Just Right

I head directly south for most of my morning commute. This morning was like many I’ve experienced since starting my job a month ago, where the sun shines on me and the mountains in the most perfect way as it rises in the east. It’s not too far in front of me to blind me. It’s not too far behind me to blot out everything in the rear view mirror. It rides along beside me like a passenger on my commute, warming my face, not straining my eyes but softening them into an eye smile. Its rays are magnificent. Beams of light pass through the foggy, tree-filled mountains so that the entire landscape is softened too. The sun’s warmth is so cozy and inviting. I’m sure I accelerate during the brief moments when the mountainside blocks the sun so that I can get back to relishing the long stretches where it radiates the most. This morning sun is not blistering. It’s not bleakly absent. It’s present and inspiring. It’s just right.

Today I am so grateful for such a beautiful commute. Without the sun it would be drab and cool. Without the mountains the warmth and light would have less dimension.

Until we move closer to the university, I have a long drive covering over fifty miles. I am grateful that I have this time set aside to experience the glory of my surroundings, to relax my shoulders, to pause the consuming, new job-related mental exertion, and to reflect on relationships and God. Today there are no complaints about how this long of a commute is wasted time or excessively burdensome. Right now, I have this commute because it is what I need. Right now, fifty miles is just right.

Leap Year

I was sitting at my desk at work when lightning struck with multiple pops in varying pitches. The endless pellets of the downpour followed. Today was different from other thunderstorms in which I’m compelled to retreat indoors. Today the storm was so inviting. Our office blinds usually remain closed day and night (a horrible way to treat an office window), nevertheless I kept looking toward the window like a cat transfixed by a chirping bird just a pane of glass away. I was longing to be outside during the storm. I envisioned an escape — running to a park and collapsing in the grass. If there were a rock big and smooth enough for me to lay on it, then I would. I wanted to lay flat on my back with my arms outstretched and the rain beating at my body.

I am in transition, moving to a new state from a bigger city to a college town. Our home and church will change. Our grocery store and bank will change. I’ll look for a local doctor and hair salon. I’ll learn to navigate streets that totally confuse me right now. Hopefully we’ll find a church that fits, and in time I’ll serve there in some capacity. It may not look anything like how I’ve contributed at our church for the past seven years, or it may. And even with a great PhD program experience, the move to a tenure-track faculty position at a research university still feels like I’ve been promoted from being a sorter in the mail room to CEO. This aspect of the transition will be the most challenging new territory to navigate.

I have started to pull away from my current life but haven’t moved to my new city and new life yet. It’s that moment of time in the middle of a leap where the hind foot has left the ground but the front foot hasn’t landed. In this moment it might look like I am flying, but all I notice is that I’m not touching the ground.

I wanted so badly to be drenched by the rain today. I wanted to lay in the soaking wet grass to cry and pray and probably even smile. Mostly I just wanted reassurance from the gravity of the downpour, to feel grounded when I’m groundless.

Pausing

For the first time since I started this blog in August 2008 I skipped one of my monthly masthead updates (the March 2011 masthead). I won’t describe what this does to my obsessive-compulsive nature; I had to volitionally exhale, meditate on the true things that matter in life, and let. it. go. I traded in that masthead — and many, many other things — for doctoral candidacy. Not a bad trade off. The process of creating a dissertation prospectus, presenting the proposal to my committee, and getting approval for the project was the hardest step thus far in my PhD experience, and I will even go so far to say that it was one of the more challenging feats in my life. By the grace of God, I have finished that leg of the race.

Because most things in life can be analogized to triathlons, I think about the finish trusses that some races have for each triathlon leg.

At this point in the race, there is no medal for your neck and no formal finisher’s ceremony. But there is celebration. Family and friends congregate at these finishes. Triathletes smile as they pass through (you don’t always see the smile through pain-filled grimaces or tears, but it’s there). Whatever fear that was associated with that leg has been overcome and, whether the greatest challenge lies ahead or not, there is an unmistakable opportunity to celebrate.

Similar instances occur in life, so take them. Take those opportunities to celebrate the smaller victories along the journey, especially if the greatest challenge lies ahead. Even if it is an ever so brief moment allotted to pause, put hands on knees, take a few recovery breaths, and say “Wow, I did it!” before turning full stride again, soaking in the victory helps to fuel us for the legs that lie ahead.

