A harder year

Three years ago, I posted an end-of-year reflection entitled ‘A Hard Year’. That year was, indeed, a hard year, as were the two years that came after, filled as they were with the stresses of family illnesses and the labour of writing my book and getting a large project off the ground. None of these, however, can bear comparison with this year, a year that will forever be marked by the terrifying speed with which my mother’s cancer accelerated, the intensity of helping care for her in the final month of her life and the grief induced by her death and the emotional aftermath of commemorating her and clearing her apartment, the home I grew up in, of a lifetime of objects and memories. Nothing could prepare me for facing how hard this would be; that I have survived this year with my marriage intact, my children alive and thriving and my relationships with my family and friends (particularly my two wonderful siblings) more or less intact is a source of wonder and amazement.

Because this year was never solely about loss, grief and mourning. There has been a great deal of happiness, joy, even plain old contentment, from my brother’s wedding through hot summer days spent clearing the garden to one of the happiest Christmas Days I have had in several years. Moving to a house that I grow to love more with each day (in spite of the daunting amount of work that needs doing to it) in a community that has been immensely welcoming has been the biggest source of happiness, even if it has made getting to and from work considerably more complicated.

You may have noticed by now that all of the things I have mentioned as shaping and defining my year have been those associated with my private, rather than my professional life, and this isn’t only because my professional life has increasingly been circumscribed by commuting and the incompetence of Northern Rail. Professionally, this has felt very much like a holding year, albeit one in which I published an article and completed the editing, copy-editing and other production matter on my book. I have worked on various bits of writing, presented at a couple of conferences, explored the possibilities of future intellectual enquiry, manage the project I am currently engaged on. But any accomplishments of the year have been acheived by those with whom it is my pleasure and privilege to work – students completing milestones in their research, colleagues completing books, my post-doc organising a successful and rightfully praised conference as part of Men, Women and Care project.

This has felt okay, even necessary – a moment taken to recalibrate at the end of one venture, the middle of another and the very faint possibility of the beginning of a third. It will provide, I hope, the basis of consolidating the gains made and putting into practice ideas which have been given some time to germinate, particularly around the direction of the International Society for First World War Studies. But if it has meant that my personal life has been the most dominant force in shaping my memories of this year, this professional breath has also provided the space to make some unexpected connections between intense personal experiences and my professional historical understanding.

As I wrote previously, caring for my mother allowed me to make a more profound connection, both intellectual and emotional, with the historical work of caring undertaken historically by women in the home, the sort of care which is going to be the subject of my next book. But, since my son has started singing in a church choir a half hour drive from our home, requiring me to act as a ferrying service, I have found myself attending church regularly. While this hasn’t altered my personal belief or relationship to faith, it has given me time to reflect, sitting under the regimental monument listing all the great engagements of the First World War, on the place of faith and worship in the lives of those I study. The routine and rhythm of the cycle of services, the music created by voice and organ, the ceremony and ceremonial may not have brought me closer to God, but may have brought me closer to my historical subjects in whose lives faith played so much greater a regular part than it does in British society today. It is something I am struggling to articulate, although I hope to do so in a blog on Sarah Phelps’s adaptation of The ABC Murders for BBC1 in the next couple of weeks.

There will be other blog posts, too, in the new year, as well as other work to be done, not least the continued population of the Men, Women and Care database, which is already throwing up interesting material. There will be stresses and strains (other family illnesses are ongoing and my son will be applying for secondary school places come the autumn). And there will be much to celebrate, both professionally and personally. The book’s official release date is 7th February, to be followed in short order by the expected arrival of two new babies in the family.  There is the house to work on, friendships to nurture, ideas to pursue.  It has been another hard year, the hardest yet, and one that I will never forget. But there is a new year to come with all its fears and promises.  May yours be filled with more of the latter than the former.

Happy New Year.

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