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.

Time is weird now

Time is weird now

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

Ethnographer Jonathan Cook recently published the article The strange stream of COVID-19 time in business culture on the Journal of Beautiful Business website. In it, he summarises some findings – about perceptions of time – from research he has been conducting on how COVID-19 has impacted business culture. He writes:

“As I spoke with people in business, they began to tell me something strange: Their perception of time was changing… Some people talked of a great pause in time, while others talked about simply feeling lost in time, unsure of their place in it.”

If you are currently feeling disorientated and adrift in time, then you are not alone. Cook notes that “The commonality was that time wasn’t behaving normally, but the specific form of its abnormality was not at all uniform. Under COVID-19, time has become subjective, experienced individually.”

In another note in The next day, I wrote that you may be feeling a sense of urgency and that this may or may not be generated by your reaction to real deadlines looming, or other people’s attitudes putting pressure on you, or from your own internal mental chatter. If time is being experienced individually, as Cook has found, then this may explain, in part, why dealing with the world, other people, and our frazzled selves can feel stressful: perhaps we are all out of alignment with each other in our sense of time.

The normal deadlines aren’t going anywhere – the rent or the electricity bill has to be paid by its usual date, that job application is due in. But perhaps you are struggling to meet them, either because your brain has turned to mush and you can’t remember to do stuff, or because you have no money anymore and therefore aren’t resourced to meet those deadlines as they march towards you.

Adverse reactions from other people can feel like a form of pressure, especially if you feel off-kilter or raw due to your own response to the current crisis. These reactions can be divulged either deliberately or unwittingly, in the form of nagging or naysaying, prophesying doom for the economy, bitchy competitiveness for the few remaining jobs in your organisation, or ‘helpful’ prompts to grab the next shelf-stacking job at the local supermarkets.

One person might be panting with anxiety about nailing down a source of income, madly filling their days with frantic activity. Their friend might have trouble getting out of their pyjamas and deciding which cereal to have for dinner. Slipping on ice or wading through treacle. If the people around you are experiencing time differently, and therefore coming at activity and deadlines differently, then they can generate a sense of urgency that may be valid for them, but unhelpful to you. Cook found that different people he interviewed reported experiencing a variety of reactions: stress, anxiety, liberation, reflectiveness, creativity, and transformation. All understandable in people under duress, all possible manifestations of grief. But all different: make sure people are not superimposing their feelings of urgency – or apathy – onto you. Hold onto the unique and individual way in which you are needing to experience the flow of time.

Cook’s article is fascinating and also hopeful. He notes that time is a cultural construct; he opines that the

“fracturing of the experience of time… is creating the potential for multiple alternative models of business. Not everything needs to be on the clock anymore.”

You have been divested of a vocational pathway that, regardless as to how easy or demanding it was to follow, made sense to you once. The sudden absence of this clear vocational pathway may be disorientating, even painful or shocking. But why should not one of these “alternative models of business” become available to you in time? Perhaps you can create one.

“We can make new kinds of maps,” Cook writes.

“A good canoeist will often save energy by riding with the currents going downstream, but will also have a paddle ready, to change direction when necessary. The future is fluid. We have the power to choose where we go.”

Happy paddling.

 

Literally right after I read first read this article by Cook, I read a poem about a canoe called ‘ars pasifika’ by Craig Santos Perez. It’s the perfect companion to Cook’s article.

 

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.

Urgency, grief, and loss of vocation

Urgency, grief, and loss of vocation

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

After losing your job or vocation, do you have a sense of urgency about the choices you have to make right now?

Why? Where is this sense of urgency coming from?

Do you need to pay the rent next month, but don’t know how you are going to earn the money to do it?

Are you able to pay the rent for a while thanks to your redundancy package and/or wage subsidy (like the JobKeeper payment), but still feel pressure to get a new job – any job – ASAP?

Why?

Is it because every time your Mum rings up she asks, “so, have you got a job yet?” Is it because everybody in your friendship circle is talking about their job search and/or money problems? Is it because every time you click on the news you see Scott Morrison talking about “snapping back” the economy to the ‘old normal’?

If you are trapped in a building with a bunch of colleagues who are all speculating on whether or not they will lose their jobs when the next round of redundancies will be announced, and whether or not they will ever get another job in their sector again, then that fear can be contagious. Similarly, if you are a member of the arts community and every other contractor or sole-trader you know in the sector has lost income streams, contracts, has had venues closed and events shut down and doesn’t know when the sector will open back up again, if every channel or forum of promoting, showing, and selling your creative products or services has disappeared, then that sense of devastation can spread through networks like wildfire. These fears may feasibly turn out to be valid. But, then again, new unexpected avenues for people to pursue their vocations might appear. No one knows right now and that is fuelling people’s sense of desperation and, therefore, sense of urgency.

