Retreat with a difference

An alternative title for this post is ‘even slower’. I wrote and rewrote it several times. I sat with it and worried over its gloom. I thought about it at work, at home and in hospital with my daughter. She has been here for almost two weeks now, as we aim to get better understanding and control over her seizures. This feels like a positive step, but it has been hard to find a positive way to frame this post.

During this time, I have (mostly) been on leave from work—a big shout out to awesome colleagues who have taken over key responsibilities such as staff induction—but I have continued to write. I finished the first draft of a chapter (due today), submitted five abstracts for conferences and journal special issues (several of them with co-authors), and responded to some copy-editing queries on another book chapter. Some caveats: being able to take leave is a privilege. Hospitalisations looked very different when I was a casual staff member (student evaluation from that time: “I liked this course but I got the impression that Agnes didn’t really want to be here”). Writing has also been possible because I am not staying in hospital every night, but have shared shifts with my partner, mother and mother-in-law.

Last year I wrote a post on working during difficult times. These were (meant to be) short-term strategies. When the crisis situation continues for longer than anticipated, when normal is redefined, when you start to think that this might be your indefinite future, the strategies need rethinking. Things that suffer: the tasks and projects you know will improve your self and your life. Half tongue-in-cheek, these might include decluttering, trying new recipes, practising mindful listening, cultivating family rituals, or building a new habit. And the activities that require care, time and planning start to fall away (organising a party for a soon-to-be five year old, for example).

There are good things here: therapy dogs, clown doctors, volunteers who have mastered the art of small talk, thoughtful rooming that puts us with other 11 and 12 year olds with epilepsy, and a lot of time spent waiting. My writing has adapted to the circumstances. I have practiced a method of ‘thinking through writing’ or ‘writing along the way’—“writing that is intended to sort out what we think, why, and what the implications of a line of thought might be” (Thomson & Kamler, 2010, p 149). I have also been doing a lot of ‘reading alongside writing’ and finding ways to acknowledge the intertexts that are usually not cited. (This is also one of the ideas we talked about as the spirit of research —we also mentioned the music we listen to while writing).

This doesn’t look like an ideal writing retreat but, with a laptop, it works for now:

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Where we are

EC892284-06A6-41EE-8984-6364510C3C07.jpegUntil now I have been a creature of habit around the university. I regularly eat the same meals at a couple of places. I sit in the same spot during committee meetings. I take familiar paths between the car park, meeting rooms, cafes and my office.  I have done so repeatedly and unseeingly. I have treated my university as a non-place.

This is changing.

Once or twice a week my daughter comes to work with me. Her epilepsy is better controlled than a couple of months ago (with three to five seizures a day) but, on four medications, she is very tired. She has managed two hours of school per week (one morning only) for a couple of weeks with mixed success. She will not be returning to full-time schooling this year.

Her illness changes time. There is a lot of waiting with epilepsy. It also changes how I experience the space of the university. She likes to walk a different route every day. She notices things — like the door identification plates in my building.

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We are walking the campus, visiting its museums and art gallery (I recommend the current mermaids exhibition for those nearby), discussing brutalist architecture, and admiring the sculptures, gardens and birds. I feel more aware of my surroundings and my location than ever before. This week we are in Canberra, shadowing my daughter’s school excursion, and being somewhere new certainly primes our noticing skills.

Ragged schooling

My 11 year old daughter has missed six weeks of school this term as a result of her uncontrolled epilepsy. We are slowly getting there and hoping for a gradual return next term, starting with one hour and working up to half days. It will be some time before she is able to renew the frenetic pace of after school and extra-curricular activities. In the meantime, she is having regular tutoring from a generous neighbour and we are spending a lot of time in each other’s company. (She is next to me as I write this post).

Together we are reading one of my favourite childhood books: Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow. (Written over thirty years ago, it tells the story of 15 year old Sydney resident Abigail who travels back in time to The Rocks in 1873). Here is a glimpse into the history of The Rocks in a 360° video (use your mouse or tracker pad to rotate the view and see ragged children in the streets):

This passage about Beatie’s schooling struck me:

The younger child was such a fierce homely creature, the eyes so bright and intelligent, the small thin hands crooked as though they would claw the eyes out of life itself.

‘You’ve got plenty of brains,’ said Abigail.

‘Aye,’ said Beatie suspiciously. ‘And what brings you to say that?’

‘Because I think you want to do other things besides learn how to feather-stitch and drop curtseys to rude rich old hags at the Ragged School.’

Beatie’s tawny eyes glittered. ‘True enough. I want to learn Greek and Latin like the boys. And geography. And algebra. And yet I’ll never. [My brother] Gibbie will learn them afor me, and he’s next to a mumblepate!’

‘But why?’ asked Abigail.

‘Why, why?’ cried Beatie. ‘Because I’m a girl, that’s why, and girls canna become scholars. Not unless their fathers are rich, and most of their daughters are learnt naught but how to dabble in paints, twiddle on the painoforte, and make themselves pretty for a good match!’

