The island in the Mediterranean, you’re wondering?
Yep, that’s the one.
Meanwhile in Wisconsin, I ended the night by arguing with a 5-year-old about the necessity of a bath anytime there is a pronounced streak in your underoos at the end of the day. A good scrubbing, a quick bedtime story, and then I hunted for my tiny scissors.
Why tiny scissors?
Glad you asked. It’s safer to trim the poop-caked fur around your dog’s butt hole with tiny scissors. Rounded tips, of course.
An awful lot of poop at the end of an already very long day. And while the poop certainly wasn’t awesome, particularly juxtaposed with Mallorca, someone had to deal with my poop once upon a time and will again one day. Right now, I’m creating balance, a universe in which I’ll get the hand I need when I need it. Because I found my mitten the other day and I’m more sure than ever that that’s the way it works.
One of my very favorite things to do when I was little was go to school with my Grandma Rita. She was a kindergarten teacher and I spent tons of time in her classroom when I was little. (And Grandma Roz’s classroom too — she was the art teacher!)
I very distinctly remember walking to school with my Grandma Rita one snowy winter day. There were big flakes falling and I saw a gray scarf tied to a sign and thought it was odd. I asked my grandma what it was doing there — why would someone tie a scarf to a sign like that? My grandma didn’t need anymore than a glance to explain it to me.
Someone probably lost the scarf, somewhere nearby, and whoever found it tied it to the sign hoping that they’d walk by again.
And then she stopped. Looked again. Because the scarf tied to that sign was HER scarf!
I remember feeling absolutely floored. Amazed even. I wondered how many times my grandma might have found something lost to someone else and displayed it for them to find, only to be rewarded with the return of her very own scarf. I remember feeling so happy that I had asked, for being the reason my grandma took a look at that scarf and realized it was hers.
I think about that day often, particularly at this time of year. I’ve displayed tiny hats on parking lot posts and gloves on window sills. And I see it even more often than I do it myself. I think of my grandma and that day every time.
So imagine my delight at finding this:
That is MY mitten. My beautiful, cream colored, handmade, alpaca mitten. It was lost for two days and I was sure it was gone for good. I thought I must have dropped it somewhere between my car and office, but I’d checked the hallways, the parking lot, the area in and around my car, and it was no where to be found.
Two days later, I was headed to the pediatrician with my own little one and there it was. Propped against a bronze bust in the lobby of the building in which I must have dropped it after a meeting earlier in the week. And I had the opportunity to say, like once upon a time my grandma said to me, “That’s MINE!”
The delight! I can’t even explain it! We talked about the kindness of the stranger who picked my mitten up off the ground and left it there for me to find. We talked about my gratitude. We talked about why it’s worth it to take the time.
I wonder if it left a memory like mine.
Legend has it that I once upon a time terrorized my parents with feces. Though it seems out of character, I’ve been told that I’d remove full diapers and smear the contents on the walls in anger once upon a long, long while ago. So a stripe in the underwear, some tiny scissors and a couple of diaper wipes? Not so bad, really. And worth it. Because someone will take care of me again. A scarf tied to a sign. A mitten propped against a bust. Kindness, care, it comes back. In little ways and big. One of many things I want to pass on.
Right about now, in the very early morning of this particular January 14th, I’m in the process of turning 34. It’s kind of hard to believe that there will be cake and singing in my honor much later today because this year, my birthday feels so insignificant. And it kind of is, in the grand scheme of things. But then again… it is the first time I’ve celebrated my birthday as a mom myself. And perhaps that makes it a pretty big deal after all.
I didn’t become a mom in the same way my mom did 34 years ago today, when she received the greatest gift of all (meeeee!), but I recently became a mom nonetheless. And I enter this, my 34th year, surprisingly grateful for the rocky road that led me here. (Note to self: add rocky road to grocery list.)
I don’t really believe in silver linings anymore, but I do believe that there is meaning in suffering and, in the end, I feel proud of the way my heart has grown over the last six years of infertility and loss. I’d be lying if I said I’d choose to do it all over again, if it were a choice at all, but I do find myself grateful now for how it prepared Seth and me to say the biggest yes of our lives.
Perhaps someday I’ll be in the position to share the whole fascinating story with you, but for now, the legally acceptable, but obnoxiously vague version is as follows:
Shortly before Labor Day, Seth and I received an out-of-the-blue phone call about becoming foster parents. Not a vague do-you-wanna-think-about-this kind of call, but rather a here’s-the-sitch-are-you-in-or-out type deal. I cried (naturally) and Seth logic-ed (of course) and we talked and thought and asked questions and ultimately had to listen to the nearly deafening “YES”-es our hearts were screaming. So with a definitive answer and a few other minor things (completing a metric ton of paperwork, opening our pasts and present up to a rather thorough investigation, begging non-relatives to write nice things about us, bumming Sunday morning fingerprints from the Marshfield Police Department, rearranging every cupboard and closet in the house, completing several hours of online training, etc.), we obtained our foster care license and became first time parents to a walking, talking ray of sunshine.
I’ve wondered so many times over the past six years if everything we went through to try to get pregnant had been worth it – worth the time, expense, pain, stress. And I always had to convince myself of yes, thinking that the only way to know was to have tried. But I don’t have to convince myself of anything anymore. It was definitely worth it, if only because without having gone through all of that, I may never have found myself in a position to say yes to this. And this – being a mom to the most amazing little soul – is worth anything and everything.
