What you really want

“I’m inventing a time machine so I’ll never have to die.”

This is Holden’s latest quest.  He’s been working on creating a sculpture of a time machine with an accompanying narrative as part of his independent work with the school librarian.  He amassed a collection of wires, circuit boards, and other scrap electronics and carried them to school in a plastic grocery bag.  Every week, he meets with the librarian 2-3 times and slowly assembles his time machine.  I can tell by the way he talks about it that it’s the most important thing he has ever done.  As he has worked on this project over the last two months and his time machine has begun to take shape, the reason for creating the time machine has emerged in its wake.  He built the thing, and then invented the reason for its existence.  Not the other way around.  He creates his world and only then tries to make sense of what he has built.  His vision is the byproduct of his creativity, not the cause.


I’ve seen Holden build elaborate structures with Legos—complete with cupolas, walkways, and secret chambers.  He spends hours building and editing what he has built, his hands deftly eliminating any design flaws.  I’ve also seen Emery walk straight into Holden’s room and efficiently destroy all of Holden’s effort within mere seconds.  First, the clatter of Legos as Holden’s work is dismembered.  Then Holden’s cry—-the kind of cry that you only hear when someone feels loss in a very visceral way.  Then the desperate scramble to re-construct what was just destroyed, before he completely loses it.  This scenario has been repeated many, many times in our house.  And *every* time it happens, I ask myself:

“Would Holden have devoted this much effort to his project if he had known in advance it would just end up being destroyed?”

I think the answer is yes.  For Holden, the process is the most important part.  Because the rationale for his effort is post hoc, and is often a consequence of the creative process itself, there is always incentive for Holden to invest in a project that has the potential to be destroyed.  Optimality theory (derived from economics and used to explain adaptation and natural selection) would predict that the modest investment Holden makes in building his structures is warranted because the payoff is sufficient—this is, the potential benefits outweigh the potential costs.

I have tried to understand all of this in relation to my own work.  In contrast to Holden, my vision always came first and my execution and methodology came second:

“I want to understand phenomenon X, so I will design this experiment with that goal in mind.”

“I want to have a career as a scientist, so I will get experience teaching/mentoring/learning new techniques.”

“I want to have bright, happy, self-sufficient children, so I will parent in ways that foster these traits.”


Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with having a vision for what you want your future to look like.  There’s no shame in having goals.  Except sometimes your execution doesn’t give you the results you were hoping for.  I started graduate school in 2002.  I finished in 2006.  I completed two postdocs and served as Department Chair over the course of 7 years, from 2006-2013, all while teaching and having my children.  I invested an enormous amount of time, energy, money, and thought into a future that will never, ever happen.  Letting this future go—knowing it will never happen and becoming OK with that—has been the most difficult challenge of my life.

Over the past few years, I have had to part with the relics of this lost future.  Going through my boxes of teaching materials, purging my perfect handwritten notes on memory retrieval, sexual selection, pharmacokinetics, and conformity.  I recently parted with graded papers that were never picked up by my students, complete with notes and feedback and advice that those students never got to see.  The most difficult material to part with included notes from my Animal Behavior course, which was the first course I taught after finishing my PhD.  I invested so much effort into making my class interesting and comprehensive.  I was proud of my accomplishments and as someone who had recently earned this degree, I felt motivated to craft the highest-quality classroom experience I could muster.  I had these perfect notes that I had created for all of the future semesters that I would be teaching the class after landing the tenure-track job that I felt sure I would eventually get.  Of course, I now know that none of that effort will ever get me to what I had envisioned for myself.  So when I hear Holden’s Legos crash to the ground, and I hear Holden cry, I wince because I feel like I understand that pain.  Knowing you’ve worked hard for something, but also knowing it’s been taken from you.

What keeps Holden going back for more?  Why does he keep creating in the face of constant potential destruction?  And how do I follow his example?  What will make me feel like I can invest myself in something again when the outcome is so uncertain?  When success is not guaranteed?

I think Holden has the answer.  Just create things.  Execute.  Take risks.  And when you are done, invent the reason.  Everyone’s life is a post hoc narrative anyway.


