Grief and having to function: dealing with other people

Grief and having to function: dealing with other people

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

When I was in grief I wanted to hide from people. I hated people. Nothing they could do or say was right. I was too tired and too raw to be around anyone.

Sometime over the last year, I forget when, I read a lovely account of a woman in grief for whom people were a lifeline. She didn’t know how she would have got through it all without her people. One image from the thing she wrote (and I can’t remember her name or the name of the article) described her as sitting on the floor, surrounded by friends, and feeling like she could rage, cry, laugh, shake in front of them, and feeling, all the while, safe in their midst.

Grief is funny in that it is universal – absolutely everyone on the planet will mourn the death of something sometime in their life – but it is also highly individual. Grief levels us all, but it does so in ways which are unique to each person. Grief is, at once, a common denominator and the single best counteraction of homogeny ever.

Our society is terrible at dealing with grief.

We mistake sentimentality for sympathy, projection for empathy. We cluster around people being ‘helpful’ by giving them ‘sympathy’, which often means inflating our lungs and talking about crap things that actually happened to us, and ‘advice’, which often means prescribing activity, reactions, and timeframes for grief that are completely misaligned with the circumstances and personality of the bereaved.

Part of the problem is that our modern society has learnt to try to ignore death, to make it less visible. This means that we have unlearnt any effective responses our ancestors might have had, leaving us to fall back on mawkishness or denial.

Our society often denies people the time and freedom to experience grief adequately. As mentioned in an earlier note on disenfranchised grief, we are not even good at acknowledging when people might need to grieve. Our scope of reference is small and narrow: people can cry – a bit – for dead people, but other things in life we are expected to get over lickety-split. Perhaps we can have one night on the piss if we lose our lover or job, but that’s it.

How has your grief left you feeling about other human beings?

Avoidant or needy? Or a mixture of both depending on the person and / or context?

So, how will you go negotiating new relationships with people in your new work life? Depending on what you do, you could be meeting new colleagues and supervisors, or cultivating new clients. Are you enjoying the distraction from your sadder feelings, feeling a welcome sense of connection to a new community after the disorientation of your job loss, a sense of new potential? Or is it exhausting or making your skin crawl. Do you feel that you have to ‘perform’ competence or collegiality when all you want to do is curl up in a ball?

If the latter, then bad luck. In our society, people stuff can’t be entirely avoided. So, the question then is: how do you cope with performing in public if it feels like a drain on your energy or an intrusion into your need to heal? Can you access counselling or the love of a friend, or should you be more assertive about carving some time out of the day to be alone? You do deserve it, you know.

How do you feel about authority right now, whether that be wielding it or submitting to it? If grief has left you feeling raw or vulnerable then dealing with power dynamics might be hard. If you are feeling numb or preoccupied, your ability to make discerning judgement calls about other people’s intentions or behaviours might be off. I don’t want to put the mockers on you – if you get a great opportunity in your new career or vocation, then go for it. But perhaps be aware that you might need support in taking on a new workplace culture. Or, in the case of someone assembling a team to manage in their new small business, setting up a new hierarchy made up of personalities new to you.

If you are striking out as self-employed, are you proposing to go it alone as a sole-trader or enter into a partnership with someone else? Why? Over the years I have witnessed, and sometimes been involved in, partnerships where, too late, I realised the partnership was formed not because there was a strong business rationale driving the decision to do so but because the person who instigated the whole deal was unconfident or lonely. You can be friends with business partners, but do not make the mistake of inviting someone into a business arrangement if all they are is someone you like hanging out with.

There is a lot of magical thinking about collaborations, that automatically herding folk onto a team will result in gold. When they work, group efforts can produce wonderful outputs while delivering enriching experiences for those involved. But even the best collaborations – by which I mean the most harmonious, productive, and inspiring – are still bloody hard work. Emotional labour, affective labour, communication skills, negotiation skills, assertiveness, and ego maintenance skills all get a huge workout.

Collaborations that go sour are absolute hell, destroying potential in both projects and people.

Starting a micro-business is hard work. If you are processing grief on top of this challenge it is understandable if you might feel in need of support, of having someone else make the journey by your side. But it is important to understand what exactly the support is that you need. If your proposed partner(s) brings skills that will help the actual practice, then they are a good partner to have. If you are inclined to have them on board for moral support or as an act of charity – you want to give them an opportunity – then maybe think again. There are other ways of getting support and advice – line up a mentor, have coffee with a friend, join a networking group. And there are other ways of giving someone else a leg up – mentor them, invite them to your networking groups, write them a testimonial. If their reasoning is clear as to why they should be partners, and they have negotiated terms and boundaries, I don’t see why friends can’t enter into a partnership with each other (although I have met business advisors who frown on this). But friendship isn’t enough to sustain and ground a business partnership.

