the presence of a mother

Boy did this absolutely amazing thing for me. And the effect of this one thing he did has rippled much farther into the future than I ever anticipated.

It had become this running joke about our mothers, that after 11 years they had never met. Of course they knew more about each other than they may ever realize. My mother is obviously a key figure in my  life, and so is boy’s mother. Each has been a tremendous influence on the woman I am and the woman I have yet to become. So after all I have asked from boy – quitting his job (although it has become the longest goodbye yet), relocating to a desert, saying goodbye to our friends (do you KNOW how hard it is to make such awesome friends as an adult?) and leaving the place that holds more sentimental value than the galaxy holds stars – after all of this, he surprised me by managing to get me to the airport for a surprise visit from both his mother and my mother so they could support me at my white coat ceremony. Did I mention this happened on his birthday?

The first night they were here I went to bed in a stupor, so filled with love I tried to describe it and felt like a  babbling fool. I compared it to the realization of a mythical event. For so long I sustained from envisioning a wedding because the logistics sound like a nightmare. So having them both there to support me on my new journey into medicine was something beyond what my mind was prepared to receive. Their presence felt like a blessing on my new journey.

But here’s the unexpected echo from boy’s gesture. When my mom was here I hugged her goodnight as she came from her bath and retreated to the guest bedroom. I noted the slight perfume from her skin and the humidity from the bath tub and it brought me back, so far back, to being a little girl and finding comfort in my mother’s bed time routine.  She bathed every night, followed by the application of lotion, and then turned on the bedside light as she read prior to going to sleep. I would mark time by her routine. Sometimes I would not go to sleep until I knew that she too was in bed. Sometimes I would walk in and tell her I couldn’t sleep and she would walk me back to bed. Most of the time I would try to climb into her bed so I could spend the night feeling safest by her side. All of those nights were accompanied by the slight humidity left over from her bath and the soft scent of her lotion.

I’m 6 weeks into medical school. Even at the age of 31, this is probably one of the scariest journeys I have been on. I get stressed, lose sleep, and try to desperately reassure myself that both dog and boy are happy in the middle of the conservative desert. And sometimes, when I get too exhausted from it all, I drag my feet to the guest bedroom and lie down, not trying to feel guilty about the allowance of rest over studying. I envision that my mother is somewhere nearby and there is a gentle humidity from her bath lingering over the room. Just knowing that she slept in that room is enough to convince me that the scent of her lotion is still permeating through the hallway and into the bedroom. And I can close my eyes and find some relief from that self-critical voice that got me here, that pushes me harder, that knows exactly how hard I had to work to get here and knows that it will not end anytime soon. I fall asleep haggard with the memory of my mother’s comfort tucked into the senses of my mind and I wake up knowing that I am enough. I know that my mother will not always be here. She lost her mother when she was my age. But the shadow of her presence is so powerful that I know it will grant me a lifetime of solace.

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August 24, 2012 · 10:07 pm

Reluctant Vacation

In the five years I’ve been working in publishing, I have ALWAYS worked the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  Most of my colleagues spent time with their families, so being 2,000+ miles away from my family and having not returned home for Christmas since I was 19 years old, I’ve always just spent the week manning the cubicle row.  I didn’t mind.  In fact, the first year I was working there I was so bored I spent the time rearranging the printer area and cleaning my cubicle.  Subsequent years were filled with Macworld preparations.  But this year is different.  When I mentioned perhaps taking a day off, my boss turned to me and said, “you know, you don’t have to work that week.  It’s really boring.  I mean, you should probably take if off.”  Wow.  Why do I have to wait to be TOLD these things?!

So, I have ten days off.  In a row.  TEN! 10! TEN!  I haven’t had that since back when I was unemployed.  And how do I feel about it?  Relaxed?  Elated?  Psyched?

Sadly, no.

