Eventually, I think, my decision to study anthropology came from desperation. As an obedient Irish Catholic teenager, I followed the advice of my school counsellor in 1992 and attended a local technical college. I aspired to middle management in an Apple factory, the big employer in my locality. I planned to be the first in my working-class family to graduate college. However, after being bullied in college, my plans changed. I dropped out and found work with campus student services, specifically a faith-based college support team, modelled on early Christian Communities, called the koinonia. It was a profoundly fulfilling experience, though I was employed through a government-funded employment scheme, which meant the Church didn't have to pay me directly. Community Employment schemes were then a common way to hire lay-people for a fraction of their market value. With the government picking up the tab, “the unemployed” provided effectively voluntary community work and remained uncounted in official statistics of the unemployment rate. This in turn reduced charities’ need to recruit actual volunteers and generally ushered in a decline in empathy and charitable volunteering in Irish civil society. After two years I finished this contract, then remained unemployed for a month to qualify for another programme in this small space for young people who were faith-curious and civic-minded.
I loved the work; subsequent contracts, however, were precarious, long before recognition of how common-place zero-hours contracts (with no minimum working hours) would become. Even though I had completed a certificate in counselling during this time, I didn’t quite have the stomach for university. Not yet, though I look at that first graduation photo now and I see the fierce pride in my father’s eyes. I seem to remember I wanted to see him proud again. He would have to wait another seven years. Still, I needed some permanence. Unemployed again for the fourth time in as many years, in desperation I applied to college to study theology and philosophy.
St. Patrick's Maynooth, however, didn’t allow those two subjects to be studied in combination. As I considered other options, I audited other classes and wandered into a second-year anthropology class. The topic was the ideological work the hyphen in “nation-state” performs, conflating an apparatus and a populace. I couldn’t believe such thinking was possible. I had found my path, an obsession, a liberating sense of being able to think critically, and anthropology consumed me. With emerging Church scandals and a creeping atheism souring me on ministry work, I put my pastoral aspirations aside and surrendered to the charm and rigour of an anthropology degree. I have never regretted the mental life I nourished in myself through the canon and the people I met, trained with and learned from. However, for reasons still opaque to me, I have always felt unable to find the next gear in my career, succumbing too readily to impostor syndrome and making naive career choices. Moving from teaching post to research post, without any firm strategy, I periodically wondered about the irony of completing a PhD on how people become stuck in lives only marginally of their own making. While researching how such people overcome their sense of limitations in life through curated wandering, I meandered through a mediocre career progression—I was Gregor Samsa, Franz Kafka’s salesman-turned-cockroach from "The Metamorphosis,” transformed and travelling across these new surfaces with this utterly uncanny sense of body and world, trapped in stifling spaces and placements, loaded with commitments, yet ultimately unwelcome.
After my last research position ended at the National University of Ireland, Galway, another precarious contract ended, there was, once more, nothing else immediately available. I started caring for my ageing father, part-time at first, but it was soon clear he needed full-time support. I prepared meals, helped him shower, kept him company. He gradually became weaker, suffering a series of falls that left him less mobile and more depressed, and yet this life was a special kind of refuge for us both. I was content to inhabit this role; it was a daily ritual of intentional, intimate care. It helped soothe my bruised ego that anthropology, though a passion, was perhaps not a calling. I was back on a government programme as a carer, and I tried my best to suppress the awful feeling that I was time-travelling backwards as others moved on. My peers found jobs and promotions. They made plans, and applied for grants. I cooked meals, made hospital appointments, applied creams and poured generous whiskey nightcaps while dad nightly recounted his own storied life.
That time as his carer remains the most worthy work that I have done, and I try to believe that I did it well. Unfortunately, dad contracted Covid last year and died in hospital. Because I had Covid too I couldn't visit, so I never got the chance to say goodbye. Even writing that upsets me still, nearly a year later. My consolation is that I sensed about two months previously that he had dimmed in life, and in the light in his eyes, so we sat in late summer and I told him I worried we may not have too much longer together. I suggested we consider any unexpressed thoughts, wishes or feelings and share them. That night we spoke in low tones with each other, leaning in more intently, saying things that should be said between people before it’s too late.
The honesty of our exchange to curate his memory was a gift from the discipline that I still cherish and which gave me comfort when he passed. We had a good relationship with nothing left unsaid between us. The impetus for this radical honesty came from the work of anthropologist Michael Jackson, particularly on death and memory in The Palm at the End of the Mind (2009), on the several lives we lead; from birth to death, to our after-lives as memories in the minds of those we leave behind, and finally in the impersonal historical traces that remain after the last ones who knew us pass themselves. I filled my mind and heart in my father’s closing weeks, anticipating the coming chapter.
