Grief is different for each of us

Grief is different for each of us

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’.

Grief is a universal experience: we are all, at some stage in our lives, going to lose something important to us. Some of us – probably most of us – will do this more than once during our lives. But grief is also the perfect rebuttal to conformity. Grief is universal, yes, but it is also a radically individual experience. Every grieving person will go through this universal event in a way that is uniquely particular to them, and never to be repeated. This is because exactly what is being grieved over and the conditions under which the grieving process is gone through will be different. Each person’s grief will be informed by a set of variables including:

How the loved thing died.

Every death is tragic, but some deaths carry extra layers of shock or anguish. Was everything going along fine and dandy in your life when, one day, the phone rang, and you received a message that your family had been wiped out in a car crash? Did someone you know commit suicide? Or did your loved one pass away quietly in their sleep as an elderly person who had been gradually dwindling, like my grandmother who died 10 days short of her 99th birthday? Was their death a merciful release from terrible suffering? Did you get to say goodbye?

We can ask similar questions about how someone loses a job or, for some people in post-COVID-19 economies, a place in a whole sector. Was the loss unexpected? Were you suddenly let go, or did you choose to quit? Did you accept voluntary redundancy, or were you made redundant? Did you exit your job with a nice party, complete with speeches, a card and flowers from friendly and well-wishing colleagues? Or were you ignominiously forced out by a bully?

In my home city of Melbourne, people in the arts industry suddenly found their industry shut down over one weekend in mid-March due to the coronavirus and its associated lockdowns. Even if they were sole-traders who did not lose jobs, they lost projects, platforms, forums, and venues. They lost access to a whole sector. This sudden cessation of activity was stunning in its rapidity and completeness. How has this impacted their grief?

The way someone or something dies, and the way a bereaved person finds out about the death, can influence the way someone is initiated into the grieving process. On top of the tragedy of losing something important to you, are you dealing with shock, disorientation, horror, or anguish? Or, alongside missing a loved thing, are you dealing with a sense of relief (perhaps at the cessation of suffering) or resolution?

Your relationship to the absent thing.

“Your mum’s your best friend!” declared my landlady authoritatively. The poor, kind woman was attempting empathy (having just handed over a bunch of roses and a card) but she had no idea that she was way off the mark as far as I was concerned. My mum was not my best friend, she was both way more and less than that. Mum was as lovable as she could be difficult. We had an affectionate relationship but not always an easy one. She was a complex person and, correspondingly, our relationship was complex. My landlady, as she waxed lyrical about how a mother was a girl’s best friend, was revealing more about her own relationship with her late mother than guessing correctly about mine. Which is why her grief for her late mother – and I caught a glimpse of it in her face, her eyes, as she talked – was always going to be so profoundly different to mine. It’s possible to feel grief for relationships that were difficult, or volatile, or messy. It’s possible to feel love – a primal visceral love – for family members you might not have been sure that you liked.

In terms of work, some people are lucky enough to be in jobs – and working within work cultures – that they love. For them, the loss of such a job, or organisation, or sector will occasion great sadness. But many of us have mixed emotions about our work. John Le Carre said that “most of us live in a slightly conspirational relationship with our employer.” Most of us put on a work persona that enables us to manoeuvre and extract the things we value from work, and to shield us from the things we hate. Some of you reading this may have just lost work that enabled you to pursue a true vocation, but to do so within business models that were exploitative and draining. Some of you will have been doing work you believed in, but within a toxic workplace culture. Some of you may be pursuing vocations where it is actually hard and rare to earn enough income to be viable (such as in the arts industry) and, therefore you may have just lost a ‘day job’ that utterly bored and under-utilised you, but which paid well enough and afforded flexible conditions that enabled you to work on your creative practice. All work is a mixture of activity, culture, pay and other conditions. It is possible to feel differently about all these things. How you felt about the work you have just lost will inflect any grief you may feel.

Depending on your relationship to whatever you have lost, your grieving process may be a jumble of loneliness and sadness, loss of identity, relief at the absence of irritating conditions, regret at missed opportunities, anger at being terminated, or resentment at being used. And also doubts about how the future will look. Friends who have recently lost their jobs in locked down or downsizing sectors have spoken about anxiety about how they will survive in years to come.

