Thursday, March 07, 2013


          After about two months of concerted effort, I finally finished writing my dissertation proposal yesterday. I finished it sometimes past two in the morning, emailed it to my adviser, and went to sleep. When I woke up the next day, ready to meet the adviser and go over it together, the world outside was shrouded in white. The biggest snowstorm of the season had hit me, and after those 10-12 inches of snow, there was no going outside, no meeting the adviser. What followed the snowstorm was a power outage, which meant no electricity, no internet, no heat in the house, a dying phone, a dying laptop and ipad, almost no food (unless you were ready to drink cold milk and refrigerated food). I was amazed how much of my connectivity depended on technology.

            I called a friend who fortunately had electricity. If I could make my way to her place in time, I could perhaps recharge my phone, still have a phone meeting with my adviser, and continue to work on my dissertation. I tried shoveling my way to get my car outside the driveway, but even after shoveling for an hour, there was no way I could take my car out. Ironically all the snow that had accumulated on my car was now on the ground, blocking its way. Perhaps it was a sign to stay out of danger. My friend offered to pick me up, but she called me twenty minutes later to tell me she could not get her car out either. My only option now was to walk to her place.

            Which I did. I walked for another hour in the snow, oddly feeling at peace. I realized I had never walked this path before although I had driven it a hundred times now. I started noticing things I had never noticed before, the railway crossing, the houses, the trees, the lack of  a phone signal, and how oddly at peace the disconnectedness made me. By the time I had reached her place, I had managed to step into several puddles of snow and slush, and now my shoes, socks, and half of my jeans were soaking wet. What are the odds, that by the time I had reached her place, she lost electricity too. The world was conspiring against me and forcing me to take a break from work.

            I cleaned up at her place, took a shower, put my clothes in the dryer, and finally managed to eat something after exactly eating one banana and nothing more in the morning. The hour long shoveling and the hour long walk had tired me. Later that afternoon, I called the adviser, who rescheduled our meeting to the next day.

            The next day (which was today afternoon), I met with him for more than two hours, and spent the time going over what I had, the text, the tables and graphs, and all those tiny little components that went into formatting a dissertation manuscript (except the list of references, which I am yet to start making). He had some great feedback for me (which translated into more work), for the manuscript as well as for the proposal defense which is due in less than 3 weeks. I am trying not to think about the proposal defense.

            By the time I came back from the meeting, I was too tired to work. So I watched Silver Linings Playbook (did not like it at all). I still could not bring myself to work. There was something wrong I felt, something that was depressing me, although I could not specify what. And then without preamble, I started crying. The tears just fell without rhyme or reason. It wasn’t shallow or superficial, the kind of tears that fall when a favorite hero in a movie dies. Those were tears of intense pain, wrenched out of something deep inside. A part of me was weeping, and a part of me was observing me weep, without judgment, just letting it happen. Soon I was in a fetal position in bed, sobbing, gasping for breath, letting the tears flow freely. A dozen soiled tissue papers in the trashcan later, I was able to get up and write this post.

            Ever noticed how clear the weather gets after a heavy downpour? That is how I feel right now. Finishing that proposal on time was a big fat deal, and barring those revisions the adviser recommended, it felt great to get this thing off my plate. The last two months have been intense. It was not just about sitting and writing for hours every day. The process of writing a dissertation has had more meaning for me.

            For me, it opened windows to other spaces in me I have never explored fully. I have not done the typical things one does every day the last few months- I was a recluse writing away, did not socialize much, hardly met anyone, hardly drove anywhere for fun, and barely went out for dinner. However, I started working out with a vengeance. I started to feel this energy inside me building, that I had to release at the gym regularly. I became more aware of the acute muscle pains as I lifted more and more weights every day. The only days I skipped the gym was when either it was too cold or I had too much to write.

            And then other than gym, I got into more writing. This isn’t the dissertation kind of writing I am talking about. I stated writing stories (which is ironic, given one would not think of writing anything other than the dissertation at this point). My brain felt so fertile, I kept getting parallel ideas as I analyzed more data, and I itched to put them all down on paper. I started sleeping with pen and paper because some nights, I would get ideas and would have to write them down on paper. If you are judging me right now, you would think I was going insane. Actually I stopped judging my actions and learned to become a passive observer. I just kept getting wonderful, unconventional ideas and I had to write it on paper. I wrote about a poor mother who did not have enough to feed her baby. I wrote about a promising young scientist on his first date. I am so full of fictional ideas right now. 

            I feel much better after crying today. It makes me realize that crying does not have to do anything with sorrow, pain, anger, or frustration. Crying is just a way of releasing the pent up energy, the stress, the emotions, and clearing the weather. I feel more prepared to nosedive into my data analysis now, and focus on the immediate deadlines. Since I have already produced 100 plus pages of text (and I am nowhere close to being done), I guess it was time to take a long deep breath and let go.

            I will be very busy for the next three months, and don’t know if I would have the desire to write here until then (these last few months, I have strangely felt far removed from blogging, photography, and socializing). The next three months, I will be defending the proposal, flying to present at two conferences, whining about the conference I am missing in Canada because I will be too close to finishing then, finishing up the dissertation, as well as defending. It’ll be an intense time, like it has been the last few months. I don’t know what happened today, but something in me just felt so far removed from all the pain and frustration. Given how philosophical, incoherent, and out of sorts I have felt of late, the aptness of what this degree is called (a PhD) is not lost on me.



Abhishek Mukherjee said...

I know exactly what you felt like, and feel like, Sunshine. There have been occasions when you inspire me to go on, and this is one of them.

I am happy that I had tumbled across your blog one day. I really am.

VM said...

Looks like a big step towards your final defense. I have been following your posts for a while now and indeed doing doctorate is a roller coaster ride in itself.

Good luck for renaming steps. I am really impressed by the way you narrate your stories. So difficult to put it down.

Padmanabhan said...

That's some honest and elegant writing!

You are living the examined life!

sunshine said...

Abhishek, this is huge. I am glad too that I found your writings in the blogosphere :)

VM, thanks :) It's been a roller coaster ride indeed, and I am not particularly find of them.

Padmanabhan, thank you :)