The Foods of Georgia

Some weeks ago, I attempted to cook a Georgian* meal. I made an assortment of some our favorite foods from our time in Georgia, and we invited friends over to share the meal. We opened a bottle of wine that we had stowed in our luggage, and we played polyphonic music. I wrote little cards to label and describe each dish. I hand-made three kinds of dough: one for the khachapuri, one for the lobiani, one for the khinkali. Lamb stewed in our oven for four hours, which has never happened in the history of our marriage (or my life, for that matter). I pitted about 3 dozen cherries using a star icing tip. (I am now the proud owner of a cherry pitter. Thanks, Amazon.) Friday night was when I started the first item of prep work, which was soaking the beans for the lobiani, and we washed the last dish after the dinner party Sunday evening. The dinner took me two days to prep, cook, and clean, and even with all that effort, it still wasn’t up to the standard of what we ate during our trip. After all, dinner at Lamara’s house consisted of 22 dishes; I hadn’t even made a third of what she did. Most things turned out pretty well, if you didn’t know what they were supposed to be. My khinkali, for example, were shriveled up, with no discernible pleats. I was reminded of the film Julie and Julia in which an ecstatic Julia Child marveled to her husband, “French people eat French food all the time!” I reflected with similar wonderment: “Georgian people cook Georgian food all the time!”

Of course, large-scale dinner parties aren’t every night. But many Georgians, women in particular, spend a large amount of their lives in the kitchen, putting unceasing hours of prep work into making some of the tastiest food you’ll ever eat in your life. To eat in Georgia is to benefit from the labors of truly gracious people. These are just a few of the foods we enjoyed during our time there.


Khachapuri. It’s fitting for a food tour of Georgia to begin with what is unofficially (maybe officially?) their country’s national dish: khachapuri. In the simplest terms, khachapuri is cheese bread, but that description undersells it considerably. Imagine a warm, soft, buttery pocket of dough filled with creamy, salty, gooey cheese. Carolyn’s lovely neighbor Maya sent up khachapuri for our breakfast the morning after we arrived, jet-lagged and disoriented. Nothing will set a sleepy traveler right faster than a few delicious bites of warm, cheese-filled pockets of bread. Added bonus: every region of Georgia has its own khachapuri, so you can have some variation in your gluttony. My favorite was the Ajarian version, which is a bread boat filled with cheese and baked, and then an egg is cracked on top of it as it comes out of the oven. The barely-cooked egg mixes with the cheese, and you can tear off the sides of the bread bowl and scoop up all the gooey goodness. If you are a cheese lover, it is the most indulgently delicious thing you will ever eat. It’s not completely replicable in the United States, because we don’t have selguni cheese, which is both salty like feta and creamy like mozzarella.


Khinkali. Almost every culture has a dumpling of some sort, but the Georgian one is my favorite so far, thought I admit my dumpling experience is limited. The dough is tender, seasoned only with black pepper, and the inside is full of meaty, spicy, broth-y goodness. There are specific directions for eating khinkali. You hold them by the top (called ‘the hat’ or ‘the belly button’), flip them over, bite, slurp out the delicious broth inside so you don’t waste a single drop and then eat the whole thing, minus the top. Leaving all the little tops on your plate advertises to your dining partners how many you’ve eaten; Carolyn’s neighbor Valeri knows someone who can eat 50 khinkali in one sitting. According to, “19 pleats is considered ideal” for each khinkali, and after attempting to make them, I would add that 19 pleats should also be considered a superhuman feat. When I was attempting the recipe, I think I made it to seven pleats before I gave up and just smushed the whole top part together.


Churchkhela. I first saw churchkhela while we were wandering through the ancient city of Mtskheta, and at first I thought they were candles of all different colors, hanging from shop roofs by their wicks. In fact, they are strings of walnuts dipped over and over in grape paste until they have the consistency of nougat, and a tart/sweet/nutty flavor that makes it the best snack. Carolyn’s neighbor Valeri kindly bought us a wide variety of churckhela, so we got to taste many different flavors.


I did take a photo at the actual stand we ordered juice from, but for some reason, I can’t find it.  So I grabbed this one from the internet; it is from the Caucasus Mountains.                                 (Photo credit: Lonely Planet.)

Pomegranate juice. All over Tbilisi, we saw fresh fruit stands with heaps of oranges and pomegranates waiting to be squeezed. In Mtskheta, Carolyn and I each ordered a cup of juice. We watched as the lady at the stand split a pomegranate expertly with a knife and then crushed each half in a juicer, capturing the fruits’ dark ruby glory in a cup of perfectly fresh and mouth-puckeringly tart juice.

lobio and mchadi

Lobio and mchadi. It’s weird to write that beans and cornbread were one of the most delicious meals I have ever tasted, but it’s true. We had lunch one day at a restaurant called Salobio (loosely translated: House of Beans) and ordered individual clay pots of beans with a round disk of cornbread on top. The beans are cooked low-and-slow for many hours with herbs, Georgian spices, and smoked meat.  They are the best kind of comfort food, like a rich soup on a cold day. I crumbled up the cornbread disk into the pot, and it soaked up a bit of the broth and added another delicious texture to the dish.

eggplantI went to Georgia not really knowing what kinds of food to expect. What I discovered was rich, flavorful, comforting food with subtle depths of flavor–meat cooked over grapevine branches, eggplant cooked with walnuts, tart sauce from sour plums, mushrooms roasted in clay pots. It’s the kind of food you wake up craving in the middle of the night; it always sounds good right now. And for Tim and me, Georgian food is closely connected to our experiences with Georgia’s beautiful landscapes and the warm hospitality of her people.

If you’re ever interested in learning how to cook Georgian foods, is an excellent resources, with very clear, step-by-step instructions.

*Country of Georgia, which borders Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and Russia. We spent some time there with Tim’s aunt in April.  See other posts on my blog to hear more about our wonderful experiences in this country!


Grad School Summertime: Day in the Life

Two people asked me recently what my days are like, so I decided to pick one day to document on the blog.  It was fun to do, and it surprised me how much I pack into my schedule.  Summer days and schoolyear days look a lot different, but as you’ll see, summertime is still pretty hectic.  So here’s what a typical day in my life looks like, May through August.

6:00-wake up.  I don’t do this easily because I’m not naturally a morning person.  However, I like how much I can get accomplished when I wake early.  My slightly-too-chipper-in-the-morning husband helps me out by bringing me a mixed berry smoothie in bed.  I drink my smoothie, do some devotional reading, and check email.  I usually avoid checking email first thing, but there was a research team issue that didn’t get resolved the evening prior, so I check for updates.  I try standing up, but immediately fall back in bed (body says NO).  I briefly consider skipping the run and going back to sleep.


Mornings are running are not my thing, but I dig this view.

6:30-5k run.  I dislike running as much as I dislike mornings.  But as with early rising, I recognize the benefits of running, so I do it.  We’ve found a gorgeous loop of trails, complete with bridges, down by the river.  The morning light reflecting off the river, the smell of honeysuckle, and the leafy tunnels make the run not terrible.


7:30-coffee.  We come home and Tim makes coffee while I stretch.  He makes the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, and I get to drink it every morning.  We sit on the couch together and read and drink coffee.  I’m in the middle of a book that is a fascinating sociological/anthropological study of family life as it relates to material possessions in the 21st century.  Would highly recommend.  After coffee, I shower and get dressed in something that will do double duty for a research team meeting and a friend’s dissertation defense.



