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I have just a week of this indulgence left. A mere seven days to stretch into this pool of fact and abstract, detail and overview. My PhD is almost over. I will never again have this mixture of incipience and fulfilment. Very soon I will have to re-enter the so-called real world. There are papers to publish, jobs to find, grants to apply for, but for now, for this last week there is just two of the things I like to do most: read and think. Unlike the devouring reading I did before, when I was trying to grab, grasp, the material, sieve it, shape it, constantly reviewing it for how it helped direct and lead my thesis, this reading now has a different feel to it.

Preparation for my viva has resonances of an amble through familiar streets, greeting old friends along the way, that flare of pleasure when you recognise the warmth of an old acquaintance, someone you haven’t seen for a long time, the very existence of whom was buried so deep in the memory that you had almost forgotten them. Now suddenly here they are, your eyes meet theirs, and you suddenly remember all you loved about them, and how great it is to be back in touch. And there are others who want to grab you by the arm, elbow you off for the distractions of a day at the seaside, or into the mountains for the thrilling views, and you have to resist, insist No, no, I need to stick to the path, keep my own end in sight, don’t be leading me astray! And there are others still, that take off their little round spectacles in the candlelight, fix you with their intense gaze from wizened, sun-starved faces, and spin you, dazzle you, with their logic, detail, the marvellous concatenation of fact after inevitable fact, and again, you have to cry No, no, too much! This too is the wrong path, I need to hold onto the rope of my own story, into which, of which, yours feeds, but it can’t overshadow. And I haul on the rope, climb out of the basement, back onto the dappled path.

It’s not that I’m not actively preparing. Having spent months constructing my thesis, working it into a tome that is now a physical thing festooned with post-its, now I am breaking it up again, de-constructing it into individual words, phrases, points, on revision cards that I can pull out of my bag to stare at whenever it’s opportune, whispering the words like a prayer. I have my practice viva tomorrow, I have read the university website’s proffered advice on the ‘doctoral examination process’. I have some idea of what’s expected of me. I know this last lap has a serious purpose, a definite goal, and is certainly not a stroll in the park. But, nevertheless, it is yet a deep and satisfying joy, a painfully poignant luxury, to be reading and thinking, after all that work and processing; all that struggle towards mastery. Now to return with hard-earned, sore-bought, expertise, and able to say: look all this; isn’t it wonderful?

Looking around

I have been debating inside myself what to do with this blog. I haven’t written it properly in ages – not that I was ever that consistent. The four months from Christmas to the end of April and the actual submission of my thesis were such a steep learning curve. There were also a bereavement – A’s not mine, as such, but it has been tough. Now I find myself just short of a fortnight away from my viva, and I’m really only emerging from the brain fog that accompanied the exhaustion of submission. It seems the interval between submission – 28th of April, and my viva – 26th of May, is one of the shortest known to academia, and I feel a little bit panicked that maybe it is too short. That I won’t be ready. That I have forgotten everything about my thesis. Indeed, I read it with some bewilderment now: did I really do all that work? Do I really know that much? Of course the short answer is that I did and I do. But how to get past my perennial self-doubts?

Today I attended a course within the university about women and academia, and it was really good. It was both positive and negative. Yes, there is a lot of evidence of the leaky pipe, how female participation in academia just leaks away the further up the scale you go; but there was also very postive messages about active participation, mentoring, how to progress. I had debated whether to attend this course. Yesterday I almost cancelled, concerned that it would draw too much time away from my viva prep, but it was actually quite inspiring. Because the truth is, I had been uncertain about whether I wanted to stay in academia; whether I wanted to do a postdoc. And there are some voices inside me whispering not to try. I’m forty nine years old. How can I be starting a career at this age? I will be competing against people half my age. Do I have the drive and energy for this? Added to these considerations, is that I really fell into this PhD. I hadn’t planned on starting a PhD at the ripe old age of 45.

However, now I am finally lifting my head to look around me and ask, what do I actually want and is it achievable? The short answer is, I don’t know. I think I am fundamentally disorientated by my experiences of the last decade, both good and bad. And I’m not sure how to proceed. I still have to get through my viva, of course. And then I have to publish my research. But today’s course gave me a bit of confidence that while these may be unchartered waters, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. I do think I need to take a little bit of time to think about the next stage. But the truth is, when I read my thesis, when I remember what I’ve found out, it’s still exciting. And there’s more work to be done. But there’s also more work to be done inside me. It’s a bit scarey, but not knowing where I’m going could actually be a good place to start.






