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.

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?

Supervision, goodness and thumbprints

A foundation of my PhD was deconstructing ideals of goodness. One of the things I learned after being immersed in the language of goodness for many years is that always trying to be ‘good’ is anxiety-provoking.

‘Good’ is hard with little contentment at its core. Any success is tenuous – you clutch at it with white-knuckled fear and through grim determination.

‘Good’ is somewhat terrifying.

Reading Inger’s recent piece on The Thesis Whisperer (http://thesiswhisperer.com/2015/04/08/supervisor-or-superhero/#comment-253490) has made me think about goodness again. Inger asks: what are the responsibilities of being a (good) supervisor? What should we ask of them? What should we expect of them? How many superpowers should they possess just in being? She uses Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example of what a good supervisor could be like.

God, I love Inger’s writing – a Buffy reference just makes me deeply happy.

I am absolutely not a superhero. I would trip over my cape and fall flat on my face at the very first hurdle. But then, even Giles put Buffy in danger with his demon-filled past and bad tattoo (“The Dark Age”, Season Two, Episode 8, should you be interested). Even the most committed and well-intentioned of supervisors can lead their charge astray by not being open about their past, their baggage, and their vision for the future.

Mark of Eyghon or not, it makes me think of how academic lineages (for want of a better word and without sounding too much like a Game of Thrones character) can be created and what they can inspire in people as they make the journey from candidate to graduate. In asking whether we have done a ‘good’ job as a supervisor, the list Inger dissected makes food for thought – so much of it is important because the PhD journey is not just an intellectual pursuit. If only it was just an intellectual pursuit – it would be, in so many ways, something far more nourishing. A PhD though is an emotional journey as well – as you increasingly dissect an increasingly narrow and focused question, to create some beautiful piece of previously unknown knowledge, you find out so much more about yourself as well. And – although this will never inspire songs and poetry – at the very end of the day, it is an administrative process. Margin width and font size and reference style and paragraph formatting. How is it that getting tables to stay on one page and page breaks to remain consistent is just as difficult as actually doing the project itself? Sometimes harder – I entirely gave up on my graphs.

These journeys in their culmination of new knowledge, a heavy document, and a change in title impact us. How could they not shape every facet of our life? We will never be the person we were before we started the PhD, which is by no means a bad thing, but it is something that needs to be acknowledged. I am not the person I would have been if I’d not read about goodness for so long. I certainly wouldn’t have watched so much Buffy, or worked my way through baking almost all of Nigella’s Feast.

We are each of us impacted, for better or worse, by our supervision experience and the journeys we make in attaching ‘Dr’ to our name.

So how do we then recognise whether we are a good supervisor? How do we know whether our Mark of Eyghon is more pronounced than not? How prepared are we to rid ourselves of marks which could put our students at risk? Or, at the very least, acknowledge just how important a team of supervisors are chosen for their ability to contribute to a team effort. Alone, we may never be super heroes but well pt-together teams could be unbeatable.

This week, I have seen one PhD student submit her thesis and another officially have his thesis passed – and passed with a Chancellor’s Award. Excitement has been mingled with shell-shock; breaths have been exhaled; excess champagne has been drunk. And it’s been this strange thing to see the PhD journey from the other side for the first time – first completions, first submissions, first full drafts, first wanting to throw the whole thing in the river. It’s made me realise a number of things.

  • How lucky I have been in my supervisory teams where I have been mentored in this new role as much as I have mentored my students.
  • That PhD journeys will always be hard, regardless of supervision style, superhero or not.
  • Difficult journeys don’t always have to leave lasting scars though. Sometimes recognising the warning signs of when a student is in trouble (or might be on a precipice of trouble rather than having fallen in) is just as important as helping them with methodology.
  • That a good academic is not necessarily a good supervisor. A PhD has to be owned by the person doing and a supervisor has to empower that ownership and celebrate it. For this reason, ownership might look very different to how you initially envisaged. Buffy certainly wasn’t the Slayer Giles was expecting but they ended up saving the world (a lot). Supervision is guidance and, especially towards the end, much more listening.
  • That I can’t always protect my students (official and unofficial) from the stresses of their PhD, no matter how hard I try or how much I want to. What I can do though is be as human as I can with them – share what I can, listen, empathise, concept map, and work through drafts together.
  • And that there is still a way to go as well. I will always be learning how to supervise, just as I will always be learning how to do better and more innovative data collection methods and analyse the findings, just as I will always learn more and more about writing. And that constant curiosity, the need to always strive to be better, even when I make mistakes, will help me grow into being a ‘good’ supervisor in the tradition of Giles. Will at least keep me on my toes If any bad tattoos start tingling.

