This week’s post is brought to you by Magdalena Jennings, who is, as will become obvious, an international MPhil student.
Alright, so I know this is the tropey-est of tropes. But I have had an interesting week. Some of it is typical, some of it atypical, but perhaps it will lend some insight into life as an MPhil student to those who are considering the program right now.
Sunday: I have been meaning to go to church on Sunday morning for a while, but what always happens, happens again. I sleep in, luxuriating in the thought of a morning off, a morning to do nice things for myself, and when I wake up, I realize I have things to do. I carved a pumpkin for Halloween in the shape of a Totoro, and now I want to make a pie. I spend the morning chopping Totoro up into small, bite-sized pieces, and listening to Haydn’s Creation. My choir is performing in St Martin’s-in-the-Fields next week. I have not yet been able to process that information.
After the pumpkin chopping I watch two episodes of Gilmore Girls. It’s already 4 o’clock at this point: I have choir. I shower, and am dressed and ready in the chapel at 4.30. We must wear our academic gowns to rehearsal before we sing the Sunday Evensong, which is followed by a free formal meal in hall, where we sing the traditional grace: oculi omnium in te sperant Domine – the eyes of all wait upon thee, o Lord, and thou givest them their meat in due season.
I check my pigeonhole after supper (I am awaiting an Amazon package: I ordered the 1984 Ronja the Robber’s Daughter DVD, but it hasn’t arrived yet). I go home, and do my readings.
Monday: I have so much to get done today, because I should finish a grad school application for next year by next week. Unfortunately, a lot of what I must do involves calling people back home in Canada, so the time change does not allow me to get productive on this front until the afternoon. Thankfully, I have other things to do: essay writing! I read about psychoanalysis.
Today people are voting in the MCR elections at Emmanuel. I am on the ticket as the LGBT+ officer, running uncontested, as is everyone else. This means I only have to beat “Re-Open Nominations” or “Ron,” as his friends call him. I can’t help but imagine he has red hair and freckles.
In the afternoon, I call my parents. They are flying from Canada today to visit me and my family in Germany. After the conversation, I spontaneously decide to spend the weekend in Germany with them when I see the price has dropped dramatically, and book my flights.
Tuesday: The moment I wake up I am convinced the US election has already happened, and I am afraid to go on any social media. The momentary lapse of reason passes, and I can get up. I am very excited about this day, because my parents are visiting me! After I’ve downed my porridge and packed my bookbag, I clamber onto my bike to get down to Homerton and the Faculty of Education on time. It’s not an unpleasant distance: only about 15 minutes of reasonably fast cycling and red lights. The hardest part is going over the train tracks, but the organized bike lanes make it one of my favourite parts of the commute.
My class is in the MAB. Today we are discussing Space, Place, and Identity with Aneesh, who has a gentle way of leading and listening to discussions that I appreciate. I’ve enjoyed our assigned readings: The Secret Garden, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and Finding Nemo, and some interesting secondary literature on ecocriticism and poetics. I am fascinated by the concept of children’s geographies, and how we can read landscape like we do texts.
After class I have to zoom home because I am expecting my parents. I cook them a pumpkin soup from leftover chopped Totoro. I am overjoyed to see them. They are staying in Emma guest accommodation, and we are amused to find their room is in the house directly next door to mine.
I owe my supervisor a title for my first assignment, so I carry a notebook around with me all day, jotting down ideas. I settle on one that is vague enough to leave me some wiggle room in the actual detailed construction of my essay.
We wander around the Cambridge city centre before I rush home to get ready for my choir practice. We’ve got two hours of Creation rehearsal with the Queen’s chapel choir. Afterwards I run home to get dressed for the MCR’s black tie dinner.
We start with champagne in the Old Library. Because I’ve rushed from choir, I am late and miss the picture. I haven’t appeared too late for dinner, though, which frankly, is what I am looking forward to the most. It’s three delicious courses, with chocolate, fruit, and cheese plates after dessert. When I am not chatting with my neighbours I am reading the Cyborg Manifesto under the table: it’s on our list for tomorrow. At the end of the meal, it’s time for speeches and the election results. I have BEATEN RON and am officially a new officer of the MCR committee. I stand up and give a very awkward queenly wave.
My duties begin right away: I must serve at the bar at the after party. People are enjoying themselves (we have an excellent live band playing covers), I meet a nice young man, and in all the evening passes quickly. After clean up, I go to see where everyone else has gone: to the MCR to watch the other election. I can’t stand it for more than fifteen minutes and go to bed.
Wednesday: My parents come into my room for breakfast only to find me lying in the dark with the covers over my head. I am not sleeping. I have just read the news that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States.
It’s a subdued breakfast but I recognize that I need to go outside and get some exercise. It is so nice to be able to spend some quality time with my family. I want to show them around Cambridge again, so I take them to the colleges they’d have to pay for without me: King’s and Trinity are the two main ones. My father calls King’s an “Arabian palace” and my mother is impressed by the punting.
