I almost never have problems falling asleep initially. The tricky part is if I wake up in the middle of the night. My brain’s usual defenses fall away and I can get easily overwhelmed with anxieties, worries, and illogical patterns of thought, trying to solve the challenges of yesterday.
I now have a routine when this happens. I leave our room. I go downstairs, take a relaxing herbal tincture, and snuggle into my own bed, breathing deeply and preparing myself to ride it out for an hour or so. Although the intense anxiety can last for some time, it inevitably ebbs away and I can drift into a more-or-less restful sleep.
I awoke this morning to Jason coming into my room with Happy Birthday wishes. We had already planned a slow morning, with lots of coffee, carrot cake from the night before, and quiche; a complete luxury on a Tuesday before work. The midnight mind state was gone. Yes, the challenges still awaited me at school, but they seemed completely manageable and unalarming. A literal night-and-day experience of how I move through my work anxieties.
I started graduate school almost two years ago with almost two years left in my twenties. I don’t really remember turning twenty. While the birthday itself was unmemorable, I don’t think I’ll ever forget many of the experiences of the past decade.
Growing pains. There is a not a better phrase that could describe my twenties. Lots of growth, and lots of pain. Lots of joy as well, but unfortunately, when looking back, painful memories surface before the happy.
The end of my college chapter was the beginning of my wandering chapter. I floated to Juneau, then to California, then to Oregon. I experienced two very affecting and challenging relationships. I joined a bakery and a band. I was deeply struck by body shame. Fortunately, there were many bright stars that came into my life during this period: Geri, Elizabeth, Dani, Ian, Eowyn, Eric, Dan, Jacqui, and so many other people from Mount Shasta, Ashland, and our band family around the country…too innumerable to name here. They were my little stepping stones through the unknown, and I cherish the memories we made together. I am grateful for all of the times I was vulnerable with all of these people and was caught and listened to. Who I am today is a direct representation of the intimate connections I created in and maintained throughout my twenties.
And yet, alongside the incredible gift of sharing music across the country and creating my nest in southern Oregon, I felt almost continuous emotional pain. I now see that this pain was derived from leaving Alaska and from going through a very normal period of twenty-something self-discovery.
I have now been in graduate school for a year and a half. Through this period, I have settled back into Alaska, adopted a dog, lived by myself, and met my partner. This time has also certainly been full of challenges, most of which can be traced back to anxieties concerning failure in my thesis work. However, it is different than the pain I experienced in California and Oregon. That amorphous, ambiguous pain naturally alleviated once I arrived home. My body relaxed. I just fit here, in my weird and wonderful Fairbanks community.
Additionally, there exists a simple recognition that I’m just older now. I’ve had more experiences that I’ve survived. I’ve been through many, many episodes that have left me feeling wounded, but they’re all simple scars now. The essential ingredients to a meaningful life, including trusting, intimate relationships; spending time outside in beautiful places; cooking and eating lots of good food; drinking delicious beer; and playing music with my community have become all the more precious to me. There are many more nights now where I fall asleep completely convinced that I have everything I could ever want and more.
So, what does turning thirty mean for my poor nights of sleep? Is there anything that can be said about the mental switch that accompanies the rather arbitrary ceremony of turning one year older and launching into the next decade?
To put it in the most poetic way I can, I believe one can choose thirty as a means to just not give a shit. Rest assured I will give lots of shits for the aforementioned essential ingredients to a meaningful life. But for the experiences that threaten to make me feel small, for the experiences that fill my heart with doubt, and for the experiences that disrupt a night of sleep here and there but in the end come down to a piece of paper and a line on a resumé, I choose not to give a shit. The fear will come, the fear will pass. But the snow is beautiful on the spruce, and a big downy woodpecker came to our house today, and there are pooch trails to be walked this afternoon.
I am overjoyed to be thirty and truly delighted to be growing older. I don’t know how life could get any better than it is now, but I’m also certain that it will.
Side note: neat French website here about turning 30 around the world. Also where I found the featured photograph.
