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This website is focused on my writing. On it you will find my articles, plus links to my books and research.

I investigate creativity, innovation, and resilience.

As well as writing about these things in non-fiction, I also do this by facilitating discussions, storytelling sessions, interviewing people, and delivering workshops. I offer mentoring around embedding resilience into creative practice.

My latest major project is ‘The next day: A bundle of notes on grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’. You can download it for free here.

 

A reaction to absence

A reaction to absence

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Grief is the reaction to the radical absence of something that was central to your life.

Given that these notes are about grief, and given that so many of us have cruelly limited ideas as to what grief is and, therefore, how we are allowed to experience it, process it, and benefit from it, I want to define what I mean when I use the word.

Grief is not one emotion, but rather a term that covers a range of reactions we have and adjustments we make when we experience the radical absence of something central to our lives. That something could be a person, a relationship, a job, or a dream. I was inspired to write this bundle of notes when I thought about my friends and ex-colleagues who have recently not just lost jobs, but, due to sudden and devastating economic downturns caused by lockdowns, have found whole sectors closed down, subsequently downsized or compromised, and have found vocational pathways closed off to them.

Think of grief as an umbrella term that encompasses emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioural reactions to radical loss. I said in another note that people conflate grief with depression; I think that this stems from the fact that too many people conflate depression with sadness. All these things are quite different (I will touch on depression and grief elsewhere in this bundle). Certainly, people can feel sadness when someone or thing they love dies. But people can feel all sorts of other emotions too, like anger, anxiety, guilt, or resentment. Or some people can be left feeling numb.

But as well as the ‘feels’, people in grief can experience different reactions – physical, spiritual, cognitive, or behavioural. While mourning my mother, I experienced extraordinary feelings of physical fatigue that would descend on me out of the blue. My sister experienced an abnormal coldness: she couldn’t seem to get warm during the first month after mum died. Some people find they are clumsier than usual, some can’t concentrate, some question their spiritual beliefs, others become creatively prolific.

There is a great smorgasbord of ways in which grief can manifest in people’s lives, ranging from the debilitating to the irritating to the merely unusual to the liberating.

Consider:

Grief is not one constant and consistent experience.

You will probably experience different symptoms of grief at different stages. Feelings and reactions could ebb and flow, and the intensity of these feelings and reactions will fluctuate. You may have days or weeks that are harrowing followed by a time that is less intense where you feel relatively human and functional.

You can feel grief for things you had mixed feelings about, or even hated.

Oh yes, you can. When I gave up my work in the performing arts all of those years ago I quite definitely felt grief, a profound sadness – pain – at having to walk away from a dream and a vocation I had poured my heart and soul into for years. And yet I chose to give it up. I was burnt out, damaging both my physical and mental health. The lifestyle that went along with this career – financial insecurity, precarity, the emotional demands of performance, brutal politics, exposure to a sometimes bitter culture that existed within the sector – was draining the life out of me and, by the time I had given up, had long excised the joy and inspiration out of my vocation. I didn’t like who I was becoming – a meaner and more resentful version of myself – and, having struggled with clinical depression, I was also terrified for my future mental health. I have never regretted my decision to give up, and, in retrospect, see this decision as one of the healthiest things I have ever done for myself. I feel positive about that decision, and a terrible sadness arising from the sense of loss of my dream. The grieving process has allowed space for these apparently contradictory things. In my grief, I have been able to honour both.

You never get over grief

As I wrote about my old career above, I still felt sadness even though it has been a good decade since I walked away. I always will feel sadness – a sense of grief over what was left behind and over potential unrealised. That grief no longer predominates my thinking, feeling, and reacting, as it did for the first two years when I had to go through each day staring into the hole that had once been filled by my former life. The hole is still there, but I am not compelled to look into it anymore. I have learnt to shift my gaze onto different but now equally compelling new things.

The activity generated by rehearsing, performing, researching, collaborating, producing, project managing, choreographing, networking, imagining, dreaming…. these things were suddenly gone. For three decades of my life, they had been the focus of my energy, the thing around which I had built my identity. I ripped them out of my life.

