Sunday, January 12, 2014

In Which I Begin a Long-Distance Relationship

Amidst all the trials and tribulations of a university in change, one of the most stable features of my life for the last twenty-one years has been having a partner with a good job in the same city. When I met Paul he was driving from Fitzroy to Monash most days, not enjoying the commute, but loving the job with great colleagues. He then moved to RMIT university in the city, and so for the last twelve years, or thereabouts, we have relished both being able to ride our bikes to work. It's true we hardly ever meet for lunch, as we often talk about, but we do sometimes set out on the bike path together of a morning.

But while I soldier on at Melbourne (I'm not complaining about my job; it's just that I have been here such a long time), he has just accepted a new job in Sydney, and will start tomorrow. It's another research-only position, but with minimal administration, unlike his job at RMIT, and once his routine settles down he'll be up there probably for four days at a time, twice a month. It's just that the first few months will be busy with international trips already planned and booked, so UWS won't see much of him, and there are some pretty nasty turn arounds on the calendar, when he flies home to Melbourne and then a day later flies up to Sydney.

It feels very odd at our advanced ages to be taking on a long-distance relationship. I know lots of people who do it, or have done it, usually at a younger age, and usually in hopes of eventually getting to the point that we have just abandoned. Paul's reasons for moving are complex - it's his story to tell, not mine - but I think we are going to be ok.

His first move has been to get an old bike reconditioned and shipped to Sydney to help with the flat-hunting, while his new bike is being built. If you are flying to work, it's important not to be driving another car.

Discussions about all this took place mostly over the month I was undergoing all my tests and probes and surgery for the possible recurrence of breast cancer (all good now). So we had lots of opportunity to talk about the life-work and the life-death balance. Financially it'll be tough for us in the short term, but probably ok in the long term. If I had been starting chemotherapy now, it would be feeling very different, I'm sure. Of course, the success of this venture depends on neither of us getting really ill. We are collecting stories from people who've done this kind of commute, and illness is one of the things that makes it much harder. It's also true that the Sydney-Melbourne air route is the most travelled in the country: planes fly every 30 minutes, so the logistics are relatively straightforward.

We're planning to build a different kind of routine. I'm going to try to work less at weekends and make a greater differential between work time and non-work time. I'll have a place to stay in Sydney, but how often will I really go up there? Isn't it more likely that my home-loving man will want to come here to be with his cats and fish and chickens and garden and son? How much easier it is to contemplate this with an almost-adult son, too.

The main theme in our discussions has really been about the quality of life. How to balance the wonders of a cycling commute and the beauty of quotidian, local, and domestic rhythms against the pleasures of a working and research community that gives you intellectual stimulation and fabulous professional support? In an era when a university career is such a complex, overladen and demanding business, it still seems crucial to have that research community around you. Mind you, we medievalists in Australia and in most other contexts are accustomed to making communities of scholars in adjacent and sympathetic fields. It's all relative, I know.

The expectation that you can have intellectual and communal and social satisfaction in a university career will be knocked down as unrealistic by the cynics, I'm sure, and of course I acknowledge I'm speaking from the privileged position of two tenured professorial incomes, etc. etc. I know the situation is completely different for the untenured, the sessional, the adjunct, and those who cannot easily move, or commute.

However, I want to own and celebrate this change as a mutual household decision because it's a sign that we are not giving up: that we can make the argument that our work is meaningful; and that we can still insist that our academic and intellectual work matters enough to organise our lives around it, instead of subordinating everything to financial expediency, for example.

Would love to hear stories from folks who've managed long-distance relationships and commutes, though. What works? What are the pitfalls? What's it going to be like?

7 comments:

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Stephanie, you tease you. What a crowd-pulling title.

You know my situation, which doesn't compare with yours in any way except for the long-distance bit, being infinitely more precarious, but it has endured for fifteen years. I recommend the 'last conversation before you turn out the light' as a regular thing, although if P refuses to have a mobile that could get a little tricky.

Kelly F said...

LDRs are not always easy but the catch-ups will be nice. It's lovely to miss someone. And I am sure you will enjoy your own space and 'find' a few new or forgotten parts of yourself too!
Skype regularly (sometimes with a celebratory glass of wine) to avoid the tonal entanglements and missed messages of text/email.
There's nothing like a real face/voice tone/ability to have moments of silence. (current LDR for me = Cambridge to Melb. Am jealous that you and Paul are at least visitable/same time zone!) Keep well Stephanie :)

Meredith Jones said...


Lovely post Stephanie. I haven't done a LDR but I imagine there will be many wonderful things about it. I'm sorry I won't be around for the first half of this year to help Paul if he needs it, but please feel free to pick my brains about anything!

Katherine said...

Hi Stephanie - you know we do the Montreal-London shuttle maybe a third of the year (not all, which saves us), and sometimes Paris gets thrown in too. There are real charms to this model, notably longing for each other and plotting places to meet. Also dull spots, but you can already imagine them. Things that help: being really clear with the calendars. Skype, obviously, and having skype be sometimes just a way to share the quotidian: not there to chat with but to have on while you work on other stuff, at your desk or in the kitchen: just to hang out. I remember once watching E's eyes watch a little video I'd sent him, that was lovely.
Also it doubles the cities in which you can see friends regularly, and plan restaurant trips.
This is timely: today is the first day of term, but when I get home E will be here! (Only a week absence this time, but still enough to merit the thinking about a special dinner. You see how I manage sentiment through food.)

Sarah RJ said...

I actually found myself envying you since my own situation would make this impossible.

I think this just means that life is a richly varied (and bumpy) road and we all make and should enjoy our own particular 'normal'.

wesley Trigg said...

thanks for a great personal piece. You may find "skyping" a wonderful help. It's good to see the other person as well as hear them. May many good things emerge from your new L D R . Pa

Meow Opre said...

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