Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Silence Speaks Again: Next Year


Next year, I've been invited to undertake some postgraduate research in a field I am passionate about. I am over the moon. Well, part of me is. That part of me has spent hours reading in the area months before I plan to enrol. That part hears my potential supervisor saying that something I have already written would make a fine start to a thesis. That part has already joined a research group, and met some delightful people doing interesting things. That part of me can confidently say, I know how to structure my time; I know how to write; I am very self-motivated: I can certainly do this.

That part of me can also recognise the great gift of the invitation. After nine years at home with kids, I am more than a little bored. I still have fifteen months before my youngest starts school, and while I am happy to be home with her for some of it, the thought of staying home full time until then is, to put it bluntly, excruciating.

I had been wondering what I could add to next year's mix – more volunteer work? more writing? a course? – when out of the blue I was invited to study. It's everything I could want: a reason to read and write, mentors asking difficult questions and pointing me in new directions, training in how to structure a large piece of work. The project is perfect, the timing is perfect: what a gift! I should be over the moon – and part of me is.

But there's another part of me, too. It's the part which is dragging her feet on the enrolment; which worries about how to fit it all in with a little girl still at home; which looks at the PhD students she knows and wonders how on earth she thinks she can do it; which gets a churning stomach at the very thought. And now that the initial excitement of the invitation has worn off, this part is making itself heard. It is so convincing that I have wondered about turning down the invitation.

I've been going round in circles for weeks. Finally, I decided to sit with the idea in silence, that infinite scary place where things bubble up that are difficult to hear. So I sat, took a deep breath, exhaled, and began to listen. My mind chattered on. I thought about dinner and a new idea for packed lunches, and put the thoughts on a mental shelf. I wondered about a sick friend, and put her on the shelf, too. I had an image of me teaching at a tertiary level. I wondered where that lunatic idea came from, and as I was putting it up next to the food and the friend, a voice came to me clear as a bell: You're almost forty, and you still believe you are not capable of such work.

I burst into tears; as usual the silence spoke truth. I don't believe I can do it. Yet I'm hardly an idiot. I love ideas and people and talking and writing. Most of my friends have higher degrees, more than a few are academics, and among them I usually hold my own. Of course I should be able to study and write and teach at that level.

Even so, the internal soundtrack which says I'm not competent is still very powerful, and it's been reinforced by decisions we made about how to raise our children. I chose to stay home and suddenly I'm a decade out of the workforce. Everyone else has forged ahead, and I'm left with a head full of ideas, reasonably happy kids – and an incredible lack of confidence. Sure, I'm getting pretty good at the washing and shopping, cooking and cleaning. At some deep level, however, I'm not convinced I could do much more.

Now, being competent at domestic tasks and child raising is no shame. These are important things, necessary to a family's health and wellbeing, and there is dignity in sustaining one's household. In and of itself, it is good work. Yet other work is good, too. And here am I invited, by what feels like the right person and at what feels like the right time, to engage in something more, and I am reluctant. I am sure I cannot do it, and I want to opt out.

Thanks to the silence, however, I now recognise my reluctance for what it is: old soundtracks and fear. And so, since a life ruled by such masters is no life at all, I am going to have to listen to the other voices, the ones which recognise what I might be able to do and urge me to give it a go.

As for what I want to do? Well, the silence showed me an image of me teaching. Perhaps it was a clue.


  1. Go you good thing!
    I always had a greater connection with those teachers who admitted some self-doubt. I learnt more from them, too. In fact, many of those I aspire to - Leonard Cohen, Woody Allen, Mary Oliver, Vincent van Gogh, to name an ecclectic few - build self-doubt into their art, live and breathe it. Self-doubt has made you consider this gift deeply and well, and reminded you of your innate strengths, too. Thank you for sharing them with us.

    1. Oh, there's no lack of self-doubt here! Great black pools of the stuff just wait to swallow me up. Even now I'm not sure I'm doing the right thing, only the alternative (not doing it) feels even more suffocating. Very grateful to deeply doubting writers (Kathleen Norris and Annie Dillard spring to mind) - one can be/do despite the doubt, or even because of the doubt and the wrestling it requires of oneself.


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