The stories we carry

The other day, a conversation with a friend that started one way ended in an entirely different direction, which is pretty normal, but also left me thinking about how to articulate the emotional life of research within an increasingly quantified world, and where these stories of human-ness fit.

Bear with me…

If you count the start of my PhD as the length of my life as a researcher, I am coming up to my 9th anniversary – my PhD took a while. Apart from making me a million years old, it is almost nine years of working with stories of suicide, self-harm, and bereavement – and missing now – as much as stories of resilience, healing, and meaning-making.

During my PhD, I used to dream about a few of the participants, especially towards the end in the write-up – the ones who stood on the brink of the precipice with very little holding them back, apart from chance and hope. There is one woman who I’m certain is not alive now, who chose death because she didn’t want to live, whose words still hit me in the pit of my stomach when I read them. There is the veteran who I met at a workshop who told his traumatic story in such a straightforward way because he didn’t realise that everyone else didn’t live their lives with the same pain and worry constantly simmering just below the surface. There are the colleagues in remote communities who keep on doing the most amazing work amidst all the challenges and shared grief that come with living in remote communities (in Australia at any rate) that are very easy for people not to see when they live away from there.

Writing of her study on child suicide, the very wonderful Bec Soole wrote that her research meant “there is now a melancholy that I humbly carry within myself”. That hit home, for me and for others. It’s true – every story, whether told in a research context or on a plane or while cutting up fruit before a footy match, stays with you, even in the tiniest way. Even when you think you’ve forgotten. Some stories are heavy, some lighter, but they are all carried. What I’ve heard in the past impacts on how I see people now in terms of risk and vulnerability, how I see myself. It takes a concerted effort sometimes to turn it off, to not see everyone like this. The stories shared, often of people’s darkest moments standing on the precipice, are intimacies, held close, carried as a reminder of why the research is important, and why it needs to be done in a way that is rigorous and ethical (because badly-done research helps no one) but also in a way that is deeply human.

Research – at least for me, in this field I fell into – is more than just however-long-an-interview-lasts with a person asking them questions in whatever form they may take and then ending the conversation and walking away; the person then to become a line in a spreadsheet. Much research is, and has been, done in this way and well-written, heavily-cited papers have been created from the findings of such research. And lots of it really has been good research.

But participants are people. And people are more than their experience that has peaked research interest – they are more than their mental illness, more than their bereavement, more than their death even, because there is (or was) a whole world of life around them.

I am suicide bereaved and this unquestionably impacts who I am as a researcher – just as all experiences shape who we are as people and researchers. When I first started, ideas around research would be framed in my head around ‘Would I let my Ma participate in this?’, ‘Would I let someone ask Ma this question?’ Now, a million years on, this has evolved.  There are more people in my mind when I think of how my research ideas would come across, how they would impact upon participants – there are people with lived experience who very kindly read drafts of things for me and tell me how to make it stronger and more appropriate and relevant. However, I am also far more aware of myself in a methodological sense – I’ve formed a kind of reflexive praxis, inspired by Jaworski and Tamas, which grounds every step of a project: what am I asking, what am I seeing, how am I hearing? Am I hearing what the participant is saying or are my experiences seeping through? There are times when being a sister and a friend makes me a very safe space for participants, and this has helped me become (hopefully) a good researcher. Yet, on the opposite end, during analysis, to be a (hopefully) good researcher, I need to be aware of how this could cloud others’ stories and I need to step away from those parts, to constantly reflect on the stories in front of me, shared by others. It can be exhausting – analysis is always exhausting – on intellectual and emotional levels. And it also takes time – sometimes it feels like the longest time – to sit with people’s narratives and work through the themes and the language, and how the different stories speak to each other. To make sure my analysis is constantly grounded into their experiences and my retelling is authentic to all of this. But this way of research, to me at least, honours the bravery it takes to participate in studies and the stories that I will then carry with me. I can’t imagine being a researcher in any other way. OK, that’s not true, I absolutely can, but this way feels honest to who I am and what I want to do. We always talk about making sure our methodologies suit our methods suit our questions – and perhaps who we are as well needs to factor in that same way?

Other researchers in similar fields have spoken of the stories they carry and I guess it’s more natural in a way to experience this when your research means interaction with lived experiences of trauma, as people tell their stories. But do other researchers in other disciplines have a sense of this too? Maybe an equation so close to being solved and yet… Or a finding seemingly familiar and yet just that little bit different to maybe be unique… Do other researchers, when in that position, carry that story too, of being so close to an answer with it just lingering out of reach?

