The exhaustion is real: a different kind of ‘ new years’ post

It’s January. A new year. New things to do and people to teach and papers to write and lessons to learn. Not, it seems, new places to go, unless I somehow find a space in my house I’ve never spent time in before (maybe the storage space/Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs might count?). And not, it seems so far, new energy and verve. I am tired. I have wished people happy new year in emails and in WhatsApps, because that’s the thing you do each January, and because I want it to be a happy new year. What am I going to write instead: Here’s hoping it’s less shite than last year? Holding thumbs that we all make it? This, as you may have guessed it, is not a typical ‘here’s to the new year’ post. But, I need to write it. And I hope it helps you if you are in a similar boat.

Usually, a couple of weeks of hard relaxing in December and early January – gin & tonic sundowners in the pool, feet up and head buried in a novel, walks and long lunches with friends, alone time, your pick here – are enough to recharge the tired batteries and give me a boost for the new work and life year. I come back ready to pick it all up again and get going. But, this year has been different. My two weeks was not long enough by any means, and the relaxing was curbed by a super-stressful news cycle here and abroad that was hard to turn off, kids missing their friends and unable to really socialise, adults missing their friends and unable to really socialise. It wasn’t very relaxing, really. So, I started January much the same way I ended November and December: tired, a bit sad, flat, cynical, angry. And I’m struggling to let go of those negative emotions and get excited about this work and life year. It all just feels like too much. And in the face of so much global panic and stress and dying animal and plant species and awful people and divisive racism, sexism, homophobia and violence – it’s like: What am I doing? No one needs another paper on higher education or another project or another blog post or another anything I do. Who cares? The world is on fire. I’m going back to bed. Wake me when it’s over. Except it feels like maybe it’ll never be over. The pandemic will – please gods – end at some point, but climate change? Racism? Misogyny? Divisive rhetoric, misinformation, disinformation, people just being horrible to each other – when will all of that end? Will it? And what I am doing about any of it that matters?

I have this lovely warrior friend who joins these awful groups on social media spouting nonsense about microchips in vaccines and satanic cabals stealing children and controlling Washington and more awfulness, and she takes on the liars and spreaders of disinformation and challenges them and tries to give them different information (truth and evidence, mainly). It is so inspiring. I am in awe of her ability to do that. I cannot. I just don’t have the mental strength to take on wilfully ignorant and stupid people whose lies and divisive rhetoric are quite literally doing harm to real people in the world. But, I feel like I should be doing something like that: not staying silent to protect my mental health, but being brave and taking on some of the awfulness and trying to challenge it, change it, at the very least add my voice. It is hard to be human when that means, as Glennon Doyle argues, advocating for others to have everything you want for yourself, not seeing yourself in competition with everyone else for rights, resources, citations, students, awards, recognition, but seeing yourself as an ally, a co-traveller, at the very least, a co-human. It feels, most days, like it takes more and more emotional and mental energy to be present, to be engaged … to be awake and dressed.

I cannot go back to bed. I have kids and students and courses to teach and papers to write and thesis projects to supervise and a journal to manage and people to talk to and be present for and with, albeit online. I cannot stop doing what I do – I cannot stop being me. So, what do I do? How do I turn this from ‘Here’s hoping but I’m not holding my breath’ to ‘Happy new year, let’s make it a good one’? How do I find meaning and purpose in the midst of so much chaos and mess and sadness and loss all around me, around us? How do I – we – hold on?

