Building Notre Dame, or How the Writing Life Prepared Me for a PhD
"Bricks fell in place. The boys leaped. And as they put a foot up, out, and down, a stair came under it, one stone at a time...the ran on emptiness...the ran on pure windy light only to have bricks and stones and mortar shuffle like cards, deal themselves solid, and take form beneath their toes and heel." Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
I have ALWAYS struggled with mindfulness. Even at my most zen, my most calmly stable, my mind refuses to sit for very long in the here and now. There's something inherently un-mindful about teaching, I believe; planning lessons and units, looking ahead and trying to find ways to predict where students may want to go or what issues might arise, forces us to be one, five, twenty steps ahead of the present moment, and planning has always been something I excel at.
One of the first pieces of advice I got about grad school (and one that I continue to receive, from other graduate students and mentors) is to take this journey one step at a time. So far, that's been the hardest advice to follow; I'm here because I have a dream, a vision, a five-year plan (I can't think those words anymore without shuddering and remembering learning to teach the allegories of Animal Farm...ah, the power of literature!), and staying present is the farthest thing from my mind. I have so many ideas for research, so many ambitions that I know I will need to fulfill before I can get from here to there, that I find it incredibly difficult to take it one step at a time.
And yet, I CANNOT get from here to there unless I take it step by step, one brick (or, with loving reference to Anne Lamott, one bird) at a time.
The more I struggle with this need for presence while also taking a long view, the more I find myself drawing on the rhythms and routines I learned while I was writing and freelancing full-time. The kitchen timer has once again become my trusted companion, and I've started bringing my headphones when I study outside of the house so the timer on my phone doesn't bother the other people sharing space with me. I'm once again planning day by day, with notes to myself for longer-term projects that carry over, and I'm checking my planner at the start and end of every working session, multiple sessions a day, to make sure that I stay as aware as possible to prevent things from sneaking up on me. I'm also remembering the importance of setting tangible goals for a day, regardless of hours; instead of trying to fill my entire "free" day on Tuesday or Thursday with work, I chunk the reading and assignments and teaching duties for the coming week, the way I once set word count goals, and once I reach those goals, I consider myself free to go. I was reminded of this strategy while listening to a podcast episode from 2016 of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Magic Lessons" (and she mentions the timer trick, as well!).
I know what I want my Notre Dame to look like, just like the boys in Bradbury's delicious novel The Halloween Tree. And just like those boys, I must step into the air, trusting that stones will be beneath my feet when I need them. I may not know how all the stones will come together to form my future, but I have to keep trusting that they will. The process, I'm realizing, is so much like writing a novel, where I can imagine the end, but sometimes in the thick of the process, have no clear plan how to get there. I'm usually a pantser, writing by the seat of my pants and trusting that it will all work out, and while I want to be more deliberate, more intentional with my career, the trust and ability to step moment to moment is the same.
It shouldn't surprise me how much of my writing life is informing and buoying my scholarly life, but for all my long-term planning, I didn't visualize how these stones would shuffle and rearrange themselves under my feet. Thank goodness for the opportunity to learn from our pasts and ourselves as we consciously create our futures!
Bradbury, R. (1972). The Halloween Tree. New York; Dell Yearling.
Gilbert, L. (2016, September 9). "Living the dream and facing the nightmare, featuring Neil Gaiman." Magic Lessons [audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.elizabethgilbert.com/magic-lessons/