poems from seaside

I think

there are so many poems

about the ocean because it is

simultaneously violent

and peaceful.

At the same time it

crashes against the coast

destroys a weak vessel

and carries away debris

It

smoothes the rocky shore

coos the frightened bird

and hugs your planted feet.

It somehow reminds us

gently

chaotically

simply

subliminally

of that violent yet peaceful

love

that roars as it sings.

That kind of love that lives within you and within me.

——

If each day is a fresh page

Then I want mine to be

Inked with words of prayer

Stained with drops of coffee

Smudged with chocolate fingers

And scented with smells of you.

If each day is a fresh page

Then yesterday doesn’t matter

And tomorrow can’t be viewed

So I’ll sit here and

Think

Today, what good can I do?

——

prayers are like raindrops except you send them up instead of let them fall. everyday you send a raindrop up to heaven to join the puddle pooling at God’s feet. everyday you wonder, did my raindrop reach the stars or did it break along the way? then one day, you realize your raindrops were never supposed to go up all the way and stay. you just forgot to look around and see everyone soaked and smiling by the rain that wiped away their tears. your tiny little prayers were falling all the while, and finally you learn, prayers are a lot like raindrops,

they fall on those who are near.

sacred places

“There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” — Wendell Berry
I’m starting to understand that there truly are no unsacred places — this is a bold claim. Some may perceive the site where a white American minister burned himself alive in the name of racial reconciliation as unsacred, or the home of hundreds of incarcerated men and women as unsacred, or the doctor’s office where an abortion has been performed as unsacred, or a strip club where infidelity puts food on the table for women employees as unsacred. I am guilty, as I predict we all are, of having passed an opinion on each of these cases and many others without considering the human lives involved. And while yes, I do believe that there are very uncomfortable aspects in each of these places and scenarios, I’m starting to see that life is much more complicated than the simple dichotomy of sacred/unsacred or right/wrong or good/evil. I didn’t coin this distinction, though; that was Wendell Berry. Luckily it wasn’t me, because Berry importantly includes the alternative to unsacred: desecrated. I looked up “desecrated” in the dictionary to see exactly what he meant. Something desecrated has been violently disrespected, or possibly perverted, violated, infected, polluted, vandalized, debased, or degraded. Berry is onto something here. People — the most critiqued in society — are likely to have been victims of many waves of desecration in their lifetimes. I imagine people as those beautifully painted Russian nesting dolls. We may look whimsical and pleasing on the outside, but within each of us there are many unseen, hidden layers. These mysterious, unknown layers may be what have shifted some of us from the sacred to the desecrated. We’re all damaged, polluted, degraded in some way. Some of us are just better at hiding our layers than others.
So there are no unsacred places, only desecrated places, and those not yet desecrated, or the sacred. There are no unsacred people. There are people who have been cheated, lied to, abused, hurt, neglected, abandoned, scared, dishonored, gossiped about, rejected, and shamed; they are simply damaged. If someone we love is damaged, do we abandon them? Give up, toss them to the side, move on, and hope for better luck in the future? I hope the answer is no. At least, I’m hoping no one gives up on me. I’m damaged, just like you are. I want to see people as the complicated, multi-layered, dynamic living souls they are. This world is far too vivid and beautiful to see only in shades of black and white. That place we call harmony, sympathy, and understanding is all gray.
—–
How to Be a Poet by Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)
i   
Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   
ii   
Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   
iii   
Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

fresh breath

God always knows what you need.

