Friday, April 29, 2016

A Year Past Rejection

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love now is mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
 -- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

A year ago today, I posted this picture and quote after walking around my subdivision at twilight in a bit of a daze. The previous Friday, I rode the bus to uni nearly crying because nothing seemed to be working out. By the following Wednesday, I had a full scholarship to write my PhD at the university of my dreams.

It’s been a year now, and within the next few days I’ll be submitting my thesis outline and first chapter for review by the department. It’s been an amazing year, full of plays, concerts, travel, church events, friends, and (occasionally) academic work. The year hasn’t been everything I expected, but, in many ways, it’s been so much better.
Now more than ever, though, I’m glad this PhD position didn’t fall into my lap. I’m so thankful for those months last year where I felt rejected, and alone, and a failure.

Writing a PhD is hard work. The hours are long, the expectations are high, and the paperwork is never-ending.

What’s most difficult about the PhD, though, isn’t the work itself—it’s finding the motivation to actually do the work. It’s putting in the hours at the office when people tell you, “You’re just a first year; you don’t need to work so hard.” It’s managing to care about some entertainment that Queen Elizabeth saw in 1575 when it seems like everyone else’s project is so much more interesting and relevant. It’s keeping a smile on your face when your supervisor is disappointed and you feel you can never be a real academic.

Basically, doing a PhD is about managing your imperfections in a system that expects constant perfection.

For me, as a Christian, doing my PhD is about daily acknowledging that I’m not doing this on my own strength. I’m so flawed, so inadequate, but God has given me an amazing opportunity and He will guide me through it.

That’s why I’m glad my PhD applications weren’t a glorious string of acceptances. Because now I know that I’m not here because of my intelligence, or my academic excellence, or my copious extracurriculars.

Facing rejection before starting my PhD taught me that I am very much not perfect, but neither do I have to be. And now, whether my friends are complimenting me on a theatrical performance or my supervisor is tearing my chapter to shreds, I have absolute confidence that I am valuable not because I can somehow achieve perfection, but because He strengthens me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Day 100: Semester One

Taking advantage of a rare opportunity to have a snowball fight!
Day 100. It’s somewhat fitting that this milestone should fall on my last day in St. Andrews this year. Far too early tomorrow I’ll catch a bus, and then a train, and then another train, and another, and another, and finally drive with my great Aunt and Uncle to their house just south of Nottingham.

I’m really looking forward to a proper British Christmas. I love mulled wine and mince pies and carol services with beautiful descants and bell-ringing and Christmas pudding and Christmas specials on the telly and nice chocolates and queuing in M&S for the Christmas turkey and being excessively confused at Christingles. Yes, I’ll miss spending the holidays with my immediate family, but there’s something really special about British Christmas traditions.

Mandatory cathedral shot
Still, I’m sad the semester is over. The past 100 days have truly been wonderful, if tiring and stressful and confusing at times. I’ve made some amazing new friends, have attended and hosted so many wonderful get-togethers, and also managed to write 11,000 (reasonably) intelligent words.

The fact that I’m 1/9th of the way through my three-year PhD is a little scary. Although I had quite a satisfactory meeting with my supervisors last week and I’ve produced half a chapter and an annotated bibliography and a three-page outline of the thesis, I can’t help but feel that time is going to catch up to me far too soon.

All in all, though, I love the PhD. I love the fact that I get paid to live in a town I adore with people so dear to me and my “job” is to go sit in a cozy office and read and write about a subject I find fascinating. I really can’t imagine anything better.
My squad.

I’m working on being more grateful for everything God has given me. More than anything, I want to grow in a deep-rooted joy that isn’t dependant on circumstances, even though those might be great at the moment. I’m so happy right now, but I don’t want to lose that joy when my supervisor tells me my work isn’t up to par, or I have a falling out with a friend, or I can’t get a job after I graduate.

It’s been a semester of growth, both academically and personally. I’ve come face-to-face with so many of my weaknesses and built up some of my strengths. I’m so grateful for the people God has placed in my life this year, from my brilliant office-mates in the English department to the keen freshers at church to the loyal friends I can call at any time of day and know they’ll be there for me. Adjusting back into life in St. Andrews hasn’t always been easy, but these people have all made it so, so worthwhile.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Day 46- A Year Later

Receiving an inordinately expensive piece of paper
A year ago today, I convocated at Western with a Bachelor’s degree in English literature. The next day, I submitted my SSHRC application—a 25-page document for a scholarship worth up to $105,000.