Sometimes in academia, it seems to be all too easy to look for perfection and assume, if it’s not there, that something has gone wrong and whatever exists needs to be discarded and started again. But a presumption of perfection, the need for ‘goodness’, can squash the intellectual curiosity that should be driving us. Research might never truly be perfect – we do the best we can amidst constraints of time and money and energy and how our data appears at the time. There is a tradition in Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi where beauty is located imperfection – that what exists is transient and should be seen in the moment. There is a simplicity to what is created. Sometimes, a potter will even push a thumb- print into a piece of pottery to ensure a mindfulness of this imperfection and impermanence. Maybe as supervisors we need to be able to allow the wabi-sabi of research to occur – to trust our students as they place their thumb-print into the thesis. That, right then at submission, everything that could be done is done and that the goodness is as much as can ever exist.

Mostly though, it makes me realise just how much I want my students to have their heart beat with their projects, even when there are days where the thesis gets thrown in the river. I want them to feel inspired by the wabi-sabi and the endless curiosity. Just as I want them to remain in my own work too, because students are amazingly inspiring too.

So – what do you think?

I always find the long way home*

I was never been a natural at planning and structure – it’s something I’ve had to work hard at – the what ifs have always been the more interesting. Plans seemed like they might shut out serendipity and structure enclose people in a world of grey routine. And what happens when a plan goes awry, as plans often do – the more flexibility allowed the better it seems at times. This may be a smidge melodramatic but there’s always a small voice in the back of my mind saying ‘If you do this, can you still run away to the windswept cottage?’, even if the windswept cottage has still yet to appear in reality.

I like lists of things to do and to aspire to and love writing to be published, so that’s always helped, something very tangible to work towards. I’ve always trusted in the universe that things work out as they’re meant to, that as long as you work hard, put goodness out, and keep your eyes open then all will be well. The burning need for my work to be challenging, innovative, and positive for the people involved helps drive me in a good direction.

Apparently though, other people (most people?) have more structured strategies about life – and have made decisions in life based on clearer and less serendipitous ideas about where they want to be in the future. As I work on different grants at the moment, particularly Deczilla, I’m learning that not everyone else has fallen into their fields. Or maybe they just narrate their story more coherently than I do.

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished school. All the choice froze me. I knew I couldn’t do anything maths- or science-based but other than that – nothing…. I just wanted to go to uni and study something interesting. I had a Japanese class just before the absolute final due date for the forms to apply for university. My Japanese teacher was awesome so, in desperation, I asked her what she had studied. She had done Modern Asian Studies at Griffith University and had loved it – so that’s what I put on my form.

I too loved Modern Asian Studies but at the end of my first year, I was drinking coffee with two friends – Richie who’d started uni with me that same year and Carlos who was about to graduate. Carlos worried that his degree wasn’t enough to get a job, that he should have done law. Richie then worried about this and decided she should do a law degree – and that, it would be fun, we could do a law degree together. The next day, my paper work went in.

And I loved doing the law degree along with Asian Studies – it felt like I was reading people from so many disciplines. It felt like a proper education. But at the end of my third year, my brother died by suicide, my world turned completely askew, and I realised I didn’t want to be a lawyer. The theory inspired me more than the occupation and – in a moment of deep irony given I now work as an academic – I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in an office. Also, heels and suits and ironing aren’t my favourites.

So I had to decide what to do after the undergrad degrees. At the end of my final year, I was having coffee with a classmate who said I should do Honours – apparently coffee inspires life-altering decisions. With no idea of how my brother had died, he said that female suicide rates in China were really high and that why not investigate that – I’d done a lot of subjects on women and China. This felt far away enough from my brother to be doable. The forms were due that week and I started Honours the next year on female suicide in China and the power of ghost stories, gendered oppression, and tradition.

