Nomad Diaries: Albany, Part III

I hate it when I commit to writing projects (like keeping a blog) and then I don’t follow through for whatever reasons. This time around, it has a lot to do with my previous post from several months ago (Lisbon 2017). At the time, I had just finished my last semester of coursework, passed my PhD exams, and popped off to Lisbon with my sister for a week. I had also been dealing with a work conflict, one that had been weighing heavily down on me at the time, and that unfortunately followed me around Lisbon.

That was December 2017. It is now June 2018. I am nearly finished with my dissertation and am planning to move shortly to start a new job, and hopefully turn over a new leaf. I wish I could say it’s just the dissertation writing that’s been keeping me busy – and it has – but the conflict I had previously alluded to has played a significant part in my silence.

I’m not quite ready to talk about it openly or with details. And please do not assume that my hesitation is the result of guarding a salacious story of sorts – but rather, it is more out of wanting to look out for myself as I navigate the rough waters of academia. At some point, I probably will share – here or in another forum – but not today.

The elusive conflict was somewhat resolved back in February. The person hurting me was separated from me. Or he stepped away from me. I’m not sure which. In any case, he was suddenly out of the mix and was to be out of my life. In theory anyway.

We’d still run into each other from time to time, and even when we didn’t he still had a looming presence in my life – he was and still is part of my colleagues’ lives and they’re a part of mine. #TransitiveProperty. I would say the situation is comparable to being dumped by a shitty, abusive boyfriend, and then having to see him/hear about him from your friends, who are all still friends with said ex.

Of course, it’s not entirely like that. Friends and exes and whatnot involve interactions among peers. It’s quite different in a work environment, particularly in an academic environment, full of professors and students and power dynamics at play.

I’ve been feeling isolated for many months now. My friends never meant to hurt me, but they did. Do. Every time I’d see them with him. Every time they mention him. Every time they try to tiptoe around my feelings and avoid mentioning him. Nothing they did or didn’t do could change the fact that the well had been poisoned for me and only me. Nothing changes the fact that the only solution was to leave and find another well and leave them to keep drinking.

Looking back on my previous Albany posts, I feel a stab of pain. In Part I, I had just moved here and was feeling optimistic. In Part II, I was starting to feel a connection to life here – something I rarely ever experience. Part III is about parting ways under painful circumstances. Well, the whole finishing up my dissertation and landing an exciting new job isn’t so painful. It’s that broken connection that makes this departure more bitter than sweet.

On the one hand, I want to take solace in my friends here. I want to confide in them. Or not confide, and just enjoy their company. On the other hand, being around them pains me. I can’t stop myself from resenting them. Working in the same environment and yet being subjected to extremely different work conditions and treatment. I resent the injustice of it all. I resent everyone’s unwillingness to stand up to it. I resent the fact that they’ll get to graduate as happy cliches – teary-eyed, nostalgic, bittersweet about leaving behind their happy memories and their wonderful mentors, excited to celebrate their milestone with friends and colleagues.

I intend on finishing in the summer, most likely when no one is around to attend my defense or celebrate with me when it’s over. There will be no summer commencement, and I am reluctant to come back for May commencement. There will be no wonderful mentor to say goodbye to because my wonderful mentor became my abuser and is not my mentor anymore. I’m regularly teary-eyed, but it’s not from nostalgia. I won’t have any of that – my happy memories are stained.

As in my last post, I can’t help but express guilt over writing about the sadness and bitterness I feel over closing this chapter in my life. I want to write about more exciting things, about more positive things. I want my writing to sparkle and exude happiness, like a Kate Spade bag. I want to reflect on my journeys in a way that connects with and inspires people, like Anthony Bourdain did. However, in light of their recent and tragic deaths, I’m sharing this anyway because I suppose it’s OK to let the world know that you don’t always sparkle or inspire, that sometimes you have feelings that you’re ashamed of, and that sometimes you’re just a mess.

 

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Nomad Diaries: Lisbon 2017

It’s our last day in Lisbon; we’ve run out of sites to take interest in and we’ve run out of energy. So we spend a few hours in the late afternoon winding down and relaxing in our hotel room. Relaxing is something I’ve never been good at, even in the best of times.

