Necessary evils: grief and dealing with ‘The Establishment’

Necessary evils: grief and dealing with ‘The Establishment’

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

‘Working for the man.’

‘Day job’.

‘Wage slave’.

‘Death and taxes’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Grief and having to do stuff

Grief and having to do stuff

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

Time management versus energy management.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

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.

Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

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

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what…

 

… Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

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

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

I must lie down where all the ladders start

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, he’s not here.

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

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

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

“Players and painted stage took all my love

And not those things they were emblems of.”

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

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

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Pride, grief, and work

Pride, grief, and work

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

An obstacle to re-building, and then articulating, a sense of vocation can be when an ignominious or startling exit from work has hurt your pride. In writing this section, when I talk about ‘pride’ I am referring to the right sort of pride that arises out of a healthy ego, not a sort of vanity. For obvious reasons, hurt pride can make it difficult for someone to reinvent their personal brand. Someone whose pride has been hurt spends their time looking over their psychic shoulder, trying to pick out whispers and finger-pointing, waiting for jeers and cruel exposure.

During the current economic downturn, some sectors are experiencing such a drastic upheaval that many of their workers are being cast off with little warning. People who had enjoyed secure (or apparently secure) careers have found themselves being churned through brutal redundancy processes. Contractors in the arts industry who could point to years of consistent gigging suddenly found their projects cancelled overnight. Artists, academics, professional staff, technical crew, and many other types of workers found themselves unceremoniously dumped while their sectors collapsed around them.

Nobody likes to be made to feel expedient. We all need to feel special. Fair enough – we all are special, each of us with unique mixtures of qualities, skills, talents, experience, and knowledge. Where we are all the same is that each of us needs some measure of security – emotional, psychological, material – to be able to thrive. When our place in the economy – whether that be as an employee or one of the self-employed – is terminated, then our expedient status is made clear to us. It hurts, because those unique and wonderful skills, talents, and qualities are treated as if they can be jettisoned as excess tonnage, thrown overboard. And it’s scary because, with future income unsecured and our work status ‘cancelled’, our sense of security is undermined.

This state of affairs is bad enough, but if how we are cast adrift is particularly brutal, shocking, or cursory then – alongside our insecurity and psychological pain – we have to deal with hurt pride. It’s the curdled icing on top of a poisonous cake. Given the horrifying prevalence of workplace bullying, some people may have taken on board psychosocial damage – including injured self-esteem – even before this whole pandemic lockdown era wreaked havoc on our economy. Which means that alongside possible feelings of relief and liberation from the bully (and – remember – feelings of relief and liberation can be manifestations of grief) the hurt their pride receives from being chucked out of work could compound the hurt their pride had already received from bullying.

Another attack on the professional pride of some workers in some sectors can come from the attitudes of the society around them, including from official figures such as politicians, or prominent figures in the media or business. The arts industry has been one of the hardest hit in Australia during lockdown, with staggering numbers of arts workers cut off from income – whether that be in the form of salaries, sales, commissions, or fees – and, due to lockdowns and social distancing requirements, unable to access the forums, venues, and the networks they need to be viable. Last December, in a cabinet reshuffle, the federal government arts portfolio was absorbed into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications; the word ‘Arts’ was left out of the portfolio name altogether. For years, the arts sector has been systematically defunded by our government and the JobKeeper income support scheme was designed in such a way that many arts workers were ineligible for it, despite there being an obvious need for them to be able to access it.

Speaking of JobKeeper, the government retrospectively changed its governing policy three times to block universities from being able to access it, despite universities also being extremely badly affected by pandemic lockdowns. This came on the back of years of adverse policymaking from the government in the area of higher education.

Public universities were excluded from JobKeeper. Many, many artists were excluded. Many migrants, those on temporary visas, now stuck in Australia because of logistics and money, were not eligible for help at all. Casuals who had not been with their employer for 12 months were not eligible, which had a large effect on young people and women. The list read like a rollcall of groups an unimaginative critic of the government might have predicted would be excluded: academics, artists, recent migrants, young people, women. Frydenberg, asked why artists and actors had been left out, said, ‘We had to draw the line somewhere.’” ~ Sean Kelly

Whenever the government talks about higher education, and if it talks about the arts, it does so with spin and obfuscation. It does not articulate what drives its hostility against these two sectors; speculation from others ranges from wild-eyed conspiracy theory to sober reasoning about ideology.

But to work in these sectors is to know that your government is ranged against you, that they do not value the work you do. So, in addition to hurt that may be sustained by poor conditions or culture, and alongside hurt sustained by a rude ejection from these sectors, comes the hurt of knowing that the leaders of your own society don’t want a bar of you, that they believe that your work is of no value.

