Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Postcards from Melbourne (Part 1)

Thank you all so very much for your lovely comments on the last post and for the good wishes I received during last week. It meant a hell of a lot. This post is the first of three about my trip. I appreciate your reading and commenting very much. 

I’m not sure it’s possible for me to speak about my trip yet with any sort of perspective, but I’m going to try and talk about what it meant and how it felt. I took a very few photos the last two days with a disposable camera purchased hastily in a local supermarket, but I haven’t had them developed yet, and as photography isn’t one my skills I don’t expect much from them. It also feels a little inappropriate to use photos as evidence of my trip given that the conference I attended was based around presentations which rely on paintings, drawings, clothing, written texts and music as evidence – photos have no place in the work of an early modern or medieval specialist. I also noticed the absence of an official photographer or even just students and friends clowning around; there was no one snapping selfies at the lunch table or in the grounds. Even out and about I noticed very few people taking pictures at all, despite being asked for directions (hilariously) by other tourists several times. I liked the idea of not being overly eager to photograph everything, I was more interested in creating memories based on how things smelled or felt. It’s the experience that matters to me, not the evidence of it. Although what I saw was a big part of what this trip meant to me, it was not the most important thing. This wasn’t just a sightseeing trip (not that there’s anything wrong with those, of course), this was something much more vital.

If it’s possible to be shaking with nerves almost the entire time and yet feel like you completely belong, then that is what the week was like. The social side of it was terribly difficult, although I did get a little braver after my presentation was done and dusted. I managed to meet all four of the people I was most excited about, and one of them I ended up befriending  while I built a strong rapport with another. I saw some magnificent presentations, while others left me cold – I was gratified to discover I was correct in thinking that a conference presentation is not a mini lecture but an opportunity to present research. (What I mean by that is that we had a lot of talks that were all exposition and little analysis.) I certainly did experience what I always suspected these conferences make you feel at the best of times, an attachment to a broader academic and intellectual community, and although I occasionally despaired of ever doing work as good as some of the others presenting and speaking, I also know that my instincts and skills are much more on target than many others I met, including some much more senior researchers.

The postgrad students were a mixed bag. I did meet a couple of lovely people on the second last day of the conference, but by that stage it was a bit late. Everyone from UWA and University of Queensland knew each other, as well as most of the students from English universities, while the two big groups from the Victorian universities had been doing peer review on each other’s work for several weeks. So the only people at as much of a loss as me were from New Zealand or Canada. I tried pretty hard to try and make an effort socially, but frankly I had a lot more luck with the senior scholars than with the people in their twenties. I was hoping the comparison to school wouldn’t hold water, but the truth is that there were some serious cliques, and trying to break into those was too much for me. It didn’t help that the students presenting were overwhelmingly from medieval studies. Certainly I was one of the few students to attend many of the sessions I frequented, this may have made the social stuff harder than necessary. In addition, a friend from a complementary discipline told me several weeks before the conference that the early career researchers took these things more seriously than the more senior scholars, as a rule – I felt exonerated in discovering this was not the case. A lot of the early career researchers seemed much more nonchalant about the experience, and were mostly there for the social side of things.

Melbourne reminded me a little of the Emerald City, with its jewel toned buildings, reasonably clear lay out and comparative cleanliness. It felt like a place that had all the answers for me, and I delighted in not getting lost more than two and a half times and feeling like I mattered there. I did feel guilty about not getting out more, and very silly for not eating out rather than getting Subway for dinner twice while I was there, but it WAS a working trip, and there’s always next time. I felt like I did enough, that I made enough of an effort to be proud of myself and to look forward, to believe once again that I have a future in this line of work. As to my presentation, I think I did OK. I’m especially hard on myself about this as I was once a very successful public speaker and debater, and although I was out of practice I expected more of myself. My mentor assures me that I did a lot better than OK, and, as I usually trust his judgement, perhaps I should believe in his use of superlatives when talking about my performance. Having him there was wonderful, and although I had to be honest with him about how bad this summer has really been, he is still eager to take me on for postgrad. I feel very lucky right now, I want to be worthy of that help.

There’s no way this trip was going to be perfect. But part of me was hoping my presentation would be, and of course it wasn’t. But it was solid, and the energetic and enthusiastic question time after my talk tells me that my research hit its mark, whatever else happened. I spent a lot of time these last few days interrupting people who said 'but it was your first time, I bet it was good for your first time!'. I wanted it to be excellent irrespective of that, and I've been assured that was the case. Everyone at the session was shocked when they found out later, as the undergrads were introduced at an afternoon session, and I do count it as a win that almost every single person at the session sought me out in the remaining day and a half of the conference. I must have got some things right. 

