Week 10.5, or the Mental Health Project

In the spirit of being honest, I won’t lie about my lapse in blogging over the last two weeks. My mental health took a very serious turn for the worse and I ended up having to go stay with my parents for a week until I got stable again.

Despite having missed an entire week of school and work, I’m surprisingly not stressed out by it. What I am stressed about is my mother also falling (physically) ill right as I was scheduled to go come back to Williamsburg. She went to the hospital yesterday for a ruptured appendix and so naturally I drove right back to Suffolk and parked my butt on the futon in her room.

For the last maybe three weeks, my life has been an undeniable mess.

And for some reason, that’s also why I’m not stressed about school.

Somewhere in between the tears and panic attacks, the stomach aches and urgent care visits, the doctors appointments and naps, I realized that I only have one body and I only get one life. Fact of the matter is, my body and my mind do not require school. They do, however, require attention and care. I realized that I can do literally nothing else if my body is not properly fed and watered and if my mind and my emotions have been neglected. I have to cater to myself first. I have to check in with myself, make sure I’m okay. I need to rest when I’m tired. I need to honor my feelings when I’m down. I have every right to ask for what I need to feel nourished spiritually and emotionally so that I can function.

Somehow, I let myself believe that the only way to operate was on productivity/excellence lever 12/10. That same perfectionism that is so motivating is also what pushed me all the way down.

have to do better.

There is no way I can accomplish any of the things I want to do if I don’t learn to take care of myself, or how to say no something, or how to stop giving every little thing 3,000 %.

I take everything seriously. I work meticulously, my hobby is my strictly regimented blog, and I’m even very serious about all of my friendships. I take care to treat them all carefully and work on them where needed, because I think relationships deserve that kind of attention.

But I’m also serious because I truly believe in being an excellent Black scholar. As a Black professor, I will come into contact with students at a critical age– right when they are beginning to truly be able to think critically for themselves, develop their own opinions and ideas, and learn to move intelligently through the world. I want to be like the professors I had– I want to sharpen their minds, encourage and invest in their unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and show them the power of a well educated young Black person. I want them to be able to think. In order to invest in our youth, I have to invest in myself so that I can be there to teach them.

But I have got to invest in me.

So after I finally pulled myself together and woke up from a long sleep Tuesday morning, I went to work.

I started a bullet journal that I’m going to use to track my self-care. I’m doing everything from keeping appointments in it, tracking my food, my moods, my medication, my sleep, my attempts at meditation and mindfulness, and even my prayers.

I deserve to have 30 minutes a day where I self reflect. I deserve to have an outlet for my creativity. I deserve to spend time on myself.

It’s been keeping me surprisingly honest. Monitoring my physical well being helps me see if those things are effecting my mood. My gratitude log, mood log and prayer pages help me notice my thoughts and feelings, but then leave them on the page. I’ve noticed that as soon as I write down a worry or a feeling, my mood mellows out and I can continue with my day. Best of all, it’s an excuse to treat myself with new stationary and pens. Spending time on my page layouts bring me joy and get a thrill from sharing my creations with others. I even decided to start a “creative” instagram where I’ll post pictures of my bullet journal layouts and various other artistic/creative endeavors. (click here to check it out)

Even though it’s been rough, there is always a bright side, two of my own rays of sunshine have included:

  1. Seeing my suggestion for a comic to share with novice graphic novel readers used in a Buzzfeed article! (see #6 on this list; click here to check it out!)
  2. Being recognized by an all-female secret society here at the College for my work with the Lemon Project. (This is particularly fantastic because the Lemon Project is not even my job but I have spent a lot of time and effort on my personal, small contributions.) It’s good to know that Ari and have clearly touched someone/somebod(ies) and I am grateful to be a responsible for positively impacting this college. I am particularly grateful for someone taking the time out to say thank you. You have no idea how much such a small gesture, and some kind words can mean.

Hopefully next week I’ll be back to some regularly scheduled Black Girl Does Grad School posts. Being ill and dealing with illness has prevented me from writing what I can only imagine would have been spectacular blog posts about the art exhibit I curated, my last African-American texts class in which I connected Stokely Carmichael to comics and Eldridge Cleaver to J. Cole, and my meeting with renowned American Studies scholar, George Lipsitz, who encouraged me in my scholarship, art and activism.

