reflections on the unexpected – 2017

It’s the time of year where people reflect on their year and for some reason, I’m feeling the need to join in.

Perhaps it’s because my longest held ‘big goal’ was achieved.

Or more likely, it’s because of the things which happened which were unexpected.

Let’s get the big goal out-of-the-way:

I received my Honours Degree in Anthropology from McMaster University, 37 years after I began. I walked across the stage and that was it. Bucket list item number one, check.

And I was happy, even gleeful that June day cause I was truly proud of myself. I did it up right. Done and done.

The last year of university was not golden, though. I had a terrible first semester course with a prof who believed that talking for three hours and using outdated research and technology was sufficient. It was not. I did not learn anything and my final mark proved it.

My second semester was amazing and included one of my favourite and inspiring courses: art history. Sadly, as I was working full-time, I could not fully relish in my final months. I was resentful of my divided attention, even though it was my choice to ‘do it all’. Immediately upon graduation, I wanted to go back and do it again, or more likely, do more.

Which brings me to a somewhat unexpected decision: not to do my masters, at least not yet. I was sure that I would jump back in as soon as possible. Head back to full time university in 2018. As the months wore on, I decided I was not ready to make that commitment. The moment I sent an email declining the opportunity to apply, I felt relieved. That’s when I knew it was the right, albeit unexpected, decision.

In 2017, I had also decided to stop working for the school board. For about 10 years, I had a goal to successfully apply for a job in professional development, a job that is one of a rare few at a higher level of pay and responsibility for teaching assistants. In 2016, I got the job. At first, I thought my displeasure in the role was that I was still in university and was torn between the two worlds. I started off on the wrong foot as my predecessor had not trained me properly (or at all really). My office was isolated from others whereas I had spent the last two years in a sea of people all the time – and the previous 12 years in classroom settings, full of activity and people and interactions.

I was disillusioned, dismayed and distraught. Once I accepted that I didn’t love the job, or even like it some days, I knew that the opportunity needed to be given to someone else, someone who truly wanted the job. So, I resigned – another unexpected decision.

At 55, you’d think I had things figured out, but I really got to know myself this year. As someone who has walked several half marathons, I am familiar with the concept of training, but this year, I took my training very seriously. I strictly followed the training schedule for my November race including a ridiculously hot 21 km walk in Florida in late October.

The night before the race, I set out my schedule for how I wanted to walk the race and I initially kept to the schedule. As I wrote previously I came up short of my goal, but only by a smidgen (as in two minutes). As I reflected on the race I was able to clearly see – embody really – the results of negative self talk. This was an unexpected, but critical, realization.

Shortly before my race, I had begun to work with a personal trainer. I knew that cardio work was only half the battle for my health and fitness, especially as I head to the upper range of my 50s. I needed to take seriously the idea of strength training. I did well with the trainer, having someone nag me and take me through my paces. (I often said I hated my trainer and loved the feeling of having trained!).

One day, though, I decided I would only feel successful if I could do it on my own. I spoke with my trainer and he developed a three-day a week program for me. In the weeks since then, I have surprised myself by only missing one day and that was due to weather. One other bad weather day, I used weights I have at home.

I have a long history of giving up physical activity when things get tough and I don’t actually like to work out. I really like how I feel after – a lot. I like how much stronger I feel overall. I have been surprised by how I have found ways to work around obstacles to my training rather than ways to avoid it – totally unexpected.

I asked for hiking poles for Christmas because of another surprising thing that happened this year: I have fallen in love with hiking. Not days long hikes, but several hours at a time. I like hiking with people, I like hiking alone. I like being in nature, even when it’s cold.

Surprise.

So, the year that has been unexpected has challenged me, surprised me and made me content with life. And has made me pretty keen to see what’s up ahead.

Stay tuned.

Feedback as a gift

I was at a great workshop a while back and one of the presenters talked about how you can take feedback as a negative or as a gift.