8:30-head downtown. My morning ride is the free MBus, which stops just 20 yards from our front door.  On the bus, I read a book by Deborah Brandt for my LangRhet reading group.  This book that will also inform my second year exam.  [Side note: I’m not currently working on my exam because my readers have it for review, and I’m waiting for feedback.]

9:00-more coffee.  Despite the a.m. run, I’m still dragging, so I stop by Sweetwaters for my favorite: the French Vietnamese Au Lait, which has sweetened condensed milk and chicory root. (SO. GOOD.)  I also enjoy walking around campus in the morning.


9:30-Skype with a colleague.  One thing we do at the Sweetland Center for Writing (which is where I work as a research assistant) is norm huge batches of essays as the first step in creating a program that will provide students with automated essay feedback.  Today, I’m doing a norming session with a colleague in Atlanta.


North Quad, where the Sweetland Center for Writing is located.

10:30-Sweetland research team meeting.  We have a long to-do list for our meeting today, including providing feedback to one person on her chapter for the anthology we’re writing, working out IRB details for the project we’re doing, planning for an upcoming team conference presentation, designing revision samples for an Ecoach feature of a software program, and a bunch of other stuff.  I take notes during the meeting, and I feel like Jim Carrey answering emails in Bruce Almighty with smoke coming out of my laptop.  Thanks, Mavis Beacon!


Stephanie slays her defense.

12:00-Stephanie’s defense.  I run (literally) across campus to the psychology building, where my friend Stephanie is preparing to defend her dissertation in social psychology.  She totally crushes it!  Brilliant, poised, articulate, and unflappable, she knocks her committee’s tough questions out of the park.  #disserationgoals I grab a cup of coffee at the defense and realize it is my third cup of the day.  Yikes.


2:30-lunch. I hitch a ride back to North Campus with a friend and pick up a salad at a cafe on campus.  I eat outside and read a novel.  It’s a beautiful day.

3:00-coding.  I am working on a chapter in the anthology that my research team will soon publish, and I spend the afternoon at a table with a lovely view in the Duderstadt library, coding 53 pages of interview transcripts.  It is interesting work, and I enjoy it, but by 5:00, I’m exhausted.  Packing up my bag, I discover a forgotten piece of chocolate.  This is a major highlight of my day.  I get back on the bus–it’s walkable, but I’m feeling super lazy and entitled because of the morning run.  I listen to a podcast called “Magic Lessons,” in which Liz Gilbert coaches creative people who are struggling to produce their art.  In this episode, she talks to a poet who has been rejected from 12 MFA programs.  One beautiful thing I get from this episode: don’t be overly focused on becoming the noun (poet).  Just focus on the verb.  Do the thing.  Write the poetry.  For me, feeling a strong dose of imposter syndrome most days and struggling with the loss of the noun “teacher,” this is incredibly helpful.  You may not be a scholar yet, but just do the thing.  Read the books.  Write the papers.  The noun will follow.


Northwood Community Center, where we hardly ever go.

5:00-errand. I stop by the Northwood Community Center to get a parking pass for my in-laws’ car.  They are arriving tomorrow, and picking up the pass increases my excitement for their visit.  I’m so looking forward to showing them where we live, and Ann Arbor is show-offy place in the summer.


Founders PC Pils.  Perfect beer for summer.

5:15-beer on the back porch. It’s golden hour, it’s warm, and I get a cold beer and sit on the stoop with Tim.  We talk about our days and thoroughly enjoy each other’s company.  This is our regular late afternoon ritual, and it is my absolute favorite part of the day.  (During the winter, we move inside, and the drinks are warm instead of cold.)


6:00-dinner.  Tim grills zucchini and portobello mushrooms, while I make smoked paprika quinoa, fried eggs, and sriracha mayo. I love to cook.  I put on a Netflix show, finish sipping my beer, and boil/mix/season/chop/fry to my heart’s content.


6:45-tutoring.  We both tutor on Wednesday evenings: Tim tutors a friend in Greek, and I tutor a sweet, smart 9th grade girl in rhetoric and composition.  On the way home, I stop by the grocery store to pick up a few things.  At this point, I’m feeling…pretty tired.

9:15-winding down.  I get home and put away groceries and wash dishes while Tim finishes tutoring.  When his friend leaves, he makes us each a cup of orange & spice tea.  We sit together and enjoy our tea and chat about our evenings and the next day before heading upstairs to bed.  We always watch an episode of a comedy before bed to keep our minds from running on other things.  Tonight, it’s The Office.


“It’s in Our Blood and Our Bones”: Georgia, Country of Wine


I understand why God had been saving this land for himself.  Well played, Georgians.

Legend says that when God was apportioning land to people, the Georgians were late.  By the time they arrived, all the land had been given away.  So the Georgians made an appeal: they were late because they’d stopped along the way to drink a toast to God!  Pleased and flattered, God gave the Georgians the land he had been reserving for himself.  And that is how the country of Georgia (Sakartvelo) came to be.

amber wine

Wine, cheese, and walnuts at Marleta’s.

It’s a short legend that says a lot about the country.  First, Georgians tend to run late, with a different sense of time than much of the West.  Second, they have some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, and their country is an oasis in the middle of barren, desert-y land in Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan.  Third, and perhaps most important, wine and its attending features, such as singing, dancing, and making toasts, are central to Georgian culture.  Wine is in their legends, their history, their art, their feasts, their daily life, and as Zaza the qvevri maker said, in their blood and their bones.

I have had tasting tours in three different wine regions in France, discovering a love for crémant alongside choucroute garnie in the Alsace region.  I’ve had the best Cab Sauv of my life in Napa Valley (it had a little jalapeno spiciness).  I have met some passionate and devoted winemakers, but I’ve never seen a love for wine like I saw in Georgia.  My guess is that collecting expensive bottles to keep forever in climate-controlled cellars would be as strange to most Georgians as collecting beautiful forks but storing them in a closet and eating your food with your hands instead.  Silly and pointless.  Loving and drinking wine for most Georgians is not about snobbery or elitism, and it isn’t about getting drunk. Instead, it is part of the fabric of everyday society–something to be celebrated, shared, and enjoyed.


Standing next to an ancient winepress in Chachkari.

Georgia is known as the cradle of wine, and it is the world’s oldest known wine culture.  Evidence of wine consumption in Georgia dates to 6000 BC, making it an 8,000-year-old beverage.  That’s a full 1,500 years before wine came to Greece.  There is a 400-year-old vine, one of the oldest grapevines in the world, growing in a picturesque field of flowers and fruit trees in the village of Chachkari, which means “grape-skin door.” And Georgians grow at least 526 varieties of grapes, which helps you understand how sad it was for them to be reduced to only producing 5 grape varieties during the Soviet era.  To this day, the Georgians make wine as they did in ages past, using giant egg-shaped clay pots called qvevri, which are listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.

zaza and oven

Zaza and his qvevri in the ginormous oven.

