Why it’s brave to be vulnerable

sunset

 

A long time ago, a friend translated a Brazilian poem for me called ‘The Almost’. I have no idea if it’s a famous poem in Brazil or something that barely anyone has read. I can’t remember what the poem was actually called in Portuguese. I have no idea if my friend actually translated it all correctly.

And I know I could google the answers to some of those unknowns but that’s not the point really.

The point is – I have a poem called ‘The Almost’, translated by a friend, that speaks so clearly to me, and has always spoken so clearly to me, that I carry it everywhere. It’s on my fridge. In my office. On my laptop. On several USBs.

It feels so important because it reminds me to be vulnerable. And it reminds me to be brave.

 

If you are vulnerable, you will always be brave.

 

And I don’t think enough people realise that. I think there are some people who equate vulnerability to weakness – and then stomp all over you or take you for granted. I think there are some who think they are the ones being brave or “honest” while doing the stomping.

But they don’t get it. Being vulnerable takes a strength that these stompy people may never understand. They also don’t realise that I will always get back up after any stomping – I always have. They are never as strong (or as hurtful) as they think.

 

As an aside, though, when did someone claiming honesty all of a sudden come to mean that are about to say something nasty? When is self-proclaimed honesty a justification to be an arsehole? At the beginning of my academic career, I made a decision to never become the kind of academic I had seen who never gave a positive comment, never supported the wonky days, who would yell or demand the impossible. I made a decision to be the kind of academic who was actually kind, or at least tried to be. I’m allowed to have wonky days too. A lot has been written about this – a beautiful piece at The Thesis Whisperer and I wrote something on it for piirusacuk just the other day.

 

Ask any of my students and they’ll tell you stories of the drafts I have give back to them dripping in track changes and comments, when track changes and comments were needed. Ask any of my colleagues the same thing. I’m not afraid to pull apart things that need to be pulled apart in order to make something better and stronger. I’ve picked up the pieces if my own work and done just that too. But I still have people telling me “You have to be honest” when they hand me their work and it always leaves me wondering – what do they think I’m going to do? Let them fail because I don’t want to tell them they haven’t answered the results section? Have a paper with my name on it go out with a mistake in it because I’m too scared to point it out to my colleagues?

 

I think though that because I always try to add something good in one of comments that people ignore everything else and think I’ve not been thorough enough. I always try for everything I read to try and find at least one positive comment to make – and sometimes it’s been really hard – sometimes the only positive comment is “well at least you’ve put a draft together to see what doesn’t quite fit together yet, let’s work together to find what does work”.

Sometimes I think because I’m not all fire-and-brimstone all the time, I’m not always taken so seriously.

 

But, here’s the thing – I think any writing, any research, even the hardest of sciences, is creative. We create something that didn’t exist before us and bring it to life in a paper. We are vulnerable when we do this – our creativity makes us vulnerable. We put this brand new thing in front of assessors, peer reviewers, examiners, other researchers, for them to tell us whether or not this new creation can go into the world – screaming for all its worth. We are vulnerable in this but we are brave in this as well – we trust that this new creation is worth it.

 

So when someone brings their work to me, I respect that this their vulnerability. Showing someone a first draft is an act of absolute bravery – and trust. I refuse to be someone who squashes the vulnerability out of them. That’s not to say I’ve never banged my head against my laptop reading someone else’s work but I’ve done that with my own stuff too – and I have no doubt other people have done that with my wonky first drafts. Or my wonky fourth drafts. So I take a step back and acknowledge the bravery and vulnerability that comes with every first draft, and I work out how to make this creation shine more brightly, in whatever form it takes.

 

It’s too easy to be critical of other people’s work – to stomp on it – to ignore what it takes to bring a new creation into the world. It sometimes feels frighteningly good to read someone else’s work and tear it to shreds, all the while thinking “I can do better than that”. And who doesn’t want to occasionally feel that they are good at what they do, better than someone else?

But it’s a short-lived thrill. If you give into it, you enjoy it for a moment, but someone else might be devastated.

I think sometimes the people who stomp gave into that thrill a long time ago – it’s become an addiction, their only validation.

 

Writing is a vulnerable thing. Research is a vulnerable thing. It is a brave thing to put your heart and soul (metaphorically but I don’t know your work, maybe tangibly as well) out into the world and see if the creation stands up on its own.

All of us would have had times when someone has tried to squash the vulnerability (and the bravery) out of us. It is hard to come back from. It is not as hard to come back from reviews that acknowledge what you have tried.

 

Being vulnerable and brave researchers gives us power. It makes us braver still to try new things – to discover more. And it also makes us return that recognition, to nurture the other researchers around us.

 

‘The Almost’ argues that the only way to see colour in our lives is to shed our fear about being vulnerable. To show people our work. To press submit. To create. If we don’t, we live in greys forever – we will never be at risk of failing or being rejected – but things will never change either. Being vulnerable opens a bright new world. You just need to be brave enough to step through the door.

Why the perfect red lip matters

2015-11-26 08.05.25So until this past Sunday, I had never really worn red lipstick properly before. Flirted with it just a little, tried red tints, but nothing that was boldly, unashamedly, absolutely red.

Red felt too much. My lips would all of a sudden be ‘HELLO!’ like a slightly drunken aunt in heels she can’t walk in after too much gin on a hot summer afternoon. While that is absolutely my future ambition for when I turn 70 – I will wear kaftans, and dye my hair pink again, it will be brilliant – it’s not quite right for where I am now.

And then I met the very lovely Mel at Mecca Cosmetica in the Myer Centre in the middle of Sydney. This reads like an unabashed plug but she really was brilliant (and very very patient) given I wandered in akin to a small duckling with a vague sense of wanting to try red lipstick and holding a fear of becoming a drunken aunt. Mel tried different textures and intensities of colours and ranges of red from berry to blue-based to hints. And after trying a whole bunch of lipsticks where my lips were stained with the remnants (which actually made a pretty fantastic colour), I chose the first one.

A matte, creamy, grown-up, unabashed, blue-based red.

It’s called Rita which just feels magnificent. Rita would absolutely wear a kaftan.

And I know the perfect red lip – in the grandest scheme of things – isn’t important. Unless you stretched your long bow to ‘self esteem’, it doesn’t factor into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There are many far more important things to be concerned about, and to think about, and to write about. And I am and I do. I can easily, happily live without red lipstick.

The thing is though – I don’t really care about those arguments. Sometimes you need silly and frivolous and a lipstick named Rita. A little while ago, the beauty writer Sali Hughes talked about how beauty products, and the rituals around them, can be these small beauties when life becomes decidedly less beautiful.

