Friday, August 28, 2015

The Art of Losing

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
So many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster…

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

-- Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”


I’ve never been good at leaving things behind. People, places, pieces of paper with hastily scribbled story notes, ugly plastic Gandalf statues with long-faded sentimental value… Pushing stuff out of my life has never been easy for me.

I don't think they'll all fit in my suitcase...
For that reason, I’m very thankful to have over a month at home on PEI to sort through my boxes of stuff and choose what comes to Scotland, what stays behind in semi-permanent storage, and what heads off to the local thrift store or garbage dump. Some of the choices are easy. Many aren’t. It’s a time-consuming process, and I’m glad I haven’t had to rush myself at all.

I’ve discovered that giving something away isn’t nearly as hard as throwing it out. It’s not the thing itself I’m attached to, but the idea of the thing being valuable. I’d give you my favourite dress if I knew you’d appreciate it more than I do (for the record, you won’t, so don’t bother asking). During the decluttering process, nothing makes me happier than giving stuff away to a good home: my kettle to my brother’s new apartment, my jewellery to an adorable six year old, my seldom-worn dresses to a good friend. It’s so easy to part with something when I know the new owner will use it more than I did.

Uhaul truck for taking my stuff (and Nana's old couches)
back from Ontario
Giving something to a thrift shop is harder. Yes, I’m happy to support a charity, but by the very nature of thrift shops, everything I donate will be sold for a fraction of what it’s worth. I don’t mind too much if they sell an old sweater for a dollar or two, but what about the hand-woven Romanian purse that they price like a cheap Wal-Mart knockoff? Or the expensive Perplexus game I only played a few times? Or the authentic Royal Shakespeare Company poster from David Tennant’s Richard II? There’s no way a thrift store would price these anywhere near their real value.

Thinking about the thrift store issue made me realize that my difficulty with giving stuff up isn’t just part of my sentimental nature—it’s also related to my somewhat excessive drive to save money. None of the objects I just listed have any practical value to me anymore. Anything the thrift store gets for them is a gain. Yet, because I (or someone else, in the case of gifts) paid good money for these objects, I feel like throwing them out or underselling them is wasting money.

I grew up in a money saving household. “Upcycling” wasn’t really a term back then, but we did it anyways: toilet paper rolls became beanie baby castles, old (hopefully sanitized) toothbrushes became sink scrubbers, threadbare sheets were woven into rugs… Before throwing anything out, you thought carefully about whether it could be used to make something else, and the answer was often yes.

Turning my collection of seaglass into a necklace
It was, in many ways, a great way to grow up. We saved a lot of stuff from going to the dump and we saved a lot of money. The downside is that it’s hard to break the habit when throwing things out becomes essential. Getting rid of something and saying, “I’ll buy a new one if necessary” is foreign to me.

I need to practice letting go (cue Disney music). Sentimental attachment hasn’t been as much of a problem this time; I’ve managed to throw out a lot of stuff that no longer means anything to me. Now, I need to tackle my money-saving heart. I need to convince myself that being frugal doesn’t mean being a packrat, that when something has no practical value in my life I should let it go without obsessing over its value in dollars and cents. I need to stop worrying about wasting money and start allowing my life to be a little clearer.

 It’s time to lighten my suitcase and flood the thrift store.



Tuesday, August 18, 2015

-21 Days: Three Weeks and Counting

In three weeks, I'll be back in St. Andrews. 

I leave Halifax on the 7th and arrive in Glasgow early on the 8th, meaning that by mid afternoon I'll be installed once again in St. Andrews. I'm hoping the jet-lag won't be too severe, as I'm arriving in the middle of Freshers' week and I'll already have missed a number of events, so I'd rather not miss more. It'll be so exciting to do Freshers' week again, this time going to events to see old friends, rather than standing awkwardly at a dozen different 'give it a go' sessions. 

