Solitary mind: risk and responsibility

Solitary mind: risk and responsibility

In thinking through my contingency plans for the next few weeks of the Covid-19 crisis I have realised something about myself:

  • I have a high level of tolerance for risk taking
  • BUT I also feel a high level of responsibility for those around me.

The nature of risk

We tend to talk about risk as if it is a constant, easily verifiable thing that applies equally to all people in all situations. But it isn’t: what might feel risky for me, may not feel risky to you. Gambling on ‘risky’ investments might be a reckless thing for a person on a low income, but be a reasonable gamble for someone with enough savings to mitigate a loss. But what if that low income investor had chanced upon some information about that ‘risky’ investment that proved that it was actually a safer bet than it appeared to be to everyone else? Would this make that investor more or less of a risk taker compared with other investors who were not privileged with that data?

What fascinates me is how different individuals take risks in different parts of their lives. We tend to talk about people who are risk-takers as if that’s who they are, across all functions, all the time. But we all know people who take risks in some parts of their lives and not in others. Who are politically and intellectually conservative, but who engage in the physical risk of extreme sports. The cardigan-wearing accountant who nicks of to a B&D dungeon for his weekly session of sexual risk taking. The responsible school teacher who takes party drugs on the weekend. Back in my performing days, I used to know a couple of playwrights who were shy, quiet, and earnest to talk to – not social risk takers. But their creative output was risky in the extreme; there was no taboo they wouldn’t tackle, no one these gentle, sensitive men wouldn’t dare to offend. I used to wait for the cops to bust into our performances and arrest them.

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Who gets to weigh up what constitutes risk anyway?

When I wrote the first draft of this blog in mid-March (and – God – that feels so long ago right now), my perception of the pandemic was one of crisis, but there were those who thought differently. My Twitter feed was full of people duking it out as to whether it is too risky to send their kids to school or not. I work in the tertiary sector part of the time; many in that sector felt that our society was running an awful risk in boosting the numbers of community transmission of the virus by letting campus life go on as normal, but our government steadfastly maintained that it was safe to keep schools and universities open (at time of writing Australian universities have switched their teaching delivery to online). Who you believe – and therefore what you see as a risky idea – depends on which politicians, experts, or news platforms you trust.

In many areas of my life – career, politics, creatively – I am a calculated risk taker. I weigh up my chances, make a conscious decision to own the consequences, and try stuff where – yes – I am prepared to cop a failure if it all doesn’t work out. Curiosity is a strong hallmark of my nature, and compels me to try different things. Socially, although I still find interactions with people interesting and enriching, I am becoming less of a risk taker as I get older; my essentially introverted nature is far from being misanthropic but is running out of puff as far as putting myself out there. I now feel social failure more badly than I ever have and, as a result, tend to play it safer.

Risk versus responsibility

In weighing up whether or not I should be exposing myself to Covid19 by going into crowded public places, I find that, while acknowledging that there is a fair and growing risk that I could be infected, I am not especially frightened of being so or of the consequences to me if I am. I am happy to fancy my chances. BUT the very idea that I could turn into a walking contaminant and pass the virus onto others terrifies me. What if I infected someone elderly or immunosuppressant with Covid-19? What if they died?

My father, who is 88, has practically begged me to go and stay with him and my sister in their quiet country town until this all blows over. The notion has its temptations – they live a cruisey and quietly comfortable existence. But no way am I going. If I transmitted Covid-19 to my Dad and perhaps to others in their town I couldn’t live with myself.

So this has had me thinking that many of us are probably faced with finding this balancing act between what our personal appetite for risk might be and our personal values about what we owe to our community. This might be further complicated by choices forced by external conditions: the casual worker who needs to do shifts to pay the rent, but who feels that they owe it to everybody else to stay at home alone; the parent who doesn’t want to send their kids to a potentially infection-rife school, but who can’t find anyone to mind them while that parent is at work.

It seems to have died down now, but the shoppers who pushed their way past other consumers so that they could pile their trolley high with hundreds of toilet rolls, what drove them? To so greedily and frantically hoard stuff suggests thinking that must be compelled with some kind of fear, some perception of risk, although I don’t pretend to understand what that might be. But their selfishness suggests a low level of responsibility to others in their community. I don’t know.

So as you make your plans, and consider the level of social distancing, or plan your activities for self-isolation, reflect on where you are at as a risk taker. And reflect on how that influences your decision making.

Recommended resource:

Speaking of responsibility to the world around us, here is an article suggesting some citizen science projects you can get involved in.

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

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.

Solitary mind: reset

Solitary mind: reset

I was motivated to write this series of ‘Solitary mind’ blogs because I was concerned that some people would find social isolation hard: disorientating, unsettling, or even depressing. So a lot of my writing is about unpacking the nuances of that, and thinking about ways to survive the experience.