And there is something very powerful in that in terms of identity and wellbeing.

The mornings where I’ve taken the time to do the new lipstick properly, I’ve walked out the door differently, even though nothing else is different. Like a good dress with pockets and properly-brushed hair, Rita has been added to my armoury of things that make me feel confident and capable and happy. These are things that no one else will notice – and far more often than not could care less about – but can make an enormous difference to how I feel presenting, or participating in a workshop, or waiting for my flight home at the airport lounge scribbling down ideas for a paper. It can be hard enough sometimes to find your voice, and make in loud enough to heard, in such a big and hectic world – why not embrace the things that help?

These are small beauties and they work in small ways, but if I only waited for the big beauties and the big changes, what opportunities would I miss? It extends the idea of embracing yes to always being open-eyed to what’s out there and not assuming that something has to be ‘important’ for it to make a positive difference in my life.

 

 

Embracing Yes

Shonda Rhimes is a bit of a hero for me; her writing, her vulnerability and fearlessness in speaking out and challenging norms, and her way of seeing a long-term narrative into being.

She is deeply awesome.

(Plus Scandal has the best coat porn of any show ever.)

It’s a bit over one year today that the Thesis Whisperer blog, run by the wonderful Inger Mewburn, published a piece I wrote about the struggles about being an early career researcher in an uncertain role. I felt so scared – so naked – publishing that piece but met some amazing friends on Twitter through it – with their own fantastic blogs, see here, here, and here for just a few. That vulnerability was worth it. In it, I wondered about the practice of always saying ‘yes’ and how many yes-es could be balanced at any one time without being dropped.

And in her new book ‘The Year of Yes’, Shonda Rhimes talks about what she experienced in a year of saying yes – new experiences, new ways of being and doing, a wholeness of life uncovered.

And in the year since the Thesis Whisperer piece, I’ve also begun to truly believe in the power of saying yes.

I have this fear of losing myself in work sometimes where I get stuck in how I do something – too comfortable, too tunnel-visioned. That one day the words ‘but that’s how I’ve always done it’ will come out of my mouth when faced with a new, maybe better, way of doing something.

In saying yes, I feel less at risk of that, simply because I’m always around people who do things differently to me and so always explaining why I want to do something a particular way – and then smooshing both ways together to create something new and workable.

In saying yes, I work with extraordinary people who do work vastly different (and sometimes really similar) to my own but who are also fascinated in seeing the world just slightly differently to how they saw it before.

In saying yes, I am writing this in a university space in a small country town a few hours away from where I live, working on a project where I have learned about Aboriginal history, community-embedded art studios, and the politics of playgrounds. And seen more art deco architecture than I was ever expecting here.

Saying yes has been pretty brilliant.

But its brilliance has also been brighter because I have also discovered the power of saying ‘yes but…’

Yes but can I have another week to do the analysis so I can finish marking assignments…

Yes but if we start the analysis this way, it will be easier to pull together for a paper…

Yes but if I go adventuring to small country towns, coffee is vital.

Thankfully, I have yet to meet someone for whom coffee (or at least a cup of tea) has not been vital.

And in this way, ‘but’ has brought a balance to the excitement and inspiration of ‘yes’. Passion alone is sometimes not enough when you’re tired – it doesn’t get you through every challenge. What passion does do though – when you balance it with ‘but’ – is allow the colour to stay in everything – allows you to work through the night when there’s a deadline, to balance what needs to be balanced when there seems to be quite a number of balls in the air.

Passion nourishes you in ways that pragmatism could never do, but pragmatism keeps your feet on the ground, reminds you to eat, and keeps your iron levels from dropping.

Passion gives you the courage to try something completely new – even if it doesn’t work – just to know that you’ve tried it. And – as fellow academic nerds will also know – when something new works, it’s the best high.

Saying yes has made me more creative, bolder, and braver in my work. It hasn’t always led to success but I’ve felt proud of everything I’ve submitted this year and attempted to do.

And that nourishes in both a passionate and pragmatic way.

Pink hair and the zen of blah

This is always a rough time of year. Anniversaries of people I’ve lost, deadlines, marking, and end-of-year existential lala all seem to come together in October.

This week particularly has just been blah.

And it’s not that I don’t know how to self-care. I’m much better at it than I used to be, and I’m much better at recognising when I need to take more care than usual. Slowly, slowly stumbling my way towards grace as always with that one.

I run. Walk. Bake. Write. Sit in the sunshine with my small cat. Do breathing exercises.  Go to the foot man. Read books (in the sunshine if possible). Coffee (and skype) with friends as we dissect the world, and The Bachelorette. Sing loudly in the shower.

Occasionally sing loudly out of the shower.

Write some more.

Acknowledge my blessings, because there is no question of that. Remember that there are small beauties and small loves, great beauties and great loves, everywhere. Be present with the sunrise.

Get my hair cut/coloured (my hair may be more pink than ever before right now). Get something pierced, or cry in public at art exhibitions in Derry (hypothetically speaking)

You know, all the things.

I’m not sure there’s an article on stress or wellbeing that I’ve not read, just to make sure there’s not something I’m missing in the quest to keep on being well and happy. To make sure I am as OK as can be, as productive and as creative as possible.

I know I’m not the only one reading everything that comes their way on this.

But sometimes, it all feels a bit blahblahblah. That cogs are turning, and things are whirring, but that nothing actually shifts or changes. Movement and motion, but no action. All of Shakespeare’s sound and fury still signifying nothing.

As much as running is fantastic for relieving stress in the moment and it seems to be the best time for ideas to pop into my head (as an aside, why do ideas only appear best formed during a run or a shower?), all the running in the world won’t make my heart break any less for the anniversaries.

No matter all my insight and self-care and learning, this time of year is always hard. And I was talking to friends yesterday that it’s not that I miss the people I’ve lost in a way – they stay frozen in death whereas I’ve changed. I had to – I grew older. The person I miss isn’t the person they’d be now so that feels a false emotion for me in a way. What I grieve and miss – what breaks my heart – is the loss of that potential. We lost who they could have become, and what they could have been in the world. That I will never know who they could have become, for better or for worse or for all those in-betweens. And that breaks my heart every year.

And I realized yesterday that nothing can make that heartbreak better because how can you fix that loss of potential? There’s nothing that will bring them back.

