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

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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)

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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

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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

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Image credit: kidspot.com.au

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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Image credit: slashfilm.com

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.

 

 

Seize the Summer!

When I was a high school teacher, my summers involved a lot of indoor reading, curriculum prep, and household projects, punctuated by a vacation or two.  I thought the era of summertime activities–living my freetime life in a way that’s fundamentally different from how I live it in other seasons–was a thing of childhood.  Popsicles, slip-n-slide, sidewalk chalk, all in the past.

And then I moved to Michigan.  Let me tell you, this place knows how to summer.  People here embrace the season with high notes of celebration and deeper tones of urgency, because as fun as this is, it’s all temporary.  Winter is cold and gray, and it feels longer than Gettysburg on half speed.

When June arrived in California, people were like, “Hmm, feels a little warmer than usual.”  When winter finally ended here in Michigan, people were like, “WE CAN STAY OUTSIDE LONGER THAN 5 MINUTES WITHOUT FROSTBITE AND 25,000 UNDERGRADS HAVE LEFT TOWN, LET’S THROW A FOUR-MONTH-LONG PARTY.”  That’s summer in a nutshell: carpe diem.  Road construction and endless revelry.  Everyone’s invited, and prepare for serious FOMO if you stay home.

While I haven’t perhaps seized the summer as fully as most Michiganders (due to my research assistantship and first year exam), I feel like I was able to enjoy a lot of highlights.  I love hearing about what seasons are like in different parts of the country, so I thought I’d share what I scratched off my Michigan summer bucket list this year.

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Ready for movie night to begin!

  1. Movie night.  This was part of the Ann Arbor summer festival, which runs every evening for four weeks straight (told you they know how to party!) and includes a variety of different events.  On a few nights, they show outdoor films on a giant screen, and people bring camp chairs and picnic blankets to watch on the lawn.  I brought along some classic movie candies, like Twizzlers and Sour Patch Kids, and we enjoyed Brooklyn one night and Imitation Game another night.  Super fun, especially when the stars come out.
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A few of the magical items from our farm co-op box.

2. Farmer’s markets.  Last year, I went religiously every Saturday morning and bought all my produce for the week.  This year, I joined a farm co-op, so I get a box of organic, local produce every Friday (which is as magical as it sounds). So the farmer’s market has become an occasional social event for me.  I’ll meet a friend at the Kerrytown market on a Saturday morning for coffee and a cronut and maybe buy some fresh flowers.  Or I’ll meet friends on a Friday afternoon at the Dixboro market, sip a basil limeade, and pick up some smoked goat cheese from The Cheese People (a great business out of Grand Rapids).  The co-op makes life more convenient and the farmer’s market more relaxing.

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My favorite human being.

3. Biking.  One of my favorite things to do on a late summer afternoon is hop on our bikes and head down to a trail lined with trees that runs along the river.  It’s a ride that always makes me happy and relaxed.

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Stacey and I, becoming cocktail experts.

4. Summer cocktail-making class.  The Ann Arbor Distilling Company is a bunch of hipsters seriously committed to making tasty liquors.  Even their vodka has actual flavor, and their gin is the best I’ve ever had (each herb is distilled separately).  On a warm June evening, my friend Stacey and I attended a class where they taught us how to make a variety of delicious shrub-based cocktails.

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Ready to watch Love’s Labour’s Lost with Mike and Jacqui, our delightful Aussie friends.

5. Shakespeare in the Arb.  The players switch locations with each scene, so you get to move to different spots around a beautiful park.  By the end, dusk had settled and fireflies were coming out as the players walked away in long cloaks holding lanterns.  The acting was so-so (these are college kids, after all), but the interaction with the natural environment made the production really special.  Actors climbed trees, hid in the long grass, and pretended to get scared by a passing airplane–very enjoyable.

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A handsome man with a great smile, holding cold beer? YES PLEASE.