Not to worry, though, maybe I will tell those stories. After all, they are certainly worth telling.

Week 8, or Black Books that Stuck With Me

As this week was Spring Break and thus I had nothing new to report, my friend (hey, Kelsey) suggested that I, as an avid reader, write a post on the books about Blackness that have impacted my life.

It’s a great idea, especially since I know this list will change, not only from  year to year, but from month to month, week to week, as I read more and explore the expansive terrain of Black Studies. I also want to give a special shout out to Lynn Weiss, Njelle Hamilton and Lisa Woolfork for introducing me to many of these texts and authors. Without these books, I wouldn’t be who I am, and without you all, it’s possible I wouldn’t have found these books.

So without further ado, I give you my top ten Black novels that shaped who I am intellectually, what I care about as a scholar and a writer, and to greater extent, who I am as a person:

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  1. AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The first book I ever read by Adichie, Americanah hooked my heart from the first page. The narrator, Ifemelu, speaks of her discomfort at a hair salon and I couldn’t help thinking, This is me. For the very first time, I saw someone in a novel that felt like me, that shared my struggles, and most importantly looked like me. I’ll be forever grateful to Adichie for giving me Ifemulu– after reading Americanah, I no longer felt alone.

(I’ve also written about Americanah on my personal blog, Quoth the Ravynn. Click here for more.)

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2. Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates

The best way to get through to me, is through my father. Coates’ narrative of a B-more boy learning the ways of Blackness and America by trial and error, reminds me of everything I love about my father and his stories. It’s raw truth. It hurts to read. It is necessary to read.

(I’ve written about Between the World and Me on my personal blog. Click here for more.)

 

 

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3. Another Country, James Baldwin

Baldwin has zero qualms about giving you the good, the bad, the ugly. Another Country scrapes through gore and heat of America in the 1950s to show the rotting underbelly of a system gone wrong. It offers an escape route, my dear France. The musicality of it has the ghost of Mahalia Jackson humming in my ear. Nothing is more impactful than Baldwin. He gives you sentences clean as a bone– and then stabs you in the heart with it.

 

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4. Passing and Quicksand, Nella Larsen

I really couldn’t tell you what it is that I love about Nella Larsen’s work. It’s sharp and feline, with emotionally volatile female heroines. It’s sensual, both in style and its attention to sensations, like the feel of texts and its hues. It’s mystifying, unsatisfying– and I can never stop thinking about her novels after I read them.They strike me with the desire to read again and again until I uncover the mystery.

 

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5. Half-Blood BluesEsi Edugyan

I read this for a class at UVA and I’ve carried it in my heart ever since. It has everything that I love in it– jazz, history, miscegenation, that Southern Black dialect, a back drop of France, an international perspective, one femme fatale, a certain mysticism about it, a ghostliness. It is a fiction surrounded by an ugly truth, expressed by the slow notes of Hiero’s trumpet.

 

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6. Their Eyes Were Watching GodZora Neale Hurston

This book was assigned in my ninth grade English class. I will never forget the complaints of the white boys who complained that they couldn’t read it; while in my mind it made perfect sense. I remember thinking, just sound it out. And then I realized they probably had never heard anyone speak this way. But it was the sound of my people. It was the language of my grandparents’ trailers, Christmas and Thanksgiving. It was the sound of love. Plus when you add in Janie’s “take-no-prisoners” attitude, I thought, Now this is a female depiction that I can get behind.

 

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7. The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. DuBois

If you haven’t read it, please just go get yourself a copy right now.

 

 

 

 

 

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8. Native SonRichard Wright

Another classic. Bigger’s transformation reminds me that the story is so much more than one boy’s narrative. It is the potential story of every Black man that has ever existed and will ever exist in America. White society put a target on Black men’s back because there is no presence more feared that that of a Black man. And that is a national tragedy– a socially induced tragedy.