Alongside the challenges there could be positives to having a period of aloneness. The tedium and uncertainty of self-isolation or social distancing can make the experience feel interminable, but it won’t last forever. So for a pocket of time we have the opportunity to experience something unique, if somewhat discombobulating. For better or for worse, normal life has been suspended, something that is rarely inflicted on, or gifted to, us.

We are not just quarantining ourselves from catching or spreading the coronavirus; we are also quarantined from the world outside. Yes, news and perspectives can trickle or, depending on how addicted you are to news or social media platforms, flood in, but we always have the choice to filter, ration, or switch off these communications*.

We are living in a state of suspension. The ways in which each individual influences their own little corner of the world has changed, as has its influence on us. If we take the opportunity to tune out all but the most necessary interactions – for information and emotional connection – we could afford ourselves the opportunity to exist, for a while, in a liminal state; a state where things are on the cusp of emerging, of being consciously identified and understood.

Our instincts can form to become ideas or settle to underpin habits of thinking. There is risk attached to this; if we are finding our time alone an ordeal of isolation then our feelings can be ones of anger, gloom, pessimism, anxiety. Of course, these feelings are perfectly sane responses to a strange and stressful experience, but if they harden into clinical depression then that’s obviously a problem. Instincts for wariness, doubt, paranoia (of the government? of other people?) can also form. If the conditions of our isolation overlap with conditions of poverty, illness, or relationship breakdown then the ideas and instincts we will be grappling with will present us with the challenge of finding the resilience to survive this ordeal.

But if our isolation is less beleaguered by adverse conditions, then our challenges are of a different nature. One challenge we could choose is that of re-setting some of our thinking. While we are sitting in this space of not being seen or heard as much, how are we going to use it?

For this to work to our advantage, we have to commit to allowing our personal psychological space to be decluttered: don’t mess it up with mental busyness. Take plenty of breaks from work. Turn off Facebook and the TV. Go and sit in a different room from the one containing your housemates.

yuri-pimenov-waiting
Waiting by Yuri Pimenov

In our activity-obsessed society – where bustling is so often mistaken for productivity, confidence, or dynamism – doing nothing can feel weird, even decadent. But it is into the idling mind that insights and inspirations steal. The strange outlier thoughts slide in, and these are the ones that can lead to real originality. We can view our previous ‘normal’ lives afresh, start questioning that which had been the status quo. And it is these original thoughts that can lead to a refreshed connection to our sense of creativity or even identity.

This is a remarkable time, not an easy one but remarkable all the same. Allowing yourself to sit in the absence of the normal external and internal expectations that inflect your normal day-to-day life isn’t easy; it can feel odd or even uncomfortable. But try to savour the oddness of it all. Give yourself permission to try out new trains of thought, to ask ‘what if’? This is an adventure that we may never have again; it can yield its own unique treasures.

*For the sake of your mental health, please do access digital information discerningly.

Recommended resource:

If you don’t know about it already, the Open Culture website is a treasure trove of free online courses, audio books, eBooks, movies, colouring books.

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

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.

Solitary mind: triggers

Solitary mind: triggers

Recently I had a dream.

I was in an old house that was initially accommodating other people but which, by the climax of my dream, seemed to be deserted. At the point at which I realised that I was alone, I also became aware that my room was haunted by an ancestor of mine called Elsie. The ghost wasn’t malevolent in intent, but she was overwhelmingly sad. The atmosphere she spread was so heavy it was debilitating and I didn’t want to be around her, but there was nowhere else to go and no-one to help me. I knew the ghost was terrifyingly alone and somehow her haunting had cast a pall of repulsion over the whole house that repelled other people. It was just me and her. Isolation begat isolation.

It was easy to interpret this vivid dream when I awoke. Like many other people, I am anxious about how the Covid-19 crisis is going to play out. I am currently self-distancing and working from home. In one way this makes me feel calmer. Perhaps it just gives me the illusion of being in control, but I also do believe I am taking practical action to care for myself and my community.

But in doing this – and therefore thinking deeply about what it is to be isolated and also possible consequences of the pandemic – certain other thoughts and memories are being flushed to the surface as my brain scrambles for a point of reference in amongst the different ideas, opinions, facts, and speculations that are bombarding us all via our employers, governments, news organisations, and social media networks.

These memories sit alongside any other intellectual objective thinking I might be doing. As we all socially distance or self-isolate, memories and the visceral or emotional reactions they can inspire can have real power, especially in the face of the distortions of a disproportionately high exposure to the online world and less face-to-face interaction than we are used to.

nacht-in-saint-cloud 1890 Munch
Night in Saint-Cloud by Edvard Munch

We are at risk of being triggered.