We visited qvevri maker Zaza in Kakheti to learn about how these vessels are made.  Zaza makes 16 qvevri at a time, and he adds about 10 centimeters of clay to each one, each day.  When they are shaped, he hauls them to a giant oven in groups of 8, stacks bricks over the entrance to the oven (just a small hole to keep the fire stoked), and bakes them for a week.  The qvevri are shipped to winemakers, buried in the ground, and filled with crushed grapes.  Qvevri are perfect vessels for natural, organic winemaking.  The egg shape means that the sediment will collect perfectly in the bottom.  The skins are kept with the juice for weeks or even months, and they act as a natural filter, so that the wine pulled out of qvevri is clear and pure.  The clay contains limestone, a natural antiseptic, and the qvevri’s thick sides and burial in the ground keep the wine perfectly temperature-controlled. Georgia’s classic qvevri wine is a beautiful amber color because the skins are kept with the juice for so long.  Zaza gave us some of his qvevri wine to taste.

wine tasting

Our first taste of Georgian qvevri wine.

I was surprised to discover that this golden wine was not sweet; I was expecting it to be syrupy, even cloying.  Its taste was somewhere between a red and a white: dry, grippy, slightly nutty, with a hint of citrus and a very slight herb taste (thyme? oregano?).  These wines, with names like Saperavi and Rkatsiteli, are completely different from the endless parade of cabernets and chardonnays, unique and delicious.


Buried qvevri.  You can see Zaza’s son’s tiny qvevri in the middle.  So cute!

We asked Zaza, a third generation qvevri maker, if he had children to carry on the business.  He smiled and yes, both his sons had shown interest.  He showed us a small qvevri, holding just a few liters of wine, and he beamed with pride when he told us it was made by his 7-year-old son.  Over the mounds of clay piled in the yard, we could see a child’s plastic toy truck.  Growing up smelling the pots baking in brick ovens and feeling qvevri clay beneath your fingernails and watching your father’s impassioned toil would seem like enough to put this art into your blood and your bones.

nino cross

St. Nino’s cross is everywhere in Georgia.

As we traveled through Georgia, we saw, smelled, heard, and tasted the importance of wine to Georgian culture.  According to traditional accounts, the Enlightener of Georgia is St. Nino, a woman from Cappadocia who, in the 4th century, received a vision from the Virgin Mary, who told her to go to Georgia and presented her with a cross made of grapevines.  When St. Nino awoke from the vision, she had the grapevine cross in hand and secured it with a lock of her hair.  St. Nino’s cross, with drooping arms to remind you that it is curvy, twisty grapevine wood, is everywhere in Georgia.  Wine is already part of the Georgian Orthodox Church through the sacrament, but it is also present in the cross of St. Nino and in Georgian icons that depict Madonna and Child cheek to cheek, with the Virgin holding a cluster of grapes.


WWII memorial in Sighnaghi.  Scenes from the grape harvest.

Wine is ubiquitous in Georgian culture, especially in their art. When we visited the region of Kakheti, we walked along the World War II memorial wall in the town of Sighnaghi.  It is covered with the names of people from the region who died in the war, and it depicts scenes of everyday life.  What did Kakhetian soldiers dream about while they were fighting and dying in foreign lands?  A life that revolved around wine: cultivating vineyards, harvesting grapes, making toasts.  If you go just up the hill from the WWII mural, you can visit the Sighnaghi museum, and on the second floor, you can see a collection of paintings from Niko Pirosmani.  A brilliant Georgian artist and inspiration to Picasso, Pirosmani lived in poverty and died in obscurity, but still managed to produce hundreds of


A Pirosmani painting.  Notice the feast spread on the white cloth, the shashlik leaned up against the qvevri, and the toast they are making with the wine.

groundbreaking works that depicted scenes from Georgian history, culture, and daily life.  Pirosmani was born in Kakheti, so naturally, many of his paintings include wine and its accoutrements: depictions of the grape harvest, qvevri, baskets overflowing with grapes, singing, dancing, and long tables of feasting.  In the capital city of Tbilisi stands the Mother of Georgia, a 20 meter white statue presiding watchfully over her people beside Narikala fortress. America’s Statue of Liberty has a torch and a tablet, but the Mother of Georgia has a wine bowl and a sword.  The wine bowl is meant to welcome her friends with toasts, while the sword is intended to

mother of georgia

Mother of Georgia statue, which overlooks Tbilisi.

“welcome” her enemies with destruction.  These items speak to a long history of invasion and war, as well as an unfailingly hospitable and celebratory spirit, which comes through in the Georgian veneration of wine.

While the artwork helped us understand wine’s historical importance, it was attending celebratory events and dinners with Georgian people that helped us understand its deep personal importance.  One of our first nights in Tbilisi, we went out to a traditional Georgian restaurant with Carolyn and her wonderful Georgian family (whom we loved!), Valeri and Maya, and their sons Luka, Beka, and Saba.  We were celebrating the eldest son Luka’s birthday, and we had a feast: pkhali, khachapuri, badrijani nigvzit, a tower of shashlik, salads, cheeses, and Saperavi, an almost-black red wine that stains the skin


Saperavi grapes.

immediately and smells like fresh earth.  I should mention, as a side note, that phkali (an herb and walnut paste) and wine, both of which were part of that night’s feast, were found in the stomachs of people buried 2,500 years ago; we soon learned that to eat and drink in Georgia is to participate in thousands of years of history.  That night’s dinner was followed by the presentation of traditional Georgian dances and songs.  It all went together harmoniously, and it all made sense: the wine, the food, the singing, the dancing.  I appreciated each one more deeply in light of the others. During one of the most touching songs, Carolyn was overwhelmed: she teared up and declared how much she loved Georgia, which has been her home for the past nine years.  At that point, I had only been in the country for a few hours, so I didn’t yet understand her emotion, but I thought there must be something a little magical about a small country that could exert such powerful influence.

lamara table

Lamara’s table BEFORE she brought out most of the food. 🙂

And then there was our visit to Lamara, a woman who runs a silkworm farm.  She had prepared dinner on a scale that would be unthinkable for most American hosts, myself included.  I counted how many dishes were on the table: 22 in all.  She served us golden wine and brought out plate after plate after plate, covering the white lace tablecloth.  After she brought out the last of the dishes, she began the tradition of making toasts.  The first toast is to peace, the second is to those who have died, and the third is to the next generation: in this way, Georgians bless the present, honor the past, and look toward the future with hope.  After those three, many more toasts were made, as Lamara and each of us, her guests, picked up a variety of themes.  That’s how it continued over the next few hours: make a toast, clink everyone’s glasses (say “gaumarjos!”), eat more food, discuss the thing that the toast was about.  We lifted our glasses as part of the rhythm of the evening, clinked our connection to everyone around the table.  Even our stoic driver Lasha relaxed and cracked a few smiles during that dinner.  The food was all delicious (Georgian food post forthcoming!), but because there were so many things to choose from, all our plates looked different.  The wine was what we shared; the wine was all the same.  The toasts, the conversation, and our connection with each other were all mediated by wine.

After 8 days in Georgia, I was beginning to understand what wine means to the Georgians.  It goes beyond the swirling/sniffing/sipping/spitting that we tend to associate with wine aficionados.  Wine’s roots extend deeply into Georgia’s ancient past, its tendrils emerge in their artwork, and its earthy smell surrounds Georgian tables where people connect to each other and affirm their cultural heritage.  It truly is in their blood and their bones.

Five Memorable Moments from Our Trip to the Country of Georgia


Alaverdi Monastery, near the city of Telavi, and not far from the academy of Ikalto.  You can see the Greater Caucasus in the background.  Heaven on earth.