Depending on whether or not your relationship with the lost thing was close or distant, healthy or toxic, of long or short duration, you will be grieving over dynamics that are unique to you and which grew out of the relationship between you and that other thing, be that a person or a career.

Your own temperament

We are all individuals, with our own ways of communicating and otherwise manifesting wants, needs, and emotions. As an introvert, I hoovered up quietness and solitude after my Mum’s death. But other more extroverted personalities may hunger after the intimacy of meaningful connection.

I am a private person and find it easiest to capitulate to emotion when I am alone and unburdened by the scrutiny of others. Other friends are less so, seeking validation from expressing their feelings to trusted family and friends. What looks like healthy grieving for me would be an inhibitor for someone else and vice versa.

The external conditions with which you have to contend.

What else is going on in your life as you contend with your grief and / or the shock of radical change and absence? Are you parenting and / or caring for someone? Are you also dealing with relationship problems, or can you lean on a supportive partner? If single, are you happily so, or is loneliness and / or lack of support complicating your life? Do you have savings in the bank? Debts to manage? Do you have to move to a new house soon? Do you have chronic health problems to manage, or are you physically robust?

Conclusion:

All of the above will be working in concert with other variables that belong to your own particular life and self. Each variable in play will inform your experience of grief. No other person in the world will have the exact same experience as you. Other people will pronounce or proscribe the sorts of feelings, and the intensity and duration of those feelings, that they expect you to have, and they will all – to some extent – miss the mark.

 

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

You can buy The next day here.

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.

Grief isn’t about resolution

Grief isn’t about resolution

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’.

On the 3rd of June, just 11 days after Mum’s funeral, I wrote this one line in my journal:

“Grief is about learning to live without resolution.”

People seem to think that grief is all about closure (a vile word in this context, and impossible to say without a soupy reality TV accent). But grief isn’t about closure because closure is not possible. Life doesn’t work like that. People don’t work like that.

People are messy, complex, inconsistent. It’s what makes us so full of potential and danger all at the same time. That’s why there are gangsters who love their mums, and life-saving surgeons who beat their wives. In his novel Hogfather, Terry Pratchett has his character Death, a cowled horse-riding scythe-carrying skeleton (who loves kittens), ruminate on humans and describe them as the falling angel meeting the rising ape. In his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope describes humans as “darkly wise, rudely great.

We are social: all of us falling-apes—rising-angels mix constantly with other brute-divines and madness ensues, be that delightful or horrifying. After a lifetime of driving each other mad (with lust, frustration, adoration, or need?) we are then, when one of us dies, supposed to tie this all neatly off while processing some of the most challenging emotions we will ever feel while grieving. To resolve the madness. To have closure.

In a similar vein, we are supposed to brush off the termination of a job that gave us income, identity, perhaps status, perhaps the social connection of a good team of colleagues, hopefully satisfaction and an outlet for our talents and ambitions. Even if we have mixed feelings about our work, it is still a thing into which we pour time, energy, focus, goodwill, and emotion. Work is one of the things that defines our place in this world, for better or for worse, and we are supposed to just get over it when we are displaced from it?

Nuh.

This is crazy thinking. Why do we demand this of ourselves? By doing so we are demanding something unrealistic and tainting what should be a special time.

Grief is special. It’s not comfortable but it can be enriching.

I approve of it.

Even at its mankiest grief has a clear reason for happening: grief is the process by which we adjust to the reality that that person or thing just isn’t here with us anymore and won’t be ever again. That’s a stark reality. For some people it’s traumatic to come to terms with, for others it can border on relief. But whether you loved or hated the person or job you are grieving (and, yes, you can hate and grieve at the same time) the adjustment you have to make to the absence in your life is huge. Grief allows us to do that.

So, grief isn’t about resolution. It’s actually about accepting what you can’t resolve. It’s about adjusting to living with an absence…

 

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

You can buy The next day here.

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.

A reaction to absence

A reaction to absence

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’.

Grief is the reaction to the radical absence of something that was central to your life.

Given that these notes are about grief, and given that so many of us have cruelly limited ideas as to what grief is and, therefore, how we are allowed to experience it, process it, and benefit from it, I want to define what I mean when I use the word.

