To my future self

It’s an anxious time in Sydney (and beyond) right now. With dam levels falling, water restrictions are starting to bite, and the skies are apocalyptic with bushfire smoke. Asthmatics (like me) are gripping puffers for dear life. Children are not allowed to play outside at school. This article by Mark Mordue in the Sydney Morning Herald put it well: “My experience of the city and its skies feels like an omen. I fret for my children getting home from school and the world that is coming for them.”

At my university, in the midst of a large university restructure (the disestablishment of a successful faculty), the feeling of uncertain dread is pervasive. The sky mirrors our unease. It looks like we are living in a dystopia. This photos was taken at 1pm on Tuesday.

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In an act that is deeply personal, and yet entirely political, I write a letter to my future self. It is hard to imagine past five years or so. In it, I worry over the future, and focus on what gives joy right now. As I write, our new puppy Esko (named by the kids), sits at my side.

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Dear Future Me,

I wonder what work and home look like now? I hope that I am happy with the balance between these domains of my life.

At home—have we managed to do the renovations we dream about? I imagine spaces that will be better for entertaining (18th birthdays and beyond) and look forward to hosting family Christmases. How has Esko settled into the family? I hope she is giving and receiving so much love.

[My children] are my greatest worry and hope for the future. They are my future. How has H navigated high school and the teen years? I would like us to have remained close, but to have allowed her to grow into independence.  I pray her epilepsy is well-controlled. How is T going in primary school (and beyond)? What interests and hobbies has he developed? I hope we travel again as a family and that, as the kids grow older, J and I enjoy more time together.

Writing to you, I worry over the shape of the future—the health of family members and friends, the unanticipated events that change lives irrevocably, the state of politics and uneven quality of life. I hope any dark times have not dimmed our love and hope. I want to imagine that everyone is still with me, well and whole and shining, that the world is optimistic.  I hope you are not sad.

At work—where are you and what are you doing? I hope there are familiar faces and new colleagues who are like-minded souls. What have we created? And what do we want to do next? Have you done the things you want to do—kept blogging, written a book, studied creative writing, got through the pile of books next to the bed?

This year, 2019, has been a difficult one at work in the university. I’m very tired right now and hope you don’t feel the same way. Whatever work looks like now, I hope it has some of my favourite ingredients: listening, speaking, reading and writing with humour and activism in the mix.

I have said ‘I hope’ a lot in this letter. There is so much uncertainty right now—at work, in the news, in the sky—yet I continue to hope. There are things to look forward to—Esko getting house trained, Christmas holidays, books to read, starting a Master of Creative writing, PhD candidates near completion, an upcoming writing retreat, and so much more…

With love, Agnes.

Today the sky is slightly bluer, and we can finally open the windows.

Things I’m learning

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In my previous post on questions for this year, I asked: What have I learnt from what went well, and what felt uncomfortable or difficult, in 2017? I learnt a hell of a lot last year, and here are some of the lessons I have been reflecting on.

That work matters a lot to me

My daughter has been back at school full-time for five days. We are reorienting ourselves—adjusting to the rhythms and tensions of school life again having got used to differently paced days in and out of hospital. I also need to recalibrate at work. It’s interesting to experience the shock of change in reverse. My ability to focus and undertake deep work has suffered. Nevertheless, throughout this slow and stressful time, work has continued to be important to me. Sometimes it has provided the distraction of shallow work. Sometimes it has offered an intellectual and creative outlet (writing, reading, talking and listening). I have achieved things I am proud of during this time, and I am looking forward to so much this year. At the very top of the list is attending the 6th International Academic Identities Conference, and (because work isn’t the only thing that matters) having a family holiday in Japan afterwards.

That I value care and community

I realised when I wrote my list of work that makes me proud that it looked very similar to the list of people I enjoyed working with: higher education scholars, PhD candidates, co-authors and co-teachers, and academic activists. I’m sure to have left several people or groups off that list! It’s impossible for me to separate the work I enjoy doing from the people I enjoy doing it with. I have several collaborative projects on the go at the moment: looking at community and care with Academic Identities conference project colleagues, collaborative writing and speculative work for future research and teaching projects. One of the great things about connecting with colleagues is the exquisite care they have shown when work has not been my number one priority.

On a related note, this week I am reading Robyn Barnacle and Gloria Dall’Alba’s paper Committed to learn: student engagement and care in higher educationThis conceptual paper, using the work of Martin Heidegger and Nel Noddings, explores how we can create learning environments that build students’ capacity for care. The article has now been recommended to me by two colleagues so I am keen to read more.

That it is difficult to live with uncertainty

While my daughter has been sick, life has been uncertain. We have not felt in control or able to make plans for the future. It’s an uncomfortable space to occupy. In an academic context, this is articulated by participants in my early career academic research with colleagues:

I’m not sure I have academic career plans anymore after more than six years of semester-length sessional teaching appointments. My earlier dreams have been shattered

I would like a permanent position because without it I am crippled. It’s very hard to explain to outsiders like friends and family and this has led to a certain isolation.

Quite frankly it is impossible to make plans … This situation is clearly absurd, and I know I am not alone.

I am doomed. Don’t know what’s gonna happen. Scary.

I don’t know whether the capacity to live with uncertainty improves. I guess it must, but it feels more like something that must be endured. I’m still learning. I’m not very good at meditating but, on a colleague’s recommendation, I bought a modern bed of nails, and have found this discomfort means I am better able to focus on a guided meditation.

That reading never stops giving

I have just finished reading Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius. This book has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize (writing by Australian women). It’s an uncomfortable read at times, but I learnt a lot from it. I will highlight one passage:

Robin Hood, Jandamarra, Yagan … all fought with whatever small resources they had, all became thorns in the sides of the administration they were fighting. All became legends in defeat.

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I must confess I needed to look up these Aboriginal leaders—Jandamarra, who organised an armed resistance against Europeans in the late 1800s and Yagan, a warrior who resisted European colonisation in the early 1800s.

With my 5 year old (and sometimes 11 year old), I am reading the ABC of Mathematics—so many concepts I don’t know or don’t remember— and with my 11 year old (and sometimes 5 year old) I am reading Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls—so many amazing women, many of whom are new to me.

I still have much to learn.

What matters

This is not the post I had planned to write.

Last Monday, my daughter (who is epileptic) had a seven minute seizure on the way to school. We knew her seizures were escalating, but we expected a simple increase in medication, approved by her neurologist via email, would resolve them (as has happened in the past). Instead, with seizures occurring every fifteen minutes, we spent the week in hospital. Two hospitals, a team of neurologists including two professors, four medications, 48 hours on an EEG, and five days later she was stable enough to return home. Lots of follow-up needed, still having about 30 seizures a day, but home.

The temporality of hospitals is curious. There are few other places that combine numbing boredom and anxious panic. Day and night are no longer relevant. Exhaustion is constant. The nurses, volunteers, teachers and clown doctors deserve all the love. (And my heart goes out to all the children and parents who are struggling more than us). In our enforced closeness, my daughter’s good humour was inspiring. I am thankful for a partner who shared shifts, family and friends who visited, sent gifts (beautiful animal-shaped balloons!), care packages, texts, emails and meals, provided childcare for the four year old and offered distractions. I am indebted to colleagues who took up my slack at work, by giving lectures, preparing workshops, proofreading articles (and those are just the things I remember off the top of my head — I haven’t yet braved my calendar). My daughter is at work with me today and she approved this post.

I am writing this hot on the heels of posts about busyness. The list of what I haven’t done is endless. Emails from work continue to arrive. Deadlines stretch and snap. Work is not so important; it doesn’t matter as much as it did a week ago.