Year 1 of my PhD, in Gifs

My blog game has been weak this year. Between leaving one job and starting school, and writing hundreds of pages in assignments, work on anything other than coursework was a daunting task. Still, the story of my year deserves to be shared.

Last August I started my PhD journey. I felt good. I felt prepared. I felt ready.

But my pretentious bubble was soon popped, and three weeks into the first semester I realized I wasn’t actually as ready as I had promised myself.

By my third month, I had written two unsent letters to my advisor, swearing she made a mistake by admitting me into the program.

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I compared myself to everyone around me, and highlighted all the ways in which I wasn’t good enough. The intimidation factor was no joke. Many of the people in my classes and program were true superstars, brilliant and incredibly talented.

Up to that point, I thought I had a pretty good head on my shoulders. I thought I could take the challenge, the feedback, and the constant trial and error. I thought I knew it all.

I was concerned with everyone around me. The comparison trap was real.

Then my body started to give up on me.

I cried many times that first semester. I was unstable.

And then I learned that I didn’t know it all.

…and how to be quiet, sit still, and just listen – this came from teachers and classmates. Friends and colleagues paused me, told me to know how and when I take up space, and to just be still (quiet!). Those friends pushed me to be a better listener, which in turn made me a better student – specifically a better PhD student.

But this learning took time. And still, there were days when I struggled.

…and days when I really struggled.

But I owned that struggle, and used it to propel me into more confident days.

And then my angel of an advisor gave me really good feedback on a final paper, feedback that helped me realize how to be a better student and writer.

She validated and affirmed, and left me thankful that I never sent those letters of resignation.

And so, I leaned fully into winter break, and cleared my brain and heart for the next semester. I vowed to read and write differently, to study harder, and to be more committed in ways I just wasn’t during the fall semester. I fully embraced my identity as a full-time PhD student, and found pride in the things I could do and learn.

And I started to address the demons inside me that were telling me I wasn’t worthy.

And I sent them away. I demanded them away.

And I started making small changes that went a long way.

Stuff started to make sense. I was remembering things from my masters program. I was remembering and applying learning from the fall to the spring. By February, I finally felt confident (a tad, at least) for the first time during this entire year.

And I had made some really good friends, people who were in the same boat as me.

We collaborated on projects, pushed each other, and took risks to receive rewards. We started the process of becoming experts on our research topics. We shined.

And we built a tradition of cheering for each other, through the good and the bad.

As May neared, and final projects took over, I found myself excited, not scared like I had been in the fall. I knew I could do it. I finally believed in myself.

And before I knew it, all my papers were turned in, and I had successfully completed one year of PhD work. I did it. Despite the long road, I did it.

All is well…

…until classes resume in August, of course.

*gifs all found on GIPHY

Four Elephant Emojis

I turned 31 yesterday.

The excitement of 30 has solidified and I am extra-reflective of last year’s celebration. The Instagramification of 30 guided much my outlook on entering a new decade of life, and as I embarked on a dream of accepting that I am not perfect (and may never be), I discovered that I can be loved even as a result of that/those imperfection(s).

This peace was very raw and real for me.

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Celebrating 30 in DC, accompanied by a new soulmate and giant group of friends was a stark contrast to the celebration of 29, which consisted of me embracing, “almost-thirty,” more than, “actually-29.” Instead of being surrounded by friends and loved ones in the open air on a DC rooftop, I was adventuring in northeast China, alone in a hotel room, journaling and reflecting. A lot can happen in 24 months.

In the spirit of self-disclosure, I spent 31 on the verge of tears.

Ultimately I was okay. In fact, I really was actually great – I felt and received so much love and support from friends near and far; I was treated wonderfully at work and around campus; I have the best partner who provided a fantastic weekend last weekend to honor the big day; and I heard from people who reminded me that I was so worthy and so wonderfully me.

All of this, and yet, the almost-tears-lump still remained (please tell me you know this lump-in-the-throat feeling I am talking about?).