Grief is not one emotion, but rather a term that covers a range of reactions we have and adjustments we make when we experience the radical absence of something central to our lives. That something could be a person, a relationship, a job, or a dream. I was inspired to write this bundle of notes when I thought about my friends and ex-colleagues who have recently not just lost jobs, but, due to sudden and devastating economic downturns caused by lockdowns, have found whole sectors closed down, subsequently downsized or compromised, and have found vocational pathways closed off to them.

Think of grief as an umbrella term that encompasses emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioural reactions to radical loss. I said in another note that people conflate grief with depression; I think that this stems from the fact that too many people conflate depression with sadness. All these things are quite different (I will touch on depression and grief elsewhere in this bundle). Certainly, people can feel sadness when someone or thing they love dies. But people can feel all sorts of other emotions too, like anger, anxiety, guilt, or resentment. Or some people can be left feeling numb.

But as well as the ‘feels’, people in grief can experience different reactions – physical, spiritual, cognitive, or behavioural. While mourning my mother, I experienced extraordinary feelings of physical fatigue that would descend on me out of the blue. My sister experienced an abnormal coldness: she couldn’t seem to get warm during the first month after mum died. Some people find they are clumsier than usual, some can’t concentrate, some question their spiritual beliefs, others become creatively prolific.

There is a great smorgasbord of ways in which grief can manifest in people’s lives, ranging from the debilitating to the irritating to the merely unusual to the liberating.

Consider:

Grief is not one constant and consistent experience.

You will probably experience different symptoms of grief at different stages. Feelings and reactions could ebb and flow, and the intensity of these feelings and reactions will fluctuate. You may have days or weeks that are harrowing followed by a time that is less intense where you feel relatively human and functional.

You can feel grief for things you had mixed feelings about, or even hated.

Oh yes, you can. When I gave up my work in the performing arts all of those years ago I quite definitely felt grief, a profound sadness – pain – at having to walk away from a dream and a vocation I had poured my heart and soul into for years. And yet I chose to give it up. I was burnt out, damaging both my physical and mental health. The lifestyle that went along with this career – financial insecurity, precarity, the emotional demands of performance, brutal politics, exposure to a sometimes bitter culture that existed within the sector – was draining the life out of me and, by the time I had given up, had long excised the joy and inspiration out of my vocation. I didn’t like who I was becoming – a meaner and more resentful version of myself – and, having struggled with clinical depression, I was also terrified for my future mental health. I have never regretted my decision to give up, and, in retrospect, see this decision as one of the healthiest things I have ever done for myself. I feel positive about that decision, and a terrible sadness arising from the sense of loss of my dream. The grieving process has allowed space for these apparently contradictory things. In my grief, I have been able to honour both.

You never get over grief

As I wrote about my old career above, I still felt sadness even though it has been a good decade since I walked away. I always will feel sadness – a sense of grief over what was left behind and over potential unrealised. That grief no longer predominates my thinking, feeling, and reacting, as it did for the first two years when I had to go through each day staring into the hole that had once been filled by my former life. The hole is still there, but I am not compelled to look into it anymore. I have learnt to shift my gaze onto different but now equally compelling new things.

The activity generated by rehearsing, performing, researching, collaborating, producing, project managing, choreographing, networking, imagining, dreaming…. these things were suddenly gone. For three decades of my life, they had been the focus of my energy, the thing around which I had built my identity. I ripped them out of my life.

Wiser people than me have identified that you never get over grief. If, following the radical absence of something important you feel a stage of acute grief, then you may move past that (and how long this takes will vary from person to person) but you never get over the sense of loss. This is not as gloomy as it sounds. For, while you may never get over your sense of loss, you learn to live with it, or alongside it. And you can recover your capacity to experience joy, inspiration, connection. You can fall in love with someone or something else, differently but meaningfully.

Actually, I think a healthy grieving process not only does not hinder this, I think it helps you to find this renewed capacity. I think of grieving as a process of adjustment – such a prosaic word for such an intense experience. But grief is a rich experience if an uncomfortable one. In a tweet, Paula Crosby described it as “a horrible freeing experience,” and it is. The challenges and gifts of grief allow you to come to terms with how something that occupied a position of influence in your life just suddenly isn’t there anymore. It can offer you realisations and insights about what that something meant to you and, in so doing, allow you to absorb, shift, learn, reflect on, and create a new life…

 

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

You can buy The next day here.

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.

What is grief?

What is grief?

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’.

What do you think grief is?

