Sowing Stories (About)

Reflection: Out of Office reply

The first challenge is internal. For the past three weeks, I’ve been thinking about how academic research can bring value to The Comfrey Project, the charity I’ll be working alongside thanks to a sabbatical granted by the School of Modern Languages at Newcastle University. I have a plan, but to execute it requires me to learn how to run community workshops, to gain the trust of the staff and volunteers at the project, many of whom are refugees and asylum seekers. In these first days, I am trying to resist the impulse to pin things down too firmly, and deciding to sit with the anxiety of being unsure how things will go, to slow plans down, to visit and listen.

Photo by Gillian Jein

I pay attention to my response to the site, to walking across the High Level Bridge, over the dual carriageway to Bensham. Each time I make this walk, I notice something else – a poem written in marker on the bridge’s iron cantilever, a nursery’s proudly displayed Ofsted sign – ‘Good’, a wall plaque that signals Gateshead’s role in one of the world wars. Each time, I am impressed by the way the Windmills Hills building looms derelict on top of Bensham hill. I imagine how it would have impressed differently prior to the carriageway’s cutting through terrain, and figure the people that would have worked there, the comings and goings, gone. These little asides take my attention out of my body, away from the doubt and inner dialogue, and help me be present by the time I get to the centre.

Each time I arrive at Windmill Hills Centre, I notice that I take a couple of breaths at the bus stop neighbouring the charity’s gates. I guess I am grounding myself. I stamp my feet low to the pavement to feel it. And to feel my attention shift to the souls of my shoes.

Photo by Gillian Jein

The concern in these first few weeks is to nurture an intellectual agenda that chimes with the people and the mission of the Comfrey Project. There is a sense of responsibility towards the university, and an awareness of time tripping along. I suppose I am institutionalised. And I don’t think institutional rhythms will hold water here. There is an adjustment necessary. External pressure in tension with an internal wish for patience. The process at this point is a questioning of purpose and intent.

I do feel apprehensive about sharing this in this format—the affective impact the work is having on me personally, in unpolished prose. But, I know that if this is affecting me, then it affects others and if this can help normalise for someone else the apprehension and uncertainty of the field work, it is worth writing.