Things I miss

During the most difficult times in my life, I have noticed that one way people show empathy is by sharing something dreadful that they, or someone close to them, has experienced. There’s a camaraderie in suffering, which can be both comforting and suffocating.

Back in 2012, I had an ectopic pregnancy, after several years of secondary infertility. There were complications during the surgery to remove my right fallopian tube which resulted in chronic pain, and further surgeries to implant a neurostimulator. When people heard this, a common response was to tell me stories of mishaps during surgery or traumatic pregnancy loss. This has happened during other painful times in my life, too close to the bone to recount here. At times, I felt like a repository for bad news.

I say this to contextualise the lightness of this post at a time of collective trauma on a large scale: nearly 160,000 deaths in the United States alone, and decimated communities around the world (I recommend the BBC World Service podcast The Documentary for international coverage of the pandemic). Closer to home, we have over 12 thousand cases in Victoria, Australia (more than half active), and a hard lockdown that exacerbates vulnerability and disadvantage.

The things I miss are small, but perhaps my list may resonate with your experiences of life during a pandemic.

Walking the campus

Last week, with the Idea of the University reading group, I read Frances Kelly’s haunting piece Hurry up please, it’s time!’ A psychogeography of a decommissioned university campus.” Fran takes an “attentive walk” through a soon-to-be decommisioned university campus. There is a palpable sense of mourning, but Fran’s attention to the details of place are inspiring:

Although I had walked the same paths before, this time I walked with intention and attention, taking photographs and making notes of objects and places and the effects of processes of time—stairs that once lead to a building now demolished; an enormous pile of tree clippings;flowering bulbs; a view toward a dormant volcano …

Walking is a time for and mode of thinking for me, which is why psychogeography resonates as research methodology. A limitation is that it does take time, which can be in short supply for the contemporary researcher, or the busy parent, carer or student juggling multiple responsibilities.‘I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour’, writes Solnit. ‘If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness’ (Solnit2014, 10). Walking with deliberate attention as methodology reduces speed further–requiring pauses to observe, note and reflect on phenomena.

At the moment, we are working on campus part-time, but most of my meetings are online. I miss walking between meetings, noticing the change of season as spring approaches. The birds seem wilder with fewer people around.

Bumping into people

With all of my interactions scheduled, and mostly mediated through a screen, I miss impromptu embodied conversations. Having moved into a new role, I rarely see people I caught up with regularly six months ago. I miss you!

Interrupting and being interrupted

I mentioned my love of interruptions in a previous post. Polite turn-taking is far more important during Zoom. I miss hearing people talking over the top of one another, or finishing each other’s sentences without awkward pauses. I am reminded of this quote from Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts:

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.

Novelty

There is a certain sameness to our days now. I am sure this is felt more intensely by those unable to leave their homes. I miss everyday novelty. I am attempting to satisfy my cravings by trying new condiments, planning virtual escape room games with colleagues and family, and picking up books from the local street library. This morning’s haul included Vivian Pham’s The Coconut Children and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

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What are you missing?

ETA I wrote this post then watched the horrific news from Beirut. My heart is with you, and the Lebanese community outside Beirut.

Breathing room

Colleagues and I have had a book chapter published this week. It’s entitled Breathing Room, and was co-authored by seven authors: Agnes Bosanquet, Jayde Cahir, Gail Crimmins, Janet Free, Karina Luzia, Lilia Mantai, Ann Werner.

The chapter appears in a collection edited by Linda Henderson, Ali Black and Susanne Gervis. I can’t wait to receive my copy and read the other chapters, all written collectively, with responses to each section by a feminist ‘grandmother’ figure (in a scholarly sense).

Of our chapter, Alison Bartlett writes:

Working around metaphors of making room, I loved the way these large collectives—Bosanquet, Cahir, Crimmins, Free, Luzia, Mantai and Werner—share their writing space to talk about being not a parent nor able to be employed in the academy, about parenting difficulties and illness, about the sheer amount of research that accompanies motherhood and the unpredictability of bodies. While breath, sleep and voice come and go, are strained and released in this chapter amidst the social performance of life, there is something raw/roar about the audacity of this chapter disclosing such vulnerabilities.

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The theme of breathing room unites the reflective narratives in our chapter, inspired by Luce Irigaray’s writing on breath, interiority and autonomy. In Between East and West, Irigaray (2002) writes that she has learnt “the importance of breathing in order to survive, to cure certain ills, and to attain detachment and autonomy” (p 10). She explores “a sexuation of breathing” as a woman “by practicing, by listening (to myself), by reading, by awakening myself” (2002, 10). Collectively, our narratives reveal living with and letting go of the demands of academia and the complexities of caring for ourselves and others. We show the messiness and fractured identities of (non)mothers and (non)researchers in and out of academic contexts.

It seems a good time to remind myself of the importance of breathing room. Here are some apposite quotes from the seven reflections in our chapter:

Breath 1

I need more space than I have—emotionally, mentally and physically—to parent full-time, long-term … I need more time-space, mind-space, than I believe would be permitted in any academic position I see advertised. I need more space to be scholarly than is allowed in modern-day academia.

Breath 2

Fridays are the days I set aside for writing, reading, thinking. Activities that (I believe) is what being in academia should be about, things that I want to do whether I get paid or not. All of the week has been consumed by teaching and meetings, administration, e-mails and colleagues complaining for hours on the phone to me. … Fridays start out full of hope, I am imagining time to write, time to pick up my child early, time to reflect on strategies and methods, have lunch with my partner.

