The week before Thanksgiving I was in Tokyo, Japan, with my husband and son. My husband had been invited to speak at a conference, and we joined along (free flight for him, free hotel for most of the time for all of us!). This was the first time since my son was born – and the first time since leaving academia – that that I have traveled abroad. In this post I want to spend a little time reflecting on how different my experiences were this time around.
In last week’s blog post, my colleague Tanya reflected on the rush of October – that “month of muchness,” as she keenly calls it. It is a month of feeling unsettled, she explained: a month of building momentum into winter; a month where nothing ever seems to get quite done.
I relate to this sentiment. October has been a blur of continual work and life events. Just this past weekend alone, I hosted a birthday party for my son, went to two other social events, and hosted two work events (family group hikes connected to my business Super Nature Adventures) . The fleeting daylight is a reminder that soon the holiday season will also begin, and before that (and before Thanksgiving!), my family is also planning a trip to Japan (more on that in a later post).
“I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
And cut the world in two-
And see what worms are eating
At the rind.” – Langston Hughes
Last Monday, I was scheduled to post my regular contribution to the Smart Women Write blog but then I woke up to the news of Las Vegas, and I just…couldn’t. I couldn’t post on the post-ac themed post I had planned to publish because it seemed so jarring, and I couldn’t publish anything else.
For a solid day, I tried to come up with something, but every time I even considered addressing the topic I went numb. At one point last week, my collaborators and I collectively talked about gathering useful links, but by that point I couldn’t stomach looking at anything else about the topic.
I honestly don’t know how anyone even dives into these topics anymore.
Last year after the Pulse shooting, on another blog, I spent time exploring the pain the of that event and that experience wore me out for more than a month. I had to take a news break for much of July before being able to ready myself for teaching that fall. Then, of course, there was the cycle of election politics and then the election itself.
And it’s not just this year, or last year either. Yesterday on social media, Facebook’s “On this Day” feature reminded me:
- That three years ago, my old hometown of St. Louis was in thick of protests over the Michael Brown shooting
- That two years ago to the day of the Las Vegas shooting, ten people were killed in a mass shooting on a community college campus in Roseburg, Oregon
- That a year ago, a video surfaced that showed Trump bragging about sexual assault.
Had the app gone back earlier it would have reminded me of my days living in DC, when 9/11, anthrax, and the sniper shooter fueled my autumns with anxiety.
Had the app looped in this past month it would have mentioned the latest police shooting verdict and related protests in St. Louis, the newest mass shooting, the latest sexual assault.
And let’s not forget hurricane, after hurricane, after hurricane, and the earthquake in Mexico City, and the fires here in Oregon and along the Pacific coast.
No wonder I am tired.
I’m far from the only person with tragedy fatigue. More and more often my conversations with friends turn to topics of coping strategies and self-care. I recognize in retrospect that the act of not writing last week was in itself a form of self care. It’s okay to remove yourself from the news. It’s more than okay (even healthy) to avoid social media.
For me, it also helps to feel useful, and so I’ve turned my energies more towards my local community and family where I can feel like I can help. I have leaned into my role as a parent in ways that I never thought I would before this year, channeling my energies towards preparing my son for whatever may come in the future. I’ve been paying more attention to my school and my neighborhood. I’ve been trying (imperfectly, I admit) to practice kindness as much as I can. And I’ve been giving myself more rest.
What about you? How do you cope with the weight of news like the Las Vegas shooting? What do you do for self-care?
Now that we are three-fourths of the way through the year, I thought it might be a good time to revisit my resolutions for 2017 – or rather, as I wrote back in January, my New Year’s “themes.” Every January, I pick a few words to focus on that year. This time around, I decided that one of my main theme would be joy.
Why Joy? As Lisa Munro writes in her own post on the topic, there’s a risk to joy. It seems dangerous to submit to joy in a world of broken things. Yet practicing joy can be a pathway towards a more authentic self. As she writes, “JOY requires letting go of what we want people to see in favor of experiencing something genuine and being real about it.” In my original post (which was written right around the inauguration), I also wrote about the energizing power of joy and how it can operate as a strategy for building resilience.
How am I doing now? I’d say pretty well. I still get stressed and get grumpy like anyone else. But compared to last year around this time, I feel far more at peace and far more energized.
I’ve learned that joy is a practice that you have to work on consciously. It is closely tied to both gratitude and vulnerability. It feeds on faith, and it falls apart when there’s too much fear. There are many many things in this world that make it hard to practice joy, and so I’ve had to learn to tune some of it out. A more forgiving attitude also helps – both towards others and towards myself.
Here are some other things I’ve done in my pursuit of joy this year, in no particular order.
1. I’ve spent more time looking at the smaller things in nature, especially those things that only appear briefly, like spring flowers, or the caterpillars of early summer that will later transform into butterflies.
