ash wednesday
Ash Wednesday 1982 – Robert Wagner; quotations below all from T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday

There are no dreaming spires in view on your exit from Oxford railway station; indeed as vistas go it’s one of the city’s least prepossessing. All the same as I stepped out from the concourse into bright July light I felt a sudden and intense grief that this was one of the last times I would be making that exit as a fully paid up employee of the University; that today I am discharging one of my last duties, this time as examiner of an MSt programme; that as I crossed the city and then a familiar quad and then three flights of stairs that this was one of the last times I would unlock the door to my office and sit at my desk, before I pack it all up. The pain was in my chest but not the stab of heartbreak; instead the feeling was as if I had opened my ribcage and found within it a smooth, hollow place, filled with light; the kind of light that moves through the dust motes falling in an office emptied of books and papers, door shut.

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live?

Three weeks ago I sat on a train after two interviews twenty hours apart in two different cities, both two-and-a-half hours from home in different directions. My hands lay in my lap and I swallowed and swallowed against the silty feeling of tears shored up in the back of my throat – not so much from grief then as weariness, and the beginnings of disappointment. The first interview had gone brilliantly well, I knew that; I’d burned comet-bright and hard enough that when I left, once safely out of sight, my knees nearly buckled. That I didn’t have much left to give for the second interview is hardly a surprise, but I did what I could; not my best, but nothing I’m ashamed of. The first set of interviewers said I was exceptional, but still second place; the second set I’ve not yet heard from beyond I’m sorry, but.

Those were my last outstanding job applications in this round. I’ve had three interviews since May, which I suppose makes me lucky compared to some. But since then much of what I have done in the ordinary academic run of things has had a tinge of sadness to it – my last tutorial of the year, last reports filed, and next week the last international conference of my fellowship and perhaps my last for a long time. I’m not ready yet to say last forever and ever, amen. As a historian I don’t really believe in tidy endings like that. But this autumn is bringing with it many changes for me and my family, and while I am not without hope, I am a little sad. Sometimes more than a little. And at other times, particularly in these brilliant summer days that stretch until bedtime, not so much; toes curled in the scorched grass I think of the earth cleared for better things to come.

 And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject.

It is hard not to feel dissected, disassembled, by the process of job hunting. You lay out the pieces of yourself as teacher, scholar, writer, administrator, colleague, present each in a slightly new and polished way for the specific criteria of each post, and then rebuild yourself in the narrative of the cover letter, framing yourself as the person they need. It is a fiction, but a powerful one, requiring imagining yourself into that place and space. And if you get to interview it is a deeper fiction still, where you must say: these are my colleagues, these are my students, even if I have not met them yet. And then, when the answer is no, you will unpack yourself again, wondering what can still be sifted and refined, so that next time the answer is different.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

But beyond this, life goes on, the requirements of bill-paying, of housekeeping, of childcare. Yesterday my daughter had a great storm of a tantrum, the kind that parents of toddlers will know can barely be withstood, never mind curbed; one must wait for the tempest to pass. At last a break in the weather came, and I held out my arms. She collapsed down into my lap and into silence; a few minutes later she sprang back up again, voice restored to normal, talking chattily as if nothing had happened. I envy that kind of resilience sometimes, even if I’m glad my own emotions aren’t so tempest-tossed. For me the sadness of her tantrum lingered until dinnertime like a shadow against my heart. And yet I wouldn’t exchange it, or what else I have learned about love, not for anything in the world. So to in its own way has been my life as an academic. Whether I have a career in higher education beyond this summer is open to question, and there are plenty of aches and pains I carry as cost of this past decade-and-more of my life; but being a teacher, writer, colleague with these people in these times have made me something shining and brilliant, no matter how scattered I have sometimes felt. These bones shall live.