We were standing in the doorway of Marleta’s cafe in the city of Telavi, ready to leave: me, my husband Tim, his aunt Carolyn, our guide Sopho, and cafe owner Sophia (Marleta is the name of Sophia’s first cow).  We had just enjoyed some of the best food and wine I’ve ever tasted, prepared by Sophia and her husband.  Carolyn was telling Sophia how she tries to explain Georgia’s magnetism to people back in the U.S., but how impossible it is to describe.  The appeal of Georgia, she said, isn’t due to any one thing.

Sophia agreed. “Yes, it’s everything put together, isn’t it?”

“No, it really is about just about one thing,” I piped up.  “Khachapuri.”  Everyone chuckled.  Khachapuri (put a throaty rasp on that “kh”) is one of Georgia’s famous national dishes: usually a warm, buttered layer of soft bread surrounding a gooey, salty, cheesy middle, although there are different variations of the dish in each region of the country.

I was joking, of course.  Georgia’s appeal isn’t just about the khachapuri or the ancient cave cities or the amber-colored qvevri wine like liquid sunlight, or the views across the Alazani Valley to the snowcapped Caucasus mountains that turn purple and silver in the evening, or the warmth of some of the most astoundingly hospitable people on the planet.  It is everything put together.

Georgia is a country in the middle.  It is situated between East and West, between Europe and Asia, between Christianity and Islam.  It used to be crossed by the Silk Road and now is crossed by oil pipelines.  The people of Georgia call their country “Sakartvelo,” a name which suits it so much better, and clears up the annoying confusion with Georgia the American state (can we just all agree to call it Sakartvelo?).  Somehow, this small country has survived millennia of invasion, annexation, betrayal, war, Communism, linguistic suppression and religious oppression.  It is a bright, strong boat tossed in the seas of vast empires.

I wish I could write out every detail of our trip–every taste, sight, and smell (even the sheep)–but that would be a book.  Instead, I’ve chosen five events that I hope will help explain how it was, after spending only 8 days in this country, that Tim and I both fell under Georgia’s spell.


The academy at Ikalto.  Older than Oxford or Cambridge.  And can you see the clay qvevri?  The students and teachers would drink wine before classes.  What a good idea.

1. The Academy at Ikalto.  There are few sights in the world I love as much as untouched ruins.  I’m not a big fan of reconstructions with guardrails, neat paths, and finished edges.  I like crumbling stone, with grass and flowers growing up from the floor, quiet and unspoiled sites that leave travelers free to imagine life there centuries ago.  Ikalto is one of those perfect places.  The 11th and 12th centuries were the Golden Age of Georgia, and Ikalto was one of two academies established during that period.  The Georgians revived the study of philosophy, astronomy, theology, and other subjects that had flourished in ancient Greece.  Artwork began to change, as the faces of saints and angels moved away from the highly stylized iconography of the Middle Ages and took on greater dimension and human emotion. Note the dates: the 11th and 12th centuries.  Long before there was a Renaissance in Italy, one had begun in Georgia.  A century prior to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shota Rustaveli penned the epic poem Knight in the Panther’s Skin.  Before there was an Oxford or a Cambridge university in England, there was an academy in Ikalto.  Telavi, rather than Florence, might have become known as the center of the Renaissance, but Georgia’s Golden Age was cut short by Mongolian invaders.  In the 13th century, Genghis Khan and his army swept across half the world, extinguishing the fire of learning newly ignited in Georgia, and forcing the country to focus on defense and survival rather than art and education.  Tim, Carolyn, Sopho, and I were the only visitors at Ikalto that afternoon, so all you could hear was birdsong and the soft rustling of leaves in a place where students had diligently pored over their lessons centuries ago.  Stepping through grass and flowers inside the ruins, with the late afternoon sun warming the twelfth century stones, I felt the sadness of Ikalto’s lost potential.

Side note: we almost missed Ikalto.  We were supposed to do a wine tasting, but we felt we’d have more than enough wine already that day, so we went to Ikalto instead.  Thank goodness.


The picturesque fortress town of Signaghi, with the Greater Caucasus in the background.  I was disappointed by all of my photos of Signaghi, because none of them sufficiently capture the town’s beauty.  Really, you just have to go.

2. Lunch at Okro’s.  The town of Signaghi is perched high on a hill, with a view across the Alazani Valley toward the Greater Caucasus mountains, topped with swirling white clouds and shifting in colors of green, gold, purple, and silver throughout the day.  Every time you peer down one of the town’s narrow, winding streets, you catch glimpses of this glorious view.  But you can take in the whole sweeping landscape at once by climbing a tower of the town’s defensive walls, built as a refuge for people in the Alazani Valley to escape the clutches of kidnappers who ran raids over the Caucasus from nearby Daghestan.  Another way to take in the view is to have lunch at Okro’s, a restaurant and winery perched high on a hill overlooking the valley.  The people at Okro’s welcomed us with blankets so that we could sit on the deck and stay warm while we enjoyed the view, and we chose some delicious food.

eggplant with walnuts

Eggplant with walnut-herb paste.  SO. GOOD.

Eggplant with an herb and walnut paste is a famous dish in Georgia, and my favorite version of the dish was at Okro’s.  And then there was the wine.  We tasted four different wines, each one bright and complex and a perfect accompaniment to the view.  Our sommelier was also a winemaker, one of Georgia’s very few winemaking women.  She told us that the Alazani Valley was once covered by ocean, and that in the Saperavi Budeshuri, a bold and dry red wine, there was a slight saltiness and mineral quality, which that particular soil had acquired from the saltwater.  There are always a few times on an overseas trip that feel a little surreal and out-of-body, and this was one of those moments.  I thought, “I’m sitting in front of one of the most beautiful vistas on the planet, sipping wine that tastes like an ancient ocean.”

vanis qvabebi

Vanis Qvabebi.  It’s a 9th century church, and you can see the remains of a cave monastery in the cliff in the background.

3. Vanis Qvabebi and Chachkari.  We visited southern Georgia for the express purpose of touring the medieval cave city of Vardzia, which was spectacular.  But I love surprises–those unexpectedly enchanting places on the way to your destination–and Vanis Qvabebi and Chachkari were two delightful surprises we encountered in southern Georgia (I know, I hear it too.  Can we please call it Sakartvelo now?).  The road from Tbilisi to Vardzia goes up through cold, windy, tree-less mountain passes and then settles down into a valley surrounded by cliffs, and it goes all the way to Asia Minor.  You follow a musical river, and you begin to see terraces cut into the hillside for farming.  Some terraces, marked with clear rows of volcanic black basalt, date to medieval times; others, just ripples in the hillside, are much older–thousands of years old.  This is the home of Queen Tamar, often called King Tamar because she was just as brilliant and capable as the country’s kings.  She consolidated territories within her kingdom, set up a fair and just multiethnic society, defeated her gay, alcoholic ex-husband Yuri in battle, suppressed Turkish invasions, and finished construction of the massive cave city Vardzia, a honeycomb of secret rooms and tunnels hidden beneath a gigantic cliff face, a city that could hold as many as 50,000 people.  Queen Tamar was canonized as a saint, and she is celebrated in feasts to this day.  The Armenians even have an ice cream named after her.  As with all rulers, what Queen Tamar built didn’t last.  Her death was followed by Turkish and Mongol invasions, as well as a massive earthquake that brought down the cliff face that covered Vardzia, destroying over 80% of the city and exposing the network of remaining rooms and tunnels.  Our journey to Vardzia began with a stop at Vanis Qvabebi, a 9th century church and monastery built into the side of a cliff.  We followed a steep, switchbacked path and then finally climbed a series of ladders and rock tunnels to the top.  The reward was a view of a 1,200 year old church clinging to a rock face, abandoned monastic caves, and the mountains and valleys beyond.  Then we went to the village of Chachkari, which means “grape-skin door.” Tucked beside Vardzia, Chachkari is three centuries older than the cave city (9th century rather than 12th) and has been continuously inhabited since then.  As its name implies, Chachkari was a place of wine production, part of the farming efforts that supported Vardzia in its heyday.  The village is quiet, with cows significantly

me and vine

Me and the 400-yr-old vine.  Do you see how happy I am?  Has a vine ever made you this happy?

