did.

About six months into my break, I started to feel overwhelmed again.  Based on very wise advice from my dad, “You don’t have to be sick to get better,” I’ve been going to counseling once or twice a month since then.  Talk therapy has been a way for me to become more self-aware, to avoid taking [all my] stress out on Hubs or my mom, to preserve friendships that might otherwise be burdened by me not having another outlet to vent anxiety and frustration.

My counselor reminds me of ways that I already know to take care of myself and manage stress.  Yoga, being crafty, and volunteering all feed my soul, but I get lost in the day-to-day and forget to do these things.  My counselor also helps me recognize when I need to set boundaries in my life and to accept that I can still be a good teacher, student, daughter, friend, wife while putting limits on how much of myself I have to give to others.  It’s also just really good to have a safe person who is there just to listen to you and who isn’t involved in your everyday life.  A counselor might offer insight that can’t always be gained from friends or family who know you and the situation too well.

My mental health is important and so is yours.  If you feel led to, please share your experiences (if not online, to someone safe).  The more we talk about this, the less of a problem it’s going to become.

*Though many people do not have access to unlimited, free therapy like I am SO LUCKY to have, counseling centers in cities around the U.S. offer sliding scale fees based upon income.  Additionally, many insurance plans will pay for you to see a therapist for a certain number of sessions.  If you feel like talk therapy is something that you’d like to explore, please Google “sliding scale counseling” or call your insurance company to find out their policy.

Why I love the library

I love books!  As someone who is consistently trying to live by buying/desiring less stuff, I REALLY STRUGGLE with buying books for several reasons.  I like to own books in case I need to reference something and I like to lend them out.  I like to be able to put bookmarks in them and leave them in there to come back to later and pick up where I left off.  I like to read certain books over and over again (see this post).  The problem with buying books, though, is that I have bigger eyes for books than I do time to read them.  I read a lot of science and it is time-consuming.  I have time for fun reading, but not as much time as I seem to think I do when I’m in a bookstore.  (There is a perfectly wonderful used bookstore VERY CLOSE to our house).

The perfect solution to my book buying addiction is the library!  FREE BOOKS.  It’s really good for me to have the chance to try books before I buy them.  I love that I can request that things (even TV series and popular movies!) be sent to our very close neighborhood library and then I can go pick them up and I don’t have to hunt all over for them.  I just discovered this week that, if our library doesn’t have a book, I can request that it be purchased.  I requested that two books be purchased this week:  The Girl Who Was on Fire, a collection of essays about The Hunger Games trilogy (originally recommended by my friend Sarah), and Radical Homemakers, which was also brought to my attention by my friend Sarah and that I originally read about here.  My favorite part about sending both these requests is that I got emails back that said:  Thank you for informing us about this most excellent title.  We will be ordering copies of this book for inclusion in our collection.

I love that they called it “this most excellent title,” will be ordering it, and thanked me.  No, Library, THANK YOU!

P.S.  If you read my post from Wednesday and are wondering where it went, I took it off the blog based upon the negativity I felt it conveyed.  In the context of this blog, I really do try hard to invite the joy and upon reflection, do not feel the post had a place here.  If you wish to read the comment on which the post was based, you can find it in the context of this discussion.  I believe and care about everything I wrote, but I think putting it out into the interwebs once was enough.

Feeling Validated

My university has a fantastic program wherein graduate students (and postdocs maybe) who are interested in bettering themselves as teachers can participate in three cycles of learning and evaluation, at the end of which you earn a teaching certificate.  I am currently participating in the second cycle, a reading group focused on college teaching theory and practice.  I really like the readings.  Sometimes they’re dry, but for the most part, they’re really fascinating.  Thinking about how people learn and understand based on how they’re taught is something that I haven’t done in ages.  Maybe ever.

The very best part of the group, though, is finding a set of people who validate me for reasons other than science.  I spent last week at a scientific meeting, and though some of it was interesting and I did get some good feedback on my poster, I spent a lot of the time feeling inadequate and frustrated (for some of the same reasons I mention here).  To come back, get to go to my reading group on Tuesday, and have a discussion about how universities seldom make hiring or tenure decisions based on quality of teaching and almost always make them on research performance felt AMAZING.  Sure the system is broken, but at least we aren’t alone!  We may not know how to change things right now, but we can keep working on it.

