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  • Shirley

Past Lessons, Current Times

There are few things that bring me as much joy and peace as exploring a new trail with my favorite hiking partner.

I had a chance to get out alone with my dog, Sherman, a few weeks ago, and this new hike somehow reminded me of our early hikes at the Eno River in Durham, NC, in the year or so after I adopted him. It was a particularly turbulent phase of graduate school (for me and my labmates) where it felt like so many circumstances affecting my life and my future were beyond my control. In some ways, there are parallels with what we are experiencing now. Though the current societal challenges are obviously more significant (and even existential), some of the feelings of lack of power and control over what our future holds are the same. Since our weekend hike, I’ve been reflecting on what I learned from those challenging graduate school years a decade ago and what I would go back now to tell Shirley of 2009 (and maybe current-day Shirley could also benefit from a reminder of these lessons, too)...

1. In a relatively short time, it will feel like all of this happened a very long time ago. I’ve had to actually think pretty hard to remember the experiences and emotions of the 2008-2011 years, despite the weight and struggle of those years at the time. Hopefully this will be true when we reflect on the challenges of 2020 in a few years, too.

2. It’s ok to do only the best you can in each moment. Not achieving to your highest level in every moment is not going to ruin your life. In fact, letting go of the expectations and embracing some of the other things that bring you joy (such as spending time with that amazing dog you just adopted or volunteering with that incredible therapeutic horseback riding program) can bring more long-term fulfillment than what you thought achieving that other goal would.

3. The power of gratitude. I did not have this as an intentional tool to use back in the graduate school years, and I wish I did. The gratitude practices I’ve incorporated over the last two years have made a huge difference in my outlook on where we are, what’s really important, and how to move forward. I regularly think about how thankful I am for our location, the amazing people in our lives, the beautiful blue skies and clouds and warmth of the sunshine, etc... Focusing on appreciating the abundance around you really does train your brain to shift out of the negative funk caused by the challenges of the day.

4. I would not tell her to change how she reacted to things (though I am quite confident that I would react very differently to certain situations now). Your reactions are what they are, based on who you are at the time. Even if they may seem naive or excessive in retrospect, your feelings are legitimate and they matter. Allow yourself the space to recognize them without judgement of what that means about who you are.

5. The power of putting energy in love and care for someone else (of the canine, human, or other variety). It can (and will) change your life. We still have autonomy in terms of how we show up for other people. When it feels like everything is a mess, love can make all of the difference in the world.

The start and end of our hike last weekend involved crossing a rickety old suspension bridge that honestly freaked me out a bit. As we walked across, past giant gaps in the bottom part of the side railing, with the bridge bouncing up and down and the wood slats creaking and shifting under our feet, I was aware of very little other than the thought, “get me off of this bridge, pronto!”. But once we got to the other side, the hike was gorgeous and peaceful and exactly what I needed. So I’m going to work on believing that the year 2020 is just another rickety bridge with beauty and calm and so much potential waiting on the other side.

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