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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The unfinished year

So as is traditional (at least for the past two years), it is time for me to reflect on the past year and offer a few hopes for the coming one.  Last year I reflected on a hard year in 2015 and hoped for an easier one in 2016.  I doubt many people would identify this past year as such, and the political and international situation looks bleaker than it did 12 months ago.  But at a personal level, this has been a year that, even if not noticeably easy, then at least an improvement on the previous one.  Both my parents are still ill and neither will ever rid themselves of their respective conditions, but somehow we have come to some sort of accommodation that makes the day-to-day manageable, most days.  This is life, not crisis. Similarly, the managerial work that felt so frightening two years ago has become less overwhelming as I have become more familiar with it.  It is still labour that I am less secure with than, say, writing a book, but I am slowly discovering my own capability for this role, which makes things easier.

And there have been some triumphs. My husband got himself a new job, which he will take up in a couple of months.  This brings many positives and a few potential problems, but it is definitely a step in the direction that he wants to go.  My daughter started on the great intellectual adventure that is formal schooling. In the column marked ‘unadulterated joy’, my sister got married and my brother introduced us to his new partner. The Men, Women and Care project is properly off the ground (including its very own website and blog!) and definitely going places, places which offer their own challenges but are hugely exciting.  The team I have recruited is, so far, living up to their promise and doing interesting and creative work.  There have been a few (small) funding successes, to balance out the inevitable failures.  And, above all, I finally got my book proposal off to a publisher and it has been accepted!

Which is why this year, more than most, feels unfinished.  So much of the positive has not be the culmination or completion of hard work, whether personal or professional, but baby steps along the journey.  So I will enter the new year with papers to write, books to read, a major project to work on, including pursuing new theoretical and methodological angles which I hadn’t considered before this year, a few smaller projects (including two conferences) to organise, and, of course, a book to complete.  On the domestic front, there are still carpets to be laid, decisions to be made about renovations, and the tantalising potential of a house move that has been under discussion for the past year. The children continue to grow, physically, emotionally and mentally, challenging me as a parent as they do so.

There is a lot to do, but I will go into the new year with some lessons learned – about my own ability to recover from the personal paralysis induced by major political crises, about the importance of flexibility and my own capacity to accommodate the unexpected, about how much I can do, how much I rely on others to lend a hand or ear – and just how many wonderful friends and colleagues I have who do just that.  Some things, I hope, will come to fruition in 2017.  Others will carry on carrying on.  Whatever the new year brings, however, I am approaching it, once again, in hope and more energy than last year.

Finally, it has been a year when I have turned more than usual to poetry as a source of consolation, primarily Auden and Frost, who I can probably say with some confidence are my favourite poets.  So I will leave you with a poem appropriate for this point in the year, as the temperatures tumble and cover the world in frost crystals, if not necessarily snow, making my first run after a 5-month hiatus due to planter faciitis, a thing of sparkling wonder and promise.  It is, as it happens, the first poem I was ever conscious of memorising as a child.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and snowy lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, 1922

Wish you and yours a year of promises kept and fulfilled and miles travelled safely, however near or far the ultimate destination. Happy New Year.

Taking stock

It is the last day the university is open before Christmas.  The heating is off in my office, as is the light in the hallway.  In fact, I think I am the only person left working on this floor.  So what better time to take a moment to look back and take stock of this incredibly hectic year.

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I had hoped to be doing this from the perspective of a clear desk, with all major projects completed, at least until the new year. Sadly, this is not to be.  I am preparing to place the fifth draft of an article which still needs a conclusion, a few more supporting quotations and a couple of hours of formatting footnotes before I can send it to the editor in my bag to take home with me.  Alongside that are a 350-page book and 48-page grant application, both of which I need to (re)familiarize myself with in preparation for two interviews early in the new year.  Oh, and then there is the grant application I need to redraft with the goal of resubmitting in early February. This will be the sixth time I have submitted this project for consideration by a funding body or grant-awarding committee.

