Contaminated time

Following my recent article with co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks, Deferred time in the neoliberal university: experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics, I have been noticing discussions of time everywhere (Baader-Meinhof phenomenon at work). Our article appeared in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education on the timescapes of teaching. Here is what the editors, Penny Jane Burke and Catherine Manathunga had to say:

This special issue was conceived of and developed before the advent of COVID-19.  Yet, in writing our editorial in the middle of this significant rupture in time, we noted how COVID-19 has brought to the fore existing inequities in how time is experienced everyday by people living on the margins …

I am slowly making my way through the articles, reading some with the Idea of the University reading group (what a pleasure it is to read and think together):

In our article, Lilia, Vanessa and I positioned ourselves as researchers by referring to our contaminated time:

We come to this study as early to mid-career academics whose everyday experience of time, like our participants, is interruptible and contaminated by multi-layered tasks and conflicting demands.

Our argument is that emerging academics experience anxiety-inducing deferred time, waiting for academic careers and working conditions that are yet to come.

I have noticed this idea of contaminated and deferred time recurring in writings about the experience of COVID-19.

In a BBC article on the perception of time:

During lockdown, those isolated from friends, family and work have had long days to fill … This blurring of identical days leads us to create fewer new memories, which is crucial to our sense of time perception … [We are] forced into waiting for the future to come towards us.

Similarly, Scientific American describes the numbing sameness of days, noticing the effects of time distortion. Heidi Pitlor’s Days Without Name captures the mundane (“My son had helped organise the spice drawer”), and Trent Dalton’s Tales from the Bunker shares the anxiety:

Can’t sleep … Gonna be a long year for us overthinkers. I’ll take a thought in the early hours of the morning and turn it upside down and inside out until it has existed so long in my head and in my bones that it’s grown strength. Mutated. Negative thinking’s like a virus. Host thoughts find host thoughts. Each thought mutates and multiplies exponentially and inexplicably…

I’m looking forward to Dalton’s new book (Boy Swallows Universe was one of last year’s favourites). Many authors are writing through their experience of COVID-19. Clare Wright, author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (another book that made my yearly favourites list, in 2014), writes:

It’s like a living Vesuvius moment: we were all frozen in whatever material and psychological state we happened to be in on the first of July 2020. That stasis gives rise (at least in me) to feelings of both gratitude and longing. Gratitude for all I have. Longing for all I want and will never have. There is no After. Just a great yawning existential Now.

Jesmyn Ward lost her husband and her favourite place in the world, tucked under his arm. She kept writing:

My commitment surprised me. Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time. On most days, I wrote one sentence. On some days, I wrote 1,000 words. Many days, it and I seemed useless. All of it, misguided endeavor.

On grief and time, Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without its Flow, written after the sudden death of her adult son, is a powerful work of fragmented non-fiction: “I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life … living in suddenly arrested time.”

In The Pandemic is a Portal, Arundhati Roy reveals of the impact of COVID-19 in her “poor-rich country” India. It is a powerful piece for the comparison of America and India, the backdrop of Muslim/Hindi relations, caste system, government denial, violence and limited preparation for lockdown. “A nation of 1.38bn people … locked down with zero preparation and with four hours’ notice.” The deep inequalities that Roy highlights are devastating. It is upsetting to read this several months after it was written, knowing that India now has the fastest growing number of cases worldwide. In April, Roy wrote:

Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists … Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

And, thinking of portals, here is last night’s distraction, upscaled video footage of England in 1901. Described as a “time travel experience”, it is uncanny and mesmerising. Check out Denis Shiryaev’s YouTube channel for footage of New York, Tokyo, Germany, France and more in the early 1900s.

I read some of these pieces for my creative writing studies, looking at non-fiction this semester, and completed my own writing exercise on the senses:

Our emotions were tumultuous. We were overwhelmed, playful, resentful, loving, annoyed and guilty—all before getting dressed. Two adults working and two children schooling from home was a challenge, but we’ve survived worse. My daughter previously missed eight months of school due to illness, so this constrained intimacy was familiar.

Six months in, our emotional response has flattened. There is a sameness to each day, and we crave novelty. We want the anticipation of a holiday, the shock of new sensations. Noticing an ordinary day reminds me that against the scale of collective trauma elsewhere, our banality is fortunate.

