Limitations and new horizons
It would be easy to assume that lack of access to university libraries and online resources would be a hindrance to continuing research beyond/outwith academia. I have found this not to be the case. Rather, my newfound limitations have in many ways broadened my horizons, and not only in leading me to rediscovering the joys of public libraries.
I am privileged to live in a city with an impressive network of public libraries, many of which, including my own local branch, have survived threats of closure thanks to community action. Having largely relied on university libraries for many years (although, while living in and returning to Belfast I use the Linen Hall and Central libraries), and now being excluded from them, I realise that I was missing out on the alternative and creative treasure troves of glorious knowledge that I’ve been accessing regularly since quitting teaching early this year.
Through Newcastle’s libraries, I’ve researched my family tree (particularly my great uncle Maurice who settled in South Shields after the Second World War), learned about Venice’s architecture and art, and am studying ancient world history and mythologies for my ever-growing project on Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition. I’ve also been borrowing DVDs for the film club I run at a residential care home. I use the study areas to read and write. I’ve picked up leaflets about local events, and learned about the city I now call home (although my heart remains in Belfast).
My local library opens on a part-time basis, which was ideal in helping me find structure in the week during my first few months of moving back after leaving Salford in March. I have let that lapse, though, and must return soon. Even if all I do is type up notes like these that I first jot in a notebook (which I’m currently doing in the Discovery Museum café), it is productive and gets me away from the house and its distractions. Writing and/or editing every day is key.
In addition to knowledge, I have also found amongst the books inspiration to try writing research-based texts for general readership. I have always felt that I would rather people be able to access my scribbles for free in public libraries or for cheap in bookshops rather than be paywalled out by university libraries and academic presses. Reading the work of other scholars who have done this has helped me believe I can too.
My horizons have also expanded via ‘limitations’ such as veganism, mental health issues and having zero income. When I tell people that I’m going vegan (I’m mostly vegan, but take some medications with lactose and experience occasional medical need for a Cadbury's Wispa – other chocolate treats are of course available), a typical response is along the lines of ‘oh, that must be hard as you can’t each very much’. Au contraire. Finding things out is my bag, and I’m a food-loving starvo. The self-imposed ethical restrictions on my diet have opened up a world of new tastes, ingredients, combinations and cooking skills. I’ve taken advice from sites such as vegan.com and crowded out meat and dairy so much that I do not miss them and enjoy trying new things instead of making the same five meals on hard rotation. I have variety, I’m more confident as a cook, and my body has never felt healthier. And yes, I do take a vitamin B complex to avoid B12 deficiency.
Coming to terms with anxiety, depression and grief is a persistent challenge that has also led to positive changes. The problems that came to a head this year have been physically debilitating. This surprised me, as, apart from bouts of fatigue in the past, I’d always managed to push through and carry on. This year, I’ve been liberated by learning to both admit that I’m not okay, and in taking the permission to do so. It is freeing. I am in an insecure limbo, having been defined by my academic identity for so long, but now I’m open to the possibilities of what else I can do and become, which doesn’t have to revolve around the fantasy of the academic wonder woman doing all the god-damn things and still failing. I believed the myth that the academic job/career was everything and that I was too narrow in my training for an ‘alternative’ path. What nonsense.
It’s important to note here that I’m currently in a privileged position (that for many years I wasn’t in) which has allowed me to quit and take time to recover and pursue other avenues. This also isn’t a free ride as it involves physical and emotional labour that often takes me away from my writing aspirations (our house needs work plus my partner has two children with his persistently abusive ex). Such challenges generate further need for self-care and self-assertion, as well as a re-evaluation of what 'labour' means.
These factors, plus the need to work through the many bereavements I experienced in the first twenty or so years of my life, keep the words flowing. Nothing feels more natural to me than having a pen and notebook at hand. I cannot afford therapy, and that’s okay. When I last had counselling, I was left so raw by what I’d unearthed during the weekly 50-minute sessions that I left feeling willing for a truck to crush me and make all the pain go away in one final burst. Writing is a release valve over which I have control. No one is posing questions that push me down rabbit holes I cannot claw back out of and that were not the issue I needed to discuss. In a way, the writing and having of ideas is a form of self-repair.
Which takes me to my final point. While I have savings to eke out, I have no income to replenish them. I have never liked waste, but often struggled to find the time to mend things. My mum does this a lot for me, but I’ve only seen her a few times a year for the past 3+ years. I went to school at a time when sewing and needlework were no longer taught in Home Economics, as it was then, so I never learned to do it properly. I’ve been taking repairs in hand more. I always did have a go, but often did badly, and now am working on improving. I’ve had the kit for a while, and plenty of thread, so why not? We also repair and salvage old bits and pieces around the house as much as possible, which I’ve also been improving at. I don't like it when things are disposable and become devoid of use value.
It’s not much of a rousing climax, I know, and I’ll avoid making terrible puns about tying up threads. For me, limitation is to be embraced. What we can manage to do within restrictions – and because of and in spite of them – should not be underestimated.