I never planned on doing a PhD but it seemed the natural progression after a year in China wondering what to do with the rest of my life – why not do all the uni I could possibly do? And as much as this story sounds like the old lady who swallowed a fly, this is the field in which I’ve stayed. For all the serendipity and twisty roads, I’ve found the long way home to a place which constantly inspires and challenges – in making me want to be a better researcher, a better person. It makes me want to write new lists and eke out more minutes within the maelstrom to write more words.

*With obvious thanks to the very wonderful Tom Waites

Feeling all the DECRA feelings

This could just be my lack of sleep and the resulting general hysteria talking but I give the grants I’m writing nicknames in my head. Right now, the DECRA is Deczilla because it stomps through my life on its way to submission, towering over every other deadline and allocated task, causing general disruption. And yet, I’m strangely fond of it and love creating this project that might actually help those people who end up participating in it, yet is still true to who I am as a researcher.

It’s the green monster in ‘Oh, the places you’ll go!’ but that’s a deeply unwieldy acronym.

So in having this tumultuous love-hate drunk-dialling affair with Deczilla, I’ve been distracted. Upset at being a smidge ignored for the first time since her arrival, my little cat Laks has now taken to destroying all the toilet paper she can find, shredding it throughout the cottage in protest. And hiding all my pens under the couch. She is full of feelings, is Laks.

But, toilet-paper-strewn cottage or not, my head is entirely full of draft at the moment – my brain sectioned into different parts of the project description, where every word matters. Not that every word doesn’t matter usually but here, in eight pages, and structured sections all requiring completion, there is no space or allowance to quote poetry – even though Sylvia Plath describes it so much better than I ever will, this ‘mad miracle’ I’m trying to study. There is no space for tangents, no matter how interesting – all the interesting things have to remain interesting and full of so-what and gently punch the reader with its impact within the structured eight pages. Must admit that the idea of anything I do punching someone feels slightly against the whole ethos of my work. Could my work maybe just outline a door they’ve never seen before, and open it up for them? Like the wardrobe in Narnia but full of research validity.

Every word has to be perfectly polished because ‘good’ is no longer not even close to being good enough and, while this is exciting in a deeply nerdy way, the work it takes to make something truly outstanding and exceptional is immense. Kittens in tutus and dogs in tuxedo jackets, and all.

Deczilla has to be seriously decked out.

There is no space for the feelings of imposter syndrome and the uncertainty that can plague us all as researchers, at any stage of our career. I know I am the best researcher to do this project – and that this project has the potential to be truly and positively impactful for people who have never shared their stories before. And while writing that still makes me scratchy – creating a self bound to special snowflake-ness doesn’t come terribly naturally – in my heart I know that no one would make this project run or work in the ways that I will. With someone else, it would no doubt have less poetry, and where would its music be then? How would the stories be honoured?

And in all of this, my head is full, and I am distracted.

It bubbles away in the back of my mind so I wake up thinking about it – take notes randomly when things pop into my brain. Things that may not seem sensible at all to anyone with any sense – Plath’s ‘mad miracle’, the quote I badly paraphrase where losing demons could mean angels fleeing which I always thought was Rainer Maria Rilke but is apparently Tennyson…. But these matter because, as they bubble, they suddenly turn into part of the background or a justification for methodological approach. They create the foundation for constant questioning, for continual revolution. They ensure that I don’t get stuck in lazy presumption and easy tradition.

How can there not be a push-pull effect to things when life is so unexpected?

With so much serendipity in the world, research will always have its serendipitous ways too.

There is a paper written by Maggie O’Neill that circulated around the office a little while ago – ‘The Slow University: Work, Time, and Well-Being’ (http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/2226/3696). When everything is so rushed, and everyone is busy, and Deczilla has to be so monstrous because otherwise she’d be lost under other time commitments, the idea of taking time, and purposefully making space, to think and to reflect becomes so vital. Precious in this strange and secret way. Whispered so as to not disturb it. Not just for wellbeing, but for making projects beautiful, for writing thoughtfully and carefully. It’s an article I need to read again and think some more on.