6. Outdoor concerts.  This was another delightful part of the summer festival.  A couple of Michigan breweries set up beer tasting in a shady spot while local bands played on the Rackham outdoor stage.  On two occasions, we bought tacos from a food stand to enjoy with the cold beer and good music.

7. Lawn yoga.  This is another uniquely enjoyable part of summer festival.  It’s held on a wide, flat lawn well-shaded by oak trees.  I’m not a huge yoga fan in general, but getting to do it outside, for free, with a bunch of random people is great fun.

8. Tubing down the Huron River.  This was–and is–probably my favorite summertime activity.  We start at Argo Park with a series of cascades (like a bunch of small waterslides) and then connect our inner tubes so we can enjoy a lazy float down a beautiful river.  Cold drinks, warm sunshine, and good company make this a perfect way to spend a mid-July afternoon.

9. Art fair.  This is the largest art fair I’ve ever seen.  For one weekend, blocks and blocks of the city are closed off to make way for rows of white tents where artists from all over the country display their goods.  There’s everything from fine art ($12,000 paintings!) to handmade soap to embroidered purses to glass sculptures.  We went with friends from church and enjoyed Cuban street food at Frita Batidos.

10. Vacation time!  We got to explore more of our state this summer during a weeklong trip north.  In Suttons Bay, we enjoyed pristine lake beaches and a biking tour of wineries in Leelanau County.  From there, we went to the Upper Peninsula, where we camped by the lakeshore, took a kayaking tour of Grand Island, hiked to waterfalls, and saw the Pictured Rocks by catamaran.

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Such. good. ICE CREAM.  And such sweet friends!

11. Outdoor dining and ice cream.  One evening, we took our good friends Anna and Ronnie downtown for burgers at the Ann Arbor Brewing Company and then went to Blank Slate for some seriously amazing ice cream.  Having a meal outside and then walking back to the bus stop with a delicious cone of cinnamon and coffee caramel ice cream is just about the summery-est thing you can do.

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Wonderful friends from church.  All four of these women are in grad school!

12. Sangrias at Dominick’s.  A quirky stop that locals love is Dominick’s, which is famous for their gorgeous back garden and their fruity, floral sangrias.  During the school year, it’s overrun with undergrads, but during the summer, it’s perfect, especially with wonderful friends.

These are the highlights, but of course there are lots of fun things in between: cookouts with friends, church picnics, evening walks, sitting on the back porch while the fireflies come out.  While I’m ready for slightly cooler weather and the end of my (seemingly never-ending) first year exam, part of me just wants summertime to go on forever.

When You Leave the Country, Try Not to Take it With You

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Rodin Museum.  Not crowded, not stressful.  If you’re in Paris and you need a break, I highly recommended going there.

One of my favorite lifestyle bloggers recently took a weeklong trip to Paris.  I felt almost as excited for her trip as if I were the one going.  She has outstanding taste, and her blog is so full of beautiful things and great ideas; it seems like every weekend is full of stylish brunches outside and strolls through picturesque farmer’s markets.  She has a great camera, narrative flair, and the budget of my wildest dreams–I couldn’t wait to vacation vicariously through her posts and pics.

I was so. thoroughly. disappointed.

Her first couple of days were packed with sightseeing–she sort of skimmed over those days, which gave me the impression that she didn’t enjoy the museums and churches too much.  That was when she and her husband decided to ignore their touristy plans and “just chill.”  Her favorite day of the trip consisted of ordering room service, hanging out in the hotel in robes until mid-afternoon, and then going out shopping while her husband watched TV.  They went out for a quick dinner that evening, but made sure to get back to the hotel in time to watch The Bachelorette while eating Haribo gummy bears (apparently, France has a much better Haribo selection than L.A.).