Today, I should be crossing the stage with the other members of my cohort to receive my Master of Arts Degree from Western. Instead, I’m sitting in a flat in Scotland, working towards my PhD at the University of St. Andrews, courtesy of a SSHRC scholarship and generous funding from the university.

It’s been a wild ride. I’ve read thousands of pages, written 45,000 words, cried at rejections and jumped with joy at the acceptances that meant everything. The Masters year wasn’t always fun. Nothing about it was easy. But it was so, so worth it.

To be corny and cliché, it was the people that made my Master’s experience enjoyable. I owe so much to everyone I interacted with that year: the family I lived with who were there for me through the string of rejections, the professors who helped me with proposals or wrote references or just listened when I needed to rant about the stresses of grad school, and, most of all, the wonderful MA and PhD students who made classes so enjoyable.

I might not miss the long nights struggling to finish marking, or the mornings waking up at five to read 90 pages of Freud before class, or the 12 hour days writing three papers in a week, but I definitely miss Wednesday evenings at the grad club and Friday mornings grumbling about the uselessness of bibliography class and afternoons in the “bunker” chatting about everything from the definition of “English” literature to the meaning of marriage to Victorian mummy unwrappings.

Final day with the MA cohort
I wish I could be there to convocate with everyone this morning. I’m so proud of everyone who made it through the year, as well as those who had the courage to drop out when they realized that the program wasn’t for them. I’m so thankful for the intellectual discussions and the Doctor Who evenings, for people who love both Shakespeare and David Tennant.

To everyone convocating today, I wish you all the best. Whether you’re heading on to a PhD or running away from academia as fast as you can, know that I’m thinking about you and praying for you.

Enjoy your thirty seconds on the stage this morning—I might be in Scotland, but I’ll definitely be there in spirit… and possibly lurking the video livestream… J

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Art of Losing

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
So many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster…

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

-- Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”

I’ve never been good at leaving things behind. People, places, pieces of paper with hastily scribbled story notes, ugly plastic Gandalf statues with long-faded sentimental value… Pushing stuff out of my life has never been easy for me.

I don't think they'll all fit in my suitcase...
For that reason, I’m very thankful to have over a month at home on PEI to sort through my boxes of stuff and choose what comes to Scotland, what stays behind in semi-permanent storage, and what heads off to the local thrift store or garbage dump. Some of the choices are easy. Many aren’t. It’s a time-consuming process, and I’m glad I haven’t had to rush myself at all.

I’ve discovered that giving something away isn’t nearly as hard as throwing it out. It’s not the thing itself I’m attached to, but the idea of the thing being valuable. I’d give you my favourite dress if I knew you’d appreciate it more than I do (for the record, you won’t, so don’t bother asking). During the decluttering process, nothing makes me happier than giving stuff away to a good home: my kettle to my brother’s new apartment, my jewellery to an adorable six year old, my seldom-worn dresses to a good friend. It’s so easy to part with something when I know the new owner will use it more than I did.

Uhaul truck for taking my stuff (and Nana's old couches)
back from Ontario
Giving something to a thrift shop is harder. Yes, I’m happy to support a charity, but by the very nature of thrift shops, everything I donate will be sold for a fraction of what it’s worth. I don’t mind too much if they sell an old sweater for a dollar or two, but what about the hand-woven Romanian purse that they price like a cheap Wal-Mart knockoff? Or the expensive Perplexus game I only played a few times? Or the authentic Royal Shakespeare Company poster from David Tennant’s Richard II? There’s no way a thrift store would price these anywhere near their real value.

Thinking about the thrift store issue made me realize that my difficulty with giving stuff up isn’t just part of my sentimental nature—it’s also related to my somewhat excessive drive to save money. None of the objects I just listed have any practical value to me anymore. Anything the thrift store gets for them is a gain. Yet, because I (or someone else, in the case of gifts) paid good money for these objects, I feel like throwing them out or underselling them is wasting money.

