… at this time of the year, comes just before dinnertime.
The snow and ice are gone, and I went for a ride. Raced through the forest, stopped to listen to the silence. Heard birds. Smelled newly cut trees. Heard water running. Smelled moss and wet earth. Saw wild geese in the fields. Felt sun and wind on my skin. It felt good.
This past Christmas, instead of giving things, I made promises. I still haven’t finished my list of new year’s resolutions, but I already have this one entry: keep them — and I’m looking forward to a little bit of reading, sewing, knitting, walking and picture taking every month for the year to come.
My dad and I are going to read a book of his choosing every month and share our impressions. As a warm-up, he lent me his copy of Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell. I read the first half on a train journey across France during the holidays, and after a short interruption to devour a delightful essay in praise of home lovers, I finished it yesterday.
I liked the first half best, because it made me curious to see where the story would go, while I thought the second half was a bit more predictable. My favorite thing was the setting – did I mention already that am a sucker for the forests of North Sweden and islands in the Baltic sea? – and I also quite liked the main character.
What about you? Do you have any books to recommend?
Where do you get ideas of books to read? I spotted many novels I’d like to read in Ida’s reading lists recently.
Also, I really liked this post today.
The temperature dropped down to -23°C/-9°F last night and when we woke up, before sunrise, the inside thermometer read barely 10°C/50°F. But the wood stove was soon roaring, hot cups of tea were poured and porridge was bubbling.
By the look of things, there’s no point trying to open the front door: frozen!
I spent the morning finishing my book and trying out some knitting tricks. I went back to my watercolor lettering experiments in the afternoon. Cleaning and straightening up a couple of calligraphy nibs was definitely useful to avoid ruining the paper, but did not solve the annoying ink (well, paint) flow problem I had. The paint kept forming a drop at the back of the nib instead of flowing onto the paper, which back in the lab, I would have called a surface tension issue – typical! Dipping the tip of the nib in soapy water did the job. If anyone knows about unwanted long-term effects of adding soap to watercolors, I’ll be really happy to know.
Now I need to practice shaping letters and layout. That’s tonight’s program, and I’m off to my desk! The house is getting (a bit) warmer, freshly baked loaves of bread just came out of the oven where they were replaced by a pot of baked-beans-to-be. Really, I wouldn’t trade this life for any other one.
“Why Sweden?” people ask, and I say “I don’t know”, “long story”, or “why not?”. It’s because of that light, really. I have never been good at answering these kinds of questions.
“Where in France are you from?”
“Here is where I was born.”
“But this accent of yours?”
“Ah, yes, I got it from where my family is from.”
“Oh, so that’s where you grew up?”
“No, no, I’ve never lived there.”
“Where did you study, then?”
“Here. And there.”
“Is that where are you going “home for Christmas”?”
“Er, no, actually…”
Except for these somewhat confused conversations, I’ve never suffered from the fact that I just don’t have a straightforward answer to the where are you from question.
It feels like a wealth rather than a gap in my life. For a while — not anymore — I considered it a superiority. That was extremely arrogant, but I clung to it as a desperate reassurance that my life was what I wanted it to be – which it wasn’t.
Unhappy as I was in the lab, every time I stepped outside to make my way to the campus, Iooking at the light, the snow, and the colorful houses, I couldn’t help but say to myself: this is where I want to live, and here I am.
It’s the second winter in the little red house up North, away from the lab. It feels better than the first one. It feels good. I feel at peace with myself. I mean, have you seen that light?
Now for the what do you do question…
… well, one thing at a time.
One of the hardest barriers I had to overcome to leave academia and make a big life change was the incomprehension of some of the people I have always trusted and whose opinion I value.
Around this time last year, the news spread out in the family that “Marion was living her job.” Some said I was right to follow my heart. Some disapproved. And although I had been announcing my intentions for at least a year, others clung desperately to the idea that it came as a surprise.