Wiser people than me have identified that you never get over grief. If, following the radical absence of something important you feel a stage of acute grief, then you may move past that (and how long this takes will vary from person to person) but you never get over the sense of loss. This is not as gloomy as it sounds. For, while you may never get over your sense of loss, you learn to live with it, or alongside it. And you can recover your capacity to experience joy, inspiration, connection. You can fall in love with someone or something else, differently but meaningfully.

Actually, I think a healthy grieving process not only does not hinder this, I think it helps you to find this renewed capacity. I think of grieving as a process of adjustment – such a prosaic word for such an intense experience. But grief is a rich experience if an uncomfortable one. In a tweet, Paula Crosby described it as “a horrible freeing experience,” and it is. The challenges and gifts of grief allow you to come to terms with how something that occupied a position of influence in your life just suddenly isn’t there anymore. It can offer you realisations and insights about what that something meant to you and, in so doing, allow you to absorb, shift, learn, reflect on, and create a new life…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

What is grief?

What is grief?

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

What do you think grief is?

I think that most people have a limited idea as to what grief, exactly, is. And this makes it hard to grieve.

A lot of people out there conflate grief with depression, which it isn’t (or not necessarily). A lot of people think that you only find yourself in grief when someone you love dies. Again, this is not necessarily true.

When I lost my mother last year, I was struck – and irritated – by how many people seemed to call upon me to behave like a sentient Hallmark card, weeping decorously (but only at what they deemed to be appropriate moments) and uttering gooey platitudes in her memory. But only for a certain duration; three months seemed to be the upper limit that they would allow me to react to the sudden death of my parent. None of this aligned with how I needed to feel, when, and for how long.

Many years ago, when I gave up a career in the performing arts, no one seemed to expect me to feel grief at all. It even took me a while to figure out what was happening. The mood swings, the deep sadness over a decision that, after all, I had made and owned as healthy, the strange indecisiveness and ennui – I initially didn’t understand that all this was a sort of grief over the loss of a vocation around which I had centred my energies since my adolescence.

I have noticed, too, that when I come across other people who have had a loss and who are subscribing to that three-month limit where, apparently, there is some sort of psychic barrier beyond which grief doesn’t ‘happen’ for people, and I ask “are you in grief?” they will answer “Nope. I don’t feel grief. I’m just cranky all the time, can’t concentrate, don’t have any energy, and I can’t sleep. But I’m not feeling grief.”

Grief isn’t one emotion; it is a whole range of experiences that can permeate your life.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be” ~ Joan Didion

In one of his Red Files, Nick Cave writes:

“In the end, grief is an entirety. It is doing the dishes, watching Netflix, reading a book, Zooming friends, sitting alone or, indeed, shifting furniture around.”

In her advice column, What to do when you lose a dog, Blair Braverman writes:

“When it feels too painful to exist, knowing that Kelsey is gone, all you can do is distract yourself until time passes. Watch movies. Do things that require concentration, like playing an instrument or practicing a sport. Now isn’t the time for long, silent walks—unless long, silent walks are what you need. You could volunteer at an animal shelter or you could avoid other dogs completely. Whatever you need to do, sob or paint or run, is the right thing to do.”

Both of these writers – sharing their thoughts in quite different contexts – are saying the same thing. Do what you have to do. The Beyond Blue website advises “There is no right or wrong way to grieve….” Too true, although for the sheer poetry of it I turn to Nick Cave’s words “grief is all things reimagined through the ever emerging wounds of the world.”

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Has your sector imploded?

Has your sector imploded?

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

“Ruins prove, at the least, that someone has been there. When your life is in ruins, look for yourself among them. Then restore yourself.” ~ JD Landis

“The purpose of grief is to help you reweave the story of your life together.” ~ Art Markman and Michelle Jack

Has your sector imploded? Did you lose access to it, or your place in it, due to lockdown or redundancy? Are there widespread job cuts, not just in your organisation, but sector-wide?

Have you lost your place in the world?

If you work in the arts sector you may have seen your entire industry enter a shut down that may last months or years. You may be one of many thousands of arts workers who is not eligible for the JobKeeper subsidy; you may be wondering how on earth you are going to make a living.

