Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A normal, brave thing

Yesterday, I turned in three term papers and officially ended my first semester as a PhD student at Princeton University.

[Princeton, the day after Dean's Date and after my soul felt so much lighter to get rid of those papers.]


I can hear you all cheering. Thank you, thank you.

But before you cheer too much, can I get real for a second? This semester was one of the hardest semesters of my academic career. (It's up there with the first half of second grade, which, yes, totally counts as part of my academic career, and which, as my mother will attest, was incredibly hard.)

Hard doesn't mean awful. (Though, to be honest, there have been some pretty awful things this semester--like getting double pneumonia halfway through the semester. That was the definition of pretty awful.) But it does mean hard. Moving across the country is hard. Reading 1500-2000 pages a week is hard. Making new friends is hard. Dealing with imposter syndrome is hard. Figuring out a new schedule is hard. Wondering if you've made the right decision is hard.

I'm not chronicling these as a tale of woe. Nor was this semester only full of hard things. Because making new friends is also exciting. Exploring a new place is thrilling. Challenging classes are also intellect-stretching. And there were (and are) moments when I stand in the courtyard between the Firestone Library, the Princeton University Chapel, and Chancellor Green and think, "Wow. I'm actually here."

But I mention what is hard because I hope that for someone, it is helpful to hear and realize that they're not alone. 

Because I know how scary it can be to admit that things are hard. It is especially scary when it seems like everyone else knows exactly what they're doing.

But most of us are just barely hanging in there, too. This is at least what I've gathered from friends I've talked with (inside and outside of Princeton). We're all just making it through and figuring this out as we go--all of us are scared and no one knows exactly what they're doing. And there is power in that solidarity. (Even if it is shared suffering, there is power in that.) And supporting each other in the unknown, uncertain, and unfair is a brave thing to do.

There's a picture I discovered recently by the artist Caitlin Connolly. I really, really love her work for a variety of reasons. But one reason I like her artwork is because of its unique simplicity. This one is a sketch called, "I'm Doing a Normal Brave Thing."

/via/


I'm doing a normal brave thing. 

I like the tension in this sketch--her head points one way while her feet walk in the other direction. Sometimes, our head desperately wants to go back to the way it ways, but our feet carry us forward. Also, sometimes things that appear normal to us appear brave to others. Sometimes things that appear brave to us seem normal to others.

I also like the quiet repose on her face. This is just life. This is normal. The tension is normal. The uncertainty is normal. But so is the peace which comes from quiet bravery--by choosing to live with those tensions and ambiguities.

I've thought about that phrase in the past few months, and how it applies to so many stages of life: I'm doing a normal brave thing. I'm going to school. I'm learning how to drive. I'm experiencing heartbreak. I'm learning to love again. I'm traveling somewhere across the globe to visit a friend. I'm driving across the neighborhood to help a stranger. I'm listening. I'm forgiving. I'm living.

The tension is real. The uncertainty is real. The desire to turn back is real. But so is the desire for change, mobility, possibility, and success.

Living life--and choosing to live life deliberately--is a normal brave thing.




And so, for me, pursuing and confronting and learning to embrace this PhD program is doing a normal, brave thing. For some people, getting a PhD at Princeton is the farthest thing from normal. To others, going into academia is hardly brave--it's running away into an ivory tower.

But for me, it's both normal and brave. Normal, in that so many people have done this and so many will do it in the future. I'm part of a continuous line of students that have done hard things--and harder things. I'm a normal part of this circle of PhD life.

But it's brave in that I'm the first woman in my line of women--from mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc.--to pursue a PhD. It's brave in the way every story is unique and every challenge is new, since I have not done it before. It's brave in that it takes resilience and hope to keep moving forward.




Coming back onto campus after Christmas Break, I did feel hopeful. As I walked past Dickinson Hall, I felt a sense of, Yes, this is where I need to be and it is right. It's a feeling that gives me courage.