The thing is – maybe I am too sensitive to the stories, maybe they shouldn’t make me cry, maybe I would write millions more papers if it was more distanced from me, if I didn’t need the time. So many maybes – they’re very pretty, like butterflies, but just as short-lived. Because the day that hearing one of these stories doesn’t make me tear up, or reach out for a hand, or just sit quietly with someone afterwards, is the day I walk away from this field and not look back. Because these stories should hurt – they should be felt. They should spark something. And however much we carry afterwards will always be far less than the person who experienced it in the first place. We don’t shed our humanity simply because we take on the mantle of ‘researcher’ – or at least we shouldn’t. And our research doesn’t become any less valid or rigorous simply by virtue of caring for our participants.

There will always be stories that weigh just a little bit, whose ghosts linger just a little bit longer, but these are reminders of what we should honour, and why ethics, rigour, and humanity of our research matters. Writing grants now, enacting myself as a quantified self, I wish a little that I could write in a more grant-like way and not get tongue-tied trying to explain why the emotion behind it makes for better science. I wish a little for graphs that demonstrate it. But I also know the work I’ve done (and the work I am asked to do) exists because of who I am as a person, methodologically-placed and all.

Balance and an academic VLEMWy

This week, while working on study guides for the units I teach, I’ve been watching all the TED talks around human rights, and all the YouTube clips on methodology. All of them.

Some have made me cry more than others.

(Should you not be taking my human rights course this trimester, may I recommend Panti Bliss and Chris Abani – they are both heart-stopping in their humanity. Thse are the ones I hope my students watch where it changes something in them – it makes them remember and do, rather than just listen and forget.)

So, amidst the unit stuff, and drafts of grants due scarily soon, and writing that keeps on being put at the bottom of the pile, I’ve become a smidge distracted, even though in my deeply nerdy way all of this stuff is really fascinating. Anything that isn’t tied down to deep-seated routine has become subdued in the background and half-thought. I’m always careful about eating and Laks has a subtle way of reminding me that she needs attention (biting my ankles and/or my face) but other stuff can too easily fall away.

But distraction has impacted me this week. I’m forgetting more things than usual and morphing into a Mr Magoo. And when Laks plays her ‘Hooray it’s 4:20am!’ game, my mind is whirring too much to actually get back to sleep. I find the dark circles underneath my eyes really bring out their colour.(But then, when the words work and the draft starts pulling together…)

It’s something we talk about a lot – life seems infinitely stressful, and escape from the stress something that needs to be planned and worked on, not something that comes so easily anymore. And the 4-year-old in me rails against the idea of planned calm – a dictatorial meditation doesn’t seem quite right.

For that reason, I’m never quite sure about some of those articles you see that claim to show you ‘7 signs that you’re happy’ or ‘3 things all calm people share’. The anxious researcher in me thinks of it in terms of a checkbox – if I only get 6/7 or 2/3, then am I unhappy or un-calm? Is my happiness just a reflection of my denial? It’s all too much.

More and more, it feels necessary to find moments that are nourishing, rather than needing whole chunks of time that simply require too much energy to attain. Not so much trying to find balance (and then feeling bad if I don’t) but acknowledging that the right now is a time of imbalance – and this acknowledgement in itself feels like room to breathe because I’m not trying to be perfect but just peaceful being me in all her whirring-brained glory.

The right now is a space of working out how much I can do, and enjoying the bits if writing I can, until I find a few moments in the sunshine again to recharge. And given that I’m writing this in the grey and the drizzle, the sunshine can be metaphoric too.

More and more, while the right now is what it is, nourishment is best found in silliness, because it takes me out of my head, because it’s moments of laughter that doesn’t need to be pondered. So – playing mouse with Laks. Singing very loudly to terrible songs while making brownies. And QI because Stephen Fry simply makes me happy – and it leads me to more comedians – David O’Doherty being the latest one. He is adorable. He calls his comedy Very Low Energy Musical Whimsy or VLEMWy (and who doesn’t like an awesome acronym?).

So in my sleep-deprived haze, in the grim and the drizzle, in the imbalanced right now, I’m embracing a somewhat Monkey-Minded and Befuddled Academic Whimsy. I’ll work on the acronym later.

So, how do you find your whimsy in the imbalance? Or do you avoid imbalance altogether which does seem rather sensible…

Regret, adulthood, and goose tongue

I used to be fearless.

