Labelling my stationery

Yesterday I popped into our postgrad office to print up my thesis-in-progress.  I’ve reasoned that I’ll find it easier to delete sections if I have a hard copy I can refer back to if I need to… and I can use it to mark up and review the follow-up notes I store in the comments to myself at the side of the page … and to check that the dreaded references are all in the proper format! 

I’ve been working at home recently and although I was only in the postgrad office for a couple of hours, it felt good to be there and catch up with colleagues and friends.  Although we are from a variety of disciplines and are undertaking often very different projects we are a close community.  Sometimes I think that there aren’t many people who ‘get’ what it is like undertaking doctoral research.  I don’t think any of my colleagues have said ‘why don’t you just sit down and write it’ or ‘how hard can it be’; instead there is support and a sense of camaraderie in our shared experiences of the ups-downs-highs-lows-miseries-and-celebrations as we carry out our research. 

Yesterday, settled and working at my ‘hot desk’ in the comforting cocoon of the office, the fire alarm started to blare.  There was a moment of waiting for it stop.  Then there was a moment of exasperation as it kept going.  Then there was a quick moment of clattering as fingers clicked keyboards to ensure documents were safely saved.  Then – resigned to the situation – we were on our feet, coats grabbed, bags slung over shoulders and shuffling as quickly as we could down several flights of stairs, to stand – at first outside on the road immediately outside the building and then – after we were shooed along from our ‘ready-steady-waiting to get immediately back in’ position – to stand in the crisp chill of the Meadows.    

Standing outside in a huddle, we laughed as we tutted about the disturbance oh for goodness sake… someone in the building has probably set the alarm off making toast…(again!!!)…we’ve got work to do and then we laughed at ourselves as we were the first to be skipping happily back into the building the moment the fire brigade left and a fire officer signalled the all clear.  Laughing, in the lift, on the way back to the top floor, we recognised most people would probably enjoy a moment away from their desks…but sometimes, when you are reading-writing intensely, any kind of disturbance disrupts the kind of continuous writing and focus that I know I so desperately seek when I’m writing up my thesis.   

Today, I’ve worked at home at my PhD desk in my wee study.  My desk is littered with books and papers and object that are relevant to my research – but it is a very tidy organised kind of chaos.  I like to feel comfortable in my space.  And I like to know that I know exactly where everything is – even if it looks untidy.  Sitting with the thesis-in-progress I eventually got printed yesterday (along with a number of new articles (that I know I do not need to be reading!)) I hunted down my stapler and hole punch so I could organise and place them in a folder.  The stapler in the postgrad office rarely works (if it can be found with staples in it) and I don’t think I’ve seen a hole punch in the office…which is why I just popped the papers in my bag yesterday ready to be stapled and filed at home… until I realised this morning – that I could not find either my stapler or hole punch in their designated locations on my desk… or accidentally popped in a drawer… or downstairs in the living room… 

A quick visit to the shop and I am the happy owner of a new stapler and hole punch – which I have clearly labelled ‘Mum’s stapler’ and ‘Mum’s ring punch’.  Look – I said to the kids – these are minethese belong to me – and no-one is to touch them and then I softened a wee bit – well if you touch them or borrow them (like the ones I suspect you have already borrowed from me and mislaid/lost-never-to-be-found somewhere in the depths of your untidy disorganised rooms!) then you ABSOLUTELY MUST RETURN THEM…OR ELSE!!!! – or else what…?  They are disinterested as they shrug…. it’s only a stapler and hole punch.  Less than half an hour later,  my eldest returns to my wee study… You know Mum… he sagely says… you would be better spending your time concentrating on your thesis rather than going on about your stationery.  And with these words of teenage wisdom bestowed upon me, he wanders out the room with my new hole punch in his hand. 

And as one of my newly purchased belongings made its way out of my wee study (probably never to be seen again) it made me think about longing for ‘belonging’.  And I realised how grateful I am for having a sense of belonging at home – with family and a sense of belonging at work – with my postgraduate office family.   

Waking up to Love

I woke up early this morning.  3.30am.  I didn’t even try to get back to sleep.  My mind was swirling too much….just get up and work – I thought – if you get up and have a cup of tea and write down everything in your head you’ll probably doze back to sleep – I reasoned – it’s Saturday so if you don’t doze back to sleep you can have a nap in the afternoon – it was  decided.  It’s now 6.46am.  I’m still awake.  It’s still dark outside.  Birds are twit-tweetering outside my window.  I still haven’t written down everything in my head because it’s all still moving around a bit too fast…but I have written a ‘to do list’ for next week so I can at least pretend to myself that I have everything under control.