I'm sure that this coming semester will be hard, too. It will be easier in some ways and harder in different ways than my first semester. But I believe I can do it. And I believe that all of us--no matter our challenges this year--can face the new year with bravery.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Making up for lost time--a quick end-of-2017 review

Well, it's been a little bit over a month since I blogged, and there has been SO MUCH to write about. I don't even know where to start. (And I am cringing inside because this sounds way too much like a journal entry. Which, come to think of it, my journal writing is also flagging behind. Ahhhh, help me.)

I'll write more in detail about most (if not all) of these updates when I have time (which will be after January 16th--three monster papers are due on the 16th for me so I'm not even going to think about really updating the blog before then).

But, a couple of important things happened over the past month-and-a-half, namely:

1. Sam and I got engaged!


The proposal was sweet, simple, and spontaneous (and a surprise!). We are both really, really happy and looking forward to sharing life together. 

2. I (almost) finished my first semester as a PhD student at Princeton! 


Almost, because of #papersofdoom. This semester has been one of the hardest of my life. But, like most hard things in life, I have also learned a lot from it. 

3. I went to Tanzania! 


Sam and I went to visit his family and it was a very memorable trip. Tanzania is beautiful and Sam's family is very gracious. 


[Those Zanzibar sunsets, though.]

4. I got to go home for a good portion of Christmas Break and it was wonderful to be with my family. They are such a support. 

[And Utah sunrises inspire me.]


Here's to a joyous and beautiful 2018.

P.S. I am thinking about getting a new blog website--I want to use WordPress instead of Blogger. Thoughts? Suggestions? Does anyone actually read this thing anymore?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

That D.C. Life [take 3]

I've gone to D.C. a lot in the past year, but particularly in the last few months. Each trip has been fun and it's wonderful to see friends and, most importantly (the reason I go there at all, really), my boyfriend.

Some trips have been more anticipatory or nerve-wracking than others. Like jumping on a plane in January to see if anything would happen with a certain young man I had been corresponding with. Spoiler alert: It did. But you don't know that when you jump on that plane with your tickets and heart in your hand.

Recently, I've driven to D.C. instead of flying there. Because I can drive there! Which is awesome. But also scary for me, because driving is not my favorite thing to do, and driving on the East Coast terrifies me. I spent the good portion of my first month in New Jersey getting lost, staying in the far right lane, driving too slowly, and clenching my hands on the steering wheel.

So driving to D.C., which is a three-hour drive complete with tolls, bridges, traffic jams, and the Beltway, was quite a feat for me. (And, hahaaaa, I screamed when I got onto the Beltway. In a way to release tension and stress. I screamed. I felt it was an appropriate response.)

It's always lovely, eventful, and fun being there. It's fun seeing friends. It's nice to study in the National Portrait Gallery and the Library of Congress. It's wonderful to go to museums and see works of art and historical artifacts. And there's certainly a romance to the city. There's so much energy in that city and it's so young. I'm always blown away by how, oh, our country is being run by 25-year-old staffers. It's a young city. It's an ambitious city.







D.C. is a place that matters to me in different ways than I thought it would. I always thought I would end up there. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with my mom a month after getting home from my mission, and I said, rather unprompted, "I think I'm going to end up in D.C. after graduation. Or Boston. But probably D.C."

And she said, "I think the same thing."

Neither D.C. or Boston has been in the cards for me. England has. And the East Coast has. But not D.C. in the way I was thinking (and in the way that so many young professional Mormons think--of a place where you'll be for a few years, have your first job or go to grad school, interact with scores of other young Mormons doing the same thing, and maybe date--or not date--other aspiring young Mormons). It's been a place that has featured prominently for me in my life (and in my dating life) but it has not been a home like I thought it would. It might be someday, but it won't be in the way I thought it would as a young 20-something. And with the way my life has played out in the past five years, it's better that way. Much better that way. Still, it is a city that means something to me. It means a lot of somethings to me.



