(Bear with me, I’m going through a thing)

We went for our favourite walk this morning, the dog and me, across campus and through the woods past the nature reserve. There were students everywhere, about to start university, carrying boxes of things, odds and ends of furniture, lamps, laptops, to their new homes. They were young and happy and beautiful; wide open and ready for the future. 

I realised that it is exactly 17 years since my parents dropped me off here (the pic of the street with the red houses, at the top of this page, is where my halls of residence was). I was eighteen. Angry, and strange and brilliant. I was not a happy person. I did not like much about myself, other than that I knew I could scare people away, if they wanted to hurt me.

My parents dropped me off, and almost immediately my world cleaved open, and there were two chunks of it, broken in half – home and the future. 

For probably the first time, I met people who I liked, who genuinely liked me in return, and who accepted me in all my strangeness and rage. People who just wanted to be in my company because they thought I was great. Good things started to happen, but I couldn’t hold onto them. I was scared to let go of the home chunk of my life. I clung desperately to it, even though it was painful and humiliating and made me insane. 

For all these years, everything good that happened to me felt temporary and frightening, and I believed it would be taken away, because the message I had absorbed as truth was that I was strange and terrible; that bad things would happen to me because I was a bad person. 

For so many years, I could not hold onto a vision of myself as anything not bad. And all the time, I tried so hard to put the two halves of my life back together, even though they didn’t fit properly anymore, and could not work, and maybe there were more than two halves now, and I couldn’t find the splintered off bits. I kept looking back, even though the future was waiting for me and sometimes there were glimpses of how amazing it might be. 

Anyway, this morning I’m about to start my fifth year as a lecturer back where I enrolled as an undergraduate all those years ago. The past year or so has been a process of letting go, of listening to my strangeness. Of trying to hold onto the people who like me, rather than ones who make me feel bad. 

Last year, when I got hit by a car on a street in New York, and smashed the windscreen with my face, and walked away with a limp and few scratches, it felt as if everything blew away and the good things flooded in. I felt strong and whole and unbreakable, which I am. 

I stood there in the woods this morning, looking at the blue sky, thinking about the passing of time and who I am now; the grown up version of that strange angry brilliant girl.

 

 It’s been a long a summer of travelling and working and drinking and writing and meeting all these inspiring, beautiful people and allowing myself to be moved by them; letting people in instead of scaring them away. And over the past year I’ve been so touched by the artists who’ve allowed me to write about their work, who’ve asked me to collaborate with them, who’ve given me feedback and supported me with my own work and life. And all these people who love me.  All this creativity and beauty everywhere. 

Sometimes the goodness still seems so fragile and temporary and not like the thing I have made of my life.

But as we walked this morning there were white feathers all around, everywhere, I kept seeing them, like a message from the universe telling me: you are in the right place, keep going. And the sky was so blue, and the leaves were falling off the trees and in the wind I could hear the last line of the Kim Addonizio poem that my friend David sent me on Valentine’s Day: ‘listen I love you joy is coming.’ 

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9/11

Embed from Getty Images

 

Sitting in Baltimore remembering 9/11 and the all the years since, reading a book about about the long arm of the tragedy and trying to connect it to the long arm of my own life since 2001. Anyway, I drafted a poem. I rarely share my poems but felt compelled to share this one for everyone feeling things today. ❤️❤️
— —

The sky in South London was white-grey,
Dove-wing colours,
Bleeding through my lover’s blue curtains.
And later there was the taste of plum on the tongue of this other boy who loved me
And tried to say it but
Everything changed before he could.
The smashedness of possibility.
You felt the world veer off course,
Even though you were far away
And New York was only an idea from movies.
His voice as you moved deliciously in the single bed where moments before you’d been tangled together like serpents,
like two halves of the same thing.
‘A plane has hit the Pentagon’.
Everything shatters.
A million futures splintering.
On Fox News ‘day of terror’, written in blood as we watch the towers fall.
The television flickers.
All day we watch
With tea and biscuits,
Cigarettes,
My lover cooks me vegetarian sausages and frozen potato waffles with beans.
The fork tastes of steel,
Breath from my mouth.
My eyes can’t avert from
The dust billowing up those streets where I’ll walk and walk – much later
Lean inside the footprints carved deep from the rubble of the towers,
To the belly of the Earth,
Where clear water gushes in a crystal cascade,
Over black granite.
A memorial to the rich and innocent,
Though across the country there are whole towns where alive people don’t have clean water to drink.
And there are dead babies lying on beaches,
Drowning to escape the chaos we unleashed
In vengeance.
But the pain of it clings.
You spend years
Imagining the lobbies of those buildings,
Hours looking out at the footprints of them,
Peering through wire fences before the memorials are finished
The wire that same dove-wing grey
As the South London sky.
You close your eyes
Hear the click click of court shoes against a cold stone floor,
You dream of the escalators,
Elevators.
In your dreams everything is rising upwards
Or the wreckage,
Steel frames and dust all around.
Either way you panic.
And the boys I kissed
Shot in the head,
Dead or ruined in the desert,
Avenging this thing
This
You lay in the arms
Of your lover, trembling at the enormity
Shock visible on your skin like tiny ripples
At the surface of a river
Or how the water stretches as it moves through the estuary
Resisting
Before it becomes the sea.
And still that dove-wing sky
Leaks through the windows
In that place before the terrible future
Becomes now.
The hot skin of your lover peels away from
Your own hot skin.
Two separate things.
‘A plane has flown into the Pentagon.’
The blue curtains move as you brush past them.