I grew up in a money saving household. “Upcycling” wasn’t really a term back then, but we did it anyways: toilet paper rolls became beanie baby castles, old (hopefully sanitized) toothbrushes became sink scrubbers, threadbare sheets were woven into rugs… Before throwing anything out, you thought carefully about whether it could be used to make something else, and the answer was often yes.

Turning my collection of seaglass into a necklace
It was, in many ways, a great way to grow up. We saved a lot of stuff from going to the dump and we saved a lot of money. The downside is that it’s hard to break the habit when throwing things out becomes essential. Getting rid of something and saying, “I’ll buy a new one if necessary” is foreign to me.

I need to practice letting go (cue Disney music). Sentimental attachment hasn’t been as much of a problem this time; I’ve managed to throw out a lot of stuff that no longer means anything to me. Now, I need to tackle my money-saving heart. I need to convince myself that being frugal doesn’t mean being a packrat, that when something has no practical value in my life I should let it go without obsessing over its value in dollars and cents. I need to stop worrying about wasting money and start allowing my life to be a little clearer.

 It’s time to lighten my suitcase and flood the thrift store.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

-21 Days: Three Weeks and Counting

In three weeks, I'll be back in St. Andrews. 

I leave Halifax on the 7th and arrive in Glasgow early on the 8th, meaning that by mid afternoon I'll be installed once again in St. Andrews. I'm hoping the jet-lag won't be too severe, as I'm arriving in the middle of Freshers' week and I'll already have missed a number of events, so I'd rather not miss more. It'll be so exciting to do Freshers' week again, this time going to events to see old friends, rather than standing awkwardly at a dozen different 'give it a go' sessions. 

This year will be different. I don't even know how different yet, but I do know that I can't count on it to be all that much like my exchange year. 

For starters, I'm a legit student this time. As in, an honest-to-goodness staying-for-three-years and earning-a-degree student. This isn't a year out, where courses transfer as pass/fail. This time, academics need to be top priority.

On top of that, I'm a legit PhD student. I won't be an undergrad moaning about 9:00am lectures, or madly scrambling to finish a reading, or pretending I'm intelligent because I took a quick look at secondary sources. I'll be heading in to my office every morning setting my own schedule, studiously reading everything I can find in my area, and hopefully contributing articles of my own. My MA gave me a taste of real scholarship, but next year will crank that up a notch.

Most importantly, I'm a legit PhD student at St. Andrews. As in, the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. One of the top universities in the world. 600 years old. The alma matter of royalty. An institute of learning that was already well established by the time Shakespeare wrote the plays I study. Last year, I had the privilege of temporarily belonging to that world-- the next three years will tie me forever to the name of St. Andrews. 

To be honest... I'm terrified. Excited, yes. Exhilarated, that too. But, more than anything, I can't believe my dream is coming true, and I'm both excited and scared for what that means. Getting my PhD from St. Andrews will be both the hardest and the best thing I've ever done. And it all starts in three weeks.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Stratford Festival

Myself and Elly with The Bard
Over the past week, I’ve had the privilege of spending two days in Stratford, Ontario, home to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. While the way the town so blatantly copies Stratford-Upon-Avon in England is a tad amusing, it does an excellent job. There’s the gorgeous Avon River, complete with swans, a quaint high street perfect for window shopping, and a half dozen theatres hosting world-class performers. In other words, it’s pretty much my dream town.

By taking two trips with my friend Elly (who definitely deserves a shout-out for organizing and driving!) I managed to see four shows: Pericles (late Shakespearean comedy), She Stoops to Conquer (18th century marriage comedy by Oliver Goldsmith), Hamlet (no explanation required), and Oedipus Rex (Greek tragedy by Sophocles). It was a rather eclectic mix, spread out over two thousand years and a variety of genres.

Hamlet, unsurprisingly, was my favourite. Pericles was beautiful and She Stoops to Conquer was hilarious and Oedipus Rex was intense, but Hamlet was all of these, and more.

Programs! :)
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the production. Hamlet is my favourite play of all time; I’ve spent countless hours poring over the text for essays and presentations, and I’ve watched the 2009 RSC production starring David Tennant nearly half a dozen times. I have full scenes memorized (just ask my grad school friends!) and I can pick out variants from the three different early printings. I’m more than a little bit of a Hamlet nerd.

