On Work Habits

I’d thought for a while on what to start off my Girl Talk column with – a deep dive into the Caroline Calloway scandal is always tempting, of course. But, seeing my newsfeeds covered in posts about Mental Health Awareness Day, I felt compelled to write about something which everyone in this university talks about constantly, it seems: work.

It’s a funny word to use, for our constant succession of deadlines, readings and worksheets, and can lead to confusion. If I use it at home, with friends not at university at the moment, they’re puzzled, and say they thought we weren’t allowed at part-time job at Cambridge. Oh no, I reassure them, this isn’t something you can clock out of, at the end of the day- there’s always something else you could be doing, another book to read or more essays to do. Term has just started and I already feel like I’m behind, fielding emails, ramming a summer’s worth of dissertation reading into a few days, all the while nurturing the friendships that keep me going.

Anxiety has been a part of my life at least since the age of 16, and it has always been connected to my academic performance. Receiving an email from a supervisor can leave me terrified to open Hermes, and the way my heart beats right before my history supervisions could probably power the Industrial Revolution. Work and mental health in Cambridge are inextricable, and it’s an even more pernicious issue when counselling and mental health adjustments are underfunded and inaccessible.

Now, a few caveats. I don’t mean for one second to imply it’s a harder life to be in my cushy (but expensive! #cuttherent) Medwards accommodation reading about the early Japanese state than working a full time job for minimum wage. Also, plenty of people here may have a perfectly healthy relationship with their work. In which case: keep on reading and shake your head in despair.

I realise I am by no means the first person to say Cambridge’s approach to academic work is unhealthy. It feels like fairly common knowledge – we’ve all seen people pull constant all nighters, work after a night out, and the atmosphere in college during exam term is, well, very particular.

The supervision system, I think, actually makes this worse – we find ourselves in fairly intense academic relationships with adults who frequently have no tact or sense of emotional intelligence. Stories about supervisors making people cry are a dime a dozen. I also feel that issues of cultural capital come into play here: if you’re used to the supervision system because your school had a similar level of one-to-one attention, you may not be as intimidated by the prospect of asking for an extension, for help, or just saying ‘no’ for one week. This will then be compounded for people of colour and otherwise marginalised students who don’t see themselves in the academics they’re supervised by. As women, we’re socialised also to please others, to be ‘polite’ and ‘nice’ and ask for, rather than state, our needs.

Here’s what I want to say: if you struggle completing all your work and you feel like an imposter – you’re not alone! The feeling of being crept up on by work is felt by everyone around you, I can assure you. I scalded myself quite badly with boiling tea three weeks ago so the start of my time in Cambridge was marked by A&E visits and some reduced mobility – especially frustrating when the things you have to do are far away.

Second, you really, genuinely, do not have to do as much work as they say. A tip for humanities students: not every essay has to be done, so be smart and figure out what topics you can avoid revising. Without meaning to sound like an HSPS student, deadlines are social constructs. I handed in my first essay here 6 hours late, which very much set the tone for my academic career in general. I think I’ve handed in two essays on time in my time here, and it literally does not matter. Prioritise yourself, your way of working and your mental health.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what has really helped me is to think about self-care and leisure as deliberate acts. As Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light and Other Essays “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. It’s a beautiful phrase, as is all of Lorde’s writing. Of course, Lorde was writing as a black lesbian feminist in America, and her work is very much directed at the experience of black women. She expressed in her succinct prose something that’s at the heart of what I want to write about today. Caring for yourself in a world where mental health care has been slashed by cuts, where people wait for weeks for appointments at the University Counselling Service or the Disability Resource Centre, or never receive funding for private counselling their college offered them, and   creating spaces of care and community amongst your friends, in this space, does feel radical.

Basically, a message for everyone: you can take time for yourself. You’re not a productivity machine. Have little rebellions, and hold on to them when Week Five hits.

Solitude and bliss

This summer felt different from pretty much every summer I’ve had, mostly because I made the effort to spend time alone, and give myself space. Space to think, breathe and act. Not to paraphrase Virginia Woolf too much, but when you have that space for yourself, it turns out, the life epiphanies come thick and fast.

