Days like these

November in southern Finland is not child’s play, particularly once we set the clocks back that one precious hour and live on ‘winter time’. The nights become unending and the sun — if it appears at all — shines less than brightly. Couple the darkness with a heavy dose of stress and finding any joy at all becomes excessively difficult if not impossible.

But joy can be found even in the darkest of places. At least, that’s the hope we hold on to even on those darkest of days. This week featured an array of stressors and frustrations. Don’t get me wrong: bright spots shone. Yet both of us acutely feel the effects of an entirely overly optimistic and far from restful year as we near our long-awaited and overdue holiday and annual escape to the sun.

Before our escape, we must take whatever opportunities arise to break free from the daily grind. It may be a fully working weekend for us both, but we work just as hard to find time to get out and break free for our peripatetic bonding session before night falls and the darker darkness of winter characteristic of these nights descends. We made our break sometime around 16.00.  And, here’s what we found on this wintry Caturday afternoon/early evening:

  • The street lights were on well before we made it halfway through our walk. We appreciated the light on our return journey home. But, it’s weird and eery to see them turn on well before 16.30 in the afternoon. A month from now, it will be fully dark at this time of day. And, that darkness is intensely black, standing in stark contrast to the dusk that pervades throughout what counts for summer nights. (Need I say, we prefer the darkness of summer.)
  • Despite needing multiple layers on our walk, as we approached the beach nearest our neighbourhood, a lone, brave swimmer made her way from the changing rooms to the pier and finally down into the icy waters. She wore a wool cap, gloves of some sort, slippers of some sort, a bathing suit and was wrapped in a towel. We shivered simply watching her as she submerged into the waters and swam from the pier. As she emerged after her swim, she confessed that the water ‘wasn’t so bad once you got used to it’. We both thought, ‘Better you than us, girlfriend!’ We prefer the warm bath water of the Caribbean, thank you very much.
  • Despite living in Finland for 10 years now, we still don’t understand the weather here. We left under relatively cloudless skies. At least, it looked as though the clouds had moved on to elsewhere. As we stood watching the less-than-sane swimmer [our classification of her mental state, naturally], rather large and cold drops of rain plopped on our heads. Once again, we were stuck far from home without an umbrella.
  • Mosquitoes still survive even now. Surprisingly. As I typed this post, one lone little bugger landed on my hand.

Days like these, I’m happy to be alive.

(Re)orientation

This semester, this month, this week, stress abounds. (Largely, I’ve created this stress for and all by myself.)

As I hurried to deliver a seminar on a topic I felt less than prepared for, cursing the construction which put me a bit further behind schedule than I was comfortable with, I passed by one of the most iconic spots in Helsinki — Senate Square.

I pass this particular spot often when I teach / lecture at the main campus at the University of Helsinki. And, the view never fails to ground and reorient me beyond whatever nonsense surrounds me. This spot reminds me of how insanely fortunate I am to live this life. A life I never imagined possible and one for which I am extremely grateful.

And, just like that, nothing seemed quite so awful or stressful any longer.

Senate Sq.jpg

Bigger picture & wider lens

einstein-picture-full-uncropped

Arthur Sasse / AFP

Maybe it’s because I love the notion of the mad scientist. But, I love Einstein.

His brilliant mind aside, I love his wit and eccentricity, along with his passion for communicating science and his own work within it.

One of my favourite images of Einstein other than him sat in wacky dress donning furry slippers (naturally) features the not-so-mad scientist sticking his tongue out. I’ve had a version of that image for as long as I can remember, and it never fails to cheer me up and remind me to embrace the silliness whenever I can.

I decided to use the image for a talk I’m giving later today to women in STEM at the University of Helsinki. The talk itself is on communicating science. And, as I’ve been thinking about and formulating precisely what I want to say on communicating science vis-á-vis the dreaded conference presentation, that image of Einstein has popped up in my head over and over again.

When looking up images as I was preparing, I found a bit on the history of it, and love it even more now.

My original intention and own message for including it focused on simply ‘being yourself’ during presentations. When we attempt to assume someone else’s notion of what it means to be a researcher or scientist or instructor (in my case), we become disingenuous and lose credibility amongst our audiences. We aren’t actors, after all. And, we shouldn’t pretend to be.  We also lose the plot of our message as well. Rather than water down our own personalities and individualities, I say bring them to the forefront when presenting.

But, also, I think this image reminds us to have fun with our presentations, particularly when we care most about the messages we are communicating. Most of those with whom I work research incredibly interesting yet at times troubling or difficult topics. It’s hard work no doubt. But each of us are truly passionate about our work (I hope) and I’d like to think that we also have fun with it.

In addition and after reading the back story behind this image of Einstein and his tongue, to me the image now serves as a reminder to never assume that the audience will intuitively get the full picture of the story we’re attempting to tell. Unless, that is, we actually tell the story well.

Details matter. As does the bigger picture and wider lens.