 

 

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9. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson

This is another transnational, multilingual, musical text that explores the fluidity of Black identity. For me, as a former French scholar, I’m always invested in how different languages and cultures influence and impact American Black identity. I’m particularly interested in the Black intellectual expatriate– what does Europe offer that America can’t? What is this line that the Ex-Colored Man is perpetually toeing between classical music and ragtime, proper English and the sonic Black vernacular, the opera and the club? I love that it doesn’t have to be one or the other here– it can be both. It’s fluid.

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10. The White Boy ShufflePaul Beatty

Very little gives more more joy than depictions of Black boys. They’re hilarious. They’re just trying to figure it out. The performativity of Black masculinity is so absurd and yet the seriousness with which boys go about figuring out how to perform it is critical to their development. Beatty hits it all– you gotta learn to ball, you gotta get the haircut, learn how to dab, the art of the insult, you gotta get the girls and you gotta be able to do something on the dance floor. But it’s still satire– Beatty doesn’t miss the danger of it all, the implications, and the traumatic consequences of the pressure to perform. It’s full of wit and vibrant sences, while also dropping every Black reference known to man and some only known to him.

 

Honorable mentions go to:

  1. Caucasia x Danzy Senna
  2. Beloved x Toni Morrison
  3. Things Fall Apart x Chinua Achebe.

And while I’m here, I thought I’d do a few more categories of texts…

Short stories, collections, essays

  1. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes
  2. Drown, Junot Diaz (He’s Afro-Latino, he definitely counts)
  3. “The Mulatto,” Langston Hughes
  4. Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay (Read more here.)

Articles

  1. “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture” x Stuart Hall
  2. “My President Was Black” x Ta-Nehisi Coates

Academic Books

  1. Waiting Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Peniel Joseph
  2. In Search of the Black Fantastic, Richard Iton
  3. Articulate While Black, Geneva Smitherman and H. Samy Alim

Comics/Graphic Novels

  1. Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  2. The March trilogy, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
  3. Strange Fruit: Untold Narratives of Black History, Joel Christian Gill

and, finally, an honorable mention category to FILMS...

  1. 13th x Ava DuVernay (for the mass incarceration lesson)
  2. Brown Sugar x Rick Famuyiwa (for the hip-hop history lesson)
  3. Hidden Figures x Theodore Melfi (for the Hampton Roads Black women history lesson)

While some may be astonished that no poetry made my list, it’s mostly because I was never one to writes lines from poems on my wrist. I was always lost in my novels. The characters were my friends– and they still are.

Maybe some day, I’ll do another one of these with music or film or TV shows. It’s all valuable, and it has all shaped me.

God, am I grateful for books and for my parents gifting me with a never ending supply of them.

 

 

Week 7, or Baby’s First Conference

After stressing about presenting at the Southern American Studies Association Conference all week to the point where I couldn’t even enjoy the thought of Spring Break, I was grateful when Thursday finally rolled around. I told myself, “Okay, Ravynn, you just gotta make it through Friday and Saturday, and you’ll be home free.” 

Originally, I was supposed to have class and meetings all day Thursday, but as it turned out, pretty much everything I was supposed to do got cancelled, so my usually jam packed Thursdays were beautifully light–until I remembered I had to finish writing my conference paper.

I can’t even explain why I nearly lost my mind writing this paper. It was only supposed to be a 15 minute talk (which for reference is about 8-10 double spaced pages, depending on the pace of your speech) and yet the thought of filling those empty fifteen minutes with nothing but the sound of my voice and force of my ideas sounded terrifying.

To be perfectly fair, it’s surprising, even to me, how anxious I was about my presentation. Under any other circumstances, I am a powerful speaker. I tend to give moving, emotive speeches. My work naturally lends itself to being spoken, as I write the way I speak with little to no variation. Academically, I’m more comfortable giving presentations than I am writing papers, simply because I’m better at explaining my ideas out loud and teaching them, than I am at writing them down and giving direction. This is probably because I am really good at talking. I love talking; for the most part, a considerable part of what I’m saying is interesting; and I have a charm and wit that makes me enjoyable to talk with.

(I’m not being narcissistic, but I am well aware that I talked my way into more than one award/scholarship/university.)

(I’d probably be a really great politician if politics didn’t actually disgust me and if I didn’t have a tendency to be so dang rude. But I digress.)