My PhD program is a pentathlon. The dissertation proposal was the 4th leg. There was no blue inflatable finish truss for this stage (though one would be a welcome addition to the department), but seeing my committee’s signatures on the doctoral candidate form was a rite of passage in itself. So I celebrated, albeit briefly, and am already full stride in the final leg of the program.

The April masthead — what I really wanted to write about in the first place — is an example of nature doing its own celebrating as it survived the winter leg and welcomes spring. The trees with these blooms line the streets of our neighborhood and they humbly proclaim, “Wow, we did it!” Because this kind of celebration is so inspirational and contagious, every time I step outside of my house I briefly pause to join them in the celebration. Yes, we did do it. We survived a rough season, a challenging leg of the race.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Aaahh.

Okay, now back to work.

Still Learning

The masthead for October 2010, “A Work-filled Fall,” perhaps could be better titled — “So What If It’s Late November and I’m Just Now Posting an October Masthead.” The photo was taken at the Philadelphia Convention Center with a cell phone that I’m eager to replace. Under one of the escalators/staircases was this huge wall of chinaware magically secured in place. I nearly blew right by the artistic expression as one who is distracted by her thoughts might do, but after I frustratingly tried to dodge a small crowd of people taking photos of it, I got out of my head long enough to see what they were actually taking a picture of.

Until someone pointed out to me on Facebook that none of the bowls and cups have handles, I thought this was a massive collection of coffee mugs. I’m going to go ahead with that initial impression and dedicate this masthead to the night in mid-October when I went to McDonald’s at 9pm and ordered a large mocha latte. I very rarely order a coffee-based drink, let alone an espresso-based drink. It’s more to do with taste preference than to do with caffeine. Actually, I’ve always purported that caffeine doesn’t affect me like it does others. That is, until I ingested 20 ounces of liquid adrenaline on an empty stomach that night at McD’s.

I entered the restaurant already exhausted but in need of a quiet work place because earlier that day my advisor had set a lofty deadline for the next morning. I worked there until 1am, then headed home for another 4 hours of dissertation bliss. Mid-all nighter, the shakes started. And the muscle tensing. And the heart pounding. I thought I was having a heart attack; of course I wasn’t in the mood to die, but it did cross my mind that I would at least have a good excuse not to meet my deadline.

Well, I didn’t die, I did meet my deadline, and I did realize that I am not impervious to a caffeine high. Just when I think I’ve figured myself out, there I go and surprise myself all over again. And I’m not just talking about the caffeine here.

I’ll Have a Pepsi, Please. And Super-Size It.

This past weekend I had a chance to chat with my grandmother (my dad’s mom) on the phone for almost an hour.  I always enjoy our conversations.  Usually there’s a story or two that is recounted, like the time when I was a toddler and, as soon as my grandmother came over to our house, I grabbed her hand, took her to my room, and closed the door, apparently wanting to keep her all to myself.  “Do you remember that?” Grandma always asks, smitten by the story.  I don’t remember the incident when it actually happened, but I do remember it from the previous conversation when she shared it with me, and from the time before that, and each time before that. It’s a favorite memory of hers, so I’m glad to listen as many times as she’d like to share it.

We also talked about her life as a navy pilot’s wife, a young widow after 20-some years of marriage, and a mother of three.  She told me about the people for whom she’s cared and about her faith over the years.  For her it’s just her story, it’s just the hand that she was dealt and the life that she’s lived.  For me it’s this example of strength, of endurance, of sacrifice, of devotion.  Sometimes you just need to hear perspective from someone who’s been doing this for 85 years.

Oh, and there’s a matter-of-fact quality to my grandmother.  If she has a question about your bowel movements, by golly she’ll ask it without lowering her voice or using delicate language.  No sugar coating here.  This straight shooting usually makes me laugh, more so when someone else is in the hot seat being asked how often they wash their face or if they use the quilt that she hunched over for months to make for them.

I told her about my recent state of overwhelmedness.  Trying to make headway with my comprehensive exams while juggling work in the lab and a big load of personal stuff at times leaves me falling short in all I do.  When these feelings of defeat peak I can become almost paralyzed, leading to, among other things, inefficient use of my time, which of course feeds in to the cycle of feeling overwhelmed and falling short.  To this Grandma responded: “When I start to get that way I drink a Pepsi and it helps me to get going.  And I know that it’s not good for you, but it’s either that or shoot myself, so I figure the Pepsi’s not so bad.”

