2017: Reflecting on a “Character Building” Year

2017: Reflecting on a “Character Building” Year
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“Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or a person who explained it to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before.
Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is not knowing what is happening… Those long periods when something outside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually becomes the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of personality is about to be reveled” –Alice Walker

2017… with what happened on the stage of global politics, I wonder if this year was a good year for anyone. Personally, it wasn’t one of my best, containing a lot of death, the temporary loss of my best friend with the end of my most significant relationship and a lot of misery as I prepared to end my two years of living in Auckland, New Zealand.  I earned a Fulbright to live in Cape Town which gave me a second chance to live in South Africa on my own terms but I decided that because of the instatibility over there.  While I know its for the best, it feels like the death of a dream, like I’m ignoring the irrational part of me was convinced that I belonged there for a year. Despite the fact this year wasn’t too much fun, as difficult things in life are, it was informative.  As the year (finally) comes to a close, I thought I’d share some of my reflections with you, the good, bad and the ugly.

Finally made it to Machu Picchu!

Finally made it to Machu Picchu!

1) Good things come to an end and that’s ok

“Not everything in life is supposed to become something beautiful and long lasting. Sometimes people come into your life to show you what is right and what is wrong, to show you who you can be, to teach you to love yourself, to make you feel better for a little while, or just someone to walk with at night and spill your life to. Not everyone is going to stay forever, and we still have to keep on going and thank them for what they’ve given us” -Anonymous

When I returned to the States briefly for a conference in July, one of the blog fans I didn’t know I had ran up to me and asked, “why haven’t you updated your blog?! The last I read, you met an amazing guy and everything was perfect and I want to know what happened!!!”. “Oh,” I replied, a bit shell-shocked but flattered. “That ended.” I responded at the time, with limited energy for elaboration.
For those of you who do not know, I did meet an amazing Kiwi guy about four months after I moved to the country and was almost about to give up and return to the States. We dated for about a year and it was, by far, the most serious relationship of my life and it did inspire me to do crazy things like apply for my New Zealand residency even though living at the bottom of the world was a struggle for me. While I told him I was willing to return to New Zealand in a few years and I won’t mind it as a place to raise a family, I knew I had to get out for a couple years while I was young and early in my academic career. Eventually, the stress of constantly trying to figure out my next step (which will be starting as a Science Education Specialist in Vancouver, Canada) got to us and we mutually decided that we need to focus on our own careers right now. Furthermore, as our relationship progressed, my love of travel made it clear we want different things.
Despite the fact it was mutual, despite the fact we both logically knew it was for the best, the hardest part of the breakup was we still really enjoyed one another’s company, respected each other and wanted the best for each other. Initially when we had the conversation, maybe four months before I left the country, we were going to end things when I left, but after a conversation like that, relationships don’t progress normally and suddenly you’re navigating the awkward waters of “are we friends?” It wasn’t like I was going to see other people because I was leaving the country but still it was rough, ambiguous terrain to continue spending time together with certain aspects eroding as time progressed.
In nature, some of the most beautiful things are some of the most short-lived… rainbows, sunsets, lightening storms, autumn leaves… As humans, we’re able to appreciate these ephemeral moments outdoors but it’s so hard to connect with something beautiful in our lives without wanting to hang onto it and never let it go. Tim and I had a really good thing, and we both helped each other learn and grow and it served us well for awhile. It was difficult to say goodbye because there was nothing identifiably wrong in our relationship, staying together when we were in different places (literally and figuratively) would have created issues. Preemptively “cutting the cord” while we still liked each other was hard at the time but better in the long run. Fortunately, we’ve been better at being friends who communicate regularly so I am now happy how it worked out.

Enjoying a hike in New Zealand even though I got rained and hailed on!

Enjoying a hike in New Zealand in the rain and hail!

“I was the type of person,
That held on to things too tight,
Unable to release my grip,
When it no longer felt right,
And although it gav eme blisters
And my fingers would all ache,
I always thought that holding on,
Was worth the pain it takes,
I used to think in losing things,
I’d lose part of me too,
That slowly I’d become someone,
My heart no longer knew,
Then one day something happened,
I dropped what I had once held dear,
But my soul became much lighter,
Instead of filed with fear,
And it taught my heart that some things,
Aren’t meant to last for long,
They arrive to teach you lessons,
And then continue on,
You don’t have to cling to people,
Who no longer make you smile,
Or do something you’ve come to hate,
If it isn’t worth your while,
That sometimes the thing you’re fighting for,
Isn’t woth the cost,
And not everything you ever lose,
Is bound to be a loss.” -e.h.

 

2) Happiness is a choice and a slight change in mindset can make a big difference

My lowest moment this year was in July, flying to this conference in Ohio for four days and I was cursing the conference organizers for choosing a place in the United States were I didn’t have any friends living. Just a month after my grandma died, I was having déjà vu about flying home to see her. It was a couple weeks after ending things with Tim. I had been waiting to hear whether the Canada job would work out for months and they updated me that they wanted me but because of immigration issues, they had to advertise the position for a month which meant more waiting before my next steps could be confirmed. In New Zealand, the break between semesters in June and July is short so by the time grades were finalized from Semester 1, Semester 2 was about to start.  By attending this conference, I had to miss the first week of class which I hate to do because it sets the tone for the next 13 weeks. Originally, I was attending the conference to find a replacement for me at Auckland, but my boss told me not to look, so in some ways, the trip felt pointless.  In short, I had a million reasons to be stressed out and sad.  I remember staring out the window for two hours with silent tears streaming down my face, and not even bothering to wipe them away.
Sometime between flying and landing, I decided that being miserable is miserable and I wanted to try being happy. I wanted to make the best of the conference, my last months in New Zealand and my life. I started by celebrating four days of summer and the fact I could wear flip-flops even though it was winter in New Zealand.  I couchsurfed, even though I could have stayed in a hotel, and enjoyed spilling my soul to a stranger.  I exploited my travel writing connections to drink some amazing North Kentucky bourbon.