Well, I started by writing this, and in doing so by tacitly asking you to indulge me as you read it, because I needed to get this out of my head and heart and I don’t currently have a therapist. So, blog therapy. I drew a picture of what I want my inner PhDgirl to look and feel like going forward. I am acknowledging that, right now, I am not okay. But I want to be. I am tired, but I want to be energised and excited about my work and my life. I have said ‘yes’ to teaching and writing projects that I currently feel overwhelmed by, because I know they will add shape and meaning to my life and will give me something positive and energising to focus on and goals to work towards. I took a day on Thursday to have a swim, play silly games on my phone, and watch Netflix. I did not check email. I did not make myself feel bad about that. I am no longer telling myself I am behind. I am where I am, and that has to be okay so that I will be okay. I cannot live on a hamster wheel anymore, even one of my own making. I want to choose to make myself a priority in my own life and I want to stop apologising for that. So, I’m starting today. I am going to write this post and publish it, even though the shame voice in my head is saying ‘TMI! No one wants to read this self-indulgent crap! Just suck it up and get on with it!’ I don’t want to do that anymore. If last year taught us anything, it has to that it is okay to not be okay and it is okay to say ‘I was wrong but I am open to learning’ and it is okay to ask for help and take it and be grateful that there are people who care enough to help.

So, here we go, into a new year. I read somewhere on social media that January is the 13th month of 2020, so that means new year’s day in actually Monday, February 1st. I like that – it gives me a bit more time to work through some of this exhaustion and meh-ness so that I can really start this year with more energy and purpose than I feel right now. I do wish us all a happier new year, a safer and healthier new year, a less isolated and lonely new year. Thank you for reading this, and for being part of my global tribe. Your support means more than I can say.

The year 2020 in writing and research: a review (of sorts)

At the end of the year for the last few years I have written a “what I learned about writing this year’ kind of post (see here for 2019, for example). But, this year has been quite unusual in many respects, not least because after March, all bets were off for meeting early writing goals and Being Productive on the research front. Some people has a super-productive year, if my Twitter feed is to be believed, but this was not the case for many and I include myself in this group. This post, then, is a musing on the year that has been, and a stock-taking review of sorts.

I started this year sending off a full draft of my book to colleagues for peer review, and thought: Fabulous! That’s Done. Now I’ll write All The Other Things in my queue (mostly co-authored papers with students and colleagues and starting a new research project – long reading list – and applying for ethical clearance so I can start gathering data – yay). First thing, the book was by no means done (what was I thinking?). It came back in May with lots of constructive critique, which was great but also meant a whole-book revision and some rewriting and new writing and reading. This was now 2 months into Lockdown, and the world was a whole new place. I was moving all my teaching online, which was so much more work than I thought it would be, preparing to teach a Master’s module online, and trying to make my children do their schoolwork at home and not watch YouTube and play online games all day. So, the paper writing and new research reading I had started was paused (really stopped, but let’s say paused ’cause it sounds better).

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Second thing, do you know how long reading brand new theory and substantive research takes? I didn’t. I should have, having done an MA and a PhD in the last 15 years. But, somehow, I forgot that reading with concentration, and reading Theory, is flipping hard. It takes time and energy, and by the time I had revised the whole book and sent it to the series editor in July, both were in short supply. So, there was more pausing and putting the new project off, and I couldn’t do fieldwork anyway, so it was all moot, it felt like. The book came back, more revisions and corrections, more emotional and mental energy. But, by now my kids were back at school at least part of the week, so the homeschooling was a bit easier, and my lovely co-author was teaching a full semester online and I was teaching two professional development courses alongside the MA module. So she didn’t mind pausing the paper a bit (or a lot) longer. Writing and research, what’s that? Just making myself wash my hair and get out of my PJs for Zooms-with-no-cameras was a lot, most days, in August and September.

The book went back in August and passed muster, and then went off to production. Big milestone. Big relief. But short-lived. It came back rather quickly, copyedited, and the whole thing – all 177 pages – had to be re-read very carefully and corrected, edited, checked. There were many long-sentences I missed as well as puzzling typos and referencing mistakes. That was hard. I read that manuscript just hating it and feeling very strongly that no one would want to buy it, let alone read it, and what on earth possessed me to believe I could write a book? I really dragged myself through the revisions and sent it back. But, the process of doing that oddly gave me a second wind for working on the one paper I had paused earlier in the year. It helped that my teaching and marking had started winding down, too, in early November. We signed up to present a work-in-progress at an online colloquium, which gave us both a bit of a boost. Although it now all on hold again, because we are pretty finished in terms of energy and brain-power.