She’s funny and she’s blunt, but she’s right.  I have dozens and dozens of pages to write and only a few weeks until my deadline, so yeah, I need to get going.  And maybe life for the next four weeks (or five or six weeks) is going to be a little disjointed and wearisome and out of balance, but this is my spring.  It’s either get going or give up, so even if I need to cheat here and there on my healthy eating plan, ignore a few emails, or let the bathrooms stay a little dirty, it’s not so bad.  It’s worth the trade off of not giving up, of meeting another goal along this (sometimes very painful) journey, of knowing that I never really was defeated after all.

Worthy

Every Wednesday during the semester my department has Research Round Table, or RRT.  Research Round Table is a great name to describe the weekly meeting; RRT is a horrible acronym.  It may not look like a horrible acronym, but try saying it out loud.  Quickly.  You sounded like a hungry gawking seal, didn’t you?  So when I am in my lab and someone asks if I can meet with them or go for lunch on Wednesday at noon, I almost always blush when I say, “No, I’m sorry I can’t, I have RRT,” because I know the person listening to me cocks their head a little and crosses their fingers hoping that I don’t grow a flipper and slither onto the floor like Daryl Hannah did in Splash.

Last Wednesday at RRT we had a different format than the typical journal club or think-a-loud or research presentation.  Instead the graduate students threw out questions for faculty about the writing process, the publication process, and managing professorial responsibilities in academia.  The meeting was enlightening and inspiring and daunting and discouraging.

At one point, the conversation tail-spinned into a discussion on the peer review process.  When a manuscript is submitted for publication to a scientific journal, if it is deemed worthy by the editor it is sent to other scientists for peer review.  The reviewers have at the manuscript like hungry paper-eating wolves, critiquing everything that is weak and wrong in the writing, and then deciding whether or not the study is worthy of publication.  All this goes on while it is thundering and lightning outside with ominous music playing in the background, and the reviewers are throwing their heads back in uproarious, evil laughter.

In rare circumstances a manuscript is accepted with no modifications.  Although I can’t say that it isn’t a good goal to aim for “accepted with no modifications,” my sense is that the result of having such a lofty goal would be similar in result to getting on the Tilt-A-Whirl ride at a carnival, leaving your wallet on the seat next to you as you spin and twirl madly, and then expecting your wallet to be there on the seat at the end of the ride – in either case you will be let down.  Also your hair will be ridiculously disheveled.  More likely when submitting a manuscript one can expect to see “accept with modifications,” “modify and resubmit,” or “reject.”

The purpose of the peer review system admirably is to improve the quality of published articles, and likewise comments are meant to improve the conceptual and technical aspects of these manuscripts.  Perhaps on occasion this process unfolds beautifully as intended, like a budding flower opening to the warmth of the sun.  On the other hand, my beloved faculty shared one woeful experience after another about frustrating reviewers and outrageous comments.  All this from a group who I admire, who are profoundly intelligent, and who are well veteraned in writing and publishing.  They continued to explain that no one in academia has time to dwell on the strengths of a manuscript; if a paragraph or concept is not red-marked so to speak, then it is considered to be good, or at least good enough.  It’s the epitome of “no news is good news.”

I floated out of the circle of conversation for a moment to reflect on this.  There really are few moments in this profession where someone comes along, pats you on the back and says good job.  The positive feedback is not extinct, but certainly endangered.  This predicament trickles down into advisor-graduate student interactions as well.  Compliments can take on strange forms.

red-ink

Not far off from this satirical comic is a particular instance where I had emailed a paper to my advisor.  In her return email she said that I really did do a great job on the paper…and then I opened the attached document and saw an obscene amount of comments and changes.  Hard to believe the “great job” in the body of the email was written in reference to the very file that had been subjected to the dreaded advisor review.  Of course in this case many of her comments substantially improved the paper, but that doesn’t mean that the imbalance of feedback wasn’t difficult for me.  In my thirst for affirmation, I read the “great job” at least fifty times so that it felt more like fifty compliments instead of just one.  It helped to offset the three thousand comments in the paper.

