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Hidden dips and blind summits

A lot has happened this summer: an amazing trip to South Africa during the World Cup (see previous post); THE BEST WEDDING EVER of our daughter and her smart and handsome husband (read great contentment and joy and a party with a rating of Internationally Legendary); I cleaned my writing room and study (if you had seen the stacks of papers and books multiplying like rabbits in dark corners you’d know why this warrants mention); several brilliant barbecues with students, friends, and family; and oh yeah–I moved to Scotland.

The University of St Andrews has taken me on as a PhD candidate. Well, during this first year of three I’m just a General Research student. By the end of this year I will have a formal research proposal (she said optimistically) and then I get to call myself a PhD student. In any case, this first nine months I do on site; after that I can do my research from home and commute back and forth to Scotland. The four months preceding graduation in June 2013 I’ll be back here fulltime again. For now, though, I commute back home every 2-3 weeks for a weekend, and in between, I get to be a student!

Yes, my shameful secret is that I am enjoying the whole books and articles and being swamped with readings and seminars and discussions and debates and going to the pub to discuss Kant and Rousseau and ontology (the study of being) and epistemology (the study of knowledge) and positivism vs. postpositivism and rationalism vs. reflectivism–IMMENSELY. My research has something to do with the role of youth in International Relations (IR). But this first year is all about immersing myself in the material–I don’t know what I don’t know–and finding a gap in the knowledge so I might attempt to fill the gap through creating new knowledge.

My fellow PhD students in the IR department come from all over the world–and this is what I loved about Webster, too–hearing the different world views and becoming friends with Muslims, Hindus, men and women from all over the world who are as concerned as I am about learning why.

The beauty of St Andrews is they welcome people who don’t fit into a box. In fact this is probably part of why they have become the #1 university in Scotland and #3 in the UK, behind Oxford and Cambridge. They embrace those of us who can’t be constrained to any one category, who sort-of flow over borders. We are affiliated with study groups within the IR dept. with names like the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, or the Institute for Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies, and the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. The latter is sort-of my corner. But because I am interested in the choices of young people for or against violence, I also get to hang out with the Jack Bauer wannabes at the Terrorism Centre. Actually, we’re all in one big mix of a class right now, learning together about how to start climbing the Mt. Everest of a path that is a PhD.

Ok, enough boring stuff. I live in a small fishing village 20 minutes from St Andrews. It’s called St Monans. (The Scots like their saints.) My wee house looks out on a tiny harbor and the North Sea. Well, actually the part of the North Sea called the Firth of Forth. Edinburgh’s over there somewhere. I spent my first weekend there, visiting friends of a friend and fell in love with the city. It’s a cross between St Petersburg and Dublin. I live in the county of Fife. And the region is called . . . get this . . . East Neuk. For those of you who speak Dutch, you’ll know why I break into a huge grin every time I drive by the sign. What’s an East Neuk? I’d like to know.

The other morning I watched as my neighbor hosed down the wellies of her fisherman husband, put them back into the boot, wiped down his car, and put his boxed lunch on the passenger seat (yes, sometimes I’m immensely bored). And I thought, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

My little house has a living room with a kitchen stuck on one wall, and upstairs is my bedroom, from which I can hear the surf at night, and a small study where I watch the waves and the tide ebb and flow as I wade through my own ocean of books and articles needing to be read.

The Fife Coastal Path runs below my study window, so I hear hikers from all over the UK pant past, laughing and talking. The Scots are really into walking, which I think is cool. My first weeks here I did part of this Path and it took me up and down hills (who needs cardio?), over cattle fences, past hidden coves and along perilous cliffs. Unbelievably gorgeous country. Where I live is the sort of place people come to for a weekend and say, “Honey, why can’t we buy a holiday home here?”

Oh and the light. There’s a light in Scotland like none I’ve seen anywhere else. The Hague School of artists like Mesdag got close to it with their portraits of life in Scheveningen, but here, the light filters through mist and seems to lift a fourth dimension into all I see.

The title of this entry refers to traffic signs I pass every day. What do a “hidden dip” and “blind summit” have in common? The not seeing. And that is where I’ve found myself, in a land where I do not really see what is ahead of me. Perhaps it’s just as well. But all this not knowing has set me free to be curious and laugh and love and listen and learn. It is an odd time, but also a strangely delightful time. I am deeply grateful to my family for supporting and encouraging me along this path.

And oh yeah, of course! I’m learning how to play golf. My instructor is Irish and he keeps telling me, if I get the grip right, the swing will follow. Hmm, another metaphor for life?

Lastly, just to make sure no far-right, conservative publisher ever wants to publish my books again, I’ve included the following video. Thanks to fellow student Simon from South Africa for the link. And Daniel, this one’s for you.

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