The inside of my left arm is a blue edging into purple that makes me think of Homer’s wine-dark sea. Today in two painful attempts a nurse took two vials of blood for screening prior to an operation I am having next week. The pain was a sharp prick at the time; now it is a tender ache, a throb under my skin. The veins in my arm have never been easy to find, which I suppose is funny for someone who wears their heart so much on their sleeve.
My blood may come as slowly as at the moment my writing does; but tears are close to the surface these past couple of days, as stresses over work and health have brought a lump to my throat I keep swallowing against. I came back on Friday last week from a refreshing few days away with my family, feeling ready and eager to tackle my next set of challenges, but after this past week I feel completely drained again. I know a good part of this is because I have my period, which in my post-pregnancy, post-pulmonary embolism body has become a thing of exhausting horror: which is the main reason I am having an operation next week, and I hope may offer a final solution to at least one of my ongoing health problems.
Why this candour? I’ve mused on this blog before about whether I overshare about my struggles, particularly those of my reproductive body (soon not to be functionally reproductive, and that is another kind of pain, even if I don’t want to be pregnant again). But as you know, I feel very strongly that the detachment of our embodied experience from our life of the mind as academics is antifeminist and ableist – which applies as much to how we think about ourselves as to how we think about other people.
This bodily vulnerability is what, as scholars of the humanities, connects us mostly clearly to the people of the past and their creative products. I believe this more and more these days, that it is in the liminal places hard to capture in the historical record that we find some of the most vital fragments of what it meant to be a person in the past.
In 1518, John and Alice Phipes were brought before the church court of Lincoln on suspicion of idolatry. “They have a cradle near their bed every night and it is used as if there were an infant in it”, is all the record states. I think of John and Alice rocking that empty cradle, placing swaddling clothes inside it, and that lump rises to my throat again. Did they lose a baby, or had they never had one? Did they rock it for comfort, or as a kind of magic to summon something lost or desired? There is nothing in that spare sentence that can tell us; but I can imagine the gestures they made, turning a piece of furniture into a venerated object, and the back of my eyes burn with a sympathy that is as much physical as emotional, my body remembering what it meant to carry a child, and knowing it won’t again.
Over the past few months I have been chipping away, here and there, at a new research proposal, inspired by the Women at Sea symposium I co-organised some time ago. That day inspired me to think about the liminal space where shore meets sea, where in medieval narratives women step beyond the control of patriarchy and instead become victim-conquerors of an unbounded realm. There is so much, I think, to be written about that moment of pushing off from shore, the stomach lurch of leaving behind something safe – even if oppressive – and into the unknown. This proposal was something I hoped to submit weeks ago, but three little clots of blood hiding in my lung have put that – like so many other things this year – behind schedule. It has been hard not to feel as if my ship has sailed, since I too am in that liminal place so many of you share with me – several years postdoc, as yet no permanent post in place, feeling what little time I have left in my current post slip through my fingers like fine sand.
But as a perennially optimistic person, I do have hope: for my work, for my health, for my self. That the choices I have made, and are making now, will finally steer my ship away from one shore and over uncharted water to a new world. What no one ever says about optimists – portrayed as naive smiling sunbeams, rushing headlong into disaster saying “it will get better!” – is that hope has its own distinct kind of pain. Allowing oneself to hope – realistically, clear-sightedly, understanding the odds of change – is tying your heart to your sleeve, vulnerable as a new bruise.