Breath 3

I practice yoga and mindfulness more seriously now, as if my sanity depends on it. It does. I run. It teaches me to breathe through stress and anxiety. I practice gratitude, I exercise self-compassion. I tell myself to let go and accept I can’t have it all at once. I write to process this whirlwind of emotions, and I talk with my son about what gives me joy and keeps me away from him.

Breath 4

Writing in my son’s journal is part of our bedtime routine. Listening to him recount the day is a gateway to his inner world … Sometimes he holds a mirror up to me: “Mummy doesn’t play with me a lot or often”. I know that it is true. I write it down. I take a deep breath.

Breath 5

I lost my voice. I couldn’t speak for eight weeks. The consultant said it was a paralysed vocal chord. The singing teacher who helped me recover said that I couldn’t speak because I’d stopped breathing properly. As if going into battle, I was anticipating my struggle with parenting by taking huge gulps of air and holding on for dear life. I was flooding the engine. I needed to sip the air: constantly refuel.

Breath 6

We visited Australia’s National Art Gallery and saw an exhibition entitled The Breathing Room by Patricia Piccinini. An audiovisual space of multiple screens, it was like entering the insides or watching a close-up of a strange fleshy creature breathing. Sometimes the creature panicked and its breathing escalated. Sometimes it slowed like it was sleeping.  The room was both comforting and disturbing in its intimacy. A bit like being and having a mother, I thought.

Breath 7

I’ve moved office three times this year … Finally, I moved to an ‘office of my own’ in a corridor clothed in NTEU stickers, Women’s International Day posters and Aboriginal flags. Here I can breathe, surrounded by people who share my life-blood to be activist in academia, human and more-than-human in and through our academic roles. I unpack my boxes.

Thank you to these women for sharing their words, and to the editors for holding space for them.

Everyday life

A lot has happened in the world since my last post, and yet I’m writing from inside the same walls. In Australia, most people are experiencing COVID-19 through the disruption of social distancing, rather than proximity to illness and mortality. My condolences to those who have lost people close to them. Here, we are schooling at home, trying to maintain connection to the outdoors, worrying about family and friends, restricting our movements, feeling anxious when visiting the shops… For many, these challenges are compounded by job loss, pre-existing physical and mental health issues, and social inequality.

I am fortunate to enjoy the company of the people I live with, to be able to continue working from home, to have functional internet and enough room in our house. Even so I have felt enervated by enforced domesticity and lack of autonomy.

I have previously blogged about service, care and housekeeping (at work and home) as under-recognised work that is disproportionately performed by women. With a smaller distance between home, work and school, I’ve been thinking about the workloads that have increased: care work, housekeeping, life administration, and emotional labour.

Having a full house all the time means more time spent cleaning, preparing food, shopping and tidying up. Even pet care has increased, with our dog requiring grooming and an urgent trip to the vet this week (with twice daily medication, her infection is clearing up). What is on your mental to-do list right now? Here’s a sample off the top of my head: pick up medicine from chemist, organise online catch-ups with friends for the 7 year old, suggest alternatives to screen time, call doctor, write shopping list, plan for schooling, make telehealth appointments, make vet appointment, pay water bill, wash sheets, empty recycling, clean out drawers, book flu shots, donate books, post parcels, sign and return school forms, get quotes for repairs, put chickens away, buy slippers, read The Art of Life Admin

It keeps going in all its banality. I won’t be doing all of these things myself, but I am keeping a tally. During COVID-19 lockdown,  many tasks have additional steps and take longer than usual.

Keeping energetic children occupied while parents are working is usually outsourced to school, before and after school care, clubs and activities, vacation care, holiday camps and grandparents. Organising school holiday entertainment takes time. While there are good online activities available, the level of parent supervision depends on the age, temperament and needs of your children, and whether the activities cost money. My children have enjoyed a mix of paid and free activities, including hip hop, science, art and coding. This picture is my daughter’s Monet-inspired work:

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I am enjoying:

  • Helen Sword’s (free) Stay at Home Writing Retreat. Days spent writing are the stuff of fantasy right now, but the retreat meant I was able to finally complete this post! Small tasks: an abstract, an introduction to a report, a creative writing assignment.
  • Flat shoes and clothes that feel like pyjamas. Will I ever be able to wear ‘work clothes’ again?
  • Home-made soup using the ingredients from our mystery fruit and veg box delivery. My brother has just updated his blog of my mother’s recipes from the 1970s with minestrone soup. And simple, experimental meals; tonight’s dinner was a sausage tasting competition.
  • Homebound fun. We are playing a lot of board games, including The Spider’s Web: A Game of Escape, which we found in an op shop or garage sale some time ago and played for the first time this week.
  • Catching up with colleagues in our twice weekly tea room meetings.
  • Podcasts while exercising: Conversations, By the Book, Slow Your Home
  • Writing in my Passion Planner diary. As well as getting my to-do list on paper, I can chronicle my responses to prompts like: What was the most memorable part of this past month? Are you happy with how you spent your time? What are you most proud of? What or who are you especially grateful for this past month?
  • Finding the right books for a distracted mind. The Unread Shelf Challenge had me pick up Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend. I loved it for the focus on the inner lives of older women.

Despite these pleasures, our emotions are tumultuous. Looking at the emotions wheel, we are feeling overwhelmed, playful, helpless, resentful, loving, annoyed and guilty—and that’s before we get dressed in the morning! I am spending more time than ever trying to remain calm and supporting the emotions of others. Those with younger children and large families must be finding this a challenge. Self-care is more important than ever.