Well, it’s over, the big part anyway. I have been away for a long time, but it’s time now to start emerging. Since Christmas, I have mostly worked a seven day week, but it paid off. I submitted my thesis last Monday, a day early than the agreed submission date. I don’t know how I feel about it. Delighted, triumphant, but also scared and uncertain. What’s next? No idea. And I’m not young. And I have no clear direction in mind for myself.
In the immediate future, however, there are things I need to do. I have to prepare for my viva, which is on the 26th May. Then I have to complete the corrections for the middle of June in order to graduate in July. There are papers to write. Jobs to look for. Tomorrow, I’m leading a dawn chorus in Co Derry, which means a very early rise, now that I live full time in Belfast. It’s in Learmount forest, my haunt and inspiration, so that’s something to look forward to. Back to the birds. Back to where it all started.

Moving on

Well, not really. Another couple of days at home in Co Derry have left me drained, upset, and very angry. I know I’ve alluded events in my personal history that seem to have left an indelible mark on me. I also know I’m only coming out of the legacy of all that stress, distress and powerlessness. Well, more preparation for moving has only revealed yet more stuff. I want to be able to leave all that stuff behind. I really do. I know it is poison to me. I know that unless I can actually find a place to put it, it will keep bleeding into my current life, which has so much potential and so many riches. I have lost so much already, and what I have managed to regain and restore for myself is still on shaky ground. I can’t afford to be overwhelmed by this stuff. But I am. And I have to respect that.

The things that happened to me are literally unspeakable for me. They were also unspeakable at the time, but that very unspeakability actually made things worse. I found myself in a place where I was defenceless. And that very defencelessness was exploited. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t articulate what was happening to me. I couldn’t describe what I saw. A huge part of me didn’t want to face it. And I was also convinced that I wouldn’t be believed. I think I was right in that belief.

But let’s put it this way: I know the literal truth of sayings like “a person would sell their own mother”. I know what it means to have the dead desecrated. I know more again, but those things are impossible to say. However, these are not the stuff of fantasies. These are not stories that happen to other people. They happened, to a large extent, to my late parents; but, as I managed, eventually (and too late), to articulate to one authority figure relatively recently, of the people still left alive, I am the one who bore the consequences. These things also happened to me.

I still blame myself for not being able to stop it.

One thing that is helping is “Quiet” ( I realise I am an off-the-scale introvert, who many times in my life has masqueraded, or been encouraged or pushed, into acting like an extrovert. I often act extroverted when I am furthest from myself. I act extroverted when I feel threatened or under pressure or distressed. But I’m not an extrovert. I am probably a perfect researcher. I am an introvert, who can’t cope with too much stimulation, whether that be from social situations, even where I enjoy them; or, as now, when the stimulation arises from really distressing memories. I realise my inarticulacy likely also, at least partly, arose from my introversion.

What I need for myself now, is quiet, routine, to once again immerse myself in my work. And that day is coming. I just have to hang on, and try and be gentle with myself. It wasn’t my fault that there were things I didn’t know. It wasn’t my fault that I was unable to defend myself. It wasn’t my fault that I was left bearing consequences that were too much for me to handle, and I did what introverts classically do: I fled.

Very soon I can flee into my work again. There are better days ahead.

A box I can carry

For the past couple of days, my thesis has been entirely sidelined by preparation for moving. I’ve been at home in Co Derry, winnowing through the debris of my own life and that of my parents, sifting, sifting, holding things up to the light, really looking at them, and thinking, do I actually want this? I am determined that my new home will have the space for my own life; will not be a mausoleum of the past.

But it’s not been easy work; guilt snags; tears come often; and anger too.

In many ways, the most difficult, but the most pressing thing to trawl through was the huge box, as big as if not bigger than, one of those old tea chests, that has been sequestered in the roof space until recently. It’s down now, the roof space is cleared, and the box has been hulking like a monster in the study. Its contents used to live there all the time, taking up space, pushing my writing notebooks out of the way, constantly demanding attention. Those contents were the files and files of ten years work and more. They pre-date my appointment as my late parents’ controller under the Office of Care and Protection, when my parents were deemed incapable of managing their own affairs; and they go right up to the beginning of this year, to the end of the whole sorry business, when lies, exploitation and corruption were met with indifference. The details are too painful and delicate, too unremittingly awful, to go into, but suffice to say that those serried files contained stuff that was unendurable, unbearable; but which had to be endured, and which had to be borne. At that time, in that place, and with the information I had, it seemed I had no choice.

