Writing retreat on the eve of day one. The family has just left and I am setting up my workspace before I head to bed so it is all ready for me when I wake. The plan is to write/edit my derrière off for 4 days with appropriate breaks for swimming, yoga, meditation, walks on country roads, reading and eating (not necessarily in that order). All this with limited human interaction. Bring it on!
“I am just finishing up my PhD” is a term I used frequently these days. It happens mostly when people ask what I have been up to or, in the situations when I am meeting people for the first time as a means of telling them what I do. For those I am meeting for the first time it does the trick— but for friends and family who ask it is always fraught with a bit of “Oh! You’re still doing THAT?!”
Yep. Still at it. And I will sometimes go on to explain revisions and resubmissions and sometimes just leave it at that. Still at it.
Dani Shapiro writes in her book; Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life “When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier.” And I would argue that it is the same in a PhD journey. While I acknowledge that I have grown in so many ways, gained heaps of knowledge and will almost, kinda, sorta now claim to be an almost expert in my field… it most certainly has not gotten easier and in fact, I believe it has gotten harder in that ‘the more you know the more you know you don’t know’
As a split location International student (this means my school is on one continent and I live on another) I am not around people who are also PhD students much.
It is lonely. And even to the few other PhD candidates or recent grads I come across here, explaining what I do can be complicated as the UK and North American systems differ widely. Add the fact that I am doing a practice-based PhD something which can be a thing of mystery to even other students in the UK system, and it gets even more complicated trying to explain myself.
We can all agree, however, that it is hard. And, I am sure we can all agree that it will feel SO good when it is OVER.
But in the meantime… Yep. Still at it.
It’s my birthday.
And while I do have days (like I wrote about in my last post) where I feel a bit conflicted about getting older or especially in being a ‘mature’ student, for the most part, I am quite content about the whole thing and really try my very best to embrace it. I definitely subscribe to the whole “older and wiser” mentality. I know I am a better mother, partner, teacher, student, researcher NOW at 52 than I was even 1 year ago because of my life experience, or more specifically because I have had the time to grow, learn and become.
This past Saturday night I ripped through Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography. It was one of those truly serendipitous moments of picking up the right book at the right time. In it, Levy, as the title suggests, writes a small section of her autobiography focusing on one specific year of her life where she was undergoing some major changes; a divorce, the death of her mother, the challenges of being a woman in midlife all alongside her struggles in her career as a writer. What spoke so deeply to me was her ability to communicate how those of us who have defined ourselves for so long as mothers, or, as partners to others so often end up in this kind of liminal place– between what we were and what we might become. After spending so much of our time and energy building a life for our family and/or investing in relationships, romantic and otherwise… of being the nurturer…taking care of others… The notion of being free to do what we want and to create our own independent lives may seem exceedingly difficult and requires equal amounts of patience, humour and energy.
What also spoke to me about Levy’s book was the bird theme that runs through it. Birds! I have been thinking so much about birds lately and this further added to my feelings that it was fate that brought this book to me mere days before my birthday.
The kids has asked me a couple of weeks ago what I wanted for my birthday and I told them, without hesitation, a squirrel-proof bird feeder. I have beautiful feeder that they gave me years ago when we still lived in Vancouver and I was incredibly disappointed when we first moved to hang it up only to have it pillaged by the hoards of squirrels that roam my neighbourhood here in Montréal. At birthday dinner last night (we celebrated a day early so I had time to prepare an extra special meal -haha!) they presented me with my coveted squirrel-proof bird feeder. I was ecstatic. I quickly filled it and hung it outside just above my little St Francis of Assisi , patron Saint of birds and animals tile.
I began thinking about all the symbolism wrapped up in birds not just for me personally but also in life generally and I was reminded of this by Hildegard von Bingen;
“Birds symbolize the power that helps people to speak reflectively and leads them to think out many things in advance before they take action. Just as birds are lifted up into the air by their feathers and can remain wherever they wish, the soul in the body is elevated by thought and spreads its wings everywhere.” ~ from Liber de Subtilitatum
The power to speak reflectively.
Yes. Without a doubt something that I have been pondering very closely for while now.
But the bird feeder wasn’t my only gift!
Sons number 2 and 3 also arrived to dinner with a gift that they had bought all on their own.
It was a scale. A bathroom scale— like, to weigh yourself with. An interesting gift to buy for your mother to be sure… everyone had a good laugh. And, of course I had to get on the damn thing. (not so funny) But! As I was already into some serious metaphorical -thinking about my birthday and the bird feeder I couldn’t help but think about…weight. As in there is a lot of weight in my musings on birds; the power to speak reflectively… yes, but, I was also thinking about freedom. I was meditating on birds and their ability to fly, to soar — the freedom inherent in gliding over and looking down on all that is below. The weightlessness of it all.
