As I sit at Washington DC airport, having overnight been conferred my doctorate (I am now ‘doctor’!), I thought I’d upload a few pics of what has been a wonderful trip to DC for the AERA national conference. What a great week.
Come forth into the light of things, let Nature be your teacher. ~ William Wordsworth
Like many educators, I love my work and I love to work. Not only that, as a PhD researcher I love my PhD, treating it like a luxury, a privilege and precious ‘me time’.
While I’ve acknowledged before that we need to give ourselves permission to take a break, I’m often not very good at it. Sometimes I have to force myself to take a break.
After an eleven week term, at the end of which I spent an entire weekend slogging away at my thesis, I was obsessed. Obsessed because all my waking and teeth-grinding-sleeping moments were taken up with work or PhD. My thoughts about my doctoral research were permeating every crevice of my mind and each nook of my time.
I was delighting in this immersion. I was happy to be thinking about the thesis on my walks, in the car, in the shower, in my sleep. I felt like it was a super-productive push-to-the-end mindset. My mind was on all the time. PhD-wise, I was excited about my findings, my conclusions, my writing. But I was also exhausted.
And then school holidays were upon me, and with them a pre-planned outback road trip with my husband and my two-under-five. I considered taking my doctoral work with me. I have so much to do, I thought. A thesis to revise, a conference paper to write. Just imagine how much reading and editing I could get done in long car trips or at the campsite.
As someone who considers blogging or participating in education Twitter chats as ‘down time’ (I know – how relaxing!), how could I contemplate a complete break? How could I go from an escape dedicated to working on my PhD ~ my recent PhD writing and revision retreat ~ to a trip taking an enforced break from it?
I knew it was healthier to take a rest. Pause. Cut the cord for six days of just being, exploring and adventuring. Breathe.
Thinking back to my 3 words which set my intentions for this year, taking an outdoor-family-faraway break fits best with presence. Embodying human being rather than human doing. It was about being with my husband and kids, and being in nature.
There are some studies, like this and this, which explore how and why being in nature makes us feel better, improves wellbeing and enhances mental health. Anecdotally, most of us would attest to feeling ourselves melting into a more relaxed state when we spend time grounding ourselves outdoors. Curling our toes in soil, sand or snow.
I’ve written before about spaces and places that make me feel grounded, inspired or joyful, but this trip was to somewhere I hadn’t been before: Shark Bay, a UNESCO World-Heritage listed peninsula on the most westerly point of Australia.
I allowed myself to luxuriate in this time out and time away. I read fiction (not academic texts or student papers!). We hand fed dolphins, visited a beach covered in pristine white shells as far as the eye could see, stomped through red dirt, went star gazing, saw the world’s oldest living fossils. The pictures in this post give you a sense of what I experienced.
And so I have returned feeling intellectually and physically invigorated. Ready for the next round of PhD and school work, including teaching and leading my school’s new coaching model. I’ve stepped out of my obsessive space for enough time to allow for some recovery, but I’m aware that I need to nestle back into a place of productivity.
As when I returned from Bali earlier this year, I’m hoping I can hold onto my present feeling of increased clarity and renewed wellbeing, channelling this into self-care as well as productivity.
Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It’s almost a form of meditation. ~ Neil Simon
The idea for a PhD writing retreat came to me in a dream. While I live in Australia, I dreamt that I wrote up my PhD thesis in Paris. I imagined myself pensively working at Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Or editing on a soft patch of grass at the foot of a sculpture in the gardens of Musée Rodin (Le Penseur?). Or typing away beneath the huge train station clock at the Musée d’Orsay. I would take breaks to stroll Parisian streets or to savour Ladurée macarons, foie gras from Fauchon, or ice-cream from Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis.
This dream was no doubt influenced by the at-that-time steady stream of tweets coming from the ANU Thesis Boot Camp during which doctoral writers were given celebratory LEGO-style bricks as they hit various word-count milestones. The academic focus and collaboration zoomed through social media to my device. Oooh, I thought, how wonderful it would be to have some dedicated time to work on my thesis. But with work and two children under five, a long luxuriant Parisian getaway wasn’t on my list. And my university doesn’t offer a boot camp.
Writing retreats have been called a ‘scholastic nirvana’ away from the walls-closing-in pressures of academia. Dr Helen Kara, blogging about her recent solo writing retreat, talks about the simultaneous self-indulgence and productivity that finding dedicated time and space for writing can bring. In Dr Kylie Budge’s post about her PhD writing retreat to NYC, she cites research which claims that physical and psychological distance from the norm can increase creativity and productivity.
Casey, Barron and Gordon (2013) note that writing retreats provide protected space for the practice of writing, allowing continuity as opposed to fragmentation. They emphasise the importance of carving out time away from normal activity, and finding space separate from usual settings. This certainly resonated with me, as much of my writing happens in fragmented, stolen, in-between moments.
While many boot camps, ‘shut up and write’ sessions and writing retreats are about producing words, this was to be more a revision retreat. Having recently finished the first draft of my conclusion, I had a first full draft of my thesis and wanted to use retreat time to look at my thesis as a whole document. In fact, my thesis is over its word limit, so this retreat was about streamlining and strengthening the content, not producing more. I’d reached a point where I needed to burrow down into my PhD cave’s subterranean depths and sit there for a while. Present. Focused. Submerged.
