Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Consolation prize

It seems our grant appplication to the Australian Research Council came close. I had an email from our research office yesterday to say that although we fell below the cut-off point for funding, we were ranked within the top 10% of the unfunded applications, nationally. This is a pretty good result, given that many applications go forward two or three, or even four years, in a row, before they are successful. It means that the project was "fundable", and not so widely off the mark as we feared. It means that we should certainly work on it over the summer and re-submit it in February. It also means, because we submitted it through a well-resourced (in Australian terms) university, we can apply for and will receive a "near-miss" grant of up to $25,000 for 2007, so we can start the project. If we move quickly, we could use some of these funds over January to do a little more research to strengthen some aspects of the application. Our chief challenge is to show that a significant strand of colonial and post-colonial culture in Australia is inflected by medievalism. The Cultural Translations conference this week should help us crystallise some of these formulations.

I'll consult with my collaborators before writing about this in more detail on this blog. People have sometimes been burned by airing ideas prior to publication, and while I am myself not concerned about this, it is one of the beauties of teamwork that we can balance my idealism with my colleagues' pragmatism.

I am increasingly thinking I will be unable to go ahead with my own new project in time to submit a second application in this round. My health is making me re-focus my priorities, and I think whatever time and energy I have for research over the next few months should go into tackling the Garter project and getting the second half of that book drafted. Tempting as it is to run ahead with the new project, because there's so much I don't know and haven't yet thought about, it's also important to finish the other one. And while I feel pretty confident of how this book is going to pan out, I'm sure there will sufficient mental and bodily challenges over the next year to keep me going. I'm hoping, for example, the swelling in my arm will subside sooner rather than later (and this is with only two lymph nodes removed, not the 10-25 most of us have in the space between breast and arm).

This missing the cut-off for the grant is odd, though. I'm pleased, because it means we were able to make a plausible case for funding an international collaborative project that would have articulated some interesting relationships between medievalism and Australian cultural history. I'm disappointed, of course, that we came so close, but must still go through the arduous process of applying again. And what does it mean that so few grants get funded? What an enormous amount of effort this represents, nationally, in the preparation and assessment of these applications. My university did well, but not as well as we would have liked, and the various research offices are agonising about how to improve our results. Part of the problem, though, is that the line between success and failure, or even between the top 10% and the top 20% of the unfunded grants is both very fine, and very brutal.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

I'm ten days out from surgery, now, and yesterday had my first day without a long nap in the middle of the day. It's been up and down over the last week, as my wounds heal. Numbness and pain come and go somewhat unpredictably as the nerve endings gradually reconnect. Nothing that a little paracetemol can't lighten, however. There was good news from the surgeon, too, when we went to see her on Tuesday: the surgical margin around the carcinoma was "clear", and there was no sign of cancer in the lymph nodes they examined. This was the best possible result from the surgery, though in a week or so's time I'll start several months of chemotherapy, before tackling a combination of radiotherapy and hormone therapy. I will meet the oncologist next week to plan out the first stage, along with Suzanne, my surgeon, and either Rose or Irene, one of the nurses. I like very much this sense that my case is still being managed by the team, rather than being referred along a chain. My own doctor, Barbara, also went along to the team meeting about my case last week.

I have also made an appointment with my hairdresser to pre-empt some of the difficulties of hair loss by starting out the chemotherapy with something a little shorter and more manageable. The breast cancer book suggests you choose a wig before you start treatment, too, but I can't get my head around that idea yet. I did check out a website that had a rather fetching Cleopatra-style number with plaits and gold beads.... We'll see about that later, perhaps.