Summers are a tricky thing. At least for me, they’ve always been fraught with peaks and troughs of hope and disappointment – I’d start the summer willing this to be the year I return in September fitter, prettier, somehow cooler only to face the disappointment come late August that that’s not, in fact, how life works.

In comparison, summers as a child were almost violently joyful things. I lived in Spain until I was about 13, and the thing I most remember about my summers there are the colours. Blue, mainly, obviously. There’s something about that never-ending turquoise sky of mid-July when clouds seem an impossibility. But also the bleached white of long sleepy Augusts in Madrid, when everyone else who could had left the city. When we moved to a little village nestled in the Spanish sierra, my memories are coloured with the golden green and dark woods of the mountains. You’d wake up to the sound of a donkey braying, and there’d be nothing to do but swim and sunbathe.

That’s all fantastic when you’re 8 and anxiety hasn’t hit you like a ton of bricks yet, but once it does, I’ve always found too much solitude to be counterproductive. We still go back every summer since we moved to the UK, and I’ve spent a lot of my teenage summers simmering with stress over a vague sense of not doing things right. Not sure what things those were, but they were there and they were not being done right. Summers away from my Cambridge friends can be especially apprehensive, considering I’m surrounded by the loud presence of my 3 siblings, my parents, my maternal grandparents and whatever extended family wants to drop in that day.

So, I began to seek out quiet corners of my garden, or solitary walks under the shadow that the mountain range cast on the village once the sun began to set behind it. It sounds very basic, but for someone not used to consciously taking care of myself, those 20 minutes of yoga every morning began to be a little treasure. This also meant taking care of my body as a physical thing – sport! Exercise! A revelation! I stretched, I swam 20 laps a day, I downloaded a workout app. I’d always hated sports, but there’s an undeniable magic in scratching out time to Not Think. You feel the burn, the sweat, but your mind goes quiet. Maybe the #LiveLaughLove peddlers have a point.

Doing more activity meant I slept easier, and crucially, had more focus to sit down and read. I’d gone from reading voraciously, countless books every month, when I was 10, and then as academics hit hard during my teenage years, my reading had dwindled to a point where during my first year at Cambridge I read maybe one book all year. I read three just this summer, which was a big deal for me. These were a collection of Joan Didion essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the Stephen King-esque Summer of Night by Dan Simmons, and Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee. Didion’s lush, verbose descriptions of her native, nostalgia infused Southern California are exactly what you need when you’re feeling morose on a summer evening, in case you were wondering.

At the end of the summer, I took my first trip to the USA, where my father is from, to do dissertation research in Richmond, Virginia. I was still reeling from the end of year-long relationship the week before, and felt cast away, tense and afraid, knowing where my anxiety could take me in stressful situations alone. It felt like a revelation to realise that I could bring the healthy, solitary habits I’d developed over the summer with me anywhere. After one stressful day at the freezing air-conditioned archives, I took myself to see a free exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. I wandered around the 21st century art rooms – large rocks stuccoed to the wall, technicolour ribbons creeping from one wall the other, all meaning and form broken down- and planned the dinner I was going to have at a nearby Cuban restaurant. That was my first meal at a restaurant alone. It’s somehow taken me 21 years to realise there’s a real joy to be had in solitude, but I’m glad I got there.

A Tale of Two Cities

Last summer was supposed to be my summer of healing. Recovering from the last of a chronic illness that had plagued the majority of my first year, my overwhelming feeling was gratitude. I felt lucky because I was, for all intents and purposes, ‘cured’. It wasn’t until this summer that I realised what it feels like to actually heal.

Taking things day by day, I didn’t realise that I had spent the best part of 2018 living cautiously, half enjoying things, either preoccupied by pain or worried that I was over exerting myself. Even though by the time summer came the worst of this had gone, a part of my vivacity had gone with it. I felt lost – not having completed my exams, spending so much time at home alone, missing out on events with friends. Even though my pain and illness had gone away, it had taken a part of me with it. The result was a summer of feeling lost, anxious about going back to Cambridge and being behind, feeling like a disappointment for not Making The Most Of My Summer, withdrawing myself from friends and feeling guilty for even feeling these feelings in the first place.

