Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Reflections

When I went home for Thanksgiving, I stayed at my mother's house, a place I had refused to call home for 6 years of my life. My mirror, a wall-length monstrosity that spanned across my dresser and reflected my every move, was gone.

I have the annoying tendency to reflect on any and every part of my life, every aspect of my identity. This habit is helpful in approximately three situations: therapy, diaries, and annoying colleagues and potential friends.

This self-reflection has gotten so aggressively out of control, it's become a trope of sorts--Kira the person who sorts through her emotions and wonders, what does it mean? 

And so, as one does when trying to escape their problems, I fled across the country. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, to start a new life? To just do, without having to think? No more reflections!

When I moved to my new apartment, I was greeted by a full-sized mirror the size of my closet door. It was, as a matter of fact, my actual closet door. A quarter of my room consisted of reflections. A quarter of my LIFE consisted of reflections.

What a fantastic starting metaphor.

Besides the horrendous recognition that I would have to greet my naked face every god-awfully early morning, I realized that it wasn't realistic or feasible to get through grad school on autopilot, unthinking and unaware. After receiving my first written assignment which was to literally reflect on my life and my background, I realized that such anti-reflective rhetoric was not encouraged.

As it turns out, grad school is really therapy in disguise*. And so, the re-reflections began.

A few weeks into classes, an odd shift began to take place. By seeing what was--my classes, my weekends holed up in my room writing, my stilted biweekly calls with my father--I began to reflect on what wasn't. It's as though my past was right smack dab in the middle of my obnoxiously large mirror. As I saw my crippling imposter syndrome in teaching and writing at a graduate level, I saw an anxiety issue I had let slide, hoping it would go away. In watching myself spend Saturday after Saturday writing papers, I saw a lack of personal values. In going through the scripted small talk with my father, I saw the questions we weren't asking--that we were too afraid to ask.

I send reflections of my face to my boyfriend with our daily "good morning" selfies. I smile and look happy. What he doesn't see is the fear that I am not good enough.

I've taken these reflections to more familiar mediums: journal entries, calls with my best friend, rants to my mother. Some groundbreaking, others mundane. Yet in "mature reflections," as I like to flatter myself by coining them, I see an understanding of values I had otherwise been blind to.

As much as I humored my past self by claiming I was full of revolutionary reflections, only now do I realize I had been on autopilot and spent my free time worrying. Worrying, as it turns out, is far different and far less productive than reflecting. By observing a highly academic family, I reasoned that school and acceptance into the academic world far outweighed other priorities, be it family, self care, or love. In late high school and early college, I grew addicted to my father's pride and pats on the back when I brought home high marks and sophisticated papers. I accepted these core values, and my father's pride became my pride.

When I called my father, asking what he thought about a Thanksgiving visit home, I had not seen my family in three months. I was delighted by the prospect of coming home after spending a challenging, rigorous semester writing and trying to figure out how to teach. I was met with the following response:

I don't think that's a good idea. You'll want to use that time to focus on your work. 

Those words shattered me.

To be perfectly fair, my father is not a bad guy. He is a wonderfully kind, supportive dad and only wants the best for his kids. Yet his words reflected back to me a priority that consisted of work and an ability to climb the ivory tower. The best for his kids, in my father's eyes, reflects his own ambitions and needs: the key value here is academic success. When I talk to my dad, it's almost strictly about grad school. In relaying his graduate experiences to me as advice, he is reflecting on the glory days, the times he played guitar with his buddies and read Emerson around campfires.

He tried to give me a guitar on my trip to Colorado.

This painful reminder of what isn't, of what won't be, I can begin to reflect on and build my own core values: to always put family first. To know when to stop working. To reclaim academia as my own, and to know when it's time to leave.

As I drive to the grocery store and glance at my car's rearview mirror, I see myself leaving behind fear: fear of disappointing those around me, of being "found out."

There are times, however, to stop reflecting. To stop wondering.

There is a duck pond on CSU's campus. The water reflects the duck's faces, but the ducks remain uninterested; they continue to look forward, never down. They are aware that the water is beneath them, and yet these ducks are able to simply just be. Underneath the water, the ducks' legs are working hard to remain afloat, but to our eyes, they are happy to float. They aren't wondering where they were or where they should be. They are exactly where they need to be.

