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.

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.

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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?

Stillness and Reflection

Stillness and Reflection

The etymology of words fascinates me. Sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising, the differences  and nuances in the meanings and context of words throughout their history is something I always find interesting.

Take the word ‘still,’ for example. According to the Etymonline website, its most ancient root comes from the Proto-Indo-European “stel-ni-, suffixed form of root stel- ‘to put, stand, put in order,’ … Meaning “quiet, calm, gentle, silent” emerged in later Old English.”

‘Put in order’ in its connection to ‘still’ resonated with me. As an introvert I crave a lot of time alone, as this allows me to be quiet and still. This solitary time does actually help me to ‘put in order’ my own thoughts and feelings before going out and facing the hurly burly of the world.

Etymonline’s entry on the word ‘reflection’ indicates that it first made its appearance in written English in the 14th century: “reflexion, in reference to surfaces throwing back light or heat.”

Again, for me this resonates. I use my still, quiet times to reflect, to go over experiences and reactions to make sense of them. On the surface of a still mind thoughts can indeed throw back images with more light, affording enlightenment.

It is early January as I write this. Many of us have had some kind of a break over Christmas. I spent mine quietly, which I needed to do after an epic 2019. It’s traditional to make New Year’s resolutions. I don’t do this anymore, but I have been thinking about the sort of year I want in 2020. This has required reflection on the opportunities and challenges brought about by past experiences, and how I can align these with the resources I have at hand.

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise 1872
Claude Monet, ‘Impression, Sunrise 1872’

I am hoping that this year will allow me more stable conditions so that I can bring some of the creative work I began in 2019 to fruition, and am determined to engender them. Whatever your wishes or needs are for 2020, I hope that the year brings an abundance of them.

Rest

Rest

This year has been an exhausting one.

I have been buried under an avalanche of bad news: the near death of one family member, the actual death of another, a work contract going sour due to toxic culture, and other more minor things that, by themselves, were irritants but still served to draw off energy that aforementioned crises had left in short supply.

It was a year of shock, grief, and some anger. My resilience and ability to stay grounded were tested although, as I write this, I do feel sane enough. This was a year about survival, not rapid progression, but some years are just like that.

For some time now I have been interested in resilience, and how to embed it in a practice. 2019 gave me ample opportunity to take mental notes on how to stay resilient, and what undermines this. Other people’s bullshit – never welcome for any of us – was particularly hard for me to bear; my friends’ kindness and loyalty continued to be a blessing.

My own ability to process, analyse, and gain some perspective did stand up to the test, but it was a severe test and there were many days when I knew better than to leave the house and inflict myself on other members of the human race. Or to allow them to inflict themselves on me.

Among the things that helped me have some degree of resilience – among them my creative practice, and my grieving process – was a strong sense of self-awareness, especially around my own energy levels. The feelings of fatigue following my Mother’s death, especially, were off the chart, but dealing with exhaustion has been a general and ongoing challenge during the whole of this year.

Along with being interested in resilience, I have also long (even before this year) been interested in exhaustion and how it can affect a person’s creativity, whether that is in terms of an effect on quality of work or quality of relationship between one-self and one’s own creative identity. These are subjects for other blogs.

The point I want to finish on in this blog is about the necessity of doing nothing much from time to time. As we go into the traditional western holiday season over Christmas, I am getting quietly excited about having a dull vacation. I long to do nothing and to be impacted by nothing. I long to rest.

Etymonline tells us that the etymology of the word rest can be traced back to Old English raeste meaning an “intermission of labor, mental peace.” Interestingly, the

“Original sense seems to be a measure of distance (compare Old High German rasta, which in addition to “rest” meant “league of miles,” Old Norse rost “league, distance after which one rests,” Gothic rasta “mile, stage of a journey”), perhaps a word from the nomadic period.”

So, rest is something you do after a period of journeying, of travailing.

The etymology of the word holiday is not surprising, as it originally meant what it sounds like: a special holy day, a day set aside for honouring the sacred.

We live in a world where busyness, scurrying, bustling, and striving are expected, even valorised. But too much frantic activity, resulting in exhaustion and a drawing off of energy and freshness, is bad for mind body and soul. The wellsprings of creativity and empathy can run dry.

Screenshot_2019-11-27 exhaustion Origin and meaning of exhaustion by Online Etymology Dictionary
http://www.etymonline.com

Rest and rejuvenation are essential. Thinking about having a holiday can conjure images of lying by the pool and drinking sticky drinks out of a coconut. For me, this year, it will involve going to a small country town and reading books. Regardless of how your break looks to you – fun, restful, entertaining, exotic – if it truly rejuvenates you then consider it as sacred as well.

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Thank you for reading my blog.

I wish you a Merry Christmas, whatever that looks like to you, and a safe, abundant, Happy New Year.

Trick or Treat?

Trick or Treat?

I’m putting out my hand – what’s going to be dropped into it?

I’ve just set a goal for myself: to get 12 rejections between now and December 2020. That should average out at one rejection per month on average.

What do I want to be rejected from? Fabulous things! For me, fabulous = writer’s residencies, commissions for articles or interviews, or pitches to interesting publications. Losing out on gigs as a professional interviewer or facilitator in community research or consultation contracts. Being turned down for creative facilitation or presenting at events and conferences. For the rejection to count it has to be something I really really want.

Where did I get the idea for setting the goal for a certain number of rejections? From a tweet I saw somewhere… I forget who the tweeter was, as this was years ago now. I think (think…) the person was an academic. She had set herself the goal of getting a certain number of rejections for publishing, research, or conference presentation opportunities. She reported that not only did aiming for a certain number of rejections embolden her, but she actually technically failed because some of her applications were successful. Thinking ‘here goes nothing’ she submitted for things she thought she would have no hope of getting, and was astonished to find that she was wrong.

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So, in selecting the things I am aiming to get rejected for I am setting down the following criteria:

I will apply for things I am not confident I can get but which I would really like. This gives me a chance to stare down my impostor syndrome and at least entertain the idea of what success for me could look like.

I will apply for things where writing the submission will be useful in some way. In other words, will writing the submission force me to do some planning, refine concepts, research some logistics, prepare a budget, review and improve my biography, or some other useful thing? I have always found that this is a good side goal to set when doing some persuasive writing as, if you fail, then at least putting the submission together wasn’t a total waste of time.

I will reward myself each time I send off a submission. When I used to write grants, I would buy myself a bunch of flowers or some cake after I met each deadline. Also, and most importantly, I will do something similar to comfort myself when I receive a rejection. If I apply to fabulous things that could matter to me then it will sting when I don’t get them. There’s no way around that. Gentleness with self is essential to bolstering resilience.

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