I used to be spontaneous.

Do you need to be one in order to be the other?

The year I turned 26, I moved to a small-ish mountain city in eastern China – well, small for China. I’d finished my Honours and had no idea what to do with myself, as has often been the case after finishing something ‘big’. Late one night, randomly browsing the internet in an anywhere-but-here mood, I came across stories of people who’d taught English in China.

It sounded adventurous. It definitely sounded anywhere-but-here. I applied to two agencies. I got a response from one on a Friday, asking me if I was prepared to arrive in China the following Thursday.

I was.

After giving an ultimatum to my then-partner (who decided to come with me), I left a job, packed a house, flew to northern Queensland to give my two cats to my parents, and boarded a plane for a city I’d never heard of before.

I moved to China in six days, only able to say ‘hello’ in Mandarin (badly), and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The small-ish mountain city was Linhai, in Zhejiang province. If you’ve ever seen ancient Chinese paintings of bamboo and mountains, this was the area in which many were painted. It could be heart-stoppingly beautiful. There was the Southern Great Wall, East Lake, markets, seemingly lots of brothels, and the most amazing side streets. I can never resist a side street in a foreign country. I spent a lot of time hopelessly lost, and entirely fascinated by everything.

I was put in a primary school and so taught very small and deeply adorable children stories about foxes and grapes, colours and pronouns, and, most importantly of all, the hokey-pokey. At one stage, I was hokey-pokey-ing for about 16 hours a week. My ability to stand on one leg while waiting for an entire classroom of distractible 6-year-olds to also stand on one leg remains an impressive skill and one that is desperately overlooked by ARC grant reviewers.

I did so many things that year that I had never done before.

I was thinking about this the other day, as a new year started and I had found myself back in my office, having slid into the same routine, piles of marking and grants and papers, and never-ending to-do lists. Do our workdays sometimes blur together as we get lost in a theory, or an equation, or the paragraph that just isn’t quite right yet? Does spontaneity and fearlessness disappear just a little when responsibilities become slightly more adult and playing anywhere-but-here may not be the practical solution to ‘What do I do now?’

Can you still be properly adult and be spontaneous and fearless, or is it more about choosing what to be spontaneous and fearless about? Is being properly adult actually something to aspire to anyway?

As someone who would happily eat avocado toast, and wear pyjamas, all the time if I could get away with it, maybe I’m not the best judge of what ‘properly adult’ can be….

Is it more about reconceptualising adventures, and spontaneity, and fearlessness? Taking a day either side of a conference in a foreign city in which to get hopelessly lost down side streets? Make a concerted effort to do something not-routine every so often, no matter how small it is, or silly it feels. Being fearless in whatever makes your heart beat – putting yourself out there to be heard, no matter how many people hear?

I think maybe, in all of this, my greatest fear is regret. If I fall so easily into work routines, am I missing the beauty of the day? Am I not grasping every opportunity because I’m not open to seeing them?

In the end, I would always rather regret something I’ve done than wish after something I didn’t do. There’s a line in ‘Possession’ (sorry, it’s still very much in my head at the moment) which says exactly that:

“We must come to grief and regret anyway – and I for one would rather regret the reality than its phantasm, knowledge than hope, the deed than the hesitation, true life and not mere sickly potentialities”

Maybe then even the small things can make a difference here because they’re done at least, and not imagined.

The quote makes me think back to China. I know what goose tongue tastes like now. I never have to regret that I didn’t try it or wonder what it tastes like. Which is a great thing, and makes me very happy to vegetarian again.

Clean white sheets and a brand new space

I’m sure everyone has them but there are books I come back to like old friends. They may not be re-read every year but opening the first page feels like a warm blanket, an exhaled breath when your toes touch the sand. Every time I read them, there is something new, some detail that I’ve not seen before that feels perfect for where I am at that very second.

AS Byatt’s ‘Possession’ is one of those books and I’ve been reading it again since the beginning of the new year. For those of you who don’t know it, Roland is an early career researcher whose work revolves around the work of the 19th century poet Randolph Henry Ash. He finds the draft of a letter from Ash to an unnamed woman stuffed into a forgotten book in a library. The woman is another poet Christabel La Motte, and this discovery takes him to meet Maud, a leading expert in her work. Together, they find out about the relationship between Randolph and Christabel and the secrets they kept.

Cue anticipatory dun-dun-dun noises….