The university sector is also struggling. If you work in that sector you may have seen your future possible career path disappear. I know researchers or sessional teachers who believe that they may never work in academia again. Professional staff have also been adversely affected.

Perhaps you work in another sector that has undergone a seismic shift in the way it operates, leaving you either out of work or in fear of that.

Losing a job is bad enough; people struggle with loss of income, identity, purpose, and opportunity. But in this recession, and with the challenge of living with the coronavirus for an indeterminate amount of time, people are dealing with an economy that is shifting and changing. Some people are dealing with not just a loss of a role, but with the loss of a career, a vocational pathway, or access to a sector.

How this affects people will vary depending on the individual, their temperament, their levels of resilience, and the conditions to which they are responding. Some may be devastated. Some may be resigned. Some may even be liberated. Some may be feeling a mixture of things or may be too shocked or numb to know how to think and feel about this unprecedented change right now.

People are in grief.

Many people will be feeling overwhelmed. Many people will be craving the opportunity to make sense of all this.

Sense-making can take time and reflection…

Do you have that?

Or is life crowding in: your kids need you; your ageing parents need you; your co-workers who have also lost their jobs keep talking at you; you have to find a way of paying the rent next month.

Our government keeps urging us all to ‘snap back’ to ‘normal’, whatever the hell normal is these days. Do you feel like snapping back? Or do you feel like hiding under a doona?

If people are dealing with overwhelming reactions to the grief or fear of losing a vocation then their need to process this will be out of alignment with the demands of an economy and societal culture that insists that they get on and earn some money.

People are being placed in a position where they urgently need to make big, far-reaching decisions about how they use their time, energies, and skills to earn a living; they may not be in a state of mind that lends itself to making snap decisions.

The need to grieve versus the need to pursue revenue: These things require different energies and could conflict. This may well be irresolvable; there is no magic bullet. But I think it helps to be mindful of your state of grief, and how it might be informing the way you are thinking about your future relationship to work…

 

N.B. This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Announcement: ‘The next day: A bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Announcement: ‘The next day: A bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

I am about to start posting blogs about grief, how it affects people who have lost their streams of income, and how they might go about dealing with the pressure to survive day-to-day.

Called The next day: A bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless, this ‘thing’ – shorter than a book but much longer than an essay – is one of my lockdown projects. I was prompted to write it out of concern for friends and ex-colleagues who have suddenly found themselves out of work due to Covid-19 lockdowns, be that as small traders, contractors, or (formerly) permanent employees. What is unique about this situation is that people are not just losing jobs or businesses, but access to whole sectors that are locking down or downsizing. I used to work in both the university and arts sectors, which have been particularly badly hit not just by the lockdowns but have also found themselves on the wrong side of federal government policy in regards to wage subsidies or future funding arrangements. But I believe that anyone who has lost their work could relate to what I have written.

The loss of work is a cause of grief and shock. It also brings about a mad scramble for material survival in the newly jobless. But the volatile energies and complex emotions of grief work to completely different rhythms in comparison to the process of job-search and / or saving a business. People who are dealing with grief are currently being asked to make big decisions about how they are going to get the rent paid. These two dynamics may be in conflict.

I cannot suggest an easy resolution to this tension; it may well be irresolvable for many people. And yet these people must live with this. I wrote The next day to acknowledge what people may be going through. In the writing I drew heavily on two episodes of grief during my life. One was the death of my mother, suddenly, to cancer last year. The other was the death of my first vocation – as an arts worker (performer, choreographer, arts administrator). I chose, myself, to euthanise this way of life but, even so, I felt a profound sense of grief. I know that these experiences are not the same as what people are going through this year; indeed, I believe the experience of loss of work in 2020 will be unique to this time. But I still felt a profound empathy, and this prompted me to write.

Even though I don’t have pat solutions to suggest, I thought that I could at least posit some ideas and provocations that may provide context or open some lines of thinking for people. I hope these notes are of some support to someone out there.

I am making this bundle of notes available for free, being mindful of the fact that some people who might like to read them will now be short of money. I will be offering them in two formats. You can either download the whole bundle in PDF format HERE, or you can wait and read each note posted separately and weekly in this blog starting from 7 October. I will be posting each one at 9am every Wednesday for the next 20 or so weeks.

