Breathing in the scent of my childhood

After a few confusing and slightly hectic weeks in my first full-time job in three years, I have a moment to take a lunchtime walk. It’s spring here in Canberra and for the first time in about 20 years the weather is spot on. Instead of blazing heat as soon as winter is done, the season is easing in ever so gently. The sun is warm, the wind is cool and it’s about 17 degrees. Magpies are out in full force, squawking urgently about perceived threats to their nests and bees swarm around blossoms. That spring smell that carries with it the allergies that affect so many is thick and heady for a moment before the cool wind dilutes it. Old Man’s Beard floats through the air, collecting like snow at the base of trees and if you’re unlucky enough, it goes up your nose.

Ahead of me, I see a building in which I began my tertiary education nearly 20 years ago now. 

It’s nothing remarkable. Inside it there are beautiful works of art and young and emerging artists finding their place in the world.

I walked here 20 years ago. My best friend Grug [not her real name] and I had nothing to do one weekend and we noticed the uni was having its open day. I knew my marks wouldn’t be good enough and my friend wasn’t planning on going to uni but we went along anyway. We picked up goody bags and wandered about the campus then went to check out the school of music. As we walked out of Llewellyn Hall, we noticed this white building, the Canberra School of Art, was also having an open day. It was part of the uni apparently. Somehow we made our way through the gallery towards the back and ended up in the Textiles area. I immediately felt like I’d come home and suddenly realised that this might be where I need to be. I talked to them about applying and felt encouraged, despite not having studied art in my final two years of high school.

So I created a portfolio. I’d been sewing for about six years at that point, and I’d done really well in textiles in year 11 and 12. It was something I found easy and fun and interesting and I wouldn’t need high marks in maths or science to have a chance at a place at art school.

“You know this isn’t fashion design,” they said to me when I went for the interview and presented a portfolio dominated by pattern drafting and fabric design. I was clear that I wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in fashion, although frankly I’d have said that about anything at that stage, I had no idea what I wanted.

At the end of 1996, after having submitted my application and been interviewed with my portfolio, my dad took me on my first overseas trip to the UK. That’s another story, but while I was there my mum called to say that I’d received a letter to say I was being considered for a place but that I was on a waiting list for any places that became available due to people dropping out. I didn’t really think anything of it, and I know my dad wasn’t impressed that I wouldn’t be going straight to uni, so that was that, I put it out of my mind. When I got home in January 1997 there was a letter to say I had been accepted. I’m hazy now on the numbers but from what I recall I got one of 27 places in a pool of 300 odd applicants. Not too bad. I still didn’t think it was that big a deal until years later I was chatting to a local artist who was stunned to discover I’d been accepted there, saying it was one of the most highly regarded art schools in the country. Hmm. I have no idea if that’s true!

Anyway, this white building, this is where I started. I didn’t become an artist, obviously, but I did that first year of my BA (Visual) and realised it wasn’t quite what I wanted. So I just transferred into a regular BA and that was that, thus began my academic career. It’s bizarre to think I’ve come from that to a PhD in Italian in Canada 20 years later. I recently stumbled upon a social media post I made ten years ago when visiting Rome. I went to the Trevi Fountain and when I looked for a coin to throw in the only one I had was a Canadian ten cent piece. Imagine that! I’d never been to Canada, but for some reason I had that coin in that moment and I threw it in the Trevi. In Italy. And now here I am, in Canada, studying Italian. I have no idea how or why this happened but it’s quite an odd coincidence that I find hard to label as arbitrary.

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Graduation

I graduated with an MA today. In Italian Studies. The day was stressful and emotional and lovely. I still have no idea how or why I did this degree but I have faith that I will be presented with an answer in due course.

I got great marks and encouragement from professors and colleagues alike to do my PhD. Not quite ready for that yet! And not in Italian Studies.

I still can’t believe I did this and I feel simultaneously like a fraud and like superwoman all at once. I just wish my study path were different, or that I were passionate about what I’m good at. A work in progress perhaps.

University College, U of T

Anyway today we left the house in record time at silly o’clock to get downtown. I rushed through into University College to pick up my hired gown, then missed the beautiful experience that is walking down those old corridors sounded by amazing architecture as I basically catapulted myself down the hall into a room full of my fellow graduates, all in their academic regalia. I quickly signed in and awkwardly slipped my gown over my shoulders. It seemed so strange getting dressed in this big echoey old room full of strangers. I briefly saw a couple of the grads from my program, waving to one in the W queue and another amongst the Ms as I stood with the Ls. I didn’t really know what to expect but I’d had no time to read any of the background material so I just went with what I was told in the moment.