“One of the utterly shitty things about this utterly shitty situation is that a significant section of the political class sees this as mission accomplished” ~ Tim Dunlop

Talking about hurt pride might sound superficial, like playground stuff, but I don’t think so. In talking about losing work, and then having to go out and secure replacement work, it is important to consider the role of self-esteem and having a sense of identity. How on earth does someone sell themselves if their ability to feel the right kind of pride in their work, their training, and the skills and values bound up in all of that has been damaged or undermined?

What leads to hurt pride in relation to work? A loss of status, an attack on reputation, not being allowed the place and time to celebrate or even be acknowledged for your achievements. With a sense of these things being lost to you, it can initially feel very hard to rebuild a narrative around what you do and its worth.

This loss of face – of pride – needs to be grieved alongside everything else. So how to do that? How to accept and feel for the loss of status, reputation, place in the world without sacrificing or damaging a more grounded sense of self in which resilience will have to be found and from which a healthy ego will have to grow?

To be continued…

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.

Grief and personal branding

Grief and personal branding

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

In the first month after my mother died, I wrote in the mess of notes that passed for a journal at the time “I’m going to let grief scrub me raw and clean.” In the months after I abandoned my performing career, and after I figured out that my strange state was a state of grief, I decided to let grief shift me about – like wading across a river with a fast current and a silty bed. I knew I was going to get to the other side but also bargained on stumbling about, falling over, and not knowing where exactly on the opposite bank I was going to scramble ashore, depending on the swiftness and power of the water.

Grief strips you bear. My late mother, as a survivor of a severe stroke, had to process grief over her altered life. She wrote a poem in which she said, “A stroke stripped off my overcoat / Although I wore it buttoned tight… left shivering in the cold hard truth / all secrecy and poses gone.”

So, yes, grief may give your sense of self-identity a wallop. The impact can be severe even if the thing being grieved over is a job, practice, or access to a sector – the loss or sudden absence of these things can, in and of themselves, be a cause of a shift in, or loss of, sense of self-identity.

Personal branding

When people lose jobs or income streams, society expects those people to hurry right on out and find themselves something to replace them. Our economy demands that we continue to pay rent and bills, and our culture has a horror of the unemployed.

A key strategy in job-searching or business development is personal branding, equally commonly applicable to job seekers as it is to sole-traders. We are all supposed to concoct a beguiling and commodified persona that will ‘sell’ us to employers, customers and clients.

I will readily admit that I actually enjoy a good branding exercise; it appeals to the ex-theatre maker in me. I’ve always associated branding with dramaturgy – bringing different visual, textual, spatial, thematic, and social elements together to express an idea. Good branding should make manifest core values. This is why bad branding is so irritating and off-putting – it’s a mendacious attempt to spin something rather than to express authenticity.

The challenge for someone who is still in acute grief – perhaps even shock – over the sudden loss of a source of work and income is that there will be pressure for that someone to cobble together a beaming shiny-toothed personal brand to sell themselves to the work market. And that someone might just not feel like it. More pressing still, that someone might be going through a grieving process during which they are questioning and sorting through a shift in values, sense of self, or worldview. This can be a harrowing process for some people, an inspiring one for others, or a mixture of both for others still. It’s not easy, but it is important and needs time and focus. What to do when a need for material security – realised by finding new work – itself demands time and focus? And what happens when that time and focus has to be invested into a personal branding exercise that is essentially an act to impress employers or prospects, but which leaves no room for acknowledgement, let alone processing, of the disorientation and perhaps even despair of losing a vocation?

This conflict is hard to resolve and may well be irresolvable for many people who are grieving.

If you find yourself feeling conflict between your need to grieve and your need to hit the hustings and rustle up some cash, analyse what your inner conflict is about. Sometimes grief can highlight – with almost brutal clarity – the things that matter to us in the shape of things we become aware of missing acutely, and other things we are happy to let slide. In other words, grief can help us become hyper-aware of our values. If we find these values in conflict with the way in how we perceive the world wants us to be in the job market, then the conflict we feel has actually amplified the importance of these values to us. And good branding is based on articulating values. Perhaps, then, this feeling of conflict – as awful as it is – can be reframed as a good place to start building a brand that is authentic to you.

Being aware of feeling grief is important; it is important not to let a feeling of malaise colour your long-term sense of potential, both for yourself and for the opportunities the new post-COVID normal may present you with. Keep reminding yourself that what you are feeling is grief; it is not your long-term reality.

Where is your sense of identity at right now? Is it being reclaimed, reformed, protected, or undermined? Is there a point to having a personal brand if you are not yet sure what services you will be offering? Yes! You can start assembling networks of allies and potential clients – focus on manifesting your values. Find conversations you enjoy having, and people you enjoy having them with, and then analyse why you enjoy having them. What you discover will become the foundation of a new narrative…

 

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.