This semester was expected to be the worst, the hardest, the most demanding and grueling semester I would have in college – I was so nervous. Since my freshman year I have been dreading the fall semester of my junior year. It was set up to be the semester where I would take the most upper level science classes at once and still try to maintain my sanity and all the other crazy things that college students do. Maybe I went into this semester with a bad attitude, or at least a pessimistic attitude – one that expected the worst. I am so delighted, blessed, and truly thankful to say that this was indeed not the worst semester of my life; in fact, it may have been one of the best but for many different reasons. Academically, I studied smarter (AKA less, shorter, more focused) and enjoyed my classes more because everything I loved about biology and chemistry came together finally! I also spent more time doing things that made me a happier person (yoga, hanging out with my friends, taking time off, going to the lab). I think God strategically placed people and events in my life to buffer the ride that was expected to be pretty uncomfortable for a while. I think God knew I needed a support system, people to lift me up and cheer me on and remind me why this is worth it, and He gave me that. He gave me that in my roommates who have often seen me studying with frustration and then later baking dozens of cookies to decompress; He gave me that in my cherished best friends who remind me to stop, go out for dinner, enjoy a glass of wine, and do something fun and relaxing; He gave me that in my mentor/boss and coworkers at Vanderbilt who showed so much grace and support by allowing me time to study, focus, and take off when I needed it; He gave me that in my (now) boyfriend who endlessly encouraged me through countless physics problems, biochem exams, late nights and early mornings, and who never forgot to make me laugh in the middle of the chaos; and He gave it to me in my family who never failed to call, check in, and send me prayers when I needed them most. So, yeah, God knows what you need. I say that not because I saw what was happening while it was going on in my life – no, there were definitely times when I wanted to give up and felt completely unmotivated – instead because He was always there, working in me and around me and through me and through others to me. Sometimes what you expect to be a big, bad terrible storm turns into a beautiful, refreshing spring shower – it brings you flowers, sunshine, and a breath of new life. I sit and reflect on a semester that was a whirlwind, a serendipitous whirlwind of unexpected friendships and newly minted forever memories. I blinked, and it was suddenly over, my expectations were wrong and this time I was happy about it! But my, how I have been shown that the God I love, cherish, and serve, will always know what you need. Not only that, but He will abundantly bless you with what – or who – you need.

experiments

There’s this fleeting moment during an experiment, almost every time, where I stop and think I have completely messed up. I spent the past three days preparing to run an RT-qPCR (real time quantitative polymerase chain reaction if you’re interested) to see if our gene of interest is overexpressed in certain heart tissue. After 15 hours of work, today I put my eyes down, made sure I was ready to go, and began working with the tiniest volumes to prepare the final reaction. I manually pipetted into 96 wells twice (so 192 times). I was so focused on not messing up (this was my first time doing qPCR solo and they gave me the big experiment. . .) but that malevolent little thought rushed in once again. About halfway through the entire process I thought, oh no, you’ve messed up. What was the last sample used? Did you put the right primer in? Is the volume correct? Literally, every worst-case scenario entered my mind. In these often-had moments, I question my process, my accuracy, my proactive thinking, even my basic skills. No matter how confident I am, in these moments I lose all confidence and question things I know to be true. This happened to me today, and I’ve been experiencing this long enough to have mechanisms to mess-up-proof my experiments (like labeling everything, being very intentional in where samples are placed, and using my pipette box as a roadmap for where I’ve already been on the plate). Importantly, I catch my mind while immersed in this doubt and assure myself that I haven’t made a mistake, that I have been very cautious and attentive, and that I am doing just fine. If you’ve read this far despite nonsensical lab stuff, thank you. I realized that this self-initiated doubt is not confined to research but is universal in all of life.

How often am I moving right along, doing just fine, everything is working out, and my mind says to me, Oh no. You have really messed up. You’ve made a big mistake. Everything you’re doing is wrong. I’ll admit, very often. We have experiences, trials and errors, that guide us in life. We make decisions based on knowledge and feelings that we have previously experienced (either in hopes to feel or not feel that way in the future). For the most part, I’d say we are not blindly navigating through life without any guidance (like that cherished from friends, mentors, learning from past mistakes, intentional thinking, etc.). We live like skilled researchers, already filled with the knowledge of how to do our task or with the capability to obtain what we need to know to carry on. It is not that we are taking the wrong path or doing the wrong thing. It is that our minds are telling us that we are. Self-initiated doubt is a destroyer. In the middle of my experiments, it causes me to question what I know is right. In the middle of my life, it causes me to question my actions and pursuits. I so often am living my life, completely satisfied and happy, when that deceptive voice urges me to question everything. Unlike my research skills, I’m not as disciplined to channel my confidence and squander the doubts. This parallel became so clear to me today – doubt creeps in everywhere and to everyone (well, to me at least). Instead of worrying about everything I’ve done wrong or may do wrong, I hope to instead take a note from my laboratory self and remember that I’m capable, skillful, and perfectly fine carrying on in the way that makes me happy. While this example is very specific to my experience, I feel like anyone can think of a place they are skillful (on the court or field, in a job, as a mom or dad, in any hobby) where they don’t let doubt affect their ability to do that skill well. My hope is to live my life a little more like that so the nagging worry and unnecessary questioning don’t invade my happiness and peace of my mind. I guess I hope to live like a crazy scientist that trusts her hand, her skills, and her process – because we all deserve the peace of mind that comes from confidence and self-assurance.

