An unfortunate side effect of undertaking a PhD is that hobbies are often left by the wayside. We have every intention of carrying them with us on our long and winding academic roads, but somehow they fall from our pockets. By the time we have noticed, the hike back to them can appear too arduous to be worth the effort.

Of course, this isn’t true for every student and every hobby. But I think it is fair to say that, while marching toward the summit of doctor-hood, most of us must compromise between the number of hobbies we can carry and the weight of carrying them. And those that can do ten extracurricular activities, be an engaged PhD student, and find time to sleep are simply superhuman (and perhaps also fictitious).

I was definitely one of those PhD students who scattered my hobbies here and there along the road. Photography, writing poetry, and sketching all got lost somewhere en route between graduating undergrad and pre-pandemic PhD-ing. My free time was spent walking, swimming or relaxing with a film, and there just wasn’t enough time for anything else. 

Well, almost not enough time. In a pre-coffee daze, I would spend a few minutes writing a poem each morning and posting it to an online community. I would then push poetry from my mind and get on with the day.

Then the pandemic came, and it changed everything, for everyone. No matter where we are or who we are, the repercussions of covid19 has rippled into everybody’s lives.

Although I would have been in the midst of my field season right now, my PhD progression has, thankfully, been largely unaffected by the pandemic. I’m aware of how fortunate I am in saying this, and can only hope that the infrastructure surrounding early career researchers across the globe will work to buffer the huge impact the pandemic has had on so many people’s academic trajectories. 

Despite little impact on my PhD work, the pandemic has played havoc with my emotions. In the early days of lockdown, I spent much of my time scrolling the news, looking up the most recent death tolls, comparing statistics across countries and getting incredibly angry at incompetent governments. I worried constantly about relatives and neighbours, and woke up multiple times a night because of vivid, bizarre dreams. And this seemed to be ubiquitous: friends told me of days lost to reading pandemic-related articles; worrying about vulnerable family members; not being able to sleep. 

*****

*****

My pre-coffee poetry became a ritual. It felt like therapy to have this small window of time, in the quiet of the start of the day, to sit and write whatever happened to come to mind. Mostly, I wrote about things relating to the pandemic. I then posted it to the online community.

*****

*****

In this time I would also read the poetry other community members posted. Many of them were writing about the pandemic, and I found comfort in seeing the chaos of the current human experience being processed into powerful, personal and simultaneously generalisable pieces of writing. I started to consciously choose not to scroll through the news when I took a break from work, and instead to read a few poems. People were posting pandemic-related poetry, but also poems that shone with otherworldly beauty in an escape from the brutality of the global crisis. Both helped. Both created space in my mind to be able to deal with this strange new normal.

*****

*****

Lockdown shortly underway, I received a message from one of the members of this writing community. It was a group-message to a small subgroup of writers who interacted often within the larger community. He asked if we would want to video call. Tentative at first, I wondered how well this might work. A group of strangers who share poetry on the internet might have nothing to say to each other in real life. Video calls are odd enough at the best of times, but this could be a recipe for disaster. Then again, the poetry they each created was my balm. This group of writers were the core group whose work I read in the morning, and throughout the day. They were the people who, unknowingly, were giving me space to breathe, space to process, space to create. How could I resist?

*****

*****

We video call every Saturday now. We span three countries, a myriad of careers and multiple life stages. But what we have in common is poetry, and that is all we need. We read our favourite poems to each other, talk about our craft, and debrief about the pandemic; our daily struggles and our daily joys. Meeting with this group of writers has become a highlight of my week. It is a silver lining in the storm of this pandemic, where deep connections are forged and creativity is sparked. 

*****

*****

And this brings me back to the hobbies left scattered by the wayside. Poetry was a hobby I hadn’t exactly abandoned, but definitely neglected during my academic journey. Now, it has surged back into my life. I think we are often made to (or make ourselves) feel that we need to juggle everything, including all those hobbies we enjoy but never have time for, and we feel guilty if we just can’t manage it. But perhaps we need to give ourselves a break. Our hobbies, whatever they are, may sometimes fall by the wayside, but that doesn’t mean they are gone. I think, often, we will return to them when we need to. 

*****

*****