Emma commented on my last post and her description of how Melbourne makes her feel was better than anything I could come up with: ‘If you find Melbourne anything like I find it, it will fill you with calm, a sense of adventure, a feeling of being at home, and everything will be right with the world.’ Anxiety aside, I felt like I was running towards myself on this trip, that I might have started to become who I want to be. For most of the week, being me wasn’t so bad, and I can only hope a little of that feeling came home with me. I need it quite desperately.

When I remember this trip I’ll remember the nutty, chocolate-y coffee I drank every day, I’ll remember the clang of the trams that came after the quiet and stillness as they came to a stop, and looking up in wonder at the cobweb of tram cables only a few feet above my head. I’ll close my eyes and try and summon the memory of the warmth that filled the room in an amazing session full of great people presenting interesting research and an audience wanting to listen. I’ll try to forget my shallow breathing and shaking as I spoke on Friday morning, but try and remember that people laughed when they were meant to, and the look of pride on my mentor’s face when he asked a question afterwards (I was too scared to look at him during my talk). I’ll certainly remember everything he told me afterwards, and the few words out of many I caught him whispering to his friend, describing my work, while I was meant to be talking to someone else. I will bask in the memories of happy meetings with good friends who were generous enough to share their time and love for their hometown with me. I’ll hang onto the fact that people were mostly kind and interested and that I did OK.

I did OK.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

From St Kilda to Kings Cross

‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross is thirteen hours on a bus
I pressed my face against the glass and watched the white lines rushing past
And all around me felt like all inside me
And my body left me and my soul went running…’
                        Paul Kelly, ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross’.

I’m currently on a train to Melbourne, at about the halfway point, so I’m actually doing the reverse of the trip in this post’s title. More Strathfield Station to Southern Cross. It is also, coincidentally, pissing down rain like in the song and Sydney was in the grips of a fierce thunderstorm as I left. It felt appropriate. There is nothing like the sheer, redemptive power of a thunderstorm to shake the city from its miserable, sweaty, heat induced torpor.  The storm always seems to induce a collective sigh from the city, and everyone wakes up a little. I watched the lightning crack over Sydney while I waited for my (very late) train and somehow managed to restrain myself from joining in with the little boy, dressed in his pyjamas, who was  jumping up and down a small stretch of the platform shouting: ‘Melbourne! Melbourne!’ Even though this is a train I have caught hundreds of time before, I‘ve never gone further than Albury, which we’re due to hit in a few hours.

This probably sounds supremely stupid, not just because I’m 29, but also because it’s unheard for someone with my education level, background and interests to have never even gotten around to going to Melbourne. (It sounds especially silly and insignificant given that my sister just got back from a tour of the UK and a little of Europe.) My family didn’t travel at all, growing up, and then I was too busy working or I was ill. I like the idea that I will know exactly when I cross over into unchartered territory, it’s significant, and one of the reasons I like travelling by train is the very strong sense that you’re going somewhere. You’re earthbound, but on the fast interstate trains you fly through parts of the world that most people never get around to visiting. The trip feels so familiar, and yet so very different. Because it’s bigger and better than what I’ve done before. I have deep ties to many of the communities my train is flashing through, but this time it’s not about what I’ve done, it’s about what I have to do. I am going somewhere new.

When my supervisor first suggested this conference as something I might like to consider I was immediately taken with it.  I knew in just a few minutes that it something I wanted, badly. A big part of wanting to do it, however, was because back in September I thought I could surely transform my life between then and now, that I could lose some weight, be better, not hear voices and that I would be perfect. Of course it’s crazy that I expected that. The short version is that my summer has been horrendous; I have hidden the worst of it from you all, even those of you with whom I speak on an almost daily basis, and I have spent the equivalent of weeks in hospital, trying to stay alive. This conference has been my life raft during an unbearable time, and now that it’s here I’m going to try and get everything out of it I possibly can. I will hate myself if I don’t. The version of myself that will arrive in Melbourne in a few hours is desperately trying to believe that it gets better, and that I have a future within my grasp. I have to believe that I won’t always feel this way.

This week is about my future, and for now I will try and enjoy it as it comes. I can only hope that, by the time the train gets to Melbourne, I am ready. 
Sunday, February 3, 2013

Song To Woody

I think most of you know by now that I am a massive fan of Letters of Note (absolutely worth following if you don’t already). The blog’s owner, Shaun Usher, also publishes a similar blog called Lists of Note, which is intriguing for someone like me who eschews lists, by and large. This one, Woody Guthrie’s new years’ resolutions for 1942, hit home to me with a wallop.