Not stuck forever

I feel like leaving grad school somewhat regularly (it comes in waves).  I’ll feel stuck and unhappy and cast around for other options.  I nearly quit during the first year as I struggled with tragedy in Hubs’ family, the absence of irreplaceable college friends, a new city, and not feeling like I would ever find a lab to join.  Then I found two labs that worked, and one that was just the right fit.  That summer I struggled with my project in my chosen lab, but I was affirmed by my boss, who, realizing what a difficult time I was having, told me to “stop banging my head against a wall.”  I definitely joined the best possible lab with the best possible boss.  The next January, as I [finally] got into the swing of science, where you’re met with failure on just about every day that you work, a classmate who had entered the lab at the same time as I did chose to leave grad school for personal reasons.  Her departure rocked my world, in one fell swoop I lost my closest friend in lab and became sure that I would finish my PhD.  I knew with relative certainty that I wouldn’t be able to make the same choice she had made.  And I haven’t.  Last summer a course that I helped teach kept me going.  Last week, inspired by the geographical closeness of an art school that sounded perfect for me and feeling stuck again, I emailed for more information.  Today I received a reply that elicited feelings that made it clear that this path is not for me.  I thought I was yearning to fill my life with creativity, but what I am truly yearning for is more balance.

Not much about being a grad student lends itself to feeling balanced.  Work during more productive times in lab is unrelenting, lasting long hours and yielding little in the way of measurable progress.  I feel guilty most of the time because I work in cycles:  super productive phase followed by burn out then some slacking (repeat).  I feel isolated because I don’t want to become a PI (principal investigator) or even do a postdoctoral fellowship.  I don’t feel secure enough in the science world to be who I really feel like I am, which is a creative, spiritual person who really enjoys talking and thinking and learning about science but can’t fathom how anyone would want to be a part of a world that seems to ignore everything but scientific productivity.  I don’t want to ever put my career ahead of my family and my happiness, and I feel alone amongst my scientific peers.  I wish that the system was different and scientists could be accepted as whole people, with passions equally as valuable as the work that we do.

The economic structure of academic science is unlikely to allow a change in the system anytime soon.  In order to get jobs, you need publications.  In order to get publications, you often have to work long hours at the expense of other commitments in your life.  In order to keep jobs, you need funding, which you can get only if you publish.  It’s a cycle that obviously self-perpetuates.  And it works so well for some people.  My boss has succeeded, through considerable talent, hard work, and extreme organization, to balance his life with his family and his lab remarkably well, but his wife worked in a job that allowed her to be home a lot with their kids.  And it feels so unfair that because I want to raise my [future] children myself and want balance in my life that there is not an option for me in the scientific world that doesn’t feel second rate, that it will be looked down upon by everyone who sees me as a scientist now.  I have probably been less successful in my work because I feel this unfairness so heavily, but I think it’s the time to let go.

The scientific community as a whole may continue to scoff at people who value other things over their scientific work.  I can make a choice to let it weigh on me or a choice not to make decisions based on other people.  Hubs and I have talked at length about our plans for our future happiness.  He, our families, and our friends are proud of me no matter what.  Though I feel stuck now, I won’t be stuck forever.  I’m here now because I love science teaching and mentoring (as I am often reminded).  Grad school will eventually end, and then I can get to a new place where I can teach and mentor and where I feel valued as a whole person and feel balance in my life.

Cooking with Cheese

Last night I made Grandma’s version of mac and cheese, which is baked and is one of those wonderful recipes with only a few ingredients.  It can’t really get any better, especially when I, um, triple the amount of cheese the recipe calls for.  The very best part, though, is how much Tonks and Duncan love cheese.  Tonks knows very well that she’s not supposed to be in the kitchen, but this is what happens:

It's so close!

And when I remind her, “No dogs in the kitchen,” she goes just past the peninsula and waits with this goofy grin on her face:

I am ready for CHEESE!

And to be honest, I really can’t resist it when she looks so happy, so I ask her for a sit and a down and then give her some cheese.  The minute I do that, someone else, who likes to keep me company by sitting in a bar stool while I cook and tries to nonchalantly sneak onto the counter all the time, is all, “Look how cute I am.  And even though I am a cat, I also know how to sit on command.  See?”

They have me trained pretty well, I think.

