I heard from a friend this week that he’d drawn Saudi Arabia in his work’s World Cup sweepstake and how he knew he couldn’t win. I reminded him of the power of positive thought, feeling relieved that I had drawn Brazil myself. Some outcomes are more probable than others.
Positive thinking; self belief; ‘can-do’; positive mental attitude (PMA)—these are ‘self-help’ phrases that are bandied about to make a person feel better about a situation. But oh, my—they are also crucial to being successful in life’s challenges. I learned that again this week. All week, I’ve had Friday’s run on my radar: the first sustained run of twenty minutes. I’ve been dreading it! Twenty minutes might not sound too long a run to folk who are runners, but I’m new to this. I’ve rarely done any running since I left school more than half a century ago. I’m overawed by people who can line up for a 10k, a half or a full marathon. I always wish I could do it without ever really believing it possible. I started the Couch to 5K challenge as a New Year resolution, kept it up for four weeks until bad weather, microbes and life in general got in the way. I’m a person who rises to a challenge and hated that I’d lapsed on this one, so I decided to start again on our Line Break to Scarborough in May. On New Year’s day, running for one minute seven times nearly floored me; in May, back to square one, running for one minute did seem easier, but I was glad when it was over. So this twenty-minute run was on my week’s horizon like a threat. I’d done all the runs leading up to it, the longest being eight minutes twice with a three minute recovery walk in between, so twenty minutes of sustained running was a big deal. You can see how this was playing on my mind in a negative way: ‘on my radar…like a threat’; ‘a big deal’. I know now it wasn’t the physical challenge of running that was the issue: it was the mental attitude, the lack of belief. I went out on Friday morning not really believing I could do it. But I ran when the time came. ‘Laura’, the app-voice, told me I’d been running for ten minutes, I was half way through: I didn’t feel too bad. Laura told me I’d been running for fifteen minutes, only five minutes left to run: I was feeling it, but not badly. Laura told me I only had two minutes left. I knew I would do it, even though it was hurting; because not doing it, not crossing the line after all the hard work in those eighteen minutes would be the worst thing. I did it! Laura told me to slow down for a five-minute brisk warm-down walk. I high-fived myself walked on without a break. Now I can say ‘I can run for twenty minutes non-stop.’ If I can do that I can probably run further. I feel like a runner at last. I spent Friday feeling energised and very good about myself.
I’ve spent a lot of words describing this because? Well, I feel the same about the PhD. My attitude hasn’t always been positive about this challenge either. I realise I’ve been over-awed by my own decision to do a PhD: sometimes I’ve been frightened of it, frightened of the implications of it: why did I think I could even think about doing this? Self-doubt is a black dog that’s pursued me since my school days. I like to think anyone who knows me probably won’t realise that; but always in the back of my mind, that feeling of unworthiness. As a head-teacher, I always felt like a pretender, even though I know I was good at my job. I often felt I was making it up as I went along, that other head-teachers knew exactly what they were doing and I mustn’t let them see I was an imposter. It’s ridiculous, of course, because I’m sure most of them felt exactly as I did: the goal posts move so often in education, it’s impossible to ever know the job. The best you can do is the best you can do for your school. And here I go, rambling off the point again.
What I’m saying is, you need PMA to do a PhD. It’s a lonely path. I have two bachelor degrees and two masters degrees; all of them involved a community aspect: coming together with other course members to discuss learning, to share work, to gain feedback from peers. The PhD is not like that. To a large extent you’re on your own. Of course, you have a support team, and mine has been a life-line. But there isn’t the same regular contact with other students in seminars, lectures, all the community aspects of study I’ve enjoyed up until now. Thankfully, I have friends also doing PhD; I have poet friends who are there as a positive force, keeping me going. But without PMA it’s hard; well, it’s hard anyway, but without PMA it’s even harder. And sometimes I haven’t had PMA. I’ve doubted myself; I’ve doubted my ability; I’ve doubted my right to a place on the course. I’ve made it harder for myself.
Tomorrow I have my annual review. I’m feeling positive about this—I think. I’ve enjoyed the last two reviews, enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on how far I’ve come, to see there is a clear path through this, that the end is in sight. I still don’t know if I’ll get a PhD in 2019: I haven’t become that positive person yet. But I do know I will give it my best shot. And at the end of the day, the best you can do is the best you can do.
I started addressing the advice from my study support team this week, going through the points one by one on my draft thesis, reflecting on and addressing them. It took me five hours to address three of the points, and that’s not counting the accompanying reading, so I still have a long way to go. But I can run for twenty minutes and I can do this. I have a meeting with Jean Sprackland after my review, something positive to look forward to: discussing poems is always a pleasure.
I’m including a ‘coupling’ this week. It was inspired by a letter I found in my mother’s effects after she died. I’ve had it for nearly thirty years, tucked away in my filing cabinet. It is from my grammar school Headmaster to my parents on the death of my brother. I was fourteen at the time. This letter surprised me in two ways: one, the initials on the envelope weren’t my father’s initials, they were the initials of my deceased brother. That man couldn’t even take the time to address my parents correctly. Seeing a letter addressed to their son in the week they lost him must in itself have been a hurt to my parents. The second surprise was that they sent it at all. I didn’t realise my school knew my brother had died. He had attended a different school; and in the week he died, in the week they knew he had died, I was given a Saturday detention for not handing in my homework. You will see in this some of the roots of my lack of PMA. I have joined these two facts together in this coupling. The lines on the left are the lines as they are written in the letter; the italicised lines on the right are my reflections, my response to the letter. It’s one of the poems I’ll be discussing with Jean tomorrow afternoon. I know it’s not perfect—here I go again with lack of PMA—but I keep applying polish. (Sorry, WordPress has messed with the formatting.)
Condolences, Duplicity But No Excuses
A ‘coupling’ from a letter from the Headmaster
Dear Mr and Mrs _______
how empty words can be.
I am very sorry indeed
for I gave you his, not your, initials
at your terrible loss
turning my words all to cliché.
Nothing one can say
can now be anything but platitudes, none of which
can be of much comfort to you
but what do I care of your comfort anyway?
Only those who have had to bear such things can
know the unbearable pain of your loss or
what can’t be easily dismissed by
those of us who have children.
This is incomprehensible, we
can try to
massage our own self-righteousness,
no more, I suppose, than that.
But what of her homework? For
try as we do
we can’t ignore school rules even in this week of a loss
we simply cannot fully understand.
So, Saturday detention—she’ll submit homework
I am sure
one way or another
however we feel for you
because our governors must be impressed
know that children are never affected
very deeply indeed and
what can children really feel of grief so we
are sorry you should have to undergo
this personal darkness but her homework’s due:
such harrowing experience
such inconsistent motives.
May you be given strength
to lift your eyes
to see over this affliction
toward her end of year exams.
of course, because I’m the respected
of this grammar school.