But the thing is – for the first time in a very long time – I am starting to feel just a teeny-tiny bit more under control.  I have a house with a wee study that I can call my own where I can sit down quietly to write.   The house is tidyish!  Nothing noticeably untoward is lurking in the fridge!  A stack of neatly labelled home-cooked ‘ready-meals’ sits proudly waiting in the freezer to be discovered by the kids!  The washing and ironing is almost completely up-to-date!    And…my ‘thesis’ – the final written ‘product’ of my PhD research – is starting to come together. The ‘coming together’ is  going slower than I wanted as I have struggled with restructuring and continue to struggle with what I need to cut out as I have ‘too much’ so I have some tough decisions to make.    I had hoped to have a first draft complete by end October but it will be end November before it will emerge…but that’s OK….it is happening…finally.  Thankfully.

When I woke this morning at 3.30am I knew that my heart had kept pace with the swirling-racing of my mind.  The monitor on my watch confirmed the spike in my heart rate.  I felt the activity in my sleep.  I am often active in my sleep as I dream of things I need to be doing.  Some days I wake up drained from all the activities I undertake in my sleep as I dream.  Often I am dreaming of writing my thesis.  Dreaming of worrying about my thesis.  Dreaming of books I need to return to the library and books I need to pick up and articles I need to read and references I need to find and whole sections that I need to delete and paragraphs I need to write and words that I am endlessly moving around and about on the page and …. and on and on and so on… and then bam.  I am awake.  Exhausted.

But this morning I woke up dreaming about the funeral I attended yesterday.  The Minister read a passage from Ecclesiastes…There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the sun’…  I wondered why I recognised the words he was saying and then, remembering that I had quoted them in my last blog post, fleetingly –  my thesis… what is the point of it – flitted  through my mind.  As the Minister continued reading…a time to be born and a time to die…my eyes were set on the coffin in front of me …a time to weep and  a time to laugh… and I felt a deep wrenching inside me…a time to mourn and a time to dance… and I felt the unfathomable weight of hollowing grief hover and holler around the stony church walls.

My thesis explores grief.   I am terrified of grief.  Grief threatens to overwhelm me.  Sometimes, when  I sit down to write I feel its force weigh in upon me and I try to run away from it.  Sitting near the front of a small crowded church yesterday I had nowhere to run.  Fresh grief.  Raw.  Respectable.  Rigid.  Upright.  Dignified.  Palpable.  Tangible in the sombre faces lined up in pews.  But the minister made us laugh when he delivered the eulogy.  He talked about the meaning and purpose of the life we now mourned.   He talked about the goodness of a life well lived.  And when we stood in the chill at the cemetery, the minister made us laugh when he acknowledged the frailness of the elderly mourners who were called forward to hold the cords,  encouraging us all to hurry away to the warmth of the wake because him and the undertakers were busy enough without someone else taking ill. Life does go on.  We laughed amidst the monstrous banality of having just watched a coffin being lowered deep into the ground.  Dirt and roses thrown in, we walked back to cars and drove to the wake and then ate sandwiches and scones and drank tepid tea.

Driving home, I thought about the Minister’s eulogy.  I thought about the purpose of the life  lived by the loved one now buried.   He was a good man.  A proper gentleman.  Yes.   And I thought about the purpose of my life.  Sitting daily at a computer.  Trying desperately to piece a thesis together.  And I recognised that at the start of my research when I was recently separated after the end of a 28 year relationship, I was desperate to replace what then felt like a now defunct ‘Mrs’ title with an upgraded ‘Dr’.  And I recognised this was no longer the case.  And I recognised that I know I can piece the thesis together much quicker.  Yes.  And then I can graduate quicker.  Yes.  But it’s come to mean more than that…the thesis has a life and a purpose outside of my wants and desires.

And this morning, waking up – busy-dreaming-thinking-thoughts-whirling in my head, it was the realisation that in the business of writing and trying to pin down words on a page… trying to be ‘clever’ as I write up findings in order to showcase my skills as a researcher, I have missed something.  Something important.  I felt it.  And it hit me.  I fear the grief that I write about in my thesis because I am so busy running away from it I do not hear or see it properly.  And at the funeral, forced to sit still, unable to run away in the moment, I saw it.  And I heard it.  Exposed.  The beating heart of grief is love.