Other people are wonderful. Other people are aggravating. Other people inspire us. Other people exhaust us. As stated at the beginning of this note, grief made me (temporarily) into a misanthrope, so that probably colours my opinion that most people are bad at grief. If you have a friend who you find to be compatible support for you in your grief, then bind them to you with rings of steel. Otherwise, be assertive about your right to grieve. Be mindful that your (otherwise enriching) grieving process may make you a bit weird or hypersensitive to deal with. Be empathetic of other people in their own unique grieving process. During 2020 there are a lot of you around…

 

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.

Middles are perplexing

Middles are perplexing

“Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. That’s why the most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.” ~ Sam Shepard

I recently came across this quote from playwright and actor Sam Shepard; I’m unsure of the context he was originally referring to. He may have been referring to the structures of plays, but the quote made me think of the creative process of working through a complex creative project.

The part of the quote that resonated most deeply with me was “middles are perplexing”. But I also agree that beginnings are exciting. You have that light bulb moment, that ‘Eureka!’ epiphany that propels you into the studio or onto your laptop. The potential of your project spins and twinkles in your mind like a new shiny toy. Some people splurge on new equipment to celebrate. The unmarked pages of a writer’s journal or that empty rehearsal studio just beg you to fill them with great new inspirational stuff. Beginnings are exciting. They’re meant to be: your creative self sets out to catapult you into making.

Personally, I wouldn’t describe endings as being a disaster although there is what I call The Big Nothing. For me, there is always an odd phase when a creative project finally grinds or peters or shudders to a halt. Whether it’s been acclaimed or derided, and whether or not you have enjoyed the process, any creative project sucks up an intense amount of imaginative, intellectual, and emotional energy. Back in my dancing days I would end up physically exhausted as well. And some creatives have a practice that takes them on a spiritual journey, too. I used to find that when it all suddenly stopped – when there were no more of extraordinary outlays of energy – then I would feel somewhat disorientated, split between my need to rest but also feeling unused to being consumed by my creative labour. Finishing a project well – learning from it, celebrating it, mourning its shortcomings – is an art form all of its own.

‘Waltz’ from Le ‘Magasin Pittoresque’, August 1840, by Grandville

But it’s the middles of projects that most capture my attention. There is an art to beginning well – conceptualising, scoping, and planning a creative project – and there is an art to finishing well. But the middles have their own particular challenges, their own minefields. This is that part of a project where that exciting beginning is far enough away in the past so that the first rush of blood to the head has faded, and where the finishing line with its hoped for applause and then a chance to rest is still some distance in the future. That part of the project where you have spent just enough time working on it to amass bits and pieces or drafts of work, but not enough time to figure out how to fully realise them into something coherent and engaging. That part of the project where tiredness is starting to seep in, but so is a sober realisation of how much more stamina you will need before you can relax. Where you have had enough time to encounter a few knotty technical, or structural, or conceptual problems so that the hopes and dreams of the light bulb moment are being countered by some nerves or frustration.

That part of the project is perplexing. I used to find this when I worked in performance; I found it to be so when I was writing my books; I witnessed it in other creatives when I was an arts administrator; and I hear about it now when I mentor people.

But it is also a fascinating phase. That hard, sometimes tedious, slog is where the truly rich elements of a creative work are layered down. Regardless of how brilliant or exotic the original concept might have been, it is only going to realise its potential if its is worked with integrity. And this integrity – this realising of technical and conceptual values – is what is ground out of people’s efforts during that middle phase. It is where creatives, too, get to practice. Soldiering on through enough of these middle phases in enough projects leads to proficiency.

Dealing with the perplexity is where people learn about themselves as well. Delivering a complex creative project requires resilience, but, if you do it right, it should embed it within you too. If it doesn’t, then something has gone very wrong with either the project or your creative practice (but that’s a subject for another blog). We all have our own ways of building up resilience; in day-to-day creative work we find out what they are. So, soldiering on through this perplexity leads to a kind of psychological proficiency too.

So, yes, the middle phase is perplexing. It should be. If you want to achieve that ending that “revolves towards another beginning” then you need to work with that complexity and find out what it can teach you.

Stuck in the messy middle of a complex (and now perplexing) creative project? I’ve mentored professionals from across sectors and time zones to gain confidence in their creativity, build resilience and coax that great idea out of their locked bottom desk drawer.

Contact me to organise a brief chat (either on the phone or face to face or on Zoom) about what you’re up to, where you want to go and how I can help.

Necessary evils: grief and dealing with ‘The Establishment’

Necessary evils: grief and dealing with ‘The Establishment’

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

‘Working for the man.’

‘Day job’.

‘Wage slave’.

‘Death and taxes’.

‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…’

There is any number of dour expressions to describe interactions with the establishment. What do I mean by ‘the establishment’? I mean all that pesky… stuff we have to deal with to function and keep ourselves fiscally, legally, and civically nice while we live in this society. Some of this stuff will include things that we are happy to comply with; stuff that, by its presence, keeps our society stable and civil. Years ago, I used to teach small business management at a community centre in an outer suburb of Melbourne. All of the adult learners in my class were migrants, most were from refugee backgrounds and had fled regimes that were dangerously oppressive and corrupt. When we would come to work our way through the various rules and regulations with which they would have to comply, I would come armed with rationales to explain why, although this stuff was boring, compliance was essential. My learners were way ahead of me. “Red tape might be boring,” I heard on more than one instance, “but I come from a country where there was no red tape, or where the officials were untrustworthy. I prefer to be in a country where there’s red tape.”

So far, so edifying. If we’re honest, though, we have to admit that not all aspects of society work as well as they should. Some of this stuff feels burdensome, some of it induces anxiety. In ‘Money’ I referenced an article that talked about arts workers falling behind with their tax paperwork and opined that this was a result of nervousness about dealing with such matters. Centrelink has become so difficult to deal with over the years that I know people who consider it to be an actual risk factor in their lives.

Ways in which the parts of this overarching latticework of rules, laws, obligations, and their bureaucracies might be impacting your life during this weird time may include:

  • Negotiating a rent holiday or freeze with your landlord if you have been without income
  • Having to start looking for a job after your sole-trader practice fell off a cliff when the lockdowns started
  • Applying for a job stacking shelves after you lost your casual work at a university
  • Applying for the JobKeeper wage subsidy from the Australian Tax Office
  • Thinking about the consequences of, and applying for, early release of Superannuation from the Australian Tax office
  • And, of course, applying for Newstart via Centrelink and signing up with a Jobactive Provider.

If you are in grief you may not want to be doing any of this. But if you have lost an income stream you will have to find a way to do it even so. This is tough. Depending on how your grief has affected you, you may be feeling short on physical energy or mental focus or determination, and this stuff demands all of those.

And, perhaps, the cause of your grief – suddenly finding yourself excluded from the way you had chosen to make income or shut out from the workings of your sector – will make your reaction to dealing with the establishment even more acute. In the way you previously worked you had found a place within the establishment. It may have been a harmonious place – doing a job or running a business that you loved. Or it may have been a bit crappy, with you slogging your way up a ladder towards a vocational goal. But, either way, it was a place in the establishment. Now it has gone, and that little place in the broader scheme of things has either been locked down for the duration of the pandemic or you have been excluded from it by job loss. If one part of the establishment is suddenly shut off to you, and the only other part of the establishment that has a place for you is the dole queue, or even just a few months on the JobKeeper subsidy leading into an uncertain future, then a sense of loss may be amplified.

How is grief inflecting your attitudes towards the establishment right now? Have these attitudes shifted from how you felt in the ‘old normal’?

Are you dealing with forms of bureaucracy that you find to be tedious? Constraining? Unnerving? Threatening? If so, what forms of help are available to you to mitigate these effects: free legal advice, counselling services, financial counselling, community advocates, peak bodies?

If you find dealing with some of these entities to be difficult or testing, then it is important that you be aware of whether or not this will compound your grief. Grieving is a temporary phase you will (eventually) pass through. While grieving it is important to get the tricky balance right between allowing yourself to feel whatever it is you have to feel but not to fall into the trap of assuming that these feelings now define you or your future life. Feeling raw or shocked after the loss of a career or vocational pathway is one thing, to then be pummelled by Centrelink’s inefficient and punitive processes is quite another. The problem is, experiencing external negative pressure from, say, Centrelink may serve to reinforce feelings of being bereft, and this could, in turn, lead to feelings of hopelessness and a heightened state of stress. Dealing with Centrelink requires no little amount of resilience, and people in grief may feel lacking in resilience. It is absolutely vital that, if you are dealing with Centrelink, that you make a conscious effort to organise support systems around you to dispense moral, emotional, and informational support. The same goes for any bureaucracy or set of regulations that you find onerous or terrifying.

How have you dealt with establishment stuff in the past? When did you do it well? Make a list of past achievements to remind yourself that you do have strengths: grants successfully applied for and acquitted; projects well-managed; contracts negotiated; complaints you raised and had resolved in your favour; administrators befriended and petty bureaucrats defied. Artists are often characterised as flibbertigibbets or arty-farty wankers. But producing creative work is complex, both logistically and creatively, and many artists tend to overlook just how good they are at rolling out complicated projects. Other workers may have found the same – that society, through ignorance, characterises their work as being less demanding or skilled than it is. Do an audit on your past work; nominate the skills in dealing with establishment stuff; remind yourself that, even when functioning under duress, you have a history of holding your own against the demands of an impersonal civic society…

 

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.

Map making

Map making

Traveling our inner lives.

The Saturday Paper has a great column called In Progress, wherein Maddee Clark and Kate Holden talk to artists about the “work they are in the process of making, rather than the work they have completed.” It provides interesting insights into creative process.