Google searches

I just Googled “How to know to pursue an MD-PhD.” Then I stopped, stepped back, and laughed at myself. How in the world would a quick Google search give me any kind of reliable, meaningful, and honest information about such a big – and personal – question? It was so absurd that I actually laughed out loud to myself. While a funny example, I took a peek at the other auto-fill suggestions that Google supplied as I was typing: “How to know about my future” or “How to know if you’re in love” or “How to know to trust someone”. I thought about how deep, and complex, those questions are and, consequently, how deeply we yearn for quick and easy answers to them. I’m convinced that we all long for easy answers to hard questions. We desire for someone to tell us what to pursue in life, who to marry, when to make big investments, when to change careers, etc. Maybe you don’t wish for answers and enjoy the waiting game, but most of us would love to have an infinite collection of those answers at our fingertips. They make life simpler, less stressful, and more predictable. They make things easy.

But we don’t. We don’t have the answers to life’s big decisions – like whether or not to spend 7-8 years in school pursuing an MD-PhD or when to get married or when to change careers. We are sometimes lost, indefinitely, for answers at all. After I did my quick search and realized how silly it was, I thought about how blessed I am to be in a position of such difficult decisions. I am okay with not finding anything that resolved my questioning at the end of that Google search. I’m okay because I understand that we have hard decisions in life because that means we are living it, robustly and consciously. We are not sitting around waiting for life to happen but are instead posed against challenging and thought-provoking questions; if you’re asking when to get married that means you appreciate and are active in the process of finding lifelong love. If you’re worrying about a career change, it means you are thinking about the condition and happiness of your future. I am considering “next step” decisions in my education, and I’m blessed to have the opportunity to consider those options. After my quick-and-easy Google search, I, unsurprisingly, didn’t find anything that answered my question. I found some helpful sites with anecdotal advice or frequently asked questions, but ultimately these hard decisions are answered based on our own considerations, life experiences and goals, and provisions for what we consider to be important and meaningful. Instead of mindlessly searching for answers, on the internet or otherwise, it may be better just to have a conversation with someone – yourself, a friend, a mentor – about why you’re asking that question and what are the considerations that led you there. In life, it is okay to not have answers to these questions just yet. I really believe they are coming and only require patience, grit, and perseverance before they show up in full view. Sometimes, all it takes is a silly search on the internet to remind you that life is far more complex than Google can answer, and that is perfectly okay.

who you are

Your life experiences unquestionably define who you are and guide where you belong in the world. We are each given unique stories – challenges, triumphs, memories, passions – that aid us in figuring out what type of life we are to live. Since I’ve been in college, I have met people from SO many different walks of life, and it has been one of my favorite aspects of moving out of a small town and into a more culturally and ethnically diverse city. The people I’ve become very close friends with come from all over the world and from every background – Russian, African, Indian, Egyptian, Irish, Ukrainian, American, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, poor, rich, sick, and every quality or descriptor in between. The love I have for each of these people is specific and unique to the friendship that we share, and I’m so glad that I’ve come to know them and their story. Along this journey though, I often found myself asking “Who am I? Where do I come from? What characteristics define me?” and yesterday I again happened upon this internal self-discussion after a conversation I had with a friend in my lab. He very casually told me, “Mary, I can finally hear your Southern accent!” which lead down a rabbit hole of conversation on the lifetime struggle of talking with a “twang” and how “cute” it is (Ha). I told him that sometimes people assume others with a Southern accent are less intelligent, less capable, or have certain ideologies. For this reason, I had become accustomed to avoiding phrases that make me sound more Southern. What I have learned though, through encountering others that embrace and welcome their cultural identity, is that I am Southern and I do have a Southern accent. I was raised in a small town and my identity is comprised of those memories that I created as a child. I had this unnerving feeling when I entered college of not having an identity at all, not belonging to a defined “group” with certain values. I often felt like others were very different from me (because, well, they were and still are in many ways) and didn’t share a lot of the experiences I had while growing up. Instead of shaming away from this I began to cherish my own culture. I shared with people what it was like growing up in a small town in Tennessee (as compared to Chicago or Memphis or New York City). I delighted in the fact that I had (and have) certain challenges different from others and that those things make me, me. This acceptance and confidence has permeated into other aspects of my life. Previously at work, I sought to make myself very . . . uniform. I dressed simply and didn’t feel comfortable sharing the intricacies and details of my personality. This was largely in part because I worked with male supervisors and male colleagues and didn’t want to be perceived as less intelligent or less focused on my career. I’ve learned though, by being surrounded by team members that fully accept and cherish who they are, that who I am doesn’t negate my abilities but encourages them. Speaking of my passions and my childhood memories, wearing the clothes that make me feel confident and feminine, and accepting that I am an empowered, capable female, has strengthened my work ethic and confidence, not taken away from it. Yes, I wear eyeliner and like to do yoga. I didn’t take ten AP classes or go to a private, preparatory high school, but I do have the capability to learn and to succeed just as my peers do and have demonstrated that learning is more important than formal education. This is so important, because I really feel like people who may not fit into certain groups need to be encouraged to come from a position of strength instead of weakness. Don’t let the influence of those around you – their maleness (or femaleness), intelligence, appearance, or success – alter the way that you view yourself. What I have learned since accepting that I have a past that makes me better, not worse, and a future that is as bright as the person next to me, is that people love me and appreciate my work for exactly who I am. They like that I can have a conversation about growing up in a small town and how I like to enjoy myself in Nashville. Just because I wear makeup and have my hair fixed doesn’t mean I don’t get called on during meetings to answer hard questions or given hard tasks to complete. I no longer feel like I have no identity because instead of trying to create one that didn’t exist, I accepted the one I already have. There is great power in knowing who you are, growing in who you are, and loving who you are. Not only is there power, but there is indefinite peace.

