December is a gloaming month this far north; the space between dawn and dusk so short that only the finest sliver of the day is not slipping out of or into darkness, noon a thin white knife-edge of pale light. The rest is a dimming, sun low and shadows long.
I have to admit that past weeks have felt rather – well, twilit, and that’s partly why my blog’s been quiet. The short days have been so busy and the dark nights have been long. I’ve not been depressed in a clinical sense – I know what to look out for on that front – but my spirits have been low, and my mind anxious. Recently I had to submit my final report to the Leverhulme Trust, to sum up what I’ve done for the length of my fellowship. I felt a stomach-lurching combination of pride and shame as I typed up that document, feeling both pleased with the things I’ve done and always that regret that I didn’t accomplish more. I know that as December rolls toward the New Year we’ll start to see lots of lists – the best books of the year, best films; memes about what has changed and what has stayed the same. Writing my own list, not just of the last year but of the last few, was an exercise in grief as well as gladness. Strangely enough it’s often the gladness that catches in my throat like a burr; loss would hurt less if there was no love, though, so I suppose perhaps it’s not strange at all.
Term ended in Oxford a couple of weeks ago (very early, I know!) and I thought I’d use the next couple of weeks – before nursery finishes for Christmas – to do some of my own work, the work I’d hoped that at least being underemployed would allow me to do. We’ve dropped our daughter’s nursery days to four out of five a week, to save money, and are using only term time care, but that still leaves me quite a lot of time to do things. After all, given that over the past two months I’ve only scraped together around half the salary I was earning before, surely I should at least have time to do unpaid work, if I want to?
Unfortunately things haven’t worked out that way. I might be making less money but the little pieces of work I’m doing seem to add up to nearly as much time. I took on quite a bit of teaching this term, and some consultancy work, along with some writing and editing; all things I enjoy very much, but which have taken up quite a bit of time – and which I’ve felt rather bitterly aware no longer come with the benefits of sick pay or pension. We’ve also had a pretty tough time with our preschooler lately, who has been having a huge developmental leap and as a consequence has had hugely disrupted sleep and a full-bore entry into threenagerhood. I realised as we got to the end of term that I was worn thin – “butter scraped over too much bread” as Bilbo said – and that I have desperately needed to rest.
So this past fortnight I haven’t started work on an article I’ve wanted to get writing for weeks now. I also haven’t completed some other tasks I’ve promised to do, and I’m sure I’m letting people down. I’m doing my work for History Workshop, because I’m paid to do that and because I enjoy it. I’m pottering on with some small other academic tasks. Eventually I’ll reply to all the messages I owe. Maybe next week at last I’ll at least try to open Word on my own account. But I’ve got better over the years at seeing when rest isn’t an indulgence, but a necessity.
I don’t plan to live like this forever; while I enjoy all the individual piecemeal parts of work I’ve been doing since October, it’s not a practical or desirable way for me to make my living long-term. I had seven years of knowing, one way or another, what was coming up next; in the current academic market, having had three back-to-back posts like that makes me lucky indeed. But I’m in my mid-thirties now, and have a family and a mortgage. I think it may soon be time to think seriously about what my long term plan is going to be. But I also know that’s not a decision that can be made when I’m tired, and still rather raw over where I hoped I’d be this autumn and where I actually am. It’s a series of decisions to be made over the coming months, when I have rested and rallied. So as the year comes to an end, I won’t be making any list of my accomplishments in 2018; as always, I feel I have done too much and not enough. But although I’m weary, I’m not defeated. I just know the value of a tactical retreat. That’s how I’m thinking of December, as we come toward the longest night. A place to wait for lengthening days.