14/5/22 (How was I an OT today?)
Yesterday I attended my first professoriate lunch – there was intelligent company, vibrant conversations and good food. It’s all one would expect of such a company – and, as one would expect, I was called on to introduce myself. Fortunately, I was given a slight ‘headsup’ earlier in the day that this was coming, so it should not have felt too intimidating. After all, it is something that academics are called upon to do regularly, and it is considered to be an important skill. It is the way of being able to make an elevator pitch about what one stands for. It seems unlikely that one will have made it to being a professor without having the capacity to pitch into this kind of space. However, these informal introductions are somewhat trickier.
This is a bit like deciding what to wear on the first and second day of work. It is another test of how well one can read the environment, and who one wants to be in this place. My introduction was all about where I’ve come from, acknowledging how NZ has shaped me, but also my Irish background; also referring to the honour of being in an occupational therapy program that has such international repute. I needed to be asked a second time to elucidate my research interests, which now are articulated around ways of thinking – design thinking and ethical reasoning.
This was not the environment to speak about my husband, children, friends, hobbies, spirituality – but it still feels as though all of this needs to be communicated in the professional persona also. The feedback that I was given was that it was refreshing to hear this ‘humble’ approach. There is nothing humble about my approach – these introductions cannot be made without a significant commitment to both vanity and pride. It seems that one is bringing into public the results of a deep connectedness to a lifetime of thinking that has led one to this point.
In these introductory moments, I am reminded of David Whyte’s beautiful book “The Three marriages”. There is a zen-like wisdom in the pivot that Whyte brings to the existential questions that we expect our young people to be able to answer at the age of 18:
Who will you marry?
What are you going to do?
Who are you?
There is another question that also gets added to the impossible trio when you come from ‘somewhere else’:
Where do you come from?
Having an Irish accent, means that I now feel compelled to say that I spent thirty formative years in New Zealand. This gives me an excuse to reference the great track record Aotearoa has in terms of the Indigenous dialogue, so it’s another element that allows the pivot to come through.
The answer to all these questions come through movement, as a kind of parallex. This is defined as a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight, and is measured by the angle or semi-angle of inclination between those two lines. I am familiar with the concept, because hubby has a strabismus, which means that he has had to contend with a 2D world that is live din 3 dimensions. Over many conversations, I have learned that he does this with many complex and unconscious tricks, but the use of parallex is key. I feel that most of the time I approach the world in a similar way. I understand nothing unless I approach it and leave it many times. In order to understand, sometime it is necessary to first be an exile. As David says:
“Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness” (p. 9)
In this coming and going with work, there is also a conversation about the possibility of throwing it away – so that somehow one also needs to find a way of saying how it has been possible to stick at what we are doing through the myriad everyday distractions. David describes a legend of a shrine that is ‘said to have granted miracles to any married persons of long standing who had never wished themselves unwed. No actual miracles were ever recorded at the site’ (p. 25).
A table of professors is, by definition, a group of people who have reached the triumph of being able to love their work and also be rewarded for this love. As an occupational therapist it is important for me to preface my story the privileged attempts at architecture, journalism, carpentry and archaeology. Underpinning these false starts there are myriad projected futures of being a nun, a doctor, a policewoman, a ballerina and a professor. Somehow the last, the most trivial, is the one that manifested.
What secret vow does a child make with themselves that brings them to a table of professors as a professor of occupational therapy? There is no young person who has not got the capacity for brilliance.
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had else where its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” (Wordsworth, The Prelude)
But I was not brilliant, and I wonder what clues were laid in my DNA and what cues I followed into the world. My early relationship with occupational therapy was a ‘marriage of convenience’, since I very pragmatically chose it from the list of occupations that would allow me to travel and work in New Zealand. Yet the encounter with pragmatism definitely gave energy to keep going once started. I recognise myself mostly as the dreamy idealist, who would and could not any particular direction in the deep forests and thickets of dreams. I love the fact that pragmatism is what led me to embed myself in this most pragmatic of vocations.
Having been such a dreamer, it seems strange not to be someone who ever believed in ‘following a passion’ to the end. I remember arguing as a teenager that ‘falling in love’ was not a good idea for a budding feminist. A careful protection against dreams maybe a heritage of growing up female in Ireland, where the patriarchy had a vested interest in not encouraging strength in women. It is a complicated process for any young person to ‘follow their dreams’, when the hidden cultural agenda does not support such a thing. I believe that we always live in such times, and as educators we are always fighting against the inertia of that cultural undertow, and as occupational therapists we are trying to find the one positive thread to follow.