I wish I had posted more frequently to my blog – especially since I have traveled a bit more in the last year or so and would have had plenty to write about  –  but these past few months have been stressful. A heavy workload (coursework, conferences, PhD exams) met by workplace conflict, which has weighed me down more than anything else. I don’t know how to sum it up exactly. It’s like being in a happy place one moment, and the next moment the ground shifts beneath you and suddenly you find yourself in…well, a not-so-happy place. You’re not exactly alone because you have family, friends and colleagues who care about you, but you kind of are alone because everyone is watching from the sidelines.

So I went to Lisbon with my sister to get away from it all. Actually, we had booked the trip shortly before any of this conflict had begun. We wanted to treat ourselves for all of our hard work; she had consistently been putting in long hours at her job; I was hoping to be A.B.D. (“all but dissertation” – a milestone on the PhD path that’s reached by passing a series of brutal exams) and have something worth celebrating (yes, I did reach that milestone). But it soon became the trip where I was to get away from all the stress. Let me put 3000 miles between myself and my now toxic environment, I said, maybe it’ll help.

And then I received the news a few days before my trip. I was heartbroken to find out that a former professor of mine at my alma mater had passed away. She had been my undergraduate advisor well over a decade ago, and I later took classes with her as a graduate student doing my M.A. She wrote my recommendation letters for jobs and for PhD programs, including the program I’m in right now. I would often stop by her office when I came to town to visit; she was always there. And always surprised by my unannounced visits, she’d greet me with a big hug, tell me to sit down and we’d have a good catch up. We usually kept our conversations to academics, but I was happy with that. She’d talk about her stuff and I’d talk about mine, and more often than not I sought her advice on whatever academic/professional matters were concerning me at the time.

I had planned to visit my alma mater over winter break and had thought to stop by and see her again and consult with her on my current issue. I can’t think of anything to add here apart from the obvious, that won’t happen anymore.

The night before I left for Lisbon, I decided to update my CV. I reached the references section at the end. At the top was the contact information of the person with whom I’ve been having a conflict. I felt betrayed, and no longer trusted them, so I highlighted the contact information, lingering for a few moments before deleting it all, wondering if we’d ever resolve things and if I’d ever feel comfortable adding them back, or if they’d ever want me to. I felt a stab of pain from the act of disconnecting myself from them, but I continued to scroll further down. My late mentor’s contact information was listed as well. With a heavy and wavering sigh, I highlighted her information and deleted it too. I stared at my laptop screen for a few minutes, taking in the shortened reference section. I wasn’t worried about references; I had enough. But I was feeling a great sense of loss. One through death, the other through conflict. I saved the changes, closed my laptop and curled into a ball on my couch and cried for a while.

What is it about emotions that make them so easy to compartmentalize one moment, but impossible to shove away the next? Maybe it’s the intensity of the emotions. Maybe it’s the connection to the person involved. For me, it’s when that connection has broken that I feel emotion most intensely. In cases where you’ve lost someone, I think the last connection you have to that person – that very last, thin strand – comes in the form of grief. And it’s so hard to let go of sometimes; it’s so hard to stop your brain from thinking about your sadness. Stopping means breaking that last connection. I don’t want to break either connection. Not with the recently departed. Not with the person who is hurting me. So I let my thoughts run, unrestrained.

Sometimes I’m forced back into the present. When we’re climbing up cobblestone streets trying to make our way to Castelo de São Jorge and I’m trying to follow Google Maps. Or when we reach the castle and I’m completely taken in by the vistas of the city. Or when my sister and I get caught up in trying to take the perfect selfie. But more often than not, my mind wanders back to its saddened state once we’ve checked a site off our list and are heading off to the next place, or we’re sitting silently on the metro, or when I’m back in the hotel and I have little to distract me.

So I’m sitting there on my bed, that last day in Lisbon. My sister is in the bathroom taking a private phone call, and I feel a sense of relief – getting my solitude back so I can think about my problems. It’s weird, putting it into writing, acknowledging that I sometimes consciously take the time to think about my troubles, and allow pain and anxiety to hit me like a tide. Sometimes it seems necessary – to be in touch with your feelings and know what you’re about. But other times it’s excessive to the point that the world is moving along without you, and you become adamant in staying put in your grief.