Solitary mind: The company I keep

Solitary mind: The company I keep

Another day in lockdown.

Recently, I changed from my ‘around-the-house’ tracksuit pants into my ‘good’ tracksuit pants and put on a bra beneath my top and ambled off to the supermarket, incorporating my permitted hour of daily exercise with some essential shopping.

The little pot plant I bought, alongside the bread and juice, was not essential. Nor was it particularly beautiful or glamorous or exotic. It was small – easy to carry home – and affordable. It was nice.

I bore it back to my place in triumph and wondered why I felt so pleased with it. Was my life now so lacking in novelty that a cheap pot plant stood out as the highlight of my month?

The little green thing sits in front of me at my table while I write this. I still like it. I think it looks cheerful. My landlords are nice people, but they won’t allow me to keep a pet. That’s a shame because – oh! – how I long for a cat right now.

I live alone, which I treasure for its quiet and autonomy, but I always knew that lockdown would be a challenge for those of us living alone. The only other humans I see every day are those at a distance, masked, on my daily walk. For the other 23 hours I must content myself with pixelated images on a few Zoom calls for work or voices piping out of a phone. My bungalow does not have a socket for my TV aerial to plug into, so I can’t even access the outside world on the small screen. My remaining connection to the community is via Twitter, along with the odd work email. And while Twitter certainly giveth in the form of gifs, images, links to articles, and threads – ranging from the nerdy to the erudite – it taketh away in the form of snark and wild-eyed misinformation campaigns against the public health messages that are keeping most of us safe and driving the numbers of infections down. I don’t know which is more shocking – the recklessness, bordering on nihilism, with which some people want us to fling open our doors, tear off our masks, and cram ourselves back into malls and shopping centres, or the fact that this is being driven by an unholy union of the lunatic fringe, some parts of the mainstream media, and the major political party in opposition. So, right now, my connection into a world of digitised chatter and current updates comes at the cost of me feeling safe.

So, it’s just me, my lonely and alone mind, and my little plant. In the absence of cats and people, I think I just bought it to have another living thing with me in my home.

Pot of Geraniums Paul Cezanne
Pot of Geraniums by Paul Cezanne

But at least I support lockdown and feel I understand the rationale behind it. I wonder what drives the loonies, the intemperate trolls railing against lockdown rules. I mean, why throw a tantrum over wearing a mask? I suspect that what is confronting for people right now is the idea that while ‘risk’ is out there in the form of the virus, every single individual one of us is also a risk factor, a potential source of contagion – resulting in damage or death – for others. While the more sober thinkers in our society undertake to mitigate themselves as a walking-talking source of risk, weaker minds choose to be offended at the idea that they are the yuck factor and, subsequently, project and perform.

As the weight of my solitude presses in on my mind – sometimes enjoyed, sometimes dreaded, often just tolerated – I wonder how peculiar have I become in the last few months? Lockdown has constrained my physical ability to roam, and my solitary existence means that I have almost complete freedom to indulge my whims in the privacy of the home in which I must stay put.

How strange have I become? There’s no one around to tell me, except for my little plant, and it does not do feedback well.

The hug

The hug

leonardo_da_vinci_studies of hands
‘Studies of hands’ by Leonard Da Vinci

I just want to record this one thing I saw.

Maybe I need to do this because, on the day I reconstruct this description out of notes I took on the day I actually saw this thing, I am sitting at home complying with the severest lockdown rules yet imposed anywhere in Australia. I live alone and have been in locked-down solitude for weeks, and will be for more still. So maybe witnessing a hug constitutes a major event in a life lived, for the time being, without touch.

Perhaps it is a reflection on how weird and shifting our behaviours are due to lockdown, too, that I stared so unashamedly at someone else’s intimate moment. The lives of other humans are not readily available to me up close right now. Intimacy is a novelty.

But I feel that I also need to record this because I feel almost a duty – a human gesture that needs to be made – to record a sighting of a particular stranger. Because I suspect – I might be catastrophizing here, but maybe not (given the urgency of the moment I witnessed and clues in her appearance) – that she might not be seen – by anyone – for much longer.

So, this is what I saw.

