September is here, and I’ve no idea how it arrived so quickly. I was busily minding my business, working on my thesis and trying not to complain about the weather (I took up knitting again because August was cold here) and then I looked up and it was suddenly September. Back to school for the kids, and nearly term-time for the students and their tutors and lecturers. Oh my.
I normally love this time of year – there is something about it that is so satisfying. It’s a bit like how New Year should be, but never is. There is a sense of beginning again, and the colours become rich. Russets and jewel colours have always gone well with my pale skin, and the drop in temperature means that I can resurrect my slight obsession with patterned tights and knee-high boots. I also tend to spend time reflecting on my skills as a teacher, and resolving to be the best yet ever version of myself. This term, my students will be conscientious and read the set texts; I will inspire them in a manner similar to the late Robin Williams’s John Keating in Dead Poets’ Society (1989). Incidentally, I read a persuasive – albeit depressing – article on Dead Poets’ Society as a ‘terrible’ defence of the humanities. I take Kevin Dettmar’s point about the appropriation of key lines of poetry out of context, but frankly – whether you pay attention to the poetry in the film or not – it shows us a teacher getting students to enjoy literature, and to think for themselves. I love this film, and I’m not afraid that it will result in people outside academia getting the wrong idea of what I do all day, or that I’ll be taken less seriously because of it. Perhaps I should be worried, but I’m not. There are plenty of other things to worry about that are exponentially more important.
Robin Williams’s suicide, for instance, has made mental health issues newsworthy again. Closer to home, a mutual friend also decided to take their life last week. I don’t really want to say much about this – or gloss over it – but I will say that the only people who would be able to tell us why they made that decision are no longer in a position to tell us. It is so, so sad to know that. I also think that it’s important to state that ultimately, the responsibility lies with the individual concerned. If your friend or family member committed suicide, it is not your fault. It never was.
I mentioned earlier that I normally like this time of year; this year is different. The thought of starting up again – finishing the thesis, meeting new students, giving induction talks, rereading set texts and planning lessons, editing, looking for work to pay the bills – is filling me with dread. I don’t want to go back to school, mum. I want to go on holiday to somewhere sunny and write poetry and read trashy vampire fiction until spring. I want to adopt a greyhound and go jogging. I want to move to Cornwall and keep chickens.
Our mental health needs as much care as our physical health. In fact – contrary to dominant Western philosophy about the mind/body split (good old Descartes)- our brain is part of our bodies. Feeling alienated from our bodies and/or minds – you know, that sense of separation you sometimes feel from your self and the outside world? – is something that lots of individuals experience. How do we stay happy? Anna Quindlen has some answers particularly pertinent to those working in academia here. I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly how best to look after my mental health, or that indeed there is a foolproof way of doing so. But I think that there are certain actions that can help keep us on an even keel, happy and interested in the world. So here is what I do:
1. I make time to do things that I like doing with people I like. This includes drinking tea, eating cake, knitting, sewing, going to poetry workshops, running, Kickboxing fitness on Sundays, and binge-watching numerous box-sets with Greg (apparently ‘binge-watching’ is a word now. Look it up in the OED if you’re interested).
2. I exercise. Yes, endorphins are good.
3. I don’t work on weekends. Obviously, to any future employers out there, I will work if there’s an emergency or really important deadline. It’s just I won’t be making a habit of it.
4. I make things with my hands. I’d highly recommend this, and when you think about it, you can make an awful lot of things this way. At the moment my favourite activities are knitting and baking, but the possibilities are almost endless… Music counts, too, of course. I wish I still had a piano.
5. I make decisions about my life. This is empowering. Recent decisions I have made include adopting Ozzie, piercing my nose, getting a tattoo, going on a poetry retreat, submitting poetry to magazines, and dyeing my hair.
6. I love – family, friends, Greg and Ozzie.
7. I read things for fun – especially trashy vampire fiction. Currently it’s Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy. It’s about a witch who calls up a magical ancient manuscript in the Bodleian, and her subsequent relationship with a vampire. Go on, read it – you know you want to!
8. I celebrate good news. My sister-in-law has a new baby (which makes me ‘Aunty Em’) and Laura (of kickboxing fame) is one of quite a few friends to have recently completed her PhD. My poems are forthcoming in Poetry Wales and Furies, and will also soon be appearing on the poet Carolyn Jess-Cooke‘s blog. Incidentally, you can buy Furies here. Happy times!