Just like every year, when 2011 began, I had no idea what it had in store for me, and for all of us. I have to say that, this holiday season, I was quite excited to let 2011 slip on by and was ready to welcome 2012 with open arms. It wouldn’t be fair to say that it was a bad year (although I must admit, I have said it a few times already!) but it certainly was an eventful year — both in a truly positive and truly negative sense. I’ve had a couple of big, eventful years in my life so far, but 2011 was by far the most up and down year ever – with very high ups and very low downs.
The past twelve months have held the biggest challenges, scariest experiences and most-eye opening realizations ever. It was a year that shook me up intensely, probably just to see how well I could still stand, in the end. It pushed me in hard ways to change my perspective, and to somehow find a balance between changing and growing, yet staying fundamentally the same. It brought along the most amazing triumph I’ve accomplished in my academic life to date, and the sweetest experience of discovering how much joy a tiny baby can bring to our personal lives. It gave me awe-inspiring and absolutely memorable travel adventures that I would not have experienced if it weren’t for my academic career, and for that I am incredibly grateful. It forced me to find a balance between health, PhD work, family and my passions – writing and photography – and to discover, sometimes through intense hurt and disappointment, which people in my life are here to stay, and which relationships are simply not meant to be, for one reason or another, as much as you want them to be. It renewed my faith in second (and third, and fourth) chances, yet broke that faith as well. It brought many smiles and moments of pride and confidence, yet many tears and moments of sheer doubt and hopelessness. It also made me realize that this is probably just the beginning of such up-and-down years — we’re growing up, after all, and life is bound to get more and more complex, throwing fast-balls and curve-balls that we may never be ready for, but still have to catch somehow.
When 2010 ended and 2011 began, things were already shaky and difficult. On the academic side, I was fully immersed in the revision process of one of my Comprehensive Assessment papers. Out of the three critical review papers we have to write in our department, my committee members and I were largely disagreeing on the content of one of these papers. It was very challenging and also somewhat discouraging to try and figure out how best to move forward and incorporate all the feedback to revise my paper in an appropriate way. The Comps process is a valuable learning experience but also brought on many sleepless nights and moments of self-doubt.
On the personal side, though possibly heightened by the stress of the Comps, some health issues developed at the end of 2010 that proved to be quite difficult to shake, even as 2011 progressed. And then, in the dead of winter, on an ordinary Saturday at the end of January, just as my husband and I were about to leave the house for the afternoon, a water pipe exploded in the apartment unit above us, sending massive amounts of boiling hot water gushing through our ceilings, walls, cupboards, doorframes, electrical sockets, light fixtures and ceiling fans … for hours. I’ll never forget the horrifying sounds and sights of that day, or the feeling of panic that washed over both of us as we watched water come out of everywhere and spread from room to room, unstoppable. The valves couldn’t be shut off because the water was spraying out and was scorching hot. My adrenaline was very slow to kick in – if it ever kicked in at all. I paced back and forth, frightened and dumbfounded, until I called the fire department, my parents and neighbors for help. I felt especially frightened and incredibly small when I found myself standing with four huge firemen in our dining room. They took an axe to the ceiling to prevent the water from spreading further, and declared our place a fire hazard. We stood there, sick to our stomachs, with everything that ever felt secure and homey suddenly turned upside down, ruined or broken, in a matter of seconds, out of nowhere.
As if the trauma of that day weren’t enough, the more anxiety-provoking part was actually dealing with the insurance company and the landlord, and fighting for every single penny we deserved. It was a nightmare how unprofessional and deceitful the company we dealt with was. (Note: We had signed up with TD Meloche Monnex: please do yourselves a favor and stay away from them!). The verdict came about three weeks after the disaster: we had to move out completely, for an undetermined amount of time, for them to demolish and rebuild most of the rooms of our apartment, as most of the damage was structural and deep into the walls.
