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While procrasti-waiting for inspiration to strike, to bind together stray thoughts bubbling in my head so I can write coherently, this piece was born. I call it ‘Lines of thought’.

24 September 2020: Since I published this piece, I have also recorded it as part of the Unlocking Lockdown podcast, associated with the Post-Pandemic University project based at the University of Cambridge


There are times when I feel like I am reliving the same day over and over. At my family home in the interior of Pahang, I pace indoors, coated by the punishing midday heat. I am slowly forgetting the contours of the landscape beyond the boundaries of the home. We wait for this dream to subside—a pandemic has seized the gaps and cracks between what were once mobile bodies, connected places and the normal rhythm of time, congealing as if by magic, suspending everything in slow motion…

“Maybe you can start writing random stuff”, my friend ‘A’ recently suggests, as a means of assuaging my anxiety.

I tell her I have been working on some academic writing. Tersely, she points out that this is work, not the kind of writing she had in mind. So I return to this platform, in hopes of writing something that is not work, but I already know I will disappoint ‘A’.

It has been two months since I last recorded my updates here. Between then and now, the Malaysian government has extended the Movement Control Order (MCO) twice to contain the COVID-19 virus—first for two weeks, followed by a month, to conclude on June 9th. What lies beyond remains uncertain; such is the maxim of the new normal. In lockdown, I celebrated my birthday with self-saucing chocolate pudding made by my younger sisters. Over WhatsApp calls, my nephew told me excitedly, repeatedly, perhaps divulging a cautious secret—he will be getting a younger sibling by the end of this year. As if observing from the outside instead of enduring, the fasting month of Ramadan rapidly, dreamily spills into subdued Eid al-Fitr celebrations. Yet amidst all these happenings, still there are times when I feel like I am reliving the same day over and over.

When I have the headspace, I engage with thinkpieces expounding the pandemic. They alert and teach me of COVID-19’s social situatedness and salad of implications. At once the pandemic is many things: a window into the politics of Malaysian food, a backdrop for troubled stories, the work of our own collective hands, a portal and an opportunity for radical hope. The pandemic and its potentialities in every direction continue to evolve. It seems like we can’t keep up, but we try anyways. What can we do otherwise?

And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time. The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I remember the moment when my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day–no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. I can’t go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: I’ll go on. I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over:”I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

In this time, I grasp at a number of activities to remind myself that despite being home in the lulling comfort of family, and that my fieldwork has been disrupted, I am still a PhD student engaging in the life of the mind, forging an academic identity somehow amidst the chaos. The writing of fieldnotes continue, however sparse and ambivalent they may be in this time (am I technically in the field?). I participated in vCIES, finding comfort and hope in the virtual company of my academic discipline: comparative and international education.

Slowly, through challenging and hazy days of writing—aided by what seemed like Divine intervention—draft manuscripts for a journal article and book chapter are birthed. I practiced peer-reviewing through the opportunity to support a graduate student journal. Webinars on critical pedagogy, poverty & the pandemic. A movie here, and a documentary there. This PhD continues, I convince myself, even when I don’t feel up for it on certain days and lay in bed motionless, even when progress appears glacial, even when it seems like such an inconsequential project when the world seems to collapse…

…we ‘‘reword’’ the world, erase the computer screen, check the thesaurus, move a paragraph, again and again. This ‘‘worded world’’ never accurately, precisely, completely captures the studied world, yet we persist in trying. Writing as a method of inquiry honors and encourages the trying, recognizing it as emblematic of the significance of language. I write because I want to find something out. I write in order to learn something that I did not know before I wrote it.

Getting personal: writing stories, Laurel Richardson

On 15 April, the Malaysian Minister of Education issued a press statement outlining plans for schooling post-pandemic. Examinations are postponed or cancelled, schools will eventually open gradually, with 2-weeks advance notice. My mother asks me about the fate of my fieldwork. Half-frustrated, half-joking, I facetiously remark that I will drop out of my PhD. She turns serious, reminding me to complete what I have started–whatever it may take–after I had gone and upended what seemed like a comfortable life. I ask her to pray for just that.

Over these past two months, I have reluctantly been revising my application for ethical clearance to move data collection into the online realm. I am learning that to pause in this moment, to not rush into troubleshooting, to hold space for how my informants are adjusting to the circumstances of lockdown, is an act of care, an ethics transcending bureaucracy. I choose to wait things out. In retrospect and introspect, I allowed myself time to mourn the loss of my original design and all the lofty aspirations infused therein. No doubt the pandemic disrupts the currents of the field, altering the course of work within it. How can it not? I anxiously wonder how the novel shape of my study—perhaps the last thing on my informants’ minds in this troubling time—will unfold. Where is the silver lining?

My friend ‘M’ assures me: “It is time to have patience and tranquillity, as our research is not disconnected with social flows…and that includes this pandemic.”

What next? With ethical clearance to alter my research design freshly received, I now slowly work on the associated practicalities. But I still long for the site of my fieldwork. Eid al-Fitr wishes are exchanged with teachers, alongside jokes. Students tell me they are happy to be out of school, but also bored by the prolonged lockdown. We trade movie recommendations. The teacher sitting beside me in the staff room where I have been given a cubicle, who shares bread and stories with me, calls to inform that my car tyres have gone flat due to immobility. When I returned home with my parents in mid-March, I had left the car (borrowed from my mother) and other possessions (clothes and books, among others) at the site. I had assumed I would be back in the field after the one week school holiday. This was before lockdown became the norm; a week away has now stretched into ten, and counting. Despite the circumstances, relations and objects tether me to field, and I hold on tight. This gives me hope of returning eventually, even if only to say goodbye.

For now, I leave this space with a poem on patience and wisdom, a balm for the restless soul that treads on the slowly forming ground:

References

Kalanithi, P. (2016). When Breathe Becomes Air, New York: Random House.

Richardson, L. (2001). Getting personal: Writing-stories. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(1), 33–38. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09518390010007647

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