2. I’ve focused my energy on kids. I’ve started a business that puts them first.
3. I’ve reduced my time on twitter, dropped all political and news feeds on my Facebook account, made a good faith effort to avoid talking about politics online anymore. Even with people I know well, I find that conversations can go in unexpected direction – and not necessarily because of different opinions so much as tonal misunderstandings.
4. I try to use my social media Facebook to talk about positive things in my life.
5. I’m learning to recognize my limits and step back when the stress gets too high. It’s still a process, I still find myself comfort eating like crazy when I’m sad about something (you should have seen me after the Eagle Creek fire in our region broke out hear last week).
6. I practice yoga. It feels really good.
There’s much more, which I will address in more detail in another progress report when the year ends.
In this week’s blog post I want to share some of the books that have helped me through the 2-year transition between receiving my PhD in art history and now, when I more fully identify myself as PostAc, and more specifically as someone starting a new business on my own. If this list seems a bit idiosyncratic, that’s because it reflects an evolution in my interests as I edged closer to figuring out what I wanted to do next.
I think documenting various aspects of this kind of transition can be helpful to others who are just starting out as new doctorates. Two years ago I had no inkling that I’d be interested in working on a business that focuses on connecting kids to the outdoors (though I could have probably told you back then that I feel more comfortable being my own boss than working for someone else). Part of my processing involved becoming okay and comfortable with the reality that there are points in our lives that are filled with uncertainty. We just have to have faith that eventually something will work itself out. So you’ll find books in this list about the idea of processing, and the concept of uncertainty, as well as books that are more specific to my current interests.
A side note before I begin. Although I have not yet read Kelly Baker’s new e-book, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, I had been following her essay reflections on a life post-ac when they were first coming out in blog form a couple years back. Her work dives deep into what it feels like to have to start fresh after the dreams of an academic career disappear. Based on what I’ve read of her essays, I’d definitely recommend it to any recent doctorate.
Now without further ado, here are some of the books that I have found especially useful over the last couple years.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.
Strayed’s memoir was one of the first books I picked up after graduating with my PhD. At the time, I had chosen it as a purposeful break from the heavy political content that I had been wading through for my dissertation topic (which was related to political satire and the grotesque during between WWI-WWII). What Wild ended up providing was a validation for my lifelong desire to get outdoors as a form of self care. Strayed’s memoir was also helpful because it is grounded in the thesis that uncertainty, mistakes, pain – all of these are okay and are a profoundly vital part of what it is to just be a human. Anyone who has read it knows the book is specifically about working through loss; the book is also about moving past regret for any choices you might make when you are grappling with that loss. I found both her physical journey through the PCT and spiritual journey of processing useful models for navigating through the uncertainty of finding a career after the doctorate.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit.
It’s hard to explain the value of this book except to say that if you are feeling uncertain about yourself or your place at this moment, you’ll find solace in Solnit’s celebration of what can be gained from feeling and being lost. Her work demonstrates that the state of confusion is an essential component of discovery and change. The essays meditate on this concept through a variety of frameworks – from the idea of longing during uncertain times in one’s life, to the transformative effect of experience the unknown.
Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.
Bird by Bird is not a book about writing – or I should say, it’s not just about writing. It’s a compassionate, gentle, hilarious, guide for getting through just about anything in life that’s tough. It’s a book about the acts of faith required to take new steps. It’s a recognition that no one ever really knows what they are doing when they start out on something new. Of all the books I’ve read since graduating, this is one that I wish I had read earlier in career, before the toiling period of dissertation work.
The Artists’s Way, by Julia Cameron.
Regular readers know I love this book, so I’ll spare the details, instead just say that I found the exercises throughout this book extraordinarily useful as I spent time trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. The book has sections that help with the “gremlins” and Imposter Syndrome. It has sections about procrastination, perfectionism, and fear. And as I’ve noted before, Cameron’s concept of the Morning Pages continues to use.
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey.
Confession: I’m a bit of a self-help book junkie. After years of reading dense critical texts about the history and theory of art, this genre of writing feels like such a breath of fresh air. But some can get a little too breezy. Behind the “you can do it” spirit is mostly just fluff. One of the reasons I like Covey’s book so much is treats the subject of “self” with a degree of compassion and seriousness lacking in many newer books. Covey’s book is informed by his Christianity, but is not religious. Rather, it is grounded in the idea that one must have a clear sense of their own values and priorities in order to be effective in the world.
The Hundred Dollar Start-Up, by Chris Guillebeau.
I bought this book on a whim last summer when I was sifting through the self-help section of Powell’s bookstore. At the time, I was only starting to wrap my brain around the idea of maybe starting some kind of business. I didn’t know yet what kind of business it would be. This book ended up helping me narrow my focus (and also come up with a few back up ideas too). The book is not a comprehensive look at the ends and outs of business, but it is useful to make the concept of self-employment seem less terrifying and more possible.
Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv.
I picked up Louv’s book after deciding to start a business related to kids and nature, thinking it would be a useful framework for thinking about the value of the nature in family life. Having read it, I think it has a broader value to anyone feeling out of balance in their life. It’s not perfect; for example, I’m not fond of the way Louv uses ableist language (specifically his term “nature-deficit disorder”) to frame his concerns. But I do like his explorations of the ways that technologies and a culture of business impact us negatively, and his research on what is gained by breaks outdoors. Although his chief concern is children, his ideas apply to any generation.
There are other books and essays out there that have been useful in other ways – from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist to the numerous essays out there on higher ed. But these are a few that continue to stick out. What about you? If you have a PhD and are post-ac, are there any books that you’ve found especially useful?
I still remember the first time I had learned about Harry Potter and the magical world that has been available to us for 20 years this week. I was an undergrad in college, it was summertime, and I was house sitting for a professor who had two kids. She had been raving about the series all spring. She swore that the books weren’t typical “children’s books” and that I should take a look at the first two in the series that were sitting on her bookshelf while I housesat.
Sure enough, she was right (smart woman!). I gobbled up the first two books right away and then borrowed the next one from her as soon as her family was done with it. Then I waited for the fourth, which came out the year I graduated. I read that as soon as I could get my hands on it…and on it went, until I had finished the final book right after it was published in 2007.
Except that reading this series was not just a process of anticipating the next twist and turn in the story. Every book became a tool and a guidepost for navigating the world around as an early adult in the 2000s.
The years between book 4 and 5 (2000-2003) was a period of tremendous change for me personally. I married that summer of 2000 (yes I married young) and moved with my husband to Washington, DC, where I immediately entered into a masters program in art history. Grad school was formative. I was in a feminist program where we were engaged in the practice of feminist art history. Professors introduced both theory and practical tools to support us as we made our own ways as scholars and adults. Though I had already thought of myself as a feminist, those were the years when I came into my own as such.
At the same time as I was becoming more engaged as a feminist, political events were occurring that would affect my life in different ways. After the Gore v. Bush presidential election, I witnessed the sea change that happens in DC when the party in power shifts, as well as the particular challenges that come with a presidential election as contested as that one. That following fall of 2001, I learned just how much it really truly matters who is is in that office. I was in the thick of grad classes and working part time as an intern for the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA) when 9/11 happened. By the time that book 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) finally came out in 2003, my thesis had been published and the US involved in two wars. By the time I had read the final two books, I had experienced friends going and returning from the Middle East as enlistees during the Iraq War.
JK Rowling certainly did not know when she began her series series that such traumatic events would occur right before she released the series’ darker, second half. Yet she did have the forethought to include themes that would have long lasting resonance for anyone reading it no matter what was going on the world. In those final books were lessons about governance, corruption, war, and journalism that would serve as guideposts for navigating those heady Bush years. Also, of course, as anyone who reads those books knows well, they also provided the fundamental lessons of the importance of friendship, kindness, justice, and love.
Flash forward a decade later and here we are in another time of deep uncertainty, and I am reading the Harry Potter series again with my husband and 7-yr-old son. We’ve been making our way through the books for the last couple years and now, finally and momentously, we are in the midst of the final book. One of the great joys of revisiting this series as a parent is getting to experience them again from my kid’s perspective. There’s such joy in watching him puzzle out all the mysteries and discover connections as we propel ever closer to the end. But there’s also something incredibly profound about reading this books here and the now, with a child in 2017, ten years after I finished the series for myself.
Both then and now, the series provides guidance for understanding national and world events. But now I lean on the books from the position of “parent,” scanning each paragraph as I go for a framework to explain themes that are too common in this world, like cruelty, fear, and prejudice. I draw from Rowling’s characterization of Dolores Umbridge to explain how figures within the government can exploit their roles to unjust ends. We talk about the different facets of the “Death Eaters” to understand how people can follow a leader while also being terrified of him. I also lean on the book for models of resistance and social justice – from Dumbledore’s Army to the numerous times Harry, Hermione, and Ron bend the rules to serve a higher purpose.
I have been fascinated, throughout this process, to watch my own son work through the valences of “good” and “bad,” whether we are talking disobeying professors, the treatment of house elves…or how Draco Malfoy struggles with the position he is put in towards the end of the series. I can see him struggling with how thin the line between good and bad can be when a person is under stress. As often as I can, I try to draw examples from real life to talk about how fear and peer pressure can do insidious work, or how, conversely, people often do the less-than-great because the alternative is worse. I am ever so grateful for a series that provides so many opportunities to ponders these eternal unanswerable questions to prepare my son for the complex moral universe.