How do I feel?  Anxious.  The first few days were concealed under the excuse of holidays.  Followed by holiday recovery.  Monday had a tight schedule of waking early, getting a workout in, cleaning, getting things done.  Today, I slept in late, tried to go out on a rainy day, found the business I was seeking to be closed, came home, read, napped, and woke up.  Woke up to feeling anxious.  I’m thinking back to this post.  Where I vowed to just sit.  Simply sit.  Without thinking about cleaning, running, gardening and all the things that have to be done.  I struggle with this.  I strive for it.  I feel like I fail at it.

This evening I was web browsing.  One of the things I really didn’t want to do during this break was get stuck in front of the television.  I’m happy to say I haven’t.  It has remained off most of the time.  But the computer?  Ha.  I follow Gwen Bell peripherally.  I admit, most of the time I’m simply not in the mood to contemplate things on the level her posts demand, but sometimes I am.  And sometimes it helps, and sometimes it frustrates me.  She’s in the midst of doing her reverb 2010, a reflection of the year through writing prompts.  I only blog once a month, so like I said, I’m peripheral.  But I saw this prompt:

December 21 – Future Self.

Imagine yourself five years from now. What advice would you give your current self for the year ahead? (Bonus: Write a note to yourself 10 years ago. What would you tell your younger self?)

And I’m sitting here, feeling like I have failed once again.  I was actually considering going into work tomorrow because I need a schedule, I need a routine, I can’t sit still.  And I read this.  And I pondered it.  And what came to mind?

Dear Alison, fucking relax.  Just fucking relax.

I don’t like using curse words unless they are absolutely needed to drive a point home.  I feel like they are needed here.

I had kind of a rough year starting in fall 2009.  I don’t know why I thought I could take 3 classes, work full-time, study for the MCAT, and sneak in some physician shadowing, along with a few work travel trips on the side.  What did this amount to?  I was sick every few weeks, including one of the worst illnesses of my adulthood that kind of freaks me out just thinking back to it.  So is it any wonder that I withdrew medical school applications and had a bit of a rough time with the process?  ( hello ego, is that you on the floor getting trampled?)  It’s no surprise to me.

So what would I have told myself?  The constantly sick and overworked and under exercised myself?

1) Cut yourself some slack.  You’re working hard.

2) Live presently.  Not in the anxiety of an application process you have very little control over.

3) RELAX.

I’m not going to work tomorrow and cut this vacation short.  I’m enforcing it.  I don’t want to successes to be measured by how much can be done and accomplished.  I want them to be simpler, more focused, and to carry a little bit more meaning.  If I had just done this throughout this past year, wow.  Look at how successful I was.  No, I didn’t get into medical school, but I learned so much!  I learned what I could balance and what I couldn’t.  I learned to let go of a really bad relationship I was in and all the stresses it brought.  I am a better communicator, a better listener, a better friend.  I have yet to learn how to dress for my body-type or the ins and outs of physiology and anatomy and cell messenger systems, but that’s not worth the stress.  I can break this down.  I can accomplish what is important to me.  In the meantime, I’m going to fucking relax.

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Lessons from my dog

Jack is not the kind of dog I wanted.  I had this vision in my mind of the kind of dog I wanted before I adopted Jack.  I wanted this really cool, laid back dog.  An outdoorsy, sporty running and frisbee partner.  I wanted a goofy, friendly, lovable mutt.  Sure, Jack is a few of these things, but far far far from most of these things.  He’s goofy in the sense that one time on a groggy morning jog, we were both not quite awake while running down the road alongside all of the parked cars when I heard a “thunk”.  I looked down to see a dazed Jack who had just run straight into the bumper of a parked car.  He’s not laid back in the slightest.  If I sit with him outside a coffee shop, good luck to the person who dares make direct eye contact with such a lovely pup.  Jack turns from adorable dog to the kraken in a split second. I especially love it when the passersby see this and step back with an audible “woah.”  No pressure there!  This past summer, Jack developed this horrible teenage back-talk in the form of growling, lunging, and nipping to both me and especially boy.  We don’t know what to make of it, where it is coming from, and how to react to it.  We both know it’s 100% unacceptable.  We typically pull his head down to meet the floor until he can calm down, but the stress in this household peaks for a solid 12 hours after those events.  Boy yells at Jack, Jack snarls at boy, and I separate them into different rooms and flutter back and forth trying to make amends and discuss remedies and work to put the household back on the same page of respect and discipline.