Where would I be without Sophie? She is my number one companion in this tumultuous graduate school experience. We have spent many hours sharing our experiences with experiments, coursework, fieldwork, labwork, advisors, peers, proposals, grant writing, the pressure to perform, and the doubts that inevitably surface about whether we are “smart enough” or if we “work hard enough” to successfully finish.
Unfortunately, I don’t see Sophie as much as I did last semester as I’m still paying off my dental bill for my first “real” cavity. I fell into the habit of stocking her office with sweets so they would be two floors away rather than just sitting at my own desk. I should take a leaf out of Sophie’s book and start stocking her office with (organic) Cheetos instead (no sugar, right Soaps?).
Sophie took the time to answer my Day in the Life questions at 1 am when she was experiencing graduate student “sleep”.
One night this past summer, I met with Dr. R to drink beers and talk about boys at The Marlin. We rounded out our beer dinner with Reese’s and M&M’s, and ended up discussing the intricacies, mysteries, frustrations, and joys of intimate partnerships for hours. It was a wonderful evening, one I won’t soon forget (although I’d like to forget that I had candy and beer for dinner).
Dr. R is a bright person. She is also wise, a great listener, and an inspiring academic. My grad school friends and I miss her ready advice, ready laugh, and readiness to shotgun a beer or two or three.
I recently asked Dr. R to answer some questions describing a Day in Her Life as a post-doc. Read below for inspiration!
What is your research topic?
I am currently working on a project to understand the effects of logging and riparian management strategies on stream ecosystems. There are three separate components to the project: 1) meta-analysis on scaled effects of logging, 2) modeling cumulative impacts of logging on downstream ecosystems, and 3) field-based monitoring and experiments on mechanisms controlling ecological responses.
Describe your daily routine.
I wake up, make coffee and mosey around my apartment until it’s time to leave for work. On most days I try to get to the office between 9 and 10 am. After I arrive, I eat breakfast and drink coffee while I check email and write down what needs to get done that day/week. Then, my activities vary. If I am working on my primary research, I write, read and take notes, prep datasets, etc. I also am involved in several collaborative projects and tasks for those vary. My weekly schedule is also punctuated by seminars, reading group, and meetings with my lab, my supervisor, and collaborators. So I guess, I don’t really have a routine. Maybe it would help if I did!
What practices do you employ outside of work time to support productivity and enthusiasm once you’re in the office?
Lately I have been doing absolutely nothing on weeknights. I have a longer commute so I get home between 7 and 8 pm and then catch up with one or more of the following: [my husband], housework, my mom, news, social media, or occasionally a show on Netflix. I usually save socializing for the weekend. I would say these activities are restorative but I don’t necessarily think they help my productivity or enthusiasm. I feel that I am most enthusiastic about my work after meetings with close collaborators or following conferences/workshops. This is probably because I am an extrovert so close collaboration is very invigorating. I feel the most productive when I am working through a detailed work plan and have a structured day time work schedule followed by going to the gym.
What is the most productive part of your day?
I usually feel like I hit a writing groove between 4 and 6, sometimes even later. Lately, I have embraced this inconvenient scheduling since I am living alone. This is also why I tend to come in to work a little later in the day.
Do you have any rituals or habits that keep you going through the workday?
Three things come to mind – eating breakfast at my desk, pomodoro timers, and website blockers. Somewhere along the line I tricked myself into thinking that eating breakfast at my desk saves me time in the morning (which is almost certainly not true) but I have come to really enjoy this part of my day because now it’s associated with thoughtfully planning my day/week. If I skip this step, I find that I don’t get as much accomplished because I feel like I don’t have my bearings. I use pomodoro timers and website blockers as a way to fight work paralysis and hardwire will-power into my work habits. All of my favorite news sites and social media are blocked between the hours of 9:30-5 and this really helps with mindless web surfing/facebook checking. I use the timer if I am feeling “stuck” or unsure what I should be working on.
What do you admire most in your supervisors? Do your supervisors ever act in ways that compromise your respect for them?