On the (country) road

These days, the only way to get Emery to take an afternoon nap is to pack him in the car and go for a little drive.  I’ve been engaged in this tradition with him for the past 6+ months, when it was clear that he was no longer going to settle into a nap in his bedroom, my bedroom, the couch, or any other surface in the house.  The drives have been nice.  I take a water bottle for Emery, my mug with hot lemon-ginger tea for me, and some crackers or granola bars for E.  We usually listen to music, and sometimes I talk to him about grown-up things.  He politely listens, but generally has nothing to say in response.

We take a different route every day.  Some days I have the feeling that he is going to fall asleep relatively quickly, so I just drive around the neighborhood that is closest to our house, with its winding roads, mature forests, and mid-century architecture.  No one is home in that neighborhood during the day, but we can detect the smell of burning firewood from some of the homes’ woodstoves, and occasionally, I see the smoke curling up into the air above a house, and I think that whoever is inside should feel warm and comfortable.

Some days Emery is a regular chatterbox and I predict I will need to take a very long route through the neighboring towns before he falls asleep.  We have driven through all sorts of places that I would not have otherwise known to exist; we have driven past dairy farms, turkey farms, raspberry patches, and maple syrup purveyors.  We have driven past oversized, modern homes outfitted with appallingly-large solar panels, next to dilapidated farmhouses with windows covered in plastic, porches caving under the weight of whatever they’ve had to support through the years.  Random cars in ravines.  Turkeys.  Dirt roads pock-marked by weather and frost heaves.  Homes rendered uninhabitable following flooding.  Businesses that people run out of their homes—CPAs, childcare centers, salons.

Some people have horses, some have dogs.  Some people have fences.  Some just post the less-ornamental “No Trespassing” sign, which sends much the same message:  Don’t bother me.  Some roads are bounded on either side by dense woods, obscuring the topography of the land and what lives on it.  Some roads are open and limitless, with views of mountains, and the upcoming dips and ascents of the road beyond.

I’ve done these drives so many times now, that my senses are becoming immune to the surroundings.  Now, I have to try harder to notice less.  To combat this, I’ve started driving my routes backwards—so that I experience an entire road and piece of scenery in a completely new way.  Driving down Brigham Hill Road away from town is a different experience than driving up Brigham Hill Road towards town.  The brightness and contrast, the shadows, the appearance of the trees and plants, the mystery that is felt before each new turn, are all undeniably different if you are going up the road compared with going down.  It’s a different experience.  It’s a different road.  But we call it the same thing.

What what

2014 is off to a pretty great start, considering how shitty 2013 was for me.

I’m reading for pleasure.  I’m exercising.  I’m working on a craft (Bargello!).  My ear infection is gone.  I’m making incremental progress with setting up some consulting work with other professionals.  I’m meditating daily.

I’m starting to think about what I want down the road—what sorts of experiences I think will enrich my life.  And I think I want to travel.  I’ve been reading up on landscape architecture, and I’d love to see more of the work of the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, which of course means taking a trip to New York City to visit Prospect Park.  And if I’m already in New York, I may as well go visit the Guggenheim and the MoMA.  I’d also like to see some live theatre, and on a future childless trip to NYC, I’d like to see some live comedy.

I’d like to visit Chicago.  I’d love to go the Museum of Contemporary Photography.  And as far as photography exhibits go, I MUST see the work of my two favorite photographers, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen and Robert Frank, if they happen to have some of their works on exhibit.  I also would love to take a tour of some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic masterpieces.

I’d like to explore areas that are completely foreign to me—like the desert.  Maybe a trip to Utah is in order.  Can you imagine the hiking that is to be had in a place like that?

The Pacific Northwest also calls to me—the rough coastal areas, the towering conifers, the culture that their cities have to offer.

A childless trip to Savannah, GA sounds sublime.  Walking underneath clouds of Spanish moss, strolling through carefully-planned gardens, enjoying an architectural tour of the city, eating the scrumptious Southern cuisine.

I’d love to travel internationally as well.  We are a little less than 2 hours from Montreal, where we can visit the Biodome and also the botanical garden (jardin botanique!)

I want to travel to Greece to visit a friend and former colleague, and also to sample the amazing Greek food.

I think about trips to Shanghai, Lisbon, Marrakech, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Belfast, and London— and I have to see Machu Picchu of course.

But I don’t just want to travel.  I want to learn new things.  I want to become a better photographer.  I want to take dance classes on a regular basis (and also perform in dance recitals).  I want to go to the urban planning meetings for our town and start participating in the discussion around the future of our community.  When Emery is in preschool, I want to start working as a paraeducator in our wonderful school district.