Like Helen and Kylie, this retreat would be solo: just me and my thesis having some quality time together. Romantic, right? When I floated the idea with my husband, he said, ‘Go for it.’
A bit of an expert at making my PhD feel like a holiday, I often choose writing spaces that feel more like luxe and less like work. So, for my retreat, I considered exotic, non-home places with varying degrees of faraway-ness. I was aware of the aforementioned research about productivity and creativity being heightened by the feeling of being away from home and somewhere new. But I didn’t need exoticism, or a vibrant distracting location. I was going for a weekend, so it needed to be close and affordable, just not home. In the end, I rented a studio apartment via airbnb only a few suburbs from home. I was hoping that being not-home would give me enough separation from my everyday world to provide the laser-like focus and conceptual creativity I was after.
While not as poetic as retreating to somewhere far from home, there were some great things about doing a retreat this way. In giving myself only two nights away, I had to be productive. I had a short time; I needed to use it. I didn’t waste time travelling to and from the retreat (it was a 20 minute drive); this was an escape in my own city. It turned out to feel just new enough to set my nerve filaments tingling with an awareness of difference of environment.
Going into the writing retreat I planned on using my most productive times of the day for writing, working in 2-3 hour blocks of time followed by breaks (walking, showering, eating, changing location, taking some photos). I wanted to be clear about my intention before I began. My main purpose was revising for coherence and story. Here was time to look at the document as a whole. I kept in mind Pat Thomson’s advice to attend to the underlying argument. I was looking for consistency of language and idea development across the thesis. Having just finished the Conclusion, it was important to go back to the Introduction and make these bookends work together.
During my retreat the first 30-40 pages took me the longest, because there was so much of what Pat in her post calls ‘where the writing is poor because we are struggling to express an idea, to put into words something that we can barely get our head around.’ The beginning of the document contained my earliest writing and earliest thinking. I needed to delete or rewrite much of it in a way I can only do now that I have reached the end.
What surprised me about the retreat was how challenging it was to maintain a consistent focus on one task. It made me realise how much my usual fragmented way of PhDing works for me, doing a little all the time in prized, highly-focused chunks. Fitting in PhD time in and around other commitments has meant that normally I am itching to get to my PhD work, not having to psych myself into doing it.
Yet, the time and space to dedicate a couple of days to my thesis, and giving it careful, continuous attention, allowed me to make substantial progress and identify those areas in need of further attention. While in this time I only got through the Introduction and Literature Review, these were the sections in need of the most serious revision (and they will need more). I also managed to cut 3000 words out of those two chapters, which, considering I was also adding words where required, is a good start to streamlining my argument.
The retreat embodied my 3 words for 2015: presence (in the moment), sharing (through writing and now blogging), and strength (of argument and academic voice). It helped to set up my approach to my thesis revision, kickstarting this push-to-the-end-process and propelling me forward into the rest of the document. It felt a bit like kicking off the swimming pool wall, getting some initial speed and feeling the water before settling into the lap ahead.
Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe. ~ Anatole France
In 1964 Baudelaire described the flâneur (or for my purposes, the flâneuse) as “lover of universal life” who “enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.” He describes flânerie as the mirroring of crowd and environs, in which the flâneur is a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding … and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”
As the édu flâneuse, then, I am mindful of channelling this notion of the reflective mirror or refractive kaleidoscope, of being an absorber of words, worlds and wonders. While I try to find awe and gratitude in the everyday, travel is the perfect opportunity for practising the flânerial mindset of intense attentiveness and expansive wide-openness.
My recent trip to Bali, in which I gave myself permission to take a break from work and PhD study (and also blogging and even engaging professionally on Twitter), was the perfect opportunity to embrace flânerie and presence (one of my 3 words of 2015). As well as unplugging from constant mental and physical engagement in work and study, I was focused on the travelling mindset, defined by Alain de Botton as being about heightened receptivity. As Adriano di Prato writes on his blog ‘Permission is Triumph’ we must each say ‘yes’ to living our lives in the way we choose.
While I left home in a flurry of jumbled thoughts, to-do lists, marking piles and thesis pages, I have returned almost delirious with relaxation, centeredness and acute awareness of the present moment. The act of travel, and its immersion in people and places, has allowed me to re-ground myself, reflect and practise receptivity, allowing me to (hopefully) return to daily life, work and research with renewed clarity, purpose and joy.
My experiences away included those with my husband, children and friends. But they also included solo flânerial entanglements in environment. Early morning walks often provide these moments for me. In the past I have watched the sun rise above iconic landmarks including Venice’s St Mark’s Basilica and Prague’s Charles Bridge. There is something magical about being alone in the first quiet golden light of day, watching a city wake up, before it is caught in the throes and machinations of its daily grind. This trip was no exception.