And I wonder if I’m guilty of the latter while I’m on vacation. I tell myself it’s not my fault that I can’t control circumstances, and I can’t always have control over my emotions. And I try to tell myself that I have enjoyed this trip. Lisbon is a beautiful city. Neighboring Sintra is even more beautiful. The weather is better that the 20 degree chill I had left behind in Albany. Finding vegetarian food has been a bit of a struggle, but we had a few good meals. We had a few laughs, and we had some good moments. And I have a stack of great photos to show for it. But all too often it’s just been a lot of sadness and anxiety interrupted by fleeting moments of happiness. Or is it even happiness? Just moments where the beauty around me distracts me from my sadness. It’s not what I had in mind, I suppose. I wanted to leave my worries behind me. Just for a week. Yet they’ve followed me around. They followed me to the Newark airport, where I abruptly burst into tears while waiting at the gate. They follow me into the hotel, where I keep crying myself to sleep because I feel hurt from the past and anxious about the future. They follow me onto the metro when I’m absently staring out the window and I’m stuck in my head. They come front and center every time I catch some random man staring at me or every time I receive an unwanted touch; it happens in contexts where I can’t stop them or control them, and it reminds me of my lack of agency in my current work situation, and my struggle to claim it. I feel powerless. I feel pushed into a corner. I feel silenced. And I can’t forget any of it, not even while I’m on vacation.

I’ve thought of my late mentor a lot throughout this trip. Sometimes I’d see the back of a woman’s head and it looks like hers; or someone with a similar side profile or the same glasses. And I’d remember that I’m in Portugal – not Missouri – before I’d remember that she’s gone. And I feel shocked all over again. And I feel slightly less capable at handling my current conflict. She – along with another mentor – was one of my twin pillars. Together, they supported me and pushed me, and if things ever went bad, they were waiting in my corner, ready to help me get back up. And thinking about her death makes me feel even more alone as I stand in the ring, bloodied up and ragged from this past semester, determined to go another round while wishing she was still there in my corner.

I don’t like to write about tales of depression and sadness. I don’t like focusing on the negative when there’s beauty all around me (I’ll share some photos from my trip below as proof of that beauty). Yet there are times when the bad things overshadow the good things and there aren’t enough filters in the world to hide it.

This is one of those times. But I’ll say this: despite the pained tone of my post, I remain optimistic underneath it all. Nothing lasts forever – neither the good nor the bad. I haven’t forgotten the brief moments of joy I’ve felt in the last few months, and I haven’t forgotten the people who’ve managed to coax the occasional smile or laugh out of me. I’m optimistic that things will eventually get better. I’m optimistic that I’ll eventually feel happy again.

Nomad Diaries: Winter 2016/2017

Washington.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to D.C. I guess that’s in part because I think of these trips as visits to my sister, not the city. Even so, I’ve always enjoyed the touristy parts of D.C., and there always seems to be some sight that I’ve missed. This time around I had a few presidential firsts: a visit to Mount Vernon and a tour of George Washington’s home was one of them, the National Portrait Gallery being another. But the Lincoln Memorial was the one that I enjoyed the most. It’s beautifully situated on one end of the reflecting pool, the Washington Memorial on the other end. And there was something about climbing the steps to see Lincoln in his seat that was almost pilgrimage-like. (stand down, my Muslim friends. I said almost.) Sure, it might have something to do with the history that Lincoln’s presidency represents. The Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation. But I also think of millions of protesters gathering on the National Mall through the decades. The Women’s March on Washington. The Million Man March. The numerous anti-war protests. I think of Martin Luther King delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, right where I stood more than fifty years later.

I left D.C. on the day of Trump’s inauguration. As I listened to it on the radio, I couldn’t help but think back to my visit to Lincoln Memorial. I thought about the Women’s March that would be taking place the next day. I wondered how many more marches it would take for those with privilege and/or power to hear those who have been clamoring to be heard.

New York.