The comment got my brain reflecting on my experiences at McMaster, partly because feedback is a big part of being a university student.

Being a university student was a gift; a multilayered, surprising, challenging, amazing gift.

So there’s feedback. When I first began, I took feedback hard. In the lower year classes, feedback was often a mark only. There are hundreds of students in each class and if there are no teaching assistants doing the marking (and even if there are), there simply is not enough time to give in-depth, meaningful feedback to all students. Even in some of the upper year classes, I did not receive significant feedback. I found it hard to get a mark and not know what I did right or wrong to deserve that mark. I was clamoring for more.

Then life and readings and assignments took over, and I moved on.

When I hit my final year, some events occurred that opened my mind. I had done an independent study and received an excellent mark. I felt good about the mark because I had worked really hard and the prof is someone whose work I really respect. I was confident he did not hand out marks.

During the feedback session, the prof spoke for more than 30 minutes about all the things he disagreed with, that he didn’t like or that I had wrong. As we headed towards 45 minutes of this, I stood up and said I had to go. Not because I had anywhere to go, but I had to stop hearing criticism. It was soul crushing.

Maybe he did hand out marks?

I was enrolled in one of his courses that fall and I paid closer attention to how he worked – how he gave feedback. It was months before I realized what had actually happened: despite being having come to an invalid conclusion in my study, I had presented a really strong argument for my perspective. Being wrong is not always “wrong”.

The second example of my shift in feedback came when I handed in a proposal for a final course project and the prof – a different and equally brilliant prof – told me I was headed down the wrong path and directed me to a pivotal article. That reading allowed me to crystallize my thoughts and my direction. I ended up with my highest mark in university on that paper because I was able to improve when I opened myself up to the feedback (and the feedback was truly constructive).

And then, there’s the gift part.

I went back to university to complete my degree, to have the piece of paper that I somehow thought I was not complete without. The gift of those 3 years is that the paper is nothing compared to the moments and the learning and the relationships and the vision I have of myself. Everyday was life-changing, even when I was too tired or too stressed to see that.

It is like every experience of university was a type of feedback. It helped me realign my thinking and my being.

It’s not only about the lessons learned. The people I was surrounded by helped me by allowing me to bounce ideas around and have them share their worldviews. They made it impossible for me to see anything in the world in black and white ever again.

I am so lucky to have had that gift, those moments, those experiences. The paper I got is not my trophy – although it is a beauty.

It is those moments culminating in the shifted way of being; that is what remains and what matters in the end.

Decision to try

Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try”  JFK

As this year winds down, we tend to reflect. 2017 will always be the year I graduated from university, a long term goal achieved.

Without question, I am so glad that I decided to try – to try to finish my degree that I started in 1980 and to try to be as immersed in the experience as possible.

I have difficulty remembering where my head was at when I began, why I ever wondered if I should try.

I cannot even begin to fathom what my life would have been like without this experience.

I am getting to know myself within the new framework of the knowledge and experiences of my three years in university. Other than the first years of being a mom, nothing has changed me more than this.

One thing that I do know is that I want to give more – spend time giving back. I always knew I was fortunate; going back to school has shown me the depth of my privilege. I have deeply missed volunteering.

For the past several months, since I stopped working full time, I have been focused on regaining a foothold in the world of volunteering and also spending time dedicated to the part of me that got neglected while in school – the physical part. My new sense of accomplishment comes from hitting the gym and exceeding what I think I can achieve. It’s not as fun as university, but it does give me a keen sense of accomplishment.

In the New Year, I will return to McMaster and work one day a week on a research project. It’s an incredible opportunity and a way to keep my connection to a favourite “home away from home”.

Sometimes you wonder if your memories of an event or experience are true. Lately, I’ve been converting old videos into digital files and am frequently reminded of the joy that we did get to experience with our kids because we decided to try to build a family.

Looking back at my grad photos, it’s pretty evident that I was truly glad I made that second big decision to try.