Kate Holden, herself an acclaimed author, interviewed international best selling author Garth Nix for one of these columns and I really enjoyed reading it. For example, I liked that Nix is unapologetic about incorporating walking the dog or taking naps into his workday. Being well-rested is essential for creative work, as is carving out thinking time and daydreaming time – the brain shifts into the different gears that are essential for creativity. I personally call it sitting-under-a-tree-and-staring-into-space time.

Another example: I found it interesting that Nix reckons that it takes him years to write a book, with most of that time spent thinking it through inside his own head and mere months writing it all down – “five years thinking about it, six months writing it. So, it took five-and-a-half years.” Of course, we’re all different in how we work but this is a healthy reminder that creative work can’t be rushed. It takes its own sweet time. And also, that the kind of visible labour – writing words onto a page – that our society is pleased to dignify as ‘real’ work is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the invisible but essential work of imagining and thinking.

But the part of the interview that really resonated with me, personally, was in the delightful phrasing of a question by Kate Holden:

“What do you do then, when you reach a bad blockage? You must have a good map by now of your psychological hills and valleys.”

The kind of work I do currently is centred around helping people to sustain creative practice, to explore how their lives, and how their experience of being creative, shapes their sense of resilience and agency, and how that resilience and sense of agency loops back to help them to be creative.

Part of doing this is being able to map out those “psychological hills and valleys”:

What frustrates you? What bores you? What energises you? What unblocks you?

Are you spurred into action by deadlines or word counts, or do these inhibit you?

Are you encouraged, or reassured, or stimulated by group activity, or do you find this draining and find freedom inside your own self when alone?

How are you resourced? What conditions do you create under? Does financial precarity bring anxiety into your life? Or is your time and energy eaten up by full-time work? Do you have to be opportunistic about when and where you create because you are dancing attendance on shift work? Are you surrounded by friends, family, or work colleagues that support you or undermine you?

And so on… We are all different. But, in taking on creative work (and especially complex projects), we are all going to find ourselves wandering up and down those “psychological hills and valleys”. Mapping those out – developing self-awareness and habits of reflexivity – help you to develop the resilience to traverse this inner landscape, and even enjoy the view.

Stuck in the messy middle of a complex (and now perplexing) creative project? I’ve mentored professionals from across sectors and time zones to gain confidence in their creativity, build resilience and coax that great idea out of their locked bottom desk drawer.

Contact me to organise a brief chat (either on the phone or face to face or on Zoom) about what you’re up to, where you want to go and how I can help.

Grief and having to do stuff

Grief and having to do stuff

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Grief can play havoc with people’s energy levels. Some people feel hyperactive, some want to curl up in a ball and hibernate, dormouse-like. Others swing between the two.

With variations in mental energy come variations in the ability to concentrate or remember or prioritise. One of my personal red flags – a sure-fire indicator that I am disproportionately stressed – is when I can’t make what should be simple choices. Deciding what I want to cook for dinner tonight feels as hard and complex and irresolvable as deciding what I should do with the rest of my life.

As stated elsewhere in The next day, the fundamental challenge that I see many people facing right now, especially those in locked down or downsizing sectors, is living with a tension between their need to slow down and grieve and society’s need for them to buck up and earn some cash.

Grief has its own weird agenda and schedule; time works differently for the bereaved. Your grieving and energies may not neatly align with the date your rent is due or the deadline for a job application. Surges of energy and / or fatigue may make ticking stuff off on your to-do list feel daunting.

A man interviewed in an article on grief in the workplace said that “When your heart is broken, your head doesn’t work right.” New index measures the cost of on-job grief describes this poor soul coming into work in the months following the death of his daughter and spending half the day staring into space instead of attending to his tasks. Anyone with a skerrick of empathy can understand why.

Time management versus energy management.

Have you noticed how much we talk about ‘time management’, but never about energy management? This has never made sense to me. What is the point in tweaking your calendar or daily planner so that you carve out space for more activity, only to arrive at that point in the day feeling so tired or frazzled that you can’t concentrate or do work of quality?

Often our choices about how we use our time and energy are circumscribed by other things and people in our lives. The demands of parenting, caring, earning, or other commitments hoover up great tranches of time and energy, so we always find ourselves, either consciously or by instinct, juggling how much time we allot and how much energy we have to spare.

The process of grieving is, of itself, a form of work. Gladly undertaken it can be enriching work (and, yes, despite the discomfitures of this state gladly is the word I will use). But even grief denied or delayed will still draw energy from you. Grief doesn’t go anywhere; if your life has been impacted by a radical enough absence of something that was important to it then you will grieve. No options. Mindfully undertaken it can be enriching, and it can give context and a sort of inner framework for you to adjust to loss or absence. Grief ignored will hang around in the back of your mind and soul, lurking, festering, weighing you down until it finds a fissure in whatever you have slammed down over it.

But, being a form of work, grief demands energy. And an intensity of energy that draws you away from the day-to-day energies you usually employ to get stuff done. So, the challenge during this time is finding the balance between the two; carrying a state of grief while achieving just enough efficiency to keep your material life together.