Maybe the beauty of Deczilla lies in her very monstrosity. Like Eco talked about in his book on the history of beauty, sometimes you choose the face upon which you gaze. Sometimes there is a singular beauty in the grotesque, in the terrifying. Writing this grant not only gives me an opportunity to create a wabi-sabi project of my very own but, in the community we have here, allows me to see the amazing work of some truly incredible colleagues. Things I would have missed otherwise. These singular beauties, the face I choose to gaze upon.

So, I’m off again to another workshop to harness the monstrous stomping, to make the poetry more realised into grant-speak, and to create a project that could even set my field a little alight.

How do you feel about grant writing?

The stories we carry

The other day, a conversation with a friend that started one way ended in an entirely different direction, which is pretty normal, but also left me thinking about how to articulate the emotional life of research within an increasingly quantified world, and where these stories of human-ness fit.

Bear with me…

If you count the start of my PhD as the length of my life as a researcher, I am coming up to my 9th anniversary – my PhD took a while. Apart from making me a million years old, it is almost nine years of working with stories of suicide, self-harm, and bereavement – and missing now – as much as stories of resilience, healing, and meaning-making.

During my PhD, I used to dream about a few of the participants, especially towards the end in the write-up – the ones who stood on the brink of the precipice with very little holding them back, apart from chance and hope. There is one woman who I’m certain is not alive now, who chose death because she didn’t want to live, whose words still hit me in the pit of my stomach when I read them. There is the veteran who I met at a workshop who told his traumatic story in such a straightforward way because he didn’t realise that everyone else didn’t live their lives with the same pain and worry constantly simmering just below the surface. There are the colleagues in remote communities who keep on doing the most amazing work amidst all the challenges and shared grief that come with living in remote communities (in Australia at any rate) that are very easy for people not to see when they live away from there.

Writing of her study on child suicide, the very wonderful Bec Soole wrote that her research meant “there is now a melancholy that I humbly carry within myself”. That hit home, for me and for others. It’s true – every story, whether told in a research context or on a plane or while cutting up fruit before a footy match, stays with you, even in the tiniest way. Even when you think you’ve forgotten. Some stories are heavy, some lighter, but they are all carried. What I’ve heard in the past impacts on how I see people now in terms of risk and vulnerability, how I see myself. It takes a concerted effort sometimes to turn it off, to not see everyone like this. The stories shared, often of people’s darkest moments standing on the precipice, are intimacies, held close, carried as a reminder of why the research is important, and why it needs to be done in a way that is rigorous and ethical (because badly-done research helps no one) but also in a way that is deeply human.

Research – at least for me, in this field I fell into – is more than just however-long-an-interview-lasts with a person asking them questions in whatever form they may take and then ending the conversation and walking away; the person then to become a line in a spreadsheet. Much research is, and has been, done in this way and well-written, heavily-cited papers have been created from the findings of such research. And lots of it really has been good research.

But participants are people. And people are more than their experience that has peaked research interest – they are more than their mental illness, more than their bereavement, more than their death even, because there is (or was) a whole world of life around them.

I am suicide bereaved and this unquestionably impacts who I am as a researcher – just as all experiences shape who we are as people and researchers. When I first started, ideas around research would be framed in my head around ‘Would I let my Ma participate in this?’, ‘Would I let someone ask Ma this question?’ Now, a million years on, this has evolved.  There are more people in my mind when I think of how my research ideas would come across, how they would impact upon participants – there are people with lived experience who very kindly read drafts of things for me and tell me how to make it stronger and more appropriate and relevant. However, I am also far more aware of myself in a methodological sense – I’ve formed a kind of reflexive praxis, inspired by Jaworski and Tamas, which grounds every step of a project: what am I asking, what am I seeing, how am I hearing? Am I hearing what the participant is saying or are my experiences seeping through? There are times when being a sister and a friend makes me a very safe space for participants, and this has helped me become (hopefully) a good researcher. Yet, on the opposite end, during analysis, to be a (hopefully) good researcher, I need to be aware of how this could cloud others’ stories and I need to step away from those parts, to constantly reflect on the stories in front of me, shared by others. It can be exhausting – analysis is always exhausting – on intellectual and emotional levels. And it also takes time – sometimes it feels like the longest time – to sit with people’s narratives and work through the themes and the language, and how the different stories speak to each other. To make sure my analysis is constantly grounded into their experiences and my retelling is authentic to all of this. But this way of research, to me at least, honours the bravery it takes to participate in studies and the stories that I will then carry with me. I can’t imagine being a researcher in any other way. OK, that’s not true, I absolutely can, but this way feels honest to who I am and what I want to do. We always talk about making sure our methodologies suit our methods suit our questions – and perhaps who we are as well needs to factor in that same way?