New York is another city I’ve lost track of in terms of how many times I’ve visited. My sister and I went again when I was visiting her over the holidays. We went on January 1st, happy to dodge the New Years Eve bustle. Even so, I still wasn’t looking forward to the trip all that much. The mere idea of being in the city is exhausting. It’s dirty and noisy, and the bus ride from D.C. to N.Y.C. is always kind of gross. No more, I always tell myself. Every. Single. Time.

Yet somewhere there always ends up being a next time, and I never know why. There isn’t a single, concrete sight, shop or restaurant that draws me to New York. But I’m reminded of a quote from E.B. White: “The city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin–the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.”

Chalk it up to a vitamin deficiency.

St. Louis.

Any holiday longer than a week demands time spent with my parents in St. Louis. I look forward to seeing everyone. I look forward to my mom’s cooking and having leisure days that start at noon and end whenever I pass out with Netflix still playing on my laptop. I cherish the time I spend with my grandmother, who, at any moment I know I can lose – something I have been telling myself ever since I was a small child.

I go in with good intentions, but I always fall into the same habit of struggling through the readjustment process. Readjusting to the lack of personal space. Readjusting to having people around me who always want to know what I’m doing, where I’m going and how long I’m going to take. I begin to feel stifled and it makes me cranky.

Not having a routine also makes me cranky. So does the lack of socializing when I’m in St. Louis. Much of that has to do with time going by and naturally losing touch with people. Much of the time it’s also a self-imposed isolation. Since going away for college, St. Louis has always felt like a chapter in my life that’s now shut. I can’t go back, but I don’t really want to either.

Columbia.

Columbia, on the other hand, seems to be a chapter I can return to repeatedly. Sort of. Time goes by and things certainly change, but there are always familiar faces there. Fewer than there used to be, but enough for me to bring me back time and time again. These beautiful faces, which I first encountered in Columbia as a college and later graduate student, are some of my favorites, ones that I never tire of seeing.

There are times though, when visiting CoMO, when I have fleeting moments of insecurity about where I am in life – like instead of taking 20 steps forward in my life since moving from CoMO 7 years ago, I feel as though I’ve taken a few steps forward, gone back and retraced my steps a bit. I’m reminded of all the people I had met at Mizzou and I think of where they are now. Some are married or in committed relationships, some have kids, some are bounding forward in their careers.

I get down on myself for being so remiss in these areas, but then, I have plenty of reason to be content too, though it takes a bit longer to find those reasons. I know myself so much better now – my weakness and my strengths. I’m more mature, less insecure. I’ve developed grownup habits like budgeting my meager TA stipend so I can afford to buy cheese from the fancier part of the grocery stores without feeling guilty, and cleaning so I don’t live in my own filth. I’ve gained a sense of adventure, new hobbies that I’m actually pretty decent at. I’ve learned to tame my inner demons. I don’t always succeed at it, but the scoreboard definitely reads in my favor these days. In short, while the big milestones haven’t been in the cards so far, I have enough small ones to make me feel proud of who I’ve become.

 

 

Thrifty Nomad: D.C. for Free, Top Ten

I have visited Washington D.C. once or twice every year since my sister moved to the area back in 2011, and I’m surprised that it has only just occurred to me to write about it. I love a lot about D.C. – the bustle, the wide array of shopping and dining, the fact that there is always something to do or somewhere to go. One of my favorite things though – from a tourist’s perspective – is just how many interesting sites there are to see that don’t cost a thing. Several of my personal favorites are from the the Smithsonian, a research complex consisting of well over a dozen museums and galleries, research facilities and a zoo. Most of their institutions, in fact, are free. D.C. is also rich in beautiful memorial sites, which are best visited in warmer weather. Below I’ve listed some of my favorites (in no particular order):

