Just over a month ago, I defended my PhD thesis. For those who aren’t professional book geeks (!), this meant I was required to present the culmination of my work — eight years of research and writing, revising and re-imagining — before a panel of academics, each well established in their fields.
I had to answer questions that were designed, at least in part, to reveal the limitations of my work, to zero-in on its errors and expose its oversights.
I was required to think on my feet, to avoid going blank, getting tongue-tied or stammering. I also had to resist the temptation to go off on a tangent, something I am more than a bit prone to do (as you might have noticed if you’ve read any earlier posts!).
I spent the weeks beforehand re-reading my research notes and reviewing new articles. I attended preparatory workshops and reading books on defense strategy. And I re-read my own work, alternatively cringing at clunky phrases and being mildly surprised by the ideas I’d forgotten I had.
Then, suddenly, it was my personal D-day and I had to get read to storm my metaphorical beach.
Just before the exam begins in earnest, the candidate is required to step out of the room while the examiners prepare. Standing in the hallway, I perused the selection of books donated for charity sale. There in the stacks, nestled among weird and wonderful tomes on everything from antiques to zoology was the biography of Jennie Churchill.
With it’s striking burgundy cover, I recognized it immediately. The story of the iconic politician’s mother who endured illness, adversity, discrimination and heartbreak, and yet remained the epitome of grace under fire had prompted Mum to name me after her.
Though my mum as been gone for more than six years, I often felt that I was writing my thesis with her in mind. She was my earliest and most dedicated reader, the one person whose exacting critique I always valued.
Seeing this book that had connected us since before I was born, I suddenly felt my nervousness dissipate. I am not usually given to belief in signs and spirituality, but in this instance, it was as though Mum had found a way to tell me she was there with me.
And with her in my corner, how could I fail to be brave?