But, strange as it sounds, yesterday’s realization gave me a freedom I’d never explored properly before. I sat in that rubble and mourned my loss. I had made myself a jam-packed day so did interviews and meetings and things. But I let myself grieve and feel heartbroken. And today I feel lighter for it; this morning I woke up lighter for it. Quiet still, but lighter. Almost as though giving myself over to heartbreak fully yesterday (and these last few days) was enough of a penance – not a penance for sin but one in memory, so maybe that’s not quite the right word – and this morning I could breathe with the weight that has shifted if not entirely gone.

I wonder sometimes though – in our quest to frame everything positively and to retell mantras – that we’re losing our ability to be OK with the blah. That maybe sometimes we need to sit in the rubble with our heartbreak and just be. Be present with our ghosts and make peace with them, because not all of them are scary. Some are just sad. That giving ourselves over to grief, just for a moment, allows us to then cleanse ourselves of it a little more. One week out of a year rather than a whole year. A week to feel the pain, and acknowledge its presence, rather than carrying the load all year in silence, hiding a broken heart.

I could out-PollyAnna a lot of people but, more and more, I wonder whether we strengthen our positivity and our resilience by feeling the hurt – and shouting out to the world that it bloody hurts – rather than coating it in inspirational sayings, rather than giving ourselves a narrative that we would be better if only we did this one extra thing or tried hard enough or read one more article. Maybe we can be OK almost all the time, and still sometimes be sad. Maybe being OK also involves being sad as well….? Maybe some times are just blah and you trust (and you know) that these blah times will pass.

I’m trying to figure this out and so far this is as articulate as I can be about it. I have pink hair as a result of trying to sit with my feelings and make myself feel better so this is certainly a grace I’m stumbling towards. Certainly there’s a line between sitting in the rubble and being drowned by it, just as there’s a line between one week turning into many more. But I think as well, when you travel with your trauma every day, you can also allow yourself to learn its ways as well. I know to surround myself with people I trust on the anniversaries. I know that I will be quieter and there will be some work I struggle to do in that week. So I make allowances and am kind to myself because – as long as everything gets done – what does the order matter?  I arrange this week so I can grieve and function all at once – a whole of life.

I’m not sure whether this will work all the time but it’s a process that I know now works for me after a long time now. I take all the bits that work and make a tapestry to protect myself and my inner PollyAnna, because she knows that everything will always be alright in the end.

Buffy, the invisible girl, and the importance of being seen

Back in the day, a million years ago, I did a law degree, and was taught by a professor who inspires me still. He was tremendously charismatic: this brilliant mind able to both race in front of you but look back to make sure you were at least still running to catch up with him. He was one of the most well and widely read people I had ever met, and still know.

We all adored him. And distrusted any other student who didn’t get him.

I had never watched a single episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ until I took one of his classes – because obviously this is where you expected the story to go.

He argued that Buffy was the post-modern Antigone, and this way of thinking completely opened my eyes. I’d never properly realized that you could pull all these different sorts of cultures together and unpack them. Outside of obvious remakes, I’d never looked at something so modern and pulled the narratives across to something both so much older and seemingly so different. Reading Sophocles felt like reading another world, whereas I wore similar clothes to Buffy. Well – similar-ish. It was amazing.

So, while I have never practiced law, yay my law degree for giving me Buffy and a whole world of textual analysis.

So, this afternoon, snuggled up with my small cat and lots of cups of tea, I indulged in way-back-when first season Buffy and the ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight, episode struck me. In this episode, the ‘bad guy’ isn’t a vampire but a girl who’s become invisible as a reaction to never being seen at school. It’s more than being labeled an outcast – you have to be noticed to be other-ed. It’s less active in a way. You are simply never seen, never noticed; conversations happen around you but never with you. You may be there but you don’t figure in anyone else’s world.

And so, because she is never in anyone else’s thoughts, she is overtaken by invisibility. Here, a name as signifier isn’t enough – the girl has a name – rather the argument here is we don’t see what we don’t remember exists.

And I wondered, in the aftermath of WSPD and RUOK (a sea of acronyms), how many people are never seen, how many people we don’t remember exist. Study after study demonstrates how important connection and belonging are to not only living well, but staying alive. We need to be seen in order to live, in order to remain visible. We need to have conversations with people and interactions with them that are real and whole. Not that every conversation with every person has to change the world, or that we have to interact with everyone. But that we really look at every person we interact with, look in their eyes, and connect with them – even when it’s just smiling and saying thank you to the person at the check out.

I wonder sometimes when so much effort is put into grand gestures, that we’ve forgotten just how important the small, everyday ones are. That words aren’t always necessary; sometimes just being able to sit in the quiet is all that is needed. But we need to be able to follow through with what is needed, and not be frightened about more words or about silence (whichever it is that frightens us the most at that particular moment).

It’s a brave thing, a vulnerable thing, to see people and allow ourselves to be seen. To talk to people and smile at them, make real eye contact. And it’s an easy thing to not do now. I’m hopeless at it sometimes – I’m reading blogs and catching up on emails on my phone the second I hop on a bus now, while I do my grocery shopping, while I’m waiting in a queue, wherever. But I wave and say hello to fellow runners on my morning run; a camaraderie there that feels old-school and special.

Huffing and puffing though I may be, and wishing desperately to lie down on the grass because running is hard, this is still a space in which I see people, and am seen. And there’s a preciousness in that.

So have a I deeply over-thought Buffy?

Safe Spaces and World Suicide Prevention Day

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. I was asked to give a talk this morning (as a researcher) for a community event. I wrote something more personal -decided to be a whole person, and not just a ‘researcher’. This talk went through several iterations as it felt increasingly necessary to be fully human with it. Practicing in the early morning with a tremendous human being half way around the world made me remember that we don’t change things by half-speaking. Sometimes we can only make change – and be truly heard – when we let ourselves be vulnerable and trust that our story can find its place in the world.

So, below, is my talk:

This has been a tricky talk to write.

Not because I’m not used to talking about suicide – I am. I’ve been a researcher in suicide prevention for a few years now.

This talk was tricky to write because, this morning, I’m also talking as a sister and as a friend. I was 16 when I lost a close friend; 21 when I lost my brother. I can tell you the exact moments I found out about their deaths because these were the exact moments my life shattered. I’ve re-built a life since then – re-built a great life – but a life without these two men I loved. And it’s a journey I still work on even more than half my life later. Mark and Michael still exist in every heartbeat, and they always will.

