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.

Get out your magic wand…

Get out your magic wand…

And let’s play fairy godmother.

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 could have any future – any future at all – what would it look like?

In answering this, consider the following questions:

  • Do you find this difficult – impossible, even – to answer right now?
  • Is the answer you can give right now different to the one you might have given pre-lockdown? Why?
  • Has the answer stayed the same, but shifted from something that felt real – achievable – to feeling like a fantasy or a pipe dream?
  • Does dreaming big make you feel foolish, rebellious, subversive… or hopeful and excited?

Your answers to the above questions will, of course, reflect the reality of the conditions you are currently dealing with in your life. But they may also be a reflection of how grief is inflecting the way you feel able to take stock of your present and envision your future. Perhaps refer back to the list of the symptoms of grief listed elsewhere in these notes and ask yourself if some of the reactions or feelings listed are unduly colouring your ideas about what you are able or even entitled to expect from the future.

Bear in mind, too, that sometimes grief doesn’t cloud our perceptions but instead gifts us with extraordinary clarity. After my mother died last year, I had to deal with feelings of sadness and pity, brain fog (confusion, poor short-term memory), and extraordinary physical tiredness. To deal with these things and still function so that the rent got paid, I became ruthless in blocking out any non-essential activity or obligation in my life so that I could preserve energy for things that were vital to my wellbeing. What was interesting to me was that what I considered to be essential or nonessential shifted from before Mum’s death. Things I was pumping energy into before she died, and which I felt guilty about leaving undone, suddenly became easy to chuck. And the world didn’t end when I did jettison them. As disorientated as I was in my emotions, and as stupid as I was in my day-to-day thinking, I felt that grief gave me the ability to understand what I had been wasting time on and what felt really important to me; I could reset priorities. Perhaps in considering the provocations above, you could also detect a shift in priorities or insights into your needs?

And if you couldn’t? Or if you tried to peer into the future and found your plans are starting to fade, tarnish, or disappear?

  • It is valid to feel shock and grief, and
  • It is valid to have no idea what to do next,
  • It is valid to live for a while bereft of ambition, goals, objectives…
  • BUT think about how you are going to sustain your psychological wellbeing while you do sit in this difficult but potentially liberating state of unknowing.

Sitting in a place of uncertainty is something most humans are bad at, although – I’m speaking to you arts people here – I think that creative thinkers are better at it than most. Uncertainty is a rich hunting ground for people who like to play with ‘what if?’

The COVID-19 associated economic slump has seen many people lose not just jobs or income streams but access to whole sectors; people’s dreams for the future, their ambitions and vocational trajectories have been truncated with shocking abruptness. This, of itself, may be an active cause of grief for some folks. It may take people time to rebuild a pathway forward or an idea as to what they are travelling towards. Feelings of grief may seem to complicate this state, but they are also understandable and, I would argue, essential. You have a right to grieve your lost future. One lost potential future, anyway. Grieving is difficult to undergo, to bear, but it is the process by which you adjust to this loss. And even if you can’t see it, there is another future waiting for you. It might even be better than the one you had originally envisaged…

 

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.

Necessity and futility

Necessity and futility

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’.

Plans are important because they make the ground feel firm under our feet. They map out a possible way forward. In the absence of planning, life just becomes one long crapshoot. Plans are necessary because they help us to get started. They start us off on a trajectory.

Ultimately, plans are exercises in futility. All plans will change; no plan is impervious to the forces of fate.

Redundancy: A terrifying word for many people, when applied to employment. In this note, I don’t want to dwell on the idea of redundancy in the context of people and their jobs. I want to talk about plans, and what makes them redundant.

Some of you reading this will have been made redundant from your jobs. Due to the sudden downturn in the economy because of COVID-19 and the lockdowns, some of you will have seen not just your role disappear in the organisation you happened to be working in, but in all other organisations in your sector. My ex-colleagues in the arts sector saw their sector close down almost literally overnight. In March of this year, arts advocate Esther Anatolitis wrote:

“In the past fortnight, we have seen our self-generated income for the year vanish. Work that has taken years to develop has been lost. Livelihoods have been jeopardised. Businesses closed…. The scale of loss across the cultural and creative sector is unprecedented – and devastating.”

