the reality of starting a PhD in a new city

the reality of starting a PhD in a new city

I’m curled up in a little corner at Tommy Cafe, a beautiful respite of vintage-white in the heart of Old Montreal. A centrepiece of verdun-green vines hang from the ceiling. Waiters bustle about, delivering glazed raisin croissants, mochas with cream swirled into a leaf.

My spirit is seemingly reeling from a week of not feeling myself. On Sunday, I was overwhelmed with excitement, the promise of the new season. My wardrobe was categorized, my bedsheets folded crisp.

My parents first left Sunday evening, my roommate the following morning to visit her boyfriend. And suddenly, it was me in this clean-swept house in a city where I could count the names of people I knew on one hand.

God is funny, in that he inspires you to write a piece on being alone, then puts you in a situation where you now have to live out your writing. Not that easy.

I came home the first night at 5p.m. with this yawning stretch of unstructured time before me.

Blasting music through my speakers while I boiled lentil soup on the stove, I was determined to spend this alone time well. I mean, isn’t this the dream of the over-worked professional? To have long stretches of time alone in the house to do whatever you want? 

But after savoring my lentil soup, writing in my journal, reading a chapter of the Shawn Bolz book on prophecy, doing extensive stretching, lighting candles, putting on music and even lying in bed for as long as I could with a Nature Republic avocado mask on, I was out of ideas.

The clock ticked 8:00p.m.

It was a strange feeling. Kind of like when you’ve put your socks on the wrong foot, and you’re walking funny, but you haven’t figured it out yet.

I’ve never been non-driven. Without goals. Unproductive.

So, I started to think about the other new starts I had successfully mastered.

I remember bouts of occasional loneliness freshman year in Princeton, but my schedule was so blocked up with events that there wasn’t much time to be alone.

And the transition to China was so easy. I knew why I was there, and had already fallen in love with the village, the people, the country. Besides, if I ever doubted, Leah was right next door.

This one, however, is pushing me. I’m going to need to really dig my well. 

To explore silence as space for God to speak, hunt for friendships in a sea of unknown faces, venture out into this deep, deep ocean. Yes, this is where I learn how to be alone. 

People tell me that doing a PhD is isolating. I’m starting to realise why. No one tells you when you’ve done enough, or how to use your time. You are your own metric.

So, here I am reading to myself the 9 reasons why alone time is good for the soul.

I’m looking forward to this next season. I really am. I feel drawn into it, and there have been many confirming signs that this is where I should be.

Yet, I’m also here to tell you that being where you’re called isn’t always romantic. Where the rubber meets the road is a place of friction.

I’m sure there were many times Jesus felt out of his comfort zone. Even though he had a clear mission ahead of him, he was constantly surrounded by people who didn’t get him. He was a stranger in a foreign land.

But, he didn’t seclude himself to the comfortable corners, where he was celebrated. Rather, he found himself in the marketplace, around dinner tables, on street corners. Perhaps it was in the milieu of the crowd that he felt most alone.

I remind myself of this. I am not alone. And when I am, he is alone – with me.

Meanwhile, in a time during which I’m not exactly sure how to feel, or how to act, I’m doing the things I know spark joy in me: camping out in coffeehouses, people-watching, writing my thoughts. These are the things I’m sure about.


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