I did some further reading about Ragged Schools, including this fascinating history (which challenges Park’s representation—apparently boys would not have studied Greek, Latin and algebra). The term ‘ragged school’ was adopted from the British model—I would love to visit this museum!—but also served to ensure only the neediest students attended:

The Ragged Schools by their very name were somewhere to be avoided if at all possible. The term ‘ragged school’ was used as a deterrent to those who could afford to avoid its associations of dirt, filth, poverty and disrepute. Accordingly, there are no ex-student organisations, or proud school histories, and records are scarce. Despite the chances that a Ragged School education may have given them, or the practical help they may have received, it remains an experience that some would rather forget (Henrich, 2013, 62).

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(Image source)

Reading Playing Beatie Bow inspired conversations about educating girls, Malala’s story and our family history.

My paternal grandmother did not attend school past 12 or 13 (nor did my paternal grandfather). As family lore has it, her teachers cried to lose such a clever girl. My grandparents became strong advocates for education; both their sons (and their grand-daughter in turn) went on to get doctorates.

In a neat intertextuality, my grandmother’s name, like Ruth Park’s heroine, was Beatrice (and by some accounts she could be described as both intelligent and homely). She certainly had small hands—and I am thankful to have inherited them—as this was my Christmas present last year. My grandmother’s watch (a “nice Swiss made aspirational middle class watch” according to the repairer) restored as a bracelet with her photo and a necklace with the (now working) movements visible at the back:

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My daughter is incredulous and indignant that girls could be denied an education. She is desperate to return to school. (She is also quite taken with ‘mumblepate’ as an insult).

Kindness cards

1.

A few weeks ago my son came home from preschool proudly wearing a laminated card on a string around his neck. His friends had nominated him for a Kindness Card. It read ‘Thank you for sharing your kindness with us today”.

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We don’t always acknowledge kindness so visibly. (This is one of the reasons Academic Kindness on tumblr and twitter has been such a success).

This post is in lieu of nominating family, friends and colleagues for kindness cards. Since my last post, we have been inundated by kindnesses large and small. People have shared their experiences of epilepsy and illness in emails of support and hope. Colleagues have made my daughter feel welcome on campus. Her friends have visited and added some brightness to our days. Here is a snapshot of the delicious dinners that have been made for us.

2.

Being freed from the responsibilities of shopping and cooking has given me time to edit the final version of a book chapter on academic motherhood due this week. My chapter uses Luce Irigaray’s metaphor of mucus, and its connections with her concepts of sexual difference and women’s two sets of lips, to perform a feminist writing of the lived experience of motherhood and academia. To illustrate the worlds of maternity and the academy, italicised autoethnographic ‘sticky moments’ interrupt scholarly writing.

Our current experiences have made their impact felt. (This extract comes from the third part of the chapter, so apologies if it reads as though you have missed most of the conversation):

I am editing this chapter with my daughter on a beanbag next to me. Her epilepsy, up to now well controlled, has escalated. She spent last week in hospital having seizures lasting up to seven minutes every fifteen minutes. Out of hospital, she continues to have thirty seizures a day. She is bone tired but otherwise in good spirits. My colleagues have picked up my slack but I had things to do, and, let’s be honest, work is a good distraction…

Perhaps my current location and temporality leave a trace in my academic writing, even if I haven’t thought this through. Irigaray is interested in what is unthought and untheorised in philosophy—in particular, the feminine—but which leaves a trace. Mucus offers a metaphor for this. In her writing on visceral philosophy, Tamsin Lorraine writes that mucus is “Irigaray’s term for the unthought moving toward representation—those strangely uncanny aspects of experience that defy already established self/other and body/mind divisions” (1999, p 37). Exploring the qualities of mucus, Lorraine writes: “The body is inert without its relation to mucus. Mucus … presents a living material that brings one closer to the infinite beyond which exceeds all boundaries” (1999, p 40). It may be a stretch: mucus as the trace of the divine, the soul. A slippery idea.

I’ll tell you something else that is slippery: the flow of writing and trying to hold a line of argument when I am thinking about my daughter next to me, and how soon we need to pick up her brother. He vomited in the car this morning (I couldn’t make this up). He’s always had a weak stomach, prone to motion sickness, and is anxious about his sister’s unrelenting seizures. The car will stink after being in the sun all day …

… Nourished together, motherhood and academia open up different and creative ways of thinking about and being within the contemporary university. My line of argument is thus: Motherhood and academia leak into each other in messy ways. Separating and containing the subjectivities of academia and mother is impossible. Maintaining the competing priorities of plural subjectivities requires nourishment as women, mothers and academics. We speak and write of our experiences, share and create spaces and challenge the confines of our universities.

In my office, I am writing and mothering simultaneously. Outside the window, the sun is setting red and hazy from hazard reduction burns in the national park to the north. I rouse my daughter from a doze and set towards home. I don’t yet know it, but she is about to have a twelve minute seizure. And I will be thinking of angels, and trying to test the weight and meaning of feminist philosophy under harsh fluorescent hospital lights. I’d love to respond to the reviewer’s request to conclude with my key learnings from exploring the metaphor of mucus in academic motherhood, with what my sticky moments reveal about intersubjectivity and the soul, but I am found wanting. There are no neat endings here.

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