One of our favorite books at the moment is My New Mom & Me by Renata Galindo. I particularly love the end – “Mom is learning how to be my mom and I am learning how to be mom’s kid.” It’s an exciting time for our family as we figure it out together. So this year, whether we’re turning 34, 37, or 6, it’s going to be a good one! I sincerely hope you enjoy it too!
Approximately 18 weeks and 500 or so miles ago, I lost my shit.
I was at an all time low. Drowning in grief and self-pity, slipping further and further away from my family, my friends, my self and into a deep dark place that I didn’t honestly want to leave. Not really. It was easier to cry myself to sleep and keep my eyes closed. To sleepwalk when I had to and disengage at every possible opportunity.
It’s better to lose your shit, though. Better than depression. Because losing it means action… and even crazy action is better than complete apathy.
The crazy thing I did? I signed up for a marathon. Not a half-marathon. The whole shebang — 26.2 miles. In Washington, DC. On March 12th. I didn’t even pay the couple extra bucks to make it refundable. I was all in.
I ran 5 times a week for 18 weeks. Mostly outside. Mostly in Wisconsin. Almost entirely in the winter. There were some amazing days and some awful days. Some big blisters and some seriously raw patches of skin. I listened to many books on tape and consumed an inordinate number of Gu gels. I cried, I felt my lips turn blue and then watched them become pink again, I learned that cotton can be both lovely and the fabric of Satan.
Running became my sole focus. The marathon was what I lived for. And in doing so, I looked forward. I moved forward, physically. And because of that, I couldn’t stay stuck in that hole, in that dark place. It became impossible.
I don’t even know where to begin talking about the actual marathon. I had five and a half hours to think real hard about it and I’m pretty sure that during that time I had about five and a half million blog-worthy thoughts… but they must have been expelled with all the vomiting or something (it was intense) and now I’m left with all the feelings and none of the words.
The running was of course a huge and important part of it — I trained for the marathon and I finished it — but it was, for me, about a lot more than just the miles and the motion. My heart was in that race and along the course. My heart was almost literally on my sleeve, perhaps rather on my arm. And it was my heart that got me through it. It was what happened to my heart that made it all worth it.
I wrote the names of friends and family, people who inspire me and fill my heart to bursting with love, all down my arm. A dedication for every mile. But not really a dedication, exactly. I didn’t run for those people… rather, I ran with those people. For a mile at a time, my thoughts were completely focused. Completely positive.
And then, over and over and over again, I’d see a bright blue shirt, a blonde buzz cut, and I’d suddenly know it was my husband on the course. And my dear friend Jess. And I couldn’t help but beam.
Then a blur of green on two wheels, a crazy beard, and my friend Rob was there on his bike — sherpa-ing, willing me on, mile after mile. (And oh my goodness, he saved me in those last 5 or so miles.)
And then at the end. I’m starting to cry now even thinking about it. I heard my name, I saw the smiles, the cheers. My friends, my beautiful, beautiful friends were there waiting for me, five and a half hours after the start — Seth and Jess and Ellen and Rob and Erika and Stephen. Bright pink shirts that screamed that I rock… And I smiled and smiled and smiled. Have I ever in my life felt that loved? That supported? I’m honestly not sure that I have.
Not because I haven’t been that loved and supported in my life. I know that I have. I come from loving stock, there’s no denying that. But I think maybe it took a marathon to really believe it. To believe that I could be worth it, to recognize that all those names scrawled down my arm (and so many others) had always been there for me in exactly this way, on other courses, at other times, through other struggles and to celebrate different victories.
Why did it take a marathon? Why wasn’t the miscarriage enough? Grad school? Depression? Anything else? I’ve been supported in a way that no one could possibly deserve through all of that. So why not that?
I don’t know. But it was the marathon that did it.
Conveniently, I had a therapy appointment the Thursday after I returned from DC. In the hall, before we even got to his office, Dr. C’s first question was: soooo… how was the marathon?
I sat down and told him that it was the most amazing experience. That I’d never in my life felt so loved and supported.
He told me that was a totally weird answer and asked about my legs.
I guess it never really was about my legs.
It was definitely physical in that it was about proving to myself that with respect to my body, despite infertility and miscarriage and faulty brain chemistry, I can still be in control. But more than that… It was about finding my lost shit. About letting my heart feel something really effing amazing. For that, I get a medal.
And to everybody else, my eternal gratitude, appreciation, love, respect, and adoration. I hope you get a chance to feel what I felt, smile like I smiled — marathon or otherwise. Let me know how I can help!
I’m currently reading my friend Lara Lacombe‘s fourth book — Killer Exposure. It’s so dang good, probably my favorite she’s written thus far. I love it, but it is destroying my sleep schedule because I “one more chapter” it all the way to way-too-late every single night. Thank goodness I’m almost done.
Lara writes exclusively romantic suspense, so it may surprise you to know that while chatting with my sister-in-law this weekend, a line from the book sprang to mind.
You see, Sister Doctor has now graduated from medical school and is officially an MD, which I guess means we can upgrade her to Dr. Sister. Yayyyy!! In honor of this big occasion, we threw a big Stankowski-style party… you know… like we do.
Dr. Sister tends to be on the humble side, which is the nice way of saying she absolutely cannot take a compliment without qualifying it, deflecting credit, downplaying it, or when all that fails, just getting super awkward.