The best laid plans: ‘writing up’ my thesis… here I go again…

I keep a snowglobe on my desk next to me as I write.  A plastic patchwork ‘Elmer the Elephant’ lives in the snowglobe.  Elmer sits beside me, forever frozen in time, stuck and enclosed in the curved-dome space he inhabits.  My snowglobe Elmer reminds me of the idiom ‘the elephant in the room’ which refers to obvious problems or situations we do not want to talk about.  In 2006, graffiti artist Banksy painted a 37 year old live elephant with non-toxic children’s facepaint to match the colour of the wallpaper at the ‘Barely Legal’ show he set-up in an industrial warehouse in LA.  The giant living breathing spectacularly camouflaged elephant in the room was placed there to draw attention to world hunger – an obvious problem we avoid talking about.

Undertaking a research project focused on family secrets, I have found giant elephants hanging around fading into the wallpaper almost everywhere I look.  Occasionally – momentarily – I come to see them in an almost sharp focus how could I not see it standing there! – but then it’s gone again – was it ever there at all?  I have wondered about this a lot in the last few months.  In the final stages of writing up my doctoral thesis, I have found myself hesitant to write.  Words elude me.  And I have questioned:  why we do get glimpses of insight, vision, clarity, focus…. and then suddenly they are gone again…and then, sometimes, they fade back into awareness?

I had hoped to have a final draft of my thesis complete by 9 June 2018…a personal milestone…but that was not to be.  Instead, my thesis has hung heavy in the air around me over the summer months.  I dip in and out of it…mainly out of it… not quite ready to reread the words, sentences and paragraphs I have already placed together in an orderly structure, because I know I want to – or more precisely – need to – restructure what has already been written, deconstructing it into a less orderly – but perhaps more ‘meaningful’ storytelling narrative.

If the thesis has hung heavy around me, so too has its theme.  The high-level topic – ‘Family Secrets’, often causes raised eyebrow interest from people I speak with about my research.  Perhaps it is because most people have some level of awareness of what it means or feels like to be aware of, or to discover, some kind of secret lurking behind the clutter of a messy family cupboardful of tidy ‘family stories’.  But, from the outset of my research project, when I started to write as a method of inquiry into theoretical and methodological concepts, I was aware that whilst I was somewhat excited to find out more about where writing might lead, I was also apprehensive as I sensed that where I might end up and what I might ‘discover’ was not somewhere I wanted to be or something I wanted to see or hear or feel.

I wrote daily, speedily, easily for over three years.  And then suddenly, faced with rereading my writing, reflecting and reflexively writing back into what I had already written, I found myself – rather like Elmer – frozen, stuck in a smaller world – unable to move.  In recent months, despite attending several writing retreats and sitting down on an almost daily basis with a ‘determined focus’, I feel like I have struggled to engage with my research or, in fact, to write anything much at all, over the last few months.  Instead, I let past words mingle around in my head.

This morning, as the school holidays (finally!) come to an end and I feel a distinct chill beginning to settle into the late summer air, I am sitting with a mug of coffee and Elmer (still frozen, stuck in his own wee snowglobe world) beside me.  Life, I realise, has been, in general,  an ongoing upheaval recently.  I have been striving for ‘feeling settled’ since I last wrote in this blog, back in March – when the snow fell outside ‘my’ front door.  It is now August, and Elmer and I are sitting at a different desk – in a different study – in a different home – behind a different front door – to quietly settle – again – as I embark on the task of working my way back in to the three very long, untidy and unwieldy Word documents entitled ‘Heaven’, ‘Hell’ and ‘Earth’  that represent my ‘thesis in progress’.

Although it is not theological, my thesis (without any deliberate or conscious intention) draws on biblical themes.  And as I look back at my struggles over recent months to commit a decent number of sustained words to a page or screen, I am reminded of the ‘wise words’ written thousands of years ago that are attributed to King Solomon who claims, ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  At this time, as I turn my focused attention to the active task of completing the first draft of my thesis (again), I am aware that I will returning to reflect on cumbersome ‘data’ that leads me back in time towards places and moments of death, uprooting, weeping and mourning;  but I am also aware that the time of not writing has been a reflective space which has led to moments of reflexivity in my research project – and I am hopeful that King Solomon was indeed wise, and as summer gives way to autumn, I would like to find myself approaching the ‘season’ in the writing up of my research where I can look forward to moments of birth, renewal and – if I hit the word count targets I’ve set myself at the end of the day – a wee bit of dancing and laughing too…I hope so 😊

Musings from my new PhD desk…

Sunday 4 March 2018...

