Agency and identity


I got called wholesome yesterday. I was speaking with a guy I used to work with, telling him about the latest developments. He encouraged me to go out and look for another job, telling me that I had a lot to offer. Then he dropped the W-word. That was one of my strengths, he said.

I’m pretty definite that no one has ever called me wholesome before. In my own mind, I have a picture of the wholesome type, rosy-cheeked, straight as a die and ever courteous. It doesn’t entirely gel with my conception of myself – I’m not rosy-cheeked to start with. And while I’m courteous, I’m also blunt and assertive, opinionated and occasionally sarcastic.

I figured he meant it in a particular way – honest, well-mannered and of good character. I’m happy to accept those traits – I am well-mannered because it was how I was brought up to be, and I believe in being honest. And I recognise that there’s a side of me that a lot of mothers would love to have their daughter bring home – polite, respectful and with reassuringly measured intelligence. And I come from a good family 😉

But all of us are a complex combination of qualities that are in perpetual motion, shifting according to circumstance and environment. We all try to project a persona, often different depending on who we’re with – and then there’s the view we have of ourselves. Often, I think, that’s at great odds with how the world sees us.

You have to wonder why it matters. It’s an indulgence, but it’s all a piece of the human frailty all of us possess. It’s what drives us on, though, what fuels our expectations and gives rise to the decisions that we make. It becomes our identity, but without that, who are we?

Case in point is the situation I find myself in at work currently. I’m aggrieved because I believe I’m being short-changed, symptomatic of a lack of respect – or so I reckon. There are practical considerations in that – I need more money, and I deserve it – but there’s also the ego and deeper psychological scarring at play.

I referred yesterday to how this has been a trigger event for me. As my first bitter emotions subsided, I was left with a clearer idea of why it felt so personal – and it relates to the time that I was homeless.

Before I was homeless, I was confident and capable and rarely doubted my ability to succeed. I knew I was smart, but I also believed I had the will and energy to manifest destiny for myself. It may seem naive now, but I don’t think it’s uncommon. Besides, I had good reason to believe it – I had pulled myself up by my bootstraps and made a middling success of my career. Cue Jaws music.

Then, of course, everything changed, for reasons long described.

When you’re unemployed and homeless, when you’re broke and rely on the mercy of others to get by, there’s a lot that goes through your mind. It’s a real battle just to remain on an even keel – to get up in the morning and try again and believe that in the face of 99 failures, the 100th time will succeed. It’s more complex and messy than I could ever hope to describe, but I was lucky in the end that I did finally succeed in getting out of it – though it was closer to the 400th attempt.

One of the things I remember is the sense of being an outsider – banished from normal society and foreign to the comforting routines and rituals of domestic existence. I felt different from everyone and not in a good way.

A part of that is an absolute sense of powerlessness. I felt cast on the winds of fate, with little I could do to change direction. I felt invisible and irrelevant and entirely unimportant. I became very aware of how small I was, and I hated it.

When finally I got out of that situation, it was in the smallest way. I started at the bottom again, and I was relieved to have that. Gradually, I worked myself back somewhere towards where I used to be, though still well short. As that began to unfold, I felt increasing angst, reminded of how much I had lost and how different things were. More than anything else, I was frustrated by the lack of agency in my life. When you’re digging yourself out of a deep hole, the margins are small. You feel as if you could tumble back anytime, and that limits your options. Even today, I feel far distant from who I was before and still feel outside of life.

And this is why I’m triggered now. I’ve worked hard to regain something for myself, and I deserve more than what I’m being given. That’s not entitlement; that’s just plain fact. Unfortunately, what’s right and fair plays little part in the ebbs and flows of life, and you feel it most when you’re at the bottom.

I’ve been at the bottom. I’m trying to climb. All I want now is to be justly rewarded for that. Instead, I’m being denied for spurious and pragmatic business reasons. But what can I do? Once more, I have that sense of being powerless – of being exploited, in fact. It feels so wrong to me…so evil, in a way.

I guess it’s always been like this, but I was always too young or too confident to know it. Now that I’ve fallen back, I can see it and understand the deliberate nature of it. What is right comes second to what is pragmatic, and people like me – without agency – just have to cop it.

That’s why, for my self-respect, I have to get out. If I give way to it, they know they have me – and I know they have me, too. I refuse to be powerless. I’ve come this far; I can’t fall back.

So it is


I caught up for a long night of drinking on Friday with Cheeseboy and JV.

One of the first things discussed with JV is what was happening with the role I’d applied for at his work. They’d sent me an email midweek saying they’d be in touch by the end of the week, but I’d heard nothing. If you remember, I was one of the final two contenders. JV told me he’d spoken to the hiring manager during the week and been told they were going with the other candidate. They liked me plenty, but they thought I might get bored in the role – another case of being perceived as overqualified for the role.

There’s a possibility that another, more senior role, may become vacant which they’ll consider me for.

None of this is official and anything could happen still, but I’ll take this at face value.

Earlier in the day, I’d pulled the pin on a long-running project we couldn’t get over the line. The project had been on the books for 6 months, but progress had been marred by the vendor’s incompetence, issues with Facebook, and now, a looming black-out period. Underpinning all this was a general lack of faith or trust that the vendor could deliver and support a viable application.

I’ve had qualms for months but pressed on knowing that this was a priority for the business. It’s been an uncomfortable position. There was never a strong buy-in by those who would use the application, who were often unhelpful, and shared a lack of confidence in the vendor. For the last couple of months, I’ve had to push through that, but I had to make a call on Friday.

It’s not easy to terminate a project you’ve invested so much time and effort into, even if it’s unpopular. Often it’s the wisest thing you can do, however, because to deploy something you don’t believe in is asking for trouble.