The details of these months are now only accessible if I think hard to call them up. Otherwise, they are kind of repressed, tucked away, because thinking of them still causes an overwhelming feeling of sea-sickness! Those were the darkest days, ever. Our little haven had fallen apart around us, yet we had to be strong, adapt and keep going. In between taking classes, giving talks, finishing my Comps, writing papers and moving forward with my PhD project, I now had to worry about packing boxes, renting u-hauls, finding somewhere else to live, writing registered letters to the landlord, catching all the deceitful calculation errors made by the insurance agent, familiarizing myself with the Régie du logement laws, dealing with tiring doctors’ appointments and essentially trying to keep my head above water (forgive the unintended pun). We were also worried about the renovations, because when you are so exhausted and distressed, you don’t want to have to adapt to change. I won’t forget how much one of my friends in Germany kept reassuring me and supporting me from afar, insisting that it would all be all right, in the end, that the apartment would look more beautiful, fresh and as good as new, ” Wie aus dem Ei gepellt!” (literally: as peeled from the egg). And, as hard as it was to believe that at the time, it was absolutely true.
Needless to say, the beginning of 2011 colored much of the rest of the year, as it took months to fully get back to normal. It wasn’t until April when we finally moved back in, and it wasn’t until October (!) until we were fully reimbursed for all our damages and losses. Spring was slow to come, as though it was waiting for us to have regained our home, to have settled in again, and to have gotten over the trauma of that day and the stress of the long insurance/landlord fight. By May, flowers were blooming again on our balcony, and we were starting to breathe, to sleep more easily and to smile more sincerely, without a sort of glaze over our eyes.
I was convinced, by May, that Life knew very well what it was doing. Somehow, things balance out. Whether the water disaster was a test for us, or some honest mistake committed by the Universe, it was going to be followed up with a whole lot of Good and Happy. Coming out from the lowest of lows, I was blessed to find out, that very May, that I had been awarded a prestigious scholarship to continue my PhD studies. It was a true honor and a surprise that I still haven’t gotten over. I felt proud and immensely fortunate to have found an exciting field I’m passionate about, and a supervisor who pushes me and believes in me every step of the way.
May was also the month where I defended (and passed) my Comps, had a second housewarming, got my PhD project proposal approved, and was accepted to an amazing international conference on bilingualism in Oslo, Norway, to give a talk and to meet researchers and PhD students with similar interests. I was moving forward, getting back on my feet, trying to make up for lost time, lost energy, lost faith. I was smiling again, but I also noticed a small part of me had changed — I had a bit of fear left in me and some skepticism and distrust that I never had before, which was probably a result of all the cautiousness I had to exert with our landlord and insurance agent. This bitterness and the constant feeling of having suffered injustice took the longest time of all to dissolve, but I think (I hope) it finally has.
In June, I packed again, but this time for Scandinavia. I tagged on some travel time before and after the conference because 1) it was Scandinavia! 2) I knew I needed it and 3) it was Scandinavia! My husband came with me and we conquered Bergen, the fjords, Oslo and Stockholm (Sweden) together. Bergen and its surrounding fjords honestly amazed us — the breathtaking landscapes, the lovely towns, the fresh fish, whales and the caviar, the midnight sun, and the cost of living (exorbitant!) were not something we could simply get used to and take for granted. Did I mention it was 9-10 degrees (and often rainy) in Bergen in June? Also not something you could easily get used to… The conference in Oslo was invigorating but overwhelming – it was huge, with multiple parallel sessions and what felt like thousands of people. My talk, fortunately, went well and in mingling with other researchers, I felt excited about my research and about the current state of the field.
Also in June, while I was away, my nephew was born. I got the news as soon as it happened, though I would have preferred to be there in person, of course. I hated the idea of having to choose a conference and travel over family, but I knew that I had his whole life to be there for him, and that he wouldn’t hold it against me. It was astonishing and special how instantly close I felt to him, barely knowing him. Fresh out of the airport, I went straight to my sister’s place to meet him. Her husband opened the front door with the baby cradled in his arms, and I started to cry. He was tiny. The tiniest tiny I’ve ever seen.
Because Life has to throw some Bad in with the Good, some health issues still lingered annoyingly and I had to have a surgical procedure as soon as I came back from Norway. I was nervous about it and resented the fact that I had to go through such things, but was also grateful that it was not nearly as bad as it could have easily been. It’s perhaps a cliché, but there is always a silver lining. It’s hard to focus on when you feel unhappy or uncomfortable, but it’s there. So here I was, finally happy, inspired from my travels, and academically-driven, but I was forced to give my body time to recover after a painful surgery (silver lining: I got to spend a lot of time with my nephew!). Throughout this year, there have been many days where I haven’t felt 100% like myself, symptom-free and filled with energy, but I’ve learned to give myself the time to recover and to bounce back, inspired and driven again and again. It’s definitely been up and down, but I guess as long as there are some ups with the downs, it can’t be all that bad. And it could always be worse.