How did I manage to fool all of these folx into writing on my wall, tweeting at me, texting me, and calling me with cheerful and joyous messages? 

Our brain can be a scary thing.

I explained some of these feelings to a dear friend of mine, the friend whose elephant moment I captured in my last post. In our conversation, I shared some of my thoughts around why I was so distracted, and why I didn’t feel good enough in this particular place and time. Here’s a bit from our conversation:

Me:  “I’m seriously standing at a food place getting dinner, crying, and wondering why I feel so unworthy. And why I can’t shake that.”

Friend:  “Because you are human. Flawed. Full. Imperfect. Perfect. And going through a lot of transition.”

This friend then typed out four elephant emojis, and stated, “That’s how many elephants you’re up against right now.”

Of course, I started to cry some more. Good tears.

If I (we) truly believe, “eating an elephant,” requires taking one bite at a time, four metaphorical elephants becomes a new challenge, and a new journey.

I cried not because I was down or sad or upset, I cried because my friend was right. Sometimes we don’t just have just one elephant to get through – sometimes there are many more, some bigger than others, and some to remind you that your worth is subjective, enough, and whatever you need it to be in any particular moment or time. Knowing your worth is about knowing what elephants you have in front of you, and knowing that some may be there that you didn’t even know about (“you don’t know what you don’t know,” and all of that). I didn’t need to have any major wins yesterday. I didn’t need to have a “perfect” birthday. I needed to take care of myself, my heart.

That was enough for me.

And thanks to my friend, four elephant emojis, and a reminder that sometimes the process we’re told to trust isn’t always all that trustworthy, I feel whole again.

I feel 31, deservingly so.

I feel loved, valued, and mostly worthy.

I feel more present than I have in awhile.

I feel ready for a new year of chance, hope, and humanity.

I feel unapologetically open and raw.

I feel.

Another year, another learning lesson, another road ahead.

Brain-battling,

Michael

Mary Prusha Art Up
*Art and photo by Mary Prusha

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said.

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said…
Little do they know, I already cry a lot.

“You’re going to be stressed,” they said…
I have had a stress-related eye-twitch for most of my life.

“It’ll break you down,” they said…
Even when broken, I always land on my feet.

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they demanded.
And so, I continue to cry.

In what feels like 1/3-part care and concern, 1/3-part projections of self-doubt, and 1/3-part hazing, the PhD journey has commenced, and I am deep in the waters of my first semester as a doctoral student. In true Michael manner, I jumped in with an Olympic diving attempt that probably looked more like a belly-flop than a gold medal dive. Loosely proud of my belly-flop, I am making new commitments and reevaluating the way in which I maneuver through this journey.

“One day at a time,” they said.
I nod ferociously, leaning into the comfort provided by a one-day-at-a-time mantra.

In addition to being a full-time student, I hold a graduate assistantship and also teach a class for first-year students interested in learning more about leadership (Introduction to Student Leadership). During my first class session, I promised the students we would take one week at a time. Selfishly, a few dozen assignments lurked over me.

I ended the first session and opened the syllabi for my classes, attempting to map out each assignment in my calendar. As I planned ahead for what seemed like a semester of tears, stress, and brokenness (“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said), my inner self-preserver begged, “Resist! Resist! Resist! Slow down!”

I paused, laughed, and whispered aloud, “How do you eat an elephant?”

How do you eat an elephant?

Huh?

Several years ago I had a colleague who completely unraveled during a staff meeting. They were frustrated and overwhelmed. They were grappling with the, “we should be doing more, and with more time and resources,” dilemma that new and para-professionals often unearth in their first few years of working in education.

Following our highly contentious staff meeting, I invited the colleague into my office and engaged the, “what’s going on,” conversation. Through some tears and voice-raising, it was clear the individual was trying to do the best they could with what they had, while making meaning of the politics involved on our campus and in our office.