A few weeks ago, I went to Austin Hospital to see my poor, desperately ill nephew. And, because of the Coronavirus, hospital regulations required me to queue up to have my temperature taken and to answer questions before I could go to his ward. Although fast moving, the queue was enormous which meant that I had a few minutes wait before it was my turn to get screened.

By the lift to the car park in the foyer of the hospital, I saw two women saying goodbye. One – evidently the visitor – was dressed in jeans and a top. The other was the patient and wore a faded pink dressing gown, with black velour pyjama pants encasing unnaturally skinny legs. She had short, patchy, oddly stiff hair sticking out in tufts from her head with some bald spots showing. She was pale. Deathly pale. She held what looked like an envelope – I’m guessing for a card – and a small decorative bunch of Blue Gum twigs in one hand.

She and her friend suddenly hugged in farewell, desperate and close. And the hug went on, and on. And on.

They were so still.

The hardness of the hug claimed the little sphere of space they stood in and shut the busy foyer out of a part of their world that was momentarily charged by their need to collapse onto the other. The patient was the one facing me, her chin locked on her friend’s shoulder, and her eyes were closed; she couldn’t see me staring at their intense knot of bodies while I and about 100 queuing people were socially distancing by marching from one marked cross to the next on the floor, carefully and gauchely like kids at some strange debutante ball.

Her eyes and mouth were squeezed shut, hard slits in her wan face. The muscles of that face, and in her pink dressing-gowned arms and shoulders, and in the back and torso they were embracing, were tense with visceral concentration.

And the hug went on.

I could sense them drinking in the warmth, the intimacy, greedily absorbing the physical knowledge of each other in one drawn out moment before the lady in the jeans left. Which she finally did after one parting look. The patient turned on her heel, having waved off her friend, and went threading her way back through the indifferent crowds in the foyer to her white-sheeted hospital bed.

I need to record this because, whoever that patient is, and whatever non-plague ailment she has, I need to record that – yes – she was here, with us for a while. Yes, whoever she was, she lived, loved, had friends. That hug was a marker in a sea of plague, a snatch of existence while she still had it.

I saw it, lady. I saw you. I know.

Solitary mind:on isolation and islands

Solitary mind:on isolation and islands

“No man is an island”, John Donne famously wrote.

When I looked up the etymology of ‘island’ I was surprised to find that it has a different etymology to the word ‘isle’: ‘island’ has roots in Old English; it has always meant land surrounded by water. ‘Isle’ traces its ancestry back to the Latin  insula, which meant ‘island’.

Insula also features in the etymology of our modern word ‘insular’, which traveled from meaning ‘pertaining to or of an island’ in the 1600s to ‘being cut off from other people’ in the 1700s.

The other word that can trace its roots back to insula is ‘isolated’:

“standing detached from others of its kind”, 1740, a rendering into English of French isolé “isolated” (17c.), from Italian isolato, from Latin insulatus “made into an island,” from insula “island.”

(From etymonline.com)

Another etymology I am interested in is that of the world ‘alone.’ Its meaning hasn’t altered at all in its history; it has always meant to be by one’s self, solitary. What I love about it though – what I find quite poetic – is that our modern spelling of alone is a contraction of all ane from the Old English all ana.

All one. By your own and one self. Wholly alone.

Recently, we have all been in lockdown. Some of us have been squished into living quarters shared with flatmates or family members. So, isolated from the world at large but far from being wholly alone. Some people have been living by themselves; whether or not this solitude has been glorious or something akin to solitary confinement will have depended upon the person experiencing it and the conditions under which they were isolated.

Donne wrote “No man is an island” in the winter of 1623, while he was recovering from a life threatening illness. In the spiritual aloneness of a near-death experience, he wrote a reflective prose work of which this is one part:

“No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”

All of us, whether hunkered down in little groups or all-one, will have been aware of our society grappling with the Coronavirus beyond the four walls of our accommodation; our isolation has happened in the context of a communal emergency. Domestically, we have been functioning as little self-contained home units; we are islands. Some people have been able to sense themselves as islands belonging to a nation; some will have lost the sense of this. How are we to reconnect with them? Why might they find it hard to maintain a sense of belonging?

Involved in mankind.

