It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m in a gym in Spryfield, Nova Scotia. I have just skated 20 laps in 5 minutes–my best time yet. We have reached the halfway point of the Anchor City Rollers’ Fresh Meat program, and one of our coaches is explaining how the league works: “We want you to know that no matter what your skill level is, there will always be a place for you to skate in our league.” This practice has been rough on me, but her statement affirms that I have chosen the right sport. I have avoided sports for years: I’m not competitive, I’m quite clumsy, and I associate sports with the burning shame of being the worst in the group. So far, roller derby is different. It’s terrifically welcoming and supportive. We are learning so many new skills–stopping, whips, transitions, crossovers, and endurance–all while trying to get comfortable on our skates. But the coaches are good-humoured and attentive in a way that makes it all seem achievable. When I start to feel like I’m falling behind, they roll up, ready to offer me guidance and help me recognize how much I am progressing.
Like Erin, I’m a walker. Mostly, I walk to campus and back–a solid walk through parks and a swanky neighbourhood. For me, walking is a time of mental processing. I usually don’t listen to the radio or music, because the sound crowds out my thoughts. Walking helps me sort my thoughts, ideas, and feelings. On days when I stay home, my brain feels cluttered with unsorted material.
But walking isn’t enough. I need something more active and engrossing, something to take me out of my head and into my body. I think this has always been an issue with sports; if I don’t enjoy the activity, I don’t commit to it mentally and physically. My discomfort erodes my attention, so I make mistakes that make me even more uncomfortable, and eventually I quit. I approached roller derby with the assumption that I would love it. I was so relieved to find that I did. It’s exciting enough to engage all my mental energy. It’s two hours a week when I don’t think about my research, my coursework, marking, or writing. It leaves me feeling exhausted but powerful. It’s a discipline totally removed from my other wonderful but totally fraught discipline–literary studies. I want to devote more of my time and energy to this feeling. I do squats while I wash dishes. I work on my balance while my students write a quiz. I do strength training throughout the week, because I like the idea of arriving to every practice just a little bit stronger.
And through it all, I feel a sense of security–there will always be a place for me in this league. Even if I’m the worst in the league, I still get to be in the league. I should note that I don’t work well under pressure. I never complete my work last minute. I am rigorous in my time management because otherwise I end up on the kitchen floor crying. For me, roller derby feels like a sport without all the pressure. I can progress at my own rate. I can set my own goals. I can participate as much as my schedule will allow. I can attend meetings and events, watch bouts, trade fitness tips with other rollers in our Facebook groups. So far, it’s the kind of space I wish academia could be. It’s the kind of space I try to build with my colleagues, the kind of space I see my mentors trying to make for me, and the kind of community that helps us endure in these broken institutions.
In a PhD program, no one–not even the most supportive colleagues and mentors–can assure you that there will always be a place for you. I receive two kinds of advice, usually simultaneously: do everything you can to be an ideal job candidate, and have one foot out the door. I don’t have to tell any of you how daunting that is. You’re here, making the choice every day to do more, work harder, try again, and/or you’re making the difficult, exciting choice to make a career elsewhere. I don’t know yet what my own path will be, but I’m starting to see the value in finding and building spaces for myself outside of academia. The mental space of walking, the physical space of roller derby, the community space of the league–hopefully, when the going gets tough I have these to fall back on.
Kaarina Mikalson is a PhD student in English at Dalhousie University, and the project manager for Canada and the Spanish Civil War. Her research interests include literature of the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, and the intersection of gender and labour in Canadian literature. Besides roller derby, she enjoys sewing, comics, and lipstick.