Grieving, remembering, and forgetting

Grieving, remembering, and forgetting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Grieving Mother’ (1903) by Kathe Kollwitz

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

Will I forget that?

Solitary mind: quality of energy

Solitary mind: quality of energy

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Vincent Van Gogh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poisoning the well.

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

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

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

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

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Vincent Van Gogh

Recommended read:

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

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me during these precarious times, 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.

Impostor Syndrome and Grief

Impostor Syndrome and Grief

“That night, that year of now done darkness…”

I’ve spent most of the last 12 months feeling like a moron: struggling to concentrate, to learn or take in new information, to make good judgement calls, to trust my memory.

My “year of now done darkness” contained the suicide attempt of a family member, which was shortly followed by the news of my mother’s diagnosis with cancer, and that was followed – with shocking quickness – by my mother’s actual death.

The rest of the year was bullshit: the worst kind of workplace politics lead to me being the target of bullying, which kicked in not three weeks after poor Mum’s funeral. Various other snafus and stoushes bookended all of the above. None of these smaller dramas were as hard hitting as the bullying, or the near or actual death of people I cared about, but all served as a further drain on my resilience.

In amongst all of this I started a new contract. News of the suicide attempt came just two days before my induction. I went in pretending I was in Happy Camper mode but, in reality, I was in a flat spin.

Every time I went in to deliver training, I thanked God for my earlier experience as a performer: the show went on but, behind my professional exterior, I was a wreck. It was a year of sadness and anger, of insomnia, of disproportionate physical fatigue, of disorientation, of not being able to retain information and having to rely on cheat sheets and palm notes (which I couldn’t read anyway because the words swam in front of my exhausted eyes). But somehow I scammed and improvised my way through.

I had to pretend to be cheerful in front of people although, God knows, I tried to avoid as many of them as I could. I acted as if I were calm and sociable and competent when, in actual fact, I knew myself to be a misanthropic cretin who couldn’t think my way to the end of a sentence. I was manky in intellect and spirit. And this was valid. How else could I have felt after being exposed to other people’s malice, or despair, or death?

But I lived in a world that needed me to be otherwise. And, if I wanted to leave my home to earn money to pay rent and buy food, which I vaguely understood that I needed to do, then I had to go out into that world and pretend that I was what it designated as ‘OK’. Whatever that means.

On with the motley. The show went on.

But this meant that I didn’t actually behave authentically unless I was at home all by myself, in which case it was OK to stare blankly at a wall, forget to eat, or cry into a pillow. Which meant that I felt like I was faking it every time I walked out the door. And that was actually what I was doing. Which meant that I was an impostor, a dishonest representation of another person – a happy, organised, palatable person.

Articles abound earnestly counselling us all to defeat our impostor syndrome – that furtive but insistently treacherous voice living in our heads that tells us that we aren’t really as good as others think we are, that our incompetence will be exposed any minute.

But when you are in grief, this voice is not treacherous as much as realistic. For most of last year, underneath my bonhomous and tidy exterior I was living as a crazed mess. How I functioned I don’t know.

Living with grief means living with many and varying moods, thoughts, and energies. It’s all a part of the necessary adjustment process that grieving affords. But because our society demands that we behave in ways that run counter to this adjustment process, being in grief also means that you live as an impostor, divided from the core of your authentic grieving self.

Female theatre mask Roman fresco from Casa del Bracciale d'Oro - Pompeii
Female theatre mask. Roman fresco from Casa del Bracciale d’Oro – Pompeii

Please note – This blog has now been included in 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.

Solitary mind: vampires and orgasms

Solitary mind: vampires and orgasms

Many years ago I used to listen to a regular show on ABC radio that featured a lady who was expert at interpreting dreams. I think her name was Quentin, and I think the program was on a Monday morning. Anyway, people used to ring in, describe their dreams, and she would interpret the symbolism. The dreams and their interpretations were fascinating and the show was lovely. But, close to nearly two decades (must be!) later, one dream lingers in my memory because the interpretation was so startling but also satisfying.

A woman rang in and said that her dream featured a vampire who had raped her. Sounds grim, yes, but what really worried the woman was that, in her dream, she had had an orgasm during the rape despite being distressed by the violation.

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The Kiss by Edvard Munch

The dream expert’s interpretation was that, no matter how bad the situation this woman found herself to be in, or how exploitative the people she was dealing with, the orgasm symbolised that she always managed to extract something of value for herself from the situation. So rather than being a nightmare or an indication of some kind of unhealthy pathology, the dream symbolised that this woman was one hell of a survivor. I hope, for the sake of this caller, that this was the case, anyway.