Recently, in an unfortunate and lightning fast turn of catastrophes, Jack bit boy.  He has nipped in the past, the easy-to-identify herder’s nip that says “hey, you’re going the wrong way, mister.”  This bite?  This wasn’t a herder’s nip.  This was a sheer white noise panic I don’t know what else to do because you just swatted my rear with your socks and I’m scared bite down and naw until I realize what I’m doing and start hi-pitched yelping and screaming in fear.  I think our neighbors thought we were killing poor Jack that night.  Seemingly unprovoked, Jack worked his way into a blind panic that had him squealing before boy even touched the poor pup.  In a bad decision by boy, he swatted at Jack with a pair of socks and Jack’s squeals turned into a bite which turned into realization of what he was doing which was too late because boy had his face to the ground with blood dripping from his wound all over Jack’s fur.  Jack’s eyes were fully dilated and his teeth were out.  I ran up to both of them and we kept Jack in position until he calmed before boy stood up to wash his wound.  Ears back, shaking, in a half tuck position, Jack had blood spots and fear all over his face.  I took a wet towel and helped him clean himself off as much as he would let me.  I sat with him a good 15-20 minutes before letting him sleep by himself in the living room.  Boy sat with him alone for another 15 minute before coming to bed.  It wasn’t a good night for anyone in this household.

The worst part of this?  Whereas before I felt like I could trust that Jack would not bite, he is now in the category of a dog that can and will bite.  This changes things.   This changes a lot of things.  I always have to be on guard.  I will never fully trust my dog again.  We have stricter limits in the household.  Jack can only come up to snuggle on the couch when he is invited.  He is blocked off from the bedrooms at night.  If he becomes territorial of an area that is not his own bed, he has to leave the room altogether.  He hates it.  We hate it.  Every night we sit on the couch, Jack stares at us from his bed on the floor with big glossy puppy dog eyes.  Every morning at 6:00 am his nose is pressed up to the door waiting for one of us to wake up and open it.  On weekends he lays by the door until 10 or 11 am, whereas before it was a weekend treat for all three of us to indulge in a very long morning snuggle fest.  None of us like it, but it has to be done.  And sometimes I can’t help but think, this is not the kind of dog that I wanted.  And I want to curse and kick rocks about it.

I withdrew my applications to medical school.  It took a lot of discussion and reaching out to those I trust 100% with my very sensitive emotional self.  And then more discussion with both those who are in medical school, those who aren’t in medical school, and those who want to be in medical school.  You see, in undergrad I knew what I wanted to major in the minute I walked onto campus.  I dove into courses my freshman and sophomore year and was surrounded by juniors and seniors in several of my classes.  Good on me, I thought.  Getting this stuff out of the way so I can get it done.  But in the end?  I always felt a bit slower than everyone in the class.  I struggled.  I stressed.  I felt like I couldn’t keep up.  I didn’t enjoy what I was doing.  And when I look back, there are a few classes I wish I could take again, because if I did?  I would take the time to enjoy them a little bit more.  I would stop worrying about my grade on the next paper and relish the material a bit more.

I could get into medical school for next fall.  It only takes one acceptance, right?  I think I could swing it.  But would I be ready?  And when I asked myself if I would be ready, I meant would I be ready to enjoy it?  To relish it?  To immerse myself in an environment that feels both right for me at the moment?  I prepared for the MCAT and I filled out those applications, and I knew all along I was pushing the envelope of what I was ready to take on.  I don’t want to be scared about anatomy and physiology my first semester in medical school because the only place I have seen it up to this point was a few chapters in the MCAT prep book that told me exactly what I need to memorize without an ounce of context.  I’m not ready.

Sometimes I can’t help but think, this is not the type of person I want to be.  And I want to curse and kick rocks about it.

