Writing Retreat Day 3 – I am back from my walk and settling into another day of just getting it done, plain and simple. There is no doubt I work WAY better like this – immersing myself – concentrating on one thing at a time. (Multitasking is a myth!) And although my “real life” makes this kind of arrangement (hours upon hours of uninterrupted writing) mostly impossible- I’m hoping I can at least cultivate some deeper focus that I can carry home with me- But, for now, I revel in the solitude.
Day 1 down- hunkering down for day 2. I managed to get a fair chunk of work done- even though I had hoped to get a little further ahead. I made the realisation yesterday of just how much I have trained myself to function like I am constantly racing against the clock. This is the case in my ‘real-life’ of course – I ‘only’ have so-many hours until the kids get home, I have to cook dinner, do laundry, pay attention to other humans…But not here- so, what is so surprising is that all of that is still very much present in my body—I had to keep saying out loud; “You have all day! Get up from this chair! Stretch! Eat! It’s OK to look after yourself!” I did swim out to the floating dock in this photo. (I took a pool noodle with me for safety as per my ol’ man’s instruction). It was glorious. Refreshing. I’m going to do it again today.
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’ve finally managed to get a bit of a running practice/groove going on here. It has been 10 years since I ran a marathon— (it appears that I am still wearing the same running shoes!) and although I have only ever run the one (there were a few half-marathons in the year or two before and after ‘the one’) despite wanting to, because of a myriad of reasons (moving to a city that is a frozen tundra for 6 months of the year, tearing a hamstring in a supermarket fall, starting and trying to finish a PhD etc… etc…) I have not been able to get back to running regularly, never mind train for a marathon.
Before I go on, let me just make this clear; ‘running’ for me is a very broad term– I define it here, for the purpose of this blog post as; “sufficiently moving my body in such a way that may resemble shuffling or walking, yet which results in my face turning beet-red and me breaking a sweat.”
I have been using a “>Couch to 5K app – Every morning a disembodied voice greets me at 5:15 am with a cheerful (no, make that creepy) “Hey awesome runner!” and then, throughout the next 35 minutes instructs me when to walk or run and adds further peppy comments like “Great! You’re doing it!” (No sh*t-Sherlock – you think I’d be listening to you if I wasn’t out here plodding along the deserted streets at dawn?!) I tolerate her banter only because it keeps me honest. I’m good at following instructions and I fear that if I was left to my own devices I’d give up and walk more than, run.
I have to say, I am really, really happy to back at it. Over the winter I was desperately trying to find an exercise regime that made me feel everything that running does for me, energized, raring to go and mentally clear. But, despite sticking to a gym-based routine that included time on the elliptical machine and weights it always felt like a chore. I have been faithful to my daily home yoga practice (inspired very much by the book Yoga at Home that I return to again and again) but desperately knew I needed more. And, I have to admit being outside, after a looooong hard winter in which I was I was sick a lot… colds, hacking-persistent coughs, fevers and even a pneumonia diagnosis at one point. I am just so happy to be outdoors. Plodding along.
Early morning is my absolute favourite time. I love the nearly deserted streets. I nod to the few other runners I encounter on my way (and pick up my pace to save face when they come into view) and feel total respect for all those on the first bus of the morning (already standing room only). I keep only one ear bud in so I can hear my creepy-disembodied running coach chirp her commands and inspirational catchphrases (“You’re almost there! Keep going!”) But my other ear is tuned to the morning birdsong — for me, the best kind of inspirational catchphrases.
Besides the beet-red face and sweat, running both clears my mind and gets the ideas flowing in a way that nothing else seems to be able for me. Most mornings, part ways into my run, I am fumbling to record a voice memo on my phone (temporarily silencing Suzy Slogan the running coach) while mid-stride because I have an idea for a artistic project, or (on the best days) a few words come together that help bridge something I have been mentally sweating over in my PhD thesis revisions. Sometimes I try and make it home and go straight for my notebook when I walk in the door to scribble down some notes that may or may not be indecipherable by noon, but, never mind- I am already in slightly giddy from the feeling that the creative juices are flowing all before 6am.
Some mornings, along my route I look for ‘signs’- clues, or prompts that may get me going… thinking beyond my research and my own little mental bubble.
I have been running past this car ever since I started back running six weeks or so ago. Each day I would try to come up with different signs it offered me. Abandoned car, (vehicle, machinery, transportation) multiple parking tickets (violations, fines…) AND (it’s hard to see in the photo) but hanging from the rear view mirror (LOOKING BEHIND? BACK?) is a dream catcher (!) I took the photo a week ago– just because it was inspiring so many ideas. But, today the car was gone.
So, I will continue my early morning shuffles. Searching for more clues.
“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.