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Florida, Mahjong & the Glory of Thesis Anxiety

The hardest part of writing a Masters Thesis is always thinking about the thesis. Is my topic fresh enough? Will I choke when I need to defend this? How did I even get this far? There is no certainty when writing a thesis, but I suppose that’s true of many things. One thing is certain, though: last time I was standing before this finish line, I let fear get the best of me and sat out on the bench for over a year–but I won’t let that happen again. I’m a different person now. That’s what my therapist tells me, anyway.

“I’m sure everyone experiences thesis anxiety,” Sam says. “Use it as motivation.” You see, dear reader, some people, like my husband, are good at radical acceptance, while others, like me, walk around with a churning mind which paralyzes us and makes us difficult to live with. I’m working on it.

Then I think to myself, you’re doing just fine. Stick to the schedule. All the research will connect soon. I head back to the laptop. I’ve gotten better at the work, life, family, thesis balance, but Toby doesn’t always understand.

Toby, emotional support dog and chapter editor.

I know he doesn’t understand because he ate the book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day my Advisor gave me:

“Ummm. Dog ate my thesis?”

I don’t believe it can be done in fifteen minutes a day either, Toby.

Struggling to commit to one entry point, with a deadline looming, I told Sam, “I need to get out of this house. I can’t look at this thing anymore!” It’s like Nancy (mother-in-law) knew, and maybe her ears were ringing, because she invited me to visit. Motherly people have a sixth sense that I cannot fathom. Two weeks later, I book a flight and trade Buffalo’s snowy winter for Florida’s sunshine.

I hop on a plane in the midst of a global pandemic, because it’s what I have to do to stay sane and regroup. In my carry-on, I store my laptop, suggested reading and paranoia of not finishing my thesis in time. I wonder what others carry in their bags, where they’re headed and why. I don’t ask, but avoid eye contact. I’ve forgotten how to socialize with strangers. Inclement weather cancels multiple flights and it takes 12 hours to land in Delray Beach, instead of 3. First World problems, I know. Nancy picks me up in her convertible:

Nancy is a new “snowbird,” teaching grad classes remotely for UB. She and I first became close when we were planning my wedding, eight years ago, and I’m lucky to have her in my life. I always joke that I want to earn a PhD so when we hang out, we can introduce ourselves as “Dr. Cook Squared.” I wrote something corny like that as the opening line of the personal statement I may or may not ever send.

I settle in and Nancy asks if I want to learn to play Mahjong. I’m relived she doesn’t ask about school, and agree. “It’s an interesting mix of Rummy and Yatzee,” she says. I don’t know the rules of either.

The weight of the tiles is soothing

The goal of the game is to get a mahjong, which consists of sorting all 14 of your tiles into two hands, while drawing and discarding each turn. I picture myself playing this with cute old men in a park, if we can ever get back to China.

Anxiety begins to set in when I see how many hands I could possibly create. I know I need to select two hands to build, but a lot can be done with 14 tiles, and I don’t want to select the wrong one. My face burns red.

Just when I thought I finally committed to a hand, I pick up a tile that could possibly create a better one. I glance at the directions again. Only this time, the pamphlet begins to bleed like ink does during a tattoo, and I can’t make out the words. It’ll take at least an hour to defrost my incoherent brain. Nancy looks excited to teach me the game. I swallow my heart. Does she know I’m totally panicking?

Nope. People rarely know, but I’m still always surprised. I know this because I ask her the next day, while walking on the beach, where I find Wilsooooon:

I don’t get out much

I think I should take him home to my office to curb my hollow loneliness, but I leave him behind and hand sanitize instead. Nancy asks about my thesis.

The waves roll in. It’s very windy and the beach is mostly deserted. I like when just the foam of a wave gently brushes my toes. It feels like flirting. This large body of water could sweep me away, but doesn’t. I recall pictures of crowded Florida beaches back when the pandemic first started. But now that the numbers are down, where have all the anti-maskers gone? Did they get sick of pushing back? Did the ocean sweep them away? We can’t get that lucky. . .

I tell Nancy my thesis is “fine.” I know she knows I’m lying. I cry.

“Your research is only a drop in the bucket. You don’t have to make a big splash!” she says. Even that quiet foam is part of the large ocean, I think to myself. “Some people fine-tune their argument in the throng of research. But, I know you. You need to fine-tune the thesis statement first.” We discuss all the possible entry points. She knows all the right questions to ask. I feel better.

The crippling effects of perfectionism isn’t new, for me. And neither is obsessing over my place in the world. You can read more about that in an earlier blog: An Existential Crisis on a Hiking Trail.

I build a sandman and send it to Sam:

Later, I watch these beautiful birds build their nests for a long while. They all work in pairs. Some couples collect pieces until they’re ready to build the nest. Other couples build as they gather. I’m glad Toby ate that stupid how-to book.

