Today as I walked to the lab from Belsize Park underground station, fallen cobnuts crunched under my shoes, and an obstacle course of shiny brown conkers scattered free from their deflated prickly cases. In the spent edges of Storm Helene, I could feel microscopic flecks of rain gusting against my face, almost more a temperature than a touch. The endless summer is finally winding down, and just a few precious days remain until the first-year undergraduates flock in for their Induction Week.
My mood is not so much melancholy as diffuse, undecided as to whether I am up or down. I feel a sense that I’m marking time, that there is something I’m striving for but I don’t know what that is. In the great press of competing imperatives, I have suddenly lost track of what is important. I have a monumental list of academic tasks, each competing for pole position, but I am not certain, sometimes, why they really matter in the grand scheme of my working existence. Maybe the diffuseness stems from there being just too many obligations to give enough time or attention to any one – the whole blurs into a mass of blind effort whose purpose becomes ever more opaque. Or maybe because I know that my position is not secure, this imparts the fleeting sense that I might not matter or belong.
I have caught myself recently wondering what it would be like to put all of my efforts into one thing – a project that would consume me, on which I could lavish all of my passion and energy. It’s not something I’ve ever had the luxury of experiencing in my working life, although I came close to that all-consuming feeling when I wrote my second novel on the dole. It wasn’t necessarily a healthy place to be, either.
Maybe the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. But in academia, I am never going to get even close. The style of modern university work has evolved into a monstrous portfolio of a thousand different, disparate efforts, most destined to be overdue before they’re even begun, with emails unanswered, appointments double-booked, people disappointed, simply because you are constantly in an impossible situation. A situation that doesn’t stop when you slip out of the building; it chases you on your phone, follows you home, invades your bed, accelerates your heartbeat and threads into your dreams.
Most of the time, I love what I do. The rest of the time, I wait it out, knowing that the feeling will pass.