So during this RRT discussion the overall message was that the critics can be harsh.  The advice on how to deal with this stark reality was 1) to allow yourself time to cool off before responding and 2) to grow thicker skin.  For a person that craves positive feedback and approval, these were grim coping strategies.  I left the meeting with angst over my future.  If I continue in this profession, who’s going to tell me “nice job,” or “well written,” or “great idea”?  With constant focus on what is wrong with my work, how am I going to feel any sense of worth?

Well, I went home that night and God decided to use my procrastination for good as I read the following post from Stuff Christians Like (a funny, inspirational, well-written blog that I stumbled upon while doing the ever popular Facebook stalking):

Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Wondering if we’re worth anything.
I interpret any two people closing any door in the entire office at work as a private meeting that is being held to discuss my imminent termination.

When I hear the sliding door sound that our cool offices make when we seal them shut, that little panicked voice inside me says, “You’re going to get fired.” When I am left off a meeting invite, I automatically think, “Why did that guy leave me off the meeting? Does he know I’m a dead man walking? Is he thinking ‘what’s the use of inviting Acuff to this meeting, he’ll be fired soon?” And I start to worry that I might be turning invisible. Like that photograph of Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, I’m disappearing and unless someone plays “Earth Angel” and two people make out, I’m gone.

That’s ridiculous. It’s embarrassing that the running dialog in my head gallops to that so quickly like a drunken gazelle. (See, even that analogy was lacking because I’m stressed.)

But as dumb as that is, as complicated and tangled as the thoughts in my head feel, I think they come back to something I’ve written about on this site before, something that is impossibly simple …

I want someone to tell me that I am enough.

I want someone to validate that I matter. That I am valuable and important. Like Thom Yorke said in the song “Creep,” “I want you to notice when I’m not around.”

And it turns out I’m not the only one.

Two weeks ago news broke that Alex Rodriguez, arguably one of the greatest baseball players of our generation, took steroids in 2003. If you don’t follow sports, this was a huge deal. It’s the equivalent of say, Samson using performance enhancements or finding out that David had used a pistol on Goliath instead of a sling.

That a professional athlete used steroids isn’t that interesting to me, but in his confession interview with Peter Gammons, Rodriguez said something really revealing. When asked why he did it, when asked why after signing the biggest, most lucrative contract in baseball history for $252 million, he risked it all by taking steroids, he replied:

“When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me, and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day. Back then, it was a different culture. It was very loose. I was young. I was stupid. I was naive. And I wanted to prove to everyone that, you know, I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time.”

He wanted to prove to everyone that he was worth being one of the greatest players of all time. That when the Texas Rangers signed that $252 million contract, Alex Rodriguez was worth it. He wanted the fans and the owners of the ball club and people that watch him on television and journalists and anyone that ever came in contact with him to believe he was worth it.

He wanted to know that he was enough.

The unfortunate thing for me and Rodriguez is that no one on the planet is going to be able to tell us that to our satisfaction. Not a stadium full of fans, not every coworker I’ve ever had. Not a sports journalist. Not my web traffic or technorati ranking or eventual book sales.

That’s the problem with asking other people to tell us we’re enough. They can’t. They didn’t make us. They didn’t knit us in the womb or imagine us thousands of years before our parents danced at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. (That’s Back to the Future reference number two for those playing along at home.)

Even our friends and family members, the people that know and love us best can’t satisfy the deep desires of our heart because they didn’t put them there. They don’t know where they’re hidden or even know what this crazy work of art called “our lives” is supposed to look like.

And when we ask other people to tell us we’re worth enough we end up doing crazy things. Like taking steroids or lying in bed awake at night wondering why your name wasn’t on a Microsoft Outlook Meeting Invite.

Fortunately for you and me and Alex Rodriguez I went ahead and asked God if we were all worth it. He said “yes.” He said He sent His Son because He wanted us to know how very “enough” we all were. He said to feel free to ask Him that same question yourself. Go on, I dare you to. I promise that regardless of whether you’re one of the greatest baseball players that ever lived or a stay at home mom that feels invisible sometimes, the answer is going to be yes.

Duh. In my graduate student haze I momentarily lost sight of this truth.  I have tried to feel worthy by absorbing the words of others.  I have tried to feel worthy by puffing myself up with positive self talk.  But there is nothing that has ever made me feel so worthy and satisfied as the fulfilling love and promises of God.  What a timely intervention.