Humility is an excellent thing and all, but when you excel as mightily as Dr. Sister has, too much can be a problem. Like yesterday, for example… she just didn’t seem to be able to thank us enough. Everything was “too much” and she seemed almost stressed out by all the attention and congratulations and such. Poor thing.
That’s when the line from Lara Lacombe’s Killer Exposure came to mind… when the (hunky) hero gets all intense and says to the (all-too-relatable) heroine: YOU ARE NOT AN OBLIGATION. (Oh man, Owen and Hannah…)
And after thinking that over last night, that’s exactly what I think yesterday’s (beautiful, curly-haired) heroine (me) should have said to (the overly humble) Dr. Sister: YOU ARE NOT AN OBLIGATION. We did not have to have a party. We wanted to have a party. We wanted to celebrate what you have accomplished, to recognize your achievements, to give your friends and family a chance to tell you how crazy proud we are and how unbelievably happy we are that you’ll be staying nearby. Not a hafta. A wanna.
We’re all a little like all-too-relatable Hannah and Dr. Sister on her big day, though, aren’t we? It’s hard not to let the insecurity that plagues us all play on the second track when other people are doing or saying nice things, isn’t it? Almost like our accomplishments, our big moments, are in some way a burden to other people. Why is that? Because think about it — think about those moments when you are super happy for or proud of a friend or a family member. It’s not an inconvenience to you — the happiness, the pride — it’s genuine. So why do we assume the worst of others? (Dr. Sister, I am not saying this to try to make you apologize for being overly humble, do you hear me? I’m merely using you as an illustrative example. Stop over-analyzing.)
I love the golden rule, the idea of treating other people as you want to be treated. But I think it’s wrong to some extent. I think a better rule is to treat everyone, ourselves included, as we would treat our best friend. That’s what works for me, anyway. Even my therapist says to me, and I am not kidding right now, “What would you say to Melissa if she were in your shoes?” The answer is always, of course, “I love you and you’re perfect and beautiful no matter what you do!!”
For example, when I got my PhD, after all was said and done, I felt pretty crappy. Looking back on it now four years later, I can see that really, the day was quite lovely. I looked like a million bucks in my fancy dress and sky high shoes, I rocked my public defense, I survived the private defense, I earned my doctorate, my labmates threw me an amazing party, and my friends and family were all there to support me despite having to listen to me drone on about mouse vaginas for an hour (literally). All I could focus on, though, was how much I sucked because one person told me I sucked. And I cried and cried and cried…. Again, literally.
What would I have said to Melissa? I would have said: Are you freaking kidding me?! You were perfect and beautiful and have so much to be proud of!!
So much nicer.
So, Dr. Sister, and all you other doubters, myself included, accept the compliment, let yourself be celebrated, appreciate the kind words and the hugs and the gifts and the parties in your honor, and always assume that it comes from a want, a desire to show you love… you, my darling, whoever you are, are not an obligation!!
So let’s just take this one more moment to celebrate Dr. Sister, MD, in all her glory! It’s been a long journey, and Dr. Sister has absolutely taken the long way — not because she had to, ever, but because she is so determined to 1) do things right and 2) get every possible valuable experience she can out of her training. It’s amazing. She’s amazing. And the University of Wisconsin is brilliant for choosing to keep her on for her general surgery residency. So much hard work to celebrate!! Seven more years to surgeon-dom!!
It appeared in my most recent post and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I might be lying. But GREAT NEWS– my friend Kacey, who was in that awesome AP Biology class, actually had the original picture available to her and after reading the post she scanned it and sent it to me because, obviously, she’s the MOST AWESOME PERSON EVER!
I present to you: Ms. Bertsos making eggs over a bunsen burner, for realsies:
She really was an amazing teacher and person though, and not just because of the eggs. Look what else Kacey sent me– evidence of how very, very much we all loved her:
That’s the majority of my nerdy high school besties — we had an exceptionally nerd-tastic and brilliant class who have grown up to be basically exceptional adults. Must have been something in the water! 2001 was a good year at LHS 🙂
Anyway, I’ve been dying to get that picture up since I got it from Kacey yesterday, but I spent most of the day (well, all of the day, really) yesterday traveling as I made my way home from a long weekend in Tennessee… which, by the way, was beyond AMAZING. And I can’t wait to tell you all about it! I kept a huge secret with great results, I became very very proud of some amazing friends, I got to hear Reverend James Lawson, an MLK Jr contemporary, speak at conference that was inspiring in a million and one ways and I would consider myself completely blog-spired. But this is only a lunch break, and real work awaits… so no more fun writing until tonight (not that a manuscript on the cardiovascular effects of cocaine and a grant for a multiple myeloma support group aren’t fun, but you know…) and the next night and the night after that until I run out of good ideas. I have a feeling it’s going to be a while.
In the meantime, might I direct your attention toward Fumbling Through because Kacey deserves a big old shout out for sending such awesome photos!!!
Were you there that awesome day? Wasn’t it the best? Doesn’t Ms. Bertsos deserve so much thanks from us in c/o 2001?! Are you offended that I called you a nerd? I mean it lovingly, of course… and I don’t think there’s any denying that we were a pretty nerdy class, as a whole. Am I right?
Do you ever have a moment where you just get really excited about something and have to share? This is one of those moments! And then it spirals. Man, blogging is just happening right now.
