Controlled chaos, or thoughts on the Saturn-Uranus opposition

Call it ‘the Grand Irrationality’, as Robert Wilkinson does, or a ‘tricky time’ as this reader does on ElsaElsa.com. There’s a weirdness in the air — a sense that what we know, experiences we have built up (Saturn), may not, or cannot, help us make sense of the chaos (Uranus) we sense. The economy is messed up, the environment is messed up, politics is messed up and (many of) our personal lives may be messed up.

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Moving house

Gingerbread city

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Sooner than later

Nothing like blogging to say I’ve no time to blog than to do so within 24 hours. Sometimes the part of the mind generating the resistance just needs a swift kick every now and again.

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Anxiety as practice

I met up with a friend earlier this evening for coffee and was telling him about my recent struggle with the fear and anxiety over the outcome of my PhD. As I started to recount the story to him, about how I became aware I was blaming my supervisor, the examiners and external circumstances for my predicament, I found myself saying, ‘Instead of saying the examiners are wrong or that I disagree with their position, what would happen if I said, actually they are right and I agree with them?’ A curious thing started to happen: as I was speaking, I saw flashes of how the new thesis was going to take shape. It still amazes how powerful a shift in mindset can be.

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The birth of responsibility, Part II

I seem to remember a panic attack about this time a year ago before I submitted the thesis for the first time. Mercury was retrograding in Pisces too. But that recollection is reserved for a different occasion.

It is about 5 months to the second submission and this time it is make or break. And yet, part of me thinks, what if I’m just not wired up to be able to do it? I read the examiners’ comments and although everyone tells me to just follow them to the letter, I feel like I have to question their premises. And as I now learn to watch my mind build the narrative, I wonder if it isn’t a case of self-sabotage. I will never have to be judged by those whom I deem incapable of judging me.

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Holiday hoopla

Ever waited so long for something, it seems almost an anticlimax when you get it? No, I’m not talking about my PhD. I’m talking about my car.

Lost my old (old) one to mechanical failure and old age, bought a new (old) one on 13 December, but never got behind the wheel until yesterday. Hopped, leaped, crawled through an unexpectedly large number of hoops, all the while having to take a two-an-hour bus in gale-force weather:

    Day one: goes to bank to re-work my loan
    Day two: goes to bank to sign for loan; told can’t get a cashier’s cheque without my chequebook (I still haven’t figured this one out)
    Day three: goes to bank with chequebook; bank is closed until further notice due to electrical problems; this is the only branch in miles
    Day three: pays the garage with the cheque; could have done so on Day Two
    Day three: goes to tax office to get car taxed; forgets insurance documents are necessary to get road tax
    Day three: phones insurance company to check when the documents will arrive; around five working days, i.e. in the middle of next week
    Day next week: nothing in the post; mail likely held up by severe fog and many cancelled flights and deliveries in the UK
    Day following week: Christmas is nearly upon us; resigns to nothing else in the post
    Christmas Eve: insurance documents arrive, along with a stack of Christmas cards; too late for anything but Christmas carols and mulled wine
    Christmas Day: am invited to Christmas dinner but can’t get myself there; friend comes to get me from the country; we have a nice roast duck and watch bad TV (confession: I rather like Doctor Who)
    Boxing Day: watch more bad TV; thankful am without the means to take me to the sales
    Day after Boxing Day: garage is closed; I later learn for the whole week
    Days between Christmas and the New Year: teach myself three new software programmes*
    Day three into the New Year: goes to the tax office with the insurance documents, finds out inspection certificate is out of date; feels stupid
    Day five after New Year: car passes inspection, but it’s a Friday and will have to wait till Monday
    Day Monday: gets the car, drives it through awful weather to the office, all the while wishing I could just go home and have a nap.

What have I lost? Not much. What have I gained? New software skills to organise and simplify one’s life* (no, the irony is not lost on me), and hopefully be less stupid the next time as to buy a new (old) car two weeks before Christmas.

*Have to say, they’re pretty fantastic and worth recommending (no, am not selling nor an employee of the companies): OmniOutliner, Devonthink, and Sente. Wish I had these six years ago.

Salute to Sisyphus, Part I

On 1 August 2006, I sat for and failed to clear a viva voce examination for a PhD. I had hoped to write a very different blog on the subject, but as it is, such outcomes can never be determined. Failing to attain a qualification for which you worked six years for is a blow — there is no denying that — but it also threw into relief what I’d lost and gained in the last six years.

I embarked on an academic career some six to ten years ago, not so much to become a university professor, but as a means to finding myself. How trite that sounds now. Having dabbled in copywriting for commercial advertising and the corporate life, it didn’t take long for me to realise that a life without a BMW wasn’t punishment enough for me to go down that route. At the same time, job prospects for university professors, even back then, ranged from challenging to dismal (and there’s nothing I can add here that the Invisible Adjunct hasn’t already said). Nevertheless, like a lot of students who embark on a PhD, I started off by wanting to change the world. However, that enthusiasm soon wore thin, not because I no longer believed in what I was researching and writing (I’m still hopeful that I’ve something important to say), but because of the need to find a way to finance that writing and research, as well as, banally, to put food on the table, keep a roof over my head, and not shove my parents further into the red. This blog entry is my attempt to work out the time line that seems less linear than inclined; like Sisyphus, I seem now to be standing at the peak watching the rock roll down the hill.

