Monday, January 26, 2015

"A step forward, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction."

"Don't try to rush progress. Remember - a step forward, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction." Kara Goucher
This was the Runner's World quote of the day e-mail I received a few days ago, citing a time-Olympian and one of the fastest American distance runners. I've been thinking about it a lot, and keeping that mentality in mind as I soldier on in my dissertation.
The last time I posted, I had just arrived to Dayton to begin my two-week research stint there. It was freezing! All of my western NY upbringing has melted away in the six years I've been in DC. There were days when the high was 2 degrees - and I was just shivering. But in the end, there were a lot of positives:

  • It was my first extended research trip
  • I made a lot of extremely valuable professional connections, including some faculty who write in my larger field
  • With the new year freshly-ushered in, it gave me time to re-focus and hunker down to realistically plan out my goals and plan of attack
I had nothing else to do but dissertation work. No laundry, no chores, no cooking (can you now imagine why my husband missed me so much?!) Taking away all of those little responsibilities and expectations just enabled me to clear my head. Leading up to Christmas break, after a semester of teaching and writing, I was feeling pretty burnt out, and unproductive as well. Instead of running in circles, I was writing in circles, and hardly at all. The new year, and new location wiped away the slate and presented a new one, clean and full of possibilities.
I've had people say over the years, "Oh you're so motivated, you run marathons, surely this is a piece of cake." Or, "I know you are so regimented with your running." Or my all-time favorite (said for the upteenth time last week by one of my readers), "A marathon must be harder, right?" No! Looking back, I feel like I practically danced through my marathons. That's not true - I put a lot of hard work into training for them. But even the moments of agony in the marathon have not compared to the agony of the Ph.D. I'm not saying that to be overly-dramatic, but this has given me a lot more heartache, tears, and worry than the marathon ever did. But I digress. The point is, I've always been so regimented with my running and training, and while I had a clear-cut routine in coursework and during my exams, it's been more difficult to have a stable researching and writing routine in ABD-land (all but dissertation). I loved coursework: there was a clear-cut schedule (and a clear end in sight!), and I thrived in that environment (I'm sure that kind of scheduling is why training works well for me). But now it's time to bring in the big guns:
That's my mom, my two aunts (her younger sisters), and me on my wedding day. My aunts have been involved in my life since I was born, and my mom was my first teacher (and is still teaching me a lot...these days, it's how to cook!). They are all go-getters in their own way: my mom successfully raised two children and got us into our dream colleges, Aunt #1 is a successful corporate lawyer in NYC, and Aunt #2 was a powerful executive before she had her children. 
They are my "professional naggers" (I got the term from an actual company -- yes, you can actually pay  someone to call you up to make sure you're doing what you're supposed to do).And I say that knowing they will probably laugh at that title. But they are all so motivated and driven - and know how to keep each other accountable! But in all seriousness, I am keeping them informed on my daily goals, and ultimately, how close did I come to meeting them (and if not, why not). I need that accountability so I can finally cross this finish line!
That's where I am at tonight. Did I exercise today? No. But did I write 4 pages? Yes. So, maybe there weren't as many endorphins released (although I did play outside with my dog in the snow), but the satisfaction of a good writing day is pretty close to a runner's high.
Step by step, page by page, this thing is going to be written.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Sunday Night evening on the eve of hope and productivity

I received a grant to research at the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. They have some incredible late medieval and early modern sources about the Virgin Mary, and are relevant to my dissertation. I am placing a lot of hope and expectation in this trip. After my colloquium (an intensive workshop) in November, and facing suggestions for serious revision and restructuring in my dissertation, it just was hard to summon the motivation, and courage (yes, there is often the feeling of needing to be brave to write) to write and tackle the dissertation. The feelings of defeat, and discouragement, resonated a lot louder than my goals for completion and motivation. I’m trying to quiet those enough and find the New Year and new semester as motivation to get past this hump and mental block.

I am trying so hard to envision the finish line, even though it is over a year away. When it comes down to it, I’ve always had big goals, ones that require long-term planning and execution, but this is the longest. I’m going to be counting on more people for help, support, and encouragement, than I’ve ever demanded. Otherwise, if I just let it all fester in my head, accountable only to myself, my head will explode and I’ll burn out way too soon.
I want to finish I want to finish I want to finish I want to finish. I have to keep saying that to remember that this is actually the goal – my goal.
For the next two weeks, I’ll either be in the library or in my hotel room, with my laptop as my only roommate. I need to write and be productive, to go balls to the wall and crank out some decent material.
I hope I can look back at this trip with fondness and nostalgia. I’ll be able to link this trip with memories of solid writing and innovative thinking. When future grad students ask for advice, I want to cite this trip as inspiration, recalling with a smile, “Those were the golden days – I was able to accomplish so much and it changed my mentality for the dissertation in the final stretch.”
I recall two different New Year’s and new semesters, coincidentally, both odd years, like this one, where I took on a gung-ho attitude, and ultimately, had a profound impact on my life:
January 2011. January 10, 2011 was my first day of classes of the semester, and also, the first day of going gluten-free after my December 2010 diagnosis of celiac disease. I looked at everything as shiny and new, filled with possibilities. On that Monday, I was at the swimming pool by 7AM for my double-days of workouts (this was also my first day of training for my best marathon ever – Boston). I then cleaned up, dressed in professional drab of grey and black (I still have the top and remember the memories of wearing it on that day) for a directed readings course with one of my beloved professors. It was a grueling one-on-one one-hour session, every Monday morning at 9AM – what a way to start the week. But as the weeks progressed, our conversations progressed and the dialogue became all the more compelling. I became stronger mentally, I gained physical strength in my training, and my insides began to heal as I adjusted to my new diet. I ran a personal best of 3:27 later that spring, and found I had experienced a large mental shift in my thinking and training as a budding historian.
January 2013. I sat down and made a list of goals, with my then-boyfriend, now husband, by my side, agreeing to support me and push me. The big professional goal was to get my dissertation proposal passed. Over MLK weekend (now fast approaching once again), I sat in the desk he made for me, occasionally gazed out the window, and wrote the first draft of the proposal that eventually passed later that spring.

With both of these memories in mind, I am at the eve of another odd-year January semester full of hope and anticipation. I still need to write out some concrete goals, but the dream is out there. Now it’s time to make it count.