This is a period of hiatus, then. It is odd to be starting to feel a bit stronger, but knowing I will become a lot sicker before the end of my treatment. I do need to think a little about what I can commit to for next year in terms of teaching, some visitors I had invited to Melbourne for February, the conference I'd planned to attend in Adelaide, the seminar I'd planned to organise in Melbourne, the grant I'd planned to apply for, and the writing I'd planned to do, to say nothing of the many administrative tasks that need to be done in my newly formed school and the re-structured Arts Faculty over the next few years. Of course I want to be well enough, eventually, to pick up most of my normal load, but it really does seem premature to be making too many confident plans at this stage. All the advice I am receiving, from colleagues, friends, and the medical team, in particular, says I should take things slowly, but I seem to have internalised some very powerful imperatives about service to the university that sit uncomfortably with the idea of concentrating on the immediate needs of my treatment and my long-term health.

It is also normally my job to make two enormous Christmas puddings, for my own family, and for Paul's, but the thought of chopping and stirring the piles of dried fruit and wielding the wooden spoon through all the eggs and butter just sets those nerve endings in my upper arm tingling unbearably. This task, being more immediate, is easier to set aside.

One of the good things about the timing of this hiatus is that I hope to be well enough to attend some of the Cultural Translations conference this week. This is a two-day seminar of papers for the ARC Network for Early European Research, and will be the first conference to put a bunch of medievalists, early modernists and Australian cultural historians in a room together for two days. It feels awkward to have set up a conference with colleagues and then leave them and others to do all the hard work in the weeks before the event. However, it turns out that I am not, in fact, indispensable: the seminar, like so many other projects, will proceed perfectly well without me, thanks to the generosity and willingness of friends and colleagues to step into the breach. Here's one lesson learned, perhaps.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Illness as text

A few nights before my surgery last Thursday, my mother stayed with us overnight. I looked over at her sewing under the lamp and asked what she was making. She held up a little square of Liberty cotton print, and showed me the handkerchief she was stitching by hand for me, rolling its little hem under with impossibly delicate and even stitches. I took it in to the hospital and held it with me during the two pre-surgical procedures. As I lay in the "nuclear medicine" chamber, and listened to k.d.lang's Hymns of the 49th Parallel on my ipod, I thought about how this little handkerchief could carry my mother's love, and all the wishes and prayers and love of my friends and family, stitched and folded into its borders. These things made it easier to lie still and passive — the perfectly docile body — during the fine and precise violence of tracking the single "sentinel" lymph node that would be taken for biopsy, and later, of inserting the "hook wire", the metallic thread that would guide Suzanne's hand straight to the diseased cluster of breast tissue.

I took my handkerchief into surgery, too, relinquishing it for safety only at the last minute, mumbling something to the kindly faces of the surgeon and anaesthetist about the movie Braveheart. I can remember thinking it would be easier to close my eyes rather than seize the "teaching moment" and explain about the transfer of the embroidered thistle from hand to hand in that movie.

I came home the next day, and four days later am feeling remarkably well, with barely a trace of the mutilation and loss I was convinced I would feel. I'm sure I had heard or read the phrase "breast-conserving surgery" before, but had not allowed myself to think that this consoling term could belong to me, as it now clearly does. I know it is early days yet, of course. I have felt tired and kittenishly weak, too, not up to much more than sitting in the sun, or lying on the couch. Sometimes I browse through the enormous pile of "literature" I am accumulating: breast cancer is almost as textual an experience as pregnancy and childbirth. There is fiction, too, of course, starting in the days before surgery: David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System; Peter Goldsworthy, Three Dog Night; Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire; Lemony Snicket, The End; and M.J. Hyland, Carry Me Down.

The highlight of my day, though, often comes when someone calls by and takes up the brand-new hardcover edition of Middlemarch that Paul bought for me. Whoever is around sits or lies down in peaceful attitudes as the visitor reads a chapter or two, and signs and dates the page where they stop. After one such reading on Saturday, two dear friends went home and read to each other some more.

