The vulnerability of dreams

“This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path – the my-isn’t-that-impressive path – and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly.”

Michelle Obama, Becoming

My two years in New York came to a close this month, and the desert has called me home.

Home for how long, I don’t know. I don’t even feel confident that I know where ‘home’ will be ultimately. But this new season is a pause, a pivot, a regathering of what is sacred to me and relaunching of a new era.

What exactly am I doing? It might be my least favorite question of the moment. But the short answer is writing. I’m taking the next year to pause from my upward climb in science and public health and focus on some personal projects that are both weighty and close to my heart. I have loved my scientific career up until now in the complicated way way you love an imperfect family member. But I have different research I want to do, and no time like the present to do it.

I, like many, am a fan of linear trajectories. They’re clean. They make those of us who can stick to them feel like we get extra brownie points. They’re a measuring stick. And. They’re also improbable and unimaginative.

Leaving New York is not just the end of one thing and the start of another, but an entire transition of would-be identities. I’m stepping away from a big and powerful city that welcomed me with open arms to rejoin postcard worthy, somewhere-in-the-west Tucson. I’m going from Christy Harrison, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in NYC to the nearly unrecognizable professional space of yet-unknown writer (at least for a season). And in September, following a history of fierce independence, I’m vowing my life in sickness and health to the man I love. The already-momentous transitions of 2020 in my life make COVID a cute subplot.

We picture the fulfillment of dreams with a sort of congratulatory glow. Yet we somehow edit away the inevitable terror and vulnerability of choosing the story we want.

I’ve often dreamed of writing. I was actually almost a creative writing major in college, but went for molecular biology instead. Yet writing is the stray dog that has followed me around for years, filling my spare hours with journals, thoughts, always more thoughts. It’s the thing I do late into the evening when I should have gone to bed, the satisfaction of rolling words and meanings around in my mind, the deep desire to speak peace into our rumbling and restless world – or into my own heart. Writing to me is the beautiful and never-ending process of understanding, and almost nothing could be more fun in my opinion. Some years ago, I came to the realization that of all the various interests I’ve had, writing has consistently been the one thing I can’t not do.

Writing to me is the beautiful and never-ending process of understanding, and almost nothing could be more fun in my opinion.

I’ve always felt at the juxtaposition of my passions. While science has faithfully fed my curiosity, and given me a place to levy a deeper understanding of the world we live in, I’ve struggled both within the halls of academia and public health to feel an integrated sense of self. Science pushed me to be tough, capable, intellectually sound, and meticulous. I didn’t think that was incompatible with also being a compassionate, emotive human and a person of faith, but I sometimes felt that my colleagues did. I loved science and still do. But there’d been a squeaky wheel for a long time in my soul that something, somewhere, was being starved.

When I first entertained the idea of taking a pause to focus on writing, it was the first time in years I’d felt – if for a breath of a moment – like those two selves might possibly integrate into one. I’m not sure writing itself is the answer, but that flutter tells me that there’s something to be found. That this strange thirst has an answer. In taking a pause for this one year to pursue writing, I’m also creating space to ask myself a lot of deeper questions about what matters, what impact I wish to create, who that woman is who is both/and.

And what is writing except the artful communication of understanding? Isn’t it a natural companion then to research? Why not both?

It’s only a temporary pause. And really, pause is the wrong word. I’m not pausing, I’m working in a different direction. I have specific projects I want to research and pursue, things I’ve wanted to dig into for years without the time to do them justice. It blends well with a year that is already replete with transition and change, and gives me the chance to flexibly arrange my curiosity and leverage where I wish to go next. To even take this year is an immense privilege, and therefore demands my utmost attention and effort.

Michelle Obama writes in her memoir Becoming about the danger of caring too much about the ‘right’ path that people smile at and congratulate you for, of being paralyzed from ever swerving for fear of the cost. She herself was an Ivy League corporate lawyer before being courageous enough to admit that there was a different, much less lionized, form of work that would more adequately feed her soul and match her values.

I feel her words deeply. I have always been a loyal ‘path’ adherent. I like rules and checkboxes and measuring sticks when they’re in my favor. Like her, I seem to often ask myself, am I enough? Stepping away from a successful scientific trajectory that I enjoy, even temporarily and for something I love, threatens my sense of identity in ways I never anticipated. It makes it tempting to clutch at the security of ‘good,’ even if it means forfeiting the invitation to reach for ‘excellent.’

So I’m swerving. It might be a moment, it might be a season. But I’m here. Here to learn, to grow in new ways, to flex and build a skillset that doesn’t reject my training, but is stronger because of it. I am confident that any work I undertake in the future – scientific or otherwise – will benefit from this dedicated time of discovery.

“In the past, jobs were about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in the future they’ll be about the heart.”

Minouche Shafik

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