Other researchers in similar fields have spoken of the stories they carry and I guess it’s more natural in a way to experience this when your research means interaction with lived experiences of trauma, as people tell their stories. But do other researchers in other disciplines have a sense of this too? Maybe an equation so close to being solved and yet… Or a finding seemingly familiar and yet just that little bit different to maybe be unique… Do other researchers, when in that position, carry that story too, of being so close to an answer with it just lingering out of reach?

The thing is – maybe I am too sensitive to the stories, maybe they shouldn’t make me cry, maybe I would write millions more papers if it was more distanced from me, if I didn’t need the time. So many maybes – they’re very pretty, like butterflies, but just as short-lived. Because the day that hearing one of these stories doesn’t make me tear up, or reach out for a hand, or just sit quietly with someone afterwards, is the day I walk away from this field and not look back. Because these stories should hurt – they should be felt. They should spark something. And however much we carry afterwards will always be far less than the person who experienced it in the first place. We don’t shed our humanity simply because we take on the mantle of ‘researcher’ – or at least we shouldn’t. And our research doesn’t become any less valid or rigorous simply by virtue of caring for our participants.

There will always be stories that weigh just a little bit, whose ghosts linger just a little bit longer, but these are reminders of what we should honour, and why ethics, rigour, and humanity of our research matters. Writing grants now, enacting myself as a quantified self, I wish a little that I could write in a more grant-like way and not get tongue-tied trying to explain why the emotion behind it makes for better science. I wish a little for graphs that demonstrate it. But I also know the work I’ve done (and the work I am asked to do) exists because of who I am as a person, methodologically-placed and all.

Balance and an academic VLEMWy

This week, while working on study guides for the units I teach, I’ve been watching all the TED talks around human rights, and all the YouTube clips on methodology. All of them.

Some have made me cry more than others.

(Should you not be taking my human rights course this trimester, may I recommend Panti Bliss http://huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/12/panti-bliss-ted-talks-_n_6457860.html and Chris Abani http://www.ted.com/talks/chris_abani_muses_on_humanity_html – they are both heart-stopping in their humanity. Thse are the ones I hope my students watch where it changes something in them – it makes them remember and do, rather than just listen and forget.)

So, amidst the unit stuff, and drafts of grants due scarily soon, and writing that keeps on being put at the bottom of the pile, I’ve become a smidge distracted, even though in my deeply nerdy way all of this stuff is really fascinating. Anything that isn’t tied down to deep-seated routine has become subdued in the background and half-thought. I’m always careful about eating and Laks has a subtle way of reminding me that she needs attention (biting my ankles and/or my face) but other stuff can too easily fall away.

But distraction has impacted me this week. I’m forgetting more things than usual and morphing into a Mr Magoo. And when Laks plays her ‘Hooray it’s 4:20am!’ game, my mind is whirring too much to actually get back to sleep. I find the dark circles underneath my eyes really bring out their colour.(But then, when the words work and the draft starts pulling together…)

It’s something we talk about a lot – life seems infinitely stressful, and escape from the stress something that needs to be planned and worked on, not something that comes so easily anymore. And the 4-year-old in me rails against the idea of planned calm – a dictatorial meditation doesn’t seem quite right.

For that reason, I’m never quite sure about some of those articles you see that claim to show you ‘7 signs that you’re happy’ or ‘3 things all calm people share’. The anxious researcher in me thinks of it in terms of a checkbox – if I only get 6/7 or 2/3, then am I unhappy or un-calm? Is my happiness just a reflection of my denial? It’s all too much.

More and more, it feels necessary to find moments that are nourishing, rather than needing whole chunks of time that simply require too much energy to attain. Not so much trying to find balance (and then feeling bad if I don’t) but acknowledging that the right now is a time of imbalance – and this acknowledgement in itself feels like room to breathe because I’m not trying to be perfect but just peaceful being me in all her whirring-brained glory.