This summer I healed when I didn’t know I needed to. I felt myself collecting up all the parts of myself that I didn’t realise had been sucked out of me. I’ve spent this summer between two cities that could not be more different, Delhi and Boston;  Delhi for six glorious weeks working for a women’s trade union, and four weeks in Harvard on an exchange program. Both cities pieced me back together in their own ways.

Delhi

Delhi,

You gave me back my love. 

You reminded me of the importance of platonic love, how wonderful my friends are, and how they never went anywhere, even when I did. You gave me new friends, some fleeting, some firm. You reminded me that being surrounded by the right people can turn the worst situations into the best stories.

You reinvigorated my love for women. You blessed me with the oasis of Women Only carriages on the metro and working in an office every day where the only male presence was the man who brought the tea. You surrounded me with the whole spectrum of womanhood; women who were CEOs, matriarchs, street vendors; ninety year old farmers who were fitter than me, and young girls deciding what kind of footprint they wanted to leave on the world. You reminded me that, as a woman in most places, it is often the case that to exist is to resist, and existing can be fucking exhausting.

You reminded me of my passion for the causes I believe in. Giving me the time and space to read, to learn from people I was surrounded with and the work that I was doing, you reignited a love that had been dulled by a bubble of self indulgent privilege.

boston

Boston,

I was afraid to visit you, far more than I was to visit Delhi, but you gave me back my courage.

You gave me the courage to step out of my comfort zone and meet new people, and the courage to not try and be someone that I’m not, regardless of whether it might be the easier option.

You gave me the courage to take up space. You reminded me that my opinion is valid and my voice matters, even (and especially) in an institution where it might be an unpopular one. You emboldened me to push back; whether it be against casual racialised remarks designed to make me feel small, or a white lecturer airbrushing history.

I was anxious to write this. I didn’t know where to start because I hadn’t spent my summer thinking about how everything I was doing was Making Me Feel and What Lessons I Was Learning. But sitting down to write this the first thing I mindlessly noted down was “feeling happy”. I have felt happy, and I have felt like me again, and that is enough.

The Abyss

Ciara Dossett

It’s late August. The shops are crammed with ‘back to school’ regalia; school jumpers in every imaginable colour, fluorescent highlighters, sensible shoes. But, for the first year since I was 4, I will not be joining the hordes returning to education. Slightly terrifyingly, I won’t be going into anything at all.

At the start of the year I considered this to be the worst possible outcome: to have nothing secured. As an addictive planner I had applied for countless jobs (with an equal number of rejections), desperate to have something confirmed for the following September. Not to do so, I thought, would somehow be a failure.

Instead, like so many millennials, I have moved back home with my parents. Swapping the stress and excitement of university life for the bumbling countryside and mundane summer jobs seems jarring. This post-university nothingness feels like a directionless blur, something I have somewhat dramatically begun to refer to as the abyss.

I realise I am in a privileged position, with parents who are willing and able to allow me to move home for a while. For this, I am grateful. But, with the prevalence of Instagram compare-culture, it’s sometimes hard for other people’s exciting lives not to make you feel inadequate.

Many seem to be in the same position, however. A recent article in The Times reported that a quarter of those aged 20 to 34 were living at home last year. Only a handful of my peers have dream jobs and apartments secured. Most are similarly taking time off to figure out what they want to do. When discussing this phenomenon with a friend, she commented on how we’ve been driven for so long that to take some time off to relax, re-evaluate and have fun seemed an alien concept.

Slowly, however, I’m beginning to the realise that real life doesn’t operate from September to September. That it’s ok to take time off to reset and rethink. That it’s fine not to have a plan, whatever well-meaning older relatives may say to the contrary. That perhaps the abyss isn’t something to be feared but celebrated and enjoyed. To have time to read books for enjoyment rather than for essays, to exercise, to see friends, to explore the world, all without the pressure of the imminent return to a desk, a freedom I might never have again.

Success is not instant nor does it necessarily result in happiness. In fact, I’ve come to realise the times when I’ve been happiest had little to do with success at all. So instead of planning my next career move, I’m jumping on a long-haul flight with two of my best friends in the whole world. And, after that, who knows? For once the addictive planner has no plan. I’m trying to see this as liberating rather than terrifying. Wish me luck…

Cover photo source: author’s own photo. 