The dream I recounted above is connected with past experiences I have had of being severely socially isolated. The ghost of an ancestor represents a former existence of mine; the dream evoked a link between being shut away from people and feeling a terrible and debilitating sadness about that. When I have dreams this easy to interpret I actually feel proud of my subconscious for its nifty work, even if the dreams are not fun to experience.

The favour my subconscious has done for me lately is to let me know that this present situation is triggering my fears of isolation possibly engendering sadness, even depression, at feeling cut off. That’s fine. Forewarned is forearmed.

What do you do with these triggered feelings or memories?

Consciously remind yourself that they are just feelings and memories. They are not an indication of your ability to survive this; they do not predict your future. This can be very hard to believe if you are experiencing depression or anxiety – believe me I know just how hard – but it’s true.

If you are struggling with mental health issues then please do ring someone who can help you – not someone who will tell you to get over yourself but someone who can listen with compassion. Perhaps Google phone services that offer trained counselors, such as Australia’s Lifeline.

Analyse what your reactions to your current experiences are telling you about yourself and your journey through life: do you fear poverty, abandonment, uncertainty? This stuff is hard to sit with, but once you have some insight you can start thinking about how to respond constructively.

Use this stuff. Express it. Let the feelings and memories inspire some writing, or drawing, or singing, or whatever takes your fancy.

Get creative.

One of the best things about being creative is that you can use the worst bits of your life as fodder for your work, and, in so doing, transform what was bad into something that transcends that.

One of my first pieces of performance work, made many years ago now, was inspired by my experiences with a prolonged and crippling bout of depression I had suffered as a teen. Making and then performing this work in front of an audience – connecting with those people – felt alchemical. I took something ugly and nihilistic and made something communicative and beautiful out of it; what had been an isolating experience for me reached other people and moved them.

Even an upsetting dream I have had recently has served as the inspiration for this blog. People often talk about creativity as if it is just a state of play and disinhibition. While these things are important components of being creative, there is more to it than just that. What I love about being creative is the sense that your imagination, emotions, and intellect are all at play together. Creative thinking works in harmony with critical thinking; there is an interplay between instinct and choice making. You give your imagination a workout, but also your ability to make choices about how you might like to frame or work with the deep, raw, messy insights that come seeping out.

Recommended resource:

The On Being Project has put together a Care Package for Uncertain Times. It contains poetry and podcasts; you can find it here.

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

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.

 

Solitary mind: little bits

Solitary mind: little bits

Ingenuity and the mundane

This morning I found three tweets that delighted me.

The first was someone tweeting an idea suggested to them by a friend as a way to pass the time during isolation or quarantine:

This is a really good exercise on two levels:

  • It’s just good silly fun that anyone can easily join in doing
  • Because you have to think about colour, texture, shape, and perspective in order to reproduce the images, it’s an effective way to get involved in art appreciation.

I think this would be an especially great thing to do with kids – an enjoyable way of home shcooling them in art – but I’m sure adults would enjoy it too.

The second tweets showed us beat machines made out of household objects:

This is probably not something that most of us could reproduce precisely, although, again, it could be a prompt for a fun exercise for kids to experiment with making music or even basic instruments out of household items. But I love the way this sound artist has highlighted the extraordinary quality of sound that can be produced by ordinary objects.

The third tweet left me gobsmacked by its ingenuity:

We’ve all seen other clips of people who have used household items to make a domino effect, and they’re always fun to watch, but this was an especially witty attempt. I loved how several times, for example when the glass is spilt or the baby appears, things seem to be about to go to pieces but it turns out that these apparently random elements are part of the choreography. The design has a neat juxtaposition of mess and precision, which is apposite at a time when people, shut up in doors, are forced to micro-manage their environment but, in coping with a pandemic, feel subject to chaos.

The thing all three of these tweets show is people responding with creativity to the theme of being constrained to interacting with mundane objects. This reminds me of Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room. Published in 1794, and written while de Maistre was under house arrest for 42 days for his part in an illegal duel, it parodies travel diaries of his day by taking a tour of his room and going into rhapsodies on the ‘sights’ he sees.

Although she wasn’t imprisoned in her room, and therefore able to write about a set of people and not just items, another person who lived a more physically constrained life than we are used to was Jane Austen. In the (pre-digital) times in which she lived, people, and especially women, did not travel far or often and were limited to much smaller face to face networks than we have available to us. Austen’s writing focused minutely on her small social world, but she did so with an acute eye for human nature that makes her writing still dynamic today. Austen said of her writing that she was working with “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” I’m not suggesting that you pin your hopes on churning out something like Pride and Prejudice during your quarantine, but why not find your own precious bit of ivory to whittle?