There will be time and energy, I hope, in the future, to pick up some of the threads being debated at In the Middle; for now, these moments of repose, peace and stillness.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The traveller sets forth

First up, a warm thank-you to friends and readers who've sent comments to the blog or messages to my email address. I feel quite sustained, even uplifted, by people's support, wishes, and prayers to a range of deities; and their invocations of friends and relations who precede me in the struggle, and on the road I am about to travel. I have myself always been shy of phoning or visiting the ill or the bereaved; but will try to be less selfish in future. It is LOVELY to be phoned up, and emailed, and perhaps especially from people I've not seen for a long time. I have become conscious, though, that in sending out my cheerfully positive emails to various groups, that I am setting off various sparks and shocks of memory and fear; little electrical charges in those who have been touched by cancer of various kinds. And conversely, I now realise how many people are walking the streets and the shops, sitting at their computers, cooking dinner, and looking after other people, while they themselves are living with the uncertainty of this disease. I'm still searching for the right metaphor for this. It's obviously too soon for me to give this my own shape. All I can see so far is the indisputable force of the usual expressions: a journey, a road, a struggle that will change your life.

It's been a very strange week. For a while I was almost overwhelmed by the job of disentangling myself from various commitments. It's been quite a shocking realisation, to see just how many committees and tasks I had taken on. The generosity of colleagues here, interstate, and in other countries, who have said things like, "that's fine; leave it to me; don't worry about it; just get better" has been extraordinary. At our third meeting, I was telling my surgeon some of the things I was doing to unknot myself from these dozens of threads and commitments (like handing over the spools and coloured silks to the other weavers before stepping away from a loom, perhaps); and she commented that her own policy was now to take on something new only if she could let something go. I wonder if that's a realistic policy in the academic sector. But then, why shouldn't it be? We aren't superhuman, and shouldn't pretend to be so. Later in the meeting, she explained about the various procedures that will precede the surgery on Thursday, and said that there would be a lot of waiting around. That's ok, I said; I'm quite good at lying still and doing nothing. She looked at me a moment, and said drily, "It doesn't sound like it." I love her stillness, and her calm willingness to say what they don't know, yet, about my body and what it's been doing; and her simple clarity and certainty about what they do know.

On Friday, I went to the penultimate sesssion of Headstart. I will miss the final session tomorrow, since I am already finding it hard to concentrate on things, feeling myself withdrawing already a little into something a little less than perfectly social, something a little more inward-looking. Friday was tough, though. I explained to the group in the morning why I was going to miss the last session; and the day went on pretty much as normal (though instead of my usual coffee with the gang at the cafe over the road at lunchtime, I had a bright pink and green frothy juice full of wheatgrass and beetroot and ginger), until the last twenty minutes, when I had to take part in a ritual farewell. I am a self-confessed lover of ritual and am writing about the theories of ritual practice in my work on the Order of the Garter, but this was tough: to be the subject of a ritual of farewell that was unfamiliar, since we had to invent it on the spot, with direction from Antony. It won't surprise the medievalists reading this blog to hear that I had talked earlier in the year about the idea of the questing knight, who leaves the safety of the court to go out on an adventure that will test every aspect of his training and his psyche, and who returns changed, in some way, bringing back a wound, perhaps, or a wife, or largesse, but certainly with a story to tell. The formal farewells were hard, but I just let my instincts carry me through. And at the end, I truly did feel, if not exactly like a knight, certainly like someone leaving a group to go somewhere really interesting and risky, while the group was constituted exactly like a round table, seemingly made stronger as a group in the act of saying good-bye, and in the knowledge that it would similarly come to each of them to leave, as they will do tomorrow. Extraordinary times.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