I avoided the conference on Thursday, despite my newly freed time, and instead choose to work (to no avail) on my paper. Rather than get discouraged or panicked, I convinced myself that I needed a good night’s rest and I’d wake up refreshed on Friday and finish it the next morning. 

Friday morning, I was definitely calmer, but when 5 PM rolled around, I realized I’d wasted almost the entire day.

Well, actually, it was a really productive and fun day– I just didn’t write my paper. 

Around 9 AM I started to get antsy while I moved individual words around my word document, knowing that people were almost certainly flooding into the education building to hear the first of the day’s panels. Suddenly, I was filled with an overwhelming desire to see what was happening and was hit with the novelty of attending a real academic conference. So I texted my cohort mate to see if I could just go hang around, and at his encouragement, I packed my camera, my journal and my laptop into my drawstring bag, slipped on the first clothes I could find (patched boyfriend jeans and my Howard law sweatshirt) and trekked off to the School of Education. 

I parked on the street, then marched across a field of grass, turned yellowish-brown by winter, that sloped downward, almost hiding the building in an indent in the earth. I remember thinking the space would be beautiful to photograph, especially if the grass turned back to green in the spring. The building itself was relatively new; its huge glass windows sparkled in the late winter sun and the brick had yet to be weather-worn. The architecture was smooth, clean and modern, so unlike the untouched traditional brick of the old undergrad campus where so little has changed since 1693.

I was in no particularly hurry to find anyone, so I took in the grandness of the atrium, the comfortable looking chairs, the outdoor tables and chairs on the patios just outside the building. Before long, I wandered along just enough corridors to find myself at the registration table, where two of my cohort mates sat with another girl, further along in my program than the three of us, chatting happily. 

I registered and received my materials. The program was difficult to read. For some reason, I didn’t understand until that moment, that several panels happen at once during one time slot, in several different rooms. Then, there’s a break, and then another set of panels, and you just have to choose which one to go to. 

So many of them sounded interesting: everything from Native Americans and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Saint Martin de Porres and “Lemonade” was discussed at this conference. I could barely make up my mind on which ones I wanted to hear. Finally, I decided that I was too late to slip into any of the current panels, but I would wait until the next set, because in the next set there was one I absolutely had to hear.

Professor Harold from UVA would be coming to give a talk on Al Green and gospel music. Yes, I excited to hear the talk, but I was mostly excited to see her, as I hadn’t since I’d left Charlottesville for good last May. I consistently took a “Claudrena class” every year from the time I started until I graduated. I’d never intended to do African-American Studies, always dead set on French and eventually I added Comparative Lit and a Foreign Affairs minor, but every semester, I made sure I had a “black class.” It didn’t matter if it was African-American Studies, or a African-American Literature class, or even African Oral tradition, but I had to get my fix somewhere in my schedule; and as often as my schedule allowed, I took with Claudrena.

Professor Harold had this way of commanding the class. Her material was always interesting, but she made sure you understood why it was relevant. Tests were never hard, and you never had to worry about you GPA at the end of the semester, at least with her–but if you didn’t do that reading, it didn’t take much for her to dismiss you from class. She made you understand that critical thinking was a skill to be honed, not a natural gift. Your natural instinct should ask, “why?” And that we, as Black students, had a responsibility to learn, not just for ourselves, but for our people as a collective. But you also learned not to speak unless you actually had something to say–because she was quick to intellectually drag you, as if to say, “You cannot walk out of my class thinking that is true.”

When Professor Harold rounded the corner to registration, I was so happy to see her, but also filled with a sense of mild regret. At UVA, I’d been so certain I knew the answer to everything. I’d go and ask for advice, that she’d willingly give, only to have me ignore it completely and do almost the exact opposite of what she told me. I’m almost certain she knew the first time she talked to me that I was destined for grad school, and even though she saw me sort of floundering through school, uncertain about anything past May 2016, she never did anything more than give me a nudge and suggest that I do IRT– Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers, a program for aspiring minority professors/grad-students-to-be.

I, of course, went to France instead.

But over the course of the weekend I got to catch up with her, and as I did so, I had a new found appreciation for the professor I’d always admired, and who’d always pushed me. That discomfort I’d felt was growth, and I needed it to get where I am.