Another challenge this year from an academic point of view was that my supervisor was on sabbatical, and actually out of town for half the year. Although we tried to work over Skype or email, the reality of it was that it was much slower, much less reliable and much more difficult than if he had been in town, especially during this planning stage of my PhD project, where many open questions need to be discussed and many technical decisions have to be made. Still, I learned a lot during this period: I further improved my abilities to work independently, I learned to trust my gut and my decisions, and I committed myself to extra activities or leadership initiatives that allowed me to grow as both a young academic and as a person.
September brought along another conference and another opportunity to travel – this time, to Barcelona. I went a couple of days early, totally on my own in a dizzying, complex city. Once the conference started, I switched gears and tried to make the most out of the presentations, especially enjoying the keynote sessions. I met many of my European Master’s colleagues and friends there, and realized how much we’ve all grown, professionally and personally. I was impressed with their research findings and their presentation styles, and we reminisced about our early class presentations during our Master’s. It felt very special that so much can change in life yet some core elements can remain so refreshingly the same – how natural it feels to meet each other in the streets of a foreign city, how much we care about one another, and how we still laugh at the same ridiculous things. It is also refreshing to see how our friendships are not constrained by geographical distance.
Shortly after the conference in Barcelona, there were a couple of conferences in Montreal that were not in my field of research, but that drew in some of my European colleagues — friends of friends who quickly became friends as we spent time together while they were in town. It’s remarkable how blessed I’ve been with my studies and my work, to meet people from around the world, to cultivate these old and new friendships, and to watch them strengthen into lifelong connections.
The autumn months were darker, not only in terms of the sky but also with respect to the events that unfolded. You may have read some of my previous blog posts about the losses our family experienced in this period, and how difficult it was to balance my PhD obligations with family obligations, and with time to recover and recuperate from these exhausting emotions.
In the midst of this, I had a falling-out with a friend — a falling-out that came unexpectedly and for no real reason, other than that there seems to be an imbalance in the give-and-take of this friendship and an inconsistency that makes it difficult to act and react to each other as other friends naturally would. It’s still unclear how the story will end, or if it has ended already. I tried to honestly express how this all made me feel, but to no avail. It caused me tremendous disappointment, frustration, upset and sadness, and distracted me against my will. I even felt unsure about my own personality due to this, and pondered all the wrong I could have done in this situation (and others). But throughout all this, one idea remained clear to me. People are different, of course — perspectives and expectations will inevitably differ and will cause impasses and obstacles. But although friends come in many shapes and packages, true friends place respect and care above all else, and somehow manage to make amends, and to meet in the middle.
Finally, in December, as I was gearing up for the end of the semester, the holiday season and for all the festivities that Montreal has to offer, Life decided to be a little more unfair. My husband’s grandparents – both of them – were hospitalized at more or less the same time, albeit for different reasons. It was a very sad period for us, and the unexpectedness of the situation made it all the more difficult to accept. Furthermore, it felt like an uphill battle against our medical system, and the lack of answers as well as the lack of resources added frustration to our sadness. In the end, though, it is Life that decides, and it decided just three days before Christmas, and in the middle of Hanukkah, that our grandmother’s light would burn out. It was hard to believe, and hard to digest, but it was. And all that was left to do was stick together as a family, stay strong for one another and for the grandfather, and figure out a way to balance mourning and celebration – of her life and of the holidays – at the very same time.
So, 2011, you were a full, full year. Full of surprises, blessings, fortunes and misfortunes. Full of laughter, tears of joy, and tears of grief. One way to look back on the year is to go through pictures (and those who know me well know that I take a LOT of pictures!). The snapshots don’t usually convey the dark days and difficult moments, although if you look carefully enough, you might be able to see it around the eyes. The good thing in all this is that Time does indeed heal, and that you are never alone – friends and family, supervisors and colleagues are often beautifully there for you, in ways you could not even imagine. Another good thing is that there always seems to be a fine-balance between the ups and the downs, and there always is some kind of silver lining, however faint and imperceptible it may seem at first. One could only hope we get stronger and wiser over time, through our experiences, and that Life isn’t merely having fun with us, but trying to show us some important lessons along the way.