How to put bad grant news into perspective

Regular readers of this blog (bless them!) will know that three days ago the results of the Australian Research Council Discovery grants for next year were announced, and that I had submitted a collaborative group application. It was for a wonderful project on Medievalism and Colonialism in Australia, with a dream-team of researchers. And you could have told from the absence of a jubilant bloggy response on the day that no, the grant did not get funded. Perhaps not entirely unpredictably. We had mixed assessors' reports, and even though these can frequently be over-ridden (for better or worse) by the panel that makes the final decision, in an increasingly competitive environment, it's obviously better if you can convince everyone of the excellence of every aspect of your project. And it seems we didn't do that. In our case we had a kind of circular problem of saying we wanted resources to identify and analyse the traces and symptoms of medievalism in Australian colonial and post-colonial culture. Because we hadn't had the grant, and hadn't been able to comb through the archives yet, some of the assessors weren't convinced there was *enough* medievalism. There are other things, too, that I think we can address when we do it again over the next few months (sigh), but it does point to the difficulties in applying to study something that does seem a bit counter-intuitive.

I think this decision might be tougher on my collaborators, though, than on myself; since over the last week I've had final confirmation of a diagnosis of early breast cancer. I go into surgery next Thursday, and will know a few days after that about the next round or rounds of treatment, and how many months it will take. It's a blow, obviously, but I am finding it very helpful to talk about it openly. And I count my blessings and my good fortune daily. I seem to be in the hands of a quite extraordinary medical team in a city that has the reputation as a major research centre for the treatment of this disease; I'm fully employed by a university that is proving compassionate and generous in its responses, both institutionally and individually; I'm surrounded by family and friends; I'm in excellent health otherwise; and also seem blessed with the kind of attitude that hasn't gone into shock or debilitating fear. Yes of course there will be hard times ahead, but I already feel the force of the idea of cancer as a journey that can change your life. And honestly, that's fine. I'm curious; a little anxious for myself; and worried about my immediate and extended family, but reassured that the prognosis, on the whole, is pretty promising.

It's early days yet, but at the moment, I feel I would like to keep posting on the blog. I am very curious to think and write about what happens to a person whose career seems to be heading in one direction and who is then faced with a major disease and difficult treatment. I would love to have had some such blog to read twenty or more years ago, when I was still establishing myself, and working out what it meant to be an academic. So perhaps I'm writing for that version of myself? I'm always fascinated by what's in people's heads, and how we can't always judge from the outside. And I'm always fascinated to hear about other academics, other medievalists, and how they balance, or don't balance, the personal and the professional.

Somehow a disappointing grant result is suddenly put back into the right perspective, then! In the humanities, where it is much rarer that our jobs depend on them, grants are what we apply for and are sometimes lucky with. The research, the ideas, the writing and the teaching, are much more important. As are our friends and families and loved ones, and other issues. I'm thinking, now, of the many, many women who will not be getting anything like the medical care and the loving support I'll be receiving over the next months: hmm, there may be something to be done here.

For the moment, then, two brief comments on things that have really struck me.

Vocabulary: I've learnt two new words. "Spiculated" describes the characteristic shape of a carcinoma on an ultrasound or x-ray. A benign cyst, filled with fluid, is round; a carcinoma has little needle-like threads that spread out (they look like delicate little parts of sea-creatures). One of the radiologists went off and looked up the derivation for me (see what I mean about the care I'm getting?), and said it was Latin for "needle", though my dictionary says spiculum is a point, or dart; and spica is an ear of corn. OK, I'm a medievalist with some Latin; obviously not enough!

The other word is at the other end of the spectrum of linguistic beauty: "lumpectomy". It took me quite a while to realise that this was not really any different from partial mastectomy; or local excision. It's an example of the powerful semantic connotations of words to realise that these phrases name the same process: a long cut, and then the extraction of the diseased tissue.

Secondly, I woke in the middle of the night two nights ago, and felt a kind of odd, additional presence in the room. It took a while before I realised what it was. It was very clearly grief, or loss, or proleptic mourning, or melancholia for the poor breast that is about to go on its own adventure. It was very forceful, and I felt sure I'd not be able to go back to sleep again, but in fact I did. I'm still not sure why. Was it the same kind of dysfunctional faint Stephen Knight used to talk about when Arthur would swoon at the loss of a knight? when the emotion is so forceful it's unsustainable in normal consciousness? Or was it consoling to me to have named and identified the emotion? I thought of Aranye Fradenburg's wonderful essay on loss and melancholia in Chaucer and the Book of the Duchess, and having placed and identified the feeling, and put myself into a textual tradition, I put myself back to sleep. Whatever happened, I'm not entirely sure, but it was a very powerful and enabling moment.