Today, 16 years ago, I was almost a week overdue with my youngest. Heavily pregnant and impatient, I was desperate to give birth and cuddle my baby. Numerous ‘this should get things moving’ membrane sweeps by various midwives and doctors did nothing to kick-start the labour.  Instead, the baby decided to stay tucked up cosy inside me until a planned hospital induction forced her speedy arrival into the world.

It snowed the day she was born.  When my husband and I arrived home with our new baby late that Sunday morning my eldest – dancing around in his toddler-tiny yellow welly boots and a winter coat still a size or two too big for him – had already built two snowmen in our back garden:  one for him and one for his new baby sister.  I picked him up and with my husband carrying our newborn in her car seat we closed the door to the snow-chilled air and crossed the threshold into our home, ready to embark on our lives together as a family of four.  It was a time of possibility.

This memory of the unexpected March snowfall back in 2002 when my daughter was born sweeps in to envelope me today because just like that Sunday morning 16 years ago it is snowing outside.  March – they say – comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.  I hope so!  If the forecast is correct, the feather-light snow falling outside as I write will not add too much weight to the piles of snow that the Beast of the East and Storm Emma have left heaped against my front door.

I say ‘my front door’ but it is not really mine.  In the final stages of my doctoral research I have found myself caught up in a flurry of change. I had hoped to finish my thesis in the wee study I’ve written at for over a decade in the established family home, but sometimes events unfold that change our direction.   And so…today – finally – I settle in to write at a different desk in an unfamiliar space in the hallway of a rental house that I cannot quite yet call ‘home’.  A purple Penguin Book mug emblazoned with ‘A Room of One’s Own’ sits on the desk beside me.  I place it here deliberately to both amuse and challenge myself.  This new desk – my desk – where I will finish writing my thesis! – is a pre-loved solid wooden sturdy writing bureau that I discovered in a charity shop.  I love this desk that has belonged to others before me.  Older-fashioned with softly worn-in scratches and nicks it fits just perfectly in this alcove under the stairs in the hallway of this wee house that is mine for a time.  This desk was meant for this space.  This desk was meant to be found and brought here by me.

Virginia Woolf famously asserts that a woman must have a room of her own to write fiction.  As a doctoral researcher in applied social science, I do not set out to write fiction but my research privileges stories and is suspicious of facts.  Arlie Hochschild notes that colleagues question her decision to tell a story where she highlights the origins of her personal interest in the ‘care gap’ because it is risky to link personal journeys to intellectual interests but she asserts that the self is an instrument of inquiry and in the end we have no other.  Last month, at the European Congress of Qualitative Inquiry I presented a paper at a panel inspired by Arundhati Roy’s statement that she makes sense of the world through the stories she tells.  In the paper I presented, I told a personal story that acknowledged my interest in gender, class and social mobility and I quoted Helene Cixous’ call for woman to take the leap and to write herself out of the abyss of servile dependencies that her sociocultural heritage imprints on her.  Today as I sit here writing alone – at my new forever desk – I am making teeny-tiny independent steps on that journey.

Back in June 2017, I set a goal of completing a first draft of my doctoral thesis by Christmas.  It may be snowing outside, but Christmas has come and gone – and my draft thesis is still in my head rather than down on paper.    Chaos has reigned.  But, I chide myself – Enough is enough!  Time is up!  Come on! – and I nod:  Yes!  It is time for order to prevail. It is time for me to leave others to fill in for me on the second shift.  I need to get this thesis written.  Like Virginia Woolf anger snatches at my pen and calls me to action.  It is a time of possibility.

Whilst Virginia Woolf’s essay places importance on material practicalities when she stresses that a woman must have money and a room of her own, it is because this physical space is necessary to allow a woman writer to have the mental space to gain intellectual freedom. Filled with domestic clutter, my fingers have been paralysed and my research has been stagnant in recent months.  But at this new desk and in this new space, it is time for my fingers to fly and dance words into life on my keyboard.  I have set a new target: the  first draft of my thesis will be ready to hand in by Saturday 9 June 2018!  It is a personal milestone date.   I hope to tick this box.

In her paper on academic blogs, practice and identity, Gill Kirkup notes that for bloggers the sense of an imaginary audience is almost as important as there being an actual audience.  I do not know if anyone will be reading this blog.  But I will be writing it daily – or as regularly as I can! – as a form of public storytelling charting the final weeks of my thesis writing.  My imaginary audience exists as a chorus to nag, cajole and encourage me – to help me hold myself accountable to hitting my revised deadline and delivering my PhD baby on time – as I write – from this wee rental house –at my new PhD desk in the wee room of my own in the alcove under the stairs.