So I didn’t want to give a talk full of rates and numbers because, if suicide has touched your life – whether it’s because you work in the field, or are bereaved, or have been suicidal, or all of those things –  whether you’re used to talking about suicide or if you’ve never told your story before – if suicide has touched your life, you know rates and numbers don’t matter. Not really.

Because one preventable suicide is too many – the deaths that you’ve experienced are too many – the grief that you’ve experienced too much. In focusing on rates and numbers, I’m afraid that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that every suicide statistic was a person, and every person has left someone grieving. That every person who dies by suicide had a story, and every person left behind has a story too.  We need to start talking about suicide where we focus on its human-ness because that’s what really matters in the end.

So this morning – speaking as a researcher, a sister, and a friend – I want to ask two questions.

First, do we actually talk about suicide enough? Do we talk about suicide openly?

I work in the field; I talk about it all the time now. But I’m also asked about it all the time now because I’m recognised as someone safe as soon as I mention my job – I’ve had conversations on planes, in pubs, almost anywhere where a conversation can be started, where people have told stories of their suicidality, sometimes for the very first time.

But it took me a good 12 years to talk really openly about my brother. I was well into my PhD by then. I could find the words to describe other people’s experiences, but not my own. I could listen to other people’s stories but didn’t feel I could find the words to tell mine. No words seemed enough. I’ve foiund them – found some – but it took a long time.

Because talking about suicide is not easy. Suicide can be a scary thing to talk about. It’s a big thing to talk about. In order to talk about suicide, we have to admit that sometimes people feel such pain that they can see no other way to end it; that people can experience this type of emotional pain every day of their lives, no matter how much help they seek. That the life that works for us may not work for everyone – and we can so easily walk past someone every day and not know how they feel. I think for my family, and for me, the hardest thing we had to make peace with, the most confronting thing, was that we weren’t enough to save my brother. Over the years, in different ways, we’ve made peace with this.

But it’s been a confronting thing.

But just as we may struggle to find the words to talk about suicide, so too do people who are suicidal. In studies that have included people who have attempted suicide – and these are only just beginning – people have talked about how they struggled to find the words to describe their pain. That suicide was a selfless act for them because they thought they were too much a burden. And when they did find the words, they weren’t always heard or taken seriously. That it wasn’t always enough to be told ‘not to worry, that things would get better’ – sometimes people needed their pain to be truly recognised and acknowledged – they needed to be seen – and this could make people feel uncomfortable.

But discomfort isn’t enough of a reason to not talk about suicide. Discomfort silences not only the person trying to tell their story or ask for help – but it also silences us as a community. It’s so much harder to hear what we are scared to listen to. When we still face stigma about suicide – where people who die by suicide are still sometimes described as mad or bad or selfish – where there is stil, a perception that suicide doesn’t happen in ‘good’ families – silence only makes stigma worse. We need to start talking about this discomfort in a way that lets us make peace with it– where we can sit in the rubble with someone, and not feel the need to talk over them, but rather let them tell their story in their own words and at their own pace. Where we can sit in the rubble with someone and let them find a peace amidst all the uncertainty – their new normal – without having to say anything. Sometimes being quiet but present with someone is enough.

Which brings me to my second question, how do we make a safe space for someone to talk about suicide? A holding space to talk about the things that matter – so people feel supported, to ensure people feel safe rather than judged, and to help them heal?

Here maybe, we need to start looking at the small things. The small kindnesses that make a big difference when someone is hurting, when they need to be seen. In the same studies with people who had attempted suicide, they talked about being brought proper coffee while they were in hospital, a change of clothes, someone who just sat quietly with them to keep them company. They did not talk about being brought all the answers by a program, or a magic pill that solved all their sadness. There were no easy solutions. Rather, the people in these studies talked about finding people who got them – whether they were family or friends, or a health professional or someone else with lived experience – who understood that there would be good and bad days, who helped them find ways to better deal with the issues that made them vulnerable – whether it was counseling, or medication, or exercise, or art and writing, or mantras, or tattoos, or (most commonly) a mixture of all these things.  And different mixtures for different times, depending on what the person needed at the time. This was never an easy or straight-forward journey.

They talked about someone not only asking whether they were OK on a bad day but acting on the answer – spending time with them on days when they were not OK. And not just waiting until a person was not OK before doing something as well.

But also – and importantly – not presuming they knew all the answers. In areas like this, I think sometimes we are afraid to admit we don’t know all the answers. I will never know all the answers to my questions as to why I lost Michael and Mark. But this humility makes us better listeners, better health professionals, better researchers. We can make meaning out of uncertainty and shades of grey and spaces in-between – we can find peace with this – and admitting that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions also means that we acknowledge that people experience suicidality and bereavement differently. They will all tell their stories differently and take different journeys of healing. And these stories will be messy and raw and full of emotion. And acknowledging this makes a safe space for people to tell their stories. We have to trust sometimes that just listening to someone – being there for someone – without doing all the talking – is enough to make someone feel better. A might even be enough to save a life.

This can be a tricky day emotionally for some of us – it can be a tricky day for me emotionally too. World Suicide Prevention Day makes us realise how global suicide is – the experiences we share with millions and millions of people around the world regardless of culture and geography and everything else that is usually used to distinguish people. Far too many of us share stories of suicide bereavement and grief and suicidality. The person next to you, behind you, in front of you. Far too many of us are trying to tell stories that can feel unspeakable at times. It took me 12 years to find my words and I can still feel them in the pit of my stomach. In our stories of bereavement, we are all trying to explain the person we loved long ago, to someone who will never know them. Our lost person is a mystery to anyone else who doesn’t weave the same tapestry of memories. But it is important to keep trying to tell these stories in the hope that they might help someone else.

So today, we need to be kind to ourselves, and kind to others around us, as we honour those we have lost, those who still struggle with suicidality, and those who are bereaved. Days like today are important in remembering that we need to talk about suicide and we need to make sure that we are always safe spaces for people who want to share their stories.

When the answer isn’t always 42*

A few weeks ago, my Fitbit broke.

This caused a few minutes of anxiety. I was so used to knowing that I would usually walk around 20,000 steps today (I walk everywhere) and, in doing that, there was a sense of reassurance. That this amount of steps would keep me well; whereas any fewer would obviously let the wolves through the door.

After these few minutes though, I remembered that I would still be doing however many steps without a Fitbit. All it did was record; it didn’t determine or judge. There were no wolves, not really, that weren’t simply products of my self-judgment. A Fitbit alone wasn’t going to keep me well.

And anyway, two days later I got a tattoo on the wrist where my Fitbit would have usually sat. I would have had to take it off anyway. In the end it really didn’t matter.

