Saturday, May 21, 2011

Beginnin' to see the light

For too long now I've been struggling. My job, while wonderful in so many ways, is also really hard sometimes. Yes, I get to work on wonderful material; and yes, I get to travel around a bit; and manage my own time. And indeed, I get a great sense of achievement in my work when I finish big projects. I am also the first to admit that my path through the professional and intellectual minefield that is the modern university has been easier and more straightforward than that of many people. I've been wonderfully lucky in my students and colleagues, locally, nationally and internationally. I'm pretty well paid for what I do. I have excellent superannuation and health care in a country which is also providing my son with excellent health care and education through the state system. We are heavily mortgaged, but there are two of us on full salaries and our house, while badly run down and crumbling in places, is spacious and pleasant. We eat well; we are happy as a family; we are close to friends and family; and our lives are full of music, words and images. Even my own trajectory through breast cancer was relatively straightforward: the end of this year will mark the end of my five years' treatment and the point where I will have substantially reduced the risk of recurrence so that it will not be much higher than the risk a woman my age might face of first contracting the disease.

And yet too often these days I wake in the night and toss and turn about the always-unfinished, always imperfect and utterly invasive nature of my work. It goes on and on. It is never finished. It is never perfected. It is never complete. Instead, it feels partial, incomplete, unfinished. I can't control the endless emails; the online forms and processes; the constant requests to assess, grade, quantify and rank that eat into the time and concentration I have available to read and study medieval literature. I feel I have cleared the mental space to write this blog entry only because I've been working so hard to delete and file emails (I have processed over a thousand of them in the last few days in a concerted effort to control them) and have cleared most of the surface of my desk and home.

I try to give myself Saturdays off, so I had a "normal" day today: breakfast with Joel (Paul comes home from Europe on Monday); Italian class; gym workout; leftover pizza for lunch; made chocolate and cherry muffins. We introduced the kittens to my parents who came and sat and drank tea as we watched Wulf and Orlando taking turns to play with the toy mouse (Wulf tired first and climbed up on my father's lap, while Orlando knocked herself out leaping and tossing and chasing the mouse before climbing on Pa's lap to curl up with her brother). I then raked up about eight barrow loads of leaves, and raked the gravel paths before I came in to watch the last scenes of The Ghost Writer (I had fallen asleep on the couch watching it the night before), walked it back down to the video shop, then made mushroom and spinach risotto (secret ingredient? a big spoonful of creme fraiche right at the end) and watched Dr Who while we ate it.

But even a normal day like this feels less like a good balance of work and life and more like a day of respite snatched from the chaos and the lurching from task to task that seem to characterise every day — and the anxious reliving of that chaos that often characterises the hours between 2 and 4 am.

I'm sure I'm doing it all wrong. I'm sure I could be more disciplined (sigh) about being organised and prioritising stuff. I'm also pretty sure this feeling would be one clearly identified symptom of mid-life crisis. I'm pretty sure most folk in Australian universities - and elsewhere - will be feeling many of the same things. Even so, I'm hesitating to write this, as I feel I'm normally so upbeat about my work. And I guess that is also the professional persona I have cultivated. So it feels like something of a betrayal of all that.

And yet. And yet. I'm going to "publish post" in a minute, anyway. This is what I set up my blog for, in any case, to trace these vicissitudes. But can anything be done? Will it always be like this?  For now, I'm going to put the kittens to bed and read a chapter of the book I'm reviewing before I go to sleep.


11 comments:

Sarah Rees Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I'm glad you wrote the post, Stephanie.

A few times on my own blog I've admitted the onset of a funk, typically at semester's or year's end. It can be hard to get out of a down period, and even harder to bring oneself to talk about one, but the latter always helps with the former. So does composing a post like you just wrote, a reminder of the small joys of the world and the importance of family (even when feeling at times that these are not enough, or that some of the joy that should be there is not).

And as to the endless email and the administrative tasks that seem a constant battle against chaos ... that is the worst part of administration. Again, the thing to do -- and it is hard -- is to think about the good impact your work has for your colleagues. Remind yourself why it matters.

I have no advice on how to get sleep at 2 am when such things are on your mind. I can only say: I've been there. It doesn't last. It can be cyclical, but it doesn't last.

Jeffrey

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I'm sitting here nodding like one of those toy noddy dogs in the backs of car windows.

Geoffrey "LeVostreGC" Chaucer said...

"And yet too often these days I wake in the night and toss and turn about the always-unfinished, always imperfect and utterly invasive nature of my work. "

By Seynt Christopher, yt ys as yf ye have seene ynto myn herte, so closelye yower descripcioun doth followe the nature of myn werke for My Lord the Kynge -- and eek tryinge to wryte poesye and myn litel blog on toppe of that ys lyk unto pleyinge Jenga upon the bakke of a movinge horse. Yt ys as yf lyf ys a "BLT" sandwiche: busynesse, labour, and tremblinge. And yet ther ys solaas yn everye daye.

Right ther wyth yow, lerned Magistra Trigg.

Le Vostre
GC

Anonymous said...