It’s tough being cooped up in the same old place with the same old company day after day. The tedium, alone, can be disorientating and even depressing if it goes on for long enough. Our challenge will be to allow ourselves the psychological space to connect with our feelings, whatever they may be. Emotional denial leads to the festering and building up, pressure cooker wise, of truly dark thoughts and moods; denial is not your friend when it comes to sustaining your psychological resilience. You need to allow space to be real to yourself, otherwise you court psychological disorientation.

At the same time, it is vital that you don’t allow yourself to slide into gloom and a sense of hopelessness either. And, given that normal life has been disrupted, and that our previously habitual range of  social checks and balances have been distorted by a lessening of face to face interaction and changes of scenery, your challenge of resisting this slide falls disproportionately onto you and your frazzled brain and whatever your cordoned off environment provides.

Jane Austen editing technique from OpenCulture
Jane Austen’s editing technique. Imaged sourced from Open Culture.

What resources do you have to work with? What ‘ordinary’ things could you be looking at from a new perspective? A towel, a baby, a glass of juice, a candle, a pencil holder full  of springs? The three tweets above show creative people working with things in such a way that explores different visual, aural, or tactile textures. Can you play with your stuff and discover things that delight your senses?

The same applies to the ‘stuff’ that lives inside us. You have your own imagination and curiosity. Take a look at the workaday thoughts and reactions that trudge through your head every day. These have probably now been jolted off piste; what is their trajectory? Where have they fallen? Observe them where they lie, watch where the light hits them and where the shadows are cast. Mentally pick them up and turn them this way and that. What haven’t you noticed before? And what can you do with these new insights? Write them down? Draw them? Sing them?

This weird time we have at home will be over one day. When we are allowed a bigger physical world to roam in, what highly worked little bits can we take with us back into it?

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

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.

 

 

Solitary mind: cultivating worry

Solitary mind: cultivating worry

One of the challenging things about self-isolation or quarantine is, obviously, the lack of human company you will experience. If you are like me, and live alone, you will be thrown totally onto your own inner resources. If you are quarantined with a partner or other family members, then your challenge will be slightly different: you will find out just how strong an appetite you have for each other’s company. Honestly, I am not sure which one is harder.

As a way to pass the time, especially if you are isolating solo, or as a way to mix up your company (if you are sequestered with another) it is only natural to turn to that great people-connector of our time: social media. I am a mad keen Twitter user – have been for years – and I still reckon that it is an unbeatable platform for fast breaking news. It is also a surprisingly good research tool; alongside Twitter’s notorious population of trolls exists a large and diverse community of thinkers and experts from an array of fields. With a little hunting, the discriminating Twitter user can unearth some interesting commentary or analysis or information.

But, of course, social media has its dark side as well. Even while people connect through it, the trolls use abuse to try to alienate users from causes, communities, and sources of personal enjoyment and meaning. Fake information spreads terrifyingly quickly, and seems to stick to communal thought processes like glue once it has done so. Fake information can be spread by trolls with malicious intent, but also by ‘ordinary’ people who are just misinformed. Negative fake information can heighten people’s levels of anxiety; actual abuse is devastating for the target to experience.

Even if the trolls stay away, ‘normal’ people can, unwittingly, feed the Glowing Worry Machine. My Twitter feed is full of great people; I follow them for their creativity, intelligence, and awareness of social and political issues. But it is these very qualities that can make my Twitter feed an angst-ridden place: sometimes it fairly melts with Tweeters’ outrage or anxiety or confusion about some issue that has recently arisen. Covid-19 is a concerning phenomenon, anyway. Put a bunch of thoughtful, conscientious, relentlessly curious, and accountable individuals together on the one platform and the worry factor can become exponential.

1833 Cholera Pandemic Grandville cartoon
1833 Cholera Pandemic by Grandville

Resilience.

Am I advising you to stay off social media while you are holed up alone? Not a bit of it. Use it to connect with your online mates. Use it to find other people who are self-isolating; remind yourself – and those others – that you aren’t alone in this, and trade reassurances.

One of the things that I love about social media is that it allows me to exchange ideas with people literally on the other side of the planet. In so doing, I am reminded that there is a big beautiful world out there. Used right, social media can provide you with perspective.

But don’t rely on social media alone. Do remind yourself that you are getting less real life interaction than you usually do, and therefore this doesn’t exist to balance out your access to – and impact by – the digital world. Do what you can to hear a variety of human voices. And I mean literally ‘hear’ – phone or Skype people. What better way to fill in time than to ring up friends and family you haven’t seen for a while.

And why not write someone a letter – old-school with pen and paper. Draw them a picture, literally. Write them a poem. Tap into a different part of your brain, slow your thinking down, and see what bubbles to the surface. It may surprise you.

Use social media discriminately, mindfully selecting the parts of it that will bolster your resilience, not chew it up and spit it out into the Glowing Worry Machine.

