I will never forget the day when my forearm gave out, and I had to go to the doctor’s to have it looked at. (after years of frantic typing, internet timewasting, and showing off how good I am at opening jars of jam, my hand was experiencing some pretty serious RSI.) The doctor poked it about, bent it back and forth, tapped it here and there, and then (much to my chagrin, without saying anything like ‘Well! You are going to have to stop this PhD right now. I am going to write to your faculty and tell them you are unable to continue’ – which would have been nice to hear) – she told me to lay off the writing for the weekend and referred me to a physiotherapist. She then watched me as I attempted to gather up my possessions and leave, which involved slinging my laptop backpack over my shoulders and then carefully distributing several carrier bags (of books, food and crap) about my person. She watched this in a moment of silence. And then she said ‘maybe you should carry fewer heavy BAGS…’
I will never forget the day I moved out of my lovely flatshare and went off to live with The Boy. I had to clear my stuff out of the room and leave it clean for the next occupant. Despite having spent the previous two months siphoning off possessions to my various other addresses, foisting suitcases full of clothes onto visiting family and friends, and even getting the Boy to drive two car-loads full of stuff up North in his car – somehow, despite all this careful planning and preventative measures, two days before moving out the room was still inexplicably full of STUFF: stuff which had accumulated in the corners during my time there, and which had had no other purpose than to sit there, a blot on the cream-coloured expanse of carpet, and which now was going straight to the charity shop or to the bin, because I simply could not take it. No human being could have carried all that stuff, or even wanted to.
What was it?... Mostly it was clothes and shoes, but also: endless piles of paper; handouts from conferences which I kept ‘because they might be useful’ (I photographed some of them, and had to chuck the lot; I am unlikely to go through those photographs again); papers which meant something to me, like fliers from exhibitions I had gone to, or handwritten notes (some of these managed to escape the massacre by getting out on an early train; but by those last two days I was so battle-weary that I was chucking stuff into a bin bag with barely a cursory glance); bits of craft paper, gift wrap, card and ribbon (in the name of ‘might be useful’, or ‘I’ll definitely make a birthday card out of that’ – all went in the bin); countless printed drafts of PhD; and books, books, and more books. I had been hoarding so many library books that when I tried to drag just some of them to the library, they broke the wheels of my suitcase. A friend was with me one morning, watching me organizing those books, and, hearing of my plan to sit there all day and photocopy ‘useful pages’, she very wisely coaxed me out of harm’s way by taking me out for a drink in my favourite café. Had it not been for her, I would have sat there like a madwoman, photocopying books and creating MORE paper, which I would then never have time to read.
A prof at a ‘writing your lit review’ seminar once told the story of a student he had, who used to drag a little suitcase full of books around with him. ‘He passed, thank God’, said the prof, as though the student’s likelihood of succeeding had been doubtful to say the least, ‘but he really was convinced that he was going to read all those books for his PhD.’ A few people in the seminar room laughed incredulously. I laughed too. (but of course inside my head I was thinking: what? … you mean there is another way?... how can you do a PhD if you have NOT read the suitcase full of books?...’ Now I know. You can’t read all those books, so don’t even try. ‘Just from spending an hour or two in the library, you can end up with a handful of good quotes for your chapter’, said the prof. I didn’t quite believe him, but those words have definitely helped me in some small way; somehow, they reached past my insanity and filtered through to my brain.)
In case this isn't obvious yet, I am a bit of a Hoarder. (I am trying to fight this habit, but I wonder if it’s maybe like an eating disorder: once an anorexic, you always have to watch yourself; you can never say you’re over it.) The trauma of moving home was good for me. I threw away more things than I would have thought possible. I was traumatised beyond belief by the sheer amount of stuff I had managed to cram into the nooks and crannies of my room, filling its corners with piles of stuff when I could have had a big, clear living space. (Like, it was sort of tidy, but…). And I made myself get rid of certain things I actually cared about. A dress, which fit me perfectly but which a friend had told me she loved, was given away to a new home (happy friend, and happy ME with one less thing!). And today I still hold on to some stuff; but I have managed to get rid of the truly pointless items, like the blue Laura Ashley outfit I wore when I was fifteen and which doesn’t even fit anymore, or the (not particularly pretty) prom dress; both of these I was hanging onto for sentimental reasons. In having purged these horrors from my wardrobe, I didn’t feel sad; I felt more like I was reaching a new phase in life.