Do you feel a sense of urgency because there is a small quiet voice deep inside of you that is telling you that you’re washed up, ‘it’s all over’, you’re a loser, you’re a failure, now that you don’t have a job?

Do you feel a sense of panic because your sector has imploded, and you cannot see what the future holds for you?

If you feel that you urgently need to make decisions about your future, it is important to understand where this sense of urgency comes from: inside of you or because of messages you are receiving from other people.

It is also important to understand if the pressure is due to real demands (the rent must be paid, or you will be evicted) or the emotional contagion of other people’s panic or negative expectations.

In your grief, are your insecurities flaring up and dragging your self-image down? Do you feel urgent about proving yourself to your inner demons?

Nobody knows how the future is going to unfold, exactly. Writing for The Journal of Beautiful Business, researcher Jonathan Cook states:

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Anybody who is making specific predictions about the marketplace right now doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

There may be terrible things waiting for us all – who knows? – but why should there not be opportunity for those who are able to adjust. Sitting in a space of uncertainty can feel hard. But, while you’re sitting there, why not process your grief?

Yes – you certainly do have to find ways of paying the rent in the short term. But do not allow other people’s perceived sense of urgency invade or shape your grieving process. It is your time to come to terms with what has happened to you, to access the positive aspects of grief – a sense of liberation from the conditions attached to the ‘old normal’ that didn’t do you any favours, or perhaps insight or clarity into your values and shifting priorities. This is your time to adjust to the radical absence of something that has been shaping your life; do not let other people’s opinions as to what you should be getting on with shape that adjustment process. This could be easier said than done – there are a lot of opinions flying around right now as to how shit everything is and what everyone should be doing. Those of you who have signed up for welfare will have a compliance regime to deal with [groan!]. That’s hard.

But be aware of your grief, of your right and need to grieve. Be aware of the vulnerabilities and the opportunities for insight they contain and take anyone else’s message of urgency with a grain of salt. The state of grief may be a difficult one to experience, but it is also a special time, a stage of life given to you to come to terms with and adapt to the radical absence of something important to you. This special time is yours: cling onto it.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

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

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.

The arts: so much more than decoration

The arts: so much more than decoration

Let me describe a session at the recent conference The Great Wave:

The session, offered via Zoom, was entitled I Came Here to Speak About Love: Loss in Business. When I tuned in, I saw a musician and a singer performing boleros, an expressive Hispanic genre of music. When the camera was not focused on these performers during this hour-long session, we were shown a performer standing and staring directly into the camera. She stood silent and stock still, not expressing so much as embodying intensity of emotion. From time to time, tears rolled down her cheeks. There were no speakers; no one explicated. The Zoom chat displayed comments by the conference’s audience describing how incredibly moved they felt by what they were seeing and hearing.

Another session:

“Join us to explore the unspoken, unseen, and unfulfilled: our unlived lives,” invited the program entry for Negative Space, also offered via Zoom. When we joined the session, we watched a dancer perform a short contemporary-ballet piece. The facilitators then invited us to offer our stories of our unlived lives. After each story – all moving and raw – the ballet dancer would improvise a danced response before thanking us for our story. There was no spoken analysis of the stories or dance and, once again, the Zoom chat showed how touched participants were.

In other parts of the program, Waltz Binaire, which specialises in design through artificial intelligence, presented Journee, an incredibly beautiful immersive online world and digital art space. New York photographer Beowulf Sheehan shared the images he took during New York’s lock down. Short films, concerts, dance performances and improv sessions, mask-making workshops, storytelling, design, and art were all featured in The Great Wave.

Journee

Which, for me, is remarkable given that The Great Wave was actually a business event.

The House of Beautiful Business is on a mission to “to shape a more beautiful vision for the future of business, technology, and humanity, built on emotions, ethics, and aesthetics instead of efficiency, extraction, and exponentialism.” It aims to do this by creating a global think tank and community that includes “business and non-profit leaders, technologists, scientists, philosophers, and artists.” Normally held offline in Lisbon, the House of Beautiful Business put their annual gathering online due to Covid-19 in 2020. I have been yearning to go to one of their events for years. Because The Great Wave happened online this year, I was able to ‘attend’ from the physical solitude of my locked down Melbourne home. Hundreds of people from across the globe did the same.

As well as the expected (but superlative and fascinating) talking head presentations from the aforementioned business, tech, science, research, and community leaders (and some artists), the program heavily featured the arts not just as decoration or light relief but as a central component to the program, sharing the responsibility of informing participants’ experience of the event alongside the more conventional spoken presentations.