I spend the work day on my laptop, jumping between Zoom meetings. My eyes are feeling the strain. While walking the dog, I try to stretch my sight to the tops of trees, into the blue sky.

A woman is selling home-made biscuits door to door. She has lost her job and has children to support. The biscuits taste of cinnamon and desperation.

My seven-year-old sings and chatters constantly. He talks to his Lego. It is charming and annoying.

The children need more hugs. So does the dog. During a Zoom meeting she pushes her too-large body onto my lap. My fingers curl around her spoodle-soft fur.

At the end of the day, I climb into clean sheets. All the goodness and comfort of laundry powder, a hint of eucalyptus and lemon, and the wind. It smells like home, renewed.

For those seeking the distractions of fiction, these are my favourite time distortion books: Conni Willis’s Doomsday Book, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Jo Walton’s My Real Children, Tabitha Bird’s A Lifetime of Impossible Days, and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel. Read all those? Try Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, Mark Lawrence’s One Word Kill, Margarita Montimore’s The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes or Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Next on my to-be-read list comes from here.

Take a break

A reminder to myself that might be helpful to you: take a break.

For inspiration, I read Robert Dessaix’s The Pleasures of Leisure. (I picked up a copy for $3 at the local Vinnies; in pristine, unread condition, it is inscribed with a message of congratulations for “twenty years of unswerving, faithful service”).

Dessaix acknowledges the privilege of indolence, sloth and idleness. He quotes many well-known writers on the pleasure of doing nothing, and sums up:

Yes, that’s right—they’re all men. And all of them have nothing but contempt for busy bees. It’s hard to say who they thought would work the fields and slaughter the animals for their tables, build the roads, spin their cloth, erect and heat their houses, cook their food and print the publications they wrote for: those whose jobs it was to do so, presumably.

A thank you to those who continue to work when so many are on holiday (not least the firefighters, many of them volunteers, in Australia right now). I hope a rest is coming.

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In his conclusion (with chapters along the way on  Loafing, Nesting and grooming, and Play), here’s what Dessaix has to say: “Time … is for being happy in … It’s for magnifying your humanity in, for enjoying the flourishing of who you are.”

Here’s how I am hoping to flourish over the holidays.

Staying out of contact

If your work schedule permits, turn on an out-of-office reply and let others know you are taking a break. One of my colleagues has written: “ I am on my way to the North Pole with no or limited wifi.” I hope she enjoys the stay! I will switch it on this afternoon (after I finish some pressing tasks).

Having daytime naps

Sneak away from everyone and put your head on a pillow. It is ok to wake, disoriented, and find the day almost over. Or, if your children are younger, take a moment to ‘rest your eyes’ while watching Bluey.

Enjoying the guilty pleasure of 2am books all day

I have a reading category I call ‘2am books’. (My son did not sleep though the night until 5 years old, so I have been trained to stay awake. Reading a Kindle helps still my mind). 2am books are light page-turners, easy to follow, with simple narratives and few characters. Sufficiently well-written not to annoy, they do not linger on frightening or upsetting scenes. Young adult books work well, or escapist bedtime stories for adults. You can doze off and wake again without losing your place. You can skip paragraphs without becoming confused. At any other time of day they might seem vacuous and predictable. Here are some 2am books I read this year:

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I might read some more challenging books, including my Christmas present to myself:

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Scheduling a little bit, not too much

We have a week of daily swimming lessons in January but not much else booked. I have lots of ideas for fun when the bickering gets too much and everyone is irritable with cabin fever. But the rhythms of our days will be based on walking when we feel like it, eating when we are hungry, sleeping when tiredness takes us, being alone and coming together as our energy prompts us.

Spending time outdoors

The smoke haze and heat in Sydney makes time indoors a necessity, but we intend to spend some time outside every day in the company of our new puppy. Walking the streets, chatting to neighbours, discovering dog parks, collecting leaves and sticks, searching for Christmas beetles.

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Watching TV

I don’t watch a lot of television, but this year I have enjoyed Killing Eve, The Letdown, Cleverman and Fleabag. On my list for the holidays: some dystopian drama in Years and Years and The Commons and Aboriginal horror Dark Place.

