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  • Milena Williamson

PhDisruption

‘Unfortunately, due to the disruptions from the COVID-19 crisis…’ These are the oh-so-familiar words these days. A sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. The magic words for a spell gone wrong. A quick search through my inbox reminds me just how much disruption there has been: sources of income have been disrupted disruption to these placements the level of disruption to your travel plansas minimal disruption as possible. Disruption, from the noun of action disrumpĕre to burst or break asunder. E.g. Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth, first translated into English in 1684: ‘These great earthquakes and disruptions, that did such great execution upon the body of the earth.’


Okay, okay, I’ll put away the OED (for today!). I can never resist dipping into my favorite resource, scrolling back through time and texts. I do another search, this time in my school’s handbook for post-graduate research students. There’s no instance of the word ‘disruption’ and certainly nothing about viruses, facemasks, and pandemics (oh my!).


This has been the big question on everyone’s mind. How much disruption have you experienced and how can we measure it? On a scale of 1-10? In time lost? In emotional precariousness? Before Covid-19, life was full of disruptions – big, medium, and small ones – disruptions we never even thought to measure. And now, there’s just the one mega Disruption that everyone is talking about.


Doing a PhD under normal circumstances is already weird. What did you do today, a friend in the U.S.A. asks me. I opened five different books, read four of them, wrote three stanzas of a poem, tried to revise a page-long poem into a two-page poem (one line on the second page still counts as ‘two pages of poetry’), and had one very glorious cup of coffee. PhD means sitting down to read a book, getting distracted by your emails, submitting to a writing contest just before the deadline, rewriting your to-do list, messaging your fellow PhD-ers, and going to bed with your head buzzing. And occasionally writing something decent. So, arguably, these PhD years are the disruption in my otherwise ‘normal’ life of working nine to five.


When the virus was spreading and lockdown restrictions were at their strictest, there were no poetry workshops, no conferences, no classes, etc. It was me and the work (my corpus as one of my PhD friends calls hers), alone in a room together. The most boring staring contest you can imagine.



Except…I discovered that I kind of like writing poems? When there were no classes or emails or conferences or ‘extras’ of the PhD, as I call them, I found that there was a lot of room in my brain to think about my own work. To edit and agonize and re-edit and maybe, just maybe, end up with something unexpected, something that was better than I planned to write all along (I still have twenty more pages to go, so there’s still plenty of time for minor disruptions).


My PhD was disrupted by Covid-19 and lockdown. Disruptions on top of disruptions—a disruption ice cream sundae! There’s no good way to measure this, but perhaps the best way is through newfound kindnesses: the friends who reached out during lockdown, more family Skype calls, TV shows like ‘Staged’ that made me laugh about the messiness of the pandemic.


In Northern Ireland, we’re easing into something new. Facemasks on public transportation but not in coffee shops. Queuing spots spray-painted on the pavement and a cap on the number of people in the recently reopened library. This post-lockdown life doesn’t have a word for it, but allow me to offer a suggestion---


In E. Lockhart’s, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Frankie loves a kind of word that I believe she calls ‘false imagined positives’ or ‘fips’. Through backformation, she reimagines the positives of words such as ‘disgruntled.’ In my favorite scene, she kisses her boyfriend passionately and says, ‘Mmm I’m so gruntled right now.’


Why have I disrupted this post about Covid-19 to talk about YA literature you may be wondering? Well, as we head into whatever comes next post-lockdown, I would like to offer ‘ruption’ as the word of choice à la Frankie. Ruption, or the opposite of disruption, is what happens when we begin to adjust to disruption, to find new ways of being in a new world.


Sending love an ocean away!

Milena Williamson is a poet and PhD candidate at The Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University Belfast.

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