Motion on the Ocean


There is something extraordinary about sleeping on the sea, held safe in the belly of the ship. I sleep deep down in the dark, in my cabin next to the engine room, that beating, clanking, thumping heart. I feel like I am curled up in the thoracic cavity of a mighty leviathan, a sea beast that could choose to dive back down to the depths at any moment.

There is so much space beneath us, mile upon mile of water and dark.

The waves feel like the beast breathing – rising on a vast inhalation, falling down on an exhalation – rocked by a deep, slow rhythm.

The waves are soft, now. We’ve had good weather. During the day, my legs and the muscles of my belly fire and swerve to keep me upright, a rolling dance of compensation for a gravitational force that has suddenly turned as capricious as some old Hellenic deity. I try to move with it, but I am clumsy with these steps, and I end up fighting it half the time.

At night, I go limp, and I let the movement take me; and take me it does. It throws me up (softly, softly) and my weight lessens on the mattress, ever so slightly; then I fall, and press more deeply, and it catches me once again. The dance goes on, and on, and in between the steps of it, I feel like I am swimming, or flying.

It is like lying down in a dream.




Intellectual Curiosity, Passion, Downtime and Compartmentalisation

The first season of House, M.D. is, hands down, the best season. The writers are still exploring the possibilities of toxic brilliance and medical problem-solving, and it’s significantly less ridiculous than the subsequent seasons. Besides, Hugh Laurie is a gem, and we all know it.

In the episode “DNR”, a famous jazz musician with ALS (John Henry Giles) has trouble breathing, and because it’s House, wackiness ensues. There’s an exchange between John Henry and House that has always stayed with me. He commiserates with House – or celebrates; it’s not entirely clear – that they’ve sacrificed the other priorities in their lives (family, friends, other interests) for “that one thing.” That one thing that holds their interest, their passion, their furious commitment. They think about it constantly. It’s all they do and all they want to do.

That was a scene that really stuck with me. I know people like that. In writing. In science. I know people who are committed to that one thing. People who never switch off, not really.

It’s a bit of a trope, and it’s become something of an expectation.

I don’t have that. I don’t have one thing. I have numerous things, and they are all vitally, terrifyingly important to me. It’s true that I love science. I also love writing fiction. I love singing. I love music. I love narratives of all kinds. I prioritise my relationships and my friendships very highly. I prioritise my health (and let’s be clear, my health is an ongoing project. It’s not just “eat healthy and exercise.” It’s a ridiculous, time-consuming gauntlet of physiotherapy, weight training, running, gastro-intestinal specialists, diagnostic procedures, complicated recipes to stick with my complicated diet, and maths. There’s actual maths).

Most of the scientists I know are actually fairly well-rounded people. They have families and hobbies and social commitments – but they are also very committed to their work. Many of them don’t seem to have a strict demarcation between work and not-work time.

“Sometimes,” said my colleague, a friendly young post-doc, “reading papers is fun, though.”

“Noooo,” I said flatly. “Reading papers is work. It is always work.” I mean, of course, that it is always work for me, because I see it as work. I have to engage “science self” to read papers, and that in itself is work. It’s not that I don’t have that passion, or that intellectual curiosity, it’s just that if I’m trying to have downtime, I need it to be actual downtime. I need to be reading fiction, or playing games, or something like that.

If I have time when I’m not running analyses, working in the lab, writing to deadlines, writing on my own projects, working on my own health in some way, running basic household errands, or catching up with my friends (a hugely important priority but a very different kind of down time as far as my brain is concerned), I need it to be actual nothing time.

I think I learned this in my PhD. It’s possible, with a PhD, to be always working. There are always more papers you could read, or more analyses you could run, even if you’re not in the lab. Unless you set very strict rules for yourself, you could be working all your waking hours.

You’ll burn out. Most people will burn out. I burned out, for a very long time, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so wary about reading papers for “fun”, or about using my cherished spare time for anything but easy, cruisy fun activities. It took – actually, it’s a work in progress. Let’s employ the present tense. It is taking a very long time to recover from burnout. I am still burnt out. I still have panic attacks (bonus: nausea) when trying to work on data from my PhD. When I open up those documents on my laptop, I find myself trying not to cry. Burnout is a very, very bad thing. I did something to my amygdala, and whatever I did, it hasn’t healed yet.