In sheer resistance and defiance at having to do the GRE and TOEFL to enter an American university, and well as to have to pay for the privilege of applying, I sent my applications to institutions in Canada and the UK. Two Canadian universities and one UK university did not reply; one Canadian university said my work was not of sufficient standard; one UK university accepted my application but could not offer any funding; and the last UK university offered not funding, but an option to register part-time for a period, while remaining in my home country. Eager to begin the work of changing the world, I accepted the compromise and worked my way through four part-time jobs simultaneously over three years to fund a PhD I didn’t have the time nor the energy to read for, much less write.

In the third year, I decided, enough was enough. With the help of a modest savings plan, my parents, and a small loan against my life insurance policies, I found my way to England. There I was offered a half-fee scholarship in exchange for teaching some classes. I was under no illusion that this was a handout of any kind: the amount of funding my courses were bring into the department in terms of student enrolment far exceeded what they were foregoing in my fees, but I did it because paying half the fee is better than paying the whole fee, and I told myself that the teaching experience was going to be valuable. No matter that I was the only graduate student I knew of who was developing, teaching, running and marking two original courses by herself, in addition to two other courses I was also developing, teaching, running and marking for an adult education centre. We were back to the magical number four, but home or away, I still had to put food on the table, keep a roof over my head, and not shove my parents further into the red. Déjà vu was fast becoming déjà fait. And I haven’t even included the other peripheral jobs, like brailling (converting printed text into Braille) and invigilating exams. If my language abilities had been better, I dare say I might have added waitressing at the local Chinese restaurant to the list.

I was, however, continuing to publish academic papers. Three papers came out in the first year of being in England, a textbook in the second and three more articles are awaiting publication from the third. How did I do all that with only 24 hours in a day? I really don’t know. I look back on the time and see someone else. In the meantime, the thesis proper was floundering. I had the inkling of an idea I was trying to hook onto but the line kept sinking each time. I was afraid my premises were unsound, my methodology untenable and the scope of the project completely unrealistic. In my world-changing mode, I was trying to take on four major humanities disciplines at the same time. But I didn’t know how to scale back, how to make the project more manageable. Unlike in America, PhD students in the UK are left to do ‘independent research’ — there are no committees, and no review panels, just you and your supervisor in the writing stage and you and the examiners in the defence stage. Each emphasises a different values system: one places its faith in institutional procedure, the other in individual integrity — it didn’t prevent me from feeling that the latter most resembled Russian roulette.

End of Part I. On to Part II.

What we ask for

I woke up this morning — uh, afternoon — to an email asking if I could bring forward my lecture from next week to tomorrow, and the film screening for the lecture from Friday morning (the one I was dreading) to this evening.

Fantastic. I can’t imagine anything better to break my current inertia. Much as I carp about routines and anxiety, I get a real buzz from moments of unpredictability, as they often signal changes in direction that I find re-energizing. Of course, I might carp about too many changes then. But this one is minor. And certainly welcome.

Sleep reluctance

Here I am blogging in bed again. It’s nearly 5 a.m. and my mind is refusing to calm down. It’s jumping about in my head like a monkey with a fire to its rear end. This bout of insomnia, which I haven’t encountered in a while, is the twin to my reluctance to get out of bed in the mornings. The feeling is one I’ve had before. It’s not so much the inability to sleep as the unwillingness to, and just sheer recalcitrance and defiance at ‘doing the right thing’. If I can’t sleep at night, I can’t be blamed for not being able to wake up in the mornings.

I happen to be lucky enough not to have fixed hours at work and my only early day this week is on Friday morning. I’m dreading Friday, and dreading the weekend (1 May deadline looming). I’m burnt out, sure, but this wilful sleep deprivation exacerbates the situation, and reinforces my fears of under-performing. If I know what’s happening in my head, why do I feel so powerless to stop it? For the astrologically inclined, I have Saturn conjunct Sun in the 6th House: fear of under-performance at work (and beating myself up about it) is in my psychic DNA. But just because we’re programmed doesn’t mean we have to hum the tune.

So here I am. Blogging. At 5 in the morning.

In a moment of whimsy, I googled ‘sleep reluctance’. Is it coincidence or design that the phenomenon seems to be associated with small children? Sometimes, I think I stay awake because I fear my dreams, but better not open that can of worms … at least not tonight.

Headless chicken

Whoever invented the expression got the right idea. I’ve spent the past week jumping through administrative hoops trying to get my thesis submitted and examined. The UK-wide industrial action boycotting examinations and assessment seems to be more inconveniencing than effective, but I’m much less reactive than I might’ve been, even though the outcome has a direct impact on my current job, and I’m realising that people are using the action to retroactively justify not doing tasks which were to have been completed way before the action was instigated.

These days I’ve figured that things outside of my control just have to run their course. If I’m caught in the maelstorm, I can either glide along with the current and hope to land safely, or try to fight it and risk crackng my skull. Anyway, I’ve done my bit. Written the thing, and sent it in. The rest will have to take care of itself. If the examination is delayed and my current visa runs out and I have to leave the country before coming back in again, fine. Being a foreigner caught in an administrative tangle has made me appreciate the value of citizenship though; there’s something vaguely mystical about how a piece of paper can be a pathway or a barrier to employment, security and social services.

As a result, though, I am very grateful for the opportunity to re-visit old friends and relationships. I am only now realising I have more friends than I thought I did! This is hard for me to say since I always feel alone even in a crowd, but sometimes you need to have gone away to be able to see what you never realised you had. That’s the benefit of detachment, I suppose. What I’m going to try and cultivate is that awareness and detachment in the present, not merely in hindsight.

I wonder how my aloe vera is doing?

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