Semester

Semester is the Swedish word for holiday, which is cause for a little cognitive dissonance for a newly-arrived anglophone academic: what I think of as “the new semester” is just starting, but for locals, “semester” is just ending, and the new academic “cycle” is beginning.

I recall reading something not too long ago in which the writer observed that, for all the claims for January 1st, September is the true start of a new year—a cycle shaped by by patterns of schooling, of course, but one which (I believe) has its roots in the distant days when the whole population had to be mobilised to get the harvest in.

The weather here in Malmö has done a neat job of reinforcing that sense of seasonal transition: as if in canine obedience to the ancient notion of the dog days, the last week has seen a pivot away from the blazing heat of summer and towards grey skies, cool air, thunderstorms. There were riots in Rosengård last night, as the local kids rose to the bait trolled at them by the regional racist shit-stirrers, though I never even heard the sirens, as I was asleep by 2300. Meanwhile, Katie-Jane has finally chased down (and eaten) the last few crane-flies trapped in my apartment, which turn (even more) stupid and sluggish as the temperature drops; likewise my stalemate war of attrition with the fruit flies in my kitchen has ended in sudden and total victory, like someone threw a switch of amnesty and recalled them all from the front lines. The skies are clear again this afternoon, but there was a downpour this morning from lowering clouds a-rumble with sullen malice, and this is the third day in a row that I have (with no small amount of resentment) been obliged to wear socks and shoes rather than going barefoot in sandals, as is my preference.

Summer is over.

Now autumn beckons—and with it new challenges, new responsibilities. Deadlines from long-running projects are getting tied up with the pertinent bows, some more hastily than others; meanwhile, structures and plans for projects about to start are taking shape. The real cognitive dissonance here is probably that of finding myself in the role of an actual academic, albeit one with very little in the way of teaching responsibilities (at least thus far)… but there’s more there, too. Every now and again, while doing something mundane like shopping at the supermarket, the fact of my self-chosen alienation will suddenly come crashing in on the shore of my mind like the wake from a passing ferry, and I’ll think to myself holy shit, I’m actually here, how did this happen?

As I remarked to a friend by email the other week, it’s like I’ve been too busy being here to think about that fact of my being here. Sounds to me like you’re living in the moment, the friend replied; people pay mindfulness gurus four-figure sums for fleeting glimpses of that feeling. There’s not much of it about at the moment, either—maybe try enjoying it for once in your life, eh?

Funny how others see us so much more clearly than we do.

Even more unaccustomed: the prospect of a weekend in which there’s no work that actually needs doing—a sensation that I haven’t really felt since I started freelancing, maybe fifteen years ago or more. Much of my “semester” went to tidying up loose ends and side-projects, and the only consistent marker of my Sundays has been my trips to Klättercentret, which still feels more like a practice of meditation through sudden bursts of intense exertion than it feels like a sport. My life has long had rhythm, but it’s been time since there were any caesurae in the endless stream of pentatonic semiquavers. Melodic interest comes from the silences between the notes, or so the guitar instructors of y*ut*be inform me; maybe I can get out of the habit of running frantically up and down the scales and telling myself that I’m making music, rather than just noise in the appropriate key.

The world’s a mess, and I feel more than a little guilty for the privilege that allows me to ignore so much of that mess, to sit in the peace of my apartment, listen to Crippled Black Phoenix, clip KJ’s claws (again), think about an evening of reading for pleasure.

I don’t deserve it any more than anyone else deserves it.

But my fretting about the mess won’t do much to clean it up. Maybe my work will turn out to be pointless in the grand scheme of things—but the same could be said of any of us. The best, no, the only way to even come close to paying off the privilege of my circumstances is to do the best I can at the work I’ve convinced the world to assign me. The unfamiliarity of this workless time, and the residual anxiety and restlessness which haunts it, is a legacy of the world I’m working to change. There is nothing I want for myself that I do not want for everyone—and this world is more than capable of allowing everyone a weekend without work or worry, without hunger or threat of violence.

So I will work on my little corner of the collective project of realising that world. But I will recommence that work on Monday.

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