Friday, 22 August 2014

‘That source of popular wisdom known as “The Hairdresser’s”’

A few weeks ago I went to Toni and Guy’s, for a student haircut, as is my custom.

(By which I mean: a hairdressing student cuts my hair; a fully-fledged grown-up supervises. You pay the student ten quid and you leave looking like a million dollars. This and other money-saving tips are brought to you by ‘I Hate My PhD’!...)

So the student is cutting my hair, the grown-up is chatting away in the corner, and I am doing some important catching-up with the latest copy of ‘Red’ Magazine… when suddenly I start to tune in to the conversation of the grown-up hairdresser lady behind me.

She was telling her trainees: ‘There’s this exercise that they make you do in training sessions sometimes. Imagine a brick wall. Go on, imagine that you are walking along and you come up against a brick wall. What do you do?...’

A wall rose up before me in my mind’s eye. (Go on. Do this exercise. What do you see?...) Brick wall. I stared at my imaginary wall. What do I do?... well, there didn’t seem much I could do. There is an insurmountable brick wall before me. As far as I can see, there’s only one thing to be done: turn around, walk away.

Prompted by her trainees, she went on: ‘What do I do?... I just step over it.’ […] ‘You get some right funny answers when you ask this question in training sessions. Some people just say things like “I would jump over it”, but some people are like “Me, I would smash right through it, with my fists, like this: RAAAAAA!”’

I just step over it. When I envisaged my brick wall, I saw an impermeable, impenetrable structure, obstructing everything, impossible to get past. I turn around and leave – honestly, this felt like my only option. It didn’t even occur to me that a ‘brick wall’ can be small enough to walk around it, climb it, step over it. It made me think, we all have our (imaginary or real) brick walls, and we deal with them so differently; because the way we perceive them is different. How we approach a problem depends so much on our experiences and environment, and our perception of ourselves. There’s no way I can get past this brick wall/ I’ll just step over it. And just to do this exercise, to realise what your perception of the ‘brick walls’ of life might be, is revealing; in itself, that’s perhaps one brick wall gone already…

This and other mysteries of this world I was able to ponder at the hairdresser’s. Life is a wonderful thing sometimes.

Today’s quote (found on the internet many months ago, and now remembered) :

‘The brick walls are there for a reason – they’re there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. The other people. […] Brick walls let us show our dedication.’


‘Don’t bail; the best gold is at the bottom of barrels of crap.’

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Cloud Nine has a New Favourite Book

Yes. Yes I do.

It is called

‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’

And it is by

Marie Kondo.

And I found it completely by accident. I was shopping for books to give to a friend as a birthday present, when this book, with its minimalist, almost-pure-white cover (with just a sliver of red, black and gold) drew me to it, called out to me from across the shop floor: come and see me, come and look at me, you know you want to.

(It reminds me how many of the truly best things you find in life – or, to use the PhD example, some of the best ideas you come up with for your PhD – come to you completely by accident. A big tome gets knocked off the desk and falls on the floor; you bend down to pick it up with a sigh of annoyance, and suddenly you spot it: the page on which the book fell open contains exactly what you need. The chance conversation with a friend over coffee, which suddenly and inexplicably provides you with an answer as to what you should really say in Chapter 3. There is a kind of magic which happens when you just let yourself go with the flow and open your ears up to the universe. By contrast, you can sit diligently for hours on end, straining to come up with ideas, and find nothing. If you clutch at it, it won’t come…)

So anyway. I took my new book home and began to read it almost immediately. It was a Tuesday night. Just twenty-four hours later, I was due to be packed and ready and have a purse full of euros in preparation for a foreign holiday. But the book made me so excited that I resolved that, before I went on holiday, I would start doing what it says. This mammoth task which had been looming before me for many months now – to tidy up, to get rid of some of my things, things accumulated over years of hoarding, of PhD, of never quite having the time to tidy – this crazy task I would attempt that Wednesday, and I would complete a chunk of it before I set off on holiday.

And I did it. Twenty-four-hours after I started to read the book, I had:

-       sorted through all my clothes and earmarked roughly 10 bags of clothes to give away; cycled down with every single one of those bags to the local charity shop

-       found time to go and get the euros, as well as do everything else I needed to do in town

-       tidied up all the clothes that were left, folding them carefully and organizing them

-       managed to pack, eat, have several naps, and leave a (reasonably) clean house.

And it wasn’t hard. And I couldn’t believe how happy I was. I was finally tackling the huge task of tidying up my messy life.

I won’t tell you every single thing the book says, because I think you should buy it and read it (especially if you are a messy PhD student with too much stuff). But one thing which was helpful, and which was the whole reason I was able to get started, was this: the book tells you to tidy not by room, but by category. It says: start with clothes, then move on to books, then papers; miscellaneous things; then, finally, sentimental things like photos. Put absolutely everything you own in each category in one place, like on the floor. The pile might be knee-deep, but no matter. Hold each thing in your hands and ask yourself only one question: does it spark joy?... If the answer is no, throw it out.

As you might know from a previous post, I have always been a massive hoarder, but I really, really don’t want to be one. Every time I have to move house, I sigh and look around the newly empty room I am leaving, and I think’ This place looks so much nicer without all my stuff in it. Why couldn’t I just keep it like this when I lived here?... Why did I fill it with so much unnecessary clutter?...’ Underneath all the piles of paper, all the books, and all the clothes, all the baggage I carry about, I can sense a tidy person, a person with a love of clean blank spaces, just crying to get out. Not an ex-PhD student who sits on the floor in a pair of sweat pants surrounded by piles of mess, but a woman who wants to light scented candles (impossible because papers are fire hazard), drink green tea (where did I put that cup?...), and do yoga (no room on the floor…).

I came back from my holiday and started excitedly on the books.

Now it is late afternoon and the books have been sorted through, even though I found myself stalling slightly over them. And I found an interesting, though not really surprising, thing. In asking myself ‘does this spark joy?’ as I held up, one by one, those academic tomes which I had purchased for my PhD – the ones that cost a bomb and which I wanted to have at home because I was scared that I had not completely understood them, that I would need to quote from them again, that I just had to have them – the answer was pretty much almost always ‘no’. With the exception of a few pretty books, or one or two that are actually interesting on some other level, I found that I would basically be happy to get rid of pretty much all the books I purchased to help me finish my PhD. The saddest thing of all was holding up one particular hardback tome. I asked myself the question ‘Does it spark joy?’ and with a shudder put the book down. Yet it is a book which I shouldn’t be wanting to throw away. It is the academic book in which I published my first academic article. My name is in there, and my words are in there, and I do not want it. I’d rather it wasn’t here.

So I have all these books – they do not spark joy, I know I don’t want to be reading them again – but I don’t feel I can give them away, because … because I feel like I’m not finished with them. About a hundred years ago, just before I finished my thesis, I agreed to someone’s request to write an article about all this PhD stuff. And I’m also supposed to be teaching a few classes again, at the uni which has been my home this year, and which helped me get my grant for this year.

I ask myself, what would the writer of this book say if you told her, ‘I have all these things here that don’t spark any joy whatsoever. I don’t like them and I don’t want them in my house anymore. But I need to keep them because I might need them for my job…’

I have a feeling that she might say ‘You’re in the wrong job.’


(As I write this, I have a solution in the back of my mind. Take books down to university library, make generous donation to the relevant library section; pop down there and use the books as and when needed – if they ever are needed – but no need to have them in the house again. Phase out former profession, and thus phase out the need to look at them again. Maybe… Perhaps…)