Uncertain and Afraid

I sit down to write this at a quarter past eight (GMT) on New Year’s Eve. As has become my habit, since I started this blog, I want to take the opportunity to pause, as so many others do at this time of year, and assess all that has passed since I last wrote such a post. Like many of those others, this time I will also be reflecting on the changes the past ten years have wrought. While I know pedants will point out that the new decade doesn’t start until 2021, as a mathematician’s wife I believe in the reality and power of zero, and the the changing of the third as well as the fourth digit of the year seems a good moment to plant a marker in time.

Over the past six years, I have written about hard years, and harder ones. I have written about poetry, both that which has accompanied me since childhood and that which I have discovered more recently. I have written of my family and of my work, of triumphs and of troubles. I have tried, throughout, to write with hope. I hope this evening that, despite the title of this post, I can continue that tradition.

So, how has the last decade been for me? Hard is probably the right word for it. In January 2010 I was the married mother of a young son with a PhD but no career. My first book had been published for just under a year. I lived in a rented house without a garden in a city that, after two and half years, I was starting to learn to call home. I had a loving family, many of them far away. I was teaching myself to bake bread and trying, for the first time since I was an undergraduate, to write fiction. I wasn’t sure where I was going or what I was doing.

In the intervening years I have had my second child (a daughter) and written my second book. I have found and forged an academic career, winning two significant grants and moving from an ‘early career academic’ to a mid-career one. I have developed new skills as a teacher and public speaker. With my husband, I have bought two houses and sold one, both with gardens. I no longer live (although I still work) in the same city, but feel that yes, I have come home. I have gained a niece and a nephew (as well as an honourary niece and a goddaughter); I have lost both my parents. I have learned to cope with long-term illness in those I love best. I no longer bake bread but have become very good at preserving, particularly marmalade and sloe gin. I am teaching myself to quilt and am trying, for the first time in a decade, to write fiction. I sleep less and run (and shout) more. Robert Frost and W.H. Auden are still my favourite poets.

So where does this leave me, on the cusp of the new decade, one which many people are hailing as holding the possibility of being the new ‘Roaring Twenties’? As a historian of that decade, I can’t but be ambivalent about such predictions. The Twenties, after all, were, for many, a decade marked as much by violence, displacement, disability, poverty, joblessness and illness as by bootleg gin, jazz and art deco styling. This was the decade of the British General Strike and the art of Otto Dix, of the Irish War of Independence (and associated Civil War) and the Scopes Monkey Trial. And there are enough echoes in both the politics and public discourse of the present to make me feel wary. Like Auden, writing about the following decade, I cannot help but feel ‘uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire / Of a low, dishonest decade.’ [1]

This sense of uncertainty and fear is reflected in my feelings about my personal life. This coming year will see the end of the funding for my current project. I need to write up that research in some form(s) and work out what the next project is, and while I have some ideas for both, ideas which excite and enthuse me, I don’t have the energy I did a decade ago. I look back on the woman that I was and wonder how I could have achieved so much in such a short space of time. I can’t do that again, nor anything like it.

As I say, I still love my subject. I want to read and to write and to teach and to talk about it. But I cannot do it in the way I have been. Grief, and family life, and private passions have become part of my being in a way they weren’t a decade ago. I am still learning how to live with the weight they bring, the space they occupy as a professional historian.

So looking forward, for me I am not sure that the Twenties will roar. Instead, they will be slower, perhaps more considered, a time of conserving energy and prioritizing passions, of learning how to give of myself without losing myself. There will be more reading, and more writing, but probably more fiction and less history. There will, I hope, be a lot of gardening and cooking (although not immediately, as we are on the verge of ripping out and replacing our kitchen, an act weighted with a symbolic mixture of hope and frustration). There will be friends and family, new and old, near and far.

I don’t know if those ambitions and expectations are as hopeful as those I have looked forward to in earlier years, but they are what I have to fortify myself against exhaustion, uncertainty and fear. However modest or ambitious, I hope your own hopes for the coming year and years are fortifying and fulfilling.

Wishing you a very happy new year, one and all.

[1] W. H. Auden, ‘September 1st, 1939’, lines 3-5.

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