The thing I admire most about my current supervisor is his unrelenting enthusiasm and energy for science. He is always excited about science and can often be found in the lab, processing his own samples. From what I can tell, he never has a day where he feels unenthused about his job. The flip side to this is that he can be out of touch with the lives/feelings/expectations of people who are not scientists (e.g. office staff). I don’t think it is intentional but he can come across as very elitist and privileged.
Do you ever feel that your efforts in graduate school go unnoticed? Describe.
Yes, but I am used to it by now so it generally doesn’t bother me. Actually, I would say that I have shifted my expectations around what activities/efforts of mine should be noticed so that I don’t feel unappreciated. I am also working on caring less about what others think and finding enjoyment and satisfaction in efforts that I think are worthwhile.
What is your favorite way to distract yourself from working?
I have noticed that I subconsciously trick myself into too much web surfing or getting sweets (e.g. poptarts) if I am feeling overwhelmed or stressed with work. This usually results in a guilt/shame spiral so even though it is the most common way I distract myself, it is definitely not my favorite way to procrastinate. Probably my most favorite way would be to grab a drink with a friend but this doesn’t seem to happen as much as it should.
What are some of your greatest doubts or anxieties surrounding your research?
My anxieties generally fall into two categories – am I smart enough to do what I was hired to do and/or are my ideas good enough to pursue.
In general, do you think that your fellow graduate students are healthy mentally and/or physically? Do you think that your graduate student environment is supportive and understanding?
My current lab group (comprised of ~4 masters students, ~4 PhD students, and 2 researchers in residence who I interact with on a regular basis) are extremely well-adjusted. They all have outside hobbies/commitments and work fairly regular hours. With the exception of 1 person, they all seem to be focused at work and engaged with their research as well as the broader scientific community. They are always impressing me with how motivated and bright they are. I think my department has a supportive environment [and] there does not seem to be same type of workaholic culture that I experienced at my previous institutions.
A beautiful entry from my sparkling friend Rachael, a woman who is doing so much good halfway around the world.
I was looking through my journal last night, and came across a piece I wanted to post in a blog and just never got around to it. So, here’s me getting around to it.
My bamayo called today wondering if I would like to go to a funeral. I have been to funerals before, back in the States, and it always struck me as odd: the way mourning and celebration intertwine. The way Zambian communities act as one family made the idea of going to a funeral all the more daunting and powerful.
We rode our bikes away from our village, down busy paths lined with trees and tire marks of travelers past. She wove through the trails like it were second nature, as only someone who has lived their whole life here would know.
And then we heard the drums. The steady beat calling us closer and the sweet…
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Traveling can be a reminder of so many wonders that get buried under the to-do lists of daily living: presence, inspiration, curiosity, and fresh interpersonal connections. I am often out of my comfort zone when I travel, especially internationally, and these deeply meaningful aspects of life may rise up to the surface. My first trip on the underground, going to little hole-in-the-wall restaurants, immersing myself in art exhibits, and walking through rooms where my favorite composers wrote their most celebrated compositions all became more magical and felt more steeped in significance than had I been in my own country, among my own places and people. Of course, this gets further highlighted when I travel by myself, and even more so when I’m surrounded by a language that is not my own. This special isolation is fertile ground for a renewed examination of how I view my life.
I believe our lives are best seen from a distance. Light observation, soft, unimposing, and without chronic attention to detail, all foster a healthy view of life. Although I’m not confident this excerpt serves as the best example of what I’m exploring here, I am reminded of a few lines from Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Marriage”:
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
I do my best to let this advice guide me in my relationships, especially in my partnership. Freshness and air are essential in maintaining interest, energy, individuality, and in helping to let go of the little prickly things that inevitably and regularly pop up. But can this beautiful suggestion also be applied to how we view our lives? Socrates gave us the adage that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I counter that the over-examined life can be rigid, microscopic, self-absorbed, and dull. The newness of traveling can re-inspire one to put down the magnifying glass, step up to a higher plane, and reflect on life with a larger perspective.