  1. The National Air and Space Museum has always been one of my favorites that I’ve visited a number of times. While it might not compare to the NASA’s space center in Houston, the Air and Space Museum in D.C. is sure to please space and aviation buffs. Regular hours: daily, 10:00 am – 5:30 pm.
  2. The National Museum of Natural History. As I sit here writing about it, I can’t help but wonder why I’ve only ever been to this museum once, when there is so much to see here. This museum covers a wide range in the area of natural history: past and present ecosystems, ancient history, paleontology (my favorite section!), and geology. Regular hours: daily, 10:00-5:30 pm.
  3. The National Museum of American History is dedicated to “the scientific, cultural, social, technological, and political development of the United States” and some of its highlights include “the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem; Washington’s uniform; Jefferson’s lap desk; Dorothy’s ruby slippers.” My favorite exhibit, however, was that of The First Ladies and their gowns.
    Regular hours: daily, 10:00 am – 5:30 pm.
  4. Art lovers: the Freer Gallery of Art boasts several collections of American, Near Eastern and Asian art. This gallery also hosts other exhibitions for months at a time – one exhibition going on right now that I’m hoping to catch is The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (until February 20, 2017). Regular hours: daily, 10:00 am – 5:30 pm.
  5. The National Portrait Gallery is another art gallery worth visiting. From historical figures to sports figures, the portrait collections here “bring you face to face with America.” My personal favorite is America’s Presidents, a permanent exhibition displaying portraits of every U.S. president from Washington to Obama (not sure when Trump’s portrait will be added. *facepalm*). Note: according to the website, Feb. 26 through March 23, 2017America’s Presidents will be closed to the public. Regular hours: daily, 11:30 am – 7:00 pm.
  6. The Library of Congress is in my opinion one of the more underrated free places to see in D.C. Physically housed in multiple buildings, the only one that has free guided tours is the Thomas Jefferson Building (tour schedule available through the link), and is well worth the visit for the beautiful architecture alone.
  7. Weather permitting, there are a number of memorial sites to spend some time at. The Lincoln Memorial is at the top of my list- there’s a gorgeous view of the reflection pool all the way to the Washington Memorial (along with several of the aforementioned museums, this rectangle forms the National Mall). Just keep in mind that there are a lot of stairs involved if you want to climb all the way to the base of Lincoln’s chair.
  8. The Washington Memorial is another frequently visited site. While best seen during the day, if you’re ever in Washington for the 4th of July, try to come by at night for the fireworks show – and get there early!
  9. While the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is a pleasant visit any time, situated right along the Tidal Basin that offers paddle-boating, this area is especially picturesque in the spring during the National Cherry Blossom festival, or at least when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
  10. Georgetown: This one is sort of a random, but I still wanted to include it. Georgetown if one of my favorite neighborhoods in D.C., mostly because I love shopping. Even when I’m broke, it’s still an enjoyable place to be – always full of people, it’s fun just walking around and taking in the bustle. Get hungry along the way? There are plenty of restaurants, cafes and bakeries, including the famous Georgetown Cupcakes if you feel like a small but decadent splurge ($3.25/cupcake).

This is definitely a very short sampler of some of the many free things to do in the capitol. If you’ve ever been, what are some of your D.C. favorites?

Nomad Diaries: Albany 2016, part II

I’m at a rest stop somewhere in upstate New York, breaking for lunch. It’s a little early, but this particular service center has a Moe’s, which is a couple notches above the McDonald’s I usually settled for on road trips.

“So, where are you from?” the man assembling my veggie bowl asks me.

I pause for a moment, not really sure what to tell him. My guess is that he wants to know my ethnicity, as that’s what people usually mean when they ask me where I’m from. I tell him that I ‘m driving from Albany.

“Oh, so you’re from Albany?” he asks as he drizzles cheese atop my rice and bean mountain. The momentary look of surprise confirms that he indeed was expecting me to mention another country.

Just nod and say yes. You hate making small talk with strangers.

“Well, not really. I just moved there a few months ago. I’m from Missouri.”

“Ah, that’s a long drive from here!”

“Oh, I’m not driving there, I’m driving to D.C.”

The man looks at me with slight confusion and decides not to engage further. He rings me up and sends me on my way with extra tortilla chips and salsa.

The thing is, I’m quite used to these confusing conversations on my travels and day to day life, although it still stumps me that I have yet to figure out a concise response. I mean, really. How hard is it to convey that where I live is not necessarily where I’m from?

