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Category Archives: Self-Reflection

Combatting Loneliness and Contemplating Unusual Activities in Paris

By Bryant Arnold

Even though I didn’t get to sight-see as I had intended yesterday, I made time in the evening to do a bit of personal writing – sharing a few memories about our travels in Italy.  As odd as it may sound, in the midst of my work-work-work mindset competing with my desire to escape from loneliness through fiction and movies, last night was a victory of sorts.  It was difficult to transition to my deserted Paris apartment after living with fellow graduate students and my husband for months.  Other than a few days in which the graduate apartment in Aix was empty, I have been surrounded by lively conversation in several languages and the excitement of making new friends, learning about their lives and research, and exploring new places together.

Too much time spent alone leaves me depressed, unproductive, and takes the wind out of my creative sails.  Usually in a form of self-defense against the creeping loneliness, I lose myself in stories, but last night, I chose a different route, one that I found much more fulfilling and productive. Instead of devouring a novel to pass the time and prolong the night before the next day arrived, I found satisfaction in reminiscing about happy times and memorable experiences with a loved one. I may be doing a lot of catching up on my personal blog in the next three weeks as a result of this experiment and hopefully creating enough memories in Paris that I will have more catching up to do when I return to Michigan in October.

To that end, I’ve found Muay Thai classes nearby (I know – not the normal thing to look for in Paris!) and anticipate starting my French course next week. Muay Thai is challenging enough in English; we’ll see if I can work up the courage to try it in French! I just need a doctor’s note to prove I healthy enough to participate. I’ve found a general practitioner close to my apartment, and if I can brave both the doctor’s office and my first class, I’m sure I’ll have some entertaining stories to share. There are also jazz clubs to check out in the evenings and strolls to be had through gardens, wandering through the catacombs, and a never-ending list of museums and monuments (the more normal, but no-less-interesting things to do in Paris). Hopefully, I can fit all of this in around classes and research during the day… And if not, there’s always next time!

Tonight I set out to find a health food store. Exiting the metro station, I had a good mental picture of where it was, but finding it ‘on the ground’ proved to be more difficult.  Usually I have a really good sense of direction and haven’t had any trouble finding things before, but as I walked past all the shops selling clothing and wares I could never afford, I didn’t see the street I needed to turn down. Before too long I found myself in the now-familiar St. Germain district. With a mental shrug, I revised my plan for the evening and braved another visit Cité Pharmacie (a story yet to be told about a previous visit to Paris) to pick up the juice I had intended to purchase at the health food store.

St. Germain des Près Church

Since I was close and saw people exiting St. Germain des Près Church, I figured it must be open and decided to stop in and take a few moments to pray and enjoy the sense of peace that pervades the oldest church in Paris. Parts of it date back to the sixth century! I also remembered reading that there was a fantastic bookstore tucked in near Les Deux Magots and decided to investigate.  La Hune has actually moved but was right across the street from the church and therefore easy to locate (and for those who are keen to visit, it is only open until 8pm, not midnight).  The bibliophile in me thoroughly enjoyed perusing the bookstacks, and my fingers literally itched to grab several new tomes as titles tickled my imagination. Reminding myself repeatedly that I had more than enough reading material to keep me busy for months, I managed to pass through the doors empty-handed.  Besides, three other bookstores are calling my name – two that specialize in books on Africa, and the third, a famous English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, which I browsed very quickly on a previous visit.

First Image: “Old Tree Watches Over Boy Reading at Night,” by Bryant Arnold. Published 4 February 2012. <http://www.cartoonaday.com/old-tree-watches-over-boy-reading-at-night/> (25 September 2012)

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2012 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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Running Free

Last time I wrote of running unplugged and not experiencing any epiphanies but quietly building my confidence. Tonight, the epiphany arrived before, and then necessitated, the run. I’ve been struggling with fatigue, which has made getting up early enough for my morning run impossible the past couple of days. I needed to run tonight to maintain my fitness level so I didn’t fall back into the painful cycle of having to rebuild. More importantly, I needed the emotional release that running provides and quiet time to meditate.

My apartment has been empty since Saturday, and this week is the first time I’ve been alone, really alone after finishing work at the archives in months. For the past two months, I have been with friends and acquaintances nearly every waking hour, which stayed the loneliness. However, once everyone had gone, I had no more distractions from the melancholy that settled in. Despite having numerous reasons, all logical and some quite serious, I have continued to struggle with my eating habits. I tried to fill the loneliness with food, with books, with TV shows, even emailing and chatting with friends, but nothing filled the void because it came from within and not from outward circumstances. I would overeat at times because I didn’t think I was worth taking the extra effort to make wiser choices. And therein lay the key to understanding why I persisted in doing things I knew were not healthy: I didn’t think I was worth it.