D.C. has been a place to conquer fear. Whether jumping on a plane to take a chance on a guy, driving on the Beltway, or facing people I'd rather not run into. Jump in and let go. It's been a place to jump into that fear and let go. Relationships and dealing with people sometimes takes more courage than you'd expect. But it is rewarding (and sometimes a comedy of errors, which is rewarding in its own way).




D.C. has been a revelatory place for me, especially in the first half of this year, with deciding to date Sam and also making decisions about where I would go to grad school. Things have calmed down--the past few times have not felt as weighted when I go to D.C. It's become more familiar. But D.C. is a place of decision-making for myself, and a place to reflect. Perhaps because it isn't home, it performs the same function travel does for me--where thoughts and plans and dreams crystallize a bit more and I am able to come home more determined, brave, and clear-eyed.




I have a complicated relationship with D.C. It's not what I thought it would be for me, but it is a place that I am growing to love. And as I head down to Maryland and the D.C. area for Thanksgiving, I'm both nostalgic for this city that will never completely be mine but also looking forward to the memories I will make--and grateful for the memories associated with it, too.

[Also, just as an aside--fall is the perfect time to visit D.C. Not busy, crowded, or hot at all.]

Thursday, November 16, 2017

churches and trains, they all look the same to me now

Churches and trains
They all look the same to me now
They shoot you some place
While we ache to come home somehow. --"Amsterdam", Gregory Alan Isakov 

i've been on a gregory alan isakov kick for the past, oh, like, two weeks? ever since fall break (which was really great, btdubbs, just in case you were wondering--truly rejuvenating and good for my soul.) ever since driving down from princeton with samwise down to the land of dc and we listened to gregory alan isakov for a good portion of the trip. it's perfect music for road trips. just beautiful. soft. soothing. smart lyrics. and an acoustic guitar. perfection. 

[10/10 recommend the music. and the music video is lovely, too.]

i've been listening to a lot of gregory alan isakov outside of road trips, too. like while i've been on my couch, sick. yes, friends. i got sick. really sick. like, walking pneumonia sick. which is not as bad as regular-pneumonia sick, but still pretty miserable. i'm so much better now than i was this weekend. still, i have a lingering cough that i probably will have for a month and whenever a colleague asks me how i'm doing (since i missed a couple days of class to recover), i say, 

"much better." 
"did you find out what it is?" 
"oh yeah. i have walking pneumonia." 
and then they give me a look like i am walking death or carrying a zombie disease. which might be true. but the truth is, it's my own personal sorrow. 

how did i get it? karma? maybe. maybe it's just life telling me that i should be kinder to people who are mean to me or maybe it's life telling me that i should really focus on what matters because i don't plan on getting much out of my readings for the next couple weeks. and maybe ever. which is just life. for my table is still littered with tissues and empty cough drop wrappings with empty mugs which used to be filled with licorice tea. 

but i have learned a bit more of the kindness of people. of colleagues who show up to my apartment with bags of soup and orange juice and herbal tea, and friends who bring panera muffins and thermometers, and other friends who find me on campus to give me more herbal tea. and kind messages and a longsuffering boyfriend and a mother and sisters and brother and father who talk to me when i go stir crazy. and doctors who believe me when i say that i've taken a turn for a worse and then prescribe antibiotics which are saving my life. (and also the people at the pharmacy counter who were super patient with me as i was near-delirious trying to figure out why the prescription hadn't come in yet and called the health center to make sure that i could leave with health in my hands. thank you all of you.) 


i've had some classic meg moments recently. like when getting aforementioned antibiotics and the nice lady said to wait fifteen minutes and so i decided to wander around the grocery store in a daze, grabbing chicken noodle soup and gatorade. and then ten minutes later i ended up seeing that nice pharmacy lady also shopping, but then i felt like i had to avoid her, but then kept almost running into her and it was so embarrassing. 

but not as embarrassing as going into a professor's office hours and then somehow my water bottle opened and spilled a disgusting amount of water onto the floor and that was just great. just really, really great. eh. it happens. 

so does fall. it's still happening. and it's beautiful. 