Shadowy Wetlands

When we get back to the condo, Nancy asks for a Mahjong rematch. This time, I commit to two hands as quickly as I can. Sure, “better” hands are possible, but I’ve already committed so I discard. It makes all the difference and the game moves faster. I didn’t win, but I also didn’t freeze and panic. We laugh.

Building & Breaking Walls

Then it hit me. You cannot win, if you don’t pick a hand. For if you don’t pick a hand, you don’t know what tiles to keep and discard.

The same is true for my thesis.

I am a bird that must build as I collect, but I was trying to collect before building because a book told me to do so. Do birds play Mahjong? Not literally, but probably.

On my flight home, I make an appointment with my Advisor, “I’m ready to commit to my topic. I’ve selected my Mahjong hand, so I know what tiles to hold and drop! I’m done collecting.” She already thinks I’m nuts, so I don’t hold back.

I arrived home almost two weeks ago and started writing immediately. There may be better arguments out there, but I’ve already committed to mine. It makes all the difference, and the game moves much faster. There’s no panic. I know exactly which tiles to hold and discard.

My paper is just a drop in the bucket, and that’s ok.

And my Advisor dubs the first 15 pages as “fine scholarship.”

Nothing is certain with this thesis. Nothing is certain in life. But I have two goals moving forward: keep my eye on my hand and have fun!

Thanks for introducing me to Mahjong, Nancy. Thanks for everything.


Depression, Orange Chicken and Signs from the Universe

After a four-month corona hiatus, our favorite Chinese restaurant reopened this week. The neon green sign on the previously boarded-up window reads, “In mask order Chinese July 8th.” Ah, yes, you know I put that directly in my calendar. I drool for orange chicken, especially when I’m feeling sad.

Yesterday a fellow blogger Mark of Healing your Heart Within took the time to write a lovely comment in response to a recent post. His words resonated and stuck with me, specifically:

“Your sadness and pain is all that the fear is built on, usually a rejection in some form from those you love and look up to, and you have spent your entire life thinking it is you that have caused this so you are in a constant ‘I’m not good enough, can I , should I’ in all that you do. That questioning of the mind is you trying to break back through that wall of fear. Find its source, understand it…and be free.”

I marinated those words, “find its source, understand it…and be free,” for the rest of the day: between advising appointments, my drive home from the office, awake at 2am. Did the Universe send this reader/writer to me? Like it sent me this love letter.

Believing in “signs” isn’t new to me. My grandma (not my blood, but no one would know), “Lannie Bird” they called her, was a very troubled woman with a rice pudding heart. She loved us kids unconditionally and her demise left a pea-shaped void I never did fill. She collected signs from the universe like I collect owls.

When she wasn’t skidding tires on our front lawn, sleeping in vodka-dew grass, she’d take us thrifting on hot summer days. She was always searching for that one special piece in the dusty boxes of someone else’s history. I loved that about her. She’d swat away the bees buzzing around my sister’s cherry-popsicle dress and tell us “never be scared to be yourself.” I didn’t know then that she carried a secret pile of rocks about her sexuality in her stomach. She bought us each a bluebird figurine.

“Grandma Blue,” we called her. She would stand at her window and sing, “come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you candy,” by Rosemary Clooney, and the blue birds would sunbathe in the birdbath of her sorrow in the yard. To her, they were a sign of joy, harmony and honesty—the very things she should have been chugging on the corner of Military Road instead. She loved to talk about who sent which bird to her.

So, what do I desperately need sent to me? What do I fear? What do I need to understand? I think, while driving past the youthful bicycle-gang in the middle of Seneca Street. No worries, no cares given, they’d say. The one kid, maybe 12, shoots me with his finger-gun every time I see him. I’m starting to take it a little personally. What would you do if I pulled over to get out of my car?

The nice cashier smiles under her mask, her eyes tell me so, and hands over a steaming bag. I end the meal with a fortune cookie. And whatdoyaknow? Grandma Blue sent me a bluebird from a treasure chest in some place that smells like lilacs.

Do fortunes cookies know what I need? Or do I just eat Chinese when I’m depressed and looking for answers? I’m not sure—but I’ll keep stuffing the tiny scraps of encouragement into my pocket!

I cling to signs as a way to organize and conceptualize my needs, thoughts, feelings. I don’t chase blue birds, but words. Someone else out there, the one to author this note, s/he understands and that’s validating.

“Find its source, understand it…and be free.” The what, the why, the how to let it go.

I fear failure.

That “what,” found in 2019.

I know my fears stem from childhood trauma flowing, rapidly, like a liquid shadow, in the fistula it carved out between my cerebral cortex and heart. You can’t bail liquid with a strainer. I know this because I’ve tried to empty the tunnel many a time. And if you can’t examine the organisms living in the water, how can you understand? The dozen memories I have, they haunt me less than the ones I cannot access. I am a book of erasure poetry.

“To understand is hard.”