Donne was able to contextualise his individual illness and possible death as a universal experience. We have all been forced to isolate from each other, but this has been in the name of a societal – as well as individual – good. People are talking about the fact that our world has irrevocably changed because of the pandemic, that things will never return to normal. That’s fine with me; the ‘old normal’ all too often operated as if everyone was all one, was not a piece of something larger. I’d like a ‘new normal’ where we all consider ourselves to be “involved in mankind.” Where no man is an island.

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No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

From Devotions upon Emergent Occassions and severall steps in my Sicknes, Meditation 17, written in the winter of 1623.

(Donne’s original spelling and punctuation)

Kindness to a stranger

Kindness to a stranger

This week – 24-30 May – is Palliative Care Week. As a family member of someone who received palliative care, I have written this blog in tribute to palliative care professionals.

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They put her in her prettiest nightie, the palliative care nurses, even though I had told them that the body would not be viewed. They took off the nightie she had died in, washed her, and re-dressed her in the one with the little flowers around the neck, and brushed her grey wavy hair into neatness.

“We couldn’t do anything about the mouth,” they said, and we all fell silent for a moment while regarding it gaping open, displaying old teeth and gums for all the world to see. “That’s OK, “I said, because all the world wasn’t going to see it, just me and those two nurses, and a few other people. According to her wishes, Mum’s corpse was to be afforded privacy – no viewings at the funeral – only to be briefly touched by the unavoidable utility of being examined by her GP in order to pronounce death, and readying for cremation by the funeral directors. The fact that the nurses had washed her, dressed her in her best nightie, and brushed her hair would’ve meant a lot to a woman who had always been insecure about her looks and who, correspondingly, took refuge in little harmless physical vanities. Not that the nurses knew that; they never really got a chance to talk to her.

Mum died sometime in the evening of Friday 19th May 2019, having spent 3 days in the palliative care ward at Mercy Health in Albury. I had chosen to camp out by her bedside, for my own sake as much as hers, while other close family members visited or rang. We had briefly tried nursing her at home, but the awful symptoms of a person dying simultaneously of kidney failure and Leukaemia – both physically and psychologically distressing – had defeated us. We could not make her comfortable. Palliative care had always been Plan B, and Mum was able to confirm, in one of her last few episodes of lucidity during that final dreadful week, that she was ready to go into the ward.

I was fully confident of Mum receiving efficient and appropriate medical care, and further impressed by the combination of kindness and expertise shown by the visiting nurse from the community palliative care program, who coached us in nursing her at home. So I was reassured by our joint decision to move her into palliative care, expecting that she would be more comfortable there.

And she was. The drugs they gave her took the pain, nausea, restlessness, and hallucinations right away. Too weak to even talk on her last Friday morning ever, she soon slipped into a sleep that was complete in its stillness. She died, peacefully – and I was there to see her last quiet breath – on Sunday evening.

So, medical efficiency I expected. But what struck me, and what I am profoundly grateful for, was the gentleness and dignity with which the nurses treated her poor dying body and, therefore and by extension, our poor frazzled minds. Such was the insensibility of Mum in her last prolonged sleep, such was her utter inability to be roused, that anyone could’ve played noughts and crosses on her bare naked flesh and she would never have known or stirred. But the nurses explained gently to her unresponsive form what they were doing as they cleaned and medicated her, and touched her tenderly in their ministrations.

In her article The inconvenient truth about dying, Sarah Malik explains that not everyone gets to die peacefully; some poor people’s symptoms are such that a complete absence of suffering is just not achievable. We were very lucky that Mum’s symptoms were able to be mitigated by the massive cocktail of drugs administered in palliative care. We knew that she was not suffering in any way. But we were also able to witness a level of care that not only tackled physical anguish, but also manifested a compassionate regard of the person Mum had been while alive. The nurses didn’t know this person at all, but they accorded this rapidly dying piece of flesh the dignity and consideration that every human being wants while they are alive.

In the absence of having to nurse Mum ourselves, we were free to adjust to the idea that she was soon to be gone, to start to grieve, to talk to her silent form one last time, to just be there.