outnumbering residents.  We climbed up through the ancient terraces, beneath a canopy of white-flowering fruit trees that were humming with bees.  The grass was bright green and dotted with tiny blue flowers, and we crossed a babbling, stone-filled brook several times.  I felt like we had passed some secret threshold and found ourselves in a fairy tale.  We arrived at one of the oldest vines in the world–over 400 years old.  People used to cultivate vines by allowing them to grow up trees, and then they’d harvest the grapes by climbing.  This vine was intricately entwined with a yellow-flowering tree, and it was thick near the base, but tapered into curvy, twisty threads.  I loved this vine. (Can you love a vine?)  I loved the old stone winepress that stood not far from it.  I loved the evening hush that had settled over this place that seemed separated from the normal flow of time.


The Bronze Age village of Saro.

4. Saro.  From down in the valley, we could see a stone building perched high on a cliff.  “That’s the village of Saro, where we’re going next,” our guide Sopho said, pointing straight up.  One slightly terrifying drive later (I’m not a big fan of heights), we were on top of the world.  We could see sheer cliffs and farming terraces, we could see caves carved into hillsides, we could see the Lesser Caucasus mountains.  The sky was bright blue and dotted with white clouds, and Sopho directed us to heaps of giant black rocks that formed walls and rooms.  This was the oldest part of the village of Saro, a place that has been inhabited continuously since the Bronze Age, and these were the ruins of buildings that were constructed nearly 3,500 years ago.  The stones were black basalt and monstrously huge, weighing up to six tons.  To this day, archaeologists have no idea how the people managed to put those stones into place, and nearby ancient burial sites provide no clues. The people of ancient Saro were not giants; they were under 5 feet tall!  In their stomachs were traces of wine as well as pkhali, a dish made of herbs and walnuts, still eaten today in Georgia (in fact, we ate it at a restaurant one of our first nights in Tbilisi).  Saro is Georgia’s Stonehenge: a mystery and marvel of the ancient world.  Unlike Stonehenge, it is not crawling with tourists armed with selfie sticks.  We were the only visitors to the site that morning, so it felt like we had stepped back in time.

5. Church in Tbilisi.  There were so many wonderful things about the city of Tbilisi, some of which I’ll cover in future posts about Georgia’s food, wine, and people.  But one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip was going to Carolyn’s church.  Carolyn’s Georgian family (Valeri, Maya, and their three sons, whom you’ll hear more about in future posts) attend this church as well.  I love visiting churches in other countries and hearing worship in languages I don’t understand, because it reminds me that the church of God is global, consisting of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  The church leadership had graciously asked Tim to give the sermon, and it was his first time preaching with a translator.  He did an excellent job, delivering a clear, gospel-centered message from Psalm 41.  One of the best parts of the sermon was that he included an illustration from Georgian culture.  At Georgian feasts, people make a series of toasts: the first is to peace, the second is to those who have died, and the third is to the next generation.  In this way, they bless the present, honor the past, and look toward the future with hope.  Tim pointed out that David’s enemies in Psalm 41 want to see him so completely destroyed that his name would not even be mentioned in the toast to the dead.  I thought it was a brilliant way to include a meaningful cultural reference.  The only noticeable misunderstanding in translation was that Tim opened with a story about a man driving a cart to sell produce at market.  The translator (also the church’s pastor) thought Tim said “car” instead of “cart,” so when it came to the part of the story where Tim said, “Then the man whipped his oxen,” the translator looked at Tim in great surprise (the man was driving his car and whipping his oxen??).  It was such a funny mistake.  After the sermon, the most deeply touching part of the service came in the form of a song.  The young women who led worship had prepared “El-Shaddai” in English, and Carolyn said she had never heard them sing in English before.  This song had been prepared especially for our visit.  Can you imagine how honored we felt?  Can you imagine how emotional it was for us to sing a song in English in a Georgian-speaking church?  Can you imagine if two people from a foreign country visited your church, and you prepared a song for them in their language?  I was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of these lovely people, and I cried throughout the song.

azeri carpet weavers

Azeri women weave carpets while adorable children supervise.

I was expecting Georgia to be a great trip, with lots of fresh, unconventional experiences, but I wasn’t expecting the country to weave a spell over me the way Azeri carpet weavers tie one knot at a time, hands working lightning-fast to create a gorgeous pattern in the dyed wool.  You cannot point to any one knot in a carpet and say “That is what makes this carpet so beautiful.”  All the knots together create lines and movement and color and images: a picture that tells a story.  The Georgian story (as perceived by an outsider newly acquainted with the country) is one of tenacity, beauty, resilience, warmth, and an unconquerable national identity.  Over the years, invaders have killed and enslaved their people, whitewashed their religious murals, burned their books, destroyed their sacred grapevines, and outlawed their language, but they have never managed to break Georgian spirit.

Maybe that spirit, fiercely indomitable and yet miraculously hospitable, is the one thing that can account for the magnetic appeal of Sakartvelo.  Maybe more than the delicious food or gorgeous views or fascinating history, the people’s spirit is the one thing that makes this country so special.  But it’s not something that can be described with words or captured with photographs.

You just have to go there yourself.

How Our “Experience Windows” Both Enable and Constrain Our Vision


windowI just started an exploratory study this week, conducting qualitative research on undergraduate students who grew up with one or both parents in the military.  My first interview was bonkers (in the best way).  The young women I spoke to was articulate and introspective, and the connections she made between her experiences as a military kid and her literacy practices gave me a series of lightbulb moments into my own experience growing up in the military.  For one thing, I didn’t realize the possible connections between my love of reading and my frequent relocations.  When you move to a new place and you don’t know anyone yet, books are your friends and your escape from stress.

My background as a military kid is a great benefit in this research project–I know some of the lingo, I know what questions to ask, and I am able to mirror my participants’ sentiments back to them with true empathy.  I know how many ranks there are between second lieutenant and lieutenant colonel.  I know the difference between TDY and PCS, and I spent a good chunk of my childhood in base housing.

We are usually well attuned to the ways in which our experience is an asset.  We are quick to think of ourselves as insiders and experts, quick to offer a definitive interpretation on what something means because of what something meant for us.

However, as one of my professors pointed out during the first week of classes, our experiences are both an asset and a liability.  Experience is a window open to a piece the world.  While we easily attend to and analyze what we can see through our windows, we often don’t think about the limitations the window puts on our perspective.