I still have Donna Haraway’s forty-page Cyborg Manifesto to read for the afternoon’s class on posthumanism. I’ve watched Wall-E, read both Feed and Little Machinery, as well as a chapter from Zoe Jaques’ Children’s Literature and the Posthuman, but I can’t seem to get into Haraway. I Wikipedia the essay to see if I can gain some basic vocabulary to move forward with, but it doesn’t help much. I realize there is no way I can read it before class, and opt to give up and have lunch with my parents instead.
Blanka is leading the posthumanism class. I enjoy how it builds on yesterday’s class with Aneesh about space and place as we discuss the environment as a posthuman category, and on a previous class with Blanka on gender, especially when we refer to Wall-E. We discuss the difference between robots and cyborgs. There are a few things I feel I haven’t quite understood yet, so I remind myself to send Blanka an email with questions after I’ve taken another stab at Haraway.
We have a second class today: an hour with one of our lovely librarians and a guest speaker about archival work and rare children’s books. They’ve brought in some examples that we get to touch and read! I am very excited by a signed first edition of Kenneth Grahame’s The Golden Age.
After class I stay to hear some of our fantastic PhD students present on their work. Both speakers I have the privilege of hearing discuss building library spaces, and I find my mind filling with project ideas for reading spaces in my life.
Unfortunately, I miss the last speaker, because I must rush home for a quickly scarfed dinner before a concert in the King’s College Chapel: the boys singing Duruflé’s Requiem. It is heavenly music, but here too I have to rush out; my own choir duties beckon. With a rehearsal at 9:30pm, we are called to sing Compline at Emmanuel Chapel at 10pm.
I am joined by my parents and three of my colleagues from the Education faculty, and after the freezing cold and yet calming service, we enjoy port and chocolate with the Dean before retiring to bed. I email my supervisor the title, and fall asleep instantly.
Thursday: My parents are fans of the TV show “Grantchester” so I have planned a walk there this morning. It’s a fifty-minute walk through Grantchester Meadows, including views of cows and sheep and the winding Cam. When we get to town we eat cream tea at the Orchard Tea Garden, where Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, and E.M. Forster, among others, used to take their tea. We explore the church where “Grantchester” is filmed and my parents love the thatched roofs of the quaint English village.
Later we tour the bookshops in Cambridge. I find something exciting: first edition signed set of the Narnia books. For £4000, it’s the sort of thing one desires from a distance.
At 4.45 pm I have to be back in the chapel at Emma for another rehearsal and service. It is, once again, freezing. I can see my breath as I sing.
I’ve booked formal hall for my parents and me, and so we get dressed up (and I put on my academic gown). It’s cold in the hall as well, so we keep our coats on the whole evening. My parents are impressed by the food of our Swiss chef: some kind of small fowl cooked in cinnamon and lemon.
I check my pigeonhole again. Still nothing.
Friday: My alarm goes off at 4:15 am. I roll out of bed, get dressed, and pack my weekend things into a bag, and an enormous pile of books for my essay into a second bag. The internet tells me Leonard Cohen is dead. My parents and I have to catch the 5 am bus to Stansted Airport for our 7:40 flight to Cologne.
All in all, we are at my grandparents’ house in a few hours. I spend the afternoon and evening working on my essay and being distracted by Facebook. Late at night, my sister, studying midwifery in northern Ontario, comes online and we Skype for over an hour. It’s been a hard week for her.
My brain is playing Leonard Cohen and Duruflé’s Requiem on loop.
Saturday: I let myself sleep in. My grandparents always eat long breakfasts, so we sit at the table for an hour before I clean up and go back to work. My family has planned a hike in the mountains, and since it is my favourite hike in my favourite mountains, I join them. My excuse, since the essay looms: I need the exercise!
At the top of the Löwenburg, something about the crispness of the air, the sleepy trees, and the hopping of a bird along a stone wall reminds me of The Secret Garden. I relish that twinge of nostalgia, and am rewarded with another one when I think about Ronja the Robber’s Daughter living in a castle like this one. I used to play robber when I went on these hikes as a child: laying siege to the castle in a Marxist Robin Hood attempt to bring power back to the people. On our walk back to the car I try to explain Lacan to my father in an attempt to understand it better myself. I don’t understand Lacan any better, but I understand what I don’t understand, and that is perhaps a step in the right direction. I explain how I am going to relate it to my essay, and my father looks at me with pity.
“How long is this essay supposed to be?” he asks, “It sounds like it could be your thesis.”
.When we get home I work on the essay again. I still can’t get Leonard Cohen and Duruflé out of my head.
I find the old VHS tape of Ronja I used to watch as a child. The tape is damaged in the middle but I am able to watch most of the film. My memory fills in the blanks.
Sunday: My week is up! My blog post is due! And my essay needs writing. It’s been a difficult week for many of us. I know I have had the privilege of distraction. But I am also learning what is important for my mental health: walks, friends, and music. I hope that in the coming weeks, whether you are busy or bored, depressed or hyperactive, you can all find moments to take care of yourselves the way you need to. The message I find myself consistently needing to repeat to myself:
Watch a few episodes of Gilmore Girls. Treat yourself to chocolate. Take your medication every day. Enjoy the outdoors. And get that work done.