After Mum exhaled her last ever breath, I sat there in disbelief, waiting for the next one. I waited for minutes. Finally, I rang for the nurses. They explained what was going to happen next, then the three of us stood looking at the poor body. One of the nurses reached out and squeezed Mum’s dead knee underneath its white hospital blanket. “Aw, Jenny,” she murmured. We a conferred about practicalities a little more. And then she did it again. “Aw. Jenny.”

We left Mum’s remaining clean nighties at the palliative care ward, and dropped off a few more: the nurses had mentioned that some patients did not have families to launder and bring in fresh sleepwear for them. I don’t know if this was a helpful thing for us to do or not. I felt like making a gesture, but I knew not what. Not that any was ever expected.

Grieving, remembering, and forgetting

Grieving, remembering, and forgetting

“The idea of being forgotten is terrifying.” So writes Susan Orlean in ‘The Library Book.’ And I think this is probably true for most people.

But, as a bereaved person, the idea of forgetting is, for me, equally confronting. During the stress of experiencing my mother’s active dying and then death, my memory started playing tricks on me. I was uncharacteristically good at remembering dates during this ‘adventure’: diagnosis 1 April 2019 but she told me on the 12 April 2019, death occurred 19 May 2019, funeral 23 May 2019… but I am less successful at remembering times. I know she died in the evening of 19 May 2019 while I sat beside her watching a superhero movie, but I forget at what time exactly.

The experience of camping out in her palliative care ward felt so vivid, and my senses so heightened, that there are certain things about that place that I thought, when I experienced them, that I would never forget, but which faded from sharply defined episodes to faded jumbles with surprising rapidity after I had left there.

Years ago, we saw Sleepless in Seattle – a film she loved – for the first time in each other’s company. I am absolutely clear about that. But I forget whether or not we saw it in the cinema or on telly, and whether or not any other friend or family member was there with us. In that film there is a scene where a small boy tells his father that he is starting to forget what his dead mother looked like. I have read that this is the case for other bereaved people too.

I don’t want to forget her. I don’t want to forget the things I loved about her: her mad violent laughter, her childlike and often comical expressions, her power with words, her urgency of emotion. She wasn’t an easy woman, with difficult qualities rubbing up against the joyous. So it feels important to hold onto a memory of that beguiling side of her now that I do know that there were things I genuinely loved about her, now that the relief of the absence of her unjust demands and sometimes cruel game-playing has cleared space for me to figure out what I actually feel about her.

It’s equally important, too, not to forget the bad stuff: the tantrums, the whiplash volatility that was so disorientating to experience, the constant grabbing for attention and endorsement that was so exhausting. Now that my family and I have time to draw breath and actually reflect, we need to gauge exactly what that woman took from us and what she gave, and what the imbalance between those things was, and how it has shaped us. To do this – to reclaim our sense of self – takes accuracy of perception so that we can carefully weigh all this up. To find this accuracy, while being hit by waves of grief-elicited emotion like sadness, relief, anger, requires a good memory.

Then there’s an accepting of the things about my mother that live outside the realm of memory because they were the things I never knew about her. What did the core of her look like, I often wondered, for her to behave in the way she did? Was it a heaving broiling mess of emotional lava? Or was the frantic psychological shape-shifting and spell-casting a front, protecting a core that was empty? I always knew she could never tell us because she didn’t allow herself to know. Whatever she sensed was in there was something she was too terrified to look at.

For the last three days of her life, lying deadly still (there’s no other way of putting it) in the palliative care ward, Mum didn’t wake up. We called it sleeping, but, such was the level of unresponsiveness, I suppose it was a coma. During that time I kept vigil, over my own reactions as much as her unmoving form, and offered a few last pathetic tendernesses: I spoke to her uncomprehending head, told her she could go, that we would be alright, blah blah blah, all the stuff you’re supposed to say. I recited a favourite poem, and described a beautiful late-autumn dawn, the cockatoos and trees outside her window. She loved words, plants and birds. I shoved little chips of ice into her slack mouth until it gaped and then stayed open and couldn’t retain them anymore.

And I touched her hair, like a parent brushing the hair of a child. Mum had often had a tendency of behaving like a toddler, forcing myself and my sister, often and reluctantly, into quelling her fears and nudging her out of her outbursts like older siblings or parents. My earliest memories are of doing this.

