On Gratefulness


October is far and above my favourite month. The jacarandas are ablaze, lining the streets and cliffs in purple fires. The star jasmine is flowering too, staining the evening air as I walk to my boyfriend’s after French classes. There’s the joy of pulling on a summer frock and feeling it ripple against my bare calves, and of wrapping myself in a cashmere cardigan on still-chilly mornings.

And now there’s one more reason: after five years of unremitting hard work, of research in Australia and overseas, of writing and publishing, travelling to and presenting at conferences, and making applications (9 of them to 7 institutions in that time), I finally won a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, one of 200 offered to scholars across Australia who have finished their PhD within the last five years. I’ll be based at the University of Queensland and I’ll be writing an ecobiography on 19th century botanist Georgiana Molloy. A biography is a work about a person, but an ecobiography is about a person and their environment – you can’t narrate the life of one without considering the other.

The relief that comes from the promise of financial stability is unparalleled. For five years I’ve survived on a part-time wage, supplemented with Australia Council grants and assistance from my parents. I’ve written one book and the drafts for two more (and a third will be done by Xmas), and I’ve worked so hard that I’ve relapsed repeatedly and tediously into illness.

‘Listen to your body,’ the psychologist said to me two years ago when I dipped down into depression. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t always heeded her advice, but I am at least aware of driving myself to exhaustion. The problem is that there's too much to write and too little time. The problem is also deafness – the concentration fatigue that comes from everyday interactions.

My deafness was responsible for pushing me into writing and research – it was a job that didn’t require too much listening, but which satisfied me immensely. I tried to be a fiction writer when I returned to Australia, but I missed the stimulation and the crisp exchange of ideas that comes with academia, and knew I had to find a way back into it. However, deafness and the strain of listening left me too depleted after teaching to be able to write, and so I resolved to find a postdoc. It’s been an arduous process, but the set backs that come with being a writer prepared me for that. A knock down is irrelevant - you just keep on going. I’m hoping that now, with a new role, I’ll have a better work-life balance.

I’ve just finished importing all of the blog posts I’ve ever written into my new(ish) website. I started them in 2006, when blogging was taking off in the UK. I was appalled, as I tidied them up, at how negative I was in London; so ground down by homesickness & the lack of light that I couldn’t appreciate what was before me.

The process of making oneself happy is one of deduction, and I know now that I can never be away from Australia for long, but it also takes resolve. A friend of mine, whom I took from her calm demeanour to be a naturally buoyant person, once corrected me, ‘No, I make a conscious effort every day to be positive.’ I wish I had known that while I was overseas, but perhaps we never understand how unhappy we are until we have climbed out of it.

There is so much to be grateful for: the scholars at the university who helped me pull my application into shape; Queensland’s abundant, glorious sunshine; my family, who have supported and protected me but still allowed me forge my stubborn, difficult way ahead; my smart and funny boyfriend, with whom I am never bored; and the smell of jasmine that wends through the window on these still, spring nights.