 

A review of “Football, Feminism & Everything in between”

Selin Zeyrek

This summer sees the introduction of a new podcast by Grace and Alistair Campbell (yes, that one), a father and daughter pair that is funnier than it should be. Alistair is a politician, best known for being Blair’s ‘spin doctor’; Grace is a feminist activist and comedian. Each week, they invite a guest to discuss ‘football, feminism and everything in between’, and while they always begin on either football or feminism, the conversation frequently veers off into the ‘in between’ category. Part of the strength of this podcast is how different each of the guests are from one another: some notable ones include Ed Miliband, Ebony Rainford-Brent and Rachel Riley. The guests come from a variety of backgrounds, so their views and experiences of football and feminism are rarely the same. When the topic shifts, it can be to anything from private schools to whether politics is the best way to change the world.

Grace and Alistair make for a quick-witted and intelligent pair of interviewers: unafraid to openly criticise one another, their interactions are always lively and they bounce off each other with ease. As explained in the introduction, football is Alistair’s passion, feminism is Grace’s passion, and this podcast aims to integrate these two topics. As a staunch feminist and lukewarm football fan, I was at first skeptical as to how much I would be able to understand and enjoy the conversations about football. What has surprised me is that, although of course there is some discourse about the various managers of football teams through the years, football tends to open up into broader conversations about how to connect with the people important to you in your life, and how football is an extremely effective way to do this.

Rachel Riley is a good footballer in her own right, having played for her university team. However, her introduction to it stemmed from a reason other than a love of the sport: ‘it was the way I interacted with my father’, she explains. Multiple guests have brought up the fact that they become invested when England is playing, but they would otherwise not be termed a football fan. This revelation in particular is brought up near the beginning of each episode, where the Campbells ask their guest to rate how much of a football fan they are, and then how much of a feminist they are, from 1 to 10. Their answers are hardly ever straightforward, and lead onto the nuances of being a feminist and the different levels of football fan.

In a similar way, conversations that begin with feminism tend to open up into broader discussions about the difficulties these people have faced in their lifetime, and how they managed to overcome them and become successful. Especially relevant is the interview with Gabby Logan, the ex-gymnast who presented the BBC showing of the Women’s World Cup. Having been a sportswoman as well has having a footballer father and a rugby player husband, Logan represents the perfect overlap between the two main focuses of this podcast and contributes to probably one of the best episodes in the series so far. Logan, upon being questioned over the criticisms surrounding the USA women’s team’s celebration in their 13-0 win against Thailand, offers this response: ‘they beat the record after 11 goals – they became the biggest scoring [team]. Can you imagine if England’s men last summer stopped celebrating against Panama (which was the most one-sided game I’ve ever seen)? They wouldn’t have stopped celebrating. There’s a double standard with almost everything in women’s football… it’s like everything has to be justified: the crowds, the goals…’. Having had a wealth of experience in both men’s and women’s football, she is well-placed to make these comparisons; prior to this analysis, she gives a short history of women’s football in Britain, and her ultimate message is that things are improving: ‘watching the opening ceremony I was thinking ‘wow, this World Cup feels different already’ – in the crowds there were men, women, families – because of course this is important, there is no point having women’s football being watched only by women … it is a game-changer.’

The reason why this podcast is so enjoyable is because it is not restricted to a particular area of interest. The lack of structure allows the insights and reflections of the hosts and guests to shine through, whether they are discussing feminism in politics or how to deal with grief. Given the distinct differences between the life experiences of the guests, this means that each episode leads down a different path, the specific topics of football and feminism never being a barrier to getting the guests to talk about – well, basically anything. The podcast ends with the question of how best to make meaningful change in the world, where each guest is asked what their six-a-side team to change the world is. This feature reveals a lot about the person: some choose writers and artists, believing that culture is the best way to shift people’s perspectives; others choose motivational speakers and politicians, with the aim of altering policy. In any case, this podcast makes you laugh and also think about the dynamics and relationship of football and feminism.

