Looking back on my 35 year-old self – #2

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. 

15 december

 

Today, I was happy when I thought of this journal – I would be writing tonight. I also felt confident, and balanced, this morning. I made a plan of going to Wuhan and Changsha. I’m having appetite for the future again.

Two years ago, I was in the hot springs at Rye, resting my eyes and body among the hills, in the warm water. Yesterday, other Hamer scholars organized a trip to the local hot springs. I didn’t go. A trip to the hot springs with Hamer scholars would not be the most relaxing experience – busy bus, crowded springs, and – who knows – dumb conversations maybe. Still: why is it that I’m so bad at taking breaks, why is it that I feel guilty taking pleasure, and would rather sit, in work productive or sterile – spending as much, sometimes – for few results, and further burn out.

 

 

How did I relax recently? Yesterday, I spent four hours with Hao Mingliang – wonderful guy – but speaking Chinese all the way. Before, I sat at the cinema café reading about Nanjing – in Chinese – and I paused after seeing him at a Bubble Tea place inside the shopping mall – reading Chinese. These ‘pauses’ are nothing but ways of making me work that much further; not actually pausing.

Even when Philip came, apart from excessive sleep, I didn’t pause much. Only when we went inside the aquarium did I – and it made me cry – watching dolphins and fish. Then I had a moment of pure restfulness.

Writing this text is restful though – but I wouldn’t have thought of it that way necessarily. I have developed a habit of calling all sorts of activities as ‘work’. My step-father once told me ‘you call reading novels work’. To some extent, it was – I was in a literary stream at school – but he had a point. I called it work to protect my study from the dumb requirements of entertainment, that my family was pressing on me. But now that I’m older, I might actually get more ownership of my pleasure, and stop calling so many things work – just insist I have different forms of pleasure.

By calling everything work, I can’t relax. I also can’t work very well, or at least, fit in ‘paid work’. During this stay in Nanjing, I was remarkable at networking and studying, but only made 800 yuan from a TV show, living off my scholarship. I studied and I networked heavily, but did I work?

In the field I’m in, it is remarkably difficult to discern what is work, and what isn’t. After Ecole Normale, I have been used to having a ‘status’, and getting money for what I am, rather than what I do. Maybe that’s acceptable for me – but is whatever I do while I receive this money therefore work? And am I working myself to death for too little a sum, out of status consciousness?

When I prepared for exams, at Ecole Normale and before the aggregation, anything for the exam was work, with a clear result: I would get a lifetime job and salary. When I wrote my PhD and taught classes, both of these things were work. But already, I started writing novels, and reading books to inform them – and that was work as well. Then when I moved to Australia: there was film work, there was exhibition work, writing was work – and so was teaching, and so was my job at the Department of Primary Industries. Now Marco Polo Project is work. Work, in all its forms, has taken over my life, and I can’t relax, have a beer, wind down.

A few things help me get through. TV series do the trick – especially with Philip. But I’ve watched through Dexter and Gossip Girl, True Blood is coming to an end, and there’s only three more seasons of Glee to come. I think I might stop watching after these. But how will I rest then?

I’m planning a short trip down south: that’s a first step. Maybe, I will give myself a ‘relax’ budget every week, that I will spend on things that make me relax. So that I can rest better, sleep better, and be more vigilant when awake.

On sugar

Last week, I watched an Australian documentary called ‘That sugar film’. The main storyline follows the director experimenting the effects of sugar on his own body. After years of a no-sugar diet, he converts to the Australian average of 40 grams a day, which he sources entirely from food usually perceived as healthy: low-fat yogurt, cereal bars, fruit juice. Result: in two months, he gains 10cm of waist circumference, shows early signs of fat liver disease, and suffers from lower attention spans and mood swings.

It was impactful: after watching the film,  I cut my sugar consumption. It was already rather low – I don’t eat much processed or so-called ‘health’ food, I never drink juice or soda. But I do like ice-cream, cake and chocolate. I went from three to one a day – usually one of the delicious pastries from Gills Diner.

Speaking with friends about low-sugar diets, I used to quip that cutting it is good for physical health, but keeping it is good for mental health. As it turns out, it might not be the case. Sugar highs and sugar lows might affect our moods and attention. But implications go deeper. My memories of eating sweet things are associated, mostly, with comfort and happiness. It’s my grand-mother’s apple tart, generously sprinkled with pure white sugar. It’s her mashed strawberries and cream. It’s the lollies I bought from the shop across my school as a kid. It’s the tub of ice-cream I dug in while watching TV with my parents.

More deeply still, sugar is involved in many social celebrations. Yesterday, I was invited by a friend to join the celebratory eating of a gingerbread  house. There were also brownies. I joined, and ate – then soon after, felt the effect of too much cake: heavy stomach, slightly dizzy head. How much of it was nocebo from watching That Sugar Film, I don’t know, but it took a 1h walk back to the city to shake it off. And yet – while we were at it, I had a very good time.

My evening walks often headed to the cake shop or the ice-cream shop. The prospect of an evening treat took me out of the house. Now I’ll have to find a replacement. But it will take effort, beyond committing to sugar cuts, to develop more than an alternative diet – build alternative daily rituals, social, and personal.