leaning in

Admitting to deep rooted survivalist tendencies is maybe a lack of insight on my part. I guess its obvious that someone who runs Surviving Work has an issue with how exactly you do that. That doesn’t make me a total utter hypocrite, but maybe someone who easily jumps off the cliff of workplace humanity given a sufficient shove.

The run up to the Easter break was a bit grim for those of us in the education business. Women’s day coincided with some eye watering stuff in the press about how women academics rate according to student ‘satisfaction’ and that of their employers. We are less likely to be promoted, particularly if we’re black. Oh, and we earn less. Being a chump is a hard look to rock and one reason why female academics don’t need to hurry along to ratemyprofessor.com anytime soon.



It’s times like these that I need to get me to a hut in the rurals and hang out with rabbits and lambs. So in an attempt to build my chances of surviving a future retreat from humanity I learned how to build a wall. Dry stone if you must know.


Coming from Gloucestershire I love a good wall. In my mind representing an acceptance of the fact that we don’t get to influence the planet much, but we can build a useful thing of beauty to be appreciated by the people, and sheep, that come after us.


So this led to me, my mate Jane and an old bloke from Lancashire called John building a wall under the shadow of the Shard in South London. It was raining of course, and me and Jane had maintained a life time of sartorial defiance by wearing cool togs and unsuitable footwear. Whatevs.


John has the biggest hands I’ve ever seen. The kind of hands that you just want to go and live in. He patiently ignored our insane giggles over the language of walls – batters, jumpers and cheeks. In our defence John did use the word ‘cheek’ at every possible opportunity which when you’re bending over a pile of wet rocks is really really funny.


The first task is to sort out stones into different functions. After an hour of hard labour I realise I’ve just divided stones into ‘fatties’ and ‘skinnies’. Self hatred forming the basis of a stone caste system.


The point at which I started crying was at the prospect of trying to change the shape of the stones. This involves hitting an actual stone with a hammer. I wasn’t expecting to have a chin wobble moment at carrying out an act of aggression but I was confronted for the first time in quite a while with the reality that I didn’t know how to do something. So caught up in being right, competing with intellectual rigour, putting myself beyond criticism and fighting off misogynistic bear bating, I’d got out of the habit of just being a person who doesn’t know everything.


Bugger. Wet, tired and now crying in public.


I watched in tearful gratitude as John showed me how to chip away at stone as if it were cheese. Muttering something pretty uncomfortable about my IQ, the word ‘daft’ was actually used.


It would be easy to think of building a wall as a simple defensive act. But the thing about a dry stone wall is that its actually two walls leaning in to each other. Long stones underpin the structure, corner stones for the cheek. Precious sloping stones to create the batter and the precocious random oddities of the head stones running along the wall’s spine.


There is a remarkable beauty to a wall designed to survive an unstable foundation. Each stone imperfect but useful. Our job to find a place for it. I think of the work of psychoanalysis that I’ve done for all these years. Imperfect parts, trying to find a fit, a rhythm and a form that makes the best of what I’ve got.


Jane and I take a rest and look lovingly at what we have created. My friend’s wall is very different from mine – a groove for a sheep’s bum, a joyful curve. Jane is vitriolic. Mine is organised and on the surface very convincing. I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with it but keep that thought quietly to myself. Plus ca change, mes amis.


But despite the random and unloved nature of my wall, it just is. Two imperfect structures have leaned in to each other. Something has been created that stands and remains.


Whatever you’re doing this Easter, whether you’re a man, woman or a rabbit.


Just. Lean. In.


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