This year will be different. I don't even know how different yet, but I do know that I can't count on it to be all that much like my exchange year. 

For starters, I'm a legit student this time. As in, an honest-to-goodness staying-for-three-years and earning-a-degree student. This isn't a year out, where courses transfer as pass/fail. This time, academics need to be top priority.

On top of that, I'm a legit PhD student. I won't be an undergrad moaning about 9:00am lectures, or madly scrambling to finish a reading, or pretending I'm intelligent because I took a quick look at secondary sources. I'll be heading in to my office every morning setting my own schedule, studiously reading everything I can find in my area, and hopefully contributing articles of my own. My MA gave me a taste of real scholarship, but next year will crank that up a notch.

Most importantly, I'm a legit PhD student at St. Andrews. As in, the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. One of the top universities in the world. 600 years old. The alma matter of royalty. An institute of learning that was already well established by the time Shakespeare wrote the plays I study. Last year, I had the privilege of temporarily belonging to that world-- the next three years will tie me forever to the name of St. Andrews. 

To be honest... I'm terrified. Excited, yes. Exhilarated, that too. But, more than anything, I can't believe my dream is coming true, and I'm both excited and scared for what that means. Getting my PhD from St. Andrews will be both the hardest and the best thing I've ever done. And it all starts in three weeks.


Monday, July 6, 2015

The Stratford Festival

Myself and Elly with The Bard
Over the past week, I’ve had the privilege of spending two days in Stratford, Ontario, home to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. While the way the town so blatantly copies Stratford-Upon-Avon in England is a tad amusing, it does an excellent job. There’s the gorgeous Avon River, complete with swans, a quaint high street perfect for window shopping, and a half dozen theatres hosting world-class performers. In other words, it’s pretty much my dream town.

By taking two trips with my friend Elly (who definitely deserves a shout-out for organizing and driving!) I managed to see four shows: Pericles (late Shakespearean comedy), She Stoops to Conquer (18th century marriage comedy by Oliver Goldsmith), Hamlet (no explanation required), and Oedipus Rex (Greek tragedy by Sophocles). It was a rather eclectic mix, spread out over two thousand years and a variety of genres.

Hamlet, unsurprisingly, was my favourite. Pericles was beautiful and She Stoops to Conquer was hilarious and Oedipus Rex was intense, but Hamlet was all of these, and more.

Programs! :)
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the production. Hamlet is my favourite play of all time; I’ve spent countless hours poring over the text for essays and presentations, and I’ve watched the 2009 RSC production starring David Tennant nearly half a dozen times. I have full scenes memorized (just ask my grad school friends!) and I can pick out variants from the three different early printings. I’m more than a little bit of a Hamlet nerd.

The beginning wasn’t fantastic. The lines in the first two scenes were spoken so quickly I could barely catch them, and Jonathan Goad (as Hamlet) raced through soliloquies and spoke lines almost sarcastically when I was used to hearing them delivered in a melancholy tone. It also took me quite a while to get used to the Canadian accents—event though I’ve been back in Canada for nearly a year and my own British accent has long since gone, it was still weird to hear Shakespeare with a Canadian accent for the first time, since every other production I’ve seen, whether live or on film, had British accents.

But it got a lot better. Or, perhaps, I allowed myself to enjoy it more. I began to appreciate this new Hamlet, with his dry humour, and Claudius with his hearty laugh, and Gertrude with her slow loss of everything she loved. Over the course of the play I stopped caring about the accents or whether the actors fit my mental picture and just lost myself in the story.

Backdrop of She Stoops to Conquer at the Avon
I cried at the end. Not because I was so sad that Hamlet died, but because, just sitting in my seat for three hours, I had been through so much. In front of me, characters had lived and died, hated and loved, laughed and cried, fought and made peace, betrayed and been loyal, found forgiveness or died unrepentant. The whole of human experience had been played out there, directly in front of me, and I had been a part of it.