I wouldn’t choose to adopt another dog if I could go back in time.  Jack’s given me too much.  He’s taught me about myself and despite his poor behavior at times, I am a staunch defender of who he is.  He’s Jack.  He’s scared at times and we all get confused at how to handle it and when we act bad he acts worse.  And some days, we get it right.  We exercise him just enough, we give him just enough discipline, set the limits just right so that he feels safe and protected, and he gives us just enough love to show that we did it right.  We’re figuring it out.  We make mistakes.  A little blood is shed.  We learn.  We move on better than what we were because we have dropped our expectations and accepted what comes.  Good.  Bad.  The in-between.

I’m playing it by ear.  Learning how to keep myself immersed in healthy relationships.  Weeding out the bad.  Dismissing preconceived notions of who I need to be and who I think people expect me to be.  Not taking it personally when people recommend vocational school or nursing school.  Deciding that the in-between is the best place for me.  And letting myself enjoy it.

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Weighing In

I’ve seen some of my favorite bloggers and friends post recently about personal thoughts on bullying.  And it made me want weigh in on the topic myself.  Like most girls, middle school was the worst.  I remember being told by the cool girls I couldn’t hang out with them anymore because my best friend was a nerd.  I was pushed out of the girls’ locker room once after being thwacked across the back by a girl wearing a cast.  I was cornered in a sixth grade slumber party and asked in front of other girls if I thought I was pretty and if I was jealous of another girl.  And that stupid guy in eighth grade… Charlie, I forget his last name, egged on by Laura, he came up to me and asked me how it felt to be a nerd.  I think we all kind of had it rough back then.  But I knew I could take it.  I had other things going on for me.  Mostly, I had academics and the knowledge and comfort given to me by my family that I could go to college anywhere I wanted, as long as I could get accepted.  This offered me the self-confidence to get through it all.  So I don’t have any comforting words to the me of that time.  I don’t have a pep talk ready to go.  But I do have some advice.

I would have told myself to not tolerate the bullying I did witness.  While I knew I could take the light taunts and social status assertions, I knew damn well that people around me had it worse.  Why?  Because I saw it.  There were kids who, if I had heard they had committed suicide, part of me would have not been surprised.  While the media is rightfully exposing the bullying toward the LBGT community, that didn’t really exist when I was in middle school.  I don’t remember anyone having “come out” or even “gay” being a word people had in their vocabulary to use as a taunt.  And I was just a nerd.  That’s pretty harmless.  The overweight kids had a shit time of the bullying.  I even had a hand in it and threw out a comment once to a girl about her weight that I regret to this day. (7th grade French class, Rhianna Ray, I’m sorry.)  But more effective than any teacher or parent telling me how inappropriate that was would have been my friend leaning over to me telling me hey, that’s not cool.

So may advice to the me of back then and to the kids experiencing it now?  The teenage years are tough, and people will say hurtful things.  But when you see it happening to someone else, speak up!  Not everyone is privileged with the esteem and family support you have.  You get to go home and have it all be okay.  For some people, it’s even worse when they get home.  If you see someone who you KNOW is having a rough time at school, say something.  To the kid, to the bullies, to your friends.  The peer voice is more powerful than the parental voice in some situations.  Bullying is one of those situations where having a peer advocate could save a life.

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Three Years Later

“It would be cool if you documented on your blog your progression through this medical school process and how you’ve changed.”

This is what boy said to me the other evening after I pointed out how memorial day weekend always reminds me of when I started my blog.  And also when I made the decision to go back to school to pursue a few science courses. You know, just a few science courses to see if I like it.  To see if I am capable of it.  And to see if I would possibly want to go to medical school.  My response to boy after he said this?

“You know, I’ve searched for medical student blogs.  There aren’t many out there.  There’s a reason for that.”

Let that suffice for now as an explanation for where I’ve been.  If I had used this space to document this medical school process, it would not have been about the challenges of the classes, the hardships of working full-time in an industry completely unrelated to my future goal (however equally challenging on a personal level it is – introvert in marketing and doing social media? ha, go figure), and the things that I learned from semester to semester (oh, but do talk physics to me, it’s quite the turn on).  The true process has been an evolution of personal beliefs.  A challenge to tame my mind and body and find faith in small actions by others and myself.  Also, it’s about learning to live with myself.  The process?  It’s narcissism.  And if I were Catholic, narcissism would be the mortal sin, the one you will never be absolved from no matter how much dishwater you pour over you or beads you finger.  Good thing I’m not Catholic.