Recommended resource:

Lots of online resources – courses, reading materials, podcasts – are popping up to offer people something to distract themselves with. I have gathered a few in this collection; just scroll down to the ‘Things to do during isolation’ section.

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

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.

Solitary mind: compelled introversion

Solitary mind: compelled introversion

In recent days on social media, my fellow introverts have been joking (perhaps half-joking) that the social-distancing or self-isolation of the Codvid-19 pandemic is something us quiet people have been waiting for all our lives.

A lazy conflation persists whereby introversion is seen as synonymous with shy or anti-social. This is bunkum; I love connecting with people. But it does leave me needing to recharge and I do have a pronounced need for my own company. Being alone can be rejuvenating for me long after it bores or depresses my extroverted friends. Being alone holds no particular fears for me. And I am really sure that there are other introverts out there who will enjoy it, at least for a while.

At least for a while…

As happily introverted as I am, there have been periods of isolation in my life that did not enhance my wellbeing, but were, instead, enervating or distressing. These were times when, due to poverty, I lacked the resources (money for public transport, phone, internet, or even food) to leave my home or contact anyone. They were miserable times, bad for my physical health due to extremely poor diet. But they were even worse psychologically, with extended bouts of anxiety over choosing between paying the rent or eating, anger over employers or clients paying me late, and sadness at having to halt and watch my efforts to move forward with my life atrophy. Tackling the corrosive effects of all of this was made worse by the fact that I would lose contact with my networks because I couldn’t afford to ring or visit them. I will never forget the chilling sense of being cut off from support in an apparently uncaring world.

These times were not the manifestation of an introvert choosing the pleasures of their own company, or of any personality type (extrovert or introvert) choosing to dedicate themselves to concentrate on a project. These episodes were things I went all out to avoid but which happened despite my best efforts. They were exercises in enforced passivity and shit-eating.

isabel-quintanilla-vaso-glass-1969
‘Glass’ by Isabel Quintanilla Vaso

A matter of choice

These days I often choose to live inside my own head. While sometimes a little too exciting, I have good adventures in there. It’s an interesting and enriching place to be. But during my earlier stints of compelled isolation I felt I was forced to go inside my head and stay there, deprived of the solace or distraction of friends and family. My inner landscape during these times was not a safe place to be lost in, it was full of quicksand, or snow, and without shelter.

“Oh the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.” ~ Gerard Manly Hokins

In my life, the difference between prolonged bouts of time spent joyously alone as a self-determining introvert in comparison to unwanted isolation from my community as a poor person is one of agency, of feeling able to make a choice and then equally able to act on it. When I choose to distance myself from people for a while – either to rest or to create – I love it. But in the past poverty forced me into a solitude I was never ready for at the time. There was never any alignment with my needs, my energy levels, my goals.

We are all going into a time where people feel that, for their own protection and the good of their communities, they must physically distance themselves or self-isolate. Depending on where they live, some people may be compelled to stay home through the coercion of their State. Some people will be better equipped for their time alone than others, both in terms of inner and material resources. Some people will be able to exert more influence on their home conditions than others. But none of us are doing this as a holiday in the first place, even though there will be a few lucky souls who will shrug their shoulders and be able to choose to look on it as such. There is an element of compulsion behind our isolation right now. Let’s not forget that; let’s not forget that therein lies a challenge. Be gentle with yourself and those around you.

Regardless of how well we are able to cope with this anti-social communal adventure, all of us carry a certain amount of tension within us: when will this be over? Will anyone I know get ill? What is happening to the economy and how will it affect me? Which talking heads should I trust?

Even if you are good at pushing all of this to the back of your brain, it will still hum there as a sort of psychic white noise. This hum will eat up your own personal wavelength; it will be a constant leech of energy. This will leave you with less focus for your work, even the work of relaxing and having fun. It will leave you less energy for your emotional labour of supporting those around you. It will nudge your imagination off its normal trajectory (although this could be a bit interesting). Take this into account. Adjust your expectations. Be reasonable with yourself.

Recommended read:

I mentioned agency above. Read this lovely article about agency by Simon Terry.

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

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.

The solitary mind: I’ve been here before

The solitary mind: I’ve been here before

A blog about clinging on.

We are all at odds.

Living in a society in thrall to a pandemic is new for many of us in Australia; it certainly is for me. The experience of living in isolation to counter the infectious nature of this particular coronavirus is one part of this adventure that we all have to share as a community, and yet it is something that we can only undertake alone or in small household groups.

Most of us have not been constrained to staying in one place for long, with contact with our networks reduced to whatever we can access on the internet or by phone. I can see that attitudes to self-isolation or lockdown vary. Some people are assuming that the risk has been overstated and have not even thought about preparing for it. Those of us that do take the threat seriously have been confounded by the footage of multitudes of oily bodies packed onto Bondi Beach. Over the weekend, as I went on my (responsibly socially-distanced) daily walks in my local park, I was disquieted to see large groups of people crammed onto picnic rugs or strolling shoulder to shoulder, apparently assuming that contagion happens to other people.

