Living in two worlds
I live in two worlds. As a PhD-student, I live in the academic world. As a daughter of a demented father, I am at home in the nursing house where my dad lives; the world of dementia. A bigger contrast between worlds does not exist than between the academic world and the world of dementia. In academics, we build knowledge. In my father’s world, knowledge gets lost all the time. At the office, there is a buzz of what people will do, of dreams about the future, of upcoming events. In the nursing home there is a clock, but the only time I share with my father is ‘now’. Time has lost its meaning. I am in both worlds. How do I merge them into one single life?
Body and Mind
We are humans; body and mind. The philosopher Descartes thought deeply about this dualistic character of human beings, especially about the question of how the body and mind interact with each other. This was, and still is, a huge problem, since the body is material and the mind is spiritual. How can something material interact with something immaterial? The solution Descartes proposed is the pineal gland, which converts the information that is sent between the two worlds. Picturing humans as body and mind provides an analogy to understand how I deal with being in two worlds that do not seem to have any connection with each other.
My mind world is the academic world. I am a PhD-student at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. I research how two Kenyan indigenous communities, which are embedded in their sacred worldview, make sense of climate-induced conflicts. Since this is my first year, my academic hours are dedicated to reading, reading, and reading, and a lot of writing to process all that I have read. My mind is not always in the mood to do this, hence I put structures in place that set me to work.
What do these structures look like? Well, after breakfast, I do some type of physical exercise and then I start work. My working day is divided in time blocks of 2x one-and-a-half hour of focused work, followed by less intense work. On a full working day, I repeat this two times; on days with caring duties, I put in at least 1,5 hour of intense work. This worked pretty well during the COVID-lockdowns, but does not help me that well in the current situation. My motivation is too low, because two worlds in one mind are blurring and exhausting me. So I changed it a bit. After breakfast, I cycle to the train station and travel to my working space. I grab a cup of coffee and start my workday.
This travel time turned out to be highly important when living in two worlds. Looking at the landscape that passes by calms down my heated mind. It is a time to grieve, a time to breathe, a time to let go of my thoughts. When I work in Nijmegen, at the Radboud University, I let my needs decide whether I travel back by train, which goes fast, or by bus, which takes longer. But not only the travel time is important, also the places I go to. The campus is the academic world; the train travels between the academic world and the world of dementia.
My body world is the world of the nursing home. With my dad, I cannot have a conversation. Conversations turn into monologues. He tells stories from the past, a past I cannot enter. I tell stories from now, stories that he sometimes grasps, but always gets lost in oblivion. The only way to get into real contact with him is by touching his senses and emotions.
With my dad, I live in a sensational world. On a beautiful afternoon in spring we went for a walk. We stood still at each flower and each tree. My father looked around with the eyes of a child and was amazed by the colors, the shapes and the smells we sensed. His fingers felt the softness of the catkins of the trees, his face expressed disgust after smelling a flower with a really bad smell, and he started to laugh when I tickled him with a leaf.
When I am with my dad, I travel to his world. This is not easy. But that world is not a nasty world to be in. It can be really relaxing, as I discovered during that walk. I am used to walking fast. My dad slowed me down and opened my eyes for all the beauty in nature that surrounds us. Normally, I do not stick my nose in flowers, but now I did. Normally I do not listen that intensely to the singing of the birds, but this time their song touched me deeply. So, though traveling to his world is not easy, being in his world touches my heart.
The Traveling Mind and Body
I live in two different worlds and travel between them. My mind is traveling between worlds while my body is traveling to work and my body is traveling between worlds when my mind searches for my father’s world in the nursing home. The two worlds clash with each other, but, thanks to the time I travel, I have time to switch from one world into the other. And thanks to the structures that I have in place, I stay focused in both worlds. I am a PhD-student and the daughter of a dementing father.
This is the second article about PhD and caring duties. The first article was "Don't lose your mind", which contains tips how to combine work with caring duties and how to address this topic in converstations with your supervisors.
Tanja van Hummel is PhD-student at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. She researches the sacred dimensions of climate change-induced conflicts among indigenous peoples in Kenya. She is also the chief editor of MindMint.