I am also grateful, this time around, to Rowling’s deep compassion for parents and caregivers – something I was too young (and perhaps too selfish) to recognize when I read them the first time around. Whether the person is a teacher, a godfather, or adult friend, more often than not they want nothing more than to make the world a better place for the next generation. This may be a challenge for them — torn because of their own desires to live with autonomy and freedom. This is a good lesson for all of us. Adulthood is often the balance between the individual and the community, whether that community is family or society as a whole.
So too is the lesson that parenting and mentorship is tough emotional work. This time around I am far more in tune to the emotional vulnerabilities of so many characters, whether they experienced trauma in their lives, or are vulnerable by way of their love of someone else. (see Mrs. Weasely’s arc, or Dumbledore’s). I find myself choking up in the passages where Rowling tenderly, slowly, reveals the depths of Dumbledore’s love. Unlike my son, of course, my sadness if rooted in the knowledge of the trials that await Harry and his friends (and by extension all young adults) when they no longer have adult mentors to lean on.
Finally, like so many others, during that first reading I had been drawn to Hermione’s character especially, and again find myself rooting for her through to the very end. When I first encountered her as an undergrad, her very existence as a major character in the book seemed worth cheering loudly about. Like those who have watched Wonder Woman recently with a sense of nostalgic melancholy, I spent time wishing that I could go back in time and introduce Hermione to own kid-self. As I continued to read that first time around and got closer to the end of the series, I also became frustrated that the books centered on Harry instead of her. I had had enough of boy-centered narratives. This time, I still feel that frustration, but also have such gratitude that Rowling gave my son a model in Harry and Herminone for deep platonic friendship between a boy and the smartest and best of all the girls.
I’m also grateful that she made Hermione not just for girls to emulate but for boys to see as a role model as well, for she remains my favorite. How can she not? Here is a character who persists even as a rising din of “mudblood” follows her throughout the series until the final book where she is tortured – at least in part – for her very existence as such. And besides, there is no Harry without Hermione, the girl who saves him from doom again and again. Rowling may have made Harry the “chosen one” but she also gave us the girl who repeatedly saves the “chosen one” from certain death.
So thank you, JK Rowling, for giving us a story about bravery and compassion, complicated characters who show kids how difficult to always do good and do right, guidance on issues ranging from governance to prejudice to cruelty, and adult characters who give kids a glimpse of the emotional lives of parents and mentors…and a seriously kickass heroine. And of course, Harry Potter, the boy who loved…and lived.
We have a tradition of going on an outdoor adventure every Mother’s Day weekend. This year we ended up at the plateau known as Rowena Crest, located about 1.5 hours away from Portland in the Columbia River Gorge. There, on the drier side of Mt Hood, we took a short hike among the bright yellow balsamroots and purple lupines that were then in full bloom, before then heading to a nearby winery. Every spring is a little different, which is part of what makes these mid-May trips outdoors so fun. Last Mother’s Day we were able to hike on Mt Hood while this year that trail is still partially covered with snow.
This trips are one of many I take to the outdoors throughout the seasons – off to the mountains or to a nearby forest for a short hike in the woods. I have been going on hikes at least once a month since I was an undergrad in the midwest.
I used to be more secretive about these regular excursions into nature. I’d surreptitiously spend a Saturday afternoon out on a trail before returning to Sunday spent reading and writing on my dissertation. Academic culture conditioned me to feel ashamed about taking breaks from my work. So strong is the culture of constant-work that I worried that I’d be seen as lazy or unfocused if someone discovered my secret retreats outdoors. I came to associate the peace that I felt outside with a taboo pleasure.
Not now. Now I advocate for families to get outdoors as much as they can because I know that my time outdoors is an vital form of self care.
Since starting my business, Super Nature Adventures, I’ve been spending time researching nature’s therapeutic value.
How does nature help with stress? Here are few ways it can work as a form of self-care.
Nature offers perspective. When you are out among the flowers or the forests or the rocks, you are among something larger than yourself. The bees care nothing of you, and why should they? They are busy doing their own important work. This is a remarkable thing when you think about it – that mere fact that there’s a lot going on outside of ourselves.
Nature is humbling when, for example, we stop think about how the bees’ work connects to us. Their work gathering nectar plays a role in a bigger chain of events that ultimately has an effect on the air we breathe and the food we eat. This can also be comforting – to think about ourselves as connected to a world outside of us.
Nature also commands our full sensory attention – the sights, the smells of the earth and plants, the sun or the wind against our skin, or the strain of our bodies as we walk among the rocks. This is important because we live in a world of technology that tends that has been connected dulled sensations, and to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Getting outdoors can be restorative because it re-fires our senses (not just sight, but also sound and touch). This re-firing can have a re-energizing effect.
Getting outdoors is not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you are feeling stressed, it doesn’t hurt to consider a bit of time in nature.
**Parts of this post are re-published from http://www.supernatureadventures.com