So there is quite a lot of work still to do over the next two weeks, between the turkey and the Christmas cake and the two excited small children for whom Christmas is nothing but magic, a fact that makes it hard, sometimes, to remember just how much I have achieved over the past year.  But for all the lack of a nice tidy ending, there are definite signs of progress, not least the lovely folder that tops my document list bearing the working title of the book I will be writing next year.  The joy of the folder lies not just in its existence, but also in the fact that it contains two documents, a draft proposal and a draft introduction.  Baby steps perhaps, but concrete evidence nonetheless that this book is actually happening.  In the past 12 months it has gone from a vague promise to myself and my funding body to a clear outline and argument with a story to tell and a point to make.

And there are other concrete achievements.  The article I have been working on for the last few weeks may be tantalizingly unfinished, but the one I was working on this time last year is not only completed but has also been accepted for publication next year, marking the culmination of a project that had its inception nearly three years ago.  Slightly more abstractly, the piles of marking and course documentation, waiting to be filed following the completion of exams and second marking next month, bear witness to the time I have committed to teaching this year, time which has not only boosted both my CV and my confidence in possibly my least favourite aspect of the academic discipline, but also laid the groundwork for my forthcoming application to the Higher Education Academy for professional validation.

And then there are the abstract developments, such as the discovery that, despite two television appearances and a number of radio interviews, I am probably not cut out to be a full scale media don or public intellectual.  As much as I have enjoyed my engagement with broadcast media, particularly my interactions with the BBC as a New Generation Thinkers finalist and a World War One at Home adviser, I suspect I will always prefer blogging, whether on here or for collaborative blogs, as a form of public engagement.  Which brings me to my greatest regret of the year, the fact I have not been able to commit more time to this blog.  Too many subjects have slipped away from me as I have struggled to manage my priorities and keep some semblance of a work-life balance; too many comments have been made too late and in too much of a hurry.  I make no rash promises for doing better next year, but absence has made the heart grow fonder in this case, making me realize how important the process of blogging has become to working through my ideas.  With a little luck and slightly better management, I hope to be able to properly blog the progress of my book next year, as it goes from draft outline to completed manuscript.

Next year will, of course, be different.  As a colleague and fellow First World War historian has pointed out to me, 2014 has been a particularly hectic one for those of us who study the subject.  There have been more opportunities for undertaking innovative research and engaging with interested audiences than any of us could possibly take complete advantage of. Highlights for me have included the wealth of interesting academic conferences to choose from, including the wonderful War: An Emotional History which continues to inspire me and shape my approach to my work; the opportunity to help put together and teach a Massive Open Online Course, not something I could ever have anticipated or which I altogether enjoyed but which taught me a great deal; and the opportunity to engage with a range of interesting and inspiring artistic projects that have, once again, raised questions of the roles of historic and artistic interpretation in the process of commemoration. Low points include some frustratingly bad television, pointless and clichéd debates which failed to make full use of the real depth of historical knowledge about the war, both nationally and transnationally, that exists in Britain today, and the mind-numbing boredom that overwhelms me every time I contemplate the pointless unending discussions of the Christmas Truce which appear to have overwhelmed all else in the past weeks.  I think the high points more than balance out the low; at the very least they give me hope that there will be interesting discussions to be had in the future as we continue the centenary commemorations.

So there we have it, quite a lot of good, a bit of bad, a smattering of seriously ugly.  A year in which, however slowly, progress has been made and one in which much more has been promised but not yet achieved.  I enter the final week of the old year with a sense of incompletion but also of hope, a hope which I will desperately cling to as I face 2015 from a point of deep uncertainty and insecurity.  At present my current contract is due to come to an end in May.  I do have a very real chance of securing more funding after that (the interviews and grant applications I mentioned), although after over a year of pursuing them I am reaching exhaustion point.  I have spent so much of this year saying that I should know, one way or the other what would be happening to me by the end of the year.  It is not to be.  It will not, in my case, all be over by Christmas.  But for all that, there is hope of a positive resolution, something that would mean both immense personal achievement for me and security for my family.  So I will leave you with that sense of hope, to temper the anticipation of the hard work that will be needed if I am to have any chance of accomplishing the desired outcome.

Merry Christmas. And a hopeful, healthy, happy New Year to you all.