Independence Day.

My baby’s leaving me for another week. This time it’s a Ranger Tour, a week-long camp in the mountains for a bunch of ten to twelve-year olds from all over Switzerland. They’ll do overnight treks, cook all their own meals, sleep in tents and yurts and shelters they’ve made themselves, use their magnifying glasses to spy on ants and spiders, and generally have, I hope, an awful lot of fun. My brave daughter, still sometimes painfully shy at school, won’t know a soul but seems undeterred, unlike her mother who, at that age, would have flatly refused to go, scared witless at the thought of all those strangers.

(What does worry her is the thought of a whole week without reading, this girl who devours books, just like I used to. And look where it got me…)

I’m in the thick of researching and writing about colonial Australia, a vicious, dangerous and merciless place (particularly if you were being colonised instead of doing the colonising, and no matter how it has been – and continues to be – too often portrayed), and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I would have coped very well, had I lived back then. I like to think that my daughter might have fared a little better, much like Nana, her great-great-grandmother, who lived for a while on a goldfield in Far North Queensland in the very, very late 1800s, a resourceful woman by all accounts, sifting through the tailings (the residue of the mining process, which, back then, was very rudimentary indeed) for anything left over, and working in a pub, as well as marrying at sixteen (not what I envisage for my daughter! ).

Still, I like to think that there’s a little bit of Nana running through her blood. It might have skipped over my generation but it’s heartening to think that there’s still someone in the family willing to put up with a little dirt and discomfort, someone who, when she was about five or six insisted that when she grew up she wanted to be an explorer. And now here’s her opportunity. And not a moment too soon for someone who’s on the cusp of teenager-hood, a whole new world in itself, the exploration of which will, I suspect, leave little time for anything else.

Meanwhile, back home I’ll revel in a whole week without parental responsibilities or teaching and just plenty of time to study and write. Which is also a little like exploring, just without the sleeping-in-a-tent bit, and with more gin-and-tonics.

 

A photo of the explorer in her formative years:

Young explorer

 

 

fresh snow

Having just spent a week in the Swiss Alps, I’m home again with a clear head. There’s something very special about being so high, the air just that bit thinner, so that to walk up a big hill takes a little bit more effort than you might think. But, of course, more often it’s going down a hill that takes up your energy.

I am not a natural skier. One look, by those in the know, and this is immediately obvious. It’s in the angle of my skis, the tilt of my head, the way my arms hold the stocks and in the look on my face. Nevertheless, I hurl myself down slopes that, when I look back up, seem very steep indeed. I watch my now nine-year old daughter, skiing since she was four, and wonder at how she can just point her skis downhill and go, no thought to what might happen, instead only intent on getting down to the bottom of the slope as quickly as possible.

Despite my wonder at her fearlessness, I still find myself travelling down these slopes at quite a speed, no time to think of anything else except what might be coming up next. I turn, as best I can, and then turn again, no time to relax in-between, the whole thing an exhilarating experience unlike anything else. I try not to think what it would be like to crash, but sometimes I still do think about it, willing myself not to, too conscious that the more I think about it the more likely it is that I will! And when I get to the bottom I draw a quick breath and then get ready to do it all over again.

I say that it’s not like anything else, but I’m about to compare it to writing.

Skiing is all about taking risks, about letting yourself pick up speed while wearing long planks strapped to your feet; how crazy is that? Yet writing is not that dissimilar. To take a risk when writing requires letting go, allowing a vulnerability to surface, so that each new word takes you just that little bit further into territory you have not previously contemplated. You have to trust that you know at least something about it all, that you know the ins and outs of the language and that you’ll make it down the hill, one way or the other.

Sometimes you crash in a tangle of arms and legs and words and sentences, part of you wondering how you could have let yourself put a foot wrong and part of you wondering why it hasn’t happened more often. Luckily, there will be no chance of a broken leg, only a momentary lapse while you think of what to write next, while you read through what you’ve just written, your finger hovering over the delete button, ready to make the page white again (just like the snow), hoping you don’t lack the courage to keep the words on the page just a little longer, just in case there’s something worth salvaging.

And then you find yourself down the bottom of the hill, safe once more, and contemplating going up again.

Just for the thrill.

snowy mountain

Starting a Phd is like going snorkelling for the first time

 When you go snorkelling for the first time you expect it to seem a little strange.

You know you will see lots of new things (some fish, perhaps?) and that at times you might get a little scared (all that blue water stretching on and on…). But then you jump in, adjust your snorkel, put your face in the water and have  your breath taken away by the sheer otherness of what you see and feel. There are the fish, of course, but there’s also the sun on your back, that feeling of total immersion, the breathing through a bit of plastic in your mouth.

Well, I’m here to tell you that starting a phd, especially one off-campus (try the other side of the world from your university; hello, Australia!) is not really all that dissimilar.

There’s nothing like a good analogy, is there.

You know you will be spending all your time researching, reading and writing. You splash out on some new pencils and pads of paper. Then it’s time to get started and…woah! There’s a whole world out there on the internet totally devoted to Phds. Who would have thunk? You had no idea there were so many other people doing Phds, some just started, like you, others nearly finished, and some who will probably never finish.

But wait, there’s more. Just like the little bit of plastic in your mouth, there’s the new technology (oh, Endnote, why won’t you be my friend?). You create so many passwords for all the different library databases that you need to start your own database just to keep track of them all. Your desk, which you pictured with neatly stacked piles of books and papers, within days looks like a wild animal has made a nest on it.

You start a list of big words you don’t understand and worry that other people seem able to drop them into online  ‘conversation’ as if they were born to it. You start reading and the more you read the more you realise there is to read (the big blue ocean has nothing on this).

And every time you leave your desk – just like lifting your face out of the water – you realise that not everyone else is doing this. There is your towel, draped on the sand, and there are your sunglasses balancing precariously on a rock, just where you left them. In fact, the real world is continuing merrily along, just like it used to before you started this whole thing. No matter that you’ve discovered this whole new world, because as far as everyone else is concerned it’s nice that you’re doing it but there’s a limit to how much they want to hear about it. Your family still needs to eat, the clothes still need to be cleaned and all those other responsibilities you’d temporarily forgotten are still there waiting (hello, music students! hi there, vacuuming!).

So now it’s your secret, albeit one you share with all the other snorkelers. It’s a secret world that’s not so secret, really. It’s just that you never knew it existed.

Here I sit at my desk in Switzerland with my view of the Alps (with their first hint of autumn snow), strains of German floating up through the window that, against the odds, I still have open. It’s just the cat and me until my daughter gets home from school and my first music student arrives.

But until then I’ll dip my toe in the water once again, thankful that I’m not the only one. Who, after all, wants to head out into that big blue ocean all by themselves?

snorkelling