My experience as a military kid gave me a set of expectations that I carry into my research, which makes it tough to avoid a confirmation bias.  I tend to interpret what my participants say in light of my own experiences, instead of letting their stories be their own.  Sometimes my background will give me a false confidence that I know more about a person than I really do.  It makes it harder for me to be surprised by what I learn in these interviews, and good qualitative research is supposed to be surprising.  My window onto military life, created by my own experiences, allows me to see some things and prevents me from seeing other things.

The idea that experience both enables and constrains our vision is true in other areas of life besides research.  We’re inclined to think of our experience as a benefit–which it most definitely is–and then overlook the ways it limits us.

In relationships, we sometimes expect a friend or loved one to behave a certain way because we think we’ve know someone like them in the past.  We interpret (or more often misinterpret) their actions because we are viewing them through the window of our experience.  What often see what we expect to see.  Have you ever felt that someone was responding to a fictional version of you rather than the real you?

In those wonderful, uplifting political arguments on Facebook, do you ever get the feeling that not only is no one changing their mind, but people are actually getting even MORE entrenched in their own views?  New information alone is insufficient to persuade us, because it comes to us through our windows.  Changing our minds often involves changing the window frame, and that happens over time, as a result of efforts to engage the mind, emotions, memory, and will.

There is no way around this conundrum.  You can’t step outside the house, and you can’t knock down walls.  The trick is to recognize your own position.  Be aware of the ways that your experience constrains you; examine your expectations and interpretations carefully.  In this project, I’m trying to continually reflect and ask myself, “What am I not seeing?”  I’m talking through my interview protocol with my writing group, having them help me refine my process, because they all have different windows.  I think it would benefit me in life as well, when I’m frustrated by a person’s words or actions to ask again, “What am I not seeing?”

I hope that this exploratory study (as well as the pilot study and dissertation to follow) becomes an experience in itself that broadens my window onto the world of military life.  I want to be challenged and surprised by my research, not have my pre-existing theories confirmed.  And I hope that through this process I glean insights not only into military life and students and literacy practices and pedagogy, but also into the way we humans see things, the way we know things, and the way we learn.


Learning How to Hygge in a Michigan Winter


I knew that winters in the Midwest were going to be rough.

Before moving to Ann Arbor, we lived in Southern California, and we lived in Colorado before that: both perpetually sunny spots.  When we moved here in July, hot and sticky as it was, I could already feel myself bracing for the December-March stretch.  It isn’t the snow that bothers me; I think white landscapes and lacy snowflakes are beautiful.  It’s not the cold that bothers me either; I like bundling up.  Clear, cold days with an icy-blue sky are delightful.  It’s the gray that gets to me.

This week, we’ve been blessed with a few sunshine-y mornings, but prior to that, we had not had a sunny day since November 13th.  That’s half of November, all of December, and nearly all of January…without really ever seeing the sun.

Seasonal affective disorder is a real thing, and it’s sneaky.  It lives in the corner of your eye and the back of your mind, not a catastrophe, but an accumulating discontent.  It’s a chilly layer that settles over the normal stresses and pressures of life.

Last winter was the first time I’ve ever experienced SAD (gosh, even the acronym is terrible).  My strategy was to eat vitamin D gummies and never to look at the sky.  I rebelled against the weather by doing things like buying summery flowers and cooking out-of-season produce (spinach salads with blueberries!  zucchini fritters!  guacamole!).  I listened to upbeat music on my walks to campus and burned my Hawaiian luau candle, aggressively ignoring the sky.  I guess I thought that if I could put blinders on and pretend like it wasn’t winter, I would feel better.

But I didn’t.  I felt worse.  

Out-of-season produce is watery and bland.  Summery sights, sounds, and smells throw winter into sharper focus by contrast, making you wish you could fast-forward to June.  The eternal gray blanket of sky cannot be ignored.  People here told me that winter was just something I’d have to grit my teeth and endure, and that the region’s soft pastel springs, golden summers, and brilliantly crisp falls would make up for four sunless months.  That didn’t sit well with me.

And then last semester, around the time the last leaves were falling, I heard about hygge (pronounced HOO-gah), a Danish word that kinda-sorta translates as “the art of coziness” and that I’ve seen used as nearly every part of speech.  It’s the way people in the planet’s far north make peace with their winters, which are much longer, darker, and colder than Michigan’s.  I was surprised to learn that people in Scandanavian countries actually love winter and look forward to the season because of hygge.

In material terms, hygge can be a thick, warm blanket, nubbly woolen socks, worn-in yoga pants, a steaming cup of hazelnut coffee, a balsam wood-scented candle, a bowl of butternut squash soup topped with toasted pine nuts, a crackling fire, a warming sip of Scotch, the dog-eared pages of a favorite novel, rosy light from a table lamp.  But everything I’ve read so far insists that the concept of hygge extends to the immaterial; it is created by spending quality time with people you love: warm hugs, curling up on the couch, and deep conversation late into the night.

Cultivating hygge can be a way to actually enjoy winter; it involves doing, making, cooking, drinking, and creating things that take advantage of the cold and dark.  There are whole books written about this subject (see here, here, and here), but here’s a short list of what I’ve been doing to add a little hygge to my life.  By the way, my list was largely inspired by this great post  about 29 ways to enjoy winter.

  1. Create a warm atmosphere with no overhead lights; instead, use lamps, Christmas lights, and candles.  I ordered a whole bunch of candles from P.F. Candle company, and I burn them all the time.  My favorite post-work activity is to curl up on the couch beneath a cozy blanket with my current novel in hand and burn one of these candles.  There’s no better way to enjoy a cold, gray day, because candles just aren’t as fun to burn during the summer.  P.F.’s teakwood and tobacco is maybe my favorite thing I have ever smelled.
  2. Cook seasonal foods in my Le Creuset Dutch oven.  My mom bought me a Le Creuset pot over Christmas, and it is *hands down* my favorite thing in my kitchen.  I use it make golden, crusty bread, bubbling soup, Moroccan root vegetable tagine, slow-cooked marinara sauce, and lots of other warmly satisfying recipes.  Tim and I call it the “magic pot” because everything I make in it turns out amazing.  I don’t try to cook summery foods during winter anymore.  I miss summer produce, but I always forget that citrus is in season during the winter; grapefruits and mandarins are a great way to add brightness to wintry dishes (lemon-mustard glazed salmon, anyone?).
  3. Listen to Icelandic music.  It took Tim months to convince me to listen to his favorite band, Árstíðir, and I have long made fun of him for being such an uber-hipster about his music choices.  But I admit: when you are walking through flecks of freezing rain in a gray cityscape, with threadlike tree branches painted against a pearl-gray sky, there is something perfect about cold, melancholy music.  It’s way better to listen to music that fits the setting than upbeat music that clashes and makes you long for summer.
  4. Make plans to meet up with friends for dinner parties, games, and movie nights.  We’re awfully social in the summertime, but our sociability declines through the fall as the school year gets busy.  Christmas brings a rounds of parties for which we clear our schedules.  But then January hits, and not only are we seeing friends less, we’re also suffering the self-imposed sanctions of New Year’s resolutions (ugh).  This year, I was determined that January would be different.  When we got back from our Christmas trip, I began scheduling regular lunches, dinner parties, happy hours, and other events that would keep us feeling connected to people we care about.
  5. Get proper winter clothes, even if they’re not fashionable.  Last winter, I bought a knee-length down parka with a fur hood.  It cost a small fortune and I feel like the Abominable Snow Monster wearing it, but it was well worth it.  You are guaranteed misery if you wear cute, slimming coats that aren’t adequately warm.  This season, it was time to invest in a great pair of snow boots.  I also purchased a base layer last year, an absolute necessity for below-zero days.