Well, I expect I won't always be quite so cheery and curious over the next few months; and probably not so graphic, once the reality of the surgery has hit! But I'll try and clock in occasionally. My apologies to those friends and colleagues to whom this news comes as a shock. It's very recent, and it's been hard to let everyone know in a timely and courteous fashion.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Less than a week to go

We just heard today that the ARC grants for 2007 will be announced next Wednesday. This is rather earlier than previous years, for which we are all very grateful. It means we have a chance to moan and complain about the bias against our fields; to pour enviously and scornfully over the list of successful applications; and to rehearse the statistics and the uncertainties that make the whole process seem a bit like a lottery (modestly, if we are successful; cheerfully or sardonically, if we are not), before we have to pick ourselves up and do it all again over the summer holidays. Those of us responsible not just for our own grants but for the submission and success rates of our departments, faculties or schools will have to help in the picking up of the unlucky ones who miss out this year, encouraging them to re-submit, or to re-formulate their proposals.

These will be the public faces of our responses. Privately, of course, the emotional extremes will be greater. The first few years I was unsuccessful, with two different projects, I moved between feeling philosophical, angry and simply downhearted. The first year my Order of the Garter project was unsuccessful, it seemed that everyone I knew had been successful, in single or joint applications, or for post-doctoral candidates linked to their own research. I was quite downcast, feeling how very long would be the year between that day and the chance of better news the next round. When that good news came, a year later, I was in the US at a conference, and picked up a fax in the hotel, and could hardly explain to my friends what an extraordinary thing this was. It was partly the money, of course, but also the inevitable sense of validation and approval it bestowed, in spite of the lottery-like aspect of the process (given that a "peer" for the ARC doesn't mean an expert in your field, but rather another academic in some adjacent field).

There is no doubt that this is a difficult and time-consuming process. It is also very public, since it is a national scheme in a small nation. As an assessor, I will know next week which of the applications from "rival" universities I read were unsuccessful. Locally, too, at the departmental level, we will know exactly who has made it, and who has not. It will also be the first topic of conversation among my Headstart counterparts when we meet for our penultimate day workout on Friday.

The conspiracy theorists among us will also want to personalise the enmity of our assessors and the panel members who have denied us. It seems that this year, so far, at least, there are no rumours of interference in the approval process that cast such a pall over last year's results, when it seems the minister was advised by his kitchen cabinet that several applications smacked of political correctness or might attract opprobrium as the misuse of government funds by certain (conservative) wings of the media.

This year I await the fate of a collaborative application submitted in February with some friends and colleagues from New South Wales, Western Australia and California. If we are successful, I'll name them gladly! Having this joint application in means somehow that the emotional pain is, if not lessened, at least shared. Our reports were mixed; I felt that if the panel members responsible for ranking it were well disposed to it, they could find enough in the reports to support it. But also vice versa.... Perhaps once the results are known I'll talk a bit more about this here.

Fingers crossed, everyone...

DATE FOR ANNOUNCEMENT FOR ARC FUNDING OUTCOMES 2007

The Minister for Education, Science and Training, The Hon Ms Julie Bishop MP, will be announcing the selection outcomes for proposals submitted for funding commencing in 2007 for the following ARC schemes next week: Discovery Projects; Discovery Indigenous Researchers Development; Linkage Projects Round 1 2007; Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities; and Linkage International Awards Rounds 2 and ARC International Fellowships.

The announcement will take place on Wednesday, 11 October 2006 at Parliament House, Canberra.

Early next week we will send you further notification regarding what information we will be providing you with on the day of the announcement.