It made me remember why I love theatre, why I plan to literally spend the rest of my life studying plays from over four hundred years ago. It’s because the stories are timeless, because a good dramatist can create characters and plots and themes that are no less applicable now than they were hundreds of years ago. And also because, in the theatre, we can become part of those stories, watching the characters come to life in front of us.

Sometimes, when I spend all day at my laptop in a windowless office typing words that seem meaningless, I forget why I study English. Yesterday, at the Stratford festival, I remembered.





Saturday, May 2, 2015

Success and Rejection

Forest near my home
I'm so bewildered right now. My life could not possibly have taken a more dramatic turn in the past few days. 

Just over a week ago, I took the bus to university nearly crying. I'd been rejected from two universities and the other two weren't providing me with enough funding to afford to attend. My papers weren't going well. I was looking for jobs, but even with a Masters it seemed like I wasn't qualified for anything.

And then Friday Afternoon happened. 

I can't release details yet, not until everything is finalized, but I now have the opportunity to go do my PhD in the UK next year, which is what I've hoped and prayed and worked for all this past year. 

One big yes began an avalanche of yeses, all happening so fast I could barely keep track. I went from a burnt-out MA student uncertain if I'd ever enter a classroom again to a desirable PhD candidate with grad chairs at prestigious universities casually saying they'd love to have me and graduate financial managers suggesting we meet up for drinks and world experts in my field chatting in my office and offering to help in any way they could. 

It's wonderful. It's crazy. It's utterly beyond what I could have expected.

Moonlight walk the evening I heard the news
It’s also, quite frankly, a tad uncomfortable. I’m exactly the same person I was a week ago, but just with one highly important piece of paper in my hand. And now everyone wants to help me out. I’m the go-to success story that makes my department look good. I’m the rags to riches fairy tale.

I always assumed that people doing PhDs at prestigious universities with sizable scholarships had it all together. They were the best of the best. They were smart. And hardworking. And somehow magical—everything worked out for them. They could sit in their comfy office chairs with all their applications and grant proposals comfortably behind them and smile because they had succeeded at life.

But that’s not how it is. Maybe for some people, but not for me. I was rejected. I was burnt-out. I was so lost and confused. If there’s one thing I know about life, it’s that I most definitely don’t have it all together.

There’s a lot of hard work coming. I may have gotten the PhD position of my dreams, but actually getting the degree won’t be easy. And then there’re postdocs. And adjunct positions. And maybe, sometime in the future, a professor’s chair.

Western
I certainly haven’t written my last application or received my last rejection. Life is not all sunshine and rainbows from here on. I may have gotten accepted where it counted most, and I am beyond thrilled. But I am still the same person who was rejected.

I want to be the person who learns from those rejections rather than the one who pretends it’ll never happen again. I want to remember how hard the road has been so far so I can be more empathetic towards the ones travelling behind me and more respectful of the ones ahead. I want to sincerely thank everyone who has supported me so far and in turn support everyone I can.

I want to grow, yet not become a different person from last week, before everything went right. My worth as a human being does not depend on what one scholarship committee thinks of two pages I’ve written. I want to work hard and trust God and move forward knowing that I am not defined, ultimately, by either my academic failures, or my successes. 



Wednesday, April 1, 2015

1 Admin vs. 70 Grad Students: Who Really Works at Western?

My convocation, featuring Amit Chakma (left) and the late Chancellor, Joseph Rotman (right)
On Monday morning, Western’s student newspaper informed me that Amit Chakma, Western University’s president, made nearly a million dollars last year. Apparently his salary is capped at $440,000, but he chose to work through a year of paid leave, earning bonuses which brought his salary up to $967,000.

I’m normally not the sort of person to complain about other people making a lot of money, and I feel very blessed to receive nearly $20,000 in research grants and TAships from Western. To me, getting paid $35 an hour to fangirl about The Hobbit makes grad school the ultimate job and I don’t care that my salary is technically under the poverty line, because it’s plenty in my current situation.