But I got to thinking about the reassurance of quantification again a few days ago when I was unexpectedly asked to give a lecture on suicide prevention – what we know, what we don’t, and studies I’ve worked on that have given some answers which have led to more questions. I was asked questions during and after the presentation and most of my answers were ‘It depends on….’, ‘It depends but…’ Simply because we don’t know enough to give many definite answers. But more than that – simply because something so very human means that its not easily definable or quantifiable – or the same depending on time or space or place or person.

So much depends on the particular person at a specific time within circumstances that may never necessarily be repeated for anyone else.

But this wasn’t enough for some of the students; it never is for some. They wanted sureties and tick boxes and linear ideals where A would always lead to B but not straight to G. When I couldn’t provide this, some of them became a little frustrated. How could I be an expert if all I knew was ‘It depends…’

Friends in similar sensitive, human fields have had this same experience.

But being human doesn’t always equal tick boxes, or either/ors, or yes/no.

Being human can equal open-ended questions and both and maybes.

Being human can mean that there are few certainties, no answers that will always be right, no superheroes fully assured at the very last moment.

Sometimes we will be uncertain, sometimes we will be wrong, and sometimes we will fall and not be caught.

Sometimes our hearts will be broken and sometimes we will break hearts. And we won’t always be able to predict either, even if it’s of ourselves.

Sometimes the answer will be 42.

But sometimes – because we are all so beautifully, so magically, so brokenly human -we will want the answer to be 42 and it won’t be at all, no matter how much we play with the maths.

Sometimes there won’t be any answer and we could easily spend lifetimes chasing something that simply doesn’t exist. Or deciding that the answer is 42 regardless and wondering why nothing seems to work around it and all our fears and flaws don’t magically resolve.

Except that knowing the answer is 42 can make life seem simpler. There is a calm in knowing that 6×7 will always equal the same number. There are questions that have right answers and definite answers. Unchangeable answers – as unchangeable as anything can be. And these are brilliant because we can move onwards and upwards from them. We can build bridges from them. We can fly planes. We can see stars and find dinosaurs.

These are all entirely inspiring things.

But there will always be things that can’t be quantified. Can’t be numbered.

The feelings that get right to the core of being human – that can make a heart beat or make it stop. And it’s our very humanity that makes everything so complicated because how do we see inside our very selves?

How can you measure love? Or make a numerical comparison of that moment when you look at someone and realise you don’t love them anymore?

How can you measure anger between a fleeting feeling to something that causes irreparable damage?

How can you quantify how much you miss someone who’s gone?

How can you value how much a heart can break?

How many times can it heal over and over?

How sometimes it won’t?

None of these will ever add to 42. None will ever have a definite answer, a consistent one, one that will be the same over time and space and person.

No one thing that will always make a heart stop hurting, or someone return, or whatever it is that we’re searching for to make us feel whole.

And it’s this uncertainty that can cause discomfort. It’s this discomfort that makes it seem easier to search for bones and name the planets rather than sit in the rubble. But it’s this ability to sit in the discomfort – to be peaceful with it in some ways – that’s important. Here it may not be that answering questions is the ultimate goal but rather creating a space that allows for the discomfort and the uncertainty and the multitude of greys in-between.

Maybe we need to truly trust that there are more than 50 shades of grey and not all of them are fucked up by any means. That we can make meaning out of certainty without having all the answers. That we can give kindness, spread compassion, so good work, based on depends and maybes and sometimes.

That humanity is allowed and accepted in all its 42s and heart beats and heart breaks. That we don’t search for answers where there may not be any. That we trust the wolves won’t only not come to our door but trust that they were never there to begin with.

But that’s harder to teach. Harder to put on a band around our wrist. This peacefulness sits inside us, waiting to be recognised and nurtured, if we could only trust ourselves to believe in it.

*Apologies and credit to Douglas Adams – if only the mice were right.

Passion and lingering ghosts

The International Association for Suicide Prevention conference was in Montreal last week. Like Dubrovnik, this conference re-ignited and re-inspired my passion for the work. There were a lot of amazing people there – generous-hearted and ridiculously clever. There is something very cool about being able to talk with researchers who you’ve admired from afar and find out that they’re wonderfully and brilliantly human.

It made me think though of why we do the research we do – so many of us there in the one place and still not even close to being everyone – and what drives us to keep going. How the passion stays vital even in a metaphoric winter. And this is something that, were I to generalise, would feel too broad – that I’d be assuming there was one voice. What being in Montreal did was crystalise my love for this work – and how the personal and the professional are so entwined, why they both matter, why (I think) for me the personal grounds the professional, as well as strengthens it. I’ve written about some of this in a previous post.

I have lost a close friend and a brother to suicide: I was 16 when Mark died and 21 when Michael died. Mark has been dead for more than half my life now, an anniversary a little while ago which shook me quite badly. I’m not sure how I’ll be when that milestone is reached with my brother, how my family will feel.

Initially, I didn’t speak about these things so much. I still don’t speak about these things so much, so this feels a naked thing to be doing. The language of grief felt too limited to try and articulate what I felt, when sometimes I didn’t know at all, and feelings sometimes fluctuated. And sometimes you couldn’t be sure of your listeners either – sometimes I didn’t want to have to comfort them as well. Sometimes I just needed to be able to sit in the sadness, just for a little – to acknowledge that these two boys are frozen now in the past and my memories will only dim from here on in, that is, assuming, I’ve remembered correctly in the first place.

Memories though can be bastards.

There are beautiful memories of them both. Mark was the first boy to tell me I was pretty – so important when you’re 15 and deeply awkward. I remember walking along a street with Mark when a gust of wind roared through so strongly that it lifted me off my feet – and Mark held my hand, anchoring me to the ground. Michael was my idiot little brother – I never imagined he would not be there even when we were fighting over who should do the dishes, or who the new kitten loved more. These were boys whose presence I never thought to doubt. There never seemed any reason to doubt.

And there are other memories. The aftermaths of their deaths. And here, I remember Michael’s more clearly (or less hazily) because I was in such shock after Mark, felt such guilt. Everything passed by in a slow, painful blur. All I remember of Mark’s funeral is standing outside the church not wanting to go in because, if I went in, then it would be true and he really would be dead. I fell into a depression after this, stuck in the grief and the guilt that I know now is so common in suicide bereavement. I didn’t know this then though. I didn’t know then how many risk factors Mark (and Michael for that matter) ticked, not that this would make any difference to the sadness really. I didn’t know feelings could be so strong that they could kill you. I was put on anti-depressants for six months, where all my feelings sank as though under water so they were no longer so visible and painful. And then I was taken off them and worried whether feelings would ever be safe again.