I’m sorry, she flew aaaaaallllllllll the way to Paris….to order room service?  And her favorite day consisted entirely of things she could have easily done–and probably would have enjoyed more–in America?  And she bought a bunch of stuff that she could have ordered off the Internet?  And then she watched bad American TV while eating gummy bears?  There were pastries out there: creamy, decadent, artistic, delicately flavored, life-changing PASTRIES that are as superior to gummy bears as a Monet painting is to dog crap on a sidewalk.  If she needed to relax, there were gardens in full bloom, where every hour is magic hour in the late July sun.  There were hour-long cruises down the Seine.  There was the Rodin museum, where she wouldn’t have needed to elbow tourists for a spot: she could have sat (at an outdoor cafe, even) and looked at the sky and water and the soul-piercing beauty of Rodin’s sculptures.  Instead, she did what too many Americans do when they go overseas for the first time: revert to the familiar, mind-numbing comforts of excess consumerism and vapid entertainment.

I know that everybody has a different idea of what makes a fun vacation.  And I know there’s a need to balance high-octane tourism with low-key moments of reflection (and I recognize that I lean too heavily toward the “high-octane” side).  I’m glad she was able to enjoy her trip, although I’m not convinced that she had as good a time as she tried to make it sound.

But travel is meant to lift you out of life as you know it.  It’s meant to feel dissonant, strange, even uncomfortable.  In that space, you can learn new things about yourself and the world.  There is no point in staying cocoooned in hotel rooms, no matter how pretty, when you’ve traveled halfway around the world.  What frustrates me the most is when I see people who were “so excited” to visit a new place trying to import as much of their home life into their experience as they possibly can.  I used to take high school students on trips overseas, and it baffled me how some of them would stay glued to their phones, whine for McDonald’s (um, you don’t even like McDonald’s at home?), arrogantly observe how everything was “so much better” in America, and talk about how they couldn’t wait to go home.  They really only wanted to shop and go to the beach, which they could have done in Florida, much more cheaply.  I felt sad for them.

What most people don’t know is that fully experiencing the benefits of overseas travel requires physical and mental work.  You have to push through the language barrier and adapt to different cultural customs.  You have to get lost, stand in long lines, and occasionally confront some of the uglier sides of your host culture.  This makes most people want to retreat.

But if you refuse to retreat, if you accept each difficult circumstance as an occasion to learn about a new culture and reflect on your own, if you keep reminding yourself that all too soon you’ll be re-immersed in the comforts of home, if you embrace where you are, you will experience the fullest riches that travel affords.  You’ll come home changed: mind expanded, heart full.  You’ll be so starry-eyed with beautiful memories that you’ll start planning the next trip on the plane ride home.

It really doesn’t matter if you’re a millionaire staying at a five-star hotel or a student staying in a hostel: it’s all about your attitude.  You’ll never really see Paris–or anywhere else for that matter–if you never take off your American glasses.

Work is Depressing, and That’s a Good Thing

depressing workOne episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a hilarious subplot featuring hipsters Bob and Sue Thompsteen (they combined their last names).  When landlady Lillian asks them, “What do you do for work?” they look puzzled.  Bob replies, “Uhhh…”  Lillian corrects herself: “Oh, I’m sorry.  I mean: can you believe that you get paid to follow your bliss?”  They look excited and Bob replies enthusiastically, “Right?”

American achievement ideology (which is, in a nutshell, “Believe in yourself, try hard, and you can do/be anything you want”) has crept into the philosophy and rhetoric of work.  What that means is that the expectations we have for our jobs are sky-high.  Generally, people used to expect their job to pay the bills, feed themselves and their families, and at the end of the day, provide a modicum of satisfaction for tasks completed.

No longer.  Jobs are supposed to provide you with Ultimate Fulfillment of Life Dreams.  If you’re not leaping out of bed Monday morning and skipping to the office, you’re in the wrong career.  Work is supposed to be enlightening, empowering, fulfilling, and it’s definitely not supposed to feel like work.  If your job is too challenging or not quite challenging enough, then start sending out resumes.  Of course, I’m using slight hyperbole, but most of us can probably recognize aspects of this mentality in ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I really am getting paid to “follow my bliss.”  I have an unprecedented ability, at the moment, to go down any avenue of research in two fields.  I’ve been given the financial and physical resources–huge library, free time, stipend, health care, multiple offices/study spaces, tuition waiver, graduate housing, mentors, colleagues–to pursue any research questions that strike me as 1) worth asking, 2) interesting, and 3) relevant to the field.  That means I’m completely content in my work, happily burrowing through library books and merrily skittering over my laptop keys, right?