I’ll be a year older later this month (“Please Don’t Wish me a Happy Birthday”—a post coming next week), but I’m still a child hiding in the closet, gripping my notebook and pencil-box full of supplies to runaway: pennies collected from the dryer, a spoon, a piece of tan cloth my sister and I shared when we were scared. I am a cup of emotions without a bottom. I should have worked through all this years ago. I should be sitting poolside laughing with my friends. Instead, I’m collecting fortunes and writing about it so I can sleep at night.

Though I wasn’t able to empty the fistula with the strainer today, I’m looking to buy the right ladle, the kind they don’t sell in TJ Maxx, but I’m sure the universe, or perhaps Grandma Blue, will send the right one soon.

“Once one understands, action is easy.”

I’m clinging to this until I understand. And I know I will someday soon understand. I have to. Mostly for myself. But also because Grandma Blue never got to understand and be free.

Do you believe in signs? Have they helped your mental health journey?

Dear Moonkeeper

on the edge of a hike

“Courage, dear heart”—CS Lewis

I trekked 7 miles and 28 flights of stairs to bring the rapids a bouquet of flowers in exchange for words. Instead, she sent me a quiet beach-ball bouncing about the swirling water of Devil’s Hole. In the dark of a tree contours the shape my body. So, I had a picnic with my existential angst while I waited for the moonkeeper to invite me in.

Lewiston, NY

An Existential Crisis on a Scenic Hiking Trail

“We can all agree that the unexamined life is not worth living…but if all you’re doing is examining, you’re not living.” — Adam Leipzig

The hardest part of having an existential crisis is that it come as quiet as a teenager sneaking in after curfew. It’s the uncontrollable need to ask questions over and over again, never resting, about one’s meaning and place in life. Sarah Fader wrote an amazing piece explaining this in depth What Is An Existential Crisis And How Can It Be Resolved?, if you want to read more.

This morning, like many mornings, I mull over these questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I belong? Am I lovable despite my flaws? Are we meaningless specks? Will any of us be remembered? Is this life imaginary, am I? Are my thoughts my own and how do I know? Will I ever stop thinking about this?

Then I think to myself, you’re doing just fine. Give yourself some time. Put your hiking shoes on and flee Buffalo for the day. I head to Stony Brook State Park. I need to feel alive.

The easiest and most scenic Gorge Trail is closed for construction, so I head to the Rim Trails’ towering stairs. The woods are speckled with florescent signs, “Wear a mask in public” and is mostly empty due to the global pandemic. I think, if I can climb hundreds of stairs in a mask, the anti-maskers can handle wearing it in the grocery store. Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their interactions with others?

I climb away from the others. Just me and the chipmunks. They play tag as I pant and grunt past waterfalls and unbelievable rock formations. I envy the chipmunks for they can’t see the true depth of the woods. The humming waterfall echos in my heart and distracts me. I want to write about it, but I’ve forgotten how to restrain my inner editor.

In my backpack I carry sunscreen, water and paranoia of aging past 30: I don’t know what the hell I am doing with my life; everyone knows I am an imposter; and how did I get this far? My backpack is heavy and the trail is much harder to climb than anticipated. I need to throw my ego into water, but it’s like a leech kissing my brain.

When I reach the top, after polishing each thought like a new gem, and my brain is making the sound of a violin being tuned, I come face-to-face with this mural: “Learning to love.”

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

“This is a turning point. You are on the brink of enlightenment,” my former therapist said, almost two years ago, when I first acknowledged my crisis.

I remember the exact moment of realization, drinking my coffee by the window, on an ordinary day, beside the dogs: Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? Am I giving it enough meaning? Am I trying hard enough? I was much like the chipmunks: unable (and unwilling) to see the depth of my own woodlands—until that day.

These aren’t new questions. The first time I remember obsessing over my existence was in the eighth grade. At an away game, when I was being “too shy,” my volleyball coach told me, “just be yourself!” A teammate had to console me as I cried on the bus, explaining that I didn’t know if I was being my “true self” or just a “pretend version” of myself. She shrugged her shoulders and offered me a blue Gatorade.

Little did I know I would be so messy and weak and incoherent for so long.

In the trees, I do not stifle my soul or feel alone. I do not accidentally project my negative feelings onto them and regret it later. I sit for a while. Their leaves shutter, but do not scuttle.

I wonder if they feel my presence. They deaf clap at me. I carry on. I must cross a bridge much like this one:

I am shaky and weak in middle of the bridge. What’s on the other side? Freedom of distorted thinking, freedom to trust my choices, freedom to take accountability, freedom to be grateful for what I have and where I am.

I don’t cross the bridge on this hike, but I find some peace on the long way down because now I know I want to cross the bridge. I know I need to cross the bridge.

I’ve been looking at things from one angle my entire life, but on the bridge, I’m looking at life from new perspectives I didn’t previously realize existed. This crossing will take time.

Did you know you can build zen gardens upon rotting trees?

That’s right! I can build zen gardens upon rotting trees or I can fall victim to my past, thoughts and feelings. I know what I need to do. I think I might even know who I am.

I am a good person just trying to find her way back onto the trail.

Have you had an existential crisis? What was your experience? How did you push through? How long was recovery for you?