Here’s the recipe:

Bring enough water for 16 oz pasta (we use organic rotini) to a boil and add the pasta.  Boil until it’s the tenderness you like, stirring enough that the pasta doesn’t stick together.  I like it slightly mushier than al dente.  While the water is boiling and pasta is cooking, preheat your oven to 325ºF and grate up your cheese.  I used 4 oz gruyère, 6-8 oz smoked cheddar, and 6-8 oz aged English cheddar, though I’ve successfully made this dish with sharp cheddar already grated from a bag.  Grated, these blocks of cheese made about 4-5 ish cups of cheese (as you can see in the photo above).  In this time, you should also cut up 4 tablespoons of butter (I use salted) into 1/2 inch square cubes.  When the pasta is done, drain it and spread about 1/3 of it in the bottom of a 13×9 oven safe dish.  Sprinkle 1/3 of your grated cheese evenly on top of the pasta.  Layer another 1/3 of your pasta and another 1/3 of your cheese and once more again until you’re out of pasta and you end with cheese.  (You should have three layers of pasta-cheese).  Add some salt and freshly ground pepper to the top of your layers.  I try not to add too much salt because Hubs and I have been ruining dishes lately because you can’t un-salt things.  Plus, cheese is pretty salty inherently.  Then pour 1/2-2/3 cups of milk over your casserole and dot your cut up butter evenly on top.  Bake for 25ish minutes or until the cheese is bubbly.

 

Self-Compassion

Sasha and Tonks

On Monday our neighbors moved away.  In addition to being life-mentors for Hubs and me (they were several years ahead of us in similar PhD programs), they have a Border Collie-Great Pyrenees mix, Sasha, who is Tonks’ best friend.  Tonks regularly stayed with them when Hubs and I were out of town.  She loved to visit and just hang out with Sasha, so much so that after walks, she sometimes headed for their front porch rather than ours and stood at the door (solid as a 68-pound boulder) as we tried to convince her that it wasn’t time to see Sasha.  Their human friendship was one of support when Hubs and I became first-time doggie parents, joy as we were included in their wedding celebration last summer, and togetherness as we jointly shared disappointments and celebrated successes in grad school.  So now they’re off to post-docs and we can keep in touch through the miracle of the interwebs, but I just felt so terribly sad about Tonks losing her puppy pal.  She struggles so much to get along with other dogs that it felt like a huge blow for her favorite canine to move away.  I felt devastated as Tonks tried to go visit Sasha after our Tuesday morning walk, and my sweet momma cried with me and said that it was probably good for me to experience the inability to protect my “kid” from hurt.

All Monday and Tuesday, I felt consumed and helpless, and I struggled to sleep, function, and act normal at work.  Coaching practice on Tuesday night, I had a breakdown when some guys playing soccer yelled something (totally innocuous) and I yelled back at them (normally would have been able to laugh it off) and then started to just cry and cry.  My sweet team is used to a rather emotional coach, and they comforted me and went on with practice.  The best thing that any one of them said to me was, “It’s okay.  You can just feel sad.”

What a novel concept!  Given permission [from this wonderful, wise-beyond-her years friend] to just feel my feelings, I was able to spend the rest of practice recovering, go home and cry to sweet, always-supportive Hubs for another 45 minutes or so and then go to bed and wake up FEELING BETTER.  Wednesday morning I could talk to Tonks without crying, handle seeing the empty, dark neighbor house, and be productive at work!

And then my experiences were validated through the posted link on a friend’s Facebook page.  The gist:  most people wouldn’t expect someone whose lovely friends and neighbors had just moved away to just get over it.  My counselor would say, “Take time to grieve this.  It definitely is a loss.”  We are entitled to feel loss in our lives, to experience and grieve it in order to be able to move past it.  But what I was doing was just trying to act normal and feeling impatient with myself when I couldn’t!  This mode of dealing is just the opposite of self-compassion, and in order to be able to invite the joy again, I had to show myself a little grace.  I had a good cry and have returned to mostly normal life (though I am still crying as I write this post).

What might you be struggling with in your life that deserves a little bit of self-compassion?

Celebrate!

I feel like I have had a helluva past couple weeks.  The combination of the imminent departure from Nashville of two women who are super-inspiring to me both scientifically and as friends, planning for and giving two presentations (one on my research, one leading a discussion for a first year grad course), my despair at things happening in the world, and hormones have made me feel INSANE.  Sad and crabby and seriously hungry (have I mentioned that I eat my feelings?).  What made it all worse was that the research talk that I gave on Monday basically reinforced an idea I’ve been having for a while that I’m on a directionless path to Science Nowhere.

