On Sewing And Having a PhD

sewing basket

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.

pillow01-small


other thoughts


follow

bloglovin’ || pinterest || twitter

Advertisements

On Being Creative And Putting More Wood On The Fire

window

Earlier this month we came back from Southern France to find our water pipes intact despite a week of bitter cold temperatures. I would be lying if I said that the issue of frozen pipes didn’t worry me a little while we were away, but as I now know, our electric heaters, set to the minimum, actually can do the job of keeping the plumbing frost-free. So next time, I’ll be absolutely serene.

When we decided to buy our little red house, we knew that spending our days working from home in the heart of Scandinavian winter relying on electric heaters only was out of the question. As we pondered the different wood stove options, our friends strongly recommended going for a programmable pellet stove. “It’s very convenient”, they insisted, “because you can tune it so that the house is warm when you get home, and not worry about it.”

It is indeed. Yet at the time we were less concerned by tunable thermostats than by finding a stove we could cook on. In such a climate, we argued, that would be a serious asset in the event of a power shortage. The argument was granted.

In reality, we were looking beyond these exceptional cases. We actually planned to cook on our wood stove on a daily basis, at least during the months when heating was needed in the house. I understand that coming from people like us, who’d always been living in cities, heating their apartments with electric heaters and cooking on electric stoves, the idea can have sounded like another crazy let’s-go-live-into-the-woods nonsenses.

Our friends, who’d made the big city-woods move before us, were more concerned about time management. Living frugally, they said, shouldn’t be taking all your time, and making green choices should not impinge upon creativity. “How will you manage to get things done”, they asked, “if, every hour, you have to put more wood on the fire?”

As someone who’s very attached to the idea of making room for thought, creativity or introspection in everyone’s schedule, I do get the point. But, just as I wrote in my post about cooking dried beans, I think we shouldn’t systematically take for granted the idea that freedom and creativity are always to be found in technologies and social structures that supposedly liberate us from the trivial necessities of domestic chores, the latter being the source of all slavery and alienation.

Of course I’ll willingly admit that when you get up early every day, drive to your job in the dark, spend the day with your annoying colleagues before driving back home in the dark, adding to this snow-shoveling, windshield-defrosting, grocery-bags-carrying-on-icy-parking-lots and other Scandinavian winter delights, you do need a warm house to get home to. Period. No going back and forth to the wood pile and waiting to the stove to heat up. I get that.

That is actually my point. For most of us, “liberating technologies” are not magic. They come with a cost: the financial dependence on a nine-to-five job. It was also the case for me. So last year, when my contract at the university ended, I decided that instead of looking for another unfulfilling (for me) academic job, and being unhappy, I’d rather spend time living frugally while figuring things out.

Spending a chilly but happy spring in our friends’ summerhouse, in which the old wood stove served both as heater, cooker, and water boiler – a versatility whose merits struck me as pretty obvious – gave me time to find a new routine, doing things I find more meaningful and setting up my own little business.

Now I’m working from home, by the wood stove. It turns out that a programmable pellet stove was way out of our budget. So, we went for a classic cast-iron one. So far, remembering the gloom of coming home to apartments lacking a fireplace after spending Christmas at my parents’, having to put wood on the fire every hour or so still feels much more like a luxury than like a burden.

Sure, when I’m not there, my house is cold. It is also cold when I get up in the morning. But then I have time to seat and read by the stove while the room heats up, gathering inspiration for the day’s work while the water is boiling for tea. And I really, really like it so.

On knitting socks and running your own business

Bygdøy, Oslo

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!