For the record, I technically didn’t leave my job. Believe me, I would have loved to quit with great fanfare, shouting loud and clear what I couldn’t take anymore about scientific research, but I didn’t have the guts for this. The truth is that like most young academics, I was on a fixed term contract, which eventually expired. There was no possibility for an extension, which saved me from another hesitation, and I didn’t look for another academic position either because I wanted to do something else with my life.
I have never regretted this decision, not for a second. In fact, honestly, I’ve been congratulating myself every single day for taking it. I have spent a year learning and growing and along the way I have come to understand things I wish I had been aware of when I was still considering whether to stay or to leave.
I had never measured how spectacularly people filter what you say to remove anything they don’t want to hear. When I said I was unhappy, I was answered it wasn’t that bad. When I said I was suffering from contradictions between what I thought my job should be and what it actually was, I was told to be philosophical about it. When I said I only had a temporary position, people convinced themselves that there would always be another extension. When it became clear that there wouldn’t, they insisted that surely I could find another position. For one thing, it’s not that easy, but anyway, I didn’t want one. I didn’t want one. “Thank you for forwarding me this offer,” I wrote to my advisors “but at the moment I’m not looking for another postdoc”. Still, the same emails kept pouring in. “No,” I told people “I don’t want to look for a job in the oil industry”. “Yes, I understand” they said, “but then what? What? WHAT?”
Even though people had the best of intentions, these reactions had a devastating effect on me. Being faced with the involuntary but systematic denial of my problems or tentative choices made me doubt. I trusted these persons. Maybe they were right. Maybe I was wrong. But then I knew I wasn’t wrong. I knew I how felt. This perpetual contradiction was painful and paralyzing. I was unhappy and wanted a change but I was unable to think serenely about what else I could do.
I did have a bunch of ideas, but none of them seemed to be taken seriously. I remember mentioning sewing during a family meal.
“You have a PhD and you want to sew?” one of my uncles said affectionately.
“What’s wrong with sewing” I asked “it’s not a shameful activity, is it?”
He readily agreed.
Indeed, I’m sure, his question didn’t conceal any disdain for manual activities. But he meant, like others, that there are career paths to follow and that every new step must be the logical continuation from the previous one. I thought it was astonishing to see this generation think in terms of hierarchies between careers and standards for success that are set by social conventions they were once so prone to reject as outdated.
Career rules were even more overwhelming in the academic world I belonged to. Despite the well-known fact that the number of tenured academic positions is decreasing alarmingly, getting one remains the standard of success. Timing is crucial. Are you applying this year? No? No? Getting a job in industry is a very acceptable way out provided that it comes with a salary that ridicules academic standards. As a last resort, teaching is perhaps ok. But it’s the very last limit before decline.
I felt that unless one already had a lifelong calling for classical singing or something equally noble to go back to — or for women, the “excuse of motherhood” (!) — any move out of this world was seen as an unfortunate affair of nervous breakdown. I have been trapped by this kind of conception myself for quite some time. At some point, though, I had to admit that the accumulation of disillusions simply smashed these ideas to pieces. I had enough disagreements with this system to swallow my pride without to much difficulty.
What I’ve learned from this past year was hard to accept, but liberating: often, when people ask you what you’re doing, what your plans are, or if you’re happy, they don’t really want to hear what you have to say. They already have their own very precise idea of what your happiness should be made of. They have a whole theory about what you were made for. Fundamentally, they want to hear the confirmation that you are indeed on a track, this track you’re meant to follow, working your way up.
I’m the only one in the family to have a PhD, and I will always be infinitely grateful to have been encouraged and supported all the way there. I understand that people perhaps expected me to do something that provided secure employment and decent money. But I can’t believe they ever wanted me to resign myself to doing something I don’t like or want. I’ll admit that it would save them from worrying and wondering if I will end up starving if I had a well-paid job making atom bombs or destroying rain forests to pump more oil. But it wouldn’t make me happy. And I know that all they’ve ever wanted for me was happiness.