I had to call up the big manager and explain the situation. I presented the facts to him, and he agreed we couldn’t go on. He sounded very disappointed, and I felt full of regret. I hung up the phone thinking it was the right call but wondering if there was anything I could have done to save it. It felt like a failure – this is the first time I’ve ever done this.

While I was on the phone with him, he asked how I was and reported that they were proceeding with what he called ‘option two’. He’d spoken to HR and the upshot – I believe – is that my role will be re-classified, and extra dollars will come my way as a result. That will be welcome, though I doubt it’ll be the full whack I’m hoping for come the next financial year.

Throughout all of this, I began to wonder if I had the wrong end of things. I don’t know why or how, but despite my disappointment at the failed project, or because of it, perhaps, I felt energised. I wanted to do more. Above all, I wanted to extend my brain cells. One of the things I miss is the opportunity to be creative. It’s something that comes easily to me and has been very beneficial in my career for many years.

These days, my role seems more to manage than to create things. I think it’s that lack of creative opportunity that has left me feeling a bit useless. Creativity is really my strong point – the ability to imagine how things connect and to put together the framework by which a little is leveraged into a lot. I felt as if the time was right for me to pitch those ideas again.

Work has little idea of this aspect of me because they’ve barely bothered to look. I can die far more than what they ask of me, and perhaps that’s the answer – to do more rather than less.

This impulse coincided with a return of my writing. I’ve barely been able to write for months. I’ve felt uninspired and unmotivated. Generally, I’ve been too flat to make an effort, and when I did, it was a grind. Then, in a hurry, it came back to me Thursday night as I lay in bed. I’d turned the light off to sleep, but as I lay there, fragments of the story I’m working on came to mind, where I embellished it lying the dark.

This is not the first time this has happened, and I know now that the trick is to put it on paper while you have it, for by morning, it will be gone. Three times then, I switched on the lamp beside my bed and scribbled down the words in my head. I felt illuminated and ultimately grateful.

By now, I know this is how it works for me. I go through writing seasons. It’s hard, and then it becomes easy, without any real understanding of why. I’m barren of ideas, even belief, and then I become fertile again without warning. So it is. So everything is.

Girding for the real world


It’s a beautiful day in Melbourne. Near perfect really. I’ve not long returned from the first walk of the new year with Cheeseboy and the dogs along the beach. The sun is bright and warm, the sky an uninterrupted blue – the sort of weather that recalls seasons past of blazing sunshine, the beach, cool drinks and barbecues.

On our return leg, we stopped at the hole in the wall cafe we often do and ordered some smoothies. We got talking to a retired couple, who were the typically well educated and amiable types that inhabit the neighbourhood. They admired the dogs and spoke of their children and the world we live in today. They told of how their globe-trotting children had returned to Melbourne to live, knowing this was the best of worlds. We all agreed how lucky we were to live in such a place, safe from so much strife and with the glories of summer upon us.

So much of this is baked into our cultural memory. I sit here in a pair of shorts with the Sydney test match on TV in the background. Later, I’ll visit a friends place for a cool beer or two and a barbecue dinner. Tomorrow is back to work.

It’s work that gives me misgivings, though it should be easier now than in years past. I’ll stay in bed until I feel right to get up, I’ll throw on a pair of shorts (36 degrees tomorrow) and wander into my home office, where I’ll flick on my work laptop for the first time in over three weeks.

I expect to take it slowly. I have no great appetite for the job. I’ve been keeping tabs on things and clearing off my emails on my phone, and have been a silent witness to a few dramas in my absence. In a way, it’s good, as it demonstrates the sort of things we must contend with regularly. But I’m jaded by it, too. All of it is so familiar as to be stale in me now. I don’t want to return to the same things, like Groundhog Day. I seek something fresh.

This break has not had the desired effect of freshening up. I hoped that both physically and psychologically, a few weeks away from the job would act as a tonic for me.

Physically, I feel drained still. I’m not sleeping as well as I should, though I suspect there is more to that than simple relaxation. My health has been up and down though it may be settling down despite another episode last week. (In the absence of a decisive diagnosis from my GP I’ve self-diagnosed myself with dyspepsia, and self-medicated myself for it).

Psychologically? I have no interest in my work. Whether it’s just the job or a general condition, I don’t know. I feel a bit cynical about the place. In the past, I would push past it. That was the difference: for years and years, no matter how I felt, I would suit up for the challenge. Now I wonder why.

I finished reading The Island Inside yesterday. I had tears in my eyes as I closed the book. There seemed so much wisdom and grace within its pages, and I realised how much I missed those things. They’re in short order worldwide, and their absence makes for existential pangs.

So much in the book evoked memories, for I have experienced nature in the raw and breathed it in. I’ve felt the spiritual curiosity and sense of communion that nature inspires when we open ourselves to it. I count myself fortunate to have had the opportunities to experience that, and the sensitivity to be aware of it.

In the vastness of life, the problem is that returning to a job such as mine feels so small. It’s not irrelevant, but it feels it. If I do it, then it’s because I must – but I can’t take it seriously.

I feel sure this is what so many feel when they a mid-life crisis encroaches upon them. I may have encountered this sooner in the normal course of events, but was distracted clinging onto the wreckage trying to survive. I have survived, more or less, and now this.

It may be a phase, but it feels true – but perhaps that’s how it works, as it does for much of life: we reach an accommodation with the truth. Ultimately, life demands pragmatism. I teeter on the edge between them, yearning for the pure air of ideal knowledge and the pragmatic need to push forward, to overcome.

I have options, at least. Let’s see what unfolds over the