When Michael died, it was almost as if what I’d experienced after Mark protected me. I knew it wasn’t my fault, and so guilt didn’t haunt me. Grief felt – not easier, not lighter – but different in that I knew the pain of grief dimmed, even if it left a scar. I remember first being told of his death. My hair was still damp from a shower and there was brilliant sunlight pouring into the lounge room where my kitten was sleeping, her eyes determinedly closed against the light. It was such an ordinary morning. I remember crying and packing while my partner at the time chain-smoked cigarettes.

Mostly though I remember the flowers that came in abundance after Michael died. Bright gerberas and other bunches seemingly made for grief – not too bright, not too fragrant. They sat on the table in the darkened dining room. More flowers than I’d ever seen in the house before. For all their good intent and love, they seemed to loom in the darkness – for the first time, I felt close to understanding Plath’s issue with the tulips in her room. My grief stole my breath – I want to say ‘our’ but I barely knew what I was feeling then let alone anyone else – and these things gulped all the air that was left. They felt more alive than the rest of us, more present in the space.

I’ve only begun to be able to bear flowers since – putting flowers from my ramshackle garden in milk bottles in the house. Flowers from florists though are still, to me, funerals and fuck-ups. Give me a bunch of flowers and I will automatically assume someone needs to be mourned, or something forgiven.

Sometimes the ghosts that linger are very stupid ones.

The only thing I remember of Michael’s funeral though is sitting in the front row, watching the coffin, willing it all not to be true, that is was all some fantastical mistake. I couldn’t grasp properly that my brother lay in there and that it was the end of him. I want to say that my heart hurt but I felt so numb and fractured, that nothing and everything hurt all at once, and none of that made any sense.

And in the aftermath of losing Michael, scared of falling apart like I had after Mark, and after being told by my then partner he was afraid ‘I would change’, I focused on being strong. I went back to uni and ended up with the best marks of my undergrad degree. I was untouchable because I pushed all the feelings aside to not let anyone know, still wary of these feelings that I knew from grieving Mark.

A year later though, I realised just how stupid this was, just how much I was hurting myself in being ‘strong’. I almost missed Michael’s anniversary and, in realising this, all the grief that I’d pushed aside fell over me like an avalanche. I realised just how much the death had left a wound, how little it had healed. And so I had to embrace those feelings of grief – the sadness and the anger and all the ones in-between. I had to rage about Michael’s death (here, Dylan Thomas felt more apt) and, as all my baggage became apparent, rage about Mark’s death as well. That their light had died, that it had just slipped away, nothing to could be done anymore.

And these losses stay with me still – healed scars but scars nonetheless. One of the things though – one of the positive things – is that I am very peaceful about feeling all the feelings. I accept that my heart is well and truly beating on my sleeve. I am very good at poker simply because people rarely believe my poker face can be so non-existent. A Brazilian poem called ‘The Almost’ inspires because it argues that you can’t live in the grey and the almost – that sadness exists so you can feel happiness, heartbreak for love, hopelessness for hope.

I didn’t enter this field because of Mark and Michael though. In many ways, it has made me more careful of how I research and what I do. It keeps me honest to what the purpose of this research should be, and that this job should be one of constant learning and questioning. I want to be passionate about this work because that passion is grounded in respect of those who share their stories, of the grief that those who work with me in projects have experienced.

I’ve sat down once before and written about Michael – encouraged by a brilliant Irishman I’d just met , and who is still a friend, to talk about the emptiness. I’ve not written about Mark before. That first piece took me months to write because I wanted it to be a perfect reflection of what had happened and how I felt – and nothing was perfect enough. But how could it be? All it could be – all this piece can be – was how the story came out in that moment. And in acknowledgment that this story differs depending on who I’m talking to, when I’m talking.

It also needs to acknowledge that these memories don’t tell the whole story, aren’t the whole story, can never be the whole story. There are things I know I don’t remember well and tell awkwardly because things are hazy. There are things I don’t know. My brother’s life and death were more than a fear of flowers; Mark’s more than standing outside a church. They are far more – far far more – than my grief. They exist now as a collective memory almost, shared between all of us who knew them, as we weave all our memories together.

I wonder though, will they exist after we’ve forgotten?

The majority of people in my life now have only ever known me in the after-time of these deaths. They will only ever know of Mark or Michael if I speak of them, and then only the memories I have or the stories told that day. It is strange sometimes to have something that I feel still in the pit of my stomach, that still seizes at my chest and stops my breath, that others don’t understand completely. And this is not in the sense of suicide bereavement and grief – this is shared with far too many people – but in that we are all trying to explain the person we loved long ago, and lost in a haze, to someone who will never know them. Our lost person is a mystery to anyone else who doesn’t weave the same tapestry of memories.

In all of this though, after all of this, I have finally found a voice, a niche, which feels right to who I am and to who I’ve lost. That they would laugh at my Sylvia Plath work because neither of them understood my continuing love of poetry but they would be proud of what the work otherwise, of the stumbles which have led to so much learning and, eventually, some success. That they would understand the drive behind work that sometimes leads to be the purchase of cat hats (and long story) but has also led to some of the most important friendships and mentoring of my life.

And for this, my work is always, will always be, in memory of Michael and Mark.

Is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot a Parable of Modern Academic Life?

The cycle of writing is a strange thing sometimes. I’m just about to submit a chapter based on a presentation which had to be submitted as a draft article which started life as a blog piece. Refining the chapter has been helping to keep the nerdy academic inspiration alive from the Storytelling conference, even amidst the pile of marking from which I may be more drowning than waving. So I wanted to share the presentation as a way to show something from the conference outside its tangible space. Should you be interested, the draft article with proper referencing and other such fanciness can be found here – http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/probing-the-boundaries/persons/storytelling-global-reflections-on-narrative/conference-programme-abstracts-and-papers/

The paper is called: “Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t tried everything”: Is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot a Parable of Modern Academic Life?

Below is what I said – one of my tools to help with presenting nerves is to write my notes in full and I can now write as I speak. So this is what I presented in Dubrovnik, walking around the room for a mix of dramatic effect and to prevent my jetlagged brain from falling asleep.

So I want to mix some low-brow with my beloved Beckett. In one episode of The Simpsons, Marge says “Bart, don’t make fun of grad students. They just made a terrible life choice”.

