enter the confessional · mental health

On Solid Ground: Mid-semester check-in

It is the middle of the term. This is the time when the best laid plans of September come face-to-face with the stalwart perseverance of October. The excitement and energy of the beginning of term has shifted into the steady-as-you-go routine. Grading is coming in, job advertisements have been posted, grant applications are due. And you may have already had the first cold of the school year. So here’s a question for you? How are you doing? Are you on solid ground? Or are things just a little bit shaky?

I asked myself these questions this weekend and came up against some important — if hard — realizations.

You see, around this time in the term I have noticed that I get a little, well, wobbly. Just a bit. Alright, sometimes a lot wobbly. If you were to press me to say exactly what I mean by wobbly I’d have to say I feel lonely, overwhelmed, and antsy.

Huh. Not an answer I’m pleased to admit to myself.

The second two feelings are easier to understand. I feel overwhelmed because fall job applications tend to be due right around the time I have scheduled All The Assignments. I feel antsy because any time I get very busy with all of the things that must be done I suddenly become acutely aware of how much more I feel I should be doing. It never fails: the day I have eleven pressing things that must be completed before noon is inevitably the day I become obsessed with applying to two conferences and start wondering why I haven’t revised that journal article yet. Call it what you will– productive (or self-destructive) procrastination–it is a pattern I tend to fall into time and again. But loneliness? Well, that’s the feeling that has been harder to pin-point.

Of course there is the material fact of being alone. I spend a great deal of time in my own company and inside my own head. That is part of the job we do: thinking, planning, writing. Looking at my computer. Reading. Grading. Never mind that it is all engagement with another’s thinking on some level, at the core it is fairly solitary work. If I need a break more often than not I will toodle about on the Internet looking at Facebook or Instagram or reading the news. Mostly, though, I’ll admit I look on social media sites. I think I do this because it gives me the sense of being connected to other people. Indeed, there’s a good deal of literature out there that supports my suspicion. And often I feel satisfied and buoyed by the sense of connection that social media facilitates… sort of. Sometimes, though, I end up feeling even more behind when I catch myself comparing my accomplishments to those of others.

Truth be told I get pretty caught up in the never-ending list of things to do. I gallop from one task to the next feeling guilty about the things I have written on my list that will get pushed to the next day. And I feel overwhelmed by the myriad ways in which the profession is under siege and fret about what I can do. By this time in the term I often forget to do many of the good things that keep me on solid ground.

I was reminded of the importance of stepping away from the work this weekend. After taking the dogs for a walk out on the marsh my friend reflected that he needed to do this more. When I asked what he meant he admitted that he often forgets to let himself step away from the work and do genuinely relaxing things at this time of year. After walking in the sun with friends and spending an hour in the garden with my partner in crime bringing in the rest of the harvest I felt more grounded than I would have had I sat at my computer all day.

It is hard work, keeping a level head and a balanced heart, and a well-managed list of things to do. And even though I know this it is a lesson I seem to need to learn over and over. For me, solid ground comes from places other than that never-ending list of work. It comes from good friends, from my partner, and from pulling food we grew out of the ground.

So many beans!

The dogs never forget the importance of levity. Smarties.

3 thoughts on “On Solid Ground: Mid-semester check-in

  1. Productive (or self-destructive) procrastination is also my pattern. I saw a quote somewhere about how greatness is what you get with a long to-do list and not enough time (greatly paraphrased) and I try to draw comfort from what seems to be the human condition of “not-enough-time”.

    It's true — this is a hard time of assignments due and grant applications and colds and looking at the news or social media sites despite best intentions to “Hunker down and work, dammit! … so that you can go to bed early and get enough sleep to start over again tomorrow.”

    But the energy that you get from a partner-assisted hand stand on the beach, just for fun, while a toddler imitates “hands to prayer” and utkatasana is worth a million billion updates. And that's science.


  2. Ugh. I'm at home in my pyjamas, with a cat sitting on the trackpad of my laptop, and I'm alternating coughing, panicking, and snuggling the cat. And trying to make do with keyboard shortcuts.

    I've got a stack of grading. A stack of reference letters to write. A giant cloud of regret and anxiety about my mostly abandoned research program. Two big new preps looming on the horizon for January. And I'm sick. I've finally stopped procrastinating now, but there's so much to do that the time I spend getting something done in one category is the time that I've just lost doing something else in another category.

    Academic whack-a-mole. Now with more Nyquil. Ugh.


  3. So thankful for this article! It sums up my feelings right now perfectly, especially since I've spent too many weekends this (beautiful) autumn sitting in front of my computer flitting from thing to thing, never getting enough done, and then feeling both guilty about my productivity and about my self-care.


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