One morning, as I wandered through the streets of Seminyak at dawn, I happened upon a Tumpek Wayang ceremony in which three individuals were led by a holy man in ritual. I was first drawn to this small ceremony by the sounds – the pealing of bells and the twittering of a small caged bird. I drew closer and sat nearby to watch as the ceremony continued, with prayers, offerings and sacred rites conducted with grace and in luxuriant colour. I have since discovered that Tumpek Wayang occurs every 210 days and that its purpose is to honour the god of art and artists, Sanghyang Iswara. After it had finished I was able to talk to the people about the ceremony, its significance and what it meant to them, such as the use of holy rice (bija) for blessings and to bring their god to themselves by placing the rice on their forehead and also by eating it.
Another morning, wandering through Canggu rice paddies at sunrise, I encountered a Balinese man, or he encountered me, and we began to talk. He asked me if I was a spiritual person, and we spent the rest of the walk discussing spirituality, blessings, meditation, music and love. ‘Love,’ he said, ‘is when the heart smiles.’ We talked about the meaning of Engelbert Humperdinck’s lyrics ‘there goes my everything’ and the role of music in life and self. I don’t speak Indonesian and this man’s English was limited, but we connected at a moment in time and managed to communicate across cultural and language barriers.
These experiences, as well as other small moments like watching the sunset colours change or talking to a woman as she made the morning’s offerings from baskets of soft petals, allowed me to connect presence, self and world, experiencing it in open, receptive and reflective ways.
I have returned from my trip hopeful that I can hold on to this feeling of openness-to-noticing and use my flânerial Spidey senses as a tool to keep me centred on my axis. I am considering how I might bring the idea of paramaterising my commitments to work and PhD into my weekly existence. How might I make attentive noticing and openness to unexpected conversation a daily practice? How might I take more regular self-care breaks in order to restore clarity, increase productivity and protect wellness?
When you take your attention into the present moment, a certain alertness arises. You become more conscious of what’s around you, but also, strangely, a sense of presence that is both within and without. ~ Eckhart Tolle
“What day is it?” asked Winnie the Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh” ~ A.A. Milne
Early tomorrow morning I will be on a plane to an island destination for a holiday with family and friends. I should be dreaming of silky cool pool water, fire-coloured sunsets over the ocean, meandering rice paddies reflecting blue skies, the sizzle of seafood on the beach and the clink of ice blocks in cocktail glasses.
And yet I have been thrashing around trying to decide whether or not to work or study or blog while I am away. Or whether I can leave it all behind and take a real break, despite ceaseless deadlines. I wonder if this is a common phenomenon in a world in which we are constantly connected to each other, constantly available to our workplaces and constantly curating, creating and sharing vignetted content of our lives and work. While flexible working hours can allow us to make adaptable life choices and social media can allow us to connect with others, do they also contribute to a cycle of relentlessness which we find difficult to break away from?
I have decided that I need to take a full thinking, writing, marking, everything break from my worlds of work, research and writing. One of my three words of 2015 is ‘presence’, so partly this break is about a commitment to being present with my children, husband and friends during our trip. But it is also about being ok with taking an actual break and with a commitment to self-care. I am someone who sees blogging as a break from PhD writing. Or PhD writing as a break from marking. So the idea of a break from all-of-the-things is foreign and has taken some self-convincing.
There are others who have reflected on the importance of self-care, even as we catapult ourselves towards our goals. Raul Pacheco-Vega wrote on self-care in academia and the importance of privileging your own health and wellbeing. New Zealand author Celia Lashlie, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing speak about her work, died in February after releasing a statement which read, “My wish is that others will learn to stop before I did, to take into account the limitations of their physical bodies and to take the time to listen to the yearnings of their soul. It is in the taking care of ourselves we learn the ability to take care of others.”
I love my work and my research, and most of the time I find a tenuous work-family balance. I wrote on the PhD Talk blog about the way that normally it works for me to have many things on the go, as doing any one of them feels like a holiday from the others. I also spoke there about the importance of quiet in-between times. That is, often I make the most cognitive or creative progress, on my PhD thesis or a strategic work problem, when I am walking, or driving, or taking time to be quiet and still. So luxuriating in a full, unadulterated, brazen break is also a strategy to vacation, to vacate the demands of everyday life, in order that I might return with some mental clarity and physical energy to tackle the rest of this year, which includes for me, finishing my PhD thesis and successfully implementing the professional learning and growth model at my school.
So give yourself permission for a break, small or large. To unplug from emails, tweeting, writing or planning. To take care of yourself, curl your toes in the earth and immerse yourself in somewhere, somehow or someone that gives you joy.
(Photos in this post are from a previous trip.)
(How did it go? The post-script to this post can be found here.)
Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse, and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love. We live without a past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves up for grabs and open to interpretation … The Romantic poets inaugurated an era of travel because they were the great apostles of open eyes. Buddhist monks are often vagabonds, in part because they believe in wakefulness. And if travel is like love, that is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity, and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. ~ Pico Iyer
Thank you, New York. And goodbye for now.
One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years. ~ Tom Wolfe
Spending a couple of days acclimating to being on the other side of the world can be a joy. An infamous skyline, leaves changing colour, layered collages of buildings old and new, freshly carved pumpkins on doorsteps. Hello, New York.