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So, now it is December and I am three days away from activating my out-of-office on 3 email acccounts, after which I will be deleting my social media apps and my gmail app from my phone for the 2.5 weeks I am on leave. Last night at 10pm I sent back the proofs and index for the book – I had to read the whole thing again and make more corrections and comments – and it’s back in the production queue. The co-authored paper is still in a paused state, but the argument is becoming less opaque and we hope, with fresher brains, we can finish it early next year. The new research project is not anywhere, really – no further along than it was this time last year. Maybe 2021 will be more productive on that front now that the book is done and that research chapter is effectively closed. As to the other papers in the queue? I don’t know. I have no idea what next year will look like. Am I still going to be teaching online all year, part of the year? Will I be allowed or brave enough to travel? I know I will have to make time to promote my book – I have no idea what that will look like yet as South African university campuses have not announced clear plans for being “back at work” in any kind of old-normal way yet. Just thinking about that makes me want to take a long nap.

I am anticipating unforeseen emotional labour and drains on my energy, maybe more consciously now that I have in the past. I am trying not to make too many plans that will be a basis for being mean to myself for not Being Productive, and I am trying to have looser, less formal plans for 2021’s writing and research. I mean, I probably say this every year, but the craziness and upheaval and fatigue of this year has really driven home the need to pay attention to my energy, to accept rather than rail against it, and to work with myself kindly and gently, rather than holding myself up to some external standard that may be fine for someone else, but not for me. This is not easy: I had to actually stop myself from berating myself for only uploading two publications into the university database as proof of my research “output” this year (both written in 2019). Two publications in any year is just fine, and in 2020, it’s great. I suppose, what I am learning more and more is to work at my pace, not someone else’s pace, and to celebrate all the small milestones, like papers read and proofs edited and productive, fun co-author meetings that push the process a few steps further, even if the finished draft itself is a way off. Focusing on the steps rather than only on the big product at the end seems to be a healthier way to Be Productive, in this or any year. So, that’s what I am taking forward with me. That and a resolution of sorts to embrace slower forms of scholarship and self-care that give me time for rest and recharging and eating properly and sleeping better and exercising (not my best thing).

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I wish you all a merry, safe and restive end-of-year break, and a happy festive season if you are celebrating. I am grateful to all of my readers out there for your support – thank you, and see you in 2021!

Hitting the wall: Finding some space to have space

I read something the other day about surviving crises and how about 6 months after the initial crisis starts we hit the wall. We have adjusted, more or less, to a new normal but there is still no end in sight, and we’re not completely sure we can let go of the old normal yet. So we’re kind of stuck between accepting that this is our life now and not wanting this to be our life now and we’re tired. I think I have hit this wall. I have more or less made my peace with teaching online (but I long for face to face classes again), I have kind of liked not having to get on planes and go places and be away from my kids and my cats and Lovely Husband (but I kind of miss lazy evenings by myself in a B&B watching Netflix and all the hustle and bustle of traveling). I am in this in-between space, trying to find a way to have some space for just being.

Mainly, I just need a break. I need some actual proper space and I have been grumping around the house feeling cross that I have to get up every day and stare at my screen all day and be there for other people all day and, like, who is being there for me? Where is my time and headspace for being creative with my own writing? Where is my sleeping in and reading my chick-lit novel all morning in my PJs while my boys make me pancakes? I’m whinging, I know. But, I’ve hit this wall hard and I can’t have a break because I am teaching three courses right now and have heaps of student work to read and comment on and weekly teaching prep and a journal to manage and people to be responsible to and for and I just want it all to stop.

