Monday, December 21, 2009

In the Dark

Daughter #3 hosted a rather lovely soiree at our house last night. I say 'lovely' not because of the hosting arrangements (oh no! they were all rather carefree and ad hoc) but because the girls who attended - all #3's peers - were a simply delightful advertisment for 'the youth of today'. They represented a mix of friends old and new that have coalesced into a band of like-minded allies. Not that there was anything clone-like about them: each one seemed to represent a slightly different facet of young teenagerhood. They were an amusing, polite, gregarious and good-natured crowd and I was more than impressed by the fact that they managed to just sit there and chat and laugh for two hours and (more importantly) NOT SPILL A THING!!! It made me almost nostalgic for the days of ground-in jam sandwiches and trampled sausage rolls.
However, by the time the last liftless girl had been deposited safely home and I had hoovered some errant pine needles, my mind/body - tricked by the bonhomie of the previous few hours - was raring to go. Not even a fairly large glass of wine and the suitably soporific Match of the Day 2 was able to stop me revving in overdrive: Chelsea drew with West Ham? Yay! The Husband, who has decided that today will be his last day at work until after the New Year, was mindful that it was getting late and he was tired. So we adjourned to bed where I sat up reading Saturday's review section until he was snoring gently and I started to worry that the rustle of newsprint would wake him again. Consequently, I moved onto the glossy mag (less rustling) until bored by its silly vanity and cringing hand-wringing. By this time it was ten past midnight, so I lay myself down and turned off the bedside light hoping that sleep would come soon. Not a chance. An hour later I found myself increasingly convinced that I was getting colder and colder under the duvet and remembered that we'd fail to click the heating back on at bedtime. I grudgingly hauled myself to the airing cupboard and fumbled around for the on-switch and turned the thermostat right down. I'd been back in bed for about twenty minutes when it occurred to me that I'd not heard the heating pump come on, which meant that it was still, in effect, getting colder and colder in the bedroom. Indeed, I was convinced that I could feel my steaming breath in the dark. So up again I got and readjusted the thermostat to a slightly higher setting. I paused on the landing for a moment until the pump kicked in and I could stop worrying that the entire central heating system had broken down. That's a major concern in the middle of winter, and in the middle of the night - that, and the oven breaking on Christmas Day, or the freezer in the preceding week.
Well, that was it for the remainder of the night. Worry mode. I should, in hindsight, have just turned the light on and forestalled it all with some cheerful reading, but I was still partially convinced that I would fall asleep before too long. But no, my mind wandered and fretted around the usual unpleasant and cobwebby mental annexes that only open up during the hours of darkness: mortal illness, death, financial straits, and the most recurrent one for me at the moment - the feeling that I will most certainly flunk out of my PhD programme.
I've tried analysing this, and I think it's down to a lack of confidence in my own ability. Certainly my supervisor seems happy enough with my progress at this point in time. He does keep going on about word counts though, as if writing up research on a words-per-day basis can guaranteee its success. I'm not convinced this is true, considering that the early stages of a thesis will mostly consist of reading and making notes and that the donkey-work of writing-up happens at the latter-end when you have a clear model in your head of how (or if!) your proposal really works. I think that if you write up too early, you can run into problems if you come across a staggering piece of scholarship that impacts greatly on your ideas (and that is always a real possibility). It can become a major, major task to weave new revelations into a 'done' text, far more trouble and work than if you were still operating at a notes-and-ideas level. You don't know what you don't know, as Donald Rumsfeld said, until you know it. I am acutely aware that I have done no writing on my chapter since my last supervisory meeting a couple of weeks ago, and yet I seem incapable of doing anything about it: my mind keeps skidding away from the topic as if I have an aversion to it. I think it may be because I feel that I am losing control of the project: my supervisor has very definite ideas about what should be said and I often find myself chivvied down avenues that weren't part of my original plan. Still, I remind myself, he is the expert appointed to keep me on the straight and narrow, and to make sure that I deliver a PhD on target. When I was self-funded and part-time I felt that the PhD was mine: I was the client, was paying the university for their expertise, calling the tune, almost. When I got funding (mirabile dictu!), I ceded control. Other people now have a vested interest in my success and thus my progress. Research has ceased to be a delightful stroll around the charming groves of Academe, with ample pauses to sniff at random wayside blooms, it has become a goal-driven, progress assessed slog, with value-added, transferable-skill distractions en route.
When I was a child - and indeed as I grew older, my life seemd to consist of a series of disappointments. I never got the presents I really, really wanted for Christmas (and they were never extravagant) - I got the cheaper, less-desirable version. My friends were always less fun and cheerful than I had expected them to be, having been a voracious reader of Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers. Summer holidays were not golden and tranquilly idyllic, but long and dull and spent trawing around garden centres. My teenage clothes were a home-made approximation of what was then in the achingly fashionable Chelsea Girl chain. My boyfriends were generally off-hand and distant, and likewise an early doomed marriage was characterised by my husband's reluctance to be more than token, beery presence in his children's lives. All in all it seemed to me that, somehow, I always got less than the best because I probably wasn't worth anyone's full attention or effort. I was easy to ignore, write-off, dismiss as trivial, as a winging, neurotic perfectionist who should be damned happy she'd actually got what she'd got.

It wasn't until much later when I met someone who thought I was actually pretty remarkable that my self-confidence grew to the degree that I felt that...yes, I was worth the effort and, yes, I did have something to contribute, and I was utterly transformed and went from strength to strength.

But still deep down, there is that little girl who expects to be let down and feels that she is probably not up to much, who can't bring herself to 'waste' money on a decent haircut for herself and who is not surprised when 'friends' cancel a lunch engagement. And thus (I guess) it is with my doctoral studies. Surely the AHRC must have been mistaken in giving me funding? Me? They expect me to produce something worthwhile? Don't they realise that I will probably let the side down, fail to deliver? Last year, because I was 'in the driving seat', so to speak, I was only ever going to disappoint myself if I did not complete. No biggy. Now that there additional factors, parties and expectations attached to my PhD, I feel burdened by self-doubt and guilt. I am a shabby investment. It's not a great feeling, and one that, in the dark, in the middle of the night dammit!, returns to haunt me again and again.

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