Byatt calls it a romance but it’s not one in a truly traditional sense – and even writing that feels like a gross over-simplification of it. Relationships begin and end in it but it’s so much more than that, deeper than that. At its core, a love of words, and beautiful words at that, exists. And, god knows, I have always followed beautiful words.

The way I’m reading it at the moment is the relationship you have with your work – how what you research can become this significant part of you. Not just who you in terms of being a ‘researcher’, but how it shapes the ways in which you see the world. And how meeting other people who see the world slightly differently (or a lot differently) can entirely alter your whole existence – all of a sudden a whole world is opened to you that you had no idea existed before.

These two people, and others around them, who are experts in their field don’t know everything, and won’t know everything. There will always be secrets, things unheard, and things unsaid and that’s not a negative in any way but something beautifully humbling. We all hold some things close to our hearts, the things that feel too precious to say aloud. And we all share some things with the world. It feels very human to exist within those dichotomies.

This sense of unknowing is enhanced by the fact that ‘Possession’ was set in 1986, so there is no internet and no smartphones. Information takes time to reach another person when it is shared, especially if phone calls are missed. There is a sense of isolation almost in the narrative that wouldn’t exist now, a sense that time was less a focus because there was less assumption in immediacy. Things could take time because they usually did as a matter of fact. People could be uncontactable.

Right now, the idea of being uncontactable is both hugely romantic and deeply terrifying.

There’s a part in the book where Roland’s dream of a white bed – of clean white sheets – is described. I’ve always loved it because it feels so much like a search for a fresh start, a blank page. Throughout the book, there’s a sense that he is searching for this white, crisp space. Yet, Maud’s vision of white sheets is initially something less calming. Her journey becomes one around unbinding – she has kept parts of herself hidden for too long in order to do her work. Maud’s journey with Roland, as they travel alongside Randolph and Christabel, unleashes what is hidden in myriad ways over time and space. She becomes more of herself because she feels free to do so.

There’s not quite a happily-ever-after – but who really trusts those anyway? Yet, Roland and Maud demonstrate what power there is – what can be uncovered and discovered – when driven by intellectual curiosity.
It’s a beautiful, inspiring thing.

What is your go-to, desert-island, end-of-the-world book?

Stuck on ‘Waiting for Godot’

I had this beautiful plan over the Christmas break to get a tattoo. It hasn’t worked out with timing and running around and falling over and unexpected trips to the beach. Instead, my tiny brother bought me a mantra ring and I’ve been wearing ‘believe’ on my index finger while typing away today – the phd mantra ring has stayed on my right hand for many years now.

Deb’s beautiful and challenging piece ( on writing abundantly, boldly, and dangerously is all I’ve been thinking about these past few days. It felt like the writing version of a warrior’s cry, so I’m joining the charge, face-paint and all. I’m not one for very structured new year’s resolutions but, watching the waves wash over my feet at the beach yesterday, I made a promise to myself for this year. Last year was tough but I will take all the learnings from it and be brave and bold in 2015. I will believe in myself – hence the tangible reminder on my finger – and keep on working hard, trusting that this year can only be better because it will be different.

Sometimes change is enough…

Except, right now, I’m stuck on ‘Waiting for Godot’.

Taken to see it in Dublin last year, memories of the play have been prodding me ever since. I scribbled notes on napkins in the interval and dinner afterwards and carried them back all the way across the world. These rambly scribbles have gone from napkins to play pages to a vaguely-started word document. Lots of arrows and stars seem to be used in each iteration – sometimes I really do write like a drunken spider. There are murmurs about what I want to write about – how stories of happiness were told and what hope there was in waiting even when they spoke of death, and, at least in the production I saw, how lonely and softly-menacing the tree in the background looked, even with leaves. And I know it’s getting close because Vladimir’s words, particularly, interrupt everything else I’m doing, especially his first line:

“I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t tried everything. And I resumed the struggle”

It’s all still ramble though and dancing around the house trying to figure out exactly what to say, and how exactly to say it. (I’m assuming dancing around the house to various music is a normal part of everyone’s writing routine). Two days into braver and bolder, writing is as hard as it’s ever been, but the play of this, as frustrating as it can be, is also the fun part in a perverse kind of way. So I keep looking at believe on my finger and remembering that, at some point, things will become unstuck and the paper will get written. I haven’t tried everything yet so the struggle is always resumed.

I’m not surviving on turnips so that can only work in my favour.

How do you fix your writer’s block?