As I drive on, leaving New York behind me as I enter New Jersey (Really, Miss Marvel? This is what you’re skipping school to defend? Um, ok.), I wonder at what point I’ll start to feel like a New Yorker. In all likelihood, I won’t ever get there. I like it here, and don’t feel any immediate desire to leave, but I know it’s inevitable. I came here with a specific purpose, and when I’ve achieved that, I will be swept off to wherever the best job opportunity takes me.

I sometimes wonder how it feels to put down roots and just know that you’re not going anywhere. I don’t mean getting married and having kids necessarily, I just mean coming to a stop, and knowing you’ve come to a stop. Sometimes I long for it. Sometimes the mere idea of it feels like a death sentence. And sometimes – since moving to NY – I feel like I’m approaching it.

As I said, I doubt I’ll be here long-term. But since moving to Albany in August, I’ve actually felt somewhat…settled. I already know that I want to renew my lease for next year (even if I have stayed in the same city for more than a year, I cannot for the life of me remember ever renewing my lease.) I’m thinking of hitting Ikea while I’m visiting my sister in DC and buying an additional bookshelf, when my customary running-out-of-space tactic is to throw out/donate things and/or store things at my parents’ house. In short, I’m flying in the face of the Nomad’s rule book.

1. Thou shalt covet the short-term lease.

2. Thou shalt not put down roots with Swedish furniture. Or something.

But rules are more like guidelines, right? (#LinesThatDontWorkOnCops) And things change without warning. So they have here, and they’ll probably change again without warning. But for now, I’m happy, and that’s all any of us is looking for, isn’t it?

Nomad Diaries: Albany 2016

It’s a few minutes after midnight and I hear my phone chime in the darkness. I glance over at my parents who are asleep in the next bed; neither of them stirs.

I prop myself up on my elbows and reach for my phone. Birthday messages. Birthday Facebook posts. I’m too tired to smile, so I fall back into bed and make a mental note to be excited in the morning.

Morning comes all too soon. Having gotten only a few hours of sleep, I pull the covers over my face as I hear my parents shuffling around our small hotel room, trying to get ready for breakfast. I tell them I’m too tired and my stomach hurts from something I ate the night before. They leave me behind so I can get a little more sleep, but it doesn’t happen.

I spent my 28th birthday unpacking boxes in Memphis. I spent my 30th birthday unpacking boxes in Kansas City. And this year 31 is being spent in a Travel Lodge in the middle of Ohio, followed by a day of unpacking boxes in Albany.

I’m no longer 30, but rather, in my 30s. Plural. It’s not a big deal, I tell myself as I curl into a ball, hugging my stomach. Yes, my metabolism is becoming noticeably slower and my undergrad abs are now just the stuff of legend. Yes, I seem to be going backwards in my career – leaving a wonderful job and a workplace that I enjoyed to become a broke-ass graduate student with no guarantee afterwards of getting to pick up where I left off in my career. No, I’m nowhere near the life I thought I ought to have at 31 (I was supposed to have a boy and a girl by now – Mufasa and Sephora, respectively). If my past is any indicator, my tomorrows aren’t anything to get excited about.

But then I remind myself that tomorrow is promised to no one. So I count each year – no matter how unproductive I perceive it – to be a blessing.  I tell myself that maybe tomorrow will be different. Well, maybe I can try to make tomorrow different. And here’s my opportunity: starting over in a new city. It’s a new story, a blank page. A new life.

I feel like I’ve lived many lives. More than a cat. Every time I move it’s as though I’ve left a former life behind as I start a new one. My old self and my old life are still there – in my memories – but coming to a new place somehow feels like a transformation. To borrow a phrase from Doctor Who – “same software, different case.” I’m like The Doctor (most egotistical thing I’ve said all year), only I don’t know how many regenerations I get. I just live on the hope that I’ll make the most of the ones I’m given.

A few days after reaching Albany and settling into my new place, my parents take off to visit my sister in D.C. I watch them leave, and once they disappear from my view I close the door and run to my balcony to see if I can catch a few more glimpses of them. I can’t, and suddenly I feel a surge of anxiety and loneliness. I stifle the feelings before they can turn into a full-on panic attack and I get on with my day. Let’s see what 31 brings.