Being creative

I want to put together a photo album of our family holiday to Japan—a simple task that has remained on the wishlist for over a year. We will all enjoy reminiscing about the places we visited, especially the 6 year old who holds memories differently (perhaps more lightly). We will also be thinking about future holidays, and I have bought the Lonely Planet Central Australia in anticipation.

Seeing friends and family

I haven’t sent any Christmas cards this year. The 6 year old gave and received more that anyone else. Highlights in the mail for me included “To our most loyal customer” from the chemist (and, to tell the truth, it was addressed to my daughter) and one from the local funeral home. I hope our friends are forgiving, and agree to catch up in the new year for picnics and indolent hanging out. Family won’t get a choice in the matter.

Saying yes

Why don’t we make choc chip biscuits? Can we go to a new park? Do you want to play Scrabble? Can I dye my hair blue? Let’s buy ice creams, wear our pyjamas all day, visit the pool, try a dog cafe, make tea iceblocks, stay up past bedtime… A reminder to myself: say yes.

Writing in company at home

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a writing retreat at home with former colleagues and current co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks.

We are finalising a journal article on time pressures for PhD candidates and early career academics. The retreat immersed us in writing away from the interruptions of the office. Planning and writing was interspersed with conversation, food and laughter. (This off the shelf vegan cheesecake was a hit).

Much as I would love a lengthy writing retreat in an exotic locale—I dream of attending one of Helen Sword’s—writing from home appeals to the frugal hedonist in me.

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Collaborative writing was not the norm in my first discipline (Cultural Studies) but is common in Education. Indeed, many of my colleagues in Higher Education have few publications as a single author. The change of discipline and shift to co-authoring has proved fruitful for my research output.

My academic positions to date have been teaching and learning or administration focussed, so research has typically constituted 20% of my workload. Until this year, I was part-time (three days a week from 2010-2017 and four days a week in 2018). Twenty percent of a part-time job does not allow a lot of time for research!

I recently updated my count of co-authors. Since graduating from my PhD in 2010, I have published 25 book chapters, journal articles and conference papers. I was sole author on just 6 of these, and have written with a grand total of 28 different people (often more than once). I am not including chapters and articles currently in press (one of which has seven authors!)

The benefits of writing in company go far beyond increased publication outputs.

I have learned a lot from co-authors—working with theory, research methodologies, the craft of writing and academic publication processes. Colleagues and I have written about the friendship and intimacy that develops through writing together. Above all, collaborative writing has been a lot of fun!

The experience is captured in Laurel Johnson, Sonia Roitman, Ann Morgan and Jason MacLeod’s (2017) article ‘Challenging the productivity mantra: academic writing with spirit in place’. The location of their writing group in members’ homes in a particular suburb of Brisbane is noteworthy:

Most members live in the area. They have chosen to live in this community due to its affordability but also its diversity and difference compared to the balance of the city. The suburb provides cultural safety for some members. The suburb is not the usual residential address for the city’s academics. The site is stigmatised and it is distant from the city’s universities. The choice to reside and meet here illustrates a point of difference for the writing group membership compared to other academic writing groups …

The move away from the place of work to home for meetings changed the quality and function of the group. The writing group members began to share more of themselves and their lives. The group membership expanded to include local residents (such as creative writers and community and ethnic leaders). The membership diversified … As well as challenging typical academic writing styles, group members came to know each other as friendships formed, bonded around place, interests, identity and shared concerns and values.

The emphasis on place and home has added a spiritual dimension:

The value of a diverse and mixed academic and non-academic membership, a shared commitment to social justice, the relational and democratic processes of the group and the importance of place (off campus in a socially disadvantaged suburb in the city) work together to engender a humanistic spirituality in the group. The value … to its members transcends the expected material benefits of increased writing production, a regular writing habit and consistent writing review. The non-material benefits of a shared community of practice, the renewal of ideas and affirmation of shared humanistic values, connection and empathy with others and permission to flourish as writers and people, bring spirit to the group.

I can only aspire to writing with spirit in place. But Lilia, Vanessa and I have made a start—reading Derrida, eating soup, looking at trees out the window and writing together.

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