I went to her panel and had the opportunity to meet some really cool grad students from UVA. Professor Harold (as is her style) took us all out to lunch. We chatted over cod, fried green tomatoes and beer, while a freak snowstorm raged outside the pub. After lunch I managed to catch most of my “big brother,” James’, panel and was astonished at how smart he is. I sort of felt myself deflate a little, wondering if I’d ever get to that level. Fortunately, I didn’t stay down long. Ari arrrived shortly after, as we were scheduled to volunteer to register participants that afternoon. Instead of going to another panel, I introduced Professor Harold to Ari (well, Ari introduced herself to Professor Harold, because…that’s Ari for you), and she talked with us both for a while.

It turns out that Ari’s mentor at UMichigan, Brandi Hughes, and Claudrena (who is definitely an unofficial mentor) are buds.

I was pleasantly surprised at the revelation, but Ari was moved to tears. The world had become so small for both of us in that moment.

I tapped Ari and said, “You know, in like ten or so years, that’s going to be us!” I gestured to Claudrena, who was texting Brandi and smirking to herself. “We’re going to have students that meet each other and realize that they both had us, and that we’re friends–and it’s going to explain so much about them, and the kind of scholars they become.”

I think she heard me, because she nodded and laughed through the tears, but she might’ve still been crying about Brandi.

Finally, towards the end of our shift at the table, James came wandering by. I’m still not entirely sure how it happened, but an hour and a half later, James, this education doctoral student, Jaymi, and I were engaging in an intense discussion about Chance the Rapper and black boy joy, before James was finally like, “Okay. I GOT to go.” James and I ended up in a corner because I was spilling tea (I’m always gossiping–I need to stop), but it quickly spiraled into relationship advice, which took a left turn into 2016 biopics, Nate Parker (we slowed down long enough to let Jaymi in) and Spike Lee joints. We took a left turn at Lemonade and A Seat At the Table, Beyoncé and Solange, before we hopped right back on the hip-hop highway, discussing Cole, Kendrick, and Drake (to take a quick u-turn at Issa Rae because “all college educated Black girls like Drake,” right?) and finally end up in the Chance the Rapper parking lot.

Sometimes you just reallyyyy gotta talk to Black people.

By the time we’d finished talking, it was starting to get dark out and I’d already stayed an hour later than I’d meant to, and I’d written not a single word all day.

So I went home and decompressed for an hour or two, before I finally pulled my laptop to me and hit a flow.

As I’d watched panels and interacted with people all day, I understood that this was not meant to be a final dissertation presentation. It didn’t need to be the most polished thing I’d ever write. It just needed to be what I was working on, what I found interesting, the threads I’m following, and where I want to go with it. I didn’t need to get in the weeds because, no one was going to test me on my knowledge, they just want to hear what I’m thinking about. They trust me to know my subject. They wanted me to share. 

Around 10:30 that night, I read over my last draft, and satisfied, I fell asleep.

The next morning I woke up much later than I meant to. My panel was at 9, but my panel agreed to meet at 8:45, and I’d meant to get up at 6 so I could practice my speech a few times, and time it. I woke up at 7:15 and hastily walked my dog, nose in my phone, and I mouthed my paper to myself as we went. I made a few tweaks and cut a few lines here and there, but it was still a little over 15 minutes, no matter what I did. At 8:30, I started to print out my paper but OF COURSE when you need to print, your print wants to be possessed. So, mildly panicking, I raced over to the clubhouse at my apartment complex to print my paper at 8:35. At 8:39, I was in my car and at 8:45 I was waddling as quickly as I could over the sloping grass and into the building. 

I fell into the room, out of breath and flustered, calling, “I’m here!” (Because I’m still 5.) 

Ari was already there and was a God send, helping me get my life together in the few minutes before the panel. She fixed my hair and got me a coffee as I set up my presentation on the screen. As I worked, a kindly-looking blonde woman came up to me and introduced herself as the chair of our panel. Pleasantly surprised, I shook her hand– as I understood it, our panel’s chair had triple booked herself on accident and wouldn’t be able to make it. We sort of played a game of “Not I,” and so it ended up that Travis would play chair in our original chair’s absence. (Note: the chair of the panel is supposed to introduce the panelists and keep time of the presentations, giving us notice when we have about 5 minutes left.)