Drawing on an old adage I used most of my young adulthood, I quickly asked this colleague, “How do you eat an elephant?”

Frustrated, they replied, “I don’t know. I can’t with your metaphorical BS, right now. What’s your point?”

We sat in silence for several minutes, and I gently asked one more time, “How do you eat an elephant?”

Both exasperated and curious, the colleague finally responded, “I don’t know…one bite at a time?”

“One bite at a time.”

One bite at a time. 

Flash forward several years later, my calendar, syllabi, and heart all out on the table (figuratively and literally); I was having my own, “how the heck do you actually eat an elephant,” moment. If I have learned anything one week in, it’s that keeping up is the only option – for better or for worse. One bite at a time.

“You’re going to be stressed,” they said…
“It’ll break you down,” they said…
“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said…

With tears in my eyes, I agree. And in courage, I move forward. A pinned, internal, one-day-at-a-time, banner flies viciously in my brain. And I pause, forced to breathe in a philosophy that has guided much of my work over the past few years.

“They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”
–Mexican Proverb*

Universe, build me up.

A seed to be watered,
Michael

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*”They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds,” is often attributed to a Mexican Proverb, as well as Dinos Christianopoulos. Either way, powerful and important connection, and one that continues to center me.

“Grab on to some light, every corner that you can.”


I took a stroll through the Madison farmer’s market this morning, and found myself in a bit of a deep reflection. I have a massive amount of life and career transition coming up – finishing one job, starting another, being a student again, and beyond.

Somehow music always seems to appear when I need it most (and even in times when I don’t think I need it). This song found me, and wrapped me in exactly what I needed. I hope it finds you wherever you are today. 

Michelle Willis, It’ll Rain Today

“Grab on to some light, every corner that you can.” You are brave enough, beautiful, and completely and absolutely worthy.

Now, bloom. 

The world thanks you in advance. 

In truth,

Michael

The light within me…

Yoga

For better or for worse, I have consciously experienced stress since I was fourteen years old. Much of this dissonance stemmed from life as a military kid, people moving all around me, taking on massive responsibilities at a young age, identity stuff, and generally not having the ability to let things go. To be calm.

To be collected.

To just breathe. 

Around one year ago, I started experiencing painful back-spasms. My back would give out at random, and there were even times where I was unable to move. So, I went to a back specialist. When the specialist returned from checking my scans, I assured him, “I’m broken.”

“No, you’re not,” he laughed back at me. “When’s the last time you did some type of meditation or relaxation exercise?”

“Never. Yeah…never,” I quickly responded.

“You need to relax. Your back and body are too tight. There’s nothing wrong with you except that you could probably use a bit of time to de-stress.”

I was annoyed.

De-stress.

I’ve received this feedback for the past sixteen years.

And yet, you’d think, at some point I would actually listen.

A few weeks ago, I finally listened.

I have a good friend at work who encouraged me to follow her lead and buy a two-month yoga pass for a studio down the street from where we both live. After sixteen years of believing I didn’t need to actually calm or slow down (or know how, for that matter), I struggled to accept that I could or might benefit from the opportunity.

Yoga has been in or around my life for over a decade. While I have never let myself enjoy the vulnerability involved in the practice, I appreciate the friends and community members in my life who have leaned in without fear or hesitation. I have one friend who travels out of the country each year for a yoga retreat, spending several days taking care of herself, her mind, and her body. I have other friends who make their living out of selling yoga gear and teaching others how to be in sync with their mind, body, and soul. Needless to say, yoga is present.

Acknowledging the impact yoga has had on these folk’s lives, I caved. I bought the pass, and this morning was my first class.

I rolled out of bed at 6:00AM, and was walking up the steps of Shaw Yoga around 6:22AM. I will be honest, I was very nervous. I was nervous about my body, my breathing, the fact that I sweat a lot. I wondered, was I am impostor in this space? What if this was something I was not good at? What if I was uncomfortable?

