Filed under: PhD chat | Tags: death, fieldwork, grief, interviews, loneliness, PhD, positioning, research, vulnerability
I’m finally reaching the end of a challenging year. This second year of the PhD I have spent planning and carrying out fieldwork. I have travelled miles around the country, I have met a host of different faces who shared with me their stories. Stories about how it feels to lose the person you love, stories of how to recover and how to fail, stories about how to help and support flourishing. I’ve encountered great generosity, I have encountered disinterest and rejection, I’ve been blessed with luck and chance and been challenged by obstacles and blockages.
If I could do it all over again I would do it differently. I procrastinated away months due to fear: fear I wasn’t ready, fears over my ability, fear I wouldn’t find the data I needed. I faced many ethics committees and bureaucratic hoops to jump through. I learnt research was a lot about unanswered emails and phonecalls and fruitless journeys into forms and admin. I learnt a lot of people really don’t care about your little project or they just don’t get it.
If I could do it over again I would do it differently. But I’ve realised I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. And I’ve got so angry at it all. Angry at the process you have to go through. Angry at the loneliness – angry at the loneliness most of all. I accept now that the isolation and loneliness is an inextricable part of the PhD process, but its not an easy acceptance. Because its preposterous really. And many people will not understand what I’m trying to say. And there lies the seed of the loneliness: no-one can understand what it feels like to be me in this research.
I have written in the past about researching your own life and the crises and freedoms it can bring. It was a hideously painful article to write, but more painful was the research experience from which the article was borne. The PhD experience has been different after clearing those cobwebs, but still the research encounter has left me feeling heavy and burdensome. I left interviews feeling much heavier than I began. I would go home and curl up in my bed with a fuzzy mind. I started to feel tired before the interview would begin as though in anticipation of the burden I would be carrying home later. It was such a long journey to access and find participants by the time it came to meet and speak to them, I was already exhausted.
The burden though was not something given to me by the participants – sometimes it was – but it was me too taking something from them. I was over-identifying, putting myself in their shoes. What if that happened to me? What if I lost the person I love most? How would I live? Being able to feel is what allows me to enter the world of my participants. This is essential to capture their story. And yet in the process of entering, becoming immersed, it is easy to lose oneself and boundaries as a researcher. I couldn’t tell where my stuff ended and where their stuff began. I was reliving my past through them and I was imagining a future that hasn’t happened through their telling of their past.
But when it became too much about me I was no longer listening to their story. Empathy is a delicate balance of which there are no clear guidelines. It was an ongoing negotiation that only became easier when I became more confident in my capacity as a researcher. Even if that confidence was a performance, the maintenance of composure provided a boundary through which I could control what I let in and what I didn’t. It was a filter of sorts, a necessary one because it protected me from taking it too personally, and it protected my participants from me distorting their stories.
People always want to know why you are doing the research you are, what are your motives, what is your reasoning. I am still searching for the right answer to that question. I haven’t quite measured my distance from my research object, I don’t know how I stand in relation to it. Sure its personal. But its also pragmatic. Its contradictory and conflicting. There’s no easy way to describe that relation.
Undertaking the fieldwork for this research has put me in a vulnerable position professionally, mentally and emotionally. Professionally it pushed me into situations I wasn’t at all comfortable and so I avoided and avoided and nearly gave up. It pushed me to very unpleasant places that I can’t look back and simply say I am glad about because it helped me grow. I think there may have been nicer routes to learn the same things. At times I have wondered why I was inflicting such a situation on myself for so little return. I can’t blame it all on any one thing. It was everything all together, and having no control over emotions that would make me come undone again and again. I made no sense to those around me a lot of the time.
I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. It had to be messy and heartbreaking. I had to feel isolated from the person I love the most because it was a journey I had to take alone. And it feels sad, but in that sadness is a purpose. Just as in the stories people so generously allowed me to listen to, the sadness has a purpose. The purpose is in writing a story that hasn’t been told. And its a story that can’t be told from outside. So whether it pains me or not, its a story that has to be told from the vantage point of the liminal space of the researcher. And that’s okay because in the space of liminality all types of things can happen. There’s possibility and alternatives in the liminal space even if there’s no certainty and stability. That’s how things happen: just close your eyes and take a leap. But if you can, I ask, keep holding my hand as I venture down the rabbit hole.
Filed under: Subjectivities, Yoga | Tags: death, happiness, self, shadows, subjectivity, yoga
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” said Neil Young, quoted by Kurt Cobain. However, even fading away is exorbitantly costly. There comes a time when the debt has to be paid, even if one has only wandered through dull and soporific terrains where an imperceptible corruption eats away at even the most shriveled destinies. That is why life is so endlessly short, so long it seems it will never end but always too short with respect to what is possible.
– Pascal Bruckner, ‘Perpetual Euphoria: On the duty to be happy.’