Our current situation – the invisible surge of the pandemic, facing our own inner demons during self-isolation, sociopathic ineptitude on behalf of some of our politicians – might have a nightmarish tinge to it for some of us. I’m not advocating feckless selfishness – we owe it to our communities right now to do the right thing: stay at home; wash our hands; don’t spread misinformation; be kind and patient to each other. But do go looking for opportunities for indulgence, pleasure, fun, even if brief or simple or odd. I think we have to be like the dream lady described above: even if we fear this thing might be sucking the life blood out of us, we need to find whatever value we can extract for ourselves.

Recommended resource:

The Public Domain Review is an amazing website during the best of times. They have put together a colouring book for those who are needing something to do during self distancing.

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me during these precarious times, 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: creativity and resilience

Solitary mind: creativity and resilience

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The Tomb of the Wrestlers by Rene Magritte

Twitter right now is a double edged sword. On the one hand it is full of hysteria and nonsense and prolonged exposure to this is definitely not recommended  for peace of mind, but on the other it is full of lovely things. In response to the pandemic of physical distancing and isolation that has spread across the globe, many people are taking refuge in their imaginations. The stuff people are sharing range from the silly to the playful to the beautiful to the profound.

People stuck at home are making videos and art, gifs and essays, singing folk songs, and singing opera from their quarantined balconies. On Twitter, Patrick Stewart reads one of Shakespeare’s sonnets every day. Yo Yo Ma plays us #songsofcomfort. A British family has gone viral with their own witty coronavirus inspired lyrics set to a soundtrack from Les Miserables.

August institutions are sharing their resources online: you can read fine essays or view galleries from the quarantined comfort of your home. Author Robert MacFarlane is conducting a reading group on Twitter.

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Under these stressful conditions people are trying to find a way of staving off tedium and the blues. They are looking for meaning. Endeavouring to comfort and entertain themselves and others. I think it’s delightful that so many people are hunkering down with a sense of playfulness and / or an appetite for the artistic.

Obviously, for many people thrown upon their own inner resources to combat one of the most disruptive and serious crises of our lives, the instinct they are drawing on is their sense of creativity. I’m not surprised. I have long felt that creativity and resilience work in a kind of a loop. We are living in strange times that demand resilience, where we are challenged to make sense of, and outlast, the hitherto unexperienced. And to do so in a way that means we emerge from this with some sense of being coherent humans able to rebuild normal lives, whatever that ‘normal’ turns out to be.

Working creatively is psychologically challenging in different ways. You have to be prepared to risk failure. You have to be prepared to risk succeeding on your terms, only to have these terms misunderstood and denounced by others. Making creative work is an alchemical process, combining themes, ideas, techniques, resources in a process of trial and error. Creative people get used to working while feeling doubt, frustration, ambiguity, disappointment, and fear at their own audacity.

So creative work demands resilience, that ability to persevere while being vulnerable.* But the neat thing is that, while you are drawing on your personal resilience as a creative, your creative process is embedding things that, in turn, make you resilient. A rich inner world; learning to get your critical mind to work with your imagination (instead of letting one overwhelm the other); the ability to sit in uncertainty; the ability to learn from your mistakes; being able to recognise when a change of course is required; a sense of playfulness; determination; curiosity. All of these things may be called upon when steering a light bulb moment to tangible outcome. All of them can feed your ability to be resilient. And that resilience helps to sustain your creative process.

*I don’t think resilience = tough. I think these two things are quite different things.

Recommended resource:

The Discover2Learn website is the most comprehensive and caried list of stuff you can do while self-distancing that I have seen yet.

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: resilience

Solitary mind: resilience

“Grit and resiliency, when misunderstood, lead to this notion that I’m supposed to suffer, and that there’s something noble in the suffering. That’s silly and actually creates all sorts of problems. There’s a notion of false grit, which is kind of brittle, where if something truly difficult happens to us, we tend to break…. True resiliency, true grit has the capacity to be flexible, to understand that even the worst situations are, to use a Buddhist term, workable. That is, I can learn from this experience. I can find some greater sense of connectedness and therefore grow from this. And by the way, it hurts. And to deny that it hurts is to deny my humanity. ” ~ Jerry Colonna

‘Resilience’ is a word that is all too often misunderstood or misapplied, in my opinion. I am sick and tired of seeing it used as a synonym for tough or gritty. In my experience it is something quite different.

