In which I grudgingly admit that Good Things happened in April

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First off, where in the heck did April go? I can barely remember the month passing by, which is what I guess happens when you are merely surviving, rather than living. However, that’s not to say that good things didn’t happen, and this post is to remind myself that they did.

1. I’ve reclaimed some of my good habits, such as exercising and cleaning the house. The latter especially is good because the house really needed it.

2. The jasmine is blooming! April into May is when the Confederate jasmine planted everywhere in my yard blooms (named after the confederation of Malay states, as it originated in Asia). Some of the vines were planted by previous owners, and some by me. Most of the year this plant is one of the most annoying in the yard, because it grows like a weed and needs constant cutting back. But for one beautiful month a year, with the windows open, the entire house is perfumed. Indeed, when I go on walks this time of year, it seems the entire city is perfumed!

3. I had a Skype talk with my PhD advisor, and it totally laid to rest any lingering fears I had from his “negative” feedback on the chapter I handed in a couple months ago. I’m ready to start writing another!

4. I’m finally able to concentrate enough to read good books (current one, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson). For awhile there I was unable to read my usual fare, and this was particularly painful, because reading is my favorite activity. I couldn’t even read crap books.

5. I got out an old cross stitch project I started when I was sixteen, because I thought it might be something to do in the evenings when I feel most lonely and bored (I also have a quilt project I’m working on, but it has not been inspiring me lately). To my joy, the cross stitch fabric had not molded like basically everything stored in this climate eventually does. It’s a very complex project, and I spent some time familiarizing myself with the directions. I haven’t yet begun working on it, but it’s there in the same basket where I keep my quilt project, under the coffee table, and knowing it’s there makes me happy.

6. I discovered and watched 30 Rock. All seven seasons. How did I not know about this show? (Oh, right, I haven’t had cable TV in years). The show had just the right kind of tone for me. Some shows are too stressful for me to watch because I over-empathize with characters. For example, I tried Parks and Recreation, and that awkward/cringe-style humor is too much for me. I sat there with knots in my stomach and didn’t even make it through two episodes. So if anyone knows of another show in the 30 Rock style, let me know!

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Making bad assumptions

 Sad Bird

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“Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions…. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.” (Don Miguel Ruiz)

Writing a dissertation is a long, difficult, demoralizing slog. You are basically writing a book no one cares about and no one will read. And when you hand a chapter in to your “editor” (advisor), he will forget you did so, need to be reminded, and send it back with soul-destroying criticism such as “it doesn’t fit into your larger project and it’s sloppy.”

This happened to me a couple weeks ago. And my brain broke. Writing that chapter took all that I had. I was proud of it and excited I’d finally produced something. I’d warned my advisor that it was a very rough draft.

I felt that he was telling me I was wasting his time and he no longer cared about the project. I wanted to quit right then and there. In fact, in that moment I thought I had no choice – I assumed that was the underlying message in his email. I have often felt like I should quit, but this was the first time I felt my advisor was not behind me anymore.

I tend to worry a lot about what other people think about me – even though I pretend I don’t. But knowing I had my advisor’s support was an important mental construct for me in this process of doing the diss. Even if no one else cared, at least he did.

As I said, my brain broke. I felt it break. There was a shudder, and then everything stopped moving and fell into a jumbled heap somewhere down past the cerebellum, where the brain stem attaches to the spinal cord. It got really quiet inside my head. There was simply nothing in there anymore, except the one thought that this was it, I couldn’t bear any more.

And for a few days, I couldn’t. But slowly the pieces of my mind reassembled, because the human body and spirit are resilient. I reread my advisor’s email. I wrote him an email apologizing for sending him a “sloppy” chapter and explained that for me it was an important step forward just to get something down on paper. I asked him to clarify what he meant by his other comments.

Over the course of the next week we sent a few emails back and forth while I tried to understand his criticisms. And today, finally, I got it. And I see that it was not my ideas he was criticizing, it was their presentation. I can fix the problem.

I see now that the assumptions I made – that he no longer cared and that my project was a failure – were completely false. He patiently answered all my questions until his thoughts were clarified for me. And the only way my diss will be a failure is if I quit.

The experience made me realize how many assumptions I make in my daily life based on incomplete evidence and my own mixed-up perspective of the world. It’s like that picture above. The bird isn’t sad, of course. In every other shot I took of him he has his head up, looking around, interested in the world. And I just as easily could have titled it “Bird Looking Down.” But I’m a writer, after all, and I deal in imagination. It’s just that sometimes it gets the better of me.