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

You say you want a revolution

"But we have learned once and for all
That blood only smells like blood."
--Anna Akhmatova, The Scent of Freedom (1933)

100 years ago today, the Russian Revolution took place. It is worth remembering and commemorating, I believe, since it changed the course of so many events--and impacted so many lives. The Russian Revolution set the backdrop for so much of the 20th century--the struggles, the fears, the politics, the idealism, the demagoguery, and the blood.



It is easy to get swept up in the ideals of the Russian Revolution. Peace, land, and bread. A world of peace and love and true brotherhood and sisterhood, where people actually look out for each other and everything is shared in common. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that world, especially after seeing so much decadence and incompetence exemplified by the tsars? It sounds too good to be true. Truth be told, if I had grown up during the 1920s in the Soviet Union, I probably would have been a devout Party member, a good member of the Komsomol, with a cushy secretarial job in Moscow.

And then I probably would have been purged along with millions of other people in the 1930s.

For along with the ideals of the Russian Revolution, there is also the bitter reality that millions of people suffered for those ideals--and not only for those ideals, but suffered so that a few men could stay on top and control how those ideals were understood and implemented.

Reality is always so much messier (and bloodier) than ideals. And although I don't pretend to really know or truly understand what the Russian Revolution has meant to millions of people, I have brushed shoulders with the Russian Revolution, because I have brushed shoulders with people who were directly impacted by it. I have broken bread with women who wished with all of their hearts that the days of communism and Soviet butter were back. I have walked past a towering (and now-overthrown) statue of Lenin in Kharkov's main square. I have met people who survived, and met others whose family members died, in the Stalin purges and famines of the 1930s. I have seen the mementos of the Soviet era--the old men selling Soviet kitsch on the sidewalk, the plaques commemorating revolution.

These lived experiences and memories are part of the legacy of the Russian Revolution, too.



When I took a Soviet History course during my undergraduate years, we read a book called Journey Into the Whirlwind, a memoir by Yevgenia Ginzburg. Ginzburg was a staunch Communist who was arrested and sent to the gulag during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Her memoirs document the banality, horror, and learned normalcy of her hellish life in the gulag system. One of the overarching themes of her memoir is her struggle to come to terms with her arrest. Since she was a staunch Communist, she couldn't bring herself to believe that her arrest had to do with some fault of the system--rather, it had to be with her, didn't it? But how could it?  She was a good Party member, so it couldn't be her. Her arrest must be because of someone else. But not because of Stalin. And certainly not because of the Party. They just didn't know who she truly was and how committed she was to the cause.

But as her memoir continues, she starts to realize that she--just like everyone else--is to blame for the madness, blood, and destruction associated with the communist regime. She struggles with her complicity:

"In each heart a mea culpa beats, and those two words resonate in the deepest part of our souls. During sleepless nights they are heard very clearly. Those sleepless nights in which, as Pushkin says, we all 'reread life with horror', and we shudder, and curse. 

"When you can't sleep, the knowledge that you did not directly take part in the murders and betrayals is no consolation. After all, the assassin is not only he who struck the blow, but whoever supported evil, no matter how: by thoughtless repetition of dangerous political theories, by silently raising his right hand, by faint-heartedly writing half-truths. Mea culpa . . . and it occurs to me more and more frequently that even eighteen years of hell on earth is insufficient expiation for the guilt" (Within the Whirlwind). 

It is easy to get swept up in ideals. It is easy to think that what you believe is right and that no one else can be right. It is easy to think your system is right and shift blame onto someone else or some other system or some other way of thinking. But, ultimately, we are all at fault for something. Mea culpa. In some way, it is our fault. And I think that is a lesson of the Russian Revolution.

[Section of Reynier Leyva Novo's Five Nights, an art display representing works like Mein Kampf and other authoritarian tracts which provided the foundation for so much suffering in the 20th century. This one represent's Vladimir Lenin's The State and Revolution.]


