CN: post contains reference to vomit, disease, chronic illness, and the ECR grind
Ever since I was a very little girl I have vomited regularly. Never by my own volition, and the triggers for it have been variable. At least three times a year as a child, and probably a couple of times a year as an adult, I spend two days crouching in my bathroom, and another day or two recovering. I avoid certain foods that seem more likely to cause gastric upset. I know that stress may be a trigger, but it certainly isn’t always: I have never vomited before an exam, a job interview, in labour. I was sick the night before I went backpacking, though, way back in 2005. And most recently, I started vomiting the day before a major conference I organised – the just-passed Gender and Medieval Studies conference at Oxford.
That I have by-and-large missed an event I spent a great deal of time and energy putting together has been disappointing, to put it very mildly. As many of you know, this past year has given me more reason that most to be suspicious of whatever trick my body might next throw at me. So I have spent a good deal of this week feeling terribly sorry for myself. A lot of people have pointed out that I can take comfort in knowing that I organised it well enough (and had good enough help on the ground, particularly from these friends) that the conference ran really smoothly and that the delegates had a great time. Well, that is awesome, and I am proud of that – and because many people in attendance are good buddies, I am happy for them, too! – but as Alicia Spencer-Hall pointed out in the plenary paper I actually managed to attend, ECRs can’t thrive on exposure alone. In personal and professional terms, I lost out on a lot by not being able to be fully-present at this conference – no nice dinners with friends, no networking opportunities, no discussion of potential publications – and frankly, “organising a conference” really does not get the credit it deserves on your CV, given the battery of skills it takes to do it right.
So there was a certain irony that I listened to Alicia talking about the challenges marginalised academics face, while facing some of the very real consequences of my own marginalisations. I am very lucky to have good benefits in a good job, so the time I have had off sick over the past year has been compensated, and because I have a supportive faculty I have never felt pressured into returning to work before I could. I am luckier than many. On the other hand, my job runs out in seven months, and while being sick I couldn’t help the miserable thought: if I had said no to organising this conference, could I have put that time to better use, since I am missing out on the benefits of it anyway?
As an ECR it is hard not to become obsessed with time. How much time post-viva before you are no longer eligible for funding programme X or Y. How much time there is left on your current contract. How much time you might be able to scrape by without a job. How much time until the next REF. How much time until that marking is due. How much time until until until. I know the deadlines are relentless for colleagues at more advanced stages of their careers, and that their anxieties are real. But usually, at least, there is a sense of what next year will hold. If I had a permanent job, the fact I had weeks off sick last year would have been stressful and upsetting but it would feel easier to get back on track. It is hard to make up for lost time when there is a definite end date in sight.
There is a curious point in the trajectory of a typical stomach bug where your body, now ceased in endless purging but not at a point where it is ready to go back to ordinary life, takes on a curious quality of weightlessness: as if made hollow you gain a queer clarity of perception. This is probably only the sheer physical and psychological relief of the absence of pain, and indeed after a little while you start to notice the other, lesser discomforts left in the disease’s wake: sore muscles, headache, fatigue. But in that moment perhaps you understand part of why some medieval mystics punished their bodies – purged them, beat them, bled them – in order to be closer to God. That a moment of respite can feel like something heaven-sent.
I had that today, lying in bed after some genuinely refreshing sleep. Hands on my tender belly, I thought of myself as a pane of glass as medieval people imagined the Virgin, the Holy Spirit passing through her like light. I let go, for a little while, of time. I cannot change what has gone before, and I cannot make more time. I could keep frantically scrabbling to catch up: or I could focus on making use of what time I have. It is easy enough to talk the talk of wanting to make a better academy, one that is built on courage and kindness, but it is harder to take concrete steps to do it. So, while I still have some kind of modest platform to do so, I want to keep working to that end. I am glad if GMS 2018 could provide opportunities for conversations that help our particular discipline keep moving along in the right direction. I will keep writing articles for more mainstream publications that may, in some modest way, keep people thinking about what it means to be an academic. And I shall keep being honest with you. Whether I have seven months or thirty years left in my academic career, I hope I will always be brave enough to recognise my own limitations – bodily and otherwise – and to stretch out my hand to you. For your support, and to offer you mine. Kindness is radical; love is kind. I love what I do – and I love you, too.