In short, hygge is a way of making peace with winter and taking advantage of the atmosphere it creates, rather than wishing it away.  If I can do two or three things every day that make me think, “I wouldn’t really want to do this in the summer,” then I’m embracing the season instead of fighting it.  I’ll have to reflect further once the winter’s over, but right now I feel like cultivating hygge has helped me improve my mood and be more content with Michigan’s cold, dark days.


Hard Times (or, When Life Starts to Feel a Little Dickensian)


Image credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

I just checked this site today and realized I haven’t posted anything since October. And like, not even late October…early October.  I’ve missed blogging a lot.  Not that I haven’t been writing: my end-of-term papers alone total 80+ pages (well over 100 pages written throughout the semester).  But this blog has been an important hobby for me for over 7 years, and I miss it.

I can’t blame not blogging on general grad school busy-ness.  These past few months have brought hard times–some of the hardest times we’ve had in quite a while.  Tim has experienced serious difficulties in his professional life, and I live vicariously through the pain and distress of his struggles (as one tends to do with a spouse/best friend).

Since my funding for the next few years comes from a research assistantship, this is the first fall in 12 years that I haven’t been a teacher.  I miss it daily.  Not teaching also makes my work feel generally less effective and less meaningful.  I can take a step back, look at the big picture, and realize that my work matters in the long term, but in the trenches of everyday life, it doesn’t feel that way.  I’ve gone from being a very good teacher to a very mediocre research assistant, and I feel like I barely have time to breathe and recover between mistakes.

I was depressed by the election results.  I’m concerned for my Muslim friends and neighbors.  I worry for the extended families of my former students from Mexico.  I feel cynical about a country that chose as its leader an inexperienced, blustering fool who can’t be trusted with a Twitter account, who is seriously concerned with public perception of his hand size, who makes vague promises and troubling threats, who doesn’t have patience for security briefings, and who doesn’t seem to realize when people are playing him.  The court jester is about to become the king.*

When I went in for a physical, the doctor told me I had some health issues–nothing serious, but still, things I need to improve so that they don’t become serious.  Sometimes it’s hard to see how much adverse life circumstances are affecting you until someone from the outside looks at your life and says that you’re not doing okay.  Of course I was unhealthy.  I wasn’t sleeping well, wasn’t eating well, wasn’t exercising.  I was feeling the effects of a sharp U-turn in my professional life.  I was worried for my husband, for our future, and for society generally. Hard times make you feel like not doing the things you usually love to do.  It’s a vicious cycle, because making yourself do those things would actually help you feel better.  But you don’t feel like doing them, and so you feel even worse.

But there are wake-up calls, and there are second chances, and there are ways out.  And in the meantime, there is grace enough to cover all, grace that often covers us with perspective.  Tim has gone through trials, but he has a steady job and is working faithfully and effectively at our church.  I’m not teaching in a classroom, but I am tutoring a smart and  curious 9th grade girl, helping kids in Detroit write college application essays, and teaching children’s church.  I don’t know my way around being a GSRA yet, but every misstep is a lesson learned.  My health isn’t great, but I’m now devoting 150 minutes per week to exercise.  I’m worried for people in my communities, but in January, I’ll start volunteering with a local organization to tutor refugee children and help them adjust to American schools.  The president-elect behaves foolishly, but our nation has checks and balances, and in the end presidents really only form a distant backdrop to life, a way for us to measure our years.  God has blessed me richly and abundantly: I have a safe, warm place to live, all the food I could want to eat, a car that works, nice clothes, a husband and family who love me, friends to spend time with, the ability to read and write and work.  God holds onto me always, even when I’m unanchored, when I’m floundering, and when I’m not doing a great job of holding onto Him.  He saved me, and He is saving me, and He will save me.  The hard times may hang on; there are no promises that things will get better.  However, there are plenty of promises about God’s presence and His mercy and His great, deep, wide, overflowing, redeeming love.

*NOTE: In my opinion, it was going to be a depressing election outcome either way.  I did not like either candidate.  I know that there are many reasons, often complex, why people voted for Trump.  Just a note to say that I’m writing this post to explain how I’ve been feeling over the past few months, not to enter into any kind of political discussion.  



Beautiful Uncertainty

pencil kings.jpg

image credit: Happy Reading, an illustration by Erin McGuire

A friend of mine was recently at a party where an older colleague said, “Can I be honest with you?  You do good work, but you really need to have more confidence in yourself.”  She was surprised and upset by this interaction, had been mulling it over for a while, and wanted to know what I thought he was really trying to say.  My response was that it’s hard to parse out motive in situations like these.  Was he doling out well-intentioned career advice?  Expressing annoyance at what he perceived to be a personality flaw?  Conflating confidence and arrogance?  Playing mind games to surreptitiously try to make her LESS confident?  Who knows.  The encouragement I offered her was based on the lessons I’ve learned from my own long-term struggles with confidence.

For the 11 years I was an English teacher, I was in a position of having to constantly project a confident persona due to the nature of managing a room of adolescents.  They can smell fear and insecurity like sharks smell blood in the water, so if you’re not a naturally confident person, you’d better learn quickly to show more confidence than you feel.  Those years of teaching definitely taught me how much it can boost your self-assuredness to pretend like you’ve got your act together.

But I also learned a core truth about myself: I am, fundamentally, not a confident person, despite how I may come across.  I am always questioning, seeking, and self-doubting.  Most people, including my friend’s colleague, see that as a flaw that needs to be fixed.  For a long time, I would have agreed.  There’s no doubt that confident people accomplish great things.  In a society that puts the most arrogant, obnoxious, bulldozer-type people on pedestals, the less confident are made to feel like the broken toys fit for the trash can.  However, my life has taught me the surprising beauty of uncertainty.

Personally, I think that uncertainty (about myself, my talents and abilities, my place in the world) has led to some truly marvelous outcomes in my life.  Confidence would have made me complacent; uncertainty has made me constantly seek to do better.  This summer, I produced the best writing of my life from a deep lack of confidence, a fearful doubt in my own abilities.  Uncertainty has become for me a driving force, a constant push toward personal best.  I see a lot of uncertainty in the lives of great artists, poets, and scholars for whom over-confidence would have been the kiss of death to their work. I believe that genius is often born from a place of deep insecurity that drives us to always question whether what we’ve done is good enough.  It is something to be celebrated, not eradicated.

I will say this, as a caveat to my argument: you cannot thrive if you are uncertain of absolutely everything.  For uncertainty to be productive and healthy, there must be anchors.  There are some things in my life that I am always, 100% certain of, because I know that these things are not dependent on my performance.  One is the love of my husband.  It is unwavering and unconditional, a love based on who I am, not what I do.  And his love is the tenor for the unsurpassed vehicle of God’s great love for me, shown through His Son Jesus Christ.  In the context of these (and other) deep loves, uncertainty can be a truly beautiful thing.

I hope that maybe one day my friend can say to her colleague, “Can I be honest with you?  Your work is good, but I think it could be really great if you embraced uncertainty a little more and had just a bit less confidence in yourself.”