It is clear that most people are not a Greta Thurnberg/Joan of Arc, driven by a light that would take them forward, knowing their true calling. Yet in every success there have been a trail privileged possibilities. Wordsworth in The Prelude says “I made no vows, but vows were then made for me”. Another way of saying this is the saying of Dogen Zenji (a Japanese Zen master): “If you go out and confirm the ten thousand things, this is delusion; if you let thee ten thousand things come and confirm you, this is enlightenment’. I adore this poem by Whyte which expresses the way that life and work is given to us:
Everything is waiting for you
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
(from River Flow: New and Selected Poems, 1984-2007)
Although I recognise my privilege, I am also deeply aware of how completely and deeply unprepared I am to be the person that I have become. People call this imposter syndrome, but I believe that it is simply acknowledging the fact of a a far from excellent education. I am in a university and a town where the achievements of great men and some great women are celebrated by naming buildings after them (a hazardous thing these days) and I have just finished reading the memoirs of Basil Hetzel (i.e., the building next to us). Reading his memoir, I recognise how Basil was beautifully prepared by his family and his faith to take up a medical role that could make a contribution. The contribution he ended up making – adding iodine to the diet – was deceptively simple, but enormously beneficial to millions of people in an ongoing way. He was also committed to looking at medicine in a way that is familiar to occupational therapists. Back in 1967, he tried to call the new discipline he was leading ‘ecological medicine’, but he was before his time. Occupational therapists would have found an easier home with ecological medicine than with ‘preventive and social medicine’, which is what it became.
If one is lucky, it become possible to stand for something in the end. This is what the table of professors can do. They profess their truth. There is a self portrait that somehow makes sense to them and to others. Whyte wrote a response to spending an afternoon with the self portraits that Van Gogh made over the course of his life. It seems to me that these are the kinds of word portraits that we are asked to make as professors over the dinner table.
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
Or many gods.
I want to know if you belong — or feel abandoned;
If you know despair
Or can see it in others.
I want to know
If you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you;
If you can look back with firm eyes
Saying “this is where I stand.”
I want to know if you know how to melt
Into that fierce heat of living
Falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing
To live day by day
With the consequence of love
And the bitter unwanted passion
Of your sure defeat.
I have been told
In that fierce embrace
Even the gods
Speak of God.
~ David Whyte ~(from River Flow: New and Selected Poems, 1984-2007)
Looking at the many self portraits by Van Gogh one begins to understand how this relationship with the self and the work one does changes over time. It is about a sustained commitment, which is so capable of still informing us about how to bring our gaze to the project of our vocation and life. The intensity of Van Gogh should never distract from the seriousness of his endeavour.
“Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate.” (WH Auden, A Certain World (1970) )
He was able to do this work in spite of so many hurdles. One does not talk about the privilege of Van Gogh. Not really. And even when there are incredibly well educated authors like Stevenson (author of Treasure Island among many other works), one realises that their work is achieved in the context of ongoing difficulty and suffering.
“A courtship and marriage that includes long separation, near starvation, near death, ill health, disappointment, age disparity, alienated parents, a blended family, being a step parent, constant travel and constant cultural adjustment is no excuse for not paying attention to the other two marriages of work and self A good central conversation can bring all the other conversations alive.” (in Whyte, 2009)
In every introduction there is a self portrait of the self at a particular moment in time. As an occupational therapist my idea of who and what I am has changed over time.
The last word, as always, needs to go to Arendt – though the flow of her thinking process makes her singularly unquotable. She is always midflow. But it seems to me that each of the relationships that I have described here with: self, partner, work and place are the fulcrum for important thinking processes that we carry out with the person that we have to live with – this ‘self’.
“Thinking accompanies life and is itself the de-materialized quintessence of being alive; and since life is a process, its quintessence can only lie in the actual thinking process and not in any solid results of specific thoughts. A life without thinking is quite possible; it then fails to developp its own essence – it is not merely meaningless; it is not fully lalive. Unthinking men are like sleepwalkers” (Arendt, from The Life of the Mind)
Hetzel, Basil (2005). Chance and Commitment: Memoirs of a Medical Scientist.
David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems, 1984-2007
David Whyte, 2009, the Three Marriages: reimagining work, self and relationship, Riverhead Books, New York.
Turkheimer, Federico & Fagerholm, Erik & Vignando, Miriam & Dafflon, Jessica & Ferreira da Costa, Pedro & Dazzan, Paola & Leech, Robert. (2020). A GABA Interneuron Deficit Model of the Art of Vincent van Gogh. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 11. 685. 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00685.