I told the Therapist the doctor story. She said ‘yes, and that suggestion about ‘carrying less stuff’ applies in a metaphorical way, too. Maybe it’s better to carry less baggage, in general.’ We had been talking about childhoods (which is what therapist do best); we had mentioned horrid and disparaging Siblings, high-achieving parents, all sorts of things which lead to you feeling a bit paralysed and stuck when you are dealing with a huge thing like a PhD. We went on to talk about academics: some of them do judge you, and some of them do say about you, perhaps behind your back, ‘she didn’t even have a working definition of XYZ! Her research is all fluff!’ All of this ‘baggage’ –what people think of you, how they perceive you and your work, the extent to which they approve of you, or not – you must somehow learn to leave at the door when you go into your little study and try to grapple with your PhD chapter. Baggage, literal and figurative, slows you down.
When I think of those friends of mine who live well and manage to get on with their PhDs with confidence, they do have an interesting thing in common: a pronounced disdain of ‘stuff’. One friend wears mostly black (occasionally permitting herself one other colour); she throws away old T-shirts with a vengeance (hence no horrors in her wardrobe, such as I recently purged from mine); when she travels, she travels light, packing a few belongings into a stylish Longchamp-type bag. (I confess that I copied her and got myself a Longchamp as soon as I had the chance to, nabbing it for free by pure good luck). Another friend deletes every single email she gets as soon as she has read it, to the effect that sometimes she has to email you later and ask if you could resend the important attachment which she forgot to upload before consigning your email to the bin. These friends live paper-free, minimalist lives; anything superfluous is immediately thrown or given away; their houses are not full of clutter; their bookshelf is not stuffed full. That's not to say their lives are boring, or lacklustre; on the contrary, they wear only the nicest clothes, and enjoy spending their money on amazing experiences; they just don't carry stuff around with them as they go through life. Their bookcases are almost bare. And yet their PhDs are brimming with footnotes, with references, and with ideas. Maybe there is something in this ‘travelling light’ thing.
‘And yet’, a friend once said to me, after I’d been whingeing to her (‘so-and-so is already this far down the road with her PhD; why can’t I be like that? What is wrong with meeeee?’) – ‘and yet, there is nothing SHE has, that you DON’T have. I mean, you have exactly the same abilities, exactly the same resources… there is nothing you don’t have that she has,’ the friend pointed out. I wonder now if maybe it’s not about me having the same as this person: maybe its about the fact that I have the same, but also more. I am carrying a little bit of baggage with me, which this other person perhaps doesn’t have, and which is slowing me down.
This knowledge hasn’t immediately changed my life much. I have filled a shelf with library books anew, since returning those old ones. Occasionally, they even come in very handy. I have a wardrobe bursting with clothes again. (this, I must work on. Or it could just be that I have a smaller wardrobe these days…) But I seem to be getting a bit better at scraping just a handful of quotations together and weaving them into my Introduction, in such a way that they just fit. I am a bit better now at not lugging massive shopping bags home from Tesco. And I definitely make an effort to travel light.
Here is a quote from one of my favourite children’s books (anyone remember The Moomins?) from when I was a kid:
Everything gets so difficult if you want to own things. You have to carry them around and watch over them. I just look at them - and then when I continue on my way I can remember them in my head. I prefer that to dragging a suitcase.
I own everything I see and everything that pleases me. I own the entire world.
I own everything I see and everything that pleases me. I own the entire world.