Some people are alarmed by the pandemic, and are prepping for it as if we are looking down the barrel of a nuclear winter. Some of the worst behaviours have been manifested by the panic buyers – those wild-eyed, grim-faced hoarders of toilet rolls, prepared to trash the social norms that hold our society together in order to push and shove their way to grab that last bottle of hand sanitiser.

I find the Hunger Games style panic buyers and the “it’ll never happen” brigade to be equally worrying for all that they occupy different ends of whatever bizarre spectrum they’re on: neither seem to be processing information and thinking about consequences. Both are reacting to the ‘feels’. We are all at odds. It is against this background of communal dissonance that we are preparing to lock ourselves down, to last out weeks of living alone (if you’re like me) or with just the same few flatmates or family members, day after day. The Premier of the state where I live in Australia – Victoria – announced just last night that all non-essential services would be locked down. It’s official: with just the digitised anger and anxiety of Twitter to accompany us, we are to isolate ourselves from the real life presence of most other human beings for most of the time.

I’ve been here before

I am as new to coping with pandemics as anyone else, but in terms of social isolation I do have some form and this, I think, I hope, will help me understand the challenge of the weeks ahead.

My own bouts of past isolation arose because of poverty. Working as a freelancer in the arts and community sectors saw me living, precariously, on low wages, on short contracts, with short stints on welfare in between or when contracts were cut short due to the funding running out. I was bedevilled by unpaid invoices, late paid invoices, organisations that were tardy in paying my wages, or my dole accidentally getting cut off (Australia’s social security bureaucracy is notorious for its inefficiency). Despite careful budgeting, I would sometimes just run out of cash. Although this belongs to my past, I have strong visceral memories of what it is like to starve for a few days, or to subsist on a limited unhealthy diet of cheap carbohydrate (basically toast) for a few weeks. It was horrible. I lived permanently frightened.

A psychological relic of my past is that, alongside hunger pangs, I have indelible memories of what prolonged isolation did to the inside of my head. When I used to run out of, or low on, cash I would not just have to skip meals but could also find myself unable to afford phone credit, internet credit, or public transport fees. If the hunger went on for too long then I would find the physical symptoms of that – the shaking legs, stomach aches, dizziness – would make going for long walks impossible; I just didn’t have the stamina; I was ill from hunger. This means that while I was waiting for the next pay date, or for an overdue invoice to be paid, I would be unable to leave my home, or phone, text, email, or otherwise connect with other people. I have had to live like this for a week on a few occasions; I once lived like this for six weeks and I really thought I would go mad.

I would be stuck at home, alone, with my thoughts. I would try, very hard, to distract myself and, to some extent, would succeed: initially I used the time alone at home to write, or to rehearse, or to clean, or to plan, or to research. But, as the physical hunger and emotional stress grew day by day, it became harder to focus on these things. My head would ache and my eyes would blur from physical fatigue making concentration difficult. This was a constant reminder of my situation that it was impossible to ignore. Did you know that you can ache from hunger, literally? I used to, and, no matter how hard I worked at steering my thoughts to affirmations or inspirations or disciplines or work, my body would urgently remind me of the material reality of my situation. I could distract myself up to a point, but beyond this distraction was impossible. Then there would be no respite from the fizz and hiss of anxiety or the heavy surges of dread. Getting over these dark thoughts took longer than recovering from the physical hunger once the money started flowing again. This, for me, was where the real test of resilience lay. I learnt to keep one small part of my head separate from the rest; this couldn’t do much by way of work or optimism but it could, at least, take note of the exact nature of the waves of emotion as they lapped at me. This gave me some sense of control so that on my better days I could mitigate the effects and on my worst days, in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins, “not choose not to be.”

Finding a toehold

I realised that, even though my life would be put on hold for a while, and even while the conditions that forced this were damaging, I could still retain a toehold on whatever projects I had been temporarily forced to stop working on, or even on the kind of life I wanted to envisage for myself. This doesn’t sound like much, but it allowed me to start to rebuild when conditions improved.

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Illustration from HG Well’s ‘First Men in the Moon’ (1901 ed.) by Claude Allin Shepperson

I survived my past, somehow, and I am proud of that; I owe much of my current resilience and ability to cope with a crisis to that survival.