Tonight’s epiphany, then, was this understanding and the truth that the One who created me made me for more than this. As I set out for my run, without my iPod I might add, I walked out of the door unafraid – unafraid of the pain I knew was waiting for me from stiff muscles and an overly full belly, unafraid of disappointing myself with my ‘performance,’ unafraid of the stares and strange looks I would get for running at this odd hour – or running at all, for that matter.

I knew that this would be the last time I allowed myself to overeat and so willingly accepted the painful reminder that I was intended for more than the physical pain, emptiness, and shame I felt after eating too much. Despite that heaviness though, the rest of me felt light and free. I was made to live into my full potential and not settle for anything less. I had been praying that God would sink that truth into my heart, and he answered that prayer in a profound way tonight as the puzzle pieces I had been mulling over dropped into place.

So I ran. I ran into town and down Cours Mirabeau, magnificently lit up and reminding me of the magical unreality of Disney World, with hundreds of well-dressed people milling around, enjoying late dinners, and every vendor still displaying jewelry, clothes, and handcrafts after dark. I ran into the softly lit, mysterious medieval streets of Centre Ville and up toward the Cathedral, its illuminated tower shining like a beacon, pointing me home – not home to my apartment in Aix, but home within myself, within my heart, at peace with who and what I am. As I passed it, I breathed a thank-you to the One who affirmed me. I ran on, feeling as if wings carried me up the hills of this ancient city and finally ended at the gated entrance to the apartment complex, surprised to have arrived back so quickly. I ran with and into freedom and a deep sense of peace tonight.

Although the road back to full health remains long and even a little daunting still, I am more confident now that I have what I need to persevere. For those who are curious, I found 2 Peter 1:3-11, 1 Corinthians 6:12, and 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 very encouraging, along with Lysa TerKeurst’s Made To Crave. For now, my watchwords are self-discipline and perseverance. I trust God for the strength to follow through and to face my fears with courage rooted in truth.

I realize that I still have other stories to tell of my travels, but I write what I feel compelled to write when compelled to write it and must therefore apologize for the delay once again. At the same time, I believe the inner journey is as important, if not more so, than the outward adventures.

A balance between living and writing about living remains to be reached, but I sense that I am getting closer. More stories to come – and pictures!  🙂

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Self-Reflection

 

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Running Unplugged

With much to ponder this morning, I decided to leave the iPod behind as I set out on my run.  This may not seem like such a big deal, but it inspired trepidation as I double and triple checked to make sure I had what I needed before heading out the door. Inhaler- check; key- check; watch and running shoes- check and check. That’s it! Here we go … !

I rarely run without my iPod now because no matter how long I train, running is still painful, and I’ve found music to be some of the best medicine. I get lost in the pounding drums and great guitar riffs, timing my pace to match the driving rhythms of the rock music and forgetting how sore and tired I am.

This morning, however, I needed a different sort of therapy – that of solitude and the quietness of my thoughts. With nothing to distract me, I found myself listening to the birds waking up, the rhythm of my own heart beating, the timing of my breaths, and the pounding of my feet on the quickly warming pavement.  The peace afforded time to pray, reflect and to let my mind wander, process, and problem-solve at the subconscious level while I focused on one thing: perseverance.  I wasn’t sure how I would fare on the run without my melodic wonder drug, so I set what I thought were reasonable expectations – a simple three-mile run at a conservative pace to let my legs recover from running and swimming this past week. I wanted to prove to myself that I was mentally tough enough to make it through my run and even enjoy it, distraction-free, so I set a goal I was pretty sure I could accomplish.

Although I cannot claim to have had any epiphanies on this morning’s run, I discovered how empowering such a simple decision as running low-tech can be.  Not only did I run the first three miles comfortably, but I added hills and another mile on top of it, bringing the total distance to 4 miles, only about a quarter of a mile shy of my long-run distance from the previous two weeks! And without breakfast, I might add!  A new “normal” distance was established this morning, and I was more proud of that than any other run I’ve put in lately.

