I mentioned in my last post my dream of becoming a mermaid. I even wrote about it in my PhD thesis:

In Sydney, the summer I am twelve years old is extremely hot, over 35°C on many days. There are two girls, younger than I, living around the corner — and they have a swimming pool. To prompt an invitation, I reveal my ability to become a mermaid. I imagine a painless and spectacular shift: my legs fusing together to create an incandescent tail; my fingers growing more webbed (they have always been part-sea); my hair floating seaweed-like around me; but, most of all, the cool, clear embrace of the water. Later, I have to explain that chlorine impedes my powers …

I yearn for the fluidity of the mermaid — that floating signifier — the freedom of water, the limitless, liminal possibilities of being beyond borders, boundaries and fixed definitions. I am seeking ways to negotiate what Tamsin Lorraine calls the slippery aspects of embodied existence. I wear a Ken Done patterned bikini of brightly coloured triangles and string. A family friend tells me not to wear it near her thirteen-year-old son. On New Year’s Eve, he and I are floating together in the shadows of the pool while the adults prepare fireworks and food. He slips his chlorine-scented arms around me and presses his wet lips against mine.

I captured a little bit of that dream last week when I took a day off work and tried a floatation tank for the first time. (This hour of sensory deprivation was a Christmas gift from my partner. I was a bit nervous because years ago I watched this BBC documentary on sensory deprivation. Spoiler: my favourite part is the mother who sleeps for most of the experiment while everyone else is going mad).

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The brochure promises that, without distraction, I will be free to mull things over, reflect on my life and have creative insights. “People have developed complex scientific theories and drafted whole portions of books while floating” it breathlessly reads.

I spent most of my floating time thinking about (20th century European) philosophy, words and water. My flow of ideas went something like this (yes, of course my thinking has citations).


Oceanic feeling. In Civilisation and Its Discontents (1973), Sigmund Freud describes it is “a sensation of “eternity”, a feeling of something limitless, unbounded” (p 8). He has never felt it. To my knowledge, he never does.


“Is there any greater rapture than the sea?” Luce Irigaray asks in Marine Lover (1991). She understands oceanic feeling. The heavily salted water is smooth. It is difficult to know where I end and the water begins. Water and Dreams (1983). Gaston Bachelard writes from a “water mind-set”.  Liquidity is “the very desire of language” (p 187). No desire for language here (or to start drafting a book).


I let my thoughts drift. Roland Barthes (1975) writes of the pleasure of drifting, which occurs when one is “driven about by language’s illusions, seductions, and intimidations, like a cork on the waves” but chooses to “remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world)” (p 18). What binds me to the world? The objects of text and language seem out of place here. I think of being pregnant with my children.


My four year old borrowed You Are Stardust from the library. “Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born … Like fish deep in the ocean, you called salt water home. You swam inside the salty sea of your mother’s womb… The water swirling in your glass once filled the puddles where dinosaurs drank…”


The experience of floating is both intimate and alone. It’s a bit like reading. In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, pregnant and suicidal Laura Brown reads Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway:

One more page, she decides; just one more … She is taken by a wave of feeling, a sea-swell, that rises from under her breast and buoys her, floats her gently, as if she were a sea creature thrown back from the sand where it had beached itself—as if she had been returned from a realm of crushing gravity to her true medium, the suck and swell of saltwater, that weightless brilliance (1998, p 40).

Stephen Daldry’s film captured this beautifully:


The pleasures of words and associations are deep. Hélène Cixous (1991): “Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst.”

Sadly, I can’t say any portions of books, whole or part, were written as I floated. I enjoyed it, will do it again, and imagine I will get better at relaxing. But it’s not for everyone or for every stage of life. If you need a healthy distraction from being ‘in your head’, walking a labyrinth might be better.

Planning and dreaming

I don’t consider myself a great planner. I often enjoy unintended outcomes more than the predetermined. I love the happy discoveries of serendipity (even the word is a joy). Here’s to creativity sparked by reading, unexpected calls for papers, conferences and conversations with colleagues!

A ResearchWhisperer post by Tseen Khoo earlier this year made me rethink planning:

The value in planning your research career isn’t in the actual plan. It doesn’t lie only – or even mainly – in achieving the amazing goals you’ve set for yourself. It’s in the process of research planning itself …

The research dream plan is the one that you’d talk about with your career mentor…

It can be extremely difficult to keep research dreams alive and on the radar when beset by the metrics-obsessed nature of contemporary academia. But to not have these research dreams is in itself a tragedy. As renowned author Diana Wynne Jones says, “it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs.”

Linking planning to dreaming? I can do that. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1987) suggested that we can accomplish nothing against our dreams. He went so far as to say that neglecting dreams can result in annihilation. His example is an artisan working with clay who interweaves dreams and dexterity:

Take away the dreams and you stultify the worker.  Leave out the oneiric forces of work and you diminish, you annihilate the artisan.  Each labour has its oneirism, each material worked on contributes its inner reveries.

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(Image source)

Hold that thought: the importance of inner reveries, and the risk to the self if these are ignored.

Two things prompted this post.

First, today I gave a welcome address to undergraduate students thinking about career options beyond their discipline. This allowed me to share my first career plan (become a mermaid), my side hustle (operating rides and dressing as a hunchback at Luna Park) and my love of dressing up, travelling the world, reading and writing.

Second, last week I facilitated a planning session with early career academics, the first of a series of monthly meetings where we will do some planning (rather than just talking about it). I’ve been thinking about planning (as opposed to doing it) for a long time. I’ve read lots of resources on planning in this time: The balanced researcher, How (not) to get ahead in academia, and Time for research. These are all practical guides, full of tips and templates, but, while useful, they didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know.

Surviving and succeeding as an early career academic takes a different approach. It focusses on capabilities that are equally valuable in and beyond academia and at any career stage: resourcefulness, relational agency, resilience, respectfulness, rest and recreation. Its creator Kathryn Sutherland also has an impressive collection of other resources freely available. The questions it asks are an excellent tool for reflection:

Who are your academic kindred spirits – people who think similarly or are doing similar work – and how much contact do you have with them? How could you find more such people?

Who are your mentors, and in what areas of your work (research, teaching, social, cultural, etc)? How do you nurture these relationships?

How do you demonstrate care for your students? For your colleagues?

Against whose criteria do you measure your success, and how does this make you feel at work and at home?

Great ideas for future posts here! These questions make space for dreaming as a part of planning. As Tseen says in the ResearchWhisperer post above, keeping dreams alive in academia can be difficult. How do you avoid stultification and nourish your inner reveries?