A while ago I was talking to a friend in Ukraine. We were talking about the state of the world, and at one point he simply said: "Mir--eta my." The world is us. The world is made up of us. We do have the responsibility of recognizing our culpability and choosing to do something about that.

Good and evil is not as simple as party lines or class. As Solzhenitsyn wrote, "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

Who, indeed.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Little lists, Princeton edition

Thing that fill me with wonder: 

This place. Princeton is beautiful. And when I actually get out of the library and onto the campus (and beyond the campus), I am reminded of what it means to be here. And that I am here. And that is an incredible, incredible thing.




This tower! Guys, I found a tower in the Firestone Library. And you can study there. I got there early in the morning and was all alone and it made me so happy.



[Seriously. So cool.]

[A very happy Megan.]


Free cookies. But really. There's an endowment at Princeton to employ undergrads to bake cookies. And I get free cookies from it. That is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Things that make me laugh: 

Funny email lines like, "Kia engineers would like feedback on your Soul!"

Funny notes at said free cookie place:

[Wednesday nights have support groups for girlfriends of bitter unrecognized geniuses. This is amazing. Especially because you just know Princeton is crawling with 19- and 20-year-old guys who think they are the next ubermensch or some mixture of John Lennon and Vladmir Lenin. And some poor girls are dating said guys. Don't worry. It's happened to me and it gets better.]


This guy:

[Who doesn't think that he's either the ubermensch, John Lennon, or Vladimir Lenin. I like where this is going.]

Things that keep me sane: 

Conversations with friends and family who remind me of who am I am who I can be, who are are clear-eyed and kind-hearted and believe in me. (It's also great when said family and friends come visit me. That's twice as nice and gives a double dose of love, reality, and perspective.)

Conversations with classmates in coffee shops and street corners that remind me that we're all suffering and sharing this together . . . and that I'm doing better than I think I am and that the struggle means that I'm changing and processing for the better.

Apple orchards and car rides in the Jersey countryside. There's a reason this is the Garden State.

The fact that fall has finally come to Princeton. And it is beautiful and perfect.




This song. I've listened to this song countless times during the past two weeks. Because #realtalk, PhDs are hard. Like. Incredibly, incredibly hard. Perhaps at some point I will write more about how hard. But for right now, it's enough to say that there have been some really, really hard days, and it can be an emotional roller coaster. Because of needed conversations with family and friends and seeing things in a different light/different perspective, things are looking good, and I am hopeful for the future. But it has taken time to adjust to this level of hard. This song has helped in that process. It's beautiful. Give it a listen.



It's also just so incredibly Mormon at some points, which is probably another reason I like it so much.

Rise up like the sun and labor 'til the work is done. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

To build a home

There have been a lot of changes for me moving to Princeton (you'd think that moving gets easier, and it some ways, it does, but in other ways, it's still hard each time). One of the biggest adjustments is that I have my own apartment. This is both great (my weird "burn-both-ends-of-the-candle" hours don't bother anyone, I can talk very loudly with my boyfriend while FaceTiming him, I know that the messes in the kitchen are my own), and weird (I don't have other people to talk to when I get home, it's very quiet, and my messes are my own). 

But one beautiful thing that has happened the past few weeks is how this apartment has come together, from having my mom drive out with me to help me furnish my apartment, to having Sam come up and help put furniture together, to finally getting a couch and a mattress, and then little odds and ends that I kept on forgetting (like buying bowls or a yoga mat). Or the fact that my living room and bedroom have no real lights. It's amazing the difference having a lamp makes. 



[Let there be light]


I would say the thing that really made my apartment feel more "me" was putting my pictures and photographs up. They are reminders of what I think is beautiful--paintings, poetry, and bits that speak to my soul and remind me of other homes. 




There's something very satisfying in making a space a home--even if it's through little things. But it's a space that is mine. A room of my own. And for right now, the mix and match of that life will do.