The first day I looked into the box, I skimmed around the edges. I took things out, glanced at them, put them back. Part of my aversion was that I have been going through mountains of stuff as it is, none of it easy: photos; diaries; cards; letters. I sealed the huge box with tape. I thought, put it away for five years. Don’t look back.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about our new house, walking through its rooms in my mind, trying to imagine where to put the box, where it would fit. There was nowhere I could imagine putting it down, nowhere I could place it. It was too big, and far too heavy. Maybe I could put it in the shed? But it would get damp, and someday, eventually, I would want to look at those papers, and I didn’t want them ruined. Maybe I could put it into storage? But it felt like distance and absence would make it even larger, and it was already far too big.

I rose early, groggy with lack of sleep. I lit a fire in the living room. The box was too big to drag up from the study, but three or four files at a time, I emptied it.  Then I with the files, and a poker over the flames, from first light until lunchtime, I sorted and burned. Over five hours of burning. I raked out the ashes as I went until the hearthstone was slag-heaped. I burned and burned: letters and letters to the Court, to every kind of authority you can imagine; banks, building societies, companies; I burned statements, certificates, all sorts of documents, now past their time.

I didn’t destroy everything. There are ten files left, approximately one for each year of hostage. The remains are the precious (the likes of birth certificates; marriage certificate; death certificates) and the most painful of the lot: stuff that isn’t just about my parents, but which tells, allusively, destructively, futilely, of what happened to me.

The surviving files are now housed in another, much smaller, box. Sealed. For the time being, I will leave it be. I treat as nuclear waste, temporarily cased in lead. Not to be opened until it is safe.

I can lift this box. I can carry it. And my new home, I will find somewhere to put it.

Mourning a forest

I am in mourning for a forest. It’s been a crazy few months and that’s not even mentioning my thesis (well, three chapters down; four to go; two of those in draft). A. has a new job which means that we can finally settle in Belfast. After three years of living apart we are to be together again. We signed for our new house yesterday. The consequence is, however, that we have to say a permanent goodbye to our home of 16 years in Co Derry, and I am in mourning, not for the house, so much, but that too; but mainly mostly and deeply for Learmount Forest.

Learmount  Forest  is just a small woodland in the foothills of the Sperrins, forestry-commission owned so there’s a lot of Sitka spruce, but also swathes of beech, their copper leaf litter quilt-thick in this season; patches of oak and chestnut; and the hills currently larch-golden. And ash, dare I mention them, breath held for the dieback, but for now they are healthy, their leaves garish. It’s always most beautiful in the two seasons of transition: autumn and spring. The pale green light strained through the early soft leaf of beech; the white candles of chestnut; and of course, the eruption of bluebells in April or May, after the drear of an Irish winter, the intense waxy green of their leaves almost as intoxicating as the indigo of their vivid flowers, growing up the flanks of bluebell hill to assail sight and breath.

Down by the river, where the trees break to fields on the opposite bank, the view expands to glacier-scraped drumlins, bright green, spattered with sheep. This is hill farm country and it’s bleakly beautiful. Beyond again the rolling undulations of the tundral autumnal Sperrins, where, when the wind gets up, you can hear the howls of the last Irish wolves.

               In Learmount, I regularly meet buzzard, raven, dipper, heron. I have seen stoats, foxes, the prints of otters; I have witnessed the extinction of our Irish red squirrel, its replacement by that north American invader, the grey, which I nonetheless can’t bring myself to hate. I have written so many poems out of the forest’s light and lignen, its seasonal shifts of hue and shape; the faces of flowers, the voices of birds. I ran to this forest for solace. I was walking in it while my mother was dying, and that morning I saw dipper, buzzard, heron. Now I have to leave and I could weep. I can’t believe I have to let this place go. I am guilty of magical thinking: maybe we can keep both houses; maybe I can write a bestseller and buy it back… maybe …. maybe …. maybe .

The first thing that seeded my love of A. was our joint love of poetry. Later in our first home together, she strove to help me have the time and peace to write. I had sold the first house I ever bought, and I used the bulk of the proceeds to fund my first year out of school, to fund my first book of poetry. So A., that house, that forest, are fundamentally intertwined with that old dream of becoming a writer, a poet. And, as Mary Chapin Carpenter put it better, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I had no clue, neither of us had, as to how hard it would turn out to be. We were both naïve. We both were innocent of the truth: that love and dreams aren’t enough. We had no idea of the cruelty and power of the forces ranged against us, the bewilderment and paralysis ranged within us. We had no idea of the horror of the story that was about to unfold, the tragedies, the lives that were about to break.

Anyway, that’s for another day. The forest sustained me throughout all the time, all the upheavals, its promise and forgiveness, its ultimate indifference, all equally consoling. Out of those woods came poetry, field work, the possibility of a new life and change; out of that soil, came rootedness, belonging. Just to walk into the forest’s shelter, under the dome of the rook-cawed canopy, the thrush-rinsed branches, was to feel the sap of my own self rising, peace descending, to re-set my often frantic mind. I came back to myself in that forest. Now I have to let it go.