My Aunt Susan, my beautiful and amazing aNut, who I have loved forever and ever and who I enjoy getting to love differently with each passing year (more on that in a minute) is married to a man named Ed. And he is from Scotland. And because he’s awesome, and he loves my aunt and is therefore required to love me (except I think he might even if he weren’t actually required) he wore his real deal kilt to my wedding and lets me call him Ed, the Scot, and also plays the “Doctor.” “Doctor.” game with me (because we’re both doctors– the PhD kind)… so I was ridiculously pleased when I saw a series of recent posts on Facebook of my Uncle Ed, on tv, and basically winning a Dead Poets Society competition.
It was too good! All of it!!
Here he is, at the mic, on tv, basically winning…
And then they showed a picture of the audience, including those three people that make my heart swell!! Ed, my aNut, and my Grandma. Love, love, love!!
So exciting! I’m ridiculously proud! And not just because Ed is from Scotland and a PhD in physics and married to my Aunt… but mostly that’s why 😉 Regardless, he’s my most favorite man that any of my mom’s sisters have ever, ever, ever been married to. Ever. So glad he’s in the familia!
Anyway, about my Aunt, who I’ve been thinking about a lot lately (and not just because I’m working on a late birthday present for her– which I am, and it’s awesome), but also because she’s the best person I know at talking about love and relationships between people. The best.
We talked before about how when my sister was due with her first little girl, Emma, I basically freaked out. I was terrified of losing my sister. We’ve all seen Frozen, we should all be watching Once Upon a Time (because it’s awesome), so we all know there’s nothing worse than losing a sister. Television and movies don’t lie.
And neither does my aunt. She was so re-assuring and honest. She told me that Abby would still love me and I would still love her, but that it was true, our relationship would change… and that I would be amazed at how much I would love her little girl.
Right. On. The. Money.
And now she has another one– precious little Claire, who I also adore with all my heart. Abby is different now, because she’s Emma and Claire’s mom, but she’s still my sister and I love her something fierce. And Emma and Claire are so different, yet I love them both in a crazy auntie kind of way. Differently, because even so young, they’re already very different people, but so so so intensely. I was so worried about Abby changing that I forgot to consider that possibility that being an aunt my just change me too. I’m so glad that it did!
The point I’m trying to make here though, most of all, is that the way I love my sister and the way I love her girls, my sweet little nieces, changes the way I love my aunt. Not for better or for worse, but from a different perspective and with a whole new sense of complete and total gratitude for the way she has loved me for so many years. I had done nothing to earn it, except by being an extension of my mom, but now I know what it feels like to love that little being anyway and I can appreciate just how loved I was (and am, of course!) by my aunt.
It’s a special bond, you guys. And I’m so excited that Abby has two little girls and that someday Emma and Claire will be like Rita and Judy (my grandma and her sister), Beth and Susan (my mom and her sister), and me and Abby. It’s a crazy and beautiful thing.
It’s interesting to note though, that Judy had three boys and so did Susan… perhaps that’s what will be in the cards for me! I do like patterns.
… and I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you pesky kids!
(Scooby Doo? Am I the only fan? Ruh roh…)
But seriously, I almost stole a xylophone from Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, MI.
(And good thing, too, because I don’t know where I’d go with the letter X otherwise.)
Thankfully, we’ve just recently passed the statute of limitations on xylophone-related crimes and I can no longer be prosecuted… so it’s finally safe for me to share this story with you.
Band, and particularly marching band, is a super big deal in high school… if you’re in it.
Nerd alert, right?
Except it doesn’t matter because if you’re in the band, particularly the marching band, you’re too busy learning music and having a blast to care whether it makes you uncool or not.
Which is why that band camp line in American Pie is so universally funny to everyone. If you weren’t ever in band, you probably think they’re making fun of band nerds. But what you don’t realize is– we’re totally in the joke. Because band… well, band is like that. It’s insane. There’s long hours, physical activity, forced closeness, long periods of inactivity, huge commitments, ridiculous uniforms, so many things that make it so unique. And when you’re in it, you know you’re a dork, but you don’t even care. Because band is freaking FUN. Hard, yes. Intense, of course. But so much fun. So bonding. So cool to be a part of.
So that xylophone…
I told you how I was in the drumline, but drums were mainly my thing during the marching season… and only because we didn’t march with any keyed instruments and I liked the snare. It was fun to be part of the group that kept the rhythm– the cadences, the roll offs, the taps after the whistles. But during the concert season, I was dedicated primarily to keyed instruments… bells, chimes, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone. And oh man, I loved, loved, loved playing the xylophone.
(I also loved playing the beaded gourd, but sadly… only got to do it once during a performance. Perhaps in another life.)
At good old LHS, we actually had two xylophones (perks of having a percussionist as a band director, our section of very expensive, school-owned instruments was quite well-stocked)… one was in need of repair, but was great for practicing. It just had a broken string on the bottom that made some of the keys sound kind of dead, but otherwise completely intact.
Between my junior and senior year, the band director I’d come to know and love/hate (because that’s another thing about band– the director is like a parent and sometimes they throw tantrums and sometimes you do, but at the end of the day, you love each other, so it’s all good) offered to let me take home that busted xylophone for practicing… except he made absolutely no note of it for the incoming director. No one, except the people I chose to tell (you know, other band nerds who would be excited that I had a xylophone in my basement) knew anything about it. It was wonderful!
I kept it all year, no one ever the wiser. I practiced and practiced and practiced on it– particularly Sabre Dance, because it was fast and exciting and made me feel awesome when I played it. (Ugh, my poor parents!)
Until the day after I graduated from high school, when another kid from the percussion section showed up at my house to pick it up. I don’t know how he knew… I guess I must have said something, or maybe I said something to the new director out of guilt? I don’t know. But he came and got it and I was so sad that I got busted. Because that xylophone was sweet.
The other thing that was sweet? Being in the band.
Although I haven’t played a single note on anything other than a table top or a steering wheel since 2001, I still feel like music and being part of the music is a huge part of me. I hum Honor’s Band songs I haven’t heard since 2000 while I’m washing dishes. I play the cymbal part to Stars and Stripes Forever with my bare hands.
I loooove marches. (So does my two month old niece, Claire— it’s spectacular!)
I am a band nerd, through and through. I even almost stole a xylophone.
Maybe I’d still be a musical type person if I actually had.
Regardless, the band was a big part of my life and I will forever love all those people who experienced it with me (Kelly! Christin! Laura! Emily! Other Emily! Tammy! Kacey! Dolly! Alex! Stevie-D! yes, even Evan a little bit! and so on and so forth! you know who you are!). I told you about Tim Haight and making assumptions before… but that was just the tip of the iceberg. I have a million and one stories and even more lessons, but the biggest one is this: cool doesn’t matter. Not nearly as much as you might think. What really matters is what you enjoy. If you enjoy doing the “cool” things, more power to you, but if what you enjoy is anything else– do it anyway!
Turns out: cool, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Understanding that at the age of 15 is a challenge, yes. But when you’re in the band, your peers are in the same boat and at band camp (it’s a very real thing), during sectionals, while marching on the football field or along a parade route, on a long bus ride to band festival, you are cool, because you’re part of something big and fun and empowering and musical.
I imagine any group activity you really enjoy is like that, whether it’s a sport or drama or the school newspaper or yearbook or television station or whatever. These days, for me, it’s blogging (which is surprisingly communal) and book clubs and loving dogs and doing “homely” things that give me that community. That empowerment. That joy. And at 30 years old, it’s a lot easier to not worry about what other people think is cool.
Especially now that I can no longer be held responsible for any xylophone-related crimes. Whew.
I started working in the Michigan Tech Writing Center when I was a sophomore in college. I loved it there SO much– more than being an RA, more than rowing crew, more even than my actual major. I only worked 8 – 12 hours per week, depending on the semester, but those 8 – 12 hours were much more formative for me than any 15 – 20 credit course load I ever had.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that I learned chemistry and physics and math (except differential equations– what a waste! I couldn’t even get a date out of that class, though I tried…) and such. It’s probably even good that I learned some things about myself by being an RA (which super sucked, but led to meeting my husband, so…) and rowing crew (which made my back, arms, and legs crazy strong for the year I did it, but just ended up being too much– let’s be honest here, I’m no athlete). Those are the things that made me look different from the outside, paid for my room and board, and filled in the bubbles on the GRE, but I’ve got to tell you, they are not the biggest things. The most influential things.
The most influential thing was absolutely, hands down, 100% for definitely sure the Writing Center.
The Writing Center. At an engineering university? That caters almost entirely to the most technically-minded of the nerds? In the middle of no where? I mean… the edge of no where?
Yes. The Writing Center. At Michigan Tech. Which is all those things, but such a hidden gem. (I should really recruit for the Huskies, I love that place so much.)
I’ve talked a little bit before about my boss in the Writing Center, Sylvia Matthews, and how absolutely amazing she was (is, to be sure). And I really think that it was she, Jill Arola, and Nancy Grimm and their ridiculously insightful ways of thinking, living, and educating that made it the special place that it was.
You see, in the Writing Center, it wasn’t so much about the grammar and the punctuation and the sentence structure and all the other technical aspects of writing that tend to give the vast majority of people either a headache or a panic attack. It was about understanding and being understood. About using words to do that. And the things I learned. Oy.
As part of working at the Writing Center, all of the coaches had to take a small, one credit course in which we discussed pedagogy and techniques and experiences and the like. At the end of every semester of “work,” we all wrote reflections about our experiences and what we had learned. I saved a couple of them. Not sure how exactly… they’ve definitely survived several major paper purges since I graduated in 2005, but listen to this one:
I can’t help but feel like this shows the the Writing Center is the place where I am supposed to be and the work I’m doing is important.
That was in 2004!
Pablo Picasso once said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Words, communicating with them… I think that’s my gift.
It’s not what I expected my gift to be. Nor is it what I thought it was or what I necessarily would have hoped for, but here we are. I think I finally found it.
It’s not like I just woke up one day in the recent past and liked writing or thought I was good at it.
My “gift” found me a long, long time ago. The Young Authors thing-a-ma-jig at Lincoln (who remembers that big book? how good it felt to have your story “published”?) was always awesome for me in elementary school. I loved the Independent Study in English I did with my cross country coach, Mr. Moran, my sophomore year in high school… and even now I’m still proud of the essay I vaguely remember writing about Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles… no idea what it was about, but guys, it was good.
Later on, in college, I got this rave review on a biochemistry report:
Yep, kept that too. It made me feel awesome!
And I loved the writing center so so so much.
Yet, my brain, my logic, my ACT results and aptitude tests and interests had me convinced that it was science science science all the way. Science would lead me to success. I would cure something, help someone, do sciencey things and make the world a better place by being noticed, by making a big impact.
A little piece of me must have known that wasn’t true. Because if it were, I’d be a chemist somewhere… working at 3M, inventing polymers and interpreting spectra and such, because I could have done that after college. But it didn’t seem right. Something wasn’t fitting and I wasn’t happy. So I went to grad school… where I wasn’t happy… and tried to go to med school… but I realized that was a very expensive path to continued unhappiness… so I stuck it in grad school… and came to the end… and still wasn’t very happy with my options.
It took all that time for me to admit to myself that I didn’t want to be a bench scientist. I didn’t want to run a lab. I didn’t want to come up with new ideas and new ways to test them.
So what did I like?
Talking about it. Always. Telling other people about science, about medicine, about dinosaurs, about whatever.
Thankfully, the universe, powers that be, whatever, know better than I do… and ultimately I ended up where I am now, as a scientific research writer at a big clinic. Back in what is, essentially, a post-collegiate writing center! I’m finally in a place where I use my gift on the regular.
Well, half of it anyway.
The other half was definitely this blog.
An illustrative example for you…
At work, I say “epistaxis as a result of digital trauma…”
On the Internet, I say “nosebleed because you dug too deep. Get your fingers out of there. Geez.”
A different way of saying exactly the same thing. One gets published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (hopefully) and the other makes someone laugh, but get it while they’re laughing.
And that’s the other half.
The things that makes me the happiest about writing now, at work and on the internet… and the thing that made me the happiest then, in the Writing Center… was the impact it had on people. And on me. Equal and opposite forces. An action and a reaction. Both things leaving the encounter changed.
At work, I help people make their science understandable and accessible. I cannot tell you how rewarding it is to see something in print, to get a funding notice for a grant… but most of all, to have an author I’ve previously worked with come back an improved writer. That’s the best best. (I’m talking to you, Dr. Kanth!) I learn about crazy things like deformed pancreases and what a vitamin D deficiency really does to your body (it’s not just rickets, yo)… I take that away, and someone takes something completely different away from me. A better technique for incorporating literature into a Discussion section, a modified sentence structure, a new way to format a table. Some little piece of communication.
It always happened that way at the Writing Center too. There was this kid one time, a freshman that I coached, and a professor made him cry in front of his entire class during the first week of school when he pronounced a word incorrectly. My heart broke for him. Absolutely broke. There was little I could actually do besides listen and encourage him and help him to communicate better. And seriously, by the end of the semester, he was volunteering to speak in front of the class. I’m not trying to say that was necessarily because of me, but I do know that he and I were both changed.
Here’s what I said about it on December 7, 2004 (Writing Center reflection style, again)–
I have been continually impressed with Jason this semester. He has determination and work ethic like no one I have ever met. I can say with confidence that having been faced with the same situation, I would have become very apathetic toward my work, sure that I could do nothing to please the teacher. I would have been very angry, but Jason never was. As much as I feel like I helped him to come out of his shell, he showed me the way that a person can handle difficulties gracefully. Through all of these difficulties, I am really glad that I got to be Jason’s coach.
And I think that maybe, just maybe, that’s what Picasso meant. When you give your gift away, this intangible gift that is the purpose of your life, you don’t lose anything. The little space you opened up is filled with something even better, something different and new and exciting. A new facet on your perspective. And the person who took that little piece of your gift away? They grow it– they grow it into something completely new, and different, and exciting inside themselves. Like planting a seed, or rooting a plant cutting.
At least, that’s what Picasso said means to me.
Communicating with words, erudite and crass, is my mission and my jam, my calling and my thang. I can do it for science, I can do it for life, I can do it for the twisted workings of my brain, and I can do it for others.
For others though, that’s my favorite part. I can brag about my sister-in-law if she’s having trouble doing herself (she’s always have trouble doing it herself– Sister Doctor just got the biggest honor you can get in all of medical school and tells people it’s “just” an organization thing. Sigh.). I can proofread and format a resume for someone who has lost a job. I can fix up a poster when someone panics a week before a conference. These are the things I can do. The gifts that I can share. Always something in return, of course, even if it’s just the satisfaction of having been able to do something when I would otherwise be helpless. And I like that so much.
The Writing Center helped me to find my special purpose… not the same special purpose that Steve Martin came across a little prematurely in The Jerk (Trista, let’s watch that this weekend! trip to Family Video!), but a special purpose in the sense that his mom really meant it. I couldn’t have done what I do now if I hadn’t pursued all of the sciences, so I’m glad that I did the chemistry degree and the grad school with all the STDs and the like, but at the time, science was always the goal. Not so, it turns out! The Writing Center was to be the place I circled back to, in another form, yes, but the same idea. I work with authors with all ranges of education levels, backgrounds, accents, talent and skill levels on far more topics than I could ever possibly fully understand, but regardless of all that– I help people get their words out, to be heard, to share, and in return, I am constantly changed.
It’s funny that way back in 2004, I worked so hard with other Writing Center coaches to present on what we called “The Ripple Effect” at a writing center conference… but only as an abstract and beautiful thing that I mostly hoped would happen. Good news: it did. It does. Always.
Well… this is awkward. I go searching to find a link to take you to the Writing Center website and find out it’s now called the Michigan Tech Multiliteracies Center. Makes sense. Still in Walker 107. A rose by any other name, I guess! More importantly, M for Multiliteracies is basically just an upside-down W for Writing… so… we’re good.
Tonight after work, I was in the kitchen canning some pickles (that’s a brag) and Seth was working on hanging up a brand new spice rack for me inside one of the kitchen cabinets. It seemed to fit, but it shouldn’t have– according to his measurements. He couldn’t figure it out. So I said, “Perhaps we’re not really muggles after all!”
He didn’t even bat an eye.
True, Seth vetoed the idea of having boy-girl twins and naming them Luna and Ron… but he doesn’t really seem to mind the Harry Potter stuff too much otherwise. And doesn’t even question me when I use references in every day conversation. (Conversations or tasks. I’m not going to lie, sometimes I try to use spells.)
Clearly, Seth is my soulmate.
Today, August 6th, is Seth and my third marriage anniversary. I can’t even tell you how excited I was when I realized that both August 6th and the letter S were approaching– perfection! So this post and the letter S are dedicated to my darling Sethy Stankowski (see how I just outsmarted The Google right there? I hope so anyway… he probably has more impressive credentials out there on the interwebs than a gushy blog post).
Seth and I met at RA training at Michigan Tech in the summer of 2002. I was immediately smitten with him, despite the Kermit and Piggy-ness of it all…
I was 18, Seth was 21, and here we are, nearly 12 years later, celebrating our third marriage anniversary. Our life isn’t the life I had planned for myself before I ever met Seth, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t want it any other way. I love that Seth and I share so much of our life stories. At this point, we’ve practically grown up together… we’re completely different people than we were when we first met, but still just right for each other. We’re balanced. We’re ridiculous. We’re very, very good <3
In 2002, before things were actually serious, everything seemed so overly serious. Thanksgiving break of that year (it’s a whole week long at Michigan Tech to account for the long drives and unavoidable bad weather) was basically traumatic. I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but I definitely cried through most of the UP on my way home and getting back to Seth was all that mattered. These days, when things actually are serious (as in we’re married and own a house and have real jobs and a pup to take care of), a week apart can be nice sometimes… for both of us. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all of that. We both travel for work on occasion, Seth more frequently than me, and as exhausting as traveling for work can be, it never feels quite so bad. (Except when Seth is in Miami in January and I’m busy bundling up and shoveling snow in Wisconsin. Then it feels quite bad.) You know the song Home by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros? Well, I only knew it by the lyrics until 30 seconds ago and I had to Google it to tell you about it… anyway, that line:
Home! Let me go home! Home is wherever I’m with you!
Seth makes me really get that. He is my home. Oh look… they make printables. Going to need one of those.
Despite being together for such a long time, I still have no problem gushing about Seth. And I do mean gushing. I love him so fiercely, so completely, and in such a way that even his little weirdnesses are adorable to me– the socks between the toes, the general dislike for pants, the obsession with all modes of mechanical flight (e.g. helicopters, airplanes, the cars that will someday fly).
But the weirdnesses aren’t what’s really up. Seth is hard working, crazy intelligent, sharply funny, extremely kind and generous, and humble to a fault (except when it comes to being better than me, and to be perfectly honest, that’s a good thing for my big head).
I was kind of stuck about what exactly to say next. What to tell you about the amazing man I married. I thought about telling you about how he helps all of our elderly neighbors with their technology, odd jobs, and shoveling (he’s literally the youngest in our corner of the neighborhood by 50 – 60 years… lit-er-all-y). Or maybe about how he loves on our pup and it’s just the sweetest and cutest thing in the world. Alternatively, I could wow you with tales of the crazy handiness he’s capable of– I’m so impressed with everything he’s done to our house to make us warmer, safer, more efficient, and extremely tech savvy and future proofed (love that phrase– future proof). But as I was writing this, my Pandora flipped to the Mamas and the Papas singing Dream a Little Dream of Me (it’s my She & Him station– so good). I love this song, every version of it, but given that I was going gaga over Seth at the moment, this line really struck me…
Stars fading, but I linger on dear– still craving your kiss.
And it reminded me of the very, very beginning. Back when we were so new and I was so nervous. Our first real dates, just the two of us, were at night, under the stars.
On our first date, we drove all the way to the Paulding Light an hour and a half from campus– somehow he already knew I was in love with ghosts! I was so nervous about driving so far with such a quiet guy, but he really surprised me. He actually sang in the car! My friends assured me that I didn’t have to lie about it when we got back– they could not believe I was telling the truth. We saw the light that night, it was amazing.
On our second date, we took a trip out to Misery Bay toward Ontonogan and laid on the beach to see the northern lights. They were all around us, swirling and twirling and twinkling, and it was like being in a planetarium, only real. It was amazing. An absolutely amazing night. I’ve seen the northern lights several times, but never like I saw them that night. I loved Seth even then.
A few nights later, we ventured out to Boston Pond just north of Houghton to star gaze… and again, it was amazing. We stood shivering against Seth’s truck and he asked me how long it took me to make each one of my curls every morning. It was the cutest, the sweetest, the most endearing thing he could have said. I have the biggest smile even just thinking of it.
Paulding Light for a haunting, Misery Bay for the northern lights all around us, Boston Pond for a celestial star show… and 12 years later, a cozy home in Marshfield with the person who inhabits half of my heart. Stars fading, still lingering…
PS: Being the dedicated Wisconsin-ite that he is, Seth’s pals have (I assume affectionately) dubbed him “Cheesecurd”… in which case, I am clearly a freaking cheese factory because I can’t stop being such a sappy, cheesy, sentimental nerd! But for realsies, I love my husband, and I’m cool with you knowing it– knowing it so hard it makes you roll your eyes, groan, and shake your head at me all at once!
My mom is a teacher. A conservative estimate suggests that approximately 37.2% of my weirdness can be explained by that fact.
One of my favorite “games” (games in the way that a graham cracker is a “cookie”) when I was little went something like this…
My mom: “lamp… table… chair…”
Me (with excitement): “chair! lamp! table!”
Alphabetizing. Super cool.
For real, I loved it though.
As much as I loved alphabetizing my mom’s little lists of words, my favorite thing to alphabetize was my set of rocks and minerals flash cards.
Nerdiest sentence ever written? Maybe…
And why did I have rocks and minerals flash cards? Mom?
But to me? Rocks are crazy cool. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember and I’ve carried the mason jar full of my most treasured rocks around with me as I moved from Ypsilanti to Houghton to Hancock to Bethesda to Silver Spring to Rockville to Marshfield… all over the dang place, because I just love them all so much.
(Btw, I was storing things in mason jars before it was cool. I’m a total mason jar hipster.)
Each rock is special for a different reason too. Each one has a memory. Each one serves as a touchstone.
My grandparents brought me lava rocks (two different kinds!), pumice, and coral from Hawaii when they went to visit my aunt who lives there. At the time, I could imagine no place more exotic. And rocks that came straight from a volcano?! Too cool!
My Grandpa John even stopped one time while driving through the Appalachian Mountains to pick up a rock for me. He knew I’d never been there and thought I’d want a piece. He was right; I still have it, even though I have been there myself now. The strong silent type with a heart of gold, my grandpa. He always knew how to make me crazy happy!
My dad brought this polished heart back from Connecticut when he was there on business. I loved so much that the natural features of the stone made in incomplete, yet still so perfect. I remember thinking that it was absolutely genius to carve the heart so that it would have a natural hole at the bottom. I don’t know why. Abby’s heart was perfect, but I liked mine so much better (no offense, Ab, I’m sure you loved yours too… mine was just better). See:
My Aunt Patty and Uncle Phil brought me a piece of mica back from Georgia. Natural glitter?! Too cool! And hematite is so cool and smooth… it always reminds me of putting my face against my mom’s arm. It reminds me of her jewelry.
I found this peacock ore myself on the shore of lake superior. I learned more about minerals after that… and more about iron and copper mining in the UP. Fascinating.
Rocks from lakes, big and small. Rocks I saved up to buy with my baby sitting money from Natural Wonders (my favorite ever store in the Briarwood Mall). Rocks that looked neat and smelled funny (I had an exquisite sulfur specimen that I couldn’t justify bringing to college with me and likely still resides in my parents’ basement). Rocks that I convinced myself were fossils and some that really were. And so on and so forth. Rock after rock.
I like the way they look. I like the way they feel. I like the way they smell. I like the way an unpolished rock completely changes if you get it wet. I like that there might be a surprise (an ore! a fossil! an agate!) on the inside. I like that they just exist that way… through natural processes of the earth, through amazing series of coincidences of chemistry and pressure and temperature and time. One individual rock is like one individual life. Unique. Special. Worth knowing and remembering.
Sometimes I’ve thought that maybe I should have been a geologist– or at least taken Rocks for Jocks in college. But I’m not, and I didn’t. So it’s just a little hobby.
These days, when I watch my niece Emma pick up and carry around hand fulls of rocks, berries, pine cones, twigs, leaves, and flowers, I am reminded of how much I have always loved such things… and how much I still do. Something about the symbols of the outdoors are so enjoyable to me and I feel inspired to bring them into my house. Jars of rocks, buckets of sea shells, frames full of branches, and prints of leaves. A little throwback to the naturalist child that I was and jars full of memories– my own and others. The sea shells are from my grandma, and she and her mother collected them over many, many years. The branches were from someone else’s birch tree, left at compost just for me to find. I pressed the leaves from plants in my year and spray painted their silhouettes onto canvas. And the rocks are, as I described, many storied. And it always comes back to the rocks.
A friend of mine from Michigan Tech (we worked in the Writing Center together) posted a picture of the rocks in Lake Superior relatively recently and I was absolutely enamored. I mean, look at this:
Who needs the teeny tiny sand and salty water of so many beaches when you can find beauty like this on the shores of Lake Superior? Just gorgeous. Just rocks.
When I was in Arizona in the spring, I went on a guided tour of the Desert Botanical Garden and learned a ton about desert flora and fauna and was especially fascinated by all of the cactus facts. The tour guide kept quoting ages of certain cacti, though, and I wondered how exactly you could tell the age of a cactus since they don’t have rings like trees. I (nervously and nerdily) asked the question, and the Seth Rogen look-alike tour guide explained that it’s all through observation. Expert naturalists spent tens, even hundreds of years, multiple dedicated lifetimes, observing the natural history of so many different cactus species for the sake of knowledge. Not because the cacti change anything, not because they serve as medicine or fuel or food or anything like that, but just because they’re interesting. Naturalism at its finest, perhaps? I think I’ll do the same of rocks… just sit back and enjoy the beauty.