For Australians, I think the urge to make new years’ resolutions is especially strong, as the new year is not only the beginning of the calendar year, but also the beginning of the academic and working year, smack in the middle of summer. To be honest, I’m not usually prone to making them, or at least not any more so than every Monday morning or after indulging in too much alcohol or unhealthy food. But I do often approach the year with broad ideas of what I want. Last year I wanted to be more adventurous and work harder – let’s just say I was more successful at one than the other.

Two of the greatest casualties of my illness were my ambition and then my hope for something better. Since late 2011 these have both returned, although when I have depressive episodes they’re the first thing to go, and their absence makes it difficult to fight the despair that often shrouds me. That helplessness is exacerbated by certain life events that threatened to overwhelm me last year, despite being what I thought was ancient history, and sometimes just waking up and making it through the day is a win. Actually, ‘sometimes’ is an understatement, but let’s move on.

Guthrie’s list is both quaint and comfortingly familiar, universal in its charms: ‘WASH TEETH IF ANY’, ‘CHANGE BED CLOTHES OFTEN, ‘READ LOTS GOOD BOOKS’, ‘KEEP HOPING MACHINE RUNNING’ and ‘MAKE UP YOUR MIND’. But the final entry on the list hit me right in the gut: ‘WAKE UP AND FIGHT’. It helps that it’s in caps lock; it is a directive to attack every day, and it’s one I desperately need to follow, even if I’m only fighting my own mind. If I have a resolution, this is it. In fact it’s less a new years’ resolution and more a life one.*

I know the readers of this blog have mixed feelings about life lists. It’s not really one I’ve ever set about writing, mostly because if you write something down it makes it solid, and certainly by writing it down where others can read it I’m left hanging. What follows isn’t a complete list at all – some things are much too private to throw out on the internet – but maybe some of them are worth sharing. A few of them will even be crossed off in the near future.

The last few months/this year/next year:

*See Morrissey live at a great venue

*Prepare and then present research at an academic conference.  Don’t throw up or have panic attack during said presentation, but afterwards feel free

*Get through opening drinks at academic conference without panic attack or throwing up in front of people. Maybe drink something new and eat some cheese

.*See Women of Letters event in Melbourne (ticket bought!)

*Write and publish research in a refereed journal

*See Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds live (ticket bought!)

*Finish researching and writing Honours thesis, also known as Frankie.

*See Glen Hansard live at the Opera House

*See Something for Kate live in Canberra at a venue I haven’t visited before, see friends on getaway trip (tickets bought!)

*Be accepted into the M.Phil programme at my university, convince mentor not to dump me after Honours and take me on for postgrad

*Host 30th birthday party for close friends (invitations bought!)

*Have some proper photographs taken, maybe in Melbourne after Honours?

*Pay off medical debt (oh please, yes)

*Consolidate superannuation

*Get a university job, preferably in a library

*See The National live

*See Glasvegas live

*Consolidate superannuation

*See David Bowie live (c’mon dude, please tour the new album….)

*Go out with my sister more often

*New place to live

*Learn how to drive and get licence

*See my specialist more often, ideally once every 4 weeks

3 -5 years

*Finish M.Phil thesis

*Get Australian Postgraduate Award to make life financially easier while working on PhD programme

*Relearn Italian and become proficient to the level I need for my studies and then later for a fellowship. (This is probably the hardest thing on the list, intellectually.)

*Research trip to Italy

*Tutoring work with either A., N., or J. Maybe all 3! Work consistently and learn how to teach. (This is also one of the hardest things on the list.)

*Present at a few international conferences. Maybe go to one of the conference dinners and get through it without drinking heavily or throwing up.

*Travel with Bea - Spain and Italy?

*Travel a little with my sister

*Relearn Latin (urgghhhh…this one might spill over the 5 year period)

*Reduce frequency of panic attacks

*Go out on a date. Throw up. Maybe try it again if it doesn’t go so well.

5 – 8 years

*Finish PhD

*Write up research for a book and try and find a publisher.

*Undertake weekly therapy (this is something I apparently have to do at some point, as wretched as it makes me feel)

*Travel with F.

*Fellowship at Villa I Tatti (This is one of my big dreams, one of the biggest)

*Stop throwing up so much

The main reason I wrote these down is because this way I can look at it when the madness comes and remember that I do have ambition, that I do have plans, and that I can have a future.

If I fight for it.

*At this point, I think it’s worth saying that when I told my best friend this I started to describe the list and she said ‘yeah, I read that too’, (she’s not on social media and we’d never discussed this before) – and before I got to saying my favourite she added ‘I love the last one – ‘,
‘WAKE UP AND FIGHT’, we both said together.
This is true friendship, I think.