Forging ahead

Quietly at the moment. I’m just out of hospital. Had a minor operation yesterday, that has been awaited since the middle of April. Thankfully, it’s nothing serious and I am well on my way to making a full recovery (it could have been serious but after some short weeks of anxiety, that turned out not to be the case. And I’m grand. ( Really. However, I now have some time off that I can validly take as time off, so time for a blog post.

Newcastle was wonderful. My talk was at 12:05 on Monday the fifth of August, which was great, meant I could enjoy the rest of the conference. And I managed to learn enough R to get my stats completed before I went. Granted I worked like a maniac for the three weeks beforehand, was still adjusting my talk the very night before, but it was all worth it. The talk was well received, and after about the fourth slide I began to forget my nerves and actually just talked. Even enjoyed it. When it was done, an American-accented man asked the first question. Because it was the first question, I did what I try not to do, I plunged straight into my answer before I was clear what he’d asked me, and it was waffle. Granted waffle I managed to straighten out, and I felt ok about it. The next question was easy, then it was time to sit down. Later that day, after lunch we were trailing into the huge main hall of the Sage (purpose-built conference centre) and the same man walked by me. “Loved your talk” he remarked. I looked at his name badge. Andrew Sih. Andrew Sih. ( Andrew Sih, who writes the most amazing stuff about behaviour and plasticity, who I’ve been reading for years, Andrew Sih loved my talk!!!

Anyway, that took a bit of recovery time. Later that evening, there was a social event involving a cruise (nothing glamorous; a rather smelly party boat) on the Tyne, and I had a long conversation with him and his wife, and that was lovely too. Except later, I noticed the probable reason his wife had been staring at my name badge quizzically. In fishing to get my “River Cruise” ticket out of the back I’d forgotten to turn it around with my name facing out. So now Mrs Andrew Sih thinks my name is “Conference Dinner”. Well, it’s memorable at least.

There were four days of the most amazing plenary talks and symposia. Prof Andrew Sih isn’t the only mysterious hero I met. That’s the thing about science. People are famous, but not in the generally understood way. You meet your heroes and they’re not glamorous (sorry folks, but you’re not; and certainly not when witnessed on the dancefloor after said conference dinner). But they are bright, nerdy, ordinary, obsessed, and wonderful. You meet your heroes before you even know who they are. What was amazing also was the number of women. Of course from Jane Goodall onwards, behaviour has always attracted a lot of women, but still it was encouraging. Marian Stamp Dawkins. Katherina Riebel. And lesser-knowns who are doing brilliant work on birdsong. This was the first conference I had the confidence to ask questions at myself. And nobody seemed to think my questions were ridiculous or off the point. I spoke to one of the authors of the paper which sent me into a tailspin (this time last year) over the validity of spectrogram analysis, which set me back ages in my analyses (but it’s ok, my tackling of the issues raised has given me a whole chapter of my PhD, so while it’s cost me time, it’s ok; it’s worked out), and it was a good conversation.

There were people there from all over the globe, probably 3000 delegates in total. It was really exhilarating. I revelled in being able to listen to talks where the minutiae of birdsong, the details of its analysis, were discussed. I learned new terms and where it might be useful to revise my invented vocabulary for some of the details of my own analysis.

Then, all too soon it was over, and just when I’d been getting used to the daily routine. The next day I took a train to another northern English town and stayed the weekend with a young lecturer who gave me a personal workshop on phylogenetic analysis, ie, how to take account of the evolutionary relatedness of my bird species when discussing my findings. This I am doing, or will be again very shortly, using the absolutely latest phylogenetic tree of  almost 10,000 bird species published in Nature (See Jetz et al 2012) last year (of which my mere nine are a part!). Every now and then I pinch myself and remind myself that this is real. I am doing this. Middle-aged me. The 2ii reject of 25 years ago is dead in the water. Sometimes I find myself almost hyperventilating with the excitement of it. That’s not to say that the actual analysis isn’t drudgery. It is. But it’s drudgery with a purpose, drudgery that like my morning swims, is about achieving a goal from steadily doing the groundwork. One lap after another. And I’m learning all the time. I’ve moved from SPSS to R, to programming in BayesTraits (package for phylogenetics; don’t ask, I don’t know the details, but I know how to work it) in a matter of weeks. Whew!

Anyway, as I said, I’m at home in post-op recovery at the moment, so there’ll not be too much progress for a few days. However, by the end of the month, my analysis will be complete. Then it’s just write like a maniac. That I can do.


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