Um, no.  Not how human nature works.  And actually, not how “work” works either.  Because no matter how much we love what we do, it can’t save us.  The problem with work is the impermanence of all things.  If you wash dirty dishes at home, it will benefit you and your family temporarily, but soon the same dishes will need washing again.  All trace of your hard work in a soapy sink will be erased.  If you write a great book that solves a significant global problem, your work will last longer and benefit more people than dishwashing.  But it will follow the same path as the dishes: it will at some point be forgotten, and the people it helped will some day all disappear without a trace.

The big picture of work is fundamentally depressing.  Ecclesiastes 2 gives us the brutal truth, straight-no-chaser: “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”  All of it.  Meaningless.  Because no matter what you do, no matter who you help, no matter what you accomplish, one day you die and the people you helped or educated or influenced will die and even if you write something down for posterity, as Julian Barnes says, there will be a Last Person Who Reads The Things You Write. (Hi, last person!  Hope you’re doing well. Thanks for being my last reader.)  And your work will be passed along to someone else who probably won’t understand it, will misinterpret it, and will do something weird with it.  Like maybe start a cult or something.

This is incredibly depressing.  It is not, however, the final word.  The reason God told us about the ultimate meaninglessness of work is that we’re drowning in an ocean and we’re constantly trying to turn work into a life preserver.  Work can’t ultimately fulfill us, can’t love us back, can’t redeem us, can’t forgive us, and it definitely can’t save us.  Adam and Eve were supposed to work and obey God and pass the test and then through their work they would win eternal bliss.  They failed, which means that now none of us is able to earn divine favor.  But here’s the thing: we are wired just like they were.  Deep down, we still believe that our work can win us immortal life.  “You will remember me for centuries,” croons the band Fall Out Boy.  Yeah, maybe (not likely).  But then what?

But we must not ask work to do something for us that it’s not designed to do.  Work is work.  Bad things happen when we try to make it into Ultimate Dream Fulfillment.

The reason God pointed out the ultimate meaninglessness of our toils is that he doesn’t want us holding on to life preserver that won’t preserve our lives.  We work as though we’ll win immortality.  We won’t, God says.  He won it for us.  Because what we couldn’t do, Jesus did–in abundance.  His righteousness becomes ours, and His death paid our debt.

And now, we rest in the finished work of Christ.  And then, incredibly, miraculously, that’s what motivates us to do our work.  That’s what gives our work meaning.  We work FROM our rest, not in order to win our rest.  We can push through the aching boredom, the frustration, the anxiety, the pain, the fears of inadequacy, the angst, the conflict, the competition, because of the confidence we have in the work that ended with the words, “It is finished.”

It starts with Sunday.  The Word of God, preached.  The bread and the wine.  Worship.  Do this in remembrance of Me.  The rest of the week follows.  We rest–and then we work.

Work is depressing, and that’s a good thing.  Because it means, as Augustine said, that our hearts stay good and restless until they find rest in God.

 

A Great Idea for Giving Feedback

leslie and annIf you must deliver a high volume of critical feedback, here’s a tip: attach one of Leslie Knope’s terms of endearment for Ann Perkins to the end of each statement.

For example:

“Be careful not to make claims that are not based in research…you beautiful rule-breaking moth.”
“Your statements are too broad here…you talented, brilliant, powerful musk-ox.”
“You are demonstrating bias in this section…you poetic, noble land-mermaid.”
“Where is your evidence…you rainbow-infused space unicorn?”
“I don’t understand your main point…you opalescent tree shark.”
This may be the best idea I have ever had in my entire life.