At some point during the hour, all of this was true. My body didn’t move like it use to. It took some time to regulate my breathing. I sweated a ton. I was incredibly uncomfortable at times. And all of this was okay.

By the end of the class, my sweating had ceased, and my mind was clearer than it had been in a long time. My body felt loose. I felt fully present.

There was a tone of kindness in the space – a tone of being kind to yourself and others, being kind to your body, being kind to the Universe.

Over and over, I replayed my sweet partner’s charge, “We practice self-love in this house.” We practice self-love in this house.

We practice self-love in this house. 

I can easily argue for self-care, for self-love, or for putting on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you. But it’s more than an argument – the practice of these beliefs must be lived, daily. Authentically. Today, I am practicing kindness. I am practicing self-love. I am practicing care. I hope you’ll do the same.

Here’s to the light within me, honoring the light within you.

Namaste,

Michael

 

 

A Dark Place Called, “I’m not worthy”

Typing the words, “I’m not worthy,” leaves me anxious and aware.

If I have learned anything about myself this year it’s that I have been swimming in some of the darker places of my confidence and self-security. More importantly, I have learned that self-love trumps everything. I’m growing and developing, and unapologetically so. The reflections are good. Needed. I’m better as a result.

I recently attended a conference for work, one with an ongoing theme of the storytelling and leadership of trailblazers, catalysts, and calamities. In one section of the convention center, a giant board stood with the prompt, “SIX-WORD MEMOIRS: Share your life story on the board in six words or less!”

Six-word memoirs.

Without much thought, I jotted down the following sentiment:

You will not shake me. Ever.

At the time, I had yet to determine who, “you,” would be, however the sentiment was important for me. In an interesting turn of events, it wasn’t until a few days later that the, “you,” on that page was actually self-realized as a note to myself. This ‘ah-ha’ challenged every fiber of my being. “You will not shake me. Ever.”

Dear me, I won’t be shaken…by you. Or something like that.

Let’s pause here for a moment.

I recently accepted an opportunity to study in the Student Affairs doctoral program at the University of Maryland (I will be starting this Fall).

[insert screams and tears here]
[insert fears and self-doubt here]

As quickly as I arrived to celebrate this huge moment, self-doubt and insecurity followed closely nearby. Initially, my first thought was that the individual calling to offer me a spot in the program was actually going to inform me that I hadn’t been accepted. In fact, I stared at the phone for a few seconds, seeing her name, and writing the story in my head between each ringing pause.

The call would go something like this:
“Hey Michael. It’s me, the Dark Lord of the Academy.
Yeah, sorry, you didn’t get in. Better luck next time.”

Even when I first interviewed for admission, I told myself I was a courtesy interview. I re-trolled my materials, I searched for a typo or an error or a reason for them to pass on me. There is nothing worse in an application process than recreating doubt and unrest as it relates to putting yourself out there. I was desperate for an out, and this was so much more than dress-rehearsing tragedy.

But the Dark Lord of the Academy was instead a faculty member who I admire and respect more than anyone else in academia. She was Glenda, The Good. And I was Michael, The Thankful. She brought only good news into that conversation, and as I hung up, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was admitted to a doctoral program.

Dear me, I won’t be shaken…by you.

While attending another conference, one made up of student affairs professionals from around the globe, I started to share the news of my admissions status. Within each dialogue, I found myself drenching my news with, “I can’t believe…,” language, and, “I must have slipped through the cracks,” attempts at humor.

But it wasn’t funny.

This was beyond self-deprecation, and I was teetering the line of self-sabotage-mixed-with-dress-rehearsing-tragedy. Even outside of any admissions process one might endure, it’s important to note: rejection is unsettling and hard. And scary. I had entered a place of such great fear, that even when I wasn’t, at all, rejected, I still kept the mindset that I wasn’t, at all, worthy.