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So, I am grumpy and tired and I feel guilty all the time because I never get enough done in a day. And I feel bad for wanting everyone to go away and leave me alone, especially my students. But, one thing I have learned is to own my feelings, the ones that I am happy to share and the ones I am not, because pretending I don’t feel those feelings only leads to feeling invisible and therefore more resentful and grumpy. So, I’m owning them. I’ve hit the wall, I’m tired, I’m cross, I’m grumpy, I need some space in a part of the year where taking space for me makes me fall behind in my never-ending to-do list and then feel guilty and bad. It’s not good, basically.

But then, I have a day like today. I read bits of drafts that students on my writing course are working on and see them using feedback and patience and perseverance to create clearer, sharper, such interesting paper drafts. And I know I am so lucky to do this work, to be part of helping early career and postgraduate scholars to publish and share their research. I get to make creative and fun learning materials for students that will help them with their writing—something all students struggle with, some far more than others. And that’s pretty cool too. And I get to go the wool shop and buy lovely yarn to start a new knitting project with. And it feels like, even though I did not get right to the end of my list for today or yesterday, I had a bit of balance. I knocked work off my list, I went to Pilates, I bought wool and got to chat for 20 minutes about knitting and yarn colours to someone I don’t live with, albeit behind masks. I created some space and I feel a little less frantic, even though that may be temporary.

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I am also falling back on some old reflections and some new advice:

These little soundbites of wisdom really help me to hang on and work through the grumpy days. As does the knowledge that days like this come around and lift my spirits. I think I am mostly learning that in order to offer others my energy, creativity and help, I need to make and protect my own little spaces to recharge myself and feel like I’m not a slave to my screen. I’m still going to feel bad when I let people down by missing deadlines, and hopefully get better at setting more realistic ones. I am still going to struggle to say no, especially to exciting and interesting projects I want to be part of but have no time for if I want to actually move forward on my own new research—but I’m going to keep trying. We all need space, but more and more these days that space had to be made and protected, sometimes fiercely and sometimes from ourselves. And it’s important to give yourself permission to have that space. Take care out there.

Drowning, or In Need of a Flotation Device

I have a serious case of the Mehs, or what I am thinking of as Lockdown Ennui. I mean, we’re not technically in full-on lockdown anymore because we can get haircuts and buy all the shoes, if we so desire and feel a bit reckless with our health in being out and about. But, we still are living small lives, with no visits to friends and family, none of the usual work-related travel, and way, way too much time in front of computer screens trying to create engaging learning experiences for our students, and ourselves. It’s freaking exhausting. And strange, oddly lonely, unsettling. Perhaps the worst thing, for all of us, is the uncertainty. There is this new ‘normal’ now, and we don’t know when, or if, that will end. What will our lives look like when the coronavirus has finally been brought under control? We’re not built to not know – humans need answers, and plans, and dates and deadlines. We need to know. And we do not. Not right now, anyway.

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This uncertainty – for me, anyway – seems to be creating a listlessness. I have SO much to do – I feel I am drowning in supervision, and marking, and feedback-needed-please, and consulting work, and my own research (which is pretty much permanently on hold right now), and admin, and online teaching. But, instead of being industrious and focused and knocking off the to-dos every day, I do a few things and then tell myself I am too tired to do more, even though it’s barely past lunchtime. I work from about 9.30 until about 2, and then I knit, and scroll through my Twitter feed, and indulge a mild panic about all the work I should be doing but can’t seem to actually make myself do. And then when I do the Big Things, the things that require Thinking, I feel like I have done nothing of any consequence. I don’t quite recognise, or understand, my work self right now.

I feel at a loss as to how to help myself out of this. I find myself longing for some kind of legitimate reason for being so flaky about work, like a mild illness (but not corona, or anything serious). The bronchitis I wrote about the last time I had the energy to blog turned out to be asthma that was out of control and on the wrong meds. I’m on the right meds now, and apart from the odd bad day where my chest is tight and the stairs seem like a mountain, I’m better. So, I can’t actually lie around in my PJs and cough pathetically and have everyone fuss over me. I have to Adult, and work, and be Responsible for All The Things.