While I may not choose to run without my iPod every time, I will definitely do so more often and with more confidence.  One more benefit: I was able to practice mindfulness during my run, enjoying a rediscovered awareness of my body as it moved through my surroundings.  Despite the aches and stiff muscles through the first two miles, being fully present made me realize how grateful I was to be able to run at all for any distance.  Instead of frustration over my limitations, I experienced a sense of freedom and intense gratitude for what my mind and body were able to accomplish when allowed to sync, sans technology.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2012 in Self-Reflection

 

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On Academic and Other Writing

thewritersmentor.blogspot.com

I had hoped to post this this weekend, but a back injury waylaid my plans.  Funnily enough, after I spent almost the entire day Saturday finishing my dissertation proposal, I wanted to write more afterward. I felt like writing for me. What flowed through my fingers was not a great work fiction or anything particularly interesting, but it was liberating to put the thoughts and emotions that accompanied this accomplishment into words. They’re probably not what one would expect. They are certainly not what I thought I would write, which is why it was important to take the time…

I just finished my dissertation proposal, which is an enormous relief on the one hand. There were many times I didn’t think I would ever be done. I began calling it the never-ending task. On the other, I must confess I’m disappointed and disillusioned. I had wanted to finish it so much sooner, and if I’m honest, I feel like it robbed me of the life I had wanted while in Aix. (I’m glad I get to come back for another month to finish research in August and hope to make up for lost time then.) I don’t know what I could have done differently this spring and summer, but I still can’t shake the feelings of disappointment and discouragement.

I know it’s not my best writing sample.  I wrote it because I had to, not because I wanted to, and that makes an enormous difference. The writing is functional; it conveys what it’s supposed to, but it’s lifeless, flat – exactly how I felt when writing it. The only joy I found in the process was when the pieces began to come together (and that was mostly because of my research, not actually working on the proposal). At least I find the actual research, digging through dusty old manuscripts more engaging. I am excited to truly begin to research now – not just finding the documents I think will be useful but actually analyzing them and determining how the puzzle pieces fit together. I’m also apprehensive that it may not live up to my hopes, and I worry that I will find writing my dissertation the same soul-sucking process that the proposal has been. For me, writing without passion is not writing at all, much like life. I love writing, and if I do not love what I’m doing, then even though I’m putting words on a page, it cannot be writing.

I need something that will inspire me again, something that reignites my passion. Right now, I am just a jaded grad student who finds academic writing quite meaningless.  All too often it seems to devolve into intellectuals arguing over things that matter very little in the grand scheme of life. The proposal did inspire one thing – an almost daily existential crisis. I want to do something meaningful with my life and with my writing, but I’m at a loss for how to do either at the moment.

I believe that the projects that will build on my dissertation have potential. The purpose of one study in particular is not just to understand the past, but also to make a difference for people in the present.  Studies that may produce tangible and positive outcomes for people in present now inspire me more than purely intellectual pursuits. I have always wanted my work to matter more than just to a few scholars,  but it seems imperative now. While I think this is a good goal to have, I feel like I’ve lost an important part of me, the part of me that was curious, questing, hungry to learn more, which drove me to reach for my full potential. Perhaps I just need the opportunity to discuss interesting ideas with like-minded people to be re-inspired and to rediscover the mental gymnastics I used to enjoy so much.

I had planned to start my academic blog months ago, but life intervened. Maybe that will begin to inspire the intellectual in me again. However, it needs to be more than just a space where I can process what I’m learning; I want it to spark a wider conversation. Academia, especially disciplines such as history, where so much of our work is done in isolation can be quite lonely. Hopefully, launching the other and meeting more researchers at the archives will alleviate some of that. I need other people to bounce ideas around to maintain enthusiasm for what I’m doing, but after this past year, it is very difficult to put myself out there in academic writing – probably another reason my academic prose falls stillborn on the page. I’ve crawled into a protective shell, and I’m finding it difficult to crawl back out.

One thing I know with certainty: I am a writer at heart. It has always been my preferred method of self-expression. If I can find my heart in academic writing again, I will become the scholar I wanted to be from the beginning.

See Also:

thewritersmentor.blogspot.com

http://www.hownottowrite.com/

http://www.writerlylife.com/

 

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Through the Clouds

“Sisyphus,” Peter Vinton,
For more of his work, see http://www.petervintonjr.com/

On an usual cloudy day in Aix, I see light. I realize it’s cliche, but the word picture always conjures up a vivid image for me.  The last couple of years have been a long, dark tunnel of stress, ill-health, and to say that the times were challenging is an understatement.  These have been two of the most difficult years of my life, but the time of intense struggle seems to be nearing an end.

