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.  


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Sketches of Princeton [second]

If you didn't notice, now you'll know
that I'm going to try to do this week-by-week.
I will inevitably fail at some point
(in one respect, I already have, as this
is posted in the middle of my third week).
But I digress.


I found gardens this week. 
Many of them. 
Fellows' gardens, hidden gardens, 
the Garden State. 
There is something so soothing about finding 
a place where things grow. 
It's nice when there is order, 
but there doesn't have to be, 
because I like the wild, overgrown, English variety, too. 
But the organized ones
certainly have a charm
and a realization 
that somebody (somebodies) 
took time 
to plan 
and ponder
and prepare
and plant. 
And for that I am very grateful. 






I found time this week that I hadn't before. 
Some more time to just breathe
and to feel like I had a handle on the readings
and direction about where I want to go 
and who I want to become. 
That time and direction 
were so nice. 
Gifts. 
Like stumbling upon a garden 
I didn't even know existed. 
Grace. 



I ventured outside of Princeton. 
Crossed the Delaware
picked flowers
picked apples
chatted with aunts 
and with friends, old and new. 








There is something absolutely necessary 
in coming outside of the library 
and making your way outside
and finding those friends
who tell you that things will be okay 
and that to vent about readings
or the sheer lack of time 
or any other thing in between, 
large or small. 
Something necessary 
in people coming to find you 
to let you know that they care. 
Something that fills your heart
and leaves you more and better than before. 



Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sketches of Princeton [first]

the first week of classes
is a whirl. 
at first i thought, 
"i've got this." 
and then 
the second day hit
with the force of a freight train. 
i don't got this. 
at least not right now. 
but i will. 



there's a lot of reading. 
so.much.reading.
thousands of pages of it. 
help?
there's also a lot of thinking. 
my brain feels overloaded. 
but then. 
there is in the very air here
beauty
and knowledge
and a wisdom 
that the world spins on 
and there is blue sky 
and that there are places for me to be 
and sit 
and breathe.
and that i will make this place a home. 





the other day
i saw a dad 
place his daughter in a shopping cart
(that's used to move things into 
the apartments here) 
and she squealed with joy. 
real things. 
beyond books. 
i like being reminded of reality. 
i find it in the curve of the river
and the stillness of the morning
and in how bugs buzz here
and birds chirp
and everything is a bit louder
and warmer
and muggier
than back home. 
those are real things, too. 



i think it's normal to feel overwhelmed here. 
overwhelmed by the amount to do 
but also overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and magnitude of this place
and of the people here. 
i don't just mean their brilliance and accolades 
(although that can be overwhelming, too)
but just that i've been overwhelmed by kindness
with hugs 
and greetings
and people offering to help me scan books upon books 
and deep discussions 
and invitations to dinner 
and lunch
and understandings that no one really knows 
what's going on. 




i haven't figured it out yet. 
but i will. 
i will. 
i will. 


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Glimpses of Princeton

This place is beautiful. It truly, truly is.






This is real life. Even though sometimes it doesn't feel like it. But it is. I'm here.