I see all over Twitter that I am so not alone. So many people are tired, Zoomed-out, frustrated. My lovely colleagues respond to my apologies for late email replies and requests for extensions with kind emails and Whatsapp notes telling me to be kind to myself, that we are all in the same boat, that this is hard on everyone and it’s okay. But it doesn’t feel okay. It feels like a slippery slope, to me. The more I stop work at 2pm and cite tiredness to myself as a reason, and then follow that with: ‘It’s okay, we can try again tomorrow’ (in a kind voice), the longer my list of work gets, and the greater the likelihood of more emails to students and peers, apologising and asking for more time, and feeling (and looking) like a flake. This is not a feeling I like, and letting people down – even if they are kind about it – is not something I like to do.

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I’ve written posts in the past about how to get yourself out of a funk and get writing, and reading, and thinking again. I know cognitively what I need to do. Take all the tasks and create a realistic daily list. Break it down into small chunks, smaller tasks. Not all the assignments, just 2 at a time. Not all the reading, just a paper at a time. I know all of this. But knowing a thing and being able to do the thing are not always the same thing. External deadlines from people I cannot let down really help, but they skew my list because I end up pushing down other things that have been languishing for too long and need to be finished. I end up feeling a bit flat before I have even started. But start I must, and finish I must.

There’s no moral or magical learning here. Just, solidarity, I suppose. If you, like me, have ennui, and the Mehs, and feel like everyone around you is Adulting like a pro and there you are longing for your PJs at 1pm on a Tuesday afternoon, or harbouring fantasies of spraining a wrist so you legitimately cannot type anything. I don’t think we are all in the same boat. Our boats are very differently filled with kids and families and pets and care work and loneliness and everyone in your space and no one in your space and good wifi and bad wifi and no wifi, and so on. But, we are all in our boats in the same sea, paddling against this strange new tide that is moving us into a really uncertain and unknown future, an uncertain university and learning space, an uncertain job and career space.

Socially distanced boats heading into the unknown; Photo by Humphrey Muleba from Pexels

Take care, be safe, wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, be kind to others, and hang in there. Perhaps, for now, that’s all we can do; that and get some freaking work done!

Writing in a time of crisis

This COVID-19 or novel coronavirus pandemic has been kind of unbelievable on so many levels – the speed at which it has spread, the closing of borders, the cancellation of conferences, seminars, and the closure of schools and universities. I have seen many, many tweets about online teaching (and the many issues related to that of access, success, engagement and so on), and also about writing. The writing discussions are interesting, as they seem to be split-ish between encouraging massive bursts of productivity because we’re all home (and apparently the rest of our lives have vanished), and encouraging gentle, realistic bursts of what you can manage. Of course, there is a a fair bit of middle ground here, but what I am wondering is what that is, for me specifically but also for writers I need to start working with online in April. So, I am grappling with two related questions: 1, how do I keep writing in a time of crisis? and 2, how do I help others do the same?

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There are so many people I am connected with through Twitter are struggling to write and feel productive and focused and calm enough to think, not least because they are home with cats and dogs and kids and partners and noise (so much noise). But, even those without all of the noise and people and distractions are struggling, because being alone is not easy either. This begs the question, again, of what we need to make the work of writing possible? What makes us feel like we can be ‘productive’ in terms of creating finished pieces of writing, in whatever shape those take?

I have written many different kinds of posts over the last five or so years about affective and also intellectual or mental blocks to writing, and how to work through or past these. One of the posts I come back to often in my writing courses is on making time to write: about how we don’t find time to write, we have to make it. And we don’t just have to make physical time – hours and minutes in a day – but, more importantly, mental time – space in your head that can be focused just on writing and not on everything else. This is often hard to do, but perhaps no more so than when your head is full of quite unexpected and largely unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety. We have no idea how long our schools and universities will have to be closed, or what kind of ‘normal’ we will return to when they re-open. How long will we be trying to work and teach online?