An article in The Conversation, comments that many arts workers are grieving having seen “a lifetime’s commitment evaporate.” It is not just jobs that have been made redundant, but whole life plans or career paths have been made redundant too. Blasted out of the water.

So, I want to talk about the redundancy of plans.

When a plan that you have lavished years of thought, sweat, guts, and hope into is suddenly disrupted it hurts. It can be bewildering, dismaying, frightening, frustrating. It can be a cause of grief and deserves to be grieved if the plan was something you had layered physical, creative, intellectual, emotional, or psychological effort around.

But, alongside this natural and valid grief, perhaps it is helpful to consider a paradoxical thing that is a signifier of all good plans. Please bear with me for a digression over the next couple of paragraphs.

Good (by which I mean useful or effective) plans are prone to being made redundant. In his article, The end of winning: Why future belongs to losers, entrepreneur Tim Leberecht says “That three-year plans are a thing of the past the very moment they are written.”

Why? In part, because the better a plan is, the more it carries its own seeds of redundancy.

Truly effective plans start changing conditions once they start being implemented. How fast or slowly they change things, and whether that change is incremental or radical, will depend on the plan, its objectives, and the conditions under which it is being delivered. But good plans do change things. And as soon as conditions surrounding the plan are changed by the implementation of that plan, then that original plan starts to become redundant – an artifact of the old (now changed) conditions it was originally formulated to deal with. This is why, when planning, it is important to mindfully monitor progress and to be prepared to allow your plans to evolve and change, to embed space and contingencies around an inevitable shift in your planning process.

But what if you didn’t choose change?

If your job has been lost due to an economic downturn, then that is not change you chose or which the implementation of your plans brought about. If your sector has shrunk to the extent that you may not be able to return to your old way of working within it, then that is not change that you implemented. Your original plans for your career have been made redundant, along with your job. And this is not a redundancy that organically arose out of the effectiveness of your own plan, but a redundancy that has been imposed by overwhelming external events. This is why the forced redundancy of your plan hurts, why it feels like a body blow, why it has a psychic violence. This is why grief is understandable: the potential of your own plan to change itself, to seed its own evolution, has been cut short and you will not be able to see that plan through to fruition. You are forced to make a new plan, maybe in conditions which none of us understands yet (and which are probably still in a state of flux) while coming to terms with the sudden loss of the old one.

This is hard. I wonder – I hope – it is of some small comfort in your grief to bear in mind that redundancy is a hidden feature of plans – if your old plan had been allowed to continue to flow it would have made itself redundant, anyway, sooner or later.

This may be cold comfort if you are feeling awful at having been forced out of your industry.

“Suspension: The Stoics, echoed by the phenomenologists, called it “epokhē.” It’s what happens when the object of your intention is taken away and you’re left with the pure structure of intending. Life feels more like that every day.” ~ Haun Saussy

Living with this “pure structure of intending” is hard, for it is living in a kind of limbo, which seems to draw on a lot of energy just to enable that suspension. But this floating state is necessary, and not to be confused with a state of stasis. Your plan – that list of actions – might have disintegrated, but your structure of intending doesn’t have to. And it is out of that state of suspension, which is another way in which grief can make itself manifest, that more tangible aims will start to form.

In his Red Files, Nick Cave writes:

“Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption.”

Cave is talking about sensing the dead – as spirits or dreams or memories – but, with apologies to him – I am going to borrow his words to talk about dead plans and the ideas that lay behind them.

Let your grief over your devastated plans remind you of your original intentions. Use your time in suspension to re-examine them. Will you carry them forward and find new ways of realising them? Or would you prefer to find new sources of inspiration? You may not feel that you have a lot of agency right now, but you do, at least, have the power to do that…

 

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.

Understand what it is you are grieving

Understand what it is you are grieving

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’.

This probably sounds like a dumb thing to say, a statement of the bleeding obvious. But when a person or thing is suddenly absent from your life then whatever it is that made that person or thing so central to your life is whatever will influence the way you grieve, and what you grieve for.