Cover art source: audioboom.com

The inclusive politics of women’s football

Posy Putnam 

I have been attending male football matches for years, but only recently have begun to watch women’s football. Does this make me a bad feminist? Perhaps – but I would hope my newfound enthusiasm for the women’s sport rectifies my past ignorance. And I do not appear alone in showing such enthusiasm. My conversion to women’s football reflects a growing trend, with rising TV ratings and match attendances. Indeed, 11.7 million people watched England lose to the USA in the Women’s World Cup semi-final in early July – the most-watched TV event of the year.

That semi-final also served as my full introduction to the US Women’s Team. Of course, I had seen a few of their earlier matches and caught the headlines centred around Rapinoe’s attacks on President Trump. However, as I followed the American women’s progression into the final, I was struck by the sheer volume and pride in their queer representation.

On July 7th in Lyon, as the crowd cheered the United States’ win in the Women’s Football World Cup, Kelly O’Hara ran over to kiss her girlfriend. Behind her, engaged teammates Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger celebrated, as did co-captain Megan Rapinoe, and head coach Jill Ellis. Whilst O’Hara had never publicly commented on her sexuality, all of these other women were publicly and unashamedly gay. O’Hara, meanwhile, felt comfortable enough to out herself on live, international television.

This victory snapshot illustrates one of the core aspects of women’s football that has made me such a fan: its unabashed inclusiveness. This is something that the women’s game appears to have taken on and celebrated – highlighted by the official Twitter account for the US Women’s National Team’s tongue-in-cheek re-tweet of Rapinoe’s quote, “Go gays. You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before. Ever. That’s science right there,” with the caption “Told ya”, following their World Cup victory.

This tweet was no attempt to play down some of the players’ queer identity to make them more palatable to a wider audience, or to attract greater sponsorships. No – it was a bald statement of the inclusive, vocal identity the team has taken on, spear-headed by Rapinoe. After all, this is also a team who sued the US Soccer Federation for equal pay with the men’s side – leading to chants ringing out following their win of “Equal Pay! Equal Pay!” – and used their World Cup victory parade to reiterate their demands. Rapinoe was also the first white athlete to kneel for the American National Anthem, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and during the course of the World Cup, attracted criticism for refusing to put her hand on her heart for the anthem.

Contrast this to men’s football. Political causes are rarely part of its discourse, and queerness is largely seen only in the context of homophobic chants and jeers. The fact that so few male players have ever publicly come out as gay is testament to the fact that men’s football simply is not a safe space for it. It was not twenty years ago, when Justin Fashanu, the first professional footballer to be openly gay, killed himself in 1998, and it is still not today. This is not to say that no efforts have been made – the Premier League did partner with Stonewall for the Rainbow Laces campaign with the aim of tackling homophobia in sport – but inclusiveness appears largely as a top-down policy, orchestrated by governing bodies, whereas the US Women’s Team demonstrated a more grass-roots approach.

However, inclusivity in women’s football goes beyond the US team. In many senses, women’s football feels like a more radical space than the men’s sport. Indeed, the existence and success of the sport itself is a challenge to football’s traditionally masculine association and assumptions, if not yet its inherent power structures. Following on from this, the queer representation at all levels of the women’s sport helps support a wider shift in how society accepts queer women. These women are strong athletes, great commentators, and masterful tacticians, not merely a punch-line in a joke, or reduced to a category on Pornhub.

This inclusive politics does not take away from the football itself – instead, it adds to it. I am able to invest far more in teams I identify with, who have players I follow off of the pitch. The support that the US team has garnered is merely an example of this phenomenon. Football has never just been about the pure, unsullied game on the pitch – pub disputes over penalties given, the buying of your team’s scarf, player transfer speculation and the chants sung during the match all serve to make the game so popular, and so integral to many people’s daily lives. For me, queer representation in the sport is an extension of this.

For too long, my sexuality has led to a feeling of otherness, of uncertainty and, predominantly, simply not feeling safe, when combined with my love for football. However, the more inclusive politics of the women’s game, introduced to me through the US Women’s Team at this World Cup, has opened the door to new possibilities for me. Rapinoe’s kick of the ball was not a magic solution to the problem of homophobia and discrimination in sport, but the success of the World Cup did give me, and others like me, a sense of hope and validation. It was, in many ways, a lifeline; I am allowed to love both football and women, and the Women’s World Cup was a glorious space to come to terms with this.

Cover image source: the author’s own artwork.