I think that most people have a limited idea as to what grief, exactly, is. And this makes it hard to grieve.

A lot of people out there conflate grief with depression, which it isn’t (or not necessarily). A lot of people think that you only find yourself in grief when someone you love dies. Again, this is not necessarily true.

When I lost my mother last year, I was struck – and irritated – by how many people seemed to call upon me to behave like a sentient Hallmark card, weeping decorously (but only at what they deemed to be appropriate moments) and uttering gooey platitudes in her memory. But only for a certain duration; three months seemed to be the upper limit that they would allow me to react to the sudden death of my parent. None of this aligned with how I needed to feel, when, and for how long.

Many years ago, when I gave up a career in the performing arts, no one seemed to expect me to feel grief at all. It even took me a while to figure out what was happening. The mood swings, the deep sadness over a decision that, after all, I had made and owned as healthy, the strange indecisiveness and ennui – I initially didn’t understand that all this was a sort of grief over the loss of a vocation around which I had centred my energies since my adolescence.

I have noticed, too, that when I come across other people who have had a loss and who are subscribing to that three-month limit where, apparently, there is some sort of psychic barrier beyond which grief doesn’t ‘happen’ for people, and I ask “are you in grief?” they will answer “Nope. I don’t feel grief. I’m just cranky all the time, can’t concentrate, don’t have any energy, and I can’t sleep. But I’m not feeling grief.”

Grief isn’t one emotion; it is a whole range of experiences that can permeate your life.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be” ~ Joan Didion

In one of his Red Files, Nick Cave writes:

“In the end, grief is an entirety. It is doing the dishes, watching Netflix, reading a book, Zooming friends, sitting alone or, indeed, shifting furniture around.”

In her advice column, What to do when you lose a dog, Blair Braverman writes:

“When it feels too painful to exist, knowing that Kelsey is gone, all you can do is distract yourself until time passes. Watch movies. Do things that require concentration, like playing an instrument or practicing a sport. Now isn’t the time for long, silent walks—unless long, silent walks are what you need. You could volunteer at an animal shelter or you could avoid other dogs completely. Whatever you need to do, sob or paint or run, is the right thing to do.”

Both of these writers – sharing their thoughts in quite different contexts – are saying the same thing. Do what you have to do. The Beyond Blue website advises “There is no right or wrong way to grieve….” Too true, although for the sheer poetry of it I turn to Nick Cave’s words “grief is all things reimagined through the ever emerging wounds of the world.”

 

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

You can buy The next day here.

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.

Has your sector imploded?

Has your sector imploded?

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

“Ruins prove, at the least, that someone has been there. When your life is in ruins, look for yourself among them. Then restore yourself.” ~ JD Landis

“The purpose of grief is to help you reweave the story of your life together.” ~ Art Markman and Michelle Jack

Has your sector imploded? Did you lose access to it, or your place in it, due to lockdown or redundancy? Are there widespread job cuts, not just in your organisation, but sector-wide?

Have you lost your place in the world?

If you work in the arts sector you may have seen your entire industry enter a shut down that may last months or years. You may be one of many thousands of arts workers who is not eligible for the JobKeeper subsidy; you may be wondering how on earth you are going to make a living.

The university sector is also struggling. If you work in that sector you may have seen your future possible career path disappear. I know researchers or sessional teachers who believe that they may never work in academia again. Professional staff have also been adversely affected.

Perhaps you work in another sector that has undergone a seismic shift in the way it operates, leaving you either out of work or in fear of that.

Losing a job is bad enough; people struggle with loss of income, identity, purpose, and opportunity. But in this recession, and with the challenge of living with the coronavirus for an indeterminate amount of time, people are dealing with an economy that is shifting and changing. Some people are dealing with not just a loss of a role, but with the loss of a career, a vocational pathway, or access to a sector.

How this affects people will vary depending on the individual, their temperament, their levels of resilience, and the conditions to which they are responding. Some may be devastated. Some may be resigned. Some may even be liberated. Some may be feeling a mixture of things or may be too shocked or numb to know how to think and feel about this unprecedented change right now.

People are in grief.

Many people will be feeling overwhelmed. Many people will be craving the opportunity to make sense of all this.

Sense-making can take time and reflection…

Do you have that?

Or is life crowding in: your kids need you; your ageing parents need you; your co-workers who have also lost their jobs keep talking at you; you have to find a way of paying the rent next month.