What’s your head for detail like? Are you making good judgement calls right now? Should you be recruiting help: a colleague to ‘check your homework’, or a counsellor to act as a sounding board, or a mentor to act as an advisor?

How is grief affecting your energy levels? Compared with how you operated in the ‘old normal’, have new patterns of energy use emerged? Do you like them or are they problematic? What adjustments can you make to accommodate them?

What were the ways in which your energy was drained before you lost your income stream? And how did you feel about that? Is part of your grief about resenting or regretting how the ‘old normal’ made you spend your energy? This is a gift, allowing you a heightened awareness of what you would like to invest your energy on in your new life.

If you are used to being productive then having your mental, emotional, or physical energies fractured by grief can be disconcerting. How do you work with these radically altered flows of energy?

On her Extraordinary Routines website, Madeleine Dore writes about the use of anchors or checkboxes for people who, for whatever reason, are struggling to stick to a routine. An anchor is an activity that acts as a sort of simple ritual that centres you within a focused mindset. Checkboxes identify essential activity that you want to fit sometime, somewhere into your day. Dore describes these as simple and flexible. Perhaps they are good tactics for someone who is too frazzled to follow a routine or power through a to-do list.

I have a personal tactic that I mentally call ‘creating in fragments’. In fact, this is why I have characterised The next day as a bundle of notes rather than an essay, a monograph, or a short book. My ‘lockdown’ brain isn’t working in concentrated stretches. This odd atmosphere I’m living in – the challenge to hold my psyche in a state of suspension while keeping myself nice – means that my concentration and moods fluctuate. This tends to happen to me at times in my life when I’m stressed. So, I just tell myself that that’s OK, that’s how it’s going to be for a while, and when I work, I work in bite-sized pieces. This is not ideal for creating large and / or complex work, but it is effective in getting some work done, leaving you poised to take advantage of better conditions and more harmonious flows of concentration when they become available. As they will.

These tactics may or may not work for you. I am sure that, based on your own life experience and the challenges it has meted out, you will have coping strategies of your own.

I think the key thing here is to understand that you are currently doing stuff while under duress and to adjust your expectations accordingly. Before thinking about what you should be doing, or how you should be doing it, and certainly how well you should be doing it, think about how well you should be treating yourself. For you are in grief because of the absence of something important to you. What do you need to do to deal with that? Decide this, and then choosing priorities and tactics will become clearer.

 

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.

An equality of listening

An equality of listening

“I think we are still coming to terms with this new way of communicating online…”

So says Helen Blunden in her lovely blog, written as a follow up to a Spaces for Listening session I recently facilitated.

Spaces for Listening is a model developed by Brigid Russell and Charlie Jones that allows participants to

“have an equal opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings, and to experience an equality of listening…”

They note that:

“There seems to be a yearning for space, a chance to be heard. Many of us are seeking to understand more about what’s going on, and where we might go next. If we are going to find the most sustainable and humane ways to move forward from the current Covid-19 crisis, then don’t we need a better quality of conversations? Getting on with creating these spaces, keeping it simple yet meaningful, seems like a bold idea.”

In her blog about the session, Helen seems to have intuitively picked up on this idea of an “equality of listening” and shares her observations on the power of the mute button. You can read her blog here.

Another participant fed back that Spaces for Listening could be seen to be an exercise in deep listening, affording participants the experience of “listening to understand” rather than “listening to respond”. 

It’s mad, isn’t it, that we have arrived at a place where a simple, natural, fundamental act like listening is now being rediscovered and reappraised as a radical act of communication and empathy. But, as simple an act as listening is, it is of profound importance. The Zoom experience is here to stay, I think, and its sudden overtake of our working lives last year felt discombobulating for many. But perhaps a gift of that experience is that it is making many of us consciously think about the art of communicating: of what it is to talk, to be heard, to listen, to understand.

To connect.

Communicating the idea of intimate conversation
‘Bistro’ by Edward Hopper

If you are on Twitter, check out #SpacesForListening. You can also find out about it here.

If you are up for a creative and reflexive conversation to help you get a handle on 2020, perhaps you would be interested in my upcoming Word Rescue sessions? More information here.

Grief and having to function: Money

Grief and having to function: Money

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

While writing this note, I have been acutely influenced by my concerns for two groups of people because I used to be them – my career saw me belong to these two communities – and I know how fraught money stuff is for them. Problems with money stuff were part of the reason why I abandoned my own arts career.

The two groups are casual workers and contractors working in the university sector, and freelancers and casuals working in the arts sector. Due to insecure work, a high incidence of short-term contracts, contracts that demand a mix of paid and unpaid work, low pay rates, poor conditions, unclear and non-linear vocational pathways, shortfalls in funding, and a culture of not paying for creative or cultural labour in society at large, both these groups are often precariously employed, and both struggle with financial insecurity.

When I used to either train people in small business planning or mentor people in the arts sectors about it, it used to strike me that my challenge was not in the imparting of information or techniques, but in dealing with people’s lack of confidence.