The process began when I read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  I’ve spoken briefly about this before.  I read this book and felt inspired to find my role in the world.  I would bring up the book with boy and go off about how the journey forced me to challenge why I chose the path I chose.  Was I pleasing someone else?  Was I fulfilling other people’s expectations?  Had I not given myself a fair chance to explore what I was good at?  (Yes, Yes, and No.)  I turned to boy in the car and said “If money and time weren’t a concern, I’d probably try to go to medical school.”  He interrupted me and said “You’ve said this before.  You realize there’s nothing stopping you from trying if you really wanted to do it…”  No.  No, I had not realized this.  This is how unaware of myself I was.  It now seems unfathomable, like I was living with no voice.

I’m sitting here procrastinating studying for the MCAT and filling in my AMCAS and AACOMAS applications and taking a break from scrambling to get sufficient physician shadowing experience.  Because three years later, this is where I stand.  Armed with my pre-reqs fulfilled, facing application season, sorting out my list of schools to apply to, and wondering what happens if I land on the wrong side of the 50% acceptance rate to medical school.

It felt kismet that at the same time I am wrapping this up, boy treated me to an evening interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in San Francisco.  She’s touring with her latest book Nomad which I have yet to read.  She came on stage and I admit that I did not look over at boy purposefully because my eyes were a little teary over the experience.  It wasn’t about her being my hero as much as it was about here’s the woman who has inspired me to change something in myself.  Our life stories are world’s apart, but I can’t help but feel she’s opened a road for herself thereby opening a road for me.

Prior to the interview, a few older people behind us were declaring her amongst the “intellectual elite” and discussing her politics and beliefs.  Boy mockingly turned to me: “Oh! Did you know we are among the intellectually elite?”  Me: “I think they believe they are the intellectual elites.”  Boy: “Didn’t you know that’s all the intellectual elite are?  Those that believe they are.”  He helped me to feel justified in my presence.

The interview concerned issues about perceptions of the Muslim world, truths and statistics about the Muslim world, back and forth over cause and effect of fundamentalism and radicalism, and what Ayaan believes the necessary actions are for change.  Even the issue of America’s liberal arts colleges was addressed, which I found entertaining and curious as a graduate from a liberal arts school.  I’ll be honest, while interesting, I did not attend this event to hear about the Muslim world.  (Albeit my issues with women’s rights concerning Female Genital Mutilation and the desire by men to judge a woman by her virginity drove me to the study of medicine – best quote of the night “human beings, not hymens.”)

Ayaan is unpretentious, speaks her personal truth unabashedly, and asserts her personal truths to the society she lives in.  She doesn’t need an SAT vocabulary to speak concisely on the issues she addresses.  She doesn’t need pant suits, a stern frown, and a title to her name to confront a room of men in suits to elaborate convincingly on an issue.  She doesn’t need to project or drop her voice to a female shout to be heard because she makes it such that every word has value and if you don’t listen, shame on you for missing a carefully thought out point to drive an issue home.  She speaks bravely, and I walked away thinking there’s no reason at all I should not be the one up there speaking my personal truths.  We should all be living a life honest to what we believe so that we each can speak about it so passionately.

I walked away encouraged to be more brave and bold about my pursuits.  The premed process has been about learning what my weaknesses are and challenge them.  I project my weaknesses onto others, get paranoid I’m doing everything wrong, and sit unable to start projects out of fear of knowing the end result will not live up to my expectations.  I fret over how people perceive me, criticize my body relentlessly, and can easily work myself into a frenzy over past humiliations such as misused words or that time I told someone Pyongyang was the spokesperson for North Korea.  I’m neurotic and my own worst enemy.  And if anything, the past three years have amplified this adorable quality of mine.  I challenge all of this by not giving up.  I came uncomfortably close to failing physics last year (yet somehow managed to be far from failing in the end.)  If you could see where my MCAT practice scores are 3 weeks prior to my test date you’d probably wonder what I’m thinking while simultaneously affirming to yourself that no, she is not among the intellectual elites.