Lots of things to do and learn.  Time to start planning.

And I STILL want to learn to cross-country ski.

Resolutions? Ugh.

This is a natural time of year to re-evaluate and check in with yourself about your life and your goals.  I’m feeling especially eager (and apprehensive) about doing it this year because I’m in the midst of such enormous personal changes.

A so-called “virtual” friend of mine recently posted about her 5-year plan for things she would like to learn or experience by her 40th birthday.  This hit home for me since I will also be 40 in just 5 short years.  I feel like time is sort of slipping through my fingers and I’m not making much progress with my life.  I think about everything I want to do, and I just feel totally overwhelmed.  Some days I’m on a high and I feel like “Hey, why CAN’T I become an expert at X and revolutionize ideas about process Y?  Why not?  Let’s do it!!!”  This unbridled enthusiasm is usually quickly eclipsed by intense fear, fatigue, anxiety, and the nagging feeling that I’ll never be good at anything.  In my head, I start and stop several different career paths/projects/ideas in a 24-hour time period.  I feel exhausted by the thrash of this internal churn, to the extent that I just don’t want to even try anything again ever.  I feel too old and tired to start over.  I feel afraid that I’ll throw myself into something again, and that despite my passion, dedication, and drive, I’ll just fall short again.  I kind of don’t want to go through that.

I very clearly need to be busy.  I don’t do well with a lot of time on my hands.  And when I say this, I’m kind of doing myself a disservice because I currently DON’T have a lot of time on my hands.  I have a very, VERY active 20-month old and a curious 5 1/2 year old.  They keep me busy at all hours of the day (and night).  So technically speaking, I don’t actually have a lot of time on my hands now.  But what I’m talking about here is that despite being very busy with my kids, I am not being challenged in ways that nourish my soul.  I can go nearly an entire day without talking to another adult.  I’ve gone months without reading a book.  And I relentlessly compare all of this to my “old” life, where I was publishing articles, teaching students, and contributing SOMETHING.  Compared to this old life, I feel like a different person.  A person who I don’t like or respect.  I feel alien inside my body.  I feel like I am dying.

In those moments where I feel most detached and lost and unable to figure out my path, I get desperate.  I start grasping for the next big thing I’m going to do.  A couple of weeks ago I decided on a whim that i just needed to start applying for jobs again.  I thought maybe I’d try the job market out even though I don’t feel fully ready to send Emery to daycare full-time.  I thought I’d try this just because something needed to change.  And I have nothing to lose.  And things have been horrible, frankly.

So what am I going to end up doing?  I have started consulting on the side—so do I develop this consulting business more fully, or do I just take an off-the-shelf job?  To be successful with the consulting, I need to invest a lot of energy into marketing myself and making connections.  I just don’t know that I believe in myself enough to even invest the effort, honestly.  Where would the energy and stamina come from?  The drive and the desire?  It’s just not there.  For anything.

So do I come up with the same bullshit resolutions I always do, about exercise and being healthy, blah blah blah?  No, not this year.  In 2012, it was all about staying present and listening to my emotions.  In 2011, I gloated about how well I did in 2010, and how I didn’t need any new resolutions.  In 2009, we decided to stay in Vermont, and I thought that was resolution enough—to which I naively proclaimed, “It’s time to start my life.”

It’s been 4 years, and I still haven’t.



I quit my job.

Just like that.

I decided that I had had enough abuse.  I decided that “sticking it out” wasn’t going to gain me anything.  I decided that staying was only going to hold me back.

I started seeing a therapist 3 weeks ago, for the first time in my adult life.  I have needed to go for a while, but the final push came from my midwife at my one-year postpartum appointment.  Although in many ways I’m doing better than I had been earlier this year, there are still some unresolved issues that need addressing.

I’m going to be leaving this space for a while.  I think a lot of therapeutic benefit can be derived from writing, but I also think (at least in this instance), that the writing and reflection has to be private to be effective.  I need to be honest, authentic, and not preoccupied with how my thoughts will be received by others.  It’s not that I’m NOT honest in this space, but let’s be real:  EVERYONE’S behavior is altered when they are observed.  And what I need right now is to spill some authenticity for my own sake.