So – at a time when it feels hard to say ‘No, The Simpsons totally didn’t get that right – I just wanted to thank everyone for these three days of academic collegiality and inspiration.

On the surface, what I’m presenting today has nothing to do with my usual academic work.

My usual academic work is focused on narratives around trauma – suicide and self-harm predominantly. I’m fascinated by how these stories are told, how they’re heard, and how people speak about their journey out of the rubble. So a lot of my work is then about wellbeing.

I’m theoretically very good at wellbeing. Practically though, not so good. I’m stumbling towards grace with this one.

This paper came about because last year I had an academic confessional published in The Thesis Whisperer – a blog targeting PhD students and early career researchers. I wrote it when I was feeling lost and burnt out and very very tired. Inger gave it the very dun-dun-dun title of ‘Is Academia Worth It?’ I don’t know whether you’ve ever felt entirely naked in front of a whole lot of people but that’s exactly how I felt when it was published. More people though have read that piece than anything else I have ever written.

But, as a result, in the solidarity and kindness that exists within so many academics, a lot of people sent me their own academic confessionals. But where mine had been a wonder, a thought bubble, theirs were determined war cries of ‘This is why I left and this is why it’s better now’.

This is how I met the ‘I Quit Academia’ letters.

And just in case you think it’s just me and two of my mates, in recent years, ‘I Quit Academia’ letters have grown in such a number that they have been called a new sub-genre of academic writing. They not only expose the skeletons of academia’s closets, they dismantle the romance attached to academia. They acknowledge the privilege (hello conference in Dubrovnik) but also show how this privilege can be dented (hello more time flying here than actually being here).

For this reason, they can also be unpopular. As one I Quitter stated: “Complaining about a situation that other people would envy is not a way to make friends”.

But is this envy based on romance or reality?

And what has any of this got to do with Waiting for Godot?

I’m sure everyone knows Waiting for Godot So I’ll just give a brief précis from how I read it for this study.

It’s an absurdist account of two friends in a lonely, muddy field with too little to eat and nothing much to do. Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo) are simply waiting for Godot. We know little about Didi and Gogo beyond their waiting – we know even less about Mr Godot apart from the fact that he never appears. There appears no earthly reason for them to stay – and yet…

I love this play. It both makes me weep with laughter and want to open a cake and whiskey shop. I saw Godot in Dublin in 2013. The man who took me told me it was a blessing, and it was. It was one of those moments where a story you’ve known suddenly hits you between the eyes, tears right to your heart, and you know you have to write about it – you’re just not sure what. So I wrote on napkins in the intermission – took those napkins back home to Australia and was eventually writing an entirely different paper when the I Quit letters arrived and I realised, as I became immersed in both, just how the stories told in these very modern letters fit the story of Gogo and Didi.

The initial sense was one of stagnation – a fear of leaving, just in case. This uncertainty was somewhat based in leaving something others would envy – even with Gogo and Didi, if Mr Godot comes they will be saved.

The stagnation then becomes retold as an active choice, rather than a trap. The story becomes – well, we choose university and all the romance, we also need to choose the reality. This is the bed we’ve made.

But should we accept the increasing rates of mental illness and work-life imbalance attached to academia? Should we accept the stories of suicides linked to these imbalances as simply tragic one-offs?

Does the reality have to be either turnips or tenure?

So, in the spirit of ‘anything can become a research project’, I used content analysis to compare the language of 90 I Quit letters with the language of Waiting for Godot and found three shared themes: frozenness, worthiness, and hope for redemption.

While by no means a systematic sample (it’s coming), these stories demonstrate the difficulties attached to leaving a dysfunctional space when you’ve worked hard to normalise the dysfunction. If, as Didi says, “habit is a great deadener”, I Quit letters show hearts beating again with a new-found passion for something else.

At the risk of sounding like a certain Disney movie, Didi and Gogo have yet to learn to let it go. They are frozen in place, waiting for Godot. Throughout the play, the words “let’s go” are repeated eight times in two narrative sets. Yet no matter how determined the words sound, “let’s go” never translates into the action of going. Their despair, their hunger, their suicidality, attached to waiting – discussed at length while waiting – isn’t enough to prompt action.

This frozenness is mirrored in the I Quit letters. However, when academics recognised they were stuck – when they recognised the privilege was well and truly dented – this appeared to act as a warning bell for the I Quitters. Frozenness was their canary in a mineshaft. Yet this frozenness is not grounded in some Disney-esque fantasy. Teytelman writes:

I accepted the miniscule pay, the inability to choose where to live, and the insane workloads of professors. I accepted the uncertainty of whether, after 10-12 years as a graduate student and postdoc, I would actually get a job as a professor…. I saw all of these as the price to pay for doing something that I love.

This is no blind romance. This is the academic version of Gogo’s continuing hope for a carrot, even when constantly presented with turnips. These are stories of people waiting in a muddy field for an elusive promise. And as the waiting became longer and harder, as even turnips became harder to find, there was increasing recognition that maybe the system was broken – because it didn’t matter what you did, how you tried, gaining employment outside casual and limited-term contracts was nigh on impossible. Leaving then became a protest against a broken system.

But the thing is – the system doesn’t look so broken from the outside – it’s only when you’re frozen inside that you realise the intimacies of the trap around you. How do you justify leaving something so romanticised and valorized by others – when confessionals can be heard as whingeing, even if that’s not the story told. Sarah Kendzior wrote a beautiful piece in her reasons around leaving academia which illustrate the continuing belief that education remains the ultimate meritocracy:

‘Our family came here with nothing’, my father says of my great-grandparents, who fled Poland a century ago. ‘Do you know how incredible it is that you did this, how proud they would be?’ And my heart broke a little when he said that, because his illusion is so touching – so revealing of the values of his generation, and so alien to the experiences of mine.

This realization of being frozen links strongly to how those waiting perceive their worth. Are they waiting so long because they’re simply not good enough?

Indeed, Didi speaks a line that can hit very close to home: “There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet”.

And it’s not as though academia has ever shied away from rejection and constructive feedback. We’ve all had drafts given back dripping in ink.

While we would be poorer academics without this, it also means we are at times chasing a rainbow. The bar for ‘good’ has now been set so high that good is nowhere near good enough. In a grant writing workshop, I was told ‘you don’t ever want to ever be told you’re just good’ – with real horror in the facilitator’s voice. We now must be outstanding just to have a shot. One of the I Quitters said: “everyone has a book contract, peer reviewed publications and stellar teaching evaluations. This was not the case when today’s associate professors were hired in the boom of the 1990s”.