As I look at my mirror and smile on my way to class, I remind myself to be the duck. I may wonder more, but I am exactly where I need to be.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Lessons from a Graduate Student (Or, How to Pretend You Know What You're Doing When You Really Don't)

When I initially moved to "colorful Colorado" (as the state sign likes to put it), I was fooled by what seemed to me an abundance of free time. Because I spent so much time adventuring during my two weeks settling into Fort Collins,  I expected my time here to look something like this:

Instead, it looks a little something like this:
https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/58/65/8d/58658dbae4d5472debf8ddf0c9a9e483.jpg
Yet enclosed in those four office walls (that used to be a dorm room--who knew?) I have gained some conclusions that result from stress and lack of sleep pearls of wisdom about what it means to be a graduate student. Let's all pretend that I haven't been a grad student for a mere two months and have no idea what I'm doing--at least that's what I've been doing with my students (ooh! A smooth transition!). 

Because a large portion of my "graduate experience," as no one ever calls it, includes teaching, I will sprinkle in some pedagogical advice, most of which includes running away from these freshmen that are cooler than you ever will be and wondering how in the hell you got this TA gig in the first place.

So that's fun.

Also, just to clarify, this is simply a compilation of coping mechanisms life strategies that I have collected throughout my time here at CSU. It is by no means a prescribed course of action for all graduate students (or even any graduate student). Except for the downing 7 bottles of wine. That is required.

When I first started school here, I was terrified that I was an imposter, and that my lack of intelligence and rhetorical knowledge would be discovered the moment I stepped into a classroom. I thought my acceptance into grad school was some kind of mistake, and I was sure I would never be able to write a coherent sentence ever again.

However. What most people learn at 16 I learn at 23, and I have finally come to the conclusion that everybody else feels the exact same way. We're all saying a bunch of theoretically smart things in class that we like, kinda understand? But not really, and then we all congregate after class and ask "what the fuck just happened? Does anybody know? What even is rhetoric?"

To clarify, we still don't know what rhetoric is. And we're studying it.

Because some of these seasoned academics are so entrenched in theory, us newbies are expected to go along for the ride. As English majors, we're well-versed in the art of bullshitting, so we survive a three hour class in which we have no idea what's going on.

Basically, just as grad school is about studying a subject in-depth and expanding our minds, sometimes it's just about plain ole' BS.

While I still had some anxieties about my ability to bullshit my way to an A, I have recognized a couple odd things about graduate-level grading. First off, anything less than a B is equal to failure of a course. BUT most professors teaching these classes really couldn't give a rat's tushy about grades, and they'll slap on an A for effort. Mostly the point of these assignments is to get students thinking about their own research and publications. In fact, there will sometimes be classes that focus so little on grades, they'll be on a pass-fail system.

Let's all ignore the fact that I haven't even begun to think about research and publications, yes?

Where grading DOES come into play, where it is heavily emphasized, is when it comes time for us to grade student papers.

Yes, I have had to give Cs and Ds. No, I am not a horrible, evil monster.

The thing about grading is that it seems like an incredible--almost honorable, even--power trip. YOU a 23 year old nobody, get to hold the future of young, impressionable minds in your hands. YOU, drunk with power (and vodka) get to decide how worthy these humans are of the sacred writing process.

It's a fun concept for about two weeks. And then you have to grade.

What actually happens, at least to me, is that I feel so invested in my students' lives, I want to give them high marks. I want to see the positives in their writing. If they participate and show a willingness to learn in class, I'm almost desperate to give them an A, and I end up crying on my desk if they've underperformed. One of these things is not true.

But, alas, their work is very rarely A-level, and they will inevitably, fail to apply the concepts I've been spending weeks of class drilling into their sleep-deprived heads.

It's even worse when they panic about their grades. I want so badly to see them succeed, it's almost like I've suddenly adopted 19 children. But like, not in a weird way.

When I give a low grade, it physically exhausts me. Especially if the student shows up to class eager and prepared. Once I assign that grade, I can only stare out the window for 20+ minutes and contemplate if life actually holds any meaning. Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but only slightly.