thoughts on a beach

There are fewer things I want more than to become a physician — truly, when I survey my life for my heart’s deepest desires this worthy role sits at the fundamental core. But then I ask myself, why do I want to be a physician? I have always thought it not only wise but necessary to question every little thing. I was once infatuated with philosophy and while I don’t read it as often as I used to, the inquisitive and questioning nature it taught me never left my mind. So I ask myself – why do I want to be a physician? The answer is complex yet innately obvious to me. There is no short, one-lined answer for my reasons but instead a summation of all my unique life experiences that have lead me to this decision. I have explored other career options that align with my passions: I’ve thought of becoming a professor and teaching chemistry; I’ve considered going to graduate school and being a lifelong researcher; I’ve discussed working in industry as a chemist; I’ve toyed with the idea of being a science writer and journalist. I love teaching others and guiding people to discovering knowledge about themselves through learning difficult ideas and concepts. I think learning is one of God’s greatest gifts to man – I truly believe there is nothing that cannot be learned given enough hard work and time. I am amazed by the human body, the biological systems that work harmoniously within, and the chemistry that, literally, composes all of life and the physical universe. I love reading literature because I get to live through the stories of so many different people, experience their culture and hear their thoughts. I like doing science because it teaches me how to think creatively about the problems that are causing disease and illness. Research brings together the basic science of biology and biochemistry and allows me to do the thinking, the dirty work, and hopefully, discover the solution to a patient problem. But in my searching for the vocation I want to commit my life to, each of the prospective alternatives fell short in a specific and important way. For most, I could not help people in their most vulnerable state. I was missing the intimate and trusting physician-patient relationship that I was attracted to in the beginning. Medicine brings together all of the things I have found myself passionate about for such a long time: passions true to my being, woven into who I am and who I will want to be for the rest of my life. For me, becoming a physician has nothing to do with prestige, honor, or pay. No one in my family is a physician and I’m not being pressured down this career. It has everything to do with using the skills I’ve been blessed with to do the things I love to help others live a healthier life free of disease. I don’t just want to be a physician; I want to be an advocate, an encourager, a teacher, a confidant, a scientist, and a calming, present voice amidst the stormiest times of my patients’ lives. I want to inform and educate others about science and health and learn from those around me in every way I can. I want to write and read and maintain who I am in the long nights and ceremonious mistakes that a life of practicing medicine promises. I want to some day be a wife and a doctor and execute both in the best manner possible. These are the things I envision and hope for my future. So when I feel like my pathway becomes blurred by the constant lull within me to be better, do better, and achieve more I step back and ask myself – to remind myself – why I want to do this. I am journeying this path in life, not for anyone else, but to satiate my unquenchable desire for knowledge and service, challenges and relationships, through triumph and defeat – and that alone makes this pathway my own. I will not lose myself in the circuitous trap of comparison but will instead find myself lying with peace on this beach, reading legendary Nabokov, and dreaming of my future as an endless learner, a trusted confidant, and, ultimately, a healer.