So why do I feel the need to write about Chakma’s salary? Not because I think that there’s something inherently wrong with a human being making a million dollars, but because I attend a publically-funded university that’s cutting arts programs and replacing faculty with sessional instructors in order to save money… and that same university just released a list of over 1200 people (admin, faculty, and staff) who earn more than $100,000 every year.

As a grad student, I know money talks. OGS (Ontario Graduate Scholarship- $15,0000 for one year) and SSHRC (Social Science and Humanities Research Council- $20,000/35,000 for 3-4 years) carry enormous weight. If I was to win a SSHRC (I won’t know ‘till May) I would be accepted by virtually any university in Canada (potentially even ones which had previously
rejected me) because funding is just that important.

SSHRC applications work in two stages: you apply to your university, and they forward the best applications to the Canada-wide competition. I discovered in January that I had been forwarded, but I’ve yet to hear of anyone else from my 60-person department who was. Through the grapevine, I know that there can only have been one or two other applications sent on. This means that, absolute best case scenario, the English department at Western could receive three new SSHRCs, totalling $105,000 next year. Worst case, we’ll receive nothing.  

Western currently offers 278 OGS scholarships every year (heavily government subsidized), which amounts to approximately $4,000,000 in funding. That sounds like a big number, until you realize it’s only four times what Chakma made last year. Chakma’s salary alone could fund almost 70 graduate students. In fact, since these scholarships are so highly government subsidized, UWO only spends $1,400,000 on OGS’s, or approximately Chakma’s salary plus the next top earner, Michael Strong (Dean of the school of Medicine and Dentistry, $462,125). Are these two men doing more for the university than nearly three hundred grad students?

Full disclosure: I was just rejected from UBC (University of British Columbia-- known for being one of the best and biggest English grad programs in Canada) because they only had enough money to offer four funded spots this year. Funding for graduate programs is obviously in crisis.

I don’t care that Amit Chakma makes at least fifty times what I do (100 times, if you count the fact that half my salary goes towards my tuition). He’s got a lot more experience than I do. I’m perfectly happy with my current salary.

But I do care that arts programs are in a funding crisis, unable to offer spots to graduate students, overworking underpaid TAs and sessional instructors, increasing class sizes, and ultimately hurting students at all levels. And while instructors and programs are being cut, lowering the quality of education students are paying for and our government is subsidizing, the top dog is making a million dollars.

Seventy graduate students leading tutorials. Thirty sessional instructors giving dynamic lectures. Ten full-time faculty conducting ground-breaking research.

Or one head-honcho speaking at convocation about how valuable our Western degree is.

This isn’t about Chakma. This isn’t about him making too much or me too little. This is about my university, which, when money was tight, chose to more than double the salary of an overpaid administrator rather than hiring the teachers and researchers who form the backbone of the university. And that is a decision which I cannot agree with.  

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Day 189: A Working Vacation

CN Tower in Toronto
If it wasn’t for the three large screens playing the hockey game, the Irish pub would almost feel authentic. There are certainly enough signs advertising Guinness, and the waitress’s accent sounds foreign yet familiar. Still, the ceiling is a tad too high, and the mirrors on one wall make the building appear airy and spacious, nothing like the quaint cramped spaces I got used to in Ireland and Scotland.

Of course, I’m not in Ireland, or the UK. I’m in downtown Toronto, halfway between Ottawa and London. I’ll be “home” in a few hours (still not quite sure what that word means) but for now I’m enjoying the last meal of my working vacation, courtesy of Western University. Gotta say, the food-allowance part of going to conferences is definitely something I could get used to.

Where have I been these past few days? In Ottawa, at the 21st Annual Underhill Graduate Student Colloquium, hosted by the History Department at Carleton University. The conference was centered around the idea of performing history, so I presented a paper on dance in Ben Jonson’s 1609 Masque of Queens, a court performance where the dance styles were very much tied to political opinions.