Speaking of students, they will try to distract you by interrogating you about every single aspect of your life. This is fun for approximately five seconds.

Much of this grading/writing/inability to eat and sleep stress can be combatted by a magical concoction. Somehow, as an undergrad, this might seem forbidden, or too fancy, too...old.

This concoction is wine. And it is beautiful. 

I may or may not be the guilty party here.
Oftentimes the only thing keeping me sane is "wine night" with my roommate, when we drown our sorrows in wine and whine about our first world problems. I suggest that all humans working towards a graduate degree do this too.

Here's to another two years of insanity.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

An Attempt at Rhetoric: The Lens of Social Media


No, I'm not about to ramble on about the evils of social media. As one who is Snapchat obsessed an avid Snapchat and Facebook user, I see the benefits of being able to connect with family and friends who are busy, attached to their phones, or hundreds of miles away.

It's that last benefit that is keeping me sane. But it also comes at a cost.

As many of you know, I recently moved from my hometown of State College, PA to Fort Collins, Colorado. Because I am someone who suffers from very real, very irritating imposter syndrome (but let's save that for another post, shall we?), I never thought I would get the opportunity to get my Masters out here, much less be granted funding for said Masters.

To me, it was a miracle. The most exciting adventure I could ever have--I would finally leave a town, just months earlier, I had deemed suffocating at best, toxic at worst, and smelling of cheap beer and disappointment.

(I suppose the irony of moving from one college town to another had not yet settled.)

The thing about making dreams happen through a series of fortunate events is that they eventually condense into reality. It sounds like a terribly obvious statement, and shouldn't I have thought this through before moving halfway across the country?

Yes, dear Internet. I should have. What sound advice: "when you make things happen, they actually happen."

The thing is, Fort Collins is absolutely gorgeous. There are more than two streets downtown. There is yoga abound. There is a restaurant that serves noodles that make me want to bow down to the carbohydrate gods and worship their noodley appendages.

To you, the people who view my life through the lens of a computer, I am having the time of my life. As the first of my immediate friend group to make such a big move, I feel responsible for setting an example: look everyone! Moving isn't so bad! It's even exciting to flee your hometown! Look at the pretty mountains and copious amounts of food! 

Mountains
 
Copious amounts of food


What they don't see are the sobbing phone calls to my best friend and mother, the crippling loneliness, the fear that even a drive to the local supermarket will be foreign and scary.

Even though I am so incredibly grateful beyond words for this opportunity, despite the fact that we already know social media can lie, can cause unfair and untrue comparisons, I wanted to assure those who are making a similar move, that just because you chose something and just because that something is exciting, does not mean you have to remain stoic and strong. We as humans are more nuanced than that.

Outside of that little blue box are the distancing friendships, the imposed stoicism ("you chose this; you were happy about it. You left us"), the strained relationships.

I am aware that I am pressing an aggressively first-world problem here. But regardless, it is real among recent graduates. I say this not to seem ungrateful or whiny--there are days when I love it here and wouldn't regret for a second pressing forward. I simply post this to expose the days when it is hard. When it is terribly, horribly lonely. When I feel like I've made some sort of mistake for not remaining close to my friends and family. I post this because there is more than one side to the moving story.

Namaste.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Happiness and the American Dream

As I prepare for my upcoming departure to a new state, I've reflected on the state of my own happiness. In my need to complete everything on my ever-expanding to-do list, I've wedged "reflect on emotional stability and growth" somewhere in between transporting furniture and packing enough socks.

One can never have too many socks.

The reason that I've instructed myself to examine my emotional state, besides my persistent need to examine my emotional state of a daily basis, is because I've noticed a strange pattern among everyone I've chatted with about my upcoming graduate studies and teaching: they seem to correlate my success in academia as a victory in a personal happiness project.

Oh you've been given a teaching assistantship and you're on your way to money and publications? You must be very happy!
https://i.imgflip.com/k5ti0.jpg


And I am. Sometimes. I'm grateful for this amazing, unlikely opportunity. I'm relieved that my late nights cursing frat boys beside me as I strain over an essay have amounted to something tangible, to something with which I can impress my family. I have spurts of ecstasy, I have fleeting moments of relief, as I'm perfectly aware that continuing down a straightforward path to success is what should result in profound, full-body happiness.