This morning, this post appeared on one of my newly found favorite blogs, and it just feels perfect to share.  April of Blacksburg Belle uses a vivid “elephant and rider” analogy and says that in order to stay motivated, we have to celebrate each small thing that goes in a positive direction for us (or each tiny step the elephant takes).  So rather than dwell on my first paragraph, I want to share victories that happened this week:  On Tuesday, I met with a PI that I really like in order to plan a course we’re teaching this summer and the minute he asked how things were going I couldn’t stop crying.  He provided a paper towel for my tears and supportive listening ear for me.  I got to see my counselor on Wednesday, which is almost always amazing.  Thursday, I presented for my lab’s group meeting (super informal) and they gave me great advice on where to take my project so I can go toward Publicationville, which is on the way to PhD City.  But the best part about this week is that I feel elated and ecstatic because the discussion that I prepared to lead for the first year course happened today and it was AWESOME.  I felt well-prepared, the students were engaged and fun, we covered the material we needed to cover, and at the end of it I felt energetic and ready for the next challenge.

Sometimes the paths we’re on feel wrong, but I think that when we most need a nod that we’re going down the right one, we get it.  It also doesn’t hurt to motivate your elephant by celebrating the baby steps along the way.

Valentine’s Day

I am not in love with Valentine’s Day.  I think initially this feeling stems from the days in elementary school where they instated a rule that you had to give a valentine to everyone so that no one would feel left out and some people still got special, bigger valentines, while everyone else got the punch out Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle ones.  Or it may be that it was middle school when you could buy your special person a carnation (the Miller High Life of flowers) and attach a note that the student council would then deliver in your second period class and everyone saw who got a carnation and who didn’t.  A chili bowl haircut (through sixth grade) and taller than all the boys (through tenth grade) doesn’t really get you special Valentine’s gifts.  And in retrospect, none of this really matters at all to me.  I am happily married now and before I was with my husband, I had several “good” Valentine’s Days.  The point, though, is that I still remember how it feels to be the third-grader without the heart-shaped chocolate box in her bag or the only seventh grader in pre-Algebra without a dyed red carnation, so I really can’t get behind a holiday that has the power to elicit feelings of inadequacy and sadness in single people.  For the record, I’m not in love with S.A.D. (Singles Awareness Day) parties either.  The ones that I’ve been invited to are generally negative, and really, who needs an excuse to be pissed about something?

Culture in the U.S. (especially, I think, in the Southern U.S.) is so incredibly biased toward lasting, monogamous relationships, regardless of relationship quality, that people stay in toxic relationships because, were they to end the toxicity, they might feel unlovable and out of place in our culture that treats Valentine’s Day like the BEST DAY EVER (Quick! Go BUY something for your MATE.  Don’t have one?  Well, you’ll probably just need to go eat your feelings).  It is incredibly difficult to be single, not only because of the varying levels of yearning for a partner that one might experience, but because being an individual in America doesn’t actually mean much unless you have someone to share it with (or so we’re told by the endless onslaught of couple-y advertising, which is especially rampant this time of year).  Obsession with Valentine’s Day is just a symptom of a culture that drills the idea of something good (romantic relationship with gifts) ahead of teaching people how to actually cultivate a good thing (almost no one is taught how to effectively communicate with a partner, resolve conflict, show love).

And please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not against long-lasting, monogamous romantic relationships.  I am trying to have one of those RIGHT NOW (and hopefully so is Hubs).   The idea that he has to bring home flowers and chocolate and jewelry to make me feel loved, however, is ridiculous and an example of blatant consumerism that is the other part of my pie of reasons not to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  I know he loves me.  He shows me in a hundred ways every week that he does, and when I feel as though I’d like to have some sort of special acknowledgment of his love for me, I step back and try to evaluate what’s really going on in the marriage.  Is it that we’ve both been spending more time in lab than we have together?  Or that I’ve been doing the grocery shopping alone for the past few weeks?  Or maybe I just really do need a little extra attention in the form of flowers (maybe that he picks in a park to save money)?  But why should Valentine’s Day be the only day that I (or anyone!) gets recognition for being a lovely partner?

To live our best marriage, I think we need to embody the spirit of Valentine’s Day every day:  recognition and appreciation of each other.  This we can do in private, without buying tons of crap and making single people feel terrible.