The absence of a person or thing that was straightforwardly loved for the meaning and joy that it brought into someone’s life will engender feelings of sadness and loss. The absence of an entity that occupied a central part of someone’s life, but which was toxic in influence – like an abusive parent or a lousy job – may engender feelings of relief that feel great, but which are so strong that they could actually be disorientating for a while. Many of us have complex relationships with the things our lives are built around, and it’s quite possible to feel a mixture of things: sadness for lost potential, relief over the absence of conflict, a reclamation of energy or hope, or the undermining of a sense of identity.

When I gave up my performing career, I made the mistake of thinking my actual ability to be creative was dead. By the time I walked away, I had been bereft of inspiration for a couple of years during which I struggled to come up with ideas or material. I seemed to have poor judgement and little focus. Periods of rest didn’t help; working through it didn’t help. I wasn’t blocked so much as empty. Having struggled for so long and in such difficult conditions, I thought I had finally completely burnt out that part of me that made creative work, cauterised it, flogged it to death. Walking away from performance made me sad, but it also made me feel relieved. I could stop pretending to be something I no longer was, even if the loss of that something – of the potential I had once believed was mine – was heartbreaking.

I set off into a future that was filled with uncertainty and, correspondingly, anxiety. But I also felt unburdened by my former demanding and failing vocation. I set myself the task of learning how to be a person who was no longer creative. (I know this sounds mad but it’s how I honestly felt).

So, I made a far-reaching decision based on a mistake. Fortunately for me, the decision turned out to be a healthy one. Alongside my grief, and in the absence of any vocational demands, I rediscovered a sense of resilience, curiosity, playfulness. I regained energy. I started blogging, just for fun, but in playing with words and ideas it suddenly struck me that I was being creative. I have a clear memory of the moment I realised this: I was sitting on my couch in my flat in Northcote, my laptop propped up in front of me, it was daytime, the sun was coming through the window. The thing I had thought was dead was merely dormant, waiting until the conditions in my life shifted.

I was right in walking away from that earlier career; it was draining the life out of me. It had shifted from being a source of joy and purpose to being a burden that was breaking me. But, in my ensuing grief, I was mistaken about what it was I was in grief for. And part of the reason I made this mistake was because it took me quite a long time before I knew myself to be in grief. Once I accepted that I was grieving I accepted the presence in my life of strong and / or odd feelings and reactions. I got out of my own way: I stopped telling myself that I was defective in purpose or creativity and reminded myself that I was in grief.

In my grief, I had to accept living uncertain of the future (an excellent life skill, as it turns out, that has kept sustaining me through various challenges to this day). My sense of identity was challenged: if I wasn’t a performer or choreographer, then who or what was I? Well, it turned out, I was me, irrespective of those things. I had to come to terms with a loss of potential joy: I would never develop further as a dancer; I would never make beautiful choreography again. This was sad, but the reality was I had grown to hate the miasma of fatigue that settled over me whenever I walked into the rehearsal room. This is the stuff I actually ended up grieving for when I stopped performing, not the loss of creativity that I initially assumed I would have to come to terms with.

I discovered that being creative is something that never actually left me. I had just ended up living a life that – with its poverty, competitiveness, and physical and emotional exhaustion – had blocked it. And it was that life that had to die, not that essential part of me.

I am not writing this to persuade anyone to give up on their vocation, unless, like me, that vocation has morphed from being the bliss you followed into a nightmare. I am writing this to illustrate that, in a state of heightened grief, it can be easy to make assumptions about your relationship to your essential self and the way you express that vocationally.

If you recognise that you are in grief, open up a conversation with yourself about what it is you are grieving. I misdirected my energies into grieving a part of myself that, now, I don’t think can die, just manifest differently. I needed to grieve the death of a way of life that was truly ready to die in that I needed to free myself from it.

What has died in your life? A vocation that has outlived its resonance with you? Or is it a way of pursuing that vocation? Has your sector been overturned in such a way that your potential to thrive within that particular sector is what has died, rather than the abilities your sense of potential was based on?

Understanding very specifically what it is you are grieving can help you gain perspective on the instincts that hover when you come to make decisions as to what you want to do next. It can help you understand what values are at play in your psyche, and whether you want them there or not.

As much as grief challenged me, it also changed me and bolstered me. Grief may overwhelm at first, but it can open up new ways of living that are different to, but as important as, the things that are no longer there…

 

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.