Some things you learn the hard way. Here’s one: don’t ever live in someone else’s shadow. You’ll wake up one day, maybe on the cusp of 28 years of age and realize you were living a life of pretence when you thought you were living a life. And even when you discover the nature of those shadows, sometimes people won’t let you happily untangle the binds. They might keep projecting this false self onto you, encasing you in that same sticky binding, only for you to painfully re-shed it over and over again.
To live in the shadows is to feel robbed of something. You took my choices, my opportunities, you shaped what was possible. I am reduced only to the self other people make of me. Where lies my essence? Can we be so naive to think in such ways, to cling like Chomsky to the belief in the essential good of human beings, or else perceive the self as a Foucauldian chasm of disparity, each molecule determined by discourses out of reach.
The self emerges only in resistance to the state of things. Wandering dull terrains is still a choice not just the aimlessness it appears. Non-action is decisive even if it is not active, and can be the better option when the avenues to express one’s desires are unsatisfactory, limiting and repetitive. To recognize who controls the ties that bind you, who manipulates the shadows in your cave, is one thing. But to formulate this into a new foundation on which to tread, is one other separate activity.
And the ground keeps shifting. We are compelled to accept one reality as the norm of existence. This makes no sense to the chameleon soul that belongs to all and nothing at the same time. In Mysore people would remark “Oh but this is not real life.” Where is life then if not right in the present moment of experience? Life was back ‘home’. Life was a regular job, money worries, and saturday night TV. What happens when multiple realities exist on your horizon at one and the same time? Who are you? Each performance you give is never quite convincing enough, because you are always coming from elsewhere. The strangely composite personality.
Home then lies in the acceptance of the chameleon nature of the self. Through the acknowledgement of the unstable nature of the self comes its own form of stability. The unresolved, incomplete feeling that haunts becomes a comfort in itself. The non-normative personality finds a normative rhythm in her irrationality.
Narrative also weaves its own nest of security in the perfection of form. Here dreams are made tangible, love is made bearable and the unresolved is given order. The present moment always feels too bloated with false starts, and missed opportunities, non-action and the saying of wrong things. In writing, the chaos is glossed, captured and solidified to language; life is resold in endlessly new and shiny fashionings. A life is endured only to be written, and it is only then that it has been lived.
Yoga is used as a means to build a space in the day-to-day busyness; fostering emptiness (a space of non-thought) within a day we consciously fill with activities that divert us from this same emptiness. Non-thought is programmed into the day consciously through prior thought. (Yoga retreats are the epitome of this scheduled relaxation. Similarly spas with their continual ‘just relax’ mantra have always created an unbearable degree of angst and anxiety in me. I could only ever enjoy a massage after the event, the obligatory call to ‘chill out’ feels oppressive and restrictive; I am performing a relaxed body rather than feeling as one). There appears a sad paradox here, as that which we turn for escape becomes its own form of mundanity. We are living for the days off, the holiday that suspends reality; we are always waiting for the right moment.
In this form of existence we lose the opportunity to be alive to chance. Heading into the unknown is to make things happen; to recreate the grounds on which things can happen. And yet the constant desire for stimulating events is met with the equal fear of the materialization of these events. This central antagonism can stupefy us into non-action. Dreaming without action is a privileged position. So too here we find the yogis that continue to promote bad feeling, who segment their time of non-thought as a ritual that becomes a banal performative gesture. These gestures of action are vacant of intention but heavy with a frustrated will that emerges from the nexus of abundant resources and a limited vision of what is possible.
To emerge out of the shadows might entail a constant process of un-binding. It will involve a daily vigilance, like brushing one’s teeth. New narratives of self will be born and die in the same day. So too a yoga practice done correctly brings a kaleidoscope of emotion in 90 minutes. Relaxation is not the aim, nor is happiness our object, else all that prevails is a obligatory culture of niceness, and nothing, not even niceness (or especially not) should be our talisman. Instead perhaps we can invest a little more in those emotions that surface in us that we sometimes call instinct. Emotions that we neglect to gloss with a rationality; that serve to interrupt our plans. These unruly emotions (anger, love, envy et.al) are seen as something that gets in the way. But how about if we treat them as openings, that show new paths to navigate. Living a life in the shadows can mean such emotions are incubated for fear of disruption. But irruptions are a delicious opportunity to claim what has been lost, gain the new, to stop waiting. It means being a troublemaker, causing discomfort, brushing people the wrong way, ruffling feathers, consistently producing failed performances. Only then under the weight of felt resistance can we begin to sketch out that transitory self and find novel avenues to express the un-ending and incomplete desires.
A bad dream. I remembered everything… Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them. But they were part of me. They were my landscape. (Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar)
I want to speak a little about the places we travel in our memories, in our dreams and our imaginations, and what these imagined landscapes do.