Milestones and markers

Change comes slowly, none more so than changing some rather embedded bad habits. It may come later in than life than I’d like, but there’s a certain joy and relief that accompanies working towards various milestones. And, succeeding. Bit by painfully slow bit.

One habit that has plagued me my entire life is my penchant for procrastination. I’ve told myself time and again that I do my best work when I wait until the last moment to tuck in as that deadline creeps inevitably nearer. This has not serve me well at various moments and has caused far too many sleepless nights. But, more so, the stress that accompanies that penchant for procrastination as any deadline approaches and as life becomes increasingly busy have taken their toll in unintended yet predictable ways. Coupled with an inability to say ‘no’ (another issue I’m working on), my schedule no longer allows me to both procrastinate and still meet whatever deadline exists. Never mind my inability to cope with the stress I’ve caused myself in the process. My work and mental health have suffered, and thus the vicious cycle continued.

As I  work towards feeling better mentally, I’m also recognising that I need to adjust how and when I work, and make some changes towards procrastinating less. Note: I’m not even considering eliminating my tendency towards ‘tomorrow’—I’m simply attempting to procrastinate less and, thus, diminish some of that mental anguish I cause myself.

Habits formed long ago and stuck. It doesn’t mean they must remain.

This week and last mark a milestone for me in multiple ways. I’ve not only made it beyond a running milestone that I’ve long wanted to shatter,  but I’ve sat at my desk and worked when I didn’t really need to. As much as I love my job, there are days when I just don’t want to work.

Sure, I could have taken off most of last week and this, and still made my two deadlines tomorrow. But, I did something weird and completely uncharacteristic for me: I made a plan of action (that is, working towards a goal each day), reached those targets, and then had the rest of my working days to do with what I wanted. Not only did I complete both tasks well ahead of schedule (one on Tuesday and one today), but I finished in the morning (after requiring a mere two half-days of work earlier this week), enjoyed a three-day weekend for the first time since our holiday in December and January, and managed to spend some quality time each day with my darling husband.

Who is this person? More importantly, can she stick around for a bit?

As I work on improving my physical stamina, I’m realising that much of the same mental battles I face running apply to habits in general across the rest of my life. Pushing through those moments when the temptation to twiddle my thumbs rather than work on my to-do list relies on the same determination I need to put one foot in front of the other. Naturally, I could take the easy route and quit. Or I can take one extra step and another and see how far I get. One small step may seem insignificant at any one moment; but, add them up together and they become a journey. Reaching one marker or goal allows me to place another a bit further along the path. Any path.

Change may come slowly. But, it comes. Eventually.

 

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Progress may appear slow. But, quitting halts it altogether.  

‘Just be where you are’

I’m not particularly co-ordinated. Anyone who has spent any time at all with me knows that I’m prone to trip over non-existent cracks in the sidewalk or crash into walls randomly (and repeatedly) or spill giant cups of coffee all over the place for no apparent reason much to my mortification. After first checking for broken bones, laughter typically ensues because I am just that talented clumsy.

Perhaps because of this awkwardness, I’ve never really enjoyed yoga. Until last autumn, that is. After a friend sang the praises of one particular yoga instructor offering Ashtanga in English at the university gym at a time that suited my schedule, I decided to give it a go. I loved it, immediately and rather unexpected, and went as often as my schedule would allow. As mortifying and humiliating as the course by highlighting just how much less flexible I’ve become in the last… several decades, I thoroughly enjoyed those 75 minutes of focusing on one thing—not falling over. Or falling over gracefully.

My schedule this year so far hasn’t allowed me to resume classes with this particular brilliant yogi, but her words ring in my ears at the most seemingly random and yet appropriate times. Rather than attempt to get an entire class of 40 individuals to do various poses exactly the same, she would say, ‘Be where you are’.

Just be where you are.

This unlikely spillover benefit and phrase is so eloquently simple and something I firmly believe I needed to hear. Perhaps that’s why it continues to pop into my mind from time to time all these months later. In so many ways, this phrase helped me obsess less over all sorts and just get on with the task or goal at hand. Those who know me well, know that this is not a simple task.

As a perfectionist in all things in life, I often put far, far too much pressure on myself to do better than my best. Better than I know I’m capable of just to push myself that bit further. I know it’s infuriated and exacerbated more than a few mentors, colleagues, friends and family members. And, I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has hinted that my mediocre far exceeds the expectations of most. I suspect know all too well that that drive to perform above and beyond what I expect of myself has lead to more than one bout of burn-out in my professional life. My perfectionism in all things has also lead to more than one work-in-progress remaining unfinished.

Just be where you are.

I continue to need this message. Perhaps I’ve adopted it as a personal mantra. Regardless, it appears to be helping. I am less stressed these days, even if I am absurdly busy. Oddly, my productivity seems to have exploded. I’m no longer concerned with always going faster as I build my running endurance; I’m just focused on building that endurance. I no longer care if I spill the occasional cup of coffee, as long as it doesn’t spoil my beloved Marimekko frocks.