Because I am in a better place in my life now, I think that, during the next few weeks of isolation, my mind won’t stray into dangerous territory. I do keep reminding myself that self-isolation due to Covid-19 will be a different type of aloneness, with different conditions, for better or for worse, than my previous periods of isolation. But I also keep reminding myself that I have this history of survival to draw upon. I don’t exactly know what the forthcoming experience will be like; I just know that it could be challenging. Having had my resilience undermined previously by isolation, I know the nature of that challenge will be psychological. Having outlasted previous crises, I must admit that I’m confident I’ll make it through with my mental health intact this time. It probably won’t be all bad. I’m an introvert and I’m determined to enjoy a few – maybe many – quiet days indulging my own whims. And I must admit to a curiosity as to what exactly will test me during my time alone: what rogue ideas or moods will bubble to the surface? I’m going to use them as fodder for my writing. I am alert for them, but not alarmed.

People who subsist on welfare will probably have had similar experiences to me. People who haven’t may have no idea what to expect during periods of self-isolation; for some of them, maybe many of them, the nature of the challenge will be unexpected, perhaps difficult, and perhaps even radical.

“While we know social isolation has a negative impact on health, we don’t really know much about what the effects of compulsory (and possibly prolonged) social isolation could be. But we expect it could increase the risk of loneliness in the community.” (Michelle H Lim and Johanna Badcock)

Since those past experiences of hardship and isolation, I have long been interested in how you can embed resilience in your life, especially in your creative practice. How do you find those tiny but valuable toeholds that let you cling on for just long enough to figure out how you climb a mountain? When your life has been stripped of the resources – time, money, human – how do you keep an idea, an intention, alive? What tactics can you use? How can you carve out those little pockets of awareness, of courage, of cunning in an otherwise besieged brain? I’m going to use these Solitary Mind blogs to try and share some perspectives and provocations that might help.

If you are finding the experience of lockdown to be unnerving or discomfiting, then be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself the time to adjust, and then start a dialogue with your inner-self. And take reassurance from the knowledge that this won’t last forever. I survived being cut off from society in the past, and so will you now.

Recommended resource:

Author Josie George has written a remarkable resource called Inside – A Guide. Due to health conditions, Josie has been forced to spend prolonged periods of time inside her house. She has written a guide as to how you can find meaning and resilience under such conditions.

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

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.

The solitary mind: how do you sustain your psyche?

The solitary mind: how do you sustain your psyche?

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Drawn by May Gibbs during the Spanish Flu pandemic

Like just about everyone else on the planet, I have been swept up in preparing for, and trying not to panic about, the Covid-19 pandemic. Alongside working through practical considerations affecting my home, work and finances, I have been thinking about how the adventure of social isolation will affect my creative practice and mental wellbeing.

There are people out there who seem to think that prolonged periods of minimal or no contact with their networks will be a bit of a bore, but no worse than that. But I think these people underestimate how impactful isolation or distancing will be. We are social creatures; even introverts like me need some sense of connection. An unvaried diet of social media, or none at all for the digitally excluded, in addition to the absence of meaningful face-to-face interaction will hit many people harder than they expect. While a stretch of solitude can be restful, solitude experienced under duress isn’t. How does a herd animal sustain their psyche under these conditions?

I have written a series of blogs that I have grouped under the title of Solitary mind and which I am about to start posting. These pieces have been inspired partially by my need to manage my own expectations around how I will navigate my inner world during periods of minimal contact, partially by memories of past episodes of social isolation and what I learnt from that, and partially my desire to feed something that is, hopefully, helpful into my online community as they, too, face these challenges.

At the end of each blog I am going to post a resource – an article, a web page, an online archive – that I think might be useful, as well. You can find these, and others I have collected in my travels on the internet, in this Wakelet collection I have made. I will try to add to it from time to time. Please feel free to pass on recommendations of anything you have found to be informative, or reassuring, or inspiring during this time.

Please, also, forgive my typos, my appalling punctuation, and the strange sentence construction in these blogs. I don’t usually end my pieces with a naked plea for forbearance, but these blogs have been written in a hurry. I don’t know why, but I feel a strong urgency to get them out there.

And if you do read them, please leave a comment to let me know how you are supporting yourself or a loved one during this discomforting, dangerous, but remarkable time.

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

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.

On being ‘nice’

On being ‘nice’

I am a nice, softly-spoken, introverted lady.

I am a happy and confident, nice, softly-spoken, introverted lady.

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But we live in a society that conflates introversion with shyness, timidity, and dullness, and quiet femininity with dumbness, subservience, and passivity. I know this because I have had decades of people treating me as if these conflations were true. But they’re not.

I am a nice, softly-spoken, introverted lady who is assertive, determined, intellectually rigorous, audaciously imaginative, and resilient. I am a calculated risk-taker. I talk about, analyse, and learn from my own and other people’s failures. I always prefer to be gentle with people, but I abhor unethical behaviours and I will speak truth to power when necessary.