Following his death, and four years after I had left academia, I had to retool my whole life, facing unemployment and, frankly, homelessness. I couldn’t deploy any practical skills to explore employment prospects or prepare for the post-Covid job market. In the tragedy of eternal return, an executive life coach I consulted suggested I find factory work and study for middle management: “your CV is wonderful, but it’s useless.” Numbed, I found a job in a kitchen, washing dishes. I took my academic insights and applied them to my grief. I couldn’t think, or plan; no easy future, a recent burning past, and a present without momentum. My best friend had passed away in my care, and the shock of grief was too raw. My solution found me standing silently and alone facing a kitchen sink and wall. For four days a week, over five months, in the cramped kitchen of a busy restaurant, I processed a Sisyphean mountain of dishes instead of my emotions. The pace and physicality of the work were relentless, up to thirteen hours a day. The sounds of the kitchen pushed in as I tried to mutely master the rhythms, the heat, and the blissful temporary absence of sadness and anger and hopelessness. I trained myself not to look at the clock, to sense time only from the syncopated rhythms of ware that kept arriving. “No main course dishes now, coffee cups, dessert spoons; the seven-thirty rush is over: 9pm? Only three hours left.” I set my sensorial self to task management, rituals of resetting, preparation for the next day: mop, empty bins, sweep, clean, wipe down, degrease, sterilise.
My body ached. Chefs are always visibly and verbally annoyed at porters. I really wasn't fit enough or young enough for the work; tendons in my hands and feet still haven’t forgiven me for standing daily for so long and scrubbing so incessantly. The skin on my hands breaks down even now from that constant immersion. That’s okay though; grief should mark us, and we ought not heal completely after scarring losses. Ironically, my Fitbit recorded that labour as hours of swimming and jogging, congratulating me on my commitment to my cardiac health every 150 mins and 10,000 steps.
But I was using my early research on pilgrimage as a means to process my life situation without having to confront my grief, the consequences of de facto homelessness or my ongoing job insecurity. Every day as I walked to work I wept openly. Exposed to what the poet Seamus Heaney, in the wake of his own father’s passing, called, “the final unroofing” of the world, I wept for my father. I self-pityingly wept for my own life, too. When I returned home, I howled from fatigue, pain and sadness. But for four days every week, while my body was overcome with gruelling menial tasks, practising care for dishes, I invoked a habit and techniques of constant repetitive movement, a healing context where my pain was only one element at play. Grief had to wait its turn. This kinetic ritual of secular penance was doing the work of maintaining my unmade sense of self in an environment that offered few actual affordances. But the routine restored a rhythm, a continuity that helped me face the rupture of grief as I bore the losses of, as Jackson (2005, p.187) puts it, “life, lifeworld and livelihood.” I was no longer studying the proposition that “I cannot, therefore I am” (2005, p.xiii), I was actively inducing myself to live through it. As Albert Camus (2021) could have remarked of Sisyphus, there were moments I must have been able to imagine myself free.
In my precarity I know I couldn’t have held down a job with real consequences, which would have required me to pretend I had any wisdom for students coming out of lockdown, or for colleagues struggling with their own ambivalent sense of value in increasingly procrustean academic settings. Working in a kind of self-care setting, I maintained a steady flow of delph and cutlery, which was all my heart could manage, or body could bear. It seems unlikely now that I may ever work in academia again, but anthropology quite literally saved me from myself at my lowest point. Despite the unempathetic egomaniacs I endured who managed to prosper in non-Darwinian university environments, I found enough sagacity to improvise a philosophy of physical and emotional endurance when I most needed it. Finally, in May, I had endured enough and was ready to face my pain more directly, grateful that my years of exploring wellbeing, existential suffering and ritual healing had served a practical role in my life. I walked a month-long Camino pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain, the first since my postdoctoral work. There, ritual itself, as Joan Didion (2006, p.43) came to understand, was its own form of faith.
Still, I wish I was smarter. I wish I had had better mentors, to understand how to navigate politics and personalities, to have made my father prouder. But I remain grateful. It’s the least my PhD could do, even though it may be the most it will ever do for me now. “Sometimes,” Seneca wrote, “even to live is an act of courage.” Nevertheless, it has been a better life, having had the fortune to embrace anthropology as my passion. My niece is in college now, and I tutor her on writing and theory. She told me that one night she was ignoring her boyfriend’s texts to finish an essay; “I had to get it just right.” It struck her that, “I was becoming just like you.” My university experience has become a shared resource for my family. The bar has been raised, and that is enough of a legacy for a life. The path I cleared doesn't have to be one I continue on myself, as long as there are others curious enough to walk it after me. I have the courage to make peace with the rest.
Didion, Joan. 2006, The Year of Magical Thinking. London: Harper Perennial.
Jackson, Michael. 2005. Existential Anthropology: events, exigencies and effects. London and New York: Berghahn.
Jackson, Michael. 2009. The Palm at the End of the Mind: relatedness, religiosity and the real. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Camus, Albert 2021 . The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Transl. Justin O’Brien. Tingle Books. E-book