Back when we left for Australia in 2012, I was preparing my dissertation proposal but in all honesty not entirely sure how realistic it was to expect to finish. I had started a PhD at Tufts several years earlier and had incrementally finished the coursework and the internship and the qualifying review, studying at the table alongside my kids and at times putting school on the back burner for a season or two when my family needed more of my time or when I served in more demanding church callings. Pursuing this degree was important to me but it was HARD, there were many bids for my time, and often I wasn’t entirely sure why I was putting myself through all of it.
After the move to Australia, it was particularly difficult to coordinate with my committee from so far away (and, oh, that killer time zone difference!) while working with a set of data on the other side of the world. I came very close to quitting but as I considered it I felt a quiet but unmistakably insistent nudge to continue. Even with that reassuring nudge, it was still arduous--in absence of any in-person colleagues or mentors to talk through ideas with me, I had a particularly difficult time articulating my thoughts and formulating my theories into written words, let alone feeling confident about their value once they were there on the page.
Finally the time came and I headed from Australia to Boston to defend my dissertation. It was a crazy trip--I ended up getting delayed 24 hours in Brisbane due to some flukey, rare fog, which made it a 56-hour journey, my longest ever. Right on the cusp of presenting my research I had an experience that weekend that really felt like a bit of a personal blessing--a small thing, really, but something that felt holy to me.
The dissertation defense with my committee was scheduled for 10 a.m. on a Monday in June. I flew out on Friday and attended an inspiring Saturday evening session of stake conference (like a diocese regional meeting of several congregations) with friends in the area where I used to live. The next day I wasn’t entirely sure if I would go back up to stake conference again. I was fully in the throes of jet lag and I reasoned that I had kind of prepaid my church observance the night before. I thought maybe the time would be better spent going over my notes and fine-tuning my presentation for the next morning. Ultimately, on kind of a whim, I decided to go.
So there I was, fresh off a long journey from Australia, in a congregation that was no longer my own, on the threshold of defending my dissertation. I felt worried and inadequate and unsure but so very relieved and grateful--almost there. And then. The new presiding stake president (whom I had never met before; he moved in after we left) stood up and began his talk by sharing a personal, tender experience about his own dissertation process, the vulnerabilities he felt, and the poignant questions he asked and answers he received as he tried to complete that challenging goal.
What are the chances of that? I have never heard a dissertation story in church before. Sitting in that congregation, I felt known and comforted and buoyed. I was reminded (as my tear-splashed notes from the talk read) “that when we present our best efforts and include God in our struggles, He can bring light to dark things, brilliance to dull things, divinity to earthly things.” It felt like a benediction.
. . .
Recently I was thinking of this experience and how we serve as blessings in each others' lives. So many people aided my efforts to finish this undertaking. They gently guided me out of the weeds or opened doors when I was pacing anxiously at the threshold. These included big things like G's confidence and go-for-it-ness and my kids' immense enthusiasm for my goals. And small things like drive-by moments of thumbs up and encouragement and check-ins and, yes, these words in a talk given on a not-so-random Sunday.
If you're spinning your wheels or wandering in the weeds or despairing at creating something you have your heart invested in--a book, a painting, a feeling, a study, a degree, a family, an assignment--I just want to say: dead ends sometimes turn into launching pads. Bewilderment sometimes opens us up just enough to the right questions that we begin to live the answers. Words and glances and snippets sometimes become leaps. The reward is sometimes found, oddly, in the impediments.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.