The television flickers.

But, Andrew Adonis, I don’t want to work hard

Over on Twitter, if you move in academic circles, you’ll almost certainly have seen a whole load of controversy over some tweets that Andrew Adonis (the former Labour politician) sent out about the state of Higher Education. To summarise: He is upset that academics have ‘three months off’ over the summer. He thinks there should be two-year degrees. The University of Oxford rocks.

Most of the replies to Adonis’ tweets pointed out that the ‘three months off’ thing is a fallacy — that during the summer months academics are writing books, applying for grants, undertaking research, assessing, reading, preparing modules, attending and organising conferences, catching up on admin that used to be undertaken by support staff, dealing with admissions and so on. Many pointed out that parliament too breaks for a long summer vacation and that moaning about academics’ June-September workload fell into either the pot-kettle-black or the people-in-glass-houses arena of hypocrisy. The two-year-degree argument was rehashed again.

Yes, it was all quite predictable and dull in many ways, but I found myself riled up by it nonetheless. I take issue with Adonis’ tweets not so much because of their inaccuracy (yes, they are inaccurate, but also, yes, things do slow down in the summer for many of those academics fortunate enough to be employed on decent permanent contracts), but because of the ideology that underpins them: the ideology of ‘hard work’ as a virtue, of ‘productivity’ as necessarily positive.

Here is the tweet that got right on my wick:

 

I don’t want to live and work in a world where the only important thing is how much you ‘do’; where you are measured by how much you ‘produce’. Nothing is improved in either material or spiritual or creative (or even economic) terms by blind ‘productivity’. You cannot advance knowledge (the cornerstone, surely, of an academic career) by just churning out more and more and more stuff because Andrew Adonis thinks that the point of any job is to do as much as possible, regardless of what actually needs to be done. You do not create a fulfilling, balanced and enjoyable life — let alone society — by working obsessively to the detriment of your family life, social life, and mental and physical health. It is so obvious that I am surprised in even needs saying.

We are in the grip of many social crises, including, most acutely for those of us who work in HE, a mental health crisis in young people that shows absolutely no signs of abating. The wider social and political climate increasingly places pressure on the population to dance to the tune of neoliberalism, where the only possible measure of a country’s (or indeed a person’s) success is economic. This economic imperative is expressed in moral terms, so that whizzing through a degree in two years, writing four books in decade, or teaching back-to-back classes from September to September with no break appears as if it is an elevated moral choice, rather than a deeply unhealthy drive to appease the masters of the infrastructure under which we all operate. It is no wonder our students are crumbling emotionally when they can only see their own value in the numbers assigned to them — another result of a social and political culture where success is defined in limited and ideological terms and used as a tool by which to understand our self-worth. If we are deducting marks from primary school students SATs because they drew a comma the wrong shape, then we can hardly be surprised when, aged 18, they are preoccupied with achievement and riddled with anxiety and feelings of self-loathing.

I don’t want to work hard in the summer. I want to write slowly and read interesting books. I want to walk my dog and visit my elderly grandmother and volunteer in my community. I want to spend whole afternoons sitting in a chair and thinking about the colour of the sky. I want to have long lunches with my colleagues and hear about their research, and their cats and their children. I want to have time to conceptualise new projects, work on creative pursuits and give real head space to the thesis I have to examine. I want to go to Portugal for my cousin’s wedding and not have to take my laptop. I want to visit friends in London and laugh until my stomach muscles hurt. I want to gather interesting examples of creative and cultural practices to use in my module on street performance next semester.

What would be better, in the world or the country or even in my department, if I went into work every day and taught students so they could finish their degrees slightly quicker (and enter a volatile and uncertain job market at 20 instead of 21)? Why does Andrew Adonis want me to work 60 or 70 or 80 hour weeks all year-long, just for the sake of ‘hard work’? What is the point of my writing another four articles that a maximum of 200 people will read and fewer still will remember, unless they add something of real value to my discipline?

In her book All About Love: New Visions bell hooks reminds us that all social justice movements have had a love ethic at their core. More and more I see the refusal to work hard as a way to choose love: love for ourselves and time to give love to others; a turning away from competition that opens us up to love for our colleagues and our disciplinary communities. Refusing to work hard does not mean we stop working, but it means we cultivate a love for our work that allows us to treat it gently and cautiously, with respect.