I have a recurring dream about hamsters. I was 11 when I had my first hamster. His name was Lollipop. I loved that hamster more than anything I had ever loved before in life. We would go for adventures climbing up and down the staircase and run free in the garden lawn. A year and a half later when Lollipop got a tumour and died, I cried and cried and wrote letters to him and put them in his hamster-sized coffin to take with him until we met again in heaven. I got another hamster, and then he died, so I got another and another. And then my mother died and I was 15 and I couldn’t look after the hamster anymore and I didn’t feed him anymore or clean his cage or give him new water. And one day I went to his cage and saw a little bundle of fur curled in the corner, all stiff and cold.
In my dreams the hamsters come back to life. They appear in different colours. Sometimes one, sometimes multiple. Sometimes fancy cages, sometimes the cage is dirty and neglected. In the dreams I am overwhelmed by a suffocating dread when I realize the hamster is still alive. I thought I had escaped the responsibility of looking after the hamster. I am weighted by the guilt that I didn’t look after him properly, that I killed him. These dreams continued for 10 years.
On the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death late last year, I received a letter from my grandmother. This was purely coincidental. My grandmother and I write to each other once every couple years. (This is largely due to my laziness). My grandmother’s letters are normally full of niceties and pleasantries (weather and its variations). In my last letter I attempted to break with convention and broach a topic we had never discussed: her dead daughter. In her reply one sentence remained with me:
‘Your Mum always had to have her own way, though it didn’t seem to make her happy.’
Over the ten years grief has revealed many different faces. I gave myself many false promises, fraudulent optimism, delusions of freedom. I clung to the hope of escaping my mother as tightly as I clung to her breast. My mother, I found, was so rooted inside of me, I tried to destroy myself in all sorts of ways to cut her out.
But she began haunting me. In my dreams, she comes back to life. In the dreams I am overwhelmed by a suffocating dread when I realize my mother is still alive. I thought I had escaped the responsibility of looking after my mother. I am weighted by the guilt that I didn’t look after her properly, that I killed her.
For my grandmother, my mother always had her own way. For my grandmother the assumed reason for having ones own way is happiness. It didn’t seem to make her happy. My mother’s choices were a failure – point-less – because they didn’t make her happy. Happiness validates actions; it gives a point actions can be oriented around. When risky, irrational or spontaneous decisions are taken they are justified by a happy outcome.
Perhaps my mother always had her own way because she didn’t know what she desired and she was just trying to find out. Perhaps she was pursuing happiness. Perhaps she was so set on happiness, she neglected the happiness of others. But the truth is I’ll never know who my mother was, her thoughts, hopes and fears. My memories are blurs, rarely given the chance to be active and so fade inconsequentially as life creates new, grey memories to smother the old.
‘You deserve to be happy.’
This burden weighs on me. If you deserve happiness, do you still need to pursue it or will it just arrive. But everywhere I looked, she was there. But it was not really her. She was merely a mirage, fragmented.
Her body presses on me. I feel the strength seep from my limbs and I crumble down to the ground, her body heaped on top of me. My mothers tall slender body feels like a mass of throbbing flesh; an unbearable weight.
Another dream. This time I run to my mother’s bedroom. She is under attack. She is lying in bed as I climb over her and shield her vulnerable body. I scream, ‘Don’t hurt my Mummy’.
When I wake I am relieved, angry, frustrated. I wonder how I can find this happiness I deserve when I cannot undo myself from the unhappy past I revisit again and again in my dreams. In the waking hours I physically travel distances far and near, see new faces, places and experience different sensations. Yet in my dreams I continually walk down the same street. I walk through the same gate, through the same door. I inhabit the same rooms, the same air, touch the same objects. Each dream no matter where I am; a desert, a wasteland, a rainforest; I return back to the house of my childhood.
‘To revolt is to be undone – it is not to reproduce an inheritance.’ (1)
I keep writing the same story. Each narratives feeds into the next in a never-ending spiral. When will it end?
It will end when I let go. When I let go of my mother and our bond of ambivalence I will be happy.
Memories blur and smother, and confuse, forming new realities that distort and disintegrate. The complex tangle of dreams and memories fuse together violently and tear at my daily reality. The memories persist in dreams inhabiting my subconscious. The memories of the dreams – memories of memories – linger in my conscious life. I travel physically, mentally but still remain in the same suffocating space. A space that doesn’t even exist. I visit my old house, it appears changed, no longer easily recognizable. I hope the viewing of this changed image will erase the memory. But it doesn’t. I don’t live there anymore, but I can never leave.
I keep coming undone but without a revolt. I am simply reproducing my inheritance.
‘You never come back from elsewhere because elsewhere always comes back with you.’ (2)
I had another hamster dream. This time I took the hamster cage and put it in a bin. I woke relieved. This was the end I told myself. I do not have to feel the guilt any longer.
But then a few months later the hamster appeared again alive and well.
(1) Sara Ahmed, 2010, The Promise of Happiness.
(2) Mark C. Taylor, 2009, Fieldnotes from elsewhere: Reflections on dying and living.