Money management isn’t actually hard, in a strict cognitive sense, for the uncomplicated business models of most sole-traders. Constructing budgets, cash flow projections, or profit and loss statements is usually a matter of basic maths. Keeping track of paperwork shouldn’t be hard for people with the kind of discipline that equips them to write PhDs or compose musicals. But, because money plays such an important role in the way our society functions, people’s feelings about money are often fraught and complex.

The article Performers and sole traders find it hard to get JobKeeper in part because they get behind on their paperwork describes how tax agents and student volunteers at the University of NSW Tax Clinic have seen numerous sole traders in the arts who have outstanding paperwork to lodge with the Australian Tax Office. This means that these sole traders were not eligible for the JobKeeper wage subsidy during Australia’s lockdown, as being up to date with ATO paperwork was a condition of eligibility. This article, which is sympathetic to the plight of these arts workers, only mentions in passing why these arts workers have fallen behind:

If a business is cash-strapped and the owner is struggling financially and psychologically struggling, a visit to a tax accountant tends not to be high priority, if indeed the business has the cash to pay the agent.”

Based on my experience and observations of arts workers, I feel that I can hazard a guess as to why they are reluctant to deal with financial stuff: it distresses them.

Precarious workers have a difficult personal history with money. They may struggle to find enough for their basic needs, or their cash flow is vulnerable to disruption. Over time, the effect can be brutalising. Thinking about and talking about money makes them anxious. As a result of past stress and disappointments, their expectations of financial security can be low.

There is a risk that precariously employed people can bring a pre-existing sense of trauma around their finances into their current situation when they are thrust into an economic downturn that even usually sober and non-histrionic types in suits are calling unprecedented. Eminent economists are writing about us in Australia all falling off a financial cliff in September when the government starts winding back its wage and unemployment-relief subsidies. Already anxious people are being bombarded with grim headlines about an uncertain future.

Pre-existing fears of doubt – patterns of tension and insecurity around money – may be compounding, or compounded by, current and valid fears around being without an income stream due to pandemic lockdowns and economic contractions.

Overlaying these very real issues connected with the current economic climate is another narrative that is the result of political will and mentioned elsewhere in The next day: that, according to the current federal government,  the arts and humanities are too expensive for Australia to afford and too useless to justify spending money on.

And yet another issue – Newstart, or ‘the dole’, has been roundly condemned for years of being too low for the unemployed to live on. Those doing the condemning have ranged from organisations in the community sector through to economists through to the business sector. The reasons these varying groups are advocating for a higher rate of Newstart range from the humane to the practical – the rate of the dole is so low that it is actually an obstacle to people being able to cover basic costs of living and, therefore, being able to resource their job-seeking.

In March of this year, when the whole of Australia locked down, the federal government surprised everyone by adding on a temporary subsidy to Newstart, in effect doubling the rate of pay. The media reported the delight of unemployed people being able to afford three meals a day that included fresh fruit and vegetables, actually paying down debts, and replacing worn-out clothes and furniture. But the government kept signalling that this subsidy was only temporary. Despite a surge of advocacy to permanently raise the rate of Newstart, the government will start cutting it back from the end of September and return it to its originally impoverishing level just after Christmas.

Many people – across all sectors – are boggling at this. People who work for businesses that are struggling are terrified of ending up on the dole. Those who are already unlucky enough to be on it are wondering how they will survive.

This is a daunting background against which to come to terms with losing a job or income streams.

The challenge here for someone mourning a loss of work while taking stock of the practicalities of finding a way to survive and then rebuild is how to do that without entrenching underlying anxiety about money that may lead to self-sabotage, an inability to negotiate fair terms and good pay or fees, or a lack of general positivity about the future.

I acknowledge that this is tough. The dour old cliché – ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ – has a depressing truth sitting behind it: if you have nothing in this commercial world of ours then you have no agency. No sole-trader or small business owner had control over us all going into lockdown. (For the record, while I acknowledge how tough lockdown was on businesspeople, I fully support it as a necessary public health measure). None of us can prevent the government from winding back subsidies. The unemployed have no control over the fact that the normal rate of Newstart is too low to live on.

“Loss of control is frequently accompanied by grief,” commented an article in The Conversation recently. Before this year, the precariously employed had very little control over rates of pay or length or security of contracts, and I would argue that this tainted their relationship with money and a sense of abundance. My concern is that this prior compromising of a sense of agency around money will meld with grief over the loss of income and a lack of control over current economic conditions.

So where is your sense of agency in your grief over the loss of income when there are so many external pressures that you cannot control? What can you do?

I think the trick here is to try to understand that your state of grief and negative feelings attached to money that previously arose from difficult experiences are two different things. Don’t mush them together.

Speaking of mushing, I am now going to quote from an advice column written by sled-dog musher Blair Braverman about how to grieve for a dead pet dog. This will look like a digression but bear with me.

