Nurturing sanity

It feels quite bizarre, writing about crafting in times like these. The ongoing extraordinary situation of living through a pandemic has had a lot of people flaunting their acquired skills on social media – whether it is knitting, doing yoga or learning a new language. Anything one can learn online is being marketed with excessively motivational tones.

We have indeed had to find ways to entertain ourselves during the COVID-19 crisis and its restrictions. In the midst of it, the lives of UCT students were, once more, abruptly disrupted. I am writing this blog with an eye on any news update regarding the fire that has been raging since yesterday (18.04.2021). It has forced students to evacuate their residences again with only their most needed possessions, and tragically reduced much of the rich contents of the Jagger Library to ashes. I feel gutted with every wind burst that I hear pushing past my window as it has me imagining the firefighters in an uneven battle with nature’s forces. The interviews I conducted with first-in-family students of the engineering department around this time last year for a project I am assisting Dr Renee Smit with had already given me a glimpse into the effects such ruptures can have.

The shared topic the group of SAYAS bloggers had decided on a while before this disaster is ‘I am a student, but I am also…’ and was meant to be a fun change of pace, talking about our hobbies, interests, and passions. I, too, have cultivated some habits that have helped me to keep my mind from wandering into unwelcome directions and reduce some stress. And even though it seems absurd to discuss them in this acute and painful state of things, it is perhaps just the right topic and something I may attend to after writing this.

The quaint little hobby I want to share with you today must therefore be viewed against this backdrop: we all need things to keep us sane, especially in unpredictable times. Sometimes, the more ‘mundane’ they are, the more enjoyable and settling. When I initially told my mom on the phone that I was doing embroidery, I could sense her grinning through the phone. ‘We had to embroider place settings at school’, she commented (probably with an eye roll). My embroidery is a little different from what my mom was taught at school and she has become a big fan of my designs. Here are a few to give you an idea.

I’m having some fun designing these pieces. The repetitive pattern of sliding the needle through the fabric and seeing the predetermined pattern emerge is calming and helps me maintain an illusion of control – even if only for a moment. It also helps me engage with my own body and how it has been changing (perhaps I should extend my repertoire to male bodies as well). For some reason, the human outer shell and what it appears to hold together has a mesmerising effect on me. Likely also because (or the reason why?) my research focus has been on how experiences become part of our everyday fabric. While writing this, I am also realising the extent to which putting my thoughts in writing has a calming effect on me. Feel free to share your ways of nurturing your sanity or other thoughts in the comment section!

We are academics, but we are also…

In the pressure of the publish or perish mentality, an insidious culture has emerged where a work-life balance is frowned upon, working a 40+ hour week is celebrated, and supervisors keep any semblance of hobbies, interests, family or a life very, very quiet. This is detrimental – to the academic, to their colleagues and to their students. This has worsened during the pandemic – in a time when people are having to juggle work, family and their homes more than ever, academic burnout is on the rise. Increasingly, there has been push back to academics taking pride in overworking, and more importantly, in encouraging their students to follow these toxic work habits.

To normalise academics and postgraduate students embracing a work-life balance and celebrating their non-work-related topics, this month in the SAYAS blog we are celebrating the things that our bloggers do outside of their research and postgraduate studies. To kick this off, the SAYAS blog co-editors discuss this problem, and re-introduce themselves without discussing their academic titles or accomplishments. Watch our video below:

This conversation started in January, during our first meeting with the 2021 bloggers. We each introduced ourselves to the group, and then realised how narrow and repetitive those introductions were. These themes emerged again and again as we worked together as co-editors, sharing voice notes between walks in the park, dance classes, and those last few edits on a paper. Recording this is a reminder to ourselves not to glamourise a toxic work culture, and to share our multi-dimensional lives with our students.

Jennifer and Roula