Because this responsible behaviour was compelled, and not reciprocated, it made me reluctant to freely offer as much tenderness when I might have, as much as I tried to remain good friends with her. I was loyal, said the right things, and hid the right secrets. But there was no room for voluntary gentleness in the middle of Mum’s psychically violent world; the best I could manage was determined good will.

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‘Grieving Mother’ (1903) by Kathe Kollwitz

But in her last sleep, when she no longer had the power to try and control the doing of it, I touched her hair. I don’t know why. It was out of instinct. Her hair was naturally wavy, and a lovely grey. Given the buoyancy and naturalness of that wave, and the thickness of each individual strand, I expected her hair to be stiff and harsh in texture. But it felt gloriously soft, silky, almost baby-like. If I had not given into that instinct, I would never have known.

Will I forget that?

Solitary mind: quality of energy

Solitary mind: quality of energy

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Vincent Van Gogh

This blog has been inspired by some jottings I made in my journal last year, and which I just came across while I was tidying up my laptop:

I woke up this morning at 4.13am, which is way too early. I lay in bed and thought through all the day job stuff I had to do that day – the emails to be sent, marking those assessments, following up on paperwork, preparing for a meeting. Then I thought about how much I wanted to carve out some time for my writing, and resolved to do it. Then I felt worried about how I was going to do all of this.

My journal goes on to explain that I wasn’t worried about fitting all of that stuff into the day. I had oodles of time, especially by waking at 4.13am. I was worried about energy. I worried about fulfilling my tasks and errands with accuracy, and without forgetting something or making stupid mistakes. I wondered how I would feel by the time I got to do my writing in the afternoon, usually my peak creative time. I dreaded sitting down in front of my laptop to do the thing that meant the most to me and feeling like I had a head full of cotton wool.

You might have the time, but do you have the energy?

As a society, we talk endlessly about time management. Why don’t we talk about energy management instead? It’s all very well to do as all of those self-help books advise, and set your alarm for 5am each morning and then haul your sorry arse out of bed to do your writing. Or, like so many creatives I know, to set aside a couple of hours aside after 9pm each day to work on your projects. But if your days are otherwise split between working a day job, parenting, caring, jumping through hoops for social services, running a household, or a combination of some of the above, then how are you going to feel at 5am or 10pm? Where are your energy levels going to be? What is your ability to focus going to be like? Are you going to be clear headed or foggy minded? Is your imagination going to be firing ideas at you or are you going to be distracted or numbed by the burden of workaday worries?

Even worse, what if the cumulative exhaustion of cramming creative work in and around other responsibilities sets up a pattern of you resenting that creative work? What if instead of being the thing that inspires you the most, your creative project turns into the thing that leeches the precious time you need to rest and relax?

Poisoning the well.

Right now, many of us are leading a weird new existence due to the pandemic and its associated lockdowns. People are surprised at how tired they feel, at how the constant hum of stress, uncertainty, and tedium in the backs of their brains or roiling in their guts eats up a lot of their energy – mental, emotional, and even physical. Time management is still a challenge for a lot of us, but in completely different ways to what it was before.

There are opportunities, of course. Depending on the conditions you are working with, you may have the chance to disrupt and change priorities, routines, or habits. You may be able to access more time and energy for creative work. And, if so, that’s great. But if you are finding that you are grappling with exhaustion, and therefore a resulting dip in inspiration or energy or discipline, then your opportunity is of a different sort. Put simply, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to figure out how to protect your own love for the creative work that means the most to you.

What do you have to get rid of, or say no to? Where do you have to compromise? What other activities that are demanding that you use up your energy can you jettison? What do you have to give up on?

The old standards and expectations should no longer hold sway. Don’t let your creative work feel like just another obligation, sitting alongside others that may have little meaning for you anymore. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s – do the stuff you really must – but get rid of everything else, and reclaim your energy for the things that give meaning.

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Vincent Van Gogh

Recommended read:

Are you wondering why lockdown is making you so tired all the time? Read this article to find out why.

And…

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If you can’t afford to support me because Covid-19 has knocked the stuffing out of your income streams, please know that you have my profound empathy. The very best of luck to you.