Keeping Going by Seamus Heaney is a difficult poem but these are difficult times across the world. I’m not at all qualified to critique poetry but coming back to Heaney as an adult with the parallels of growing up on a farm in the countryside, then leaving it along with the violence-torn country behind, then returning after peace had been negotiated makes me see the words anew. This is my personal interpretation, and how the words speak to my circumstances.
The poem’s themes explore leaving versus staying, it explores the visceral nature of living and dying, including how murder was a backdrop to our day-to-day reality. It looks at remaining neutral and steadfast in the face of the threat of violence. Here the threat centred on the Troubles in Northern Ireland but the dichotomies pulling apart our societies are a mirror and I found myself questioning all summer long as to whether we can all maintain a semblance of keeping going, laughing and navigating through it all, forging new possibilities without destroying old ones on our metaphorical tractors.
You shout and laugh above the revs, you keep
Old roads open by driving on the new ones.
After more than a year and a half of pandemic working, it has been difficult to put words onto the page but even more so into the public sphere. Supporting colleagues, ensuring the best for students, home schooling and keeping the kids emotionally, mentally and physically safe has taken a high toll on many parents in higher education, but especially mothers. There has been much written on the lack of career progression of women in education over the pandemic. However, just managing to get by doing the job that’s required of us, has been enough to bring most of us to breaking point; career progression something then that is quite frankly beyond reach, beyond even being visible. I’m seeing more and more women leaving the sector or taking sabbaticals; such a loss of expertise, knowledge and experience.
Those without children had even more expectation put upon them, as if they didn’t have their own responsibilities and need for self-care. Quite simply every one of us became expendable in the need to keep the ‘doors open’, relying on how much we deeply cared about one another and our students. Each new semester more exhausting than the one before, and very few took any significant leave throughout, simply to keep on top of demands and minimise stress of others. Now we are being expected to embrace on-campus teaching despite the pandemic raging on, abandoning the progress made for including those who previously faced huge barriers with the inflexibility of campus only courses. The situation is extremely complex and requires extremely complex solutions that few of us feel in any way prepared for; the sector looking to magically turn toxic lime mix into a dazzling white end product:
A kind of greeny burning and thought of brimstone.
But the slop of the actual job
Of brushing walls, the watery grey
Being lashed on in broad swatches, then drying out
Whiter and whiter, all that worked like magic
Working in professional support by definition means that my core role is helping others, but in an extended crisis this meant often choosing between colleagues in need and my children in need. Emotionally and physically exhausting, and many times ensured that neither had the focus it deserved. Our head spaces were pulled back and forth between tasks and demands like a demented pinball machine, communicating and making decisions in milliseconds, almost through instinct. Luckily, I work with the most amazing team, with the most incredible manager and they would ensure that I remembered my own health. If it weren’t for them, I would have given up long before.
I wanted this summer to be different, a time to heal and recover, this proved insurmountable. I tried to implement as many of the things that I have advocated for others in an attempt to keep from falling into the black indefinitely and find a way of making keeping going possible. Staying away from social media, getting as many steps in each day as possible, enjoying the outdoors and avoiding alcohol have slowly but surely let a chink of light back in. However, I need to be open and honest with myself about free labour in the coming year. Championing others, sharing and being part of a community is welded to my professional identity but over the next year I cannot conceive of being able to survive if I take on anything more than the exciting projects I am working on currently.
This applies to the majority in higher education and for some the external engagement is essential for promotion. However, the level of workload that has been seen over the last eighteen months is simply unsustainable, this has been said many times, by many people and as we go into the new academic year with even more uncertainty, it is hard to see how this can be avoided. Helping and supporting each other is the only solid, tangible thing that I can see ahead. Keeping one other right, to ensure checks and balances are maintained is the only way to avoid breaking completely and irrecoverably. At some point soon, each of us will have to decide between a work place and a work home, something that I am not ready for. I cannot help but wonder if those in government, senior leadership, professional bodies, students and parents will ever know or understand the level of commitment made by staff in every corner of the university to ensure students maintained their learning and achievements throughout.
In the United Kingdom the massive workloads and commitment have been rewarded not with recognition or concern for our health and wellbeing but with zero to little salary increase, increased taxes and increased pension contributions. So then, when does ‘too much’, actually become ‘too much’ for us as a collective? I honestly don’t know what kind of future society my children will part of – a caring one or one torn apart by divisive stances and selfish motivations?
In the meantime, I will be quietly keeping going, wrestling inner demons alongside work, study and family and I wish you all safe in the challenging times we still face.
and wondering, is this all? As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.