Post Doctoral Celebrations: Time to Play

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For once, I am not going to write about work, or deadlines, or time management. I am going to focus on play. Time off, refilling the creative well. Daydreaming, slacking off, time out and having fun. I think I have earned it. I even have an official letter from the university to prove it.

“You are now deemed to have completed all requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. You may now adopt the title “Doctor”.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a diligent student now in possession of a doctorate must be seeking fun.

So I am heading off tomorrow for three weeks overseas.

And here is the thing, being a mother I am going to have to get selfish again, because this time, instead of putting the  doctorate first, I am putting me first. I am travelling solo.

So much gets put on the back burner when you are completing a doctorate. You focus on the A’s. Everything else but your study and absolute essentials become B’s or C’s.

My mother rang me up and said “All my C’s have turned to A’s. You can blog it.” Like me, my mum prioritises in terms of A’s, B’s and C’s, with the dull, domestic drudgery of cooking, housework and so on at the bottom. Like mother, like daughter. And yes, all my C’s have come home to roost now that I have completed the big A at the top of the pyramid – the doctorate – and have successfully passed.

What’s been lurking at the bottom of my Maslovian pyramid are all the ‘life things’. While I have been working on the apex – problem solving and creativity, my hierarchy of needs has steadfastly avoided things like enough sleep, health, food (unless reheated in a microwave or rehydrated with boiling water) and property (dog now disappears when it dives into the lawn that billows like a green savannah, while inside, dog hair blows like bundles of Spinifex across my neglected floors…)

My immediate family gets a lot done and achieves goal kicking at the apex of the Maslovian pyramid by focusing on the A’s. The trouble comes once you realise that you can no longer ignore the C’s.

You see, for years family members who received their doctorates in their twenties shrugged and told me “you just have to concentrate on the apex” and “focus on what’s really important.

At the end they looked up and went “life? What life?” Much as I am doing now.

I have it seems, forgotten how to play. I keep getting asked how I feel now that I am Dr. Evelyn Tsitas – at last. Four years seems like a long time, right? Longer when you add the Masters degree before it.

My reply to everyone is “I just feel exhausted”.

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Then I heard it on the radio – an interview with Dr Stuart Brown (USA), Founder of the National Institute for Play. Seems like I have not been getting enough play. He is in Australia for the National Play Up Conference in Sydney on September 5 and 6. The conference explores the importance of creativity and playfulness.

It seems like play is essential not just for children, but adults as well. But how do we play more? Especially when we are time poor – as doctoral students are.

Well, Dr. Brown listed off playing with pets and walking or maybe dancing – but also having fun when work and play are indistinguishable. In other words, when you are fortunate to love what you do.

After coming through the doctoral tunnel vision, it is now time to explore the world again, and refill the creative well – by playing. As much as I love writing, I need to get out more.

In fact, that’s exactly what I am going to do. My bags are packed, I have a new novel to take on board the plane and I’m excited. Excited by the thought of watching back to back in flight movies, writing nothing and enjoying a glass or two of red wine. Chilling out. Not being responsible for anything or anyone. Much less a doctorate.

Let’s put this in context. I am not the woman people associate with ‘fun’ in the sense of kick up your heels, stay out all night, hit the bar scene and travel to exotic locations and leave the real world behind. I’ve been leaning in – hard – since I was an undergraduate. My motto has always been “one job is for wimps”. I read Stephen Fry’s biography and found a soul mate. Someone who was addicted to work, and to the pursuit of words and ideas, as me.

In fact, as I read my students’ assignments (on how to market and create their own brands as creative writers) I was struck by how exciting their lives have been – and mine, not so much.

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I never surfed the coast along Mexico, climbed Everest or backpacked through Siberia. I haven’t worked as a roof tiler or boat builder or in remote locations.

So, what have I done? I have studied, worked and written – a lot. I have spent 12 years at university – as a student. Breaks in between, but one qualification after the next, like some people collect stamps on the passports.

I have always had parallel careers which is why I was able to work as a journalist and a playwright and a librettist while also working my way up through higher education. In short, I am a swot. A swot with a serious day job. I never worked as a waitress while writing – I worked in the competitive world of daily journalism, writing at the paper, and then writing when I came home. That has been my comfort zone – being a workaholic.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like my comfort zone. I spent my undergraduate degree working for the student newspaper and co-editing a literary magazine, when everyone else was vomiting outside pubs. When I graduated, I walked straight in to a career in newspapers. I loved journalism – chasing stories, interviewing people, getting to go behind the door marked ‘closed’. I am naturally curious with a vivid imagination, and my work was like play.

There was no time for backpacking, long sojourns in the wilderness or the third world. I was on a bullet train called career and I wasn’t getting off. I didn’t pause for breath until I had my first child.

Play? What’s play? Can’t work be play, really?

I know a cinematographer who has been to amazing places – but only for work. He says he prefers it that way. He gets to go behind that door marked closed, and with a camera as well. So when I travelled to Edinburgh for the festival it wasn’t to see acts at the fringe, but my own show  – a children’s opera called Software, for which I wrote the libretto and designed the set and costumes. Okay – so I was working, not sitting on a beach. But it was pretty special – work and play combined, seeing kids in other countries responding to my words. And I didn’t get sunburnt…

And when I go to Paris in a few days, I’ll go head to the catacombs, the museums, the galleries, even though I work in an art gallery. A friend who is there at the same time said “we’ll catch up in the evenings” as she doesn’t want to be stuck going from one museum to the next with me, while I draw. I have a reputation.

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But I do see work and play together, because I love what I do – my academic research and my writing. So when I am in Oxford, I’ll combine a conference with play – though I have been told by friends I simply must go to  The Trout or The Head of the River …And when I am in Greece, for the final week of the trip, it will be to research my next novel. And see family.

Perhaps as a working mother, I should feel guilty about this time by myself to play – shouldn’t I go to a child-friendly resort in Queensland and sit by the pool while the kids have fun? They think so.

But I have to say – I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it. When I was my eldest son’s age, my father spent a summer trekking in Nepal, having an incredibly interesting and creative time; as an artist, photographer and architect, he needed time to replenish the creative well. This was his time to play. But too few women do this, and the creative women who don’t simply resent their lives, and the unfulfilled promises to themselves.

I didn’t go to Nepal with my father, and I learnt a valuable lesson. Adults need time out for themselves and play – it enhances one’s creativity to do so. Learn from men – be selfish as a mother. Think of yourself or you will never get anything done that fulfils you. Learn to play – and play solo.

So, bags packed, I am on that plane tomorrow as a woman alone, a writer replenishing the creative well, and a mother on a solo trip – not a guilt trip.

Well, I say that now, with a little pang. Yet I am determined that my sons will learn that just as a woman’s work is important, so is a woman’s play.

This Dr. Evelyn. And I am ready to play. Finally.

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