Yet, also bubbling within this striving-for-better-than-good is the loss of your identity. Who are you if not an academic on tenure track? Didi and Gogo are so bereft of identity outside their everlasting waiting that we only know their full names in the play script – they only ever call each other by their nicknames. They almost become ghost-like at the end of each day – worried that they’re not memorable enough to be remembered by the boy who tells them Mr Godot isn’t coming.

I Quitters also found themselves lost without certainty. They spoke of themselves (and colleagues) being ‘spent’ after unsuccessful job interviews. They spoke of fear. Of sadness. Of being too tired for anger.

They talked about academia being a lottery with your life at the centre.

Those who quit had to find a new self – they spoke of peeling their identity away from academia and then having to forge a new one. They had to work through the label of ‘failed academic’ to see what failure meant.

They had to work through whether a job they loved despite everything was actually worth everything.

Yet, is there a  hope? Is the dawn at the end of this dark night?

Certainly what-ifs linger and lead an academic down a path of ‘just one more’ in the hope that it is this particular one more thing which proves to be the golden ticket out of casual contracts.

Didi experiences this hope when he believes Godot has arrived: “All evening we have struggled unassisted. Now it’s over. It’s already tomorrow”.

Yet Godot never comes and they continue to wait.

One of my PhD students examined experiences of hope within ambiguous loss. She was told that hope hurt – it was not this warm and fuzzy thing. Hope left you stuck waiting. Hope meant the loss never ended. When there was no clear end to the waiting, hope was rarely a positive experience for long.

And, indeed, many of the I Quitters found this too. Hope was not enough and hope hurt. And in realising this, they also realised there was life after the rubble of their academia.

They talked about new jobs and transferability of skills. But they also talked about simply feeling better – emotionally and physically. Blood pressure stabilised. Sleep became restful. Nosebleeds stopped.

Essentially realizing that they didn’t have to wait was liberating. It’s easy to look at these letters – and Didi and Gogo – and criticise them for their naiveté. They trusted, they presumed, they were too passive.

But it’s hard when you’re in the field to see what could exist outside it. In our frozenness, the broken system remains frozen too. As a result, either Godot arrives or we break out.

Yet, despite all of this, it is always a struggle to leave. And this struggle is evidenced by the I Quitters, demonstrates the enormity of the act and speaks to the passion that has fuelled them, and what they have had to leave behind.

In the end, it is awakening what habit has deadened.

Didi says: “What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion, one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come”.

I Quitters looked at Didi’s question – what are we doing here – and made a new answer. They found their blessing in emerging from the rubble of academia into a brand new world.

A change of space

I am a true academic nerd.

A card-carrying, flag-waving, hand-on-heart academic nerd. And I’m deeply happy and very peaceful about it.

About a week ago I arrived back from a 3-day trip to Dubrovnik where I attended a 3-day conference.

Australia to Croatia for a 3-day work trip – 4 planes there and 5 in the end to get back home (I had to go to another meeting in a different state in Australia on the way).

It was slightly insane and definitely a smidge hysterical when I discovered really and truly that 3 flights in a row is as much as my actually-getting-better fear of flying is really and truly better with.

And the thing is, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Even with 4 flights in a row. Maybe even with 5.

The conference was that good. It was that inspiring. And it reminded me why I entirely love storytelling and narrative-based research.

A friend asked me how it was and I told him it was ‘intellectually nourishing’. He had never heard that term before.

(I went to ID.Net’s Storytelling conference should you want to be inspired sometime: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/probing-the-boundaries/persons/storytelling-global-reflections-on-narrative/conference-programme-abstracts-and-papers/)

I had 3 days in a room listening to some incredibly passionate (and incredibly lovely) people tell the stories of their fantastically interesting work.

It still makes me want to use all the adjectives.

All the work was all very different to mine in myriad ways, even within a communal space of storytelling. Some people shared similar research interests but many did vastly different work and listening to what they do opened my eyes to whole new worlds. Worlds I will never work in but ones that I’m so happy to know exist because ground-breaking and community-grounded work is being done in so many corners of the world.

And the thing is, because I was on the other side of the world, and away from the vast majority of email and Moodle and my usual distractions – and because my deep jetlag ensured I could only concentrate on the words being said in front of me rather than my monkey mind – I actually had the chance to listen properly to what was being said. And to be inspired. And to realise all the goodness being spoken in front of me.

It was the coolest thing, says the academic nerd.

Because I was in a different space, I could be entirely in the moment. Somewhat by accident, I became enveloped in an academic mindfulness, a presence that I struggle to find sitting in my office. Emails were still flying about, things were still happening, due dates and deadlines still existed, the world kept flying along on its hectic pace, but nothing fell apart because I was in a storytelling bubble and didn’t answer everything the very second it was sent. Not that the world would fall apart without me but that I want to do the best of the jobs that are mine – still trying in many ways to be many (not all anymore) things to all people. It becomes easy then to get lost in the bits rather than the whole, to push aside what makes my academic nerd shine in the face of other loud and competing deadlines – the things that have to be done, that are important, that we all have to do as academics, and that will be different depending on the academic.

And so in this space half a world away, in a space full of ‘my people’ who understood intrinsically what I wanted to say because their minds worked in similar ways, I found my breath again, recognized that my heart still beat beneath everything else. Sitting in the beautiful sunsets, chatting madly to brilliant fellow conference-goers, things slowed down enough for me to appreciate how quickly ideas were flowing. There is nothing better than good wine, good food, and very good conversation.

But now I’m back. Back to the office with its emails, Moodle, very present deadlines, and all the other distractions (which may also include the office kittens but they do tend to be quite calming as well). All the rush and noise and the too-easy ability to slip back into the bits rather than the whole, the louder rather than the nourishing, the things that take up time but may not always challenge me to be more creative or open-eyed.

So I’ve made a promise to myself. I’m holding onto this feeling for as long as possible, come chapter deadlines and piles of marking.

I’m holding onto the inspiration.

I’m holding onto the joy.

I’m holding onto the space, even if it’s now more metaphoric than physical, that made me feel so present and in the moment of the work.

I’m not sure entirely how – mindfulness has always been tricky for me which feelings of being present always feel so precious. Yet, I’m hoping that just being aware of that space – that it can and does exist – is enough for now. To be aware of taking breaths throughout the day, especially when things are hectic and slightly overwhelming, to centre myself and find where the bit I’m doing fits into the more inspiring whole.

So, what do you think?