When these ‘stronger’ sides of my personality have appeared in the past, there has been much pearl-clutching from some of my colleagues and, especially, managers. Often, there has been hostility. I used to find this hostility puzzling, as I didn’t – and still don’t – think I am a hard person to work with. I am deliberately collegiate and supportive of co-workers, and diligent in my performance.

But then I realised that the diligence was the problem. My own personal concept of what it means to be diligent meant that I invested my ‘strong’ qualities – the assertiveness, rigour, and audacity – into my work. The idea of what diligence should look like in a nice, softly-spoken, female introvert, according to various past bosses of mine, was a doormat in a cardigan who needed to shut the f**k up and do what they were told.

They were confounded when I didn’t act like this. My long periods of quietness were not a sign of submissiveness, as they seemed to assume, but an act of turning inwards to reflect on my own values, ideas, and sense of integrity. As an introvert I did not hog the air-space at staff meetings. This meant that when I did speak it was something of an event. And when I spoke to offer alternative ideas or point out risk, the alpha types in the room were bewildered. They were not inclined to accommodate what they saw as challenges to their agendas, and were outraged when those challenges came from one of the quiet people in the room. To their way of thinking, noise-making was a sign of dominance. It shook their world view to have a quiet person break ranks.

“I thought you were NICE,” two different managers have hissed at me on two separate organisations in the past. I found this to be completely bizarre. What did this “nice” have to do with me doing my job properly? I had always been pleasant and polite. But I had been pleasant and polite even while I was highlighting risk, suggesting original ideas, or asserting my workplace rights. This is what they didn’t expect. This, to them, was unacceptable.

Nowadays, the word ‘nice’ is seen as a synonym for pleasant and likeable, but this word has an interesting etymology. On the Etymonline online website, ‘nice’ can be traced back to the late 13th century when it meant “foolish, ignorant, frivolous, senseless,” and this came from a 12th century Old French word meaning “careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish.” The word ‘nice’ went through many shifts of meaning over the centuries, only arriving at the meaning of “kind, thoughtful” by 1830. In her awesome YouTube clip – ‘just be nice! (not)’ – Psychotherapist and grief advocate Megan M Devine also refers to this etymology of nice, and paraphrases it thus:

“(Nice) means timid or ignorant or pretending to not know what you know so as not to upset the social order.”

Those two ex-bosses wanted me to pretend to not know what I knew – to be schtum on the work issues that I knew had to be reported and discussed. The niceness they wanted was the silence of compliance, of being a yes-man to their dodgy agendas or slack management. Their mistake was to assume that the quietness of my introversion was the same as passivity or ignorance. But my introversion is my super-power. As an introvert I spend time with myself, constantly reconnecting with my personal values and priorities. As an introvert I find the space to reflect, analyse, and strategize.

There is nothing timid, silly, or weak about the quietness of the introvert. It is not an effacing of assertiveness; it’s a gathering of strength.

Time Management versus Energy Management

Time Management versus Energy Management

It was recently my good fortune to attend a Masterclass in Learning Facilitation, created and facilitated by Helen Palmer. It was a fun and incredibly useful day, with lots of insights, advice, and a variety of techniques made available to us. Helen obviously has a ball while she facilitates, has an acute sense of when to deploy any of her huge repertoire of facilitation techniques, and generates a lovely energy during her sessions.

One thing that made me prick up my ears was during the section of the Masterclass when Helen was talking about preparing to facilitate. She mentioned that she makes sure that she puts aside half a day before and after a day of facilitation in order to be quiet, calm, and to reserve energy to give to her facilitation process. As an introvert, and an introvert who enjoys people, this approach made sense to me.

We are all familiar with the phrase ‘time management.’ Lately I have been thinking that we should also talk about energy management. We should not just think about when we do stuff, but also about the quality of energy we bring to the doing of those tasks. Working with people, working creatively, working technically, working intellectually, performing emotional or physical labour: these things all require different kinds of energy. Are we managing our lives so that we take not just enough, but the right type of energy into those tasks?

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‘Un Autre Monde’ by Grandville

Helen also made the comment “Some things like turning off my phone (before facilitating) I almost treat like a ritual… so that I have the cognitive space to deal with the unexpected.” Again, this pointed to Helen deliberately shifting focus so that she brought the right kind of energy to her facilitation work.

Those of us who facilitate know how rewarding it can be: creative, interesting, satisfying, and just plain fun. But it is intense. To do it well you have to be incredibly present and responsive. This Masterclass equipped us with lots of techniques, and that is useful and important, but the discussion around preparing to facilitate – I would call it preparing your energy – was equally important. I guess the secret to succeeding at any task or undertaking is to make sure that you have the right techniques and the right amount and type of energy. We are often good at identifying what we need for technical efficiency; are we as good at understanding how to manage our energy?