I try my best to place experiences that happen to me into a logical context, but I often can’t let go of this nagging idea that life events fall into ordered, delightful, and meaningful patterns. What I mean to say is, I wish to now turn to a very unscientific way of looking at life that doesn’t follow data and cannot be backed up by evidence nor quantified in a statistically significant way.
A game that I enjoy playing, especially when I’m falling asleep, is to track significant events and people in my life. A good visual representation of this game might be Candy Land.
Have you played this game in the last two decades? It’s actually remarkably boring.
The two blonde children in overalls and striped shirts are like me as a child. I start on the game of life. When I usually play this game as I’m falling asleep, I often start with my decision to go to the University of Puget Sound. I think this is where I begin because this is when I left my parents’ house and my decision-making faculty increased exponentially. I felt in charge of my own life. So I suppose Plumpy stands for UPS.
At UPS I met Timmer O’Phelan (remember the days?). Timmer can be Lord Licorice. When I visited Timmer in St. Paul one Christmas break, I met his friend (?) who, when seing the Monteverde book I had brought along, suggested I study abroad in Costa Rica (represented by the Peppermint Forest). In Costa Rica I met Rachelle, who got me a job in Juneau for the summer (Juneau = Jolly). There I met William, who brought me to Mount Shasta, which moved me to Ashland, which is where Patchy Sanders enveloped me for three years, and whose ending inspired the move to Alaska and the start of graduate school (wow, I think we’re already with Gloppy and his Molasses Swamp). I don’t know if I can fit the rest of my game into just one King Kandy, but what happens next is I fly to Las Vegas (for the first and last time) and attend the 15th Annual International Hibernation Conference in 2016. I hear a talk on telomere dynamics in hibernating edible dormice. Flash forward a year-and-a-half later and the lead author of that study is opening the gate for me to the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Comparative Biological Research in Vienna, Austria. This was definitely Candy Castle.
Do you play this game too? I love hopping on the stepping stones of my life, remembering all the wonderful people that have waltzed in and out. Yet out of all the people I have met in my life, the ones that represent these stepping stones feel…different. You could chalk it up to my placing my own subjective meaning onto them, but that doesn’t sound very interesting. I have this feeling this has all already been set up and will continue to be perfectly orchestrated. This is a tricky thing to explain, especially as I’m not insinuating a Higher Power is due credit. I think what it comes down to, for me, is that humans have remarkably complex brains that create our own delightfully complicated, beautiful, and sometimes scary or harmful realities. I’m coming to realize the power of crafting my own personal reality and how this directly correlates with how satisfied I am in my life. “Satisfaction is based on expectations, and expectations come from within”, so said a wise young man in my life. I am self-creating my world, every minute, and I choose to create one that is structured by meaningful, beautifully orchestrated stepping stones of influential and remarkable people to connect with, however briefly, for the rest of my life.
So, this is what I take from Wien. The most recent step in my life-game, a further solidification of how I choose to view my life, and a rejuvenation of inspiration, presence, and meaning.
Inside the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library).
I was applying mascara in my room this morning when I saw my gray hair. It lives in my bangs and sometimes lies very prominently, right in the middle of my forehead. I like it. To me it implies I’m getting wiser and through this process becoming kinder, to both myself and everyone I meet. I’m also pleased that it doesn’t bother me, that I welcome it to my head.
Somewhat surprisingly, being in Vienna reminds me of my first meditation retreat in Herefordshire, England. The institute where I live and work is adjacent to a hilly forest, and the building where I sleep, drink tea, and eat Mozart Kugel is rather squat and compressed, like it has been here for a long time. The meditation center was also in a little forest and the living quarters used to be for livestock and farm hands long ago. Another similarity is that I often feel alone here, as I did at the center. Although almost everyone here speaks wonderful English, I often feel separate, different, and spend a good deal of time being quiet. “Being quiet” is a firm requirement at the meditation center, so in this way I feel an additional parallel.
(Please stay tuned for how I will link my one gray bang hair with remarks on resemblances between this ecological research institute in Vienna and a silent meditation retreat in rural England).