We slowly filed out, down the well worn steps, over the ring road and across the grass to Convocation Hall. I looked at the PhD students ahead of me and realised just how lucky I was to be there. Although there had been some stressful and challenging moments during the degree, the year had gone by so quickly and I hadn’t even used 100 per cent of my capacity to complete the requirements of the course. Full time study for a year, excelling without full effort, and voila, a Masters. Of course, it’s what one of my professors called a ‘glamour’ degree: it’s not going to get you a job, or rather, you’re not doing it to get a job. You’re doing it because you love it. What’s odd for me is that, frankly, I did this degree because it was easy and we got to live in Canada, not because I have any great passion or love for Italy or the Italian language. It’s great to have that second language and I enjoy speaking it, although it’s quite challenging at times because still, after all these years of study and having reached this level, I am not as fluent as I’d like. I watch the news and I often find it hard to follow. I just don’t love it that much.

But as I sat in that beautiful hall with its cosy acoustics, the dense energy of passion and learning flooding my senses, I felt proud. And, just for a moment, I was really content with what I’d achieved. Just for a moment.

Where will this lead me? I say that I’ll see my path laid out before me in time, and this may happen, but deep down I feel like I veered way off my truth path years ago. More to be written on that, I’m sure. For now, I can say that I’ve achieved something pretty great and I’m excited to find out where it will lead me.

Halfway there

It’s been a while since I managed to update. I have been racing to the finish line getting all my uni work done for the end of term. I still can’t believe I managed it. I had to write three essays in a week, it was crazy. I hope I’ve done enough to get decent marks. So far I’ve only had two marks back for about a dozen pieces of assessment and they were A minus and A so fingers crossed… 

This is what happens whenyou leave the tree decorating up to a four year old. All baubles bunched together.
 

I am glad I only have five courses this next term, as opposed to six, but I’m worried I’ll burn out and lose motivation and just pull through. I truly feel that, while I’m managing my study, I’m not doing the best work I can. Yet I’m getting decent marks so far and I feel like I have more of a chance of doing well in comparison to some of my fellow MA students. That sounds arrogant, I know, but I don’t mean to compare myself or put others down, it’s more just a case of confidence, maturity and experience being on my side. 

Having said that, and I hope I’m not being presumptuous here, but I get the impression that, in order to be given a mark below an A, you really have to stuff up. Like hand in a half-written essay or skip all your classes or miss your presentation. It kind of feels as though if you make an effort, they’ll give you an A. An A+ is like you’ve really done awesomely well and you’re a genius, an A is like, hey, that’s a pretty decent essay, and an A- is like, um, frankly your essay is pretty shite but you’ve clearly made an effort and tried your best so we don’t want to give you the possibility of not having the grades to get into a Ph.D so here’s a lower but still acceptable grade. You see, from what I’ve ascertained thus far, to be accepted to a Ph.D program, you need an A average. I don’t know how it compares at other unis but at UofT this equates to a minimum of 80 per cent across the board, more or less. So it’s like if you put in all this work and love what you’re studying but you can’t write for shit, they’re still not going to give you a B or lower because that would mean you can’t continue on to doctoral studies. And that’s kinda unfair. Because even if you want to study something really odd or obscure or pointless or boring like underwater basket-weaving in third world countries (a memorable and hilarious example a former public service boss of mine used to use), who are they, the professors, to deprive you of that? Who are they to say that you don’t write well enough to pursue your random and unending academic interests? Show me the money, right? Somehow, and this is just me letting things stew around in my neurotic brain, I get the distinct impression that no matter your interests or capabilities, if you are dedicated and do your best, you can do as many postgraduate degrees as you like. Once you get to the masters level, there’s a limit to how much you can be questioned for what you’re doing. 

Having said all that, I can accept I may be being too simplistic about all this. The fact is, regardless of all this speculating about secret university policies, I am alluding to the fact that I don’t believe I’m that great a writer. I don’t think I’m any good at this stuff. I’m a fraud. There, I said it. I am just winging it, pulling essays out of my arse, somehow doing just enough to get by. After all, this degree is costing a fortune, surely they can’t fail me just because of that. Yes, I’m still speculating. I need to stop. What I can say for sure is that I’m somehow getting these good grades and I don’t feel like my work is of that high a standard. 

Anyway, here’s to halfway through my MA program. I keep getting prompted to enrol in a PhD but I don’t think I’ll do it just yet, if at all. I know what it would involve and I want to do some other stuff first. And I’d need to learn another language or two. There’s time. I just need to find the motivation to finish this thing and find home. 