You have really touched a chord with me Stephanie: after 31 years in the business I still love the teaching, the students, the research, don't even mind the marking, but am crushed by the pointless surveillance and ill-thought out changes to notions of how we should teach, mark, etc and how our outputs should be measured etc, and how much time is eaten up with filling and refilling forms -- and no, I don't mind being held to account, but we are now held to accounting which is not the same.

Still a lot of joy in the actual real work (even preparing to teach Judith Butler tonight, which does make the brain ache a bit, but it's a good ache) but it is hard not to have the joy stomped away. Key moment for me: when my institution reached a point of there being more administrative staff than academics (and I exempt the admin staff on the ground who work with us and make life more bearable, it's when Marketing is larger than any academic department that you start to shake your head a little).

Nice colleagues help and we can clearly all join hands across the seas and moan together about much the same thing!

-Paul .

Paul Halsall said...

I understand depression, and that may be what you have.

Because anyway you cut, you have one of the best jobs and situations in the world. Literally billions of other people have it much much worse than you.

No job gives anyone complete satisfaction, and it were not for students why study medieval literature?

But as I say, I do understand depression and I think it is dealing with that (I take pills to help) that would help you best.

dtkline said...

I'm very much in the same place, Stephanie, and I appreciate your honesty in bringing these conflicts to the surface. For me, the lack of sleep is probably due as much to environmental factors here in the far north, but it does point to the general issue of attending to one's health and well-being. It's hard to feel good about much else when basic circadian functions are gobsmacked, so attending to those basic needs I think is paramount - and sometimes all you can do.

For me, such issues also usually involve control - trying to control things I can't, failing to control those things I can, and obsessing on those failures instead of moving on with the successes. Like email. I try to confine myself to two brief sessions, once in the morning and in the afternoon and then just let it go until tomorrow morning. I don't always do it, but that's what I'm trying. The demands of being online 24/7 I think are just plain too much anymore. What if we just said, no more: I work a 9:00-5:00 job now. I'm willing to give it a try, and the world is not going to end if some things don't get done perfectly or right now.

But I too am in the midst of a period of ennui and anxiety, though be almost every objective measure the job and family and things that matter are in very good shape.

I think the biggest thing I can do is to forgive myself for not being perfect and not living up to the image in my own mind. It's hard, but it's what I'm trying to do to deal with some of the same issues.

Thanks again for your post -

Dan K

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for writing this post. I've written several just like it, and then hit, instead of the "post" button, the "delete" button, because I was afraid it would look maudlin, or more embarrassingly, that I would be confessing weaknesses and self-doubts I really don't want anyone to know I have. I had one extremely bad winter in recent years [Nov-Feb 2009] where I really felt overwhelmed and as if I could just not keep up, and I even occasionally entertained those "do I even want to live anymore?" thoughts. Sure, we can always remind ourselves that others have it worse and "chin up!" and all that, but after a while, reminding oneself of things like "at least I'm alive!" starts to have less efficacy [it's also, like .... duh! so what?], and there's nothing wrong at all with sharing one's frustrations and anxieties because then those can be a little more publicly shared, which is to say, more publicly *carried* along with and by others who are also feeling these things. That was, after all [I think] part of your purpose in initially writing about your cancer. Happiness, we sometimes forget, and also well-being, are *projects* and not givens; we work at them, and we need communities who help us in that work.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Thanks, everyone, for such thoughtful comments - and a few other less public but equally thoughtful responses.

For myself, it's comforting to know so many other folk are struggling with these issues.

I take Paul H's point about depression (I might also add things like side-effects of medication, menopause, etc. etc. but that's another whole story). And I thought I had pretty much counted my blessings carefully in the post. Yes, others have it far worse: I'm the first to acknowledge.

But in the genre of a blog, one of the things that drives commentary is actually change: registering differences. So while this blog is pretty generally up-beat, it seemed ok to put up one that wasn't. And it did seem to touch a nerve (here and on facebook). And that is of course, also, what a blog wants...

It's also a political question, of course. I was up late last night kneeling on the floor in my Sydney hotel, tied to the internet connection on the bench and trying to work out a complex HR issue at home. Eventually I gave up and went to bed, but woke this morning to see that the debate had already moved on without me. There has got to be something wrong with this picture!

David Thornby said...

Stephanie,
It read very much to me as if you have too much physically to do, which will absolutely not be remedied by the addition of layers of organising -- beating yourself up with lists (and over lists) is just another way to spend your limited time, I think. I totally agree with your not-very-merry-go-round assessment of academic work -- when you near the end of one project, you're almost certainly spending an extra helping of work time dealing with the setting-up and funding of another one. It's not conducive, as a system, to wallowing much in your successes.

Only take the kind of advice you would give someone else at this point - I think that's intrinsically most likely to fit you. Some of which, at a guess, is to encourage more of those things to 'move on without' you.

elsewhere said...

I meant to say, but wasn't sure how to do so without sounding cheesy, that I appreciated your honesty here. I think it's these more pure moments when the reality of the blogger's life that seems to come through without masks that are often most appreciated by readers and lurkers.

I doubt you're depressed: I think you're probably just being honest.