Dishonesty or Dress-Up? Faking Certainty in Grad School

Image credit:

I always feel a little anxious before the start of a new semester, and part of those back-to-school butterflies come from knowing that I’m going to have to talk about my research.  It’s not the discussion of my ideas, which is actually a lot of fun; it’s the way that discussion is framed that makes me nervous.  Most classes start with, “Let’s go around the room and tell us your name and your area of research.”  As in, “describe the corner of the field in which you’ve set up your intellectual camp, and let us judge how good you are at talking about something that you claim to be an expert in.”  You’re also expected to write little bios of yourself for newsletters and websites, and the prompt is the same: tell us what kind of research you do, you who claim the title of Researcher.  Prove yourself.

Everyone gives these polished, eloquent elevator speeches with words like “liminal” and “internalized” and “contingent.”  When it’s your turn, you take a deep breath and hope that everybody doesn’t see right through to what a gigantic fraud you are.  Halfway through your little speech, you start to wonder if you have the word “imposter” emblazoned on your forehead.  (Spoiler alert: pretty much everyone feels the same way.)

Part of me gets frustrated with this rigamarole.  We’re still doing coursework: why are being forced to act like we know what the heck we’re doing?  Why can’t we be more okay with saying, “I’m Emily, and I don’t know what my research focus is yet”?  Even if you’re one of those people who goes into a PhD program completely confident that you know what you want to research, your focus will probably change at least a little bit.  And that’s a good thing.  It means that you’re learning and growing.  It means the program in which you’re investing a huge chunk of your life, energy, and sanity is shaping you, which is what it’s supposed to do.  I have a topic that I’ve written one long paper about, and it interests me, but I’m nowhere near certain that I’m going to carry it with me for the next four years, clear into dissertation-land.  Truthfully, I don’t really want that certainty.  I prefer to be completely open to what my readings, papers, and class discussions have to teach me.

So why is it that I am constantly being asked to fake that certainty, especially during the first week of school?  It feels heavily performative and vaguely dishonest.

But this week, I’ve been thinking that maybe I’ve been looking at it the wrong way.  Instead of seeing those introductions as dishonest, I’m trying to think of them as dress-up.  Kids love playing dress-up, because it gives them the opportunity to try on different identities and see how they feel.  Dressing up goads the imagination into considering what it would be like to actually become a doctor or teacher or cowboy or superhero or fairy princess.  The clothes become a synecdoche for a possible future life.  Dressing up is not dishonest; it is a low stakes game of exploration we play as we figure out what path will suit us best.

So I’m going to use my bios and introductions this fall to play dress-up.  I want to see how it sounds to say out loud, “My name is Emily Wilson, and I’m interested in how a literacy based approach might be an effective intervention for trauma in the lives of military-connected students.”  My area of research is going to be my calling card when I go on the job market.  Just as dress-up clothes instantly identify the imaginary role, the dissertation topic instantly signals who I am to the academic world, what conversations I’m a part of, what population I want to go to bat for.  It’s not something to choose flippantly.  And while the trunk stuffed with outfits is available to me, why not make the most of it?  Why not take a turn trying on what appears to be a wildly unsuitable role (of the superhero or fairy princess variety) and see what it’s like?

It’s too early to be pigeon-holed and I don’t want to fake a certainty I don’t yet feel.  But I do want the chance to try a few ideas on for size and see where the next couple of years take me.  This journey is as much about the process as it is about the final product.

How The Devil Wears Prada Helped Me Write My Best Paper Ever


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A few weeks ago, Tim and I went downtown for drinks late after dinner one night.  I was feeling beyond discouraged about my first year exam and complained that the copious amounts of feedback I’d been getting on the last two drafts had been overwhelmingly negative…as in, hardly any positive comments at all.  There I was, staring down a third draft that was shaping up to be a total rewrite (again), and the highest praise I was getting was “This is a good start.”  (Good start?  I just re-wrote a 45 page paper!  Aren’t we past the starting line yet?)

Over a fizzy, Chartreuse-based cocktail, I unloaded my frustration on Tim.  “How do they expect me to keep going when everything I do gets pulled to pieces?” I complained.  “I know I’m not the best writer in the world, but I’m not that bad.  I have no idea what I’m doing well, but I sure know everything I’m doing poorly.”

He listened sympathetically, commiserated with me, but also gently pointed out, “Michigan is a tough school.  You knew going in that this process wasn’t going to be easy.”

Suddenly, I remembered the scene from The Devil Wears Prada where Andy complains to Nigel about how Miranda is treating her and Nigel gives her a wake-up call.  When we got home that night, I re-watched the clip (watch it here if you’ve never seen it or don’t remember it; the whole film is outstanding, and this scene is a particularly compelling moment of self-revelation for the protagonist).  Let me tell you, it resonated.

I was Andy: “If I do something right, it’s unacknowledged.  But if I do something wrong?  They are VICIOUS!  I would just like a little credit for the fact that I am killing myself trying!”

I wasn’t intentionally half-hearted about the process of writing my first year exam, but I was overconfident.  I did a lot of work, spending many hours reading, taking notes, outlining, drafting, revising, and editing.  I plodded through every step of the writing process, checked every box.  When I got a large volume of negative feedback on the first draft, I went through the same steps again and produced a wholly re-written draft that was equally excoriated by my three faculty readers.  No pats on the back, no acknowledgement of my hours toiling in the library, no credit for the fact that I was killing myself trying.

Nigel’s reply to Andy gave me the wake-up call I needed.  “Oh, please.  You are not trying.  You…are whining.

I wasn’t really trying.  I was whining. The truth was, I was capable of writing much better stuff.  They knew it, and they were calling my BS, and I was pouting and sulking in response.

“You have no idea the legends that have walked these halls!” exclaims an exasperated Nigel.  Legends have walked my halls too.  John Dewey.  Robert Frost. Gerald Ford.  William Mayo.  Arthur Miller.

“I could get another girl to take your place in five minutes.  One who really wants it.”  I had forgotten what a privilege it is to be here, how many people applied for the slot I accepted, how replaceable and forgettable I was making myself through my mediocre efforts.

“And you wonder why she doesn’t kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day.”  I intentionally chose three tough exam readers at one of the toughest universities in the world, and then I wondered why I wasn’t being given gold stars for average work.  I came here to be pushed past the limits of what I could do, not to be given accolades for what I could already do.

I realized it was time to stop whining and start really trying.  When I sat down at my computer to write my third draft, my heart was in my work for the first time that summer.  Previously, I had been holding back out of fear: what if I put my absolute best out there…and they reject it?  But in grad school, that is a fear that you have to get comfortable living with, and you have to acknowledge your fear and put your best out there anyway.

Because here’s the thing: when your best isn’t good enough, it means that you have to figure out how to become even better.  That’s where real growth happens.  That’s the lesson I learned from The Devil Wears Prada.  And that’s how I wrote the best paper I’ve ever written in my life.

I’m just majorly bummed that my lightbulb moment wasn’t accompanied by a fabulous couture makeover.  I’m still not wearing any Chanel.

As a quick coda to my story, I just heard back from one of my readers about my third draft. She wrote, “I think you should be incredibly proud of the work you’ve done in the past few months. Nice work. I am excited about this draft and have just two small comments.”

I think Miranda Priestly may have just half-smiled.