When the clock struck 9, the panel began and I did my best to ignore Professor Harold’s intense look from the back of the room.

Betsy, our chair, introduced us all while we sat at before the crowd and in front of the projector screen. My friends in the crowd gave small, encouraging smiles when my name was announced.

Shana was up first, and Travis, Scot and I, took seats in the front row so we could watch her speak. 

I always knew Shana was brilliant– she has a MA in English and JD and she knows how to use ’em– but hearing her speak was a whole nother ball game. She spoke on “Contested Spaces” explaining the connection between the Black female body, liberty of movement, and citizenship, using both poetry and laws, history and personal narrative, and one bad ass story about Ida B. Wells biting some dude on a train when he tried to forcibly remove her from first class.

Then, Scot showed off some truly impressive scholarship as well as some digital prowess. He essentially created a database to track one preacher from the late 19th century through the early 20th century, finding that he had done some of the earliest traveling civil rights tours and spreading progressive messages through his sermons and journalistic endeavors. He then tracked this man all over the United States AND in other parts of the world on an interactive map.

I was blown.

Travis goes and hits the crowd with a new theory about dispossession and explained how this theory of dispossession would effect displaced communities. In particular, he’s interested in Camp Perry, a military base in Williamsburg, the construction of which displaced over 400 Black families and some white ones as well. He’s trying to figure out what the effects of this process was on the local community, and much of his work is directly impact the people in this community.

Finally, there was me.

Sometime during Scot’s presentation, something in my head clicked. Scot was having so much fun up there. He really loved his subject and his work and he conveyed that love to the audience. It was infectious. It was vivacious. And I realized, I loved my work just as much– and I felt equally as enthusiastic. 

It happened in a flash–I set out my questions about the purpose of Wakanda, explained its critical role in times of crisis. I detailed Black Panther’s origin. I expanded on his first appearance. I linked it to DuBois, Hughes and Stuart Hall. I took it to from the 1960s to the 1990s to 2016. I was confident. I knew my stuff. I knew it was relevant. I loved it.

I barely even noticed Professor Harold taking several pictures… (lol. Professor Harold, if you’re reading this, I’m joking.)

I’d filled 15 empty minutes with nothing but the sound of my voice and the force of my ideas, and I was elated.

Afterwards, I fielded about 3 questions, happy that people were engaged with my work and they’d liked my ideas. One professor from UVA American Studies pushed me pretty hard, but I realized after the panel, it was because she’d really liked my talk, and thought with a little more work and research, my paper could be publishable. 

“And I’d do it soon, if I were you.”

Professor Harold, whose approval is so hard to come by, but so valued if you get it, called my presentation awesome.

I could have died.

I learned something in four years. I proved up there that I’d learned something. And not only did she think it was awesome, she was proud.

The rest of the time I spent at the conference was a blur of happiness. Professor Harold bought me, Ari and Shana a book each from the press stand, and I walked away happily, with a copy of her latest book, New Negro Politic In the Jim Crow South. I danced up to Charlie McGovern, singing, “Charlie! I did the thing!” To which he replied proudly, “Yes, you did!” Our American Studies Grad program took a group picture, and Charlie was beaming, happy that his “kids” had shown up and shown out at yet another American Studies Conference. And I happily departed from Claudrena, with the promise of visiting UVA for a conference soon, leaving to have lunch with Ari and Shana.

My high lasted the rest of the afternoon as I caught up with Micah on a facetime call that felt 20 minutes but lasted two and half hours, then this morning I brought Ari with me to my parents’ church to watch my dad sing in the men’s day choir.

The four of us passed a pleasant afternoon together in Suffolk, bookending a fantastic weekend.

I’m back in Williamsburg now, finally able to relax (for a w h o l e week!), and even though I’ve started to come down off my high,  I still get a little tingle of pride in my stomach when I think about what I accomplished this weekend.

Honestly, grad school is a pain, but it’s weekends and moments like these that give you gas to keep trucking on through.