Due to uncharacteristic bothering and steadfastness, I secured a (free) ticket to the Vienna Philharmonic last Sunday morning. I arrived at the box office a half hour before they opened and waited in the chilly shadow of the building it was housed in. After being admitted, I confidently walked to the counter and said, “Hallo.” (There is always a moment right before initiate a conversation with an Austrian where I get a little nervous that it’s obvious that I won’t be able to go past “Hallo”). The woman also said, “Hallo.” I said, “I don’t know German.” (Very typical conversation starter for me in Vienna).
Ticket lady: Yes, what do you want?
Me: Can I please buy a ticket?
TL: What?! No. There are no tickets.
M: Really? There’s nothing I can do? No standing room tickets?
TL: Sigh…come back five minutes before the concert and see if there are any that weren’t picked up.
M: Okay, danke schön.
TL: You’re welcome.
I wandered around sunny Vienna. It was crisp. I found myself in an antiques show in a mall and little kitschy trinket stores full of Mozart’s face. I also poked my head into the National Library, which I plan to really explore tomorrow.
I meandered back to the box office. The woman told me to sit, that I was too early, so I sat. I was too determined to be put off by her brusque attitude. She probably has to deal with stubborn, naïve Americans all the time…ones who think they can just waltz in and buy a Vienna Philharmonic ticket an hour before the performance!
Right when TL had me come up to get a ticket, a young man dashed in to grab a last-minute standing room ticket as well. TL told me I needed cash, which I was slowly taking out, 20 Euro cent by 20 Euro cent (I was almost out of cash). She finally just gave me the ticket and told me good luck. I walked over to the Musikverein and saw the young man. I asked him what we had to do now. We checked our coats and went to the “standing room only” location, far in the back of the Musikverein. I didn’t have my phone so I took no photos. If I did have my phone, the photos would have been mostly of backs-of-heads, as we were some of the last to arrive. If I scooched about I saw musicians, statues, painted lutes on the ceiling, six huge chandeliers, and, eventually, Maestro Riccardo Muti.
Muti in his younger days.
The sound was exquisite, the hall was beautiful, and the magical hush that fell over the audience made the whole experience quite ethereal. I had my friend, Alex, to chat with at the break. He’s a conducting student in Vienna so he had all the super cool facts on the hall’s construction, Muti’s techniques, and how the Bruckner symphony was written as the composer was dying. I wish I could say more about the Philharmoniker experience here, but it really must have been heard to be understood. I plan on seeing Alex tomorrow for more Viennese exploits/espresso/cake.
I started work on Monday. I’ve worked in the genetics lab every day since then. My new friend Franz, a post-doc who works with telomeres in Siebenschläfer and Gartenschläfer (edible and garden dormice), is my trainer. He teaches me how to pipet properly; how to make master mixes; how to take care of DNA samples; how to load the pipetting robot; how to run, interpret, and troubleshoot different PCR techniques; and how to calculate telomere length. He also tells me how to make espresso in the fancy machine, translates German for me, tells me about the good restaurants, lets me know that I bought the “not-so-good Mozart balls”, and assures me that my dog is “so so cute” when I show him pictures. It is a rare moment that we are not giggling and/or personifying the pipetting robot. My time in Vienna would not be close to the same without his charming, warm, and patient presence and I am deeply grateful for the time he has taken to train me in essential techniques for my master’s project.
I am still getting over my jet lag, and I am still being patient with that. I hope to sleep well tonight so I can take over Vienna tomorrow. I am happy with the progress I’ve made in my project this week but recognize how much more needs to be done in the remaining three work days I have. I hope this isn’t the last time I visit this special institute tucked away in the Viennese woods.
I was last in Europe seven years ago, innocently entering into what continues to be a deeply meaningful journey of self-discovery. It is almost inconceivable to think about all that has happened to me in seven years, yet at the same time it is humbling to realize what is still with me. I didn’t have any gray hairs seven years ago. The simple act of applying mascara and spying the gray hair this morning helped me remember how far I’ve come and reminded me how far I have yet to go.