We have no idea when we will be allowed to travel again, for meetings, and teaching. Many of us work on a contract basis, and if we don’t work we don’t get paid. This is true for me. Am I going to be able to actually do the contract teaching I have budgeted for and signed on for, or will that fall away? I cannot do it all online. Am I going to be able to pay all my bills after June? This is a big part of the anxiety filling up my headspace right now, along with unplanned-for work in trying to plan to actually teach a face-to-face writing course, with feedback and peer engagement, online. And, in the midst of trying to keep my supervision feedback, journal administration, and materials development work going – thankfully all things I can do online – I also need to keep writing and being ‘productive’ around publishing.

But, I am listless, figuratively and literally. My kids are home all day. My husband is home all day. The dog is going mad because we are not allowed to take him for walks at the park and our garden is not very big. The cats are confused – why are we always here? We are at on school holidays now, but these end on Tuesday next week and then we have to add cajoling the boys into doing their schoolwork in the mornings every day to a long list of things we don’t usually have to do. It feels like holidays all the time, but it is not. The emotional toll of all of this should not be under-estimated. It has a significant effect on our ability to focus our minds on tasks that have a cognitive load, and that require concentration and cleverness.

I think, for me as a writer and as a facilitator of others’ writing, this is point 1 in answer to my second question: I need to acknowledge the extra-ordinary emotional strain that people are under. The uncertainty is perhaps the worst of it – how long is this all going to last, and what will the world (and my job) be like when this pandemic is past? We need to not just quietly acknowledge this, but perhaps make a small space in our online engagements with peers, colleagues and students, to voice some of the anxieties we feel. We are not at all alone in this, but we often feel we are, and what we feel is what creates both emotional and mental static* that can be hard to work around.

I need, also, to acknowledge my own stress and anxiety, and make that okay for myself for now. Following on from my last post, I need to seek a new balance for now at least between being kind to myself in the sense of allowing myself time to just be and work through the other stuff in my head right now, like how to shop for groceries during lockdown and how to keep my asthmatic son safe, and being kind to myself by creating a work routine and pushing myself to get things done every day, Monday to Friday so I don’t meander around aimlessly feeling like I’m not doing anything useful at all. I need to just see that this is all not business-as-usual-working-from-home, or even school-holidays-working-from-home, and let myself have a few more moments of listlessness and meh than I usually allow.

In my planning for teaching, I want to create a little more space than I usually do to talk about the affective dimensions of making time to write, to show students that it is completely normal – usually but especially perhaps at the moment – not to feel like writing, or thinking, and to even feel that all of that academic work is a bit silly or non-essential in the face of this unprecedented global crisis. We need to adjust our understanding of what it is to ‘be productive’, and offer ourselves and others kindness and understanding as they navigate these new anxieties and stresses in their day to day lives, whether they are constantly surrounded by people and noise or all alone (both of which can be very hard to live with day in and day out with little respite). We all need to be patient, with co-authors, with supervisors, with critical friends, with colleagues, as we work out a new normal that may last quite some time.

For myself, I am making a list, highlighting tasks I really need to push myself on, like bits of my own writing (all co-authoring currently), and feedback to students on their writing. Other tasks, like ongoing admin and planning and reading I’m fitting in when I have focus and energy, and I’m taking it easy on keeping that stuff ticking over. I’m building a massive puzzle of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and I’m mending some curtains I have been meaning to mend since Christmas — 2018. I’m tidying bits of the house that have been ignored for too long, and sorting clutter (Lovely Husband is super happy about this one, and the curtains). I’m trying not to snap too much at my poor kids, who miss their friends and their routine, too. In short, I am doing what I can do to be ‘productive’ and to be well, in a time when both of those things seem tenuous. I think this is all we can all do, and we need to encourage and support one another as we work this out. Hopefully that solidarity and kindness will be what we carry forward into the future that we create out of this present. Take care, everyone. Stay home and stay safe.

*This is Kate Chanock’s term.