So I need to compartmentalise. Even if I like what I’m doing, I need to stop, and do something else. I need to watch movies and drink whiskey with my husband, or cross-stitch while watching Daredevil, or play Pillars of Eternity while patting the cat. I need to spend a ludicrous amount of time working out. I need to write stories.

It sometimes makes me feel out of place. I’m here among people who are working constantly, who are driven by their projects and their work and excited by the possibilities. I’m excited by the possibilities, but PhD burnout has left me with a giant bleeding wound in my sense of intellectual curiosity. I’m wary of getting involved, emotionally, in a project. I’m wary of dropping everything else I love and throwing myself into a problem.

It definitely fuels the imposter syndrome. Because I switch off, and play games and read novels (and those novels are not literary canon, or non-fiction analyses of ecological disasters, or biographies of great political figures), I feel like I don’t deserve a place at the table.

I’m coming to terms with this. I resent the trope, and the expectation, that everyone should experience their enthusiasm in the same way. When I am switched on, when I am on shift, when I am meant to be present, then I am present. I work hard. I do good work. I contribute. I ask questions. I solve problems. But when I am off shift, I am damn well off shift, mentally as well as physically. I am not “doing science” any more (except in the very basic way that, when you’re a scientist, you have a tendency to question processes you encounter in every day life out of curiosity. That just sticks around, much in the way that, as an English major, I can’t help analysing pop culture. That mostly doesn’t have an off button either).

When I am off shift as a scientist, I become something else. I’m a writer. I’m a gamer. I’m a singer. I’m a friend and a partner and a person managing two chronic health conditions. I can’t spend the rest of my life feeling guilty for not working all the time. I am not interested in using my social media accounts to promote scientific discoveries – I use them for being my off shift self, not my on shift self.

I’m finding it hard to articulate this problem, and I’m not sure if I have succeeded. Let me put it another way.

Life is short. We don’t have much time. We have the hours that we put into our work. If we’re lucky, it’s work that you’re passionate about. Also, because we’re mammals, we need to sleep. Between sleep, and work, you have to fit everything else that you love into the other hours of the day and night. Everything else.

So even though I love what I do – and I do, I love all my jobs, and they are numerous – when I switch off, I switch off. I deal with the surprised looks when I explain that I’m writing a blog post or a story, not a paper; that I’m reading a fantasy novel, not a biography of a famous scientist (side note: again, having a major in English literature, I’m relatively secure in my reading habits. I might read several hundred trashy novels a year, but I’ve done my dash); that I’m not concentrating on some difficult analysis on my laptop – I’m actually watching old episodes of Daria (or, possibly, the Flash).

This mental screed has been brought to you by shift work and too much coffee.

Wait. Stop. Listen.

Wait. Stop. Listen.

There are worlds within our words. I think that sometimes people don’t know this. We speak to each other in voices full of echoes, words that carry the weight of our experience, but what we hear only carries the weight of our expectations, and these are universes apart from one another.

I understand the nuance of written language very well. I love the delicacy of it, the subtle richness and layers held within a single word. The commonality of cultural interpretation. The concept of a loaded word, as though it were a loaded gun, and it might go off at any moment.

These things are instinctive for me and I feel like they always have been, although obviously that can’t be true. At some point I was a child learning to read, and words were a little thinner then. Back then, the triumph was in making these strange markings on the page into stories. That was victory enough for me. I didn’t even realise that I was finding layers and nuance in sentences for years afterwards, when I learned that two people could read the same thing and experience something entirely different.

I am not so good with spoken language. There’s a reason that I use a lot of disclaimers, with the written word and especially the spoken word. If written words contain oceans, spoken words are like galaxies – except that I can’t see them. They might as well be infrared. I can feel that there is heat, but I don’t know what’s going on.