The beginning wasn’t fantastic. The lines in the first two scenes were spoken so quickly I could barely catch them, and Jonathan Goad (as Hamlet) raced through soliloquies and spoke lines almost sarcastically when I was used to hearing them delivered in a melancholy tone. It also took me quite a while to get used to the Canadian accents—event though I’ve been back in Canada for nearly a year and my own British accent has long since gone, it was still weird to hear Shakespeare with a Canadian accent for the first time, since every other production I’ve seen, whether live or on film, had British accents.

But it got a lot better. Or, perhaps, I allowed myself to enjoy it more. I began to appreciate this new Hamlet, with his dry humour, and Claudius with his hearty laugh, and Gertrude with her slow loss of everything she loved. Over the course of the play I stopped caring about the accents or whether the actors fit my mental picture and just lost myself in the story.

Backdrop of She Stoops to Conquer at the Avon
I cried at the end. Not because I was so sad that Hamlet died, but because, just sitting in my seat for three hours, I had been through so much. In front of me, characters had lived and died, hated and loved, laughed and cried, fought and made peace, betrayed and been loyal, found forgiveness or died unrepentant. The whole of human experience had been played out there, directly in front of me, and I had been a part of it.

It made me remember why I love theatre, why I plan to literally spend the rest of my life studying plays from over four hundred years ago. It’s because the stories are timeless, because a good dramatist can create characters and plots and themes that are no less applicable now than they were hundreds of years ago. And also because, in the theatre, we can become part of those stories, watching the characters come to life in front of us.

Sometimes, when I spend all day at my laptop in a windowless office typing words that seem meaningless, I forget why I study English. Yesterday, at the Stratford festival, I remembered.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Success and Rejection

Forest near my home
I'm so bewildered right now. My life could not possibly have taken a more dramatic turn in the past few days. 

Just over a week ago, I took the bus to university nearly crying. I'd been rejected from two universities and the other two weren't providing me with enough funding to afford to attend. My papers weren't going well. I was looking for jobs, but even with a Masters it seemed like I wasn't qualified for anything.

And then Friday Afternoon happened. 

I can't release details yet, not until everything is finalized, but I now have the opportunity to go do my PhD in the UK next year, which is what I've hoped and prayed and worked for all this past year. 

One big yes began an avalanche of yeses, all happening so fast I could barely keep track. I went from a burnt-out MA student uncertain if I'd ever enter a classroom again to a desirable PhD candidate with grad chairs at prestigious universities casually saying they'd love to have me and graduate financial managers suggesting we meet up for drinks and world experts in my field chatting in my office and offering to help in any way they could. 

It's wonderful. It's crazy. It's utterly beyond what I could have expected.

Moonlight walk the evening I heard the news
It’s also, quite frankly, a tad uncomfortable. I’m exactly the same person I was a week ago, but just with one highly important piece of paper in my hand. And now everyone wants to help me out. I’m the go-to success story that makes my department look good. I’m the rags to riches fairy tale.

I always assumed that people doing PhDs at prestigious universities with sizable scholarships had it all together. They were the best of the best. They were smart. And hardworking. And somehow magical—everything worked out for them. They could sit in their comfy office chairs with all their applications and grant proposals comfortably behind them and smile because they had succeeded at life.

But that’s not how it is. Maybe for some people, but not for me. I was rejected. I was burnt-out. I was so lost and confused. If there’s one thing I know about life, it’s that I most definitely don’t have it all together.

There’s a lot of hard work coming. I may have gotten the PhD position of my dreams, but actually getting the degree won’t be easy. And then there’re postdocs. And adjunct positions. And maybe, sometime in the future, a professor’s chair.

I certainly haven’t written my last application or received my last rejection. Life is not all sunshine and rainbows from here on. I may have gotten accepted where it counted most, and I am beyond thrilled. But I am still the same person who was rejected.

I want to be the person who learns from those rejections rather than the one who pretends it’ll never happen again. I want to remember how hard the road has been so far so I can be more empathetic towards the ones travelling behind me and more respectful of the ones ahead. I want to sincerely thank everyone who has supported me so far and in turn support everyone I can.

I want to grow, yet not become a different person from last week, before everything went right. My worth as a human being does not depend on what one scholarship committee thinks of two pages I’ve written. I want to work hard and trust God and move forward knowing that I am not defined, ultimately, by either my academic failures, or my successes.