The distinction is an important one in my mind, and is something I became aware of through my own lived experience. I do not consider myself to be particularly tough. There have been many times in my life when I have felt fragile, tender. Many times I have behaved like a softy, when I have been squeamish and cringing in response to nasty occurrences.

But I am resilient. I am the most resilient person I know. I always come back. I have so often seen the amazement on the faces of friends and colleagues when I recover from something that should have seen me down for the count. They are all the more bewildered by my feats of recovery because they know I am not tough.

Many years ago, and there can never be too many years between where I am now and this experience, I was suicidal after a long, disorientating, and debilitating bout of clinical depression. I had the note written. I had my room cleaned, ready for my landlord to take possession – I didn’t want to put him to more trouble than I could help. I went down to Melbourne Central train station and stood on the platform and waited for a train. It came. I didn’t jump. It passed by. I waited for another. I didn’t jump. It passed by. I repeated this a few times until my feet, acting of their own accord, turned around and walked me out of there. I repeated this for a few more days. Then I stopped. I hated myself for a coward. I didn’t even have the guts to do that thing right.

In time the pain passed. I don’t know why or how but it did. I could make no sense of anything. But I was still, somehow, here.

I spent years wondering just what the instinct was that made me stand still on that train platform. When I tried to talk about it to other people – to reason out what had happened to me – I found I wasn’t believed – that my story was brushed off as an exaggeration – so I stopped talking about it. I know I was actually close to dying. I also remember that I had not experienced any last minute epiphany to help me ‘see the light’ and lead me away from disaster. With apologies to my family, I didn’t consider them because I didn’t think I would be much of a loss to anyone. Anyway, I was in too much pain to think coherently and of consequences. I just wanted to stop.

I didn’t make myself stay alive because I was tough or brave. As I stood on that platform there was no squaring of my spiritual shoulders, no plucky aphorisms pinging around my disordered head. I walked onto that platform broken by pain and I walked off it, unaccountably alive, broken by pain.

I was nothing. Anything hopeful, strong, noble, inspired, joyful had long been stripped off me. I couldn’t even remember what those things felt like; they happened to other people. I didn’t have a reason to live, I just didn’t die.

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Plante de Tomates by Pablo Picasso

A couple of years ago I realised what it was: this innate quality that didn’t feel like strength but which had kept me being, not choosing not to be, to paraphrase Gerard Manly Hopkins in one of his Terrible Sonnets.

The thing that kept me alive was resilience. And here is why resilience is different from toughness: everybody has their breaking point, even tough people. In fact, find a tough person’s Achilles’ heel and they can be surprisingly brittle. I have known gritty types who looked awesomely staunch through many hard experiences and who, one day, when things had finally overwhelmed them, had fractured spectacularly. Everyone has a breaking point. But resilient people keep going even after they are broken. They mightn’t be happy, they might keep going as a tear-stained hyperventilating snotty-nosed mess, but they keep going.

In these ‘Solitary mind’ blogs I use the word ‘resilience’ from time to time; I wrote this because I wanted to make clear what I, personally, mean by this word.

We are all being challenged by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic: the concerns about health, anxiety over the state of the economy and our ability to earn, the grinding tedium and, perhaps, loneliness of self-isolation. Over the next few months – maybe even longer – our resilience will be tested. In being shut up in our homes with our own selves, we are about to find out what our own personal resilience looks like (hint: it differs from person to person).

Choosing to be positive, on the days when we have the energy for that, is fabulous. Highly recommended! And, hopefully, for those of us who don’t have to freak out about adverse home conditions (poverty, domestic violence, actual illness), it may be possible to, at times, actively enjoy ourselves by making a point of sleeping in, binge watching stuff on DVD or Netflix, or curling up with a good novel.

But on the days when you feel fragile, unhappy, or disorientated just remember that you don’t have to spend your energy being brave, or tough, or positive, or productive. No one sees you; No one is keeping score or rewarding points on how square your jaw is. On those dark days, just spend your energy on existing; don’t waste energy on asking yourself any more than this. And know that this, too, will pass.

Update

I got these wise words in response to this blog on Twitter:

Recommended read:

That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, recently published in the Harvard Business Review, features David Kessler being interviewed by Scott Berinato. Read this for some wise advice.

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: 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.