This brings me full circle back to a life lesson in, “I’m not worthy.”

Shake Me

You will not shake me. Ever.

I am worthy. Glenda says so. And I say so.

And as I sit here with an acceptance in-hand, I am grinning greatly, feeling worthy and deserving, and beautifully so. Here’s to a new endeavor, here’s to the academy, and here’s to achieving a dream. I’ll be starting at the University of Maryland this fall, and advised by the brilliant and talented, Dr. Kimberly Griffin Haynes.

The only way upward is onward…

Thankful for Glenda,

Michael

Temporarily Beardless: “We practice self-love in this house.”

Beardless.

Partner: I want to cry.
Me: I want to cry too!
Partner: Wait, what? Why?

Me: Because I look like a troll! Why do you want to cry?
Partner: Because I love you even more. 

“It’s like your armor is gone, super vulnerable,” he says. 

Before I dive deeper into my new (and temporary) beardless state of being, I should admit something quite significant: I gained 30 lbs in 2015.

Yes, you read that right. Thirty.

I have since lost 5 of those lbs in the new year, however the truth remains – since moving back from China on December 2, 2014, I gained 30 full lbs. Needless to say, I was not kind to my body this past year. I’m now working on it.

Unrelated to the great weight gain of 2015, when I turned thirty back in September, I made a list of 30 goals, one of which was, “Shave my beard.” Not for any great cause necessarily – I mostly thought it would be a fun goal, one that would allow my face to breathe for a few days before going back to my beard-filled life.

Fast-forward to this weekend: I’m in the bathroom, post-haircut, using my new beard trimmer. I cut a chunk of hair out of my beard – an unfixable chunk. In a quick judgement call, I decided it would be the day to knock off, “Shave my beard,” from my list of goals. And so, I shaved.

As soon as the clean shave was complete, my eyes welled up and I looked into the mirror with angst and fear. I felt completely undesirable. I felt incredibly naked.

Cue the aforementioned conversation with my partner.

Partner: I want to cry.
Me: I want to cry too!
Partner: Wait, what? Why?

Me: Because I look like a troll! Why do you want to cry?
Partner: Because I love you even more. 

In a moment of, “I’m not worthy,” I realized so much of my pro-beard advocacy had come from 50% enjoying the beard and 50% enjoying the opportunity to hide any double chin(s) that existed under the surface.

I hadn’t seen a clean shave since March 2013.

An hour after the trimming of the beard, my partner and I walked to the grocery store, and over and over in my head, all I could do was repeat something he often says to me when I criticize myself or wade in a space of personal dissonance.

“We practice self-love in this house,” he says.

We practice self-love.

Self-love.

Last year, I wrote a post about my life of weight gain and loss, and reflected on the struggle I have consistently battled with food and self-worth. Here’s a snippet:

“If a cake pop falls in the forest, did the cake pop really ever exist at all?” Furthermore, if I fell down in a forest, what was I doing in that forest to begin with? Was I looking for cake pops? [Was I working out?] I digress. Years ago, I came to terms with the reality that what I saw in the mirror did not necessarily match up to what was actually happening with my body. And, at the center of this lack of congruence, existed a world of issues with control, self-confidence, and self love.

(June 16, 2015)

Whichever house you reside (figuratively and literally), I implore you to practice love. And to practice self-care. Rereading the piece above was particularly important for me last night. With my beardlessness comes great vulnerability.

Here’s to growing my beard back over the next few weeks, and not because I’m hiding behind it or need it to calm my nerves. Here’s to growing my beard back over the next few weeks, and constantly reminding myself that my beauty and worth are truly up to me. Here’s to growing my confidence, and marching onward toward a place of love and self-truth. Ultimately, here’s to resolve, and resolving beautifully.

Learning to love yourself in all forms, shapes, and sizes is one of the toughest and most rewarding fetes one can endure. I’m certainly well on my way.

So fresh and so clean-clean,

Michael

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