The oldest student

I’m not really that old. I just turned 37 the other week. But in my MA program, I’m the oldest. There are three others doing the same program as me and they’re all much younger. Like 10 to 15 years younger! At first I found it a little confronting. I’ve done a lot since I finished my undergraduate degree 14 years ago. I’ve worked and lived in other countries, I’ve even done another degree. But still, I’m the oldest, I have kids, I live 40km out of the city… It’s not easy.

But it wasn’t long, however, before I realised I was so much better equipped than these kids are to be doing a masters. That’s not to say I think anyone’s going to drop out, that they’re too young or whatever. I just want to acknowledge my gratitude to be the age I am. I have so much more knowledge, I’ve been places and done things and although I have a lot more going on with two little kids, I manage to do the required reading when others just haven’t the stamina. Not just that, I can apply myself and come up with intelligent remarks.

When I began my undergraduate degree in 1997, it was in a BA (Visual) specialising in textiles. I got in on a whim, having spoilt any chance of getting into any uni program based on grades, as I barely achieved a pass in my year 12 results. This was because I lacked focus, discipline and confidence, and I cut my nose off to spite my face in a way when I deliberately didn’t apply myself to my studies because I didn’t believe studying maths or science should be part of getting a suitable grade to get into arts at uni. I think I ended up with a 52. But I put together some half-assed portfolio of artwork I had done through high school and, by some miracle, was offered a place at art school. I had no idea at the time but this wasn’t just any art school; it was one of the foremost art schools in the country with an extremely high reputation at the time (I don’t think this is still the case). I still don’t really know how I got in, given I got one of seven places in a field of 135 applicants. Ultimately I never questioned it but who knows, perhaps I wasn’t a total fraud; perhaps I actually showed some talent!

After six months of, admittedly, mostly enjoyable foundation studies courses, I began to realise I didn’t want to be a “starving artist”. I didn’t have quite the passion of some (and genuine eccentricity of others!) I needed to do something a little more academic. Having said that, the most academic subject I studied at art school was Art Theory and it was the one I found most difficult. I didn’t do particularly well in that, having to write some essay on post-colonialism, if memory serves, in which I demonstrated practices I would employ throughout my undergraduate studies that guaranteed shit marks. Things like waffling on about something in a giant paragraph when I could have said it in one sentence and then not referencing because it was “just what I think”. Read: I did zero reading whatsoever and I’m winging it using flowery language and correct spelling.

Anyway, I received a distinction at the end of that first year of visual arts, which my mum still goes on about. But it wasn’t for me. Luckily, due to the prestige of the school, I suppose, it was actually part of the university, arguably the most well-respected university in Australia (it ranks about number 19 in the world now I think), and because I’d completed my first year I just transferred to do a straight BA, with some status credits tacked on from that Visual Arts year. I enrolled in the expected three courses: English, Italian and History. Introduction to the Study of Literature, Introductory Italian (I was placed in the intermediate class but quickly dropped back when I couldn’t understand anything in my first class), and Culture and Society in Britain and France: 1750-1850. Oh history! I think I’d heard of the French Revolution at the tender age of 19 after visiting Madame Tussauds in London and seeing the Madame Guillotine waxwork in the Chamber of Horrors. I’d never heard of the Industrial Revolution. Ha. I was so naive!

I barely passed that year-long unit of history (I think the tutor was very generous), and I quickly transferred out and into linguistics which suited me better. I still wrote essays containing no referencing that were basically just stories about what I thought on a certain topic but I somehow got through and got top marks in Italian so that ended up being what I went on to do in this program. To be honest, I’m not hugely passionate about Italian per se, I don’t really know much of the literature or history, although I’m learning a huge amount through this course, but one thing I’ve discovered is that I know what interests me and what I’d like to continue doing, so I have my Italian studies to thank for that. As an all-rounder, it’s not easy to find your passion.

And why did I enrol to do Italian back in 1998? Because I’d studied it in high school and I knew languages came easily to me. When I was choosing electives in my first year of high school it was a toss up between Spanish or Italian and I chose the latter simply because that’s what my best friend had chosen. “It’s a bludge,” she said. That’s all I needed to hear. Laziness was what I was all about, getting the best results for the least about of work. I look back and I can’t believe this was my attitude! That stubborn, lazy aspect of me did me no favours. I only hope I can instil something different in my own kids. Not that you must slog your guts out, but that it’s good to strive for something and feel passionate. It’s self-discipline that I learnt the hard way, and am still learning in fact. The difference is, learning is pure pleasure and it’s ironic that now, when I have the least amount of time available to devote to it, I’m finding so much enjoyment in it! And speaking of which, it’s time to stop this procrastinating and get back to it.