After dinner when the boys had gone home, the others were heading to bed and the ol’ man had finished the dishes (he’s good like that) I went to put away my good serving plater he had left on the table for me to put back in the china cabinet. As I was shuffling things around in there I picked up a china egg that had belonged to my mother-in-law. When she died 5 years ago, we ended up with a box of assorted knickknacks that, in all honestly, I hadn’t paid too much attention to. They were put away in the china cabinet and have sat there since. For some reason, last night this giant china egg caught my eye, mostly because I didn’t really remember it.
When I picked it up I discovered it opened into two pieces, and lo and behold, what was inside but two little glass birds. I had no idea there were birds in there. I took it to show the ol’ man and he also had no idea.
I brought it to my desk and carefully made a place for it— I think this egg and the wee birds inside need to hang out here awhile.
There have been no visitors (that I have seen) to my bird feeder yet this morning but as I walked my son to school this morning we heard a woodpecker, some crows, a whole mess of chickadees and saw (and heard!) a bit fat robin. It is cold-ish (-2C) and there is still snow on the ground so Spring has not yet sprung here. I will keep watch over my bird feeder, eagerly waiting for the first (non-squirrel!) visitor, while the little glass birdies will keep watch over me as I continue to “think out many things in advance before [I] take action…” speaking reflectively and with weight.
Happy bird-day to me.
I had an old and very dear friend stop by with her teenaged children for dinner and a visit last night. We live on opposite ends of the country, and haven’t seen each other for ages and it was really terrific to catch up. We went to high school together and her kids are pretty much the same age as my #4 and #5.
She is one of those friends with whom it is easy to just jump in and pick right up where we left off. Our conversations can be raucous, highly animated, wildly enthusiastic yet methodical as we go through the happenings of the last 5-6 years in each of our lives and share tidbits of gossip of our shared friends.
I hold my friend in high regard. In high school she was “the smart one”- and while she may have thought herself to be a nerd of sorts I have always seen her as one of the coolest and most interesting people I know.
We took fairly different routes after high school. We both went to university but she took, not surprisingly, a very direct path– fast tracking through an undergraduate degree, then on to law school followed directly by a successful career in which she has balanced motherhood (and very successfully from my point of view, as her kids are absolutely lovely). My path began with a degree studying music with an eye towards a career in performance, then, midway through that degree I changed majors to theatre— I didn’t quite finish my last year when a ‘surprise’ pregnancy led me to drooping out to begin my journey in motherhood. 3 babies later I returned to finish my undergrad degree … THEN I went on to have 3 more babies (while doing a smattering of performance and teaching gigs) and when my youngest was 2 jumped next into a Masters Degree… Following that, somehow, buoyed by a misguided feeling that academia was indeed… fun(?!) I started my PhD.
And 35+ (!) years later here I am.
Sitting listening to my friend talk about how she is really working to come to terms with this phase of her life; kids growing up and going off to university, empty nest and all that— I couldn’t help but feel a bit envious. Not because she will have her kids grown before me (my youngest will only start high school in the Fall) but more in terms of TIME. The time she will have for herself…to do whatever she wants. It just seemed to me that the really, really hard work of parenting and career building was behind her. She’s not yet ready to retire but she is very secure in her working life. The ‘having to prove her worth’ career bit was done.
I have had to think a lot about how doing this PhD is NOT all about getting a job, because there is a very good chance that my status as a part-time University Instructor is not going to change. Full-time professor jobs in my specialty are few and far between. Throw in my (and my family’s ) unwillingness at this point in my (our!) life to move to any-old place to take on a new job and the odds are definitely stacked against me of ever landing THE job. I HAVE to be okay with this, and in fact when I started this mature student PhD journey I cheerfully chirped about it being about much more than the pursuit of a tenure-track job. “Sure” I said, “a job would be great and all but it is really mostly about scholarship and achieving something. I want to show my kids that anything is possible! If I, a not-so-academic mother of six can do it, anyone, with a little gumption and a whole lot of elbow grease can!” (OK I never actually thought elbow grease had anything to do with it, but gumption most certainly does.)
However, 5 years later, as I drag my exhausted self to the finish line, I am not always so chipper about facing the reality that, unlike my friend I may never have the same kind of job security. Somehow I have to find peace with that. If this PhD journey leads to THE job well, maybe that will be considered a bonus of sorts. Everyone loves a bonus but it cannot be something you expect or feel remotely entitled to.
In the meantime, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And if I can get this beast of a thesis submitted before I am too old to sit at my desk then maybe somedays, that is all I can wish for.
I am sharing academic writing specialist Jo VanEvery’s newsletter here; It struck a chord with me because in it she talks about Brené Brown’s book //ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=mamalegato-20&marketplace=amazon®ion=US&placement=1592408419&asins=1592408419&linkId=bc5ebb4a1529736950a0377df1dc6eb6&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=false&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffff“>Daring Greatly; Brown’s work centres around shame, vulnerability and failure all of which I having been pondering quite deeply lately. I’ve read some of Brown’s work previously, yet,I admit to … Continue reading “It’s a sign”
I am sharing academic writing specialist Jo VanEvery’s newsletter here.
