I got the reminder about this blog quite late. Nāku te hē. When I realised I needed to quickly whip a blog together, it took me back to when I was writing my PhD thesis.
If the cursor pulsates 100 times, my screen dims to opaque; to avoid it plunging into complete blackness however, I hover my two space-invaders fingers over the touchpad, and magically, the screen reawakens… Blink, blink, blink… wincing doesn’t bring the words… blink… the chakra-cleansing, pan-flute meditation music on Youtube, supposedly to re-energise and re-awaken the mind irritates me after an hour (it has 7 more hours to go) … blink, blink… nope, doesn’t work… before I know it, an entire episode of Outrageous Fortune (2005 – 2010, dirs. Simon Bennett et. al) has finished, and still, my last sentence sits there, incomplete, arrested … blink, blink, blink… since I don’t have Sky Sport, maybe I’ll just watch a Kung-Fu movie (preferably something with Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan it), they’re only 80minutes long, and the words should flow after that… blink, blink, blink… black-screen. Black everything.
Awwww, I fell asleep again? That annoying, pulsating, flickering, haunting cursor. It blinks its way into a freaky-deaky recurring writing dream I have; it grows a face with mean, angry, disapproving eyebrows… I recognise those eyebrows… I dolly backwards from an extra-close-up to a mid-shot, and realise it’s my supervisor, Sue. Strangely, she’s wearing the awesome tiki brooch I gave her for Christmas, 2010.
DIALOGUE Sue, gruffly: You’re not getting enough done Jani
ACTION Jani – head drops. I’m wearing Manaaki’s fluffy purple and white fake lambs-wool slippers in my dream? What the?!
DIALOGUE Jani, meekly: I, I, I know, Sue. Umm… Are you my cursor?
DIALOGUE Sue: No, I’m not your cursor.
ACTION Jani – exhales, relieved
DIALOGUE Sue: But you MUST come off Facebook tomorrow and STOP WASTING TIME! [pūkana]
I propel my head off the cushion with the puppy on it (a bizarre gift from my bestie that doesn’t go with the other décor, but meh), gasping for air, wiping dribble from the right-hand corner of my mouth, sweat like dewdrops on my forehead; I compose myself, and make a decision: I will come off Facebook tomorrow, and I will get back to writing… I’ll probably watch different films though…(and I did come off Facebook and never went back).
Damned cursor, that winking ngārara…
When under the pump, trying to get the writing done with gusto, is often teamed with a concoction of procrastination and panic. This is incredibly normal for those of us who are/were ‘average’ PhD students, if there is such a thing. (I know of a freakish individual or two who wrote their PhD theses in one draft. What nerds). The opening stanza, where the cursor on the stagnant page turned into my supervisor, recalls the moments where I just sat there. The cursor, blinking at me, sometimes until the laptop battery went flat. This phase in my PhD didn’t last long, but remembering it when thinking through this blog, I reflected on what I did to move beyond it, in the hopes that someone out in blog-land might see this and find it amusing and/or helpful.
I haven’t researched this, but I’m pretty confident the people who conceptualised thesis writing were not Polynesian. It’s unnatural for us to sit there; to sit there and think, to sit there and write, and keep sitting there… It’s peculiar for us to not use our bodies for long stretches of time; it counters our very physiognomy. Our mātua tīpuna did exceptionally labour intensive mahi; my Koro was 6 foot 5, a farmer, and my Kuia, around about 5 foot, a work-horse in the kitchen, whose takakau bread was worth the 8-hour drive from Whakatāne to the Far North. When she got sick, my Aunties – bless them – cared for her, and they did everything. She no longer fulfilled the definition of hard, physical work and I sometimes wonder how much longer she would have lived had she still been the one chopping the kindling, lighting the fire, sweeping the house, making the breads and stews. I do wonder.
The much loved tohunga of haka, Henare Teowai said “kia kōrero te katoa o te tinana” (Kāretu, 1993, p. 22), which loosely translates ‘the whole body speaks’. The ability to haka, the traditional Māori posture ‘dance’, is connected with a person’s reputation and the status of the wider whānau, hapū and iwi. Thus, the body and the ability to use it, is fundamental. Also in weaving, the body literally assumes a bent-over weaving position for drawn out periods of time, and the dexterous fingers must provide the same level of tension across the piece’s entirety lest bulges or gathers appear. Maintaining precision across the woven item avoids potential whakamā, a deep inferiority induced shame which can be bought on by producing less than perfect work. It takes much strength. In our traditional mahi-toi, physicality is essential.
If sitting there and writing a thesis is against every biological fibre we have, then why do we do it? Why subject ourselves to dreams about the wretched cursor, supervisors, us never quite hitting the academic mark, striving to adhere to seemingly senseless rules and strictures that do between little and no good in our real world:
DIALOGUE Jani (standing at the whiteboard, a whiteboard marker in hand drawing a comma): So, the APA 6th rules tell us that the comma goes after the bracket
ACTION Jani – turns to face Kaupapa Māori Screen Production class (ALL Polynesian first-year students, 17-18 years old, straight out of high school)
ACTION class – mostly blank stares, some grimaces
We do it, because we MUST. We MUST demonstrate we can, should, and will do these PhDs, despite the unnaturalness, to show mainstream academia Indigenous candidates can succeed and excel, to show our Indigenous students we can, and so can they.
In my experience, sometimes doing exactly the opposite of sitting there – looking at the cursor, feeling guilty and like a failure – works. Once I realised what wasn’t working, I shoved myself out of my own head to do something with my body. Walk my daughter to kura, then jog a different direction home. Sometimes, I’d grab the guitar and write something, just to get off the thesis writing treadmill and do something else. I’d bring out my old art supplies, dust off the paintbrushes, and make a mess on the rented whānau room floor, painting and making something. I’d make bouquets of harakeke flowers. I began doing competitive kapahaka again, to force myself out of the house for a weekend noho with my hapū. I’m a much better creative writer than an academic scribe, so I’d write stuff that made me cry or laugh out loud, and that reminded me that I was actually good at writing.
What doing other things did for me was make me pine for and miss my work. Doing something else is often MORE helpful than not writing at your desk.
Don’t let that ngārara win. Go and DO something else.
By Dr Jani Wilson, MAI ki Aronui Coordinator