The hardest thing about such moments is that they generally arrive unexpected. In this life, there are no free-rides. Life is difficult in a variety of ways for everyone, and we cannot expect it to be otherwise or we will be blindsided. As Wesley tells Buttercup in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.” However, I want to clarify that I’m not advocating a doomsday perspective on life, simply a realistic expectation that there will be times of struggle and profound challenges. The thing is to not lose hope, to understand that life sometimes takes twists and turns we never expected, and to find beauty, positive outcomes, and yes, even joy in all circumstances.  Certainly, we all want to be happy, but even when life does not make us happy, we may be joyful. By joy, I mean a deep sense of peace under the turbulent waves that spring up as we travel through storms on our journey.

This week has been especially challenging.  I am now 3+ weeks into my new diet and had hoped to feel immensely better by now.  While I continue to see positive changes and incremental improvements, I’m not where I thought I would be, and I have had to come to terms with the fact that this may be a long road back to full health. Despite everything, I now look back on the week and see how much I actually accomplished and, quite frankly, am rather amazed because the whole time I felt like I was stuck in waist-high mud, straining but unable to move forward.  To the contrary, I found several apartment options for my Paris stay in September and contacted the owners, began my job search for a spring teaching position, wrote several drafts of a cover letter and contacted career services and my advisor to review it, figured out how to work around the problems I was having with the installation of the Windows Pro upgrade and note-taking software (Nota Bene), and am nearing the end of proposal writing. I also created a new-to-me raw food recipe, which I’ve shared below. Moral of the story: When I thought God was ignoring me, he was actually carrying me through these difficult times. By now, this should not surprise me, but when everything one does feels like a Sisyphusian struggle, it is difficult to see beyond the boulder one is trying to roll up the hill.

Now on to lighter topics…

Each week I am trying out at least one new raw food recipe – either someone else’s or experimenting with my own. This week it was making my own Mediterranean salad with what I had on hand. I am sure I am not the first to combine these ingredients, but here is what I threw in:

Peeled, sliced and chopped cucumber
Chopped Red Pepper
Chopped and seeded Cherry Tomatoes
Chick Peas
Olive Oil
Sea Salt
Fresh ground black pepper
Cumin

*Additional Ingredients (not shown):
Black Olives
Feta Cheese (which I cannot eat right now and is most likely not raw but would nevertheless add a lot of flavor)

This has quickly become a favorite.  It takes minutes to prepare, is delicious, healthy, and filling.

This week the archives are closed, allowing me to complete my proposal, catch up on cataloging and analyzing my research, and enjoy a bit of culture in Aix-en-Provence.  The festival of opera has just, which features the music of Mozart this year. My new roommate, Sarah (also a scholar of Algeria!) and I plan to attend at least one opera together, probably “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro). I also bought a guide to the “unusual and secret” around Aix that I’ve been dying to check out.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to take a least a couple of self-guided walking tours this week as well, and yes, I will post pictures after.

 

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Short-Circuiting Lit Review Paralysis

I was going to entitle this post “Adventures in Eating” and share some of the raw food recipes I’ve been trying.  However, as I sat down to write, another idea presented itself and demanded attention.

Not that I haven’t been working and making productive use of my time all morning, but I am just now settling in to work on my main objective today: finishing a draft of my dissertation proposal.  I have to admit that I’m terrified.  There, I’ve said it. I’m sweating, and I know it’s not just the Provençal heat.  I simply have to merge the section on sources and methodology and finish my brief lit review, which I’ve been slowly working on when I have not been in the archives.  My committee is on board with my project.  All I have to do to complete the paperwork.  And yet, I’m completely stressed out about it. Why? Because I haven’t fully let go of the stress and anxiety I have come to associate with such writing.  It’s not quite as paralyzing as it was when I was preparing for my last comprehensive exams, so that is progress. Even though I know that it will become easier as I continue to write material that other academics will see and critique, it is still not enough to motivate me to begin putting sentences together. So what to do…?

Lunch! It’s lunch time… Perfect!  I need a little break between this morning’s activities to transition into proposal writing, to change gears, so to speak.  As a side note, I prepared the following “raw” dish and even attempted to eat mindfully for a few minutes. (Sliced cucumbers, baby carrots, red bell peppers, and avocado boats with cucumbers, red peppers and salsa.)