Sometimes, people who care for you worry so much that they urge you to give way to the very social conventions they’ve taught you to criticize. It’s perfectly understandable. But I’m glad to see that I’m learning to recognize these situations, and disregard expectations that aren’t mine. Making life choices that make me happy is up to me.
This weekend, I sewed another pillow case from an old shirt. Perhaps one day I will make a batch of them to sell. I don’t know. Who knows? But it made me happy. I am happy.
I drove home from the airport on Sunday morning. The sky was clear, for the first time in days. The rising sun greated me on the road. A traffic alert on the radio interrupted the music. “Reindeer. Be careful.” But I didn’t see them. They must have been further up North.
It had been snowing a lot during the night. I was grateful to find that my helpful neighbor had cleared the snow in front of the house. I lit a fire and reheated some leftovers for lunch. The wood pile was running low. Resisting the temptation to take a nap by the fire, I went for a walk with my camera. Sunny days are so scarce.
It snowed again the next day while household chores kept me busy. As I shoveled the snow around the car in the evening, more wood was delivered by another helpful neighbor. I stacked the whole pile safely on the veranda. It was a big pile, but I did it.
Today I feel stiff and sleepy. But I know it’s good old exercise-induced fatigue. It’s another sunny day. I’m writing by the fire. I’m driving back to the airport tomorrow.
Last Saturday, we came home from a drive to the nearest city with a pile of library books. Along with a bottle of white wine, an improvised but delicious orange cake, cozy pillows on the couch and a good fire in the wood stove, they were a perfect for a gray January weekend.
But they were actually more than that. They were a way to celebrate the arrival in the mail of our so-called id-numbers earlier that week. Whoopee! There are tons of things to sort out now that these precious digits are here, opening the door to endless administrative joys, but somehow the first thing we actually did was to go and get ourselves a library card each.
When I think about it, it was a pretty nice way of thumbing our noses at administrative loopholes and reaffirming what really matters. Reading matters, for example.
As an academic researcher, I used to spend quite some time reading papers and textbooks. It was part of my job, and therefore I was even paid to do so. This, in turn, entitled be to move to a new country quite easily. Strangely enough, when I decided that I’d be happier and more useful spending an equally significant part of my time reading piles of library books covering a broad range of important subjects, from philosophy of science to writer’s biographies, local history, renovating houses and growing vegetables (among other things), it went a little less smoothly.
Finally, things are falling into place. We don’t live (yet!) in a world in which doing something useful is sufficient to be able to blossom in peace, but we fixed up our own little space in which we’re hoping to make a living doing things we’re interested in. A tiny red house, a little studio of our own, and library cards. Plus 10 precious digits that mean we can start for good.
During Christmas break I asked my grandma if she knew how to knit socks. Of course she did. We couldn’t find any suitable yarn in the house or in town, but I traveled back home with her detailed explanations memorized, a precious old pair of hand-knitted socks made by my late great great-aunt to use as a model, and the promise of Skype rescue sessions if I ever got stuck.
In 2015, among other equally important things, I will turn 30, read every morning before switching on the computer (ahem), sew lots of stuff, run my own business, renovate my little red house, finish a philosophy book for children, grow vegetables, reflect upon dialog between natural and social sciences, take better pictures, live frugally, write more, buy even less stuff, make illustrations and learn how to knit socks.
Now, it does appear to me that 1) all these things sound really disparate, that 2) some also sound crazy (finish a book, really?) and 3) seriously, am I putting the question of dialog between natural and social sciences and the art of knitting socks on the same level?
But what I learned from 2014 is that:
1) however disparate these things might appear, there is actually a coherence in this list: work/life balance issues? Be gone. Plus, I really love all these things. I don’t want to choose between them. I need them all to be happy.
2) Er, you’re turning 30. Thir-ty, Marion. You’re allowed to turn “crazy” into “real”. Or at least try to.
3) well, darn yes I am. All these years, I’ve somehow contemptuously tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t, which has only made me frustrated.
There. I said it.
Happy 2015, friends!