14 December 2012

The suspension of time

Get to the point. I tell my students this when I am teaching them to write. First things first, I say. What should come first.

Two stories are interweaving on this Friday the fourteenieth of December. The one that is first, and the one should be and has been and will be the first, is the continued suffering of Mei with this rash, an out-working of a skin infection. She is trying so hard to be well--she has such a persevering spirit. Yoko has been attending to her so carefully and doing everything to keep the itching and pain away. Yoko, mother first and foremost when the children are suffering and mother only, is dutifully up all night, soothing Mei with rags and cool mineral water. The house is permeated with the smells of the balms and ointments. You think, as you do, about Jesus' feet being covered in perfume and washed by the tears of the prostitute. Yes, what a waste: Mei is suffering. I stand in the doorframe watching Yoko care, thinking alternating selfish and magnanimous thoughts. The thoughts of a thirty year-old who is one part 57 year old and one part 15 year old. It's not about me/it's always about me.

The second story is the reason, to some extent, we have all been suffering, the reason we are here in England in the first place. My PhD is ending now. Soon. Very soon. I had a mock viva on Wednesday, which I feared greatly, but got through without much trouble. We spotted a large error, one that I had to go back to the literature to understand what I had done wrong. The error was ultimately not that large and, as you do, I made up a narrative to make sense of it. The narrative is true, in the strictest sense, but as I will tell this story on Monday, I will gut it of the parts that I experienced the most vividly, the deep, deep ignorance that still is present in my work. The PhD doesn't leave you feeling any more competent, just more cautious of everything, of every story a person tells you, every claim to truth, and every experience that you think to be examplar. Now, you immediately think, how can I know if this is right or not.

How can I know if this is right or not. The poet David Baker asks, in a poem comparing his wife's treatment for a chronic illness with her religious upbringing, 'Whom to believe? This is our central task.' The connections to my own life can't be more obvious. Whom to believe: you ask this constantly when holding a sick child. What am I doing, I suddenly think again, standing in another empty room, everything shipped, thrown away, or going with us on the plane. Why. Why, why, why. These 'why' questions are so easily answered, I think: we just don't like the answers. There is a complex set of factors that has led me here and that will define who I am going forward. Perhaps I will be able to identify them. Perhaps not. I am happy to find myself, after four years of epistemological boot camp (which iPad, unironically, wants to be 'book camp') less and less interested in a simple, reduced answer: a theory of everything. We have moved past that. There is no one reason, there is never one reason.

So on Monday, I will put on my sport coat which has a small hole in it that only I can see. I will open up my thesis in front of three experts with my supervisor sitting behind me, both metaphorically and physically. And I will do my best to recount the work that I have done, with the appropriate amount of doubt. The amount of doubt that I actually feel. Not the crippling doubt of packing the house. Not the unfettered confidence of standing in front of undergraduates. The appropriate amount. And on Monday evening, I will be a doctor, subject, I'm sure, to some amendments.