I learned at a young age that I was easily misunderstood. Those galaxies of meaning, of emotive spoken language, the body language, the tone, the intent, and even the social rules governing the interpretation of words themselves? They were invisible to me. I could neither see them myself nor make myself seen in them. When I delivered words, they were flat and blunt. I can emote when singing – there are galaxies in music too – but not when speaking.

I hurt people, and was hurt. I still remember a friend who stopped speaking to me when I was eleven because of something I said, something I didn’t consider particularly insulting or offensive. As far as I knew, I was just making conversation. Perhaps I was too blunt, and too careless.

I got older. I tried to be more careful. I was still blunt, and still careless. I still hurt people by accidental speech, and still I was hurt when I was misunderstood.

I watched people when they spoke. I tried to learn. I watched their body language. I listened to their tone of voice as though it were the readout from sonar mapping equipment, something that would stop me walking into walls, and in a way that is exactly what it was.

In a way, learning this consciously, by paying attention, gave me an advantage. I realised, with horror, that people speak past each other all the time. I realised that what one person says is not what the other person hears. I realised that two people can be being factually correct and honest and still be having two completely different conversations. I realised that people would over-interpret body language, and come to opposite conclusions, fuelled by what they wanted and what they feared, and not at all by what was being said.

My instinct – one that I still have, so strong that it is almost overwhelming – is to say “Wait. Stop.”

“Wait. Stop. Stop. Listen. Listen.” To point at one party. “You are saying that X, because of Y, is Z.” To point at the other. “You are pointing out that, given the fact of Y, Z and X are the same thing. You are saying the same thing. Stop arguing.”

If you think this sounds an awful lot like an undergraduate humanities tutorial, you’d be right. I can think of at least six subjects I took, off the top of my head, where a good half the time was wasted by people talking past each other, because they didn’t stop to think about the baggage- the nuance- the expectation- of speech.

Watching characters arguing in TV shows is a special torture. “Wait. Stop.” They don’t say or ask the simple things that could resolve the situation. They don’t wind back to find out what they really mean. They leap to wild conclusions about what has been said. Their inability to understand one another, to sit down and find their common language, is a plot device, and it is almost physically painful to me. I once put down a book I loved for eighteen months, because the big misunderstanding, as a plot device, gives me profound anxiety.

I am terrified of being misunderstood.

I’m human. Being misunderstood is inevitable.

I now take a great deal of care when I communicate. I add in disclaimers. When I say that something makes me happy, that I love something, I always add that “this works for me. It might not work for you.” We live in a world where, whenever you say you are happy about something, whenever you say you have done something that works for you, you are supposed to be judging people who do different things and want different things. I’m not. I’m honestly not. I love exercise, and I talk about exercise all the time. I love the way it makes me feel. I love that I can walk around without pain. But my talking about gym does not mean I think everyone should go to gym. My love of diving and writing does not mean I think everyone will love diving and writing. My fondness for my monogamous, married, heterosexual relationship does not mean I think everyone should be monogamous, married, heterosexual or in a relationship.

I do not expect people to share my preferences. I do not expect people to share my fears or my drives. I fully believe myself to be odd, but then, I also believe that everyone is odd.

That’s the problem. We speak the same language (well, let’s assume that for the moment) but everyone is carrying a different lexicon.

I wish I did not have to use disclaimers. I wish I could just happily, boldly say that I am not interested in something without it being an insult to the person who is interested in that thing. I wish it was alright for people to like different things, want different things and need different things, without having to state outright, every time, that I understand this, and it should be assumed in everything I say.

But my lexicon is peculiar to me. My assumptions, and the nuance that I inject into words, are peculiar to me. There are some common cultural associations, but these are so layered. They all mean slightly different things to different people.

Now, I see, I’m belabouring the point. It just bothers me. Being able to communicate with one another, being able to speak clearly, to dig through the baggage and the confusion to find out what you’re actually trying to say – these are so important, so crucial to being a human being who has to relate to other human beings. The people we are closest to get to build a new dictionary for us. They’ve learned our language.

I just wish that wasn’t such a painful process.

Maybe one day it won’t be.

Until then, I will keep trying to be very careful, and sometimes I will be blunt and careless. I will misunderstand. I will be misunderstood. I will hurt, and be hurt, and I will say sorry.