“Raw” Lunch

The problem was that I took those few minutes (to eat mindfully) after reading a GradHacker post, entitled “7 Ways to Survive a Lit Review” by Andrea Zellner (which, by the way, is fantastic!) Just reading, of course, meant that I wasn’t focusing on the sweet bell peppers or the crunchiness of the carrots.  The real problem, however, was the realization, once again, that so many of the suggestions were things I should have started doing several years ago but didn’t know then to do them or how to do them.  So by the time I arrived at my much-anticipated avocado boats, my mind had taken flight and was doing barrel rolls while I tried to figure out how in an afternoon (or even a couple of days) I could pull together everything I had learned over the past few years that is relevant to my research. Alas! I stared off into space, occasionally remembering that I should be focusing on the creamy texture of the avocado and the spiciness of the salsa. I tried to calm the rising panic that now sets in just before I begin a historiography (literature review). Have I read enough? Have I read the right sources? Can I make a good argument out of what I read and took notes on? (Related question: Can I find my notes since I haven’t migrated them all into Zotero yet, let alone into Nota Bene?) Will I be told that it’s not good enough?

The last question haunts me, but I shove it aside, remembering the feeling of accomplishment I experienced just this morning as I finished a draft cover letter for a position as a university history instructor.  For the first time, when I sent it to family for the initial review, I didn’t feel the urge to apologize that “it’s really rough” or something to that effect, nor did I worry about my writing style or the content. As a first draft, I know I will need to make some changes, but I also know that it is a good first draft, and that is saying something.

Writing is cathartic, at least this type of writing is.  It provides a way to release tension, to unburden myself in black and white. I feel at least marginally better now, so it’s time to “just do it” – to just write.  I inhale and exhale slowly a couple of times and take the plunge…

Image from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/MatlSci_StressStrainStrength_h003.shtml

 

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Throwing off everything that hinders…

Yoga is all about being present in the moment.  It’s also about letting go –  releasing muscle and joint tightness that locks up our bodies as well as negative thoughts and emotions that weigh us down.  As I did my yoga practice this morning in preparation for and following my run, I realized that I was holding on to tightness; my muscles did not need to remain so taught. It may have been the result of habit, the fear of falling over, or simply inattention, but as soon as I discovered that I was the one resisting the stretch, I had to let go to permit those muscles to lengthen.  It was simply a matter of awareness and choice. Exhaling, I allowed the tension to drain away, deepened my stretch and felt my muscles and joints breath a sigh of relief.

Once I let go of the physical stress through yoga, I felt more balanced, strong and light as I completed my long run.  For the first time in a very long time, I finished the run feeling refreshed and knew that I could have run at least another mile. This was not just the result of one morning’s yoga practice, of course, but from the accumulated benefits of running consistently over several weeks, frequent yoga sessions, and the change in my diet. Just as I learn these lessons through yoga and running, my spiritual journey is also teaching me to let go of the anxiety, fear, and shame that have been holding me back from living the joy-filled life God intends for all of us. And like yoga and running, the release of those things that cause emotional and mental stress must be habitual as well.

Both the Christian walk and yoga are also about gratitude – being aware and thankful for all of one’s blessings.  I am living my dream right now. By choosing to let go of negative emotions and embrace awareness of and gratitude for even the smallest things that bring me joy, I feel more fully alive. In this way I am able to move forward toward my goals with a greater sense of freedom and joy, unhindered by the things of the past.  What is more, even painful events can be sources of joy when one looks for and finds the fruit they bore.  I continue to discover ways I have grown from such experiences.  The by-products of struggle – perseverance, resolve, determination, as well as new-found gratitude, faith, hope, and strength – propel me forward.

The ideas of awareness and gratitude that stem from my yoga practice and faith find expression in the habit of mindful eating.  Even though I didn’t cheat on my diet, I allowed my emotions to dictate when and how much I ate for a couple of days.  Last night, I felt overly full, lethargic, and depressed at my failure.  This morning, after yoga and a great run, I decided to mindfully eat my eggs and at least half of my apple.  I was enjoying it so much though that rather than beginning to write after I finished the first half of my apple, I continued on in that way until I got to my tea, which I’m currently sipping as I type.  I find that being aware of the flavors, the texture, the temperature, and savoring each bite increases my gratitude for the meal.  Since I contemplate each bite, I find my cravings for anything else subside because I am so thankful to have such tasty food. And I’m grateful to have found food that not only tastes good but also helps my body heal itself.  Rather than my usual habit of shoveling it in as quickly as possible so I can rush to the next task, I chew each morsel slowly and more thoroughly, which aids digestion, and I feel full and more satisfied longer. I have also found that mindful eating (even if only practiced occasionally) leads to a sense of calm and greater focus when I return to work and to the rest of the day’s activities.  With all of this in mind, I am heading out into the day once again to enjoy the sights, sounds, and delectable smells of the Aix market and to continue my academic work, thankful for so many blessings.

Image from: <http://yogaposes4stressrelief.blogspot.fr/&gt;

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2012 in Self-Reflection

 

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