Grief, identity, and your story

Grief, identity, and your story

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

If you have been cut off from your sector by job loss or pandemic shutdown of your sector’s activity, you may be in the position of having to find new income streams, either to tide you over until your sector opens back up or because you may never be able to go back to your old way of working and, therefore, need a new career.

You may be caught in limbo: accepting, at least intellectually, that you do need a new career or a totally different way of pursuing your vocation, but unsure – unable to visualise – what this might be. So, in the meantime, with rent and bills needing to be paid and wolves kept from doors, you need some kind of a temporary job.

This will mean hitting the jobs market and / or developing a new client base. For those who have lost access to a whole sector or way of working, this could mean exploring new sectors and, correspondingly, new vocabularies, trends, and dynamics.

This will mean constructing a whole new way of building a compelling narrative around your transferable skills, talents, qualities, experience, and education. If the new sectors you are exploring are quite different in culture to the one you have been cast out of then this will be like learning a new language and a different mode of storytelling.

This can be challenging, perhaps daunting or perhaps novel, depending on your disposition or the conditions under which you are having to function. If you are experiencing grief, then this will add a whole new dimension:

How do you find out what your new narrative should look like?

How do you define your ‘audience’ in your new sector?

Do you perceive that new audience as giving a stuff? Will they understand your history or know enough about your past work or sector to assign value to your skills, or are you going to have to build in narrative elements that ‘translate’ your story into terms they understand?

Is this ability to translate going to be coloured by your feelings of grief? Inflected by negativity, loss of confidence, numbness, recklessness, or anxiety? Or do you feel liberated, unburdened, excited by the possibility of a new life?

Do you feel orphaned by the sudden disappearance of your role and your sector? Have you been jolted out of a context you could easily articulate, and are suddenly having to seek out and perform in quite different forums?

How has your grief impacted the way you feel about yourself, or your place in the world?

Has your grief affected your ability to even see yourself clearly? Is there anyone who can help you with this? Do you need a reality check, expert advice, or reassurance and comforting?

Do you feel bold, confident, or clear-minded? Sometimes grief serves to strip away the dross and gifts us with a heightened awareness of what is superficial and what is important. This could be a help when it comes to fashioning a new narrative about yourself and what you have to offer…

 

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.

Grief and perceptions of risk

Grief and perceptions of risk

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Grief affects how people perceive risk-taking in their lives.

Some people feel raw and vulnerable, disorientated and uncertain. Grief can make them more risk-averse than usual. They want to creep under their doona and hide from life until they can grow a new layer of skin and feel the ground steady under their feet.

Other people can feel as if nothing’s worth caring for anymore because everything’s hopeless. “Fuck it,” they say, “I’ve lost the love of my life. I don’t care what happens to me now. I might as well go and join the Foreign Legion.” Because these people have lost something of great value to them, they feel bereft of value. Risk-taking means nothing because life has become meaningless.

Then there are other people who meditate on how nothing ever stays the same, how everything will change and evolve, that life is fleeting. These people find liberation in their grief; they stop wasting time on superficialities and divest themselves of what is trivial. They discover what is of value. What they choose to preserve or play safe with, and what they choose to take calculated risks on, is recalibrated.

In your grief do you feel bereft or liberated? Both these things carry vulnerabilities; how do you perceive these?

Risk is fluid and our sense of where risk lies and how willing we are to take it ebbs and flows through different parts of our lives. How has your sense of risk – what constitutes a danger and how likely that is to happen – changed over the last two to three months, or since whenever it was that you lost your job or vocation?

If you are more risk-averse, what can you do to counter that? Are there things you can do to inspire you? Reflective practices you can undertake to help you understand the nature of any fears or doubts you might have? People who make you feel supported? Or are your instincts telling you that have been left raw by loss, that you do, in fact, need to hide from the world – not permanently but just until everything stops feeling so abrasive.

If you have become more reckless – of the ‘fuck it, who cares’ variety of recklessness – then what can you do to counter that? What was it about the now-absent set of conditions that anchored you, or gave you parameters, or grounded instincts? Are you able to set up some markers to warn you if you are about to cause some damage to yourself? Or are there any wise owls in your network you can use as a sounding board?

“I distinguish between “fear” and “risk”. One can be afraid when not at risk, and at risk but not afraid.” ~ Robert MacFarlane

Is your grief making you more fearful than usual, or more numb to danger? This can be hard to spot or track if your grief overwhelms you. You may be prone to being triggered by strong emotions: anger or resentment that makes you want to lash out; anxiety or insecurity that can have you jumping at small noises.

Each person will be different in the way in which they respond to the stimuli present in their lives as they process grief. Denying emotion is unhealthy. So too is nurturing hypersensitivity because you find yourself harbouring the strong feelings and reactions of grief. Perhaps the answer lies in an awareness that you are in grief, that it is an important force in your life right now, but that it does not define you or your future.

 

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.