Writing to a person who is consumed with guilt over a moment of inattention that may have led to the death of their dog, Braverman writes:

“Separate the guilt from the grief. The guilt is a lesson, contained. The grief is unlimited. The grief is what needs to heal.”

I think this is a useful discipline. If you have past difficult memories or associations with money – inadequacy, guilt, resentment, disappointment, stress? – are you able to see them as a lesson, contained? If you find it difficult to do this containing, and I appreciate that it could be tricky, then can you find someone to help you identify what can be learnt – and moved on from – and the grief to be lived with? A friend, a mentor, or a counsellor?

Grief is difficult, but it does have a place in our lives and can, ultimately, be a healing or enriching experience. It does not have to be corrosive. Anxiety about money is corrosive; lived with it undermines people’s sense of worth and makes them fearful for the future. Part of your grief may be about mourning the effect of years of poverty – absolutely valid – but don’t sink into that grief in such a way that you can’t move on. Alongside a sense of loss of the way you have been working, you do have the capacity to rebuild either your existing vocation, albeit following a different pathway, or finding different work that is fulfilling. Negative feelings about money must not make your expectations of the future stingy or hopeless.

Your vocational trajectory is not the only thing to have died this year. The exploitative business models that made earning an honest buck in the past so hard have also taken a battering. We are still finding out which, exactly, but components of those models will have died too. Some of them will be forced back to life by rich people to whom they were beneficial, and they will lurch through our economy like zombies. But in their disruption different alternatives will have space to emerge. Perhaps these contain opportunity for you…

 

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.

Flex

Flex

I was wondering, recently, if there were any differences between the words ‘reflexion’ and ‘reflection’. I knew they pretty much meant the same thing, but was wondering if the different spellings denoted nuanced differences in meaning or application. But it turns out that they do mean the same, with ‘reflexion’ being an alternative (British) spelling of ‘reflection’.

This entry from etymonline.com suggests that it is an archaic spelling:

etymonline.com

My social scientist friends had introduced me to the word ‘reflexivity’ a while back. When used in the context of their discipline, this means:

“the fact of someone being able to examine his or her own feelings, reactions, and motives… and how these influence what he or she does or thinks in a situation…”

I like this word, ‘reflexivity’, and what it means. A lot of what I do in my mentoring work could be said to be reflexive. I certainly bring reflexivity to bear on my own reflexions on how I think and behave.

A stout man holds a full-grown crocodile aloft. he is a circus or sideshow performer.
Some people could do with examining their motives.

I enjoy etymology. The history of words fascinates me. Some words hold onto a similar definition throughout their lives, varying little in essential meaning from when they were introduced into the English language hundreds of years ago. Some, however, change tack radically over time and come to mean something quite different. For example, did you know that ‘bully’ originally meant ‘sweetheart’?

Thinking about the etymology of words can also highlight relationships between different words that, when seen in the clear light of day, can seem to be logical or even obvious but which can easily be forgotten or overlooked when we chuck those same words into the hurly-burly of day-to-day conversation.

Take, for example, the word I started with: ‘reflection / reflexion’. We know that this word can mean the sending back of light or the mirroring back of an image. And it has meant this since it appeared (spelt ‘reflexion’) in English in the 14th century. According to etymonline.com, it started to mean a review of thoughts – a looking into an interior mirror to see what one can see – sometime during the 1600s.

But etymonline.com tells us that the 14th century English ‘reflexion’ came to us from the Latin for ‘bending back’ and then refers us to the word ‘flexible’ with which it shares the Latin root word ‘flectere’. Flexible can mean being pliant in both mind and body, so its relation to ‘reflexion’ which can, hopefully, inspire a tendency to mentally move or adjust or bend as a result of reviewing one’s thoughts, makes sense.

The word ‘flex’ is apparently a back formation of ‘flexible’; this verb started being used in the 15th century. ‘Flex’ is most often used to describe physical actions, and I love that my etymological thought-exercise that started off with a cerebrally apposite word like ‘reflexion’ leads me to a muscular-sounding cheeky brute of a word like ‘flex’.

Why do I like doing this? Because thinking deeply about the words I use, the ways and contexts in which I use them, and the gut reactions I have to their etymologies is one of my favourite tools for reflexivity. When reflecting deeply on the how and why of my actions, thoughts, and reactions I like to work up an intellectual or imaginative or emotional sweat.

In short, reflexivity makes my brain flex. It keeps me fit and agile.

The words we use have weird and wonderful histories. What can these tell us about ourselves? Join me for a creative, reflective, and quietly fun conversation to reflect on the buzzwords we use at The Etymology Game.

Duration – 1 hour

Cost – $25.00

Delivered via Zoom.

Bookings limited and essential. To book or to find more information, please check out my events calendar.

