Quite a while ago now, I read a very interesting book entitled The Mind Gym: Give Me Time. For years I’d been a classic rushaholic, with never enough hours in the day, always too many projects stacked up in front of me and a feeling, not of pleasure at the prospect, but oppressive claustrophobia. It seems obvious to me it’s one of the reasons I ended up with chronic fatigue. Anyhow, the exercise that made quite an impact on me was called Pathfinder, and it suggested you imagine yourself in a year’s time in the life you would like to be living. And you consider it from the following points of view: physical (how you look and feel), mental (learning skills and state of mind), social (friendships), occupational, financial, familial and intimate (close relationships). The book offers a whole series of questions designed to make you think clearly about what you would most like to have happen in those key areas of your life. When I filled it in there was only one answer across the board – I wanted space and I wanted time.
When I filled in this questionnaire, I felt somewhat distressed as I didn’t see then how I could possibly change my life to that extent. It took me months to come around to the idea of implementing real, definitive change, and many more months after that to accept that I could actually alter my life and still, somehow, be myself. The biggest decision I have made, perhaps ever in my life, bigger than getting married, or having a child – both of which were culturally acceptable things to do and so felt like natural progressions rather than decisions – was the choice I made to downsize my job, to give up a flashy position as a lecturer and to enter the far more humble and unobtrusive (and part-time) field of study support. And now I can look at the year I’ve had and remember that questionnaire I answered, and feel sort of astounded at the changes that have come.
I do feel more spacious now, better rested, less hassled and harried all the time. I have a chance to look at myself and see who I am, rather than spend my time constantly trying to whip myself into the right shape for who I thought I ought to be. I’m not always trying to live up to an ideal, and so I have the opportunity just to live, and though this still feels strange and I take that opportunity only tentatively at present, uncertain whether I really am entitled to it, I do feel sure that this is the right way forward. Then, there’s this unwieldy, awkward-shaped thought that I may be able to write. I feel very uncomfortable with romantic notions of writing as something I am utterly compelled to do; it’s not true, although it’s something that comforts me, and really I like better just doing it than reflecting on it. I’m incoherent on this subject: it’s very new, and a treat that I am not sure I have earned, but one that I might just be greedy about anyhow.
But I will also confess that change has odd, unpredictable side effects, too. I don’t feel as intelligent as I used to, when I spent my life in fifth gear, mentally. The title of the book, the mind gym is very appropriate here – I don’t spend my working days in one any more and so am conscious of my brain muscles getting flabby. I’ve relaxed mentally all round, and so my memory is shot to pieces. I used to keep tracks on everything, have tight control over all the details of the lives of family and friends, and I was always ready with the right thing to say in any situation. Not any more, alas. Now I feel I wander round in a daze, information goes in one ear and out the other, I can’t remember my itemized to-do list any more and when I can remember it, I can’t always be bothered to check those items off. It’s certainly a more peaceful way to live, but I am quietly appalled at myself sometimes.
And some things still haven’t changed enough. Last week I had to give a presentation to my colleagues at work on my past year in study support. Because I am not easy to fit into any particular category for round robin emails, I hadn’t actually been told the meeting would be this week until a day or so in advance, when I found out by chance. In the old modus vivendi I would have quickly ordered a tank of vital life force fuel and dropped a burning match into it; that got me through most performative situations. But I can’t do that any more, and I gave a low-key, probably rather dull chat about my work. It’s a difficult situation; my job still represents a territorial threat to many of my colleagues, who fear I am there to point out their shortcomings with the students. I cannot deny that I do hear a great deal about their shortcomings (in some cases) from the students, although I am very good at being confidential for all concerned and quite clear that my mission here is one of diplomacy. Still, I find myself disproportionately upset that one colleague in particular, and someone who used to be a friend, clearly has a particular issue with what I’m doing. He hasn’t replied to any of the emails I’ve sent round over the course of the year, and he was the only person to raise a complaint about my work at the meeting (I happened to see one of his students for a session and he complained he hadn’t known about it). He avoids me carefully but emanates those huffy, hostile vibes that no one, not even people who have recently switched off their most sensitive receptors, can ignore.
Now, I think I make too much fuss if someone doesn’t like me; I’d rather be one of those people who do what they need to do and maintain their own integrity and don’t give a fig for crowd-pleasing compliance. I admire people like that, but I have yet to join their ranks. I did send him an email after the meeting, apologizing and inviting him for tea and a chat. Naturally, he hasn’t replied, which leaves me feeling foolish and awkward, like I conceded a point I could have kept. I’ll keep out of his way from now on, but I’d like to find a good attitude that I can maintain towards the dislike that will inevitably be my lot in this job from time to time. It’s a good piece of growing up, I think, to be able to handle other people’s negativity and not let it get to you. I hope it’s a change that will come my way soon.