Damp toes and the pleasure of the familiar

I had an odd start to the new term. I should say, first off, that I love the start of term. I never sleep well the night before, always anxious in a rather unfocused way about what I may have forgotten to do in the run up to the teaching term (you may know how that feels) but I do always enjoy the feeling of a new term. In fact, I prefer the new term to the New Year; that always carries with it so much pressure to improve and turn over new leaves all over the place.

The beginning of this term would have been the same as always except for a couple of things: I went to Iceland for the weekend, and I came home to find that a river near me had burst its banks and so my house was under a couple of inches of water. Indeed, as I write this I can look out of the window at my daughter rowing down the middle of the road to meet the postman. Both Iceland and the flooding had an impact upon my start of term. I had never been to Iceland before and was woefully ignorant about the country. I went on a walk between two continental plates which push apart at a rate of 2cm a year. I saw the huge volcanoes looming up either side of me and wondered how on earth I could not know about where these continental plates joined, and pushed apart.


I also went to see the Northern Lights, taken on a coach to a mountain top and told to look at the sky. And look. And keep looking. And look just one more time. I felt a little more knowledgeable this time, knowing that the Northern Lights are not a guaranteed lightshow on a nightly basis, and was sorry for my family, most of whom had expected to see huge swathes lights and, as I teased them, serried ranks of angels singing in the sky. We did see the Northern Lights, but it was little more than a curving cloud in the sky, a bit like a cloud rainbow. I was sure that I saw a green glow at the base of it, but others were far less certain. Still, I reckon I did see that glow and I was partially vindicated when we looked through a camera lens and saw it so much more distinctly.

northern lights

I learned two things as I stood on that mountain. First, I was reminded that knowledge is sometimes a matter of faith in the early stages, believing from your existing knowledge that certain things can be found, and then going out to find them (most researchers know this feeling). I also realised that ‘knowledge’ is not easy, that we learn things only as well as we can, and ‘know’ things only as deeply as we are able at any time. We do not always have the intellectual equivalent of a camera lens when we are trying to see our way ahead clearly. You will find this in your own life of study. Whatever you are learning now will become more complex and satisfying for you, one day, when you are ready.


When I started out for work on the first day of term I found making morning tea in my wellies a bit odd, but other than that it was not too bad. I got a lift into work (too much of a wimp to drive through the floods) and then I changed from wellies into posher boots in the car, a bit damp and dishevelled. Then I came into the building and it hit me: the familiarity of the English corridor, the smell of coffee from the café, the posters on the walls. Then a couple of colleagues wished me ‘Happy New Term’ and we smiled. In my office nothing had changed and everything felt so reassuringly normal. Damp toes I might have had, and new experiences I might have enjoyed, but sometimes, nothing beats the familiar.