So maybe this has not been about evolution of personal beliefs as much as it has been about giving them voice and action.  About silencing the world to filter out the things that matter.  Something that challenges me every single day.

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Mr. Dyson rocks my world

I like to mock the guy who does the Dyson commercials.  He’s pale, has a funny accent and charges a mint for his arty vacuum cleaners.  But this?  This tugged at my physicist-wannabe heartstrings and had me googling airfoil ramps and drooling over one.  Pretty awesome, Mr. Dyson.

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a fix in time

Know that really traumatic day you had in elementary school?  Everyone has one.  The one terrible horrible despicable day that stands out in your mind every time “traumatic childhood experience” comes to mind.  Here’s mine:

Kindergarten.  Nap time.  End of the day.  Remember nap time?  Mrs. Durst would put on the record player (yeah, record player.  and no, I’m not as old as you think) and we lay there for how long?  I have no idea.  I never remember falling asleep though.  But I do remember the kids that did fall asleep because the lights would come on, we’d all put away our mats, and the kids that fell asleep were left on their mats in the reading circle until the bell rang and they’d have to wake up, and run to catch their bus to go home.  God I wish we still had nap time.

But the most traumatic horrible day ever?  I fell asleep at nap time.  I know!  The horror!  But the bad part came when I  woke up.  I remember going over to my desk, packing up, putting my chair on top of my desk, and then I went to put on my shoes.  My shoe lace was in a knot and I couldn’t get my shoe on.  My teacher couldn’t untie the knot, my desk neighbor couldn’t untie the knot, and then, the worst thing happened – the bell rang.  My teacher told me  I’d just have to go to the bus without my shoe one.   No biggie, right?  Ha, yeah right.

Let’s revisit the me of kindergarten.  I had a reputation as the prissy little blond girl that wore dresses every day, threw violent temper tantrums when I didn’t get my way, and would burst into tears at the drop of a hat.  Over nothing.  Our friends had a 3 year old that started having horrific, middle of the night screaming nightmares… about spaghetti.  Yes, spaghetti.  Food gave her nightmares.  While they didn’t get it, I had nothing but empathy for this kid.  The boy and I termed it being a “sensi”.  When your kid is so sensitive to change and new things that it causes a complete emotional breakdown.  I was totally that kid.

Now take that prissy little girl who loves routine and can’t emotionally handle change and tell her she has to ride the bus home without her shoe.  Not good.  I think I started sobbing before the bus pulled out of the school lot.  We had “bus girls” that would parade up and down the aisle of the bus telling everyone to be quiet and sit down.  Usually this was a precocious bossy 4th grader that really enjoyed ratting out people.  She came up to me to tell me to be quiet and I sobbed out “can I sit next to my sister?”  I had to let my sister know I couldn’t get my shoe on.  The bus girl let me move to sit next to my sister and, in typical sister style, I’m pretty sure she gave me that annoyed look followed by “what?  why are you crying?” But even she couldn’t get the knot out.  To be fair, we lived less than a mile from school.  So we were home soon enough.  And when the bus doors opened up I bolted across the street and into my mom’s arms in tears all because I had to go all the way home… without a shoe on.  And my mom carried me home so I didn’t have to walk without a shoe on.  I have such a nice mom.

And that day has stayed with me.  For 23 years it has been such an awful emotional experience.  And then last night, in my dream, I woke up on the mat in kindergarten.  And instead of my 5 year old frame of mind, I woke up with my 28 year old mind and I recognized it immediately.  First thing I thought to myself “I know this place – I know this day.  And I am NOT falling asleep…” And you know what?  I got up off that mat and because I did that, I had enough time to get that knot out of my shoe and put it on before the bell rang!  And I made it home with my shoe on and it was no longer the worst day most traumatic day ever.

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