It’s been a while since I wrote an article for the blog, and maybe because I am feeling a little cheesy, a little homesick and the weather has gone back to winter even though we are in the middle of spring... I have decided to get personal, and share some of the “workings of my heart” (“Emma”, 2009, BBC TV serial).
I went to the hospital a couple of weeks ago, after slipping in the park thanks to my clumsy personality and twisted my ankle, nothing that a bag of ice and some rest could not heal in a jiffy. The worst of it all was that on the admittance sheet they wrote “30 ans”. 30 years old. NOT YET!! I will be in December, but the computer didn’t mind the approximation. For me it was quite a shock to see it there, on paper, black on white. And I am still a student. But then, on second thoughts, even though I am still a student, I am an experienced student, and I feel like I have quite a few tricks up my sleeve to navigate the uncertain waters of research, academia, life abroad, life with a dog, dysfunctional adulthood where the fruits and veg of the day are coming from a glass of Sangria (the best Sangria made by our very own ESR8 Camino Ruano! ).
And when I think about it, I think the most important thing I have learnt over the years, is that you need to make “taking a break” a priority. Sure, sometimes it just comes, without premeditation, on a spontaneous wave of freedom and desire to spend some lovely time with your friends and colleagues, your little family in the lab, or with your partner/roommate/dog/cat/fish in these new times of smart-working. But some other times, you have in front of you a very long, daunting TO-DO list that you are well aware it won’t get shortened any time soon if you don’t put your butt on the chair, or roll up the sleeves of the lab coat and get to it. And then, “taking a break” becomes a very well-weighted choice, with all seen and unforeseen consequences. The list will still be there once you are back, the pressure that you feel on your shoulders and your mind, for all the paperwork, the papers, the reading, the experiments, that presentation you need to prep, the grocery shopping, the grant application, the call to your parents that you have not heard from in a while, the doctor’s appointment, the delivery guy you need to call back, the appointment at the embassy, the washing up, the laundry – no more socks in the drawer! - … (should I go on? Would love to know what’s on your TO-DO lists too, if somebody out there is taking the time to read my crazy ramblings, please share 😉! ) They are all still there. And WHAT?! DID YOU HAVE THE CHEEK TO GO FOR A BREAK?!
Well, yes of course. It seemed like the most sensible choice.
In all fairness, I have always appreciated a good break, since I was in high-school preparing at 2AM for the test due in the morning, having cups of teas and a biscuit every 2 hours. And I have always been a last-minute person as well, since I discovered very early on that my ability to focus on a task and my productivity spike sky-high when you have less than 24hours to the deadline. Leaving this on the side though, I think that being able to identify the moment, the very moment before the breaking point, when you are in NEED of a break, is crucial. Now crucial for what exactly? This is probably a very personal answer, in my opinion – of course I am the only one on this side of the keyboard, so whose opinion if not mine?! - it is crucial for what I consider to be a balanced life-style, for my little victories and successes. Would have I been able to come up with a creative solution to my problem in the lab? To stare at my failures, with the tears pushing behind my eyelids, and find the strength to come back to it… over and over and over again? I strongly believe that NO, if I had not chosen, forcefully and knowingly, to take breaks, I would have had to raise the white flag and quit. Or worse, to keep going, tired, worn, like a cloth that has been washed too many times, and you can start to see through it, where the fabric just gave out.
I do still feel like this worn-out cloth sometimes, I must have missed the breaking-point by a mile or two. But then this is the time to stop. Breath. Re-group. I always loved this expression “Re-group”, especially when we apply it to ourselves, it’s as if we are picking up the pieces at our feet: our arms, our tired hands, the dry skin for too many sessions of moisturizing we have skipped, the lines around the eyes because we couldn’t sleep, and we pull it all together. Back in, back to ourselves, building us up again, in a comforting hug. And now we really HAVE TO go for that break, we OUGHT TO, we SHOULD, is really the best option in the long-run and in the short-run. For me a break is many things, depending on how worn-out my cloth is.
Some days, a cup of coffee with your best friend is the best kind of break, you can chat, talk about the little, the big and the silly. Take a breath of fresh air. A cup of tea and a biscuit from the boulangerie with my boyfriend and a cookie for the dog, on the sofa. Sometimes, we need a bit more, maybe a couple of hours for lunch, to enjoy the sun, to feel the fresh air on the skin, on the whole face, since while we eat we can even take the mask off!
Last week I found out that I had messed up during the preparation of some samples. I have literally destroyed them, probably by touching something without gloves along the line. Well, that cracked me a little hard. And so now, I am on a break. It’s been a few days in which I do little tasks every day. Like washing a couple of dishes, just enough to be able to cook for lunch and leaving the rest for another day. Doing a load of laundry, with the socks, t-shirts and unmentionables you need for the week. In the lab, I have cleaned the benches and decontaminated, done a little admin, little reading. But I am going to wait a little more, until I feel rested and restored, until I feel that I am ready to fight again, before I get out of this break and go back to FASTspeed. Because, it is important to make sure not to tear the cloth, you will see the place where it was broken and sewed back together, and it won’t go exactly back.
Of course, it is not a decision that comes easily, just because I am lazy. I am well aware that I am delaying my objectives of at least 1 week. But I have taken the pros and cons and weighed them out in my mind. I imagine to be the Egyptian God of the underworld Anubis, with his old-fashioned style scale of Justice, the one with the two arms and the two plates, where you can see it tilting depending on the weight of the things you put on the plates. On one side, we have the “I am slowing down my plan, delaying experiments of at least 1 week”, on the other side “I am putting in a moment to breath and recharge, to use the energy to do the little things that give you a small sense of victory and achievement, helping to restore the fabric of your being”. The first chunk of weight is annoying and tries to win the battle of balance, but I know the second is important, because it will allow me to be happier and motivated and energetic once it’s done. So, the second plate wins. The break IS ON!
I hope other students out there, and everyone else really, are finding the time and the strength to take breaks and recharge. Since I started the PhD, I have discovered new ways to distract myself and cut some slack to my little brain. I have started to do some watercolours, with the rigorous rule of not needing them to be pretty, to be good nor perfect, just blotchy expressions of colours and brightness. I have discovered the joy of podcasts while I walk my dog in the night, in the silence of a Paris under curfew, which my anxious dog with a phobia for cars and motorcycles actually loves more than anything. I don’t have a bathtub, but I found that putting candles in the small 1.5 m2 bathroom of our tiny Parisian apartment and having a looooong warm shower, produces enough vapour to have a little sauna-time. I came to love the café-au-lait they do in the Hospital cafeteria, just behind our building, to be sipped in the best of companies by the statue of the crocodile. Since the pandemic started, with my boyfriend, we had to come up with something to do in replacement of dinners out, nights at the cinema and board games and card tournaments we cannot attend anymore. So we are doing chess-aperos every Sunday! And I inevitably lose, but we can have our own little corner of time, trying to beat each-other’s wits while drinking coke and eating chips.
“So long, and thanks for all the fish.” (A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).
Author: Clara Apicella is an iPlacenta Early Stage Researcher. Read her earlier blog post here.
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About the blog
Being a PhD student in a European training network is a life-changing adventure. Moving to a new country, carrying out a research project, facing scientific (and cultural) challenges, travelling around Europe and beyond… Those 3 years certainly do bring their part of new - sometimes frightening - but always enriching experiences.