On unplugging

So here we are again: end of the semester, end of the year. Roaring fires. Stacks of exam papers. Too much sugar.

Yo ho ho.


It’s been a tough one, this term, for me. I taught a full course load: two modest-sized classes (20th Century Drama, a third-year, full year course, and History of Performance Theory, a half-year course at seminar size), but each required enough prep per week to occupy the better part of a day, apart from my teaching days. In addition, I’ve found myself at the head of a small team running our brand new Theatre Studies program, which is currently cruising on a wing and a prayer; everyone is very excited about it, to be sure, but nobody really wants to fund it. We need to prove ourselves first. So my hard-grafting colleague MJ Kidnie and I are pretty much IT, along with a spectacularly talented staffer from our home department, English and Writing Studies, who is, let’s just say, working for us on the sly. She, MJ and I are the marketing team, the recruiters, the academic planners, the teachers, the boosters, and the administrators. And we’re pretty tired.

(Follow us on twitter: @westernuTheatre. Please.)

Also, did I mention I’m co-organizing a major conference coming up in May, have just become Associate Editor of Theatre Research in Canada, and am trying desperately to finish a book?

Pass the eggnog, people.

I’ve been describing this as a “perfect storm” situation to colleagues, friends, and my therapist, all of whom look at me in horror as I describe the work situation. (All except the therapist. He knows me far too well by now – he just bursts out laughing.) Here’s what happened: I said yes to a bunch of things at different points in time, enthusiastically and with genuine commitment, because I love my job and believe in the positive impact of the work I do. But somehow, without my noticing, all of it has come due all at once. And – honestly – I’m drowning.

I also know I’m not alone in this feeling of slowly sinking into the paperwork. Many of my friends and colleagues report a similar feeling these days – and before you trot out Rudolph and wonder if we should shoot and eat him to put all of us out of our holiday misery, let me assure you that this isn’t a feeling unique to December. It seems, rather, a feature of 2015. And maybe 2014. And probably 2016. We’re all working harder for less. Making do with less. Encouraged by peers who want us to succeed, we all nevertheless know that it’s down to us to do the stuff that makes the success happen. Because nobody has any money to give us for help – EVERYBODY is cutting back.

Don’t be fooled: there’s a lot more money out there than ever before. It’s just not for us, the little ones scrapping in the corner. It’s for the Already Haves. Ask the Occupy gang. Or ask my colleagues in Arts and Humanities at Western University, where our business school is second to none, and no expense is ever spared. For them.

Deep breath.


This isn’t meant to be a post about austerity, or neoliberal crisis culture, or even about university economics. In fact, it’s a post about mental health. Because mine has suffered immeasurably over the last few months, to the point that, one morning a few weeks ago, one of my friends and colleagues listened with generosity and open-heartedness as I melted down before her and confessed feeling, at times, like, well – like I didn’t want to be here anymore.

She talked me down off the ledge that day, mostly by reminding me that we’re all in this together. (And then by inviting me to dinner. Thanks, Mandy.) But she also reminded me that nothing is more important than taking the time to regroup, recharge, reboot – to look at your life, look into the faces of the people that share it, smile at the brightness that life can be, and then STOP WORKING.

How hard is it for us to stop working, my fellow academics? It’s pretty damn hard. A lot of the work we do is idiosyncratic; it’s important, of course, to the futures of our students and to the livelihoods of all who work with us. Many of us do the kinds of research that yield breakthroughs and propel social change, medical innovation, and much more. But, mostly, it’s also not quite as urgent as we sometimes strive to believe. Mostly, it can wait – for us to rest, to go home to our families, to fly someplace warm and lie on a beach. To read a book for a change.

So here comes the end of term, and I find myself sitting on my therapist’s couch, talking about this very thing. How do I, still facing a mass of stuff undone that is due yesterday and all seems profoundly urgent, stop working and take a proper break this Christmas? (You wonderful readers who’ve been with me a while know I like a gorgeous break; somehow, though, this term I’ve forgotten how to take one.) This afternoon, Andrew reminded me: you need to set some limits. We feel overwhelmed when we don’t have boundaries in place: between us and our students, who flail a lot and need us more often than we can be there for them; between us and our colleagues, who cope differently than we do with stress and sometimes spill their stress onto our plates; between us and members of our family, however much we love them, because, let’s face it, family is a tricky one.

Between life and work – because no, my fellow scholar-teachers, they are emphatically NOT the same thing.

Here I sit, then, writing this post in front of the roaring fire, with a delicious martini at my left, the snoozing dog on the sofa, and the Good Lovelies on the stereo. I’m resolving, two weeks early, to acknowledge my limits in the new year, and to remind those who expect me to make rain from parched grass that I’m only human, and that I can only do so much.

And yes, you bet: I’ll be reminding me, too.


Happy Christmas to everyone celebrating – and happiest new year to all of you.



On moving your body, and relaxing your head

Yesterday afternoon, my friend Jess and I attended an acro-yoga workshop. (What is acro-yoga? You might well ask!) It was, among other things, incredibly liberating: I did not know, until yesterday, that I could handstand-walk backwards over the spine of a stranger; I did not know that I could support another person as she stood on my thighs and then flipped over into a handstand in my lap; I also did not know I could reverse-pike-straddle onto the legs of the talented Blox and dangle, effortlessly, in mid-air upside down. It’s amazing what our bodies can do.


(Thanks Blox!)

Blox reminded me, as I attempted (and failed the first couple of times) that reverse-pike-straddle, that one of the keys to succeeding in the trick is relaxing your head. (Actually, what he said was: “relax your head. relax your head. RELAX YOUR HEAD!” Apparently, I was panicking.) Frankly, I thought later, this is amazing advice, applicable whether you are upside down in a yoga studio or not. And it’s perfect advice for right now, aka THE END OF TERM. If you’re a student, chances are you are in full-on panic mode: too many papers, too little time. If you’re a prof, you’re thinking “just three more preps! just two more preps!” while trying to ignore the stack of marking. If you’re a staff member at a university, you are probably looking at the coming exam period, replete with applications for clemency, mountains of paperwork, and appeals of term grades, and dying slowly inside.

In other words: now is a perfect time for all of us to relax our heads.

I wrote about this very thing recently on Fit is a Feminist Issue, one of my favourite crossover (scholars+others) blogging communities. (Though that post uses different language – thanks to Blox, “relax your head” has now entered my personal mantra bank, somewhere near the top.) The post is about exercise as a means of coping with extreme stress: how moving our bodies can support the unwinding of the over-wound brain. The link is here, for anyone who would like to read more; the context of the post is the personal trauma with which I’ve been dealing this winter (regular readers will know all about this already; if you’re not a regular and are curious, there are links you can follow in the post), but its application is wide. I think more than a few of us would class the end of the university school year, for example, as a time of extreme stress and potential trauma!

End of term is the time when we often tend to forget how to move our bodies; we are trapped at desks, our shoulders hunching into “scholar” pose, our guts pulled tight into low-level agony. It’s easy to say: too many papers! No time to go for a walk! But that’s the very reason we should go for that walk, or ride, or swim, or – gasp! yes! – massage. Because this time of year is so hard on our heads, it is also hard on our hearts, our lungs, our legs and arms. Cognitive stress is psychophysical: we ache in our bodies when we do not relax our heads, and the results can range from not writing our best term papers, to not doing our best jobs of grading, to sustaining musculoskeletal injuries like carpal tunnel, to getting really, really, really sick as soon as term ends.

So let’s do it, friends, together: let’s relax our heads.