Our government keeps urging us all to ‘snap back’ to ‘normal’, whatever the hell normal is these days. Do you feel like snapping back? Or do you feel like hiding under a doona?

If people are dealing with overwhelming reactions to the grief or fear of losing a vocation then their need to process this will be out of alignment with the demands of an economy and societal culture that insists that they get on and earn some money.

People are being placed in a position where they urgently need to make big, far-reaching decisions about how they use their time, energies, and skills to earn a living; they may not be in a state of mind that lends itself to making snap decisions.

The need to grieve versus the need to pursue revenue: These things require different energies and could conflict. This may well be irresolvable; there is no magic bullet. But I think it helps to be mindful of your state of grief, and how it might be informing the way you are thinking about your future relationship to work…

 

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

You can buy The next day here.

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:on isolation and islands

Solitary mind:on isolation and islands

“No man is an island”, John Donne famously wrote.

When I looked up the etymology of ‘island’ I was surprised to find that it has a different etymology to the word ‘isle’: ‘island’ has roots in Old English; it has always meant land surrounded by water. ‘Isle’ traces its ancestry back to the Latin  insula, which meant ‘island’.

Insula also features in the etymology of our modern word ‘insular’, which traveled from meaning ‘pertaining to or of an island’ in the 1600s to ‘being cut off from other people’ in the 1700s.

The other word that can trace its roots back to insula is ‘isolated’:

“standing detached from others of its kind”, 1740, a rendering into English of French isolé “isolated” (17c.), from Italian isolato, from Latin insulatus “made into an island,” from insula “island.”

(From etymonline.com)

Another etymology I am interested in is that of the world ‘alone.’ Its meaning hasn’t altered at all in its history; it has always meant to be by one’s self, solitary. What I love about it though – what I find quite poetic – is that our modern spelling of alone is a contraction of all ane from the Old English all ana.

All one. By your own and one self. Wholly alone.

Recently, we have all been in lockdown. Some of us have been squished into living quarters shared with flatmates or family members. So, isolated from the world at large but far from being wholly alone. Some people have been living by themselves; whether or not this solitude has been glorious or something akin to solitary confinement will have depended upon the person experiencing it and the conditions under which they were isolated.

Donne wrote “No man is an island” in the winter of 1623, while he was recovering from a life threatening illness. In the spiritual aloneness of a near-death experience, he wrote a reflective prose work of which this is one part:

“No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”

All of us, whether hunkered down in little groups or all-one, will have been aware of our society grappling with the Coronavirus beyond the four walls of our accommodation; our isolation has happened in the context of a communal emergency. Domestically, we have been functioning as little self-contained home units; we are islands. Some people have been able to sense themselves as islands belonging to a nation; some will have lost the sense of this. How are we to reconnect with them? Why might they find it hard to maintain a sense of belonging?

Involved in mankind.

Donne was able to contextualise his individual illness and possible death as a universal experience. We have all been forced to isolate from each other, but this has been in the name of a societal – as well as individual – good. People are talking about the fact that our world has irrevocably changed because of the pandemic, that things will never return to normal. That’s fine with me; the ‘old normal’ all too often operated as if everyone was all one, was not a piece of something larger. I’d like a ‘new normal’ where we all consider ourselves to be “involved in mankind.” Where no man is an island.

3ef79fcb549aaa050368fc6d1481dc52

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

From Devotions upon Emergent Occassions and severall steps in my Sicknes, Meditation 17, written in the winter of 1623.

(Donne’s original spelling and punctuation)

Solitary mind: quality of energy

Solitary mind: quality of energy

vincent-van-gogh-sunflowers-1887
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

 

2020: quite a year! How are you feeling? Was lockdown an opportunity to get in touch with your creativity or did the stresses and demands of the year block it? I help people to reflect on their sense of creativity and nurture confidence in their creative process. If you are trying to get a handle on it all then why not contact me to find out about my mentoring services?

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: The creativity and resilience loop

Solitary mind: The creativity and resilience loop

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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.

2020: quite a year! How are you feeling? Was lockdown an opportunity to get in touch with your creativity or did the stresses and demands of the year block it? I help people to reflect on their sense of creativity and nurture confidence in their creative process. If you are trying to get a handle on it all then why not contact me to find out about my mentoring services?

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.

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.