And yet. Happiness sits in its own corner, taunting me.

The more traditional success I achieve, the more I realize just how disjointed from happiness, from satisfaction this success actually is. It's almost as though I realize I've been in a twenty-two year conditioning experiment in which I was told that in order to be something, I must do something.

I've done a lot of things. I've been fearful and anxious for almost the whole of it. 

Yes, in order to be successful, you must achieve success. But in order to be happy you must achieve________? What?

It's arbitrary. It's vague. I could be professor of the century and still find myself reaching for that feeling of satisfaction, of having enough.

(I suppose I have just reached the "duh" moment in which I realize why capitalism functions so well in our society. But I digress).

Between my two brothers and myself, I am the kid who hasn't strayed from the traditional path to success. In a household that prides itself on ambition and drive towards that thing, that thing that makes you impressive at dinner parties and stiff interviews, it's been challenging for my brothers to be recognized as successful in the sense that they are passionate, they are wicked smart, they take great joy in the work that they produce, in the conversations they have. They are happy.

I would even go so far as arguing that they have strayed from the traditional path, and they are happier than me. *

In a world in which my drive to achieve has been largely led by crippling fear of failure and disappointment, there hasn't been much room for happiness. Instead, there's been room for anxiety. For disgust when I don't get that A. For disdain. For breakdowns. 

Is this what success looks like?

I have a distinct memory of my father asserting that he just wanted his son to be happy. He wanted to allow himself to reach his full potential by demonstrating his passion, his drive, his intellect in his academic and professional work. This is a perfectly valid concern for a parent to have.

But I also think it's time to change the metric with which we judge success and happiness.

When we live with this vision of happiness, we will constantly be reaching until we are satisfied. There will always be more to achieve. There will always be more ways to prove ourselves, more articles to publish, more money to make.

That's not to say that ambition is pointless. But it is not what allows internal satisfaction.

It's time to embrace the fact that success, that happiness, has infinite paths.

*I just want to clarify that I have never, for a second, been ungrateful for the opportunities I've been given. I'm extremely lucky, and I plan on utilizing my move to Colorado as a means to begin my search for personal happiness. :-)

Namaste

Sunday, May 22, 2016

College in Review, the Snapchat Edition

Hello, friends! As I have been an aimlessly floating, broke asshole a college graduate for a little under a month now, I am far overdue for a "college in review" post. While I haven't done the finest job in documenting the moments like this:

My friends and I have soared in the "let's capture the timelessly embarrassing photos for everyone to remember forever" department, and as such, there is a plethora of moments--for your enjoyment alone--like this:

Why I'm not a supermodel by now, the world will never know
Yet there were plenty of crying fits in the library at 2am opportunities for emotional growth, that, as a PSU alum, I care to look back on: we laughed. We cried. We ate too much Sheetz.

That's right State College, be cool and introduce a Sheetz, right before I leave. Love you, too.

As a disclaimer, while this is titled the Snapchat review, I didn't start obnoxiously spamming people's stories until junior year. And I'm pretty sure I didn't know what a screenshot was until, like, yesterday. Why I'm trusted to work with technology, I still don't know. As such, this will include your classic photo booth photo shoots my roommate and I were cool enough to create freshman year of college.

Because if a poorly sketched Eiffel Tower background doesn't scream sophistication, nothing does.

So, without further ado, I present to you Kira's college in review, the Snapchat edition (grades may or may not have been hurt in the making of this collection)!

We studied hard and consequently received a quality education:








video

We made smart health and lifestyle choices that will benefit us for the rest of our lives:










We always treated our friends with dignity and a healthy level of respect:













 We developed our style in sophisticated and exciting new ways:





























 We learned how to relationship appropriately and responsibly:






















We learned how to adult effectively:






































When we weren't studying or crafting our effectiveness as upstanding citizens, we were making a difference at our respective places of employment:





But, ultimately, through all the trials and tribulations of college life, we had this solid piece of advice to fall back on:

It's been real, Penn State.


Namaste.