A contortionist
Contortionist Joseph Clark
Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

“I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what…

 

… Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

 

So begins and ends WB Yeats’ poem The Circus Animal’s Desertion. Yeats has never been one of my favourite poets. His willingness to use obscure allusions and imagery irritates me rather than beguiles me. But I love this poem, especially the first and last stanzas. Since I first met this poem as a teenager and right up till my middle-aged present, I have come back to these words so many times and in so many contexts.

When I managed a neighbourhood house about ten years ago, I printed out this poem and pinned it to my wall as inspiration while I wrote the house’s business plan. This might seem odd, thinking about poetry while writing such a dry and pragmatic official document. But the imagery in the last line of the poem, of seeking for inspiration in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart”, grounded me in my purpose as I struggled to articulate the activity of a charity that was non-viable outside of government funding, and in such a way that a bean-counter could accept it and one of our volunteer board members could recognise our house in it. The people who needed this organisation were dealing with disadvantage, sometimes with multiple causes. I had to remind myself that, even as I evoked the heartless language of business and bureaucracy, I was telling the story of a little community of bruised and vulnerable people, valiantly attending our groups, classes, and programs in the hope of making sense and hope in their lives. That, as I sat at my computer tapping out budgets and procedures and strategies, I was climbing down the ladder to where my own sense of compassion for these people lay inside me.

At other times in my life, I have turned to this poem when dealing with failure, surveying the smoking ruins of some project that had gone bust and wondering how I was going to face the next day.

What do you do when the potential of something on which you had pinned such hopes falls apart? When the dreams that you had for it are smashed? How do you begin again? From where do you begin again, if the slate on which your inspirations and plans have been written is wiped clean?

“This is going to be my year,” I remember a friend and I telling each other, back when we were young and actually believed that we could control our fate. But, as the years rolled on, and I tallied up my share of disastrous jobs and blighted projects I found myself, again and again, recognising that I was climbing back down that ladder to find what was left of me, and what I could start to build on again.

So, Yeats’ poem, for me, has been about inspiration and then about recovering from failure. I think there is a third angle, subtle and indelibly linked with the first two. To put it simply, this poem could be read as being about identity. In the context of this note, in which I am speaking to people rebuilding a career or vocational pathway, I could say that it is about branding.

Yeats was an esoteric and an aesthete, living a life devoted to advancing rarefied principals in the service of poetry, Irish nationalism, and an unconsummated love for his friend Maud. He would spit on me for saying that about branding if he were standing right here beside me right now as I write this.

Well, he’s not here.

Bullshit branding, of which we see so much, is an exercise in whitewashing (or greenwashing) the most venal excesses of the corporate world. This is not what I think Yeats’ poem is about. Really good branding is about articulating values in such a way that the more authentic the values are to the branded entity, the stronger the brand will be. Strip away the visual and textual detritus of a brand, and you should be able to see the beating heart of what compels an entity to go about its business.

I wrote in the note before this that I equate developing a brand with dramaturgy, whereby you assemble the different components of theatre – text, staging, art direction, music, performance – in the service of a finished production. Driving this process, the thing that anchors it is a unifying theme and set of values.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion is about finding those values and themes. Moreover, finding them when you feel that everything in your life that has previously been of meaning has been stripped away. Yeats wrote the poem as an old man and as an acknowledged and successful poet. In it, he mentions the flashy and high-flown imagery he used in his poetry in earlier life. Having garnered critical success and recognition, the same imagery, and the themes it conveyed, seem empty to him at the time of writing this poem.

“Players and painted stage took all my love

And not those things they were emblems of.”

How do you start again when you feel devastated, when the things that used to be compelling are gone or feel empty? How do you take a past life, even past successes, that no longer seem to have currency and find the inspiration or ideas on which you can rebuild? There is nothing left but that ladder, nothing left but to lay down at the foot of it. But it is the place where all ladders start, and the stuff you find down there is something – perhaps the something that most matters – with which you can work.

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 Etymology Game

Announcement: The Etymology Game

Image: Fortunio Liceti

Breathing life into buzzwords

Sick of buzzwords? Tired of hearing other words misused? Do you feel like people keep talking at – or past – each other?

The words we use have weird and wonderful histories. What can these tell us about ourselves?

The Etymology Game is a chance to slow down and really think about what we mean when we use these words, and, perhaps, what we would like – or need – them to mean instead. Word Rescue uses the fascinating history of words to trigger, inspire, and elicit insights for its participants. It’s simple, fun, and interesting. All you have to do is turn up with a sense of curiosity and imagination.

Join a small intimate and relaxed group, have some gentle nerdy fun, have a ponder, and surprise yourself with what you discover about your, and other people’s, expectations of the overused words we throw around every day. In each Word Rescue session, you will be teased by some word trivia, and then get the chance to peel back the layers on one or two topical but tired buzzwords.

Join me to slow down, think, imagine, and refresh the meaning behind everyday language.

Details:

Duration – 1 hour

Cost – $25.00

Delivered via Zoom.

Bookings limited and essential. To book or to find more information, please check out my events calendar.