When I got back to Switzerland after Christmas, I arrived in a snow storm. It snowed for four days straight in Zurich, finally blanketing central Europe in the white stuff we so desperately needed.
Then it rained. All the snow melted overnight.
Finally, it got beautiful.
I went hiking, from the Zugerberg to Wildspitz and then down to Sattel. I was in canton Zug, just to the southwest of Zurich proper. A 30 minute train ride took me to the city of Zug, where I started walking up. Once atop the Zugerberg, I had a long stretch of highlands to meander my way along before climbing – and here it got snowy – up to Gnipen and then Wildspitz, the highest point in the canton at about 5,100 feet.
It’s not a mountain, exactly. But it gives you great views of the other ones.
I needed the time outside, the nearly six hours in nature, the scrambling focus of ascending a summit (Gnipen) with the last pitch so steep that it had bolted-in rope to hold onto – made more treacherous through slushy snow. Last week I got some very bad news. I learned that my friend J had died in a rock climbing accident in Mexico.
It was an immediate gut-punch. It’s so incomprehensible that something like this would happen to someone so wonderful, so generous, so young, so excited about life. Someone who was a careful outdoorsman. J was not one of my ten closest friends, or my 20 or even 30 closest friends. We had great times together, but he wasn’t excellent at staying in touch over e-mail. But he was such an amazing person that it hit me really hard – I can only imagine how much harder it is for the people who are his ten closest friends. For his parents. For his girlfriend, A.
Even that first day, I turned to nature, taking a long walk in the woods and getting lost despite the fact that the Zurichberg forest is not really all that big. That was okay. Lost was fine. I stumbled across this amazing owl fountain and wished I was as wise as an owl.
I can’t describe everything that made J special, or everything that made me sad, or everything about what I was thinking. I will say that I went to a comically Teutonic counselor; we did not connect. Walking in the woods helped me far more.
But two things I will say. First, thinking of J made me re-evaluate what I want from life. Both because in his own life he did what made him happy – surfing, climbing, outdoor trips, music, good food, good friends – while still being an excellent and hardworking scientist, and because, as always when faced with death, you think ‘what should I be doing in order to make this time count’? I realized that I spend a lot of time on things I don’t love. I do a lot of things that are less fun than being with the people I love. We all do. It’s inevitable. But I think I can prioritize and shift the balance. Don’t we owe that to ourselves? I haven’t been getting outside. I’ve been crossing things off the to-do list, the to-do list that gets longer and longer and never shorter. That’s no way to live. Do as J would do, and go to the beach and go surfing.
J had just finished his PhD. As I am just starting mine, it was a very odd notion. Is this ultimately futile?
But I’ll move on to number two. Talking to Günther, my co-worker from Davos where we met and worked with J, we seemed to have both come to a realization: our time in Davos was spectacular and unmatchable. Now we are both starting PhD’s. Neither of us is unhappy; we are thrilled to have amazing opportunities. I love my lab. I can’t imagine a better situation.
But that doesn’t take away the fact that, in all likelihood, never again will I have so much fun doing work as I did in Davos. It was as if we were going out every day, and the work just happened to get done – not that we were forced to go do it. It was a unique combination of things: the beautiful mountain surroundings, the fact that we were very good and very efficient at getting things done, our team’s camaraderie, energy, and love for adventure. The pizza and brownies we’d bring with us into the field. J’s fun and generous presence, when he was around. The fact that we were responsible for our work and could feel pride in it, but did not bear the ultimate responsibility in the end.
After finishing our PhD’s, we will be overqualified to have that feeling again. We’ll be the bosses. That will change things.
So many ideas, feelings, fragments swirl around in my head. I thought of J and how it happened a continent away from his family and best friends. I thought of myself in Europe. What am I doing? Why am I placing myself so far away from those I love the most?
At almost exactly this time, I saw a posting for two PhD positions, paid for four years, at the University of Vermont. Maybe I should just quit, I thought. I can go back to New England and start over. I can be surrounded by my community.
That lasted about ten minutes.
Of course, it gets better. I’ll stay. I love it here. Eventually, I will find my way back to North America, and I’m confident in that, and it’s fine. I had a really hard time when I first moved over here, as evidenced by a certain gloomy and desperate blog post. But I’m over that hump. I was moving cheerily onwards towards the Christmas break, and now things are really going: I start my first course this week, I’m working on my official PhD proposal, and I’m starting my first experiment.
Doing work! In the lab! It’s very basic but very exciting. The time of reading papers endlessly and feeling bewildered is over. (Instead, it’s doing many other things and knowing that still, actually, there are an infinite number of papers that you should be reading at this very moment, or rather, that you should have already read and be able to cite by heart, including not only the methods and results but the author names, year, and journal….)
I will be okay. There are others who are hurting more than me. I will be there for them.
In the meantime, go hug someone you love. Or better yet, go to the mountains. With someone you love. Hug them there.