Exhibit at the National Gallery in Ottawa 
I’d never presented a paper before, so I can’t say I wasn’t nervous, but this colloquium was pretty much the ideal place for a first presentation. It was an extremely supportive forum for graduate students to present their research—the conference was fairly evenly divided between MAs and PhDs, there were a fair number of universities represented (UNB, U of T, McMaster, Western, and UBC, to name a few), and projects outside of straight history were definitely welcome (such as Art History, Medieval Studies, Digital Humanities, and my field, English). The other conference attendees were extremely friendly, the other papers presented (41 in all) were fascinating, and the question periods at the end of each session generated intriguing discussions.

Catching the train
I presented on the first session of the first day, which was originally something I was quite pleased about. After all, it was lovely to show up on Thursday morning, present for fifteen minutes, and then enjoy the rest of the conference stress-free. However, since the conference was such a supportive environment, it was too bad that I presented so early, before many people had shown up. There were only ten other people in the room when I gave my talk, which I’m told isn’t a poor showing for an academic conference, but the rest of the panels I attended later in the day had 20-40 attendees and a much more energetic question period.


Still, it was a fantastic experience to tell other people about my research. After all, up to this point, no one except my professors, my mother, and my best friend have ever read anything academic I’ve written, so an audience of ten actually represents a 333% increase. I loved standing in front of the room, presenting my ideas to a group of people, however small, who cared about what I was talking about and who were all working on equally fascinating projects. Underhill may have been a great conference to start with, but it certainly won’t be my last.


Saturday, January 31, 2015

Day 150: Well, I'm Back

“But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”
-- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Final day in St. Andrews- a walk on the 18th hole of the Old Course

Day 150. I’ve been back in Canada for 150 days. Yikes.

It’s been good, for the most part. I won’t lie and say that it wasn’t hard to leave Scotland and that every moment back in Canada has been amazing and that I never want to leave here again. Coming back was difficult and stressful and full of reverse culture shock and longing for cobbled streets and old stone buildings.

But, despite all that, it has been good to come back. I needed to return to Canada and see my country through new eyes. Yes, there are plenty of things that now frustrate me, like how spread out everything is or how people don’t know how to queue or how no one properly appreciates a good cup of tea. Yet, there are so many things I do appreciate, like proper malls and nice airports and heated houses and having all my clothes with me and having a family who knows me so well and loves me anyways.

I’m glad to have returned. I don’t think it would have been good for me to have stayed away much longer. Living the crazy life of an exchange student, it’s far too easy to forget that “home”—whatever that word means—does actually matter.

That’s the problem with going on exchange: it’s so temporary… and so exciting for that very reason. During my one year at St. Andrews I packed in several years’ worth of travel and theatre-going and celebrity-meeting. I did so much that home couldn’t help but feel boring… but I only did so much because I wasn’t at home. My friends who call Britain home could have done just as much as I did, but they didn’t, because they were at home. It was the exchange that gave me license to have such an amazing year, not the living in Britain.

An exchange is fundamentally transitory. It’s got an absolute beginning and end. It’s like a little bubble space off of real life. I never want to say that it has no bearing on real life, because it absolutely does, but it still is a special time that must end. I might even go as far as to say that the fact that an exchange year ends is ultimately what makes it all worthwhile.

That’s why I had to come back. Because returning to Canada and reevaluating my homeland also allows me to look back and appreciate Scotland for what it was: a life changing year. My year abroad changed me in so many ways that didn’t even become evident until I came back. It’s all well and good to reinvent yourself in a new country, but the real test is when you come back “home.”

This probably all sounds too final, like I’m content return home and put my exchange year behind me. That’s not true at all. Right now I’m doing all I can to get myself back to Britain and I still don’t particularly want to stay in Canada long term. But I know that returning here was important, even essential, and I’m so glad, after 150 days, that I came back.