It struck a chord with me because in it she talks about Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly
Brown’s work centres around shame, vulnerability and failure all of which I having been pondering quite deeply lately. I’ve read some of Brown’s work previously, yet,I admit to having similar feelings as VanEvery towards these kinds of these celebrity psychologists (but I often end of reading them or at least about them anyways). As VanEvery says; “I’m glad I’ve decided to read her work though. What she says about shame, vulnerability, and innovation is directly relevant to academic life”- I haven’t read Daring Greatly but I can say for certain this is what I am finding as I read another of Brown’s books, Strong; The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution.
I have definitely been having my own reckoning over the last while — around my research, my PhD, my LIFE… and I will inevitably get around to sharing some of that soon. As it stands, it exists mostly in the frantic scribbles of my journal and the frenetic corners of my mind– But! as someone who pays attention to “signs”, sent from the universe, or otherwise, VanEvery’s newsletter showing up in my inbox today, for me, surely was a sign.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit”. ~Aristotle
I have a little card on my desk that has this quote on it and I come back to it again and again (and again). I fully admit to being very distractible. Sometimes I try and go easy on myself… to give myself a break…I mutter to myself, “well, you’ve got a lot on your plate… all these kids…elderly parents to tend to…an almost finished PhD to… just finish already… several teaching gigs… midlife…and just life-life… You have a lot to be distracted by….how can you not be distracted?!” And, well, yeah, sure. I guess those things are all true… But! Really! I am REALLY just easily distracted. I WANT to focus but I am weak, there is stuff to read and look at and fiddle-fart around with. As I have professed on many occasions I am a big ol’ procrastinator— yet, still, I get up every day determined that today I will be better. I know it is a practice—I just need to continue to practice staying focused, I practice daily, fighting against my urge to procrastinate. It is a habit that I will forever need to be mindful of, and there is no easy fix. I recently ripped through the book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles” by Steven Pressfield on a morning that I had dedicated to working through my PhD revisions— This is nothing new to me— procrastinating by reading books about how not to procrastinate but, I have to say, this procrastination session was particularly enlightening and dare I say, useful. Pressfield’s book resonated deeply with me because his theory revolves around what he considers to be the enemy of creativity; resistance. Procrastination is the result of resistance and fuelled by fear. Fear, Pressfield attests, can be a good thing— it indicates to us that something is important to us— and in my case, this is true. While I do tend to also procrastinate about doing things like cleaning the bathtub and folding the laundry these are not the things that have fear attached to them— my PhD, the play and the article I am writing , these are the things that have fear firmly attached to them and as Pressfield suggests “…the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance.” (2002 40) And, well, yes, the degree of fear I feel from avoiding scrubbing my tub is significantly lower than my fear of not getting my PhD revisions done in time.
If I am what I repeatedly do then I want to believe that acknowledging and wrestling resistance must simply become a habit, and part of my practice as an academic, artist and writer. The wrestling takes many forms. Plain old willpower is one way to do it, removing distractions is another. I have been using the website blocker Freedom— which helps. I had read that Zaide Smith used something similar and I was, of course, thrilled to know I was not alone (and in very good company) in my distractedness. It helps. And I will actually laugh out loud to myself when I habitually click on one of my blocked websites while I’m in a Freedom session only to find a green screen with a butterfly on it staring back at me. Resistance is futile, I suppose, and deadlines are looming.
“Censor the body, and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard”. (Cixous, 1975)
This quote from Hélène Cixous (The Laugh of the Medusa) has, without a doubt, been my guiding light throughout the last three years of my PhD journey, and if I really take a moment to think deeply about it, in my life-journey in general. As a voice practitioner, writer, academic, feminist, these words perfectly sum up what I try to achieve every day. To tell my truth. To live and work as my truest self. And I know that the surest way to get there is through the body. To quote my colleague Noah Drew “If the body isn’t free, the breath can’t be free and if the breath can’t be free the voice can’t be free.” Voice, in this context, includes not just my physical voice but my voice as it appears on the page. Perhaps one of the most daunting aspects of being a Doctoral Researcher is truly owning “your body must be heard”, each day I have to sit down with the attitude; “I have something new, innovative and important to say!” I struggle with it constantly. It is of course why Impostor Syndrome is so prevalent in academia. Who am I to declare “My body must be heard?!” Who in their right mind cares about what my body has to say? To completely mangle perfectly good XTC lyrics; “Censors working overtime Trying to tell the difference ‘tween the goods and grime turds and treasure and there’s one, two, three, four, five…” That just about sums up my final slog towards submission…these final weeks, as I try to sort out my theories, my ideas… am I really contributing to the scholarship on this? Do I really know the difference between the “good and the grime” the “turds and the treasure”
I suppose I can only write myself. Turds and all. There is no one else.
“I, too, overflow; … my body knows unheard-of songs.”~ Hélène Cixous