The right now is a space of working out how much I can do, and enjoying the bits if writing I can, until I find a few moments in the sunshine again to recharge. And given that I’m writing this in the grey and the drizzle, the sunshine can be metaphoric too.

More and more, while the right now is what it is, nourishment is best found in silliness, because it takes me out of my head, because it’s moments of laughter that doesn’t need to be pondered. So – playing mouse with Laks. Singing very loudly to terrible songs while making brownies. And QI because Stephen Fry simply makes me happy – and it leads me to more comedians – David O’Doherty being the latest one. He is adorable. He calls his comedy Very Low Energy Musical Whimsy or VLEMWy (and who doesn’t like an awesome acronym?).

So in my sleep-deprived haze, in the grim and the drizzle, in the imbalanced right now, I’m embracing a somewhat Monkey-Minded and Befuddled Academic Whimsy. I’ll work on the acronym later.

So, how do you find your whimsy in the imbalance? Or do you avoid imbalance altogether which does seem rather sensible…

Clean white sheets and a brand new space

I’m sure everyone has them but there are books I come back to like old friends. They may not be re-read every year but opening the first page feels like a warm blanket, an exhaled breath when your toes touch the sand. Every time I read them, there is something new, some detail that I’ve not seen before that feels perfect for where I am at that very second.

AS Byatt’s ‘Possession’ is one of those books and I’ve been reading it again since the beginning of the new year. For those of you who don’t know it, Roland is an early career researcher whose work revolves around the work of the 19th century poet Randolph Henry Ash. He finds the draft of a letter from Ash to an unnamed woman stuffed into a forgotten book in a library. The woman is another poet Christabel La Motte, and this discovery takes him to meet Maud, a leading expert in her work. Together, they find out about the relationship between Randolph and Christabel and the secrets they kept.

Cue anticipatory dun-dun-dun noises….

Byatt calls it a romance but it’s not one in a truly traditional sense – and even writing that feels like a gross over-simplification of it. Relationships begin and end in it but it’s so much more than that, deeper than that. At its core, a love of words, and beautiful words at that, exists. And, god knows, I have always followed beautiful words.

The way I’m reading it at the moment is the relationship you have with your work – how what you research can become this significant part of you. Not just who you in terms of being a ‘researcher’, but how it shapes the ways in which you see the world. And how meeting other people who see the world slightly differently (or a lot differently) can entirely alter your whole existence – all of a sudden a whole world is opened to you that you had no idea existed before.

These two people, and others around them, who are experts in their field don’t know everything, and won’t know everything. There will always be secrets, things unheard, and things unsaid and that’s not a negative in any way but something beautifully humbling. We all hold some things close to our hearts, the things that feel too precious to say aloud. And we all share some things with the world. It feels very human to exist within those dichotomies.

This sense of unknowing is enhanced by the fact that ‘Possession’ was set in 1986, so there is no internet and no smartphones. Information takes time to reach another person when it is shared, especially if phone calls are missed. There is a sense of isolation almost in the narrative that wouldn’t exist now, a sense that time was less a focus because there was less assumption in immediacy. Things could take time because they usually did as a matter of fact. People could be uncontactable.

Right now, the idea of being uncontactable is both hugely romantic and deeply terrifying.

There’s a part in the book where Roland’s dream of a white bed – of clean white sheets – is described. I’ve always loved it because it feels so much like a search for a fresh start, a blank page. Throughout the book, there’s a sense that he is searching for this white, crisp space. Yet, Maud’s vision of white sheets is initially something less calming. Her journey becomes one around unbinding – she has kept parts of herself hidden for too long in order to do her work. Maud’s journey with Roland, as they travel alongside Randolph and Christabel, unleashes what is hidden in myriad ways over time and space. She becomes more of herself because she feels free to do so.

There’s not quite a happily-ever-after – but who really trusts those anyway? Yet, Roland and Maud demonstrate what power there is – what can be uncovered and discovered – when driven by intellectual curiosity.
It’s a beautiful, inspiring thing.

What is your go-to, desert-island, end-of-the-world book?