I started off my career as a performer and choreographer, later became an arts administrator, and still work creatively as a non-fiction writer and as a mentor and facilitator in creative process. All my life I have known that the arts were valid and valuable ways and means of exploring life, including business. And I have spent most of my life grudgingly accepting that almost no one else I knew agreed with me. When I have seen the benefits of the arts extolled, they have always been valued as entertainment – distraction or sensation – or as a repository for society’s stories and histiographies. As a field containing important wisdom about innovation or as a way of processing wicked problems or complex dynamics, the arts are broadly not taken seriously.

It was so good to see them central to this event.

During The Great Wave, the arts were used deliberately – and effectively – to interrogate the themes of the conference. Via the arts, we were invited to sense, embody, or imagine these themes as well as think about them. The themes included liminality, change, inequity, vulnerability, loss and grief, climate change, and how business practice must evolve to work with these. Complex, tricky, messy, challenging stuff. But the arts can help us to explore and accept things that are hard to articulate, frame, or experience via words alone.

Journee

The event also asked us to harness our imaginations – moral, social, and creative – and, of course, the arts are a practical example and experience available to us all as to what the imagination can look and feel like and what it can achieve.

In my experience, the arts are never talked about as a conduit to innovation and they should be. During the lockdowns of 2020, the arts were much appreciated and beloved as a place for expressing and processing feelings and responses that seem too big or deep or hard or subtle or entangled to live through and with. But when we engage with the arts, we are not just dumping our feelings, or even indulging in a bit of therapy (although these things can happen as well). Engaging mindfully with art – in whatever art form – gives us the opportunity to combine the intellect and imagination and emotional intelligence with memory, knowledge, instinct, skill, and talent to achieve breakthrough.

The Great Wave challenged its participants to embrace the redundancy and loss of unhealthy or limiting ways of conducting business, and to envisage new ways of working that are sustainable, equitable, and joyful. This was asking a lot of its participants who, nevertheless, responded with enthusiasm and delight. The arts were a major strategy in achieving this.

Recommended read: Are you a serial under earner?

Recommended read: Are you a serial under earner?

I came across this article on the splendid 99u.com website. In it Glei summarises and discusses some ideas she found when reading Secrets of Six Figure Women by Barbara Stanny (which I have not read yet).

This article struck a chord with me because I used to be a serial under earner, used to be surrounded by serial under earners as my friends and colleagues. I used to work exclusively in the arts and community sectors where the pay is low and inconsistent and volunteerism is expected rather than requested. The reasons why people end up as under earners, in the case of my peers struggling to survive financially even though they may be hard working, skilled and talented, are many and Glei does a good job listing them in this article. They stem from a mixture of social, cultural, psychological and emotional reasons that affect the individual and their perceptions of their entitlement to earn; in the arts and community sectors there are broader social and economic reasons at play as well, which does not make it easy for folks in these sectors to attain a life free from financial stress.

And this burns me up because the talent that is beavering away in these underpaid sectors is mighty. People who are skilled, conscientious, brave, innovative are thick on the ground and being paid crap wages. Burn out stalks them, and the rest of society is oblivious to the diversity and richness of experience and ability they could offer.

I enjoy working with people across a variety of sectors; I am thrilled to be developing networks and clients in the business sectors now (especially when it comes to working in the areas of community engagement and innovation). But I still intend to offer some services to those who are working in my old sectors – even if I have to discount heavily to do it. I believe in their value, their ability to fuse social good with reliable project management or service delivery, their natural tendency to innovate and gently subvert stale business practices. I am haunted by the idea that their tremendous creativity and willingness to innovate might be wasted, and determined to do my little bit to help.

Poetry and Policy-Making

Poetry and Policy-Making

A very interesting approach to thinking about policy making is revealed here. I am heartened to see it. Why should not the arts and humanities influence and inform our approaches to the complexities of politics, bureaucracy, business and governance? Poetry (and other creative forms) allows us access to subtle, rich, powerful and nuanced ways of thinking and feeling, especially about complex matters.

Letters to Biddy

Dear Biddy,

I wonder what you would have made of twitter? A quick short messaging exchange that has created its own universe. The number of followers is the currency of the twittersphere, where unlikely celebrities are treasured for their pearls of wisdom and trolls can be found lurking with intent under the cover of either suspicious or overt handles.

Next week I am going to be guest curator for @Wethehumanities and have decided to blend my love of poetry with my professional life in strategic thinking and decision-making. I hope it will be a journey of discover of bards in the boardroom. It has certainly got me thinking about the words you might have used to coax decisions from those in authority. Perhaps a song or a curse held a lyrical line to make sense of the scene and circumstance in which your visitors found themselves in? The great Irish lilt…

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