While I didn’t get to see any of my close friends, I was amazed how many people I still knew at the conference, despite living at the bottom of the world for a year and a half. I was able to chat with people from all stages of my life from when I was an undergraduate doing my first research project in Minnesota, from the graduate student I stayed with in North Carolina when I was considering my eventual university, from the people I studied with, to the researchers on my PhD project to colleagues from South Africa who would have been my Fulbright hosts. It was comforting to see so many familiar faces, I ended up being able to confide in a fellow postdoc about a lot of my life stresses and it turned out to be just what I needed.

Abseiling in Coromandel, New Zealand

Abseiling in Coromandel, New Zealand

When I returned to New Zealand, things improved too. I reconnected with some of my first friends in Auckland, and although we did not have the same level of conversation I might have had with Tim, mindless small talk is nice on the occasion. I forced myself to say yes to more social outings and made sure to make the most of my weekends.  I fit in tons of hikes and exploring new places around New Zealand, even trying canyoning for the first time. While I would have easily traded all of it to have my best friend back, it was better than being an angry hermit and I was surprised how many people reached out. A small shift in mindset can make a big difference!

One of the last things on my New Zealand bucket list was to see Mount Taranaki in New Plymouth- we spent a weekend there, hiked over 20 km in the park but the rain obscured the mountain. As soon as we gave up hope seeing it, it appeared on the way to the airport!

One of the last things on my New Zealand bucket list was to see Mount Taranaki in New Plymouth- we spent a weekend there, hiked over 20 km in the park but the rain obscured the mountain. As soon as we gave up hope seeing it, it appeared on the way to the airport!

3) Priorities change and that’s also ok

A few of my past “end of the year” posts were about leading an increasingly untraditional life but at 29, I feel like I’ve had my share of adventures and am starting to prioritize other things. I’ve found that seeing new places for the sake of seeing them hasn’t been as satisfying lately.
A benefit of working full time and receiving more than a graduate student’s salary is that I have been able to do some epic things this year. I’ve scuba dived with bull sharks in Fiji, swam with humpbacks in Tonga, salsa danced in the streets of Cuba and abseiled in a river valley covered with glowworms which looked like something off the set of Avatar. I ended the year with a five week trip that I thought might be my last big backpacking one so I finally made it to the 7 new wonders of the world (Machu Picchu with no broken bones) and even made it my 7th continent. Antarctica was just as magical as one might imagine. I woke from a flu-induced fog, drew the curtain to see a massive tabular iceberg. I ran out to the deck to see humpback whales playing around the iceberg. During the landings, I was feet away from three different types of penguins, who seemed completely oblivious to my presence, waddling and sliding across my path. Getting the flu three days before going to the white continent, damped my experience since I spent a lot of the trip in bed, instead of talking to the other people on the boat and attending all the nerdy science talks. But despite that, the experience did feel a bit empty, like I paid a lot of money to get on a boat and they took me there (which, of course, is what happened).

In Antartica, surrounded by chinstrap penguins.

In Antartica, surrounded by chinstrap penguins.

What I guess I’m saying, is after having to spend 30 hours on a plane in the hopes of seeing my grandma one more time before she passed, and dealing with the passing of three other friends this year, I’m starting to realize that relationships are the most important part of the human experience and traveling is starting to feel a bit less satisfying and selfish. While living in Auckland, I traveled as an escape because I didn’t have very satisfying friendships.  We’ll see what happens in 2018, but I’m looking forward to spending more of my time and energy with friends, new and old.  But I’m also psyched to hike, camp and explore Western Canada!

First day of class in the Studio classroom in Auckland that I helped design

First day of class in the Studio classroom in Auckland that I helped design

4) Celebrate your successes

This year was hard to get through and I don’t feel any closer to knowing where I belong, who I want to spend my life with, which is frustrating when I’m about to turn thirty. But it was a wonderful year, career wise. The first Studio Physics classroom in New Zealand that I had significant input planning became a reality. I really enjoyed spending more time teaching, and although there were a few bumps along the way, the dramatic change I brought to University of Auckland’s first year physics went remarkably well. I was invited to speak at dozens of departments around the university and a couple conferences. The department head even completely surprised me at my goodbye tea with the departmental teaching award.

All in all, there’s a saying that you can’t have rainbows without the rain. 2017 was tough but I feel stronger having gotten through it and grateful to have been able to done some amazing things (I still can’t believe I was in Antarctica!). 2018 will be a fresh start with a new job in a new city and country. I can’t wait!

Songs of the Moment: Carry On– Fun. & Christmas Lights– Coldplay

Book of the Moment: How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times

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