I am content with being that work-in-progress that remains unfinished, although completing tasks to deadline even if less than perfect takes precedence over perfection. A quiet and calm focus has emerged recently, and those various to-do lists seem less burdensome and more manageable. Oddly, I look forward to those lists rather than dreading them.

This is where I am, and I rather like this place. And, hopefully, I’ll be back on the yoga matt with my favourite yogi before too long.

Metamorphosis

As a twenty-something graduate student, I never imagined teaching. The prize that I kept my eye on at that time was research, ideally in a position related to policy in some way, shape or form. At that time, as an arrogant graduate student rather myopically focused on her own research, I thought landing a teaching gig would be the worst possible outcome of all those hours and years spent as a graduate student.

Oh, the irony. Life has a way of reminding us of just how foolish we can be as young (or, even, older) idealists.

Fast forward 20-plus years, and here I am lecturing to graduate students. What’s weirder still, I love it. After three full academic years of teaching at the University of Helsinki, I cannot imagine not teaching.

Part of my enthusiasm for teaching lies within the topics I teach: academic writing, conference presentations and presentations in general, and grant writing, along with a few other transferrable skills courses. I was fortunate as a graduate student to have incredible mentors, professors-turned-friends who I still rely on for their wisdom and guidance, even if I don’t constantly pester them or hover in their doorways. The lessons they taught me years ago remain with me even now, and often echo in my own lectures. I can only hope that I do these incredible minds and kind souls justice. Because they shaped me in so many ways and helped me to become a more dedicated member of the academic community I now feel duty-bound to serve.

As exhausting as the academic calendar is and as much as I look forward to summer and winter breaks, being an instructor never ceases to provide further inspiration and immeasurable rewards. This most likely reflects the immense privilege it is to guide the pool of students that grace my classrooms. These brilliant, dedicated individuals, wise beyond their years, amaze me. They are, quite simply and, as one professor referred to me, indefatigable. As I sift through my inbox sending reviews and feedback to those who worked incredibly hard throughout whichever course they took with me, some of these bright young minds provide feedback to me. I welcome these moments because they help me do better in future. But, this, this I wasn’t expecting and it has moved me in ways I can’t begin to describe:

…. [O]ne thing that I found particularly inspiring was that you seemed to let your personality bubble through your professional instructor role. I have noticed that especially women often somehow suppress or flatten their personality when acting in an expert position, which is maybe because they are afraid of not to be taken seriously otherwise. I don’t want to end up falling into this pit, so I also want to thank you for showing an empowering example that it is possible to be a professional without burying yourself under a role.

For whatever reason, this feedback from an incredibly bright young student represents one of the most powerful indicators that I’m doing what I should be doing. What I was intended to do. And, perhaps, something I’m truly good at. If my classroom example encourages young women scholars to be themselves regardless of stereotypes and expectations, all the better.

Indeed. As a graduate student, as a young career professional and later as a mid-career professional, I didn’t always feel sufficiently empowered to be me. Perhaps the greatest gift this gig has offered me is a way to find my own voice and to apply that voice to providing guidance to others. Without consciously realising it, my own voice appears more genuine and more authentic than it’s ever been before. And, oddly, more confident.

I love my job. Truly. But, this personal metamorphosis was so entirely unintended, yet I completely welcome it. And, can only hope that it continues. At the very least, I hope my own metamorphosis allows others to transform as well…

 

 

Day 7: Proekt 365

Day 7: Proekt 365 And, now, a little time for rest and relaxation.

Day 7: Proekt 365
And, now, a little time for rest and relaxation.

I love being busy. And, the last few months, I’ve been exceptionally busy. Between work commitments and the holidays, I’ve scarcely had a day since November when my to-do list wasn’t overflowing.

Today, that daily fact of life shifts. All of my work is completed and all assignments have been returned to my various clients. Aside from a few administrative matters, I’m free to resume socialising and participating in life beyond my desk!

So, what’s on my now-clear agenda, you ask?

First and foremost, a little quality time with my husband. The poor guy has had to contend and be patient with me and my weary, muddled brain. So, he gets to decide what we do, and we shall do it. Rest, rest and a little more rest. Catching up with the various friends I’ve been neglecting lately and who’ve been quietly cheering me on in the background. (Y’all rock!) And, a little knitting, of course.

Mostly, it’s just nice to enjoy a few days free from the stress of impending deadlines and demands whilst juggling the busy holiday season. Most likely, it won’t last, not that I’d want it to. I’ll enjoy it whilst I can, though. I’ll enjoy it very, very much.

I love my work, and I love being busy. But, we can all use a little reprieve now and again. Finding a happy medium between work and life is necessary and I’ve not always been successful in finding that balance. I’m working on it. But…, it ain’t easy when one is a freelancer.

For now though, the pendulum swings in favour of rest, and, this girl’s break begins in five… four… three… two… one…