Here’s the thing: I’m cool with not knowing where we might end up in two years when the PhD is over. I’m cool with an academic wife’s life, or even the chance of not being an academic’s wife if my husband’s career path turns. But what I’m not cool with is a life in academia (or any other job for that matter) that sticks my husband in front of a computer screen allllllll day long doing research. Sigh…I know there’s not a way around that these days, but after our first year of PhD research, I realized that something needed to change. I was not cool with him coming home exhausted from straining and staring, and totally spent due to the mental stress of being on a computer 24-7.
Don’t get me wrong – I love working on the computer. I’m even a graphic designer on the side; there is, however, no denying that there is a profound difference between holding a knitting needle, a wooden spoon, a paint brush, a screwdriver, a garden hoe, and a musical instrument, on the one hand, and putting one’s fingers to a keyboard, on the other. Both can produce amazing results, but only one can give you something to touch, to eat, and to rip up. There’s a sense in which engaging with the tools of craftsmanship forces the artist into a relationship with creation. Conversely, could it be the case that typing on a computer all day fosters isolation from the world?
From what we have experienced, working on the ever-evolving and translucent (almost imaginary) world of PhD research can certainly leave you feeling disconnected from the tangible, material world around you. It can often leave you exhausted and frustrated because of the hard work necessary to produce something invisible, something that can never be held in your hands (until it is printed on paper).
Over the past few years of grad school we’ve noticed this tension, and as you can tell from my rant above, we desperately needed to do something about it. We started asking, ‘how can we make this PhD process more humane, more liveable, more energizing? Put more simply, how do we avoid letting my husband become drained from his research?
Here are a few of our attempts at answering that question:
We started with a ‘makeshift’ workshop. My husband has always liked bikes and taking care of them, so we’ve collected quite a few used bikes in our tiny garage. They are great for when friend’s come to town or if a friend here needs an extra to borrow. He spends time fixing these bikes up and then selling them off again, and he even offers to help fix friends’ bikes as well. It’s not a weekly thing or even a monthly thing (although I know he wishes it was), but it’s a start. The tools and set-up are there. It’s a chance to connect to something tangible, to feel a sense of accomplishment by seeing a task come to completion.
Cooking is another area in which we have tried to foster this idea. Anyone who has known me longer than seven months would probably share that I was a pretty average cook. And I must confess (to my sister-in-law’s dismay) I used to buy fajita/chilli/taco/cous cous pre-made spice mix packs. I was that kind of cook, even though there is nothing inherently wrong with the method. I just wasn’t an adventurer in the kitchen. Due to some health issues I’ve touched on before, we decided to go gluten-free and dairy-free. It’s become absolutely therapeutic to dive into the joys of cooking. Maybe my friend Laura will share a bit more on that one day, but for now, let me just say that cooking is powerful and healthy for one’s soul. It’s real, gritty, messy, savory, satisfying and incredibly intimate when shared. My husband and I definitely don’t cook together every night, but when we do (or when we make dessert, which is more often the thing we create together) it’s cathartic and stress-releasing and freeing. And it’s so rewarding to see and enjoy the result of your hard labor -only a few minutes later.
And music: an art of creating something beautiful from nothing. We cherish taking time to close out the virtual world and listen to the stillness and the rhythms around us, to create order and harmony. I make us sound like aspiring composers. Very far from it, but the small act of buying a keyboard for our living room has been incredible (I know design friends would find it an eyesore, but I am working on a cute skirt for it). Digital, I know. I wish we had room for a real piano. Regardless, it is inspiring and cathartic to sit down and conjure up tunes. I’ve watched my husband unwind as he starts playing something for my daughter, and it has provided us with hours of helpful stress release.
I share this in the hopes of helping someone out there with the almost anchorless reality that the PhD can sometimes bring. We’ve found ways to find fulfillment and satisfaction, and a bit of stability, in a few of the ideas shared above. We’ve found that making time to engage the material world brings us back to reality and takes the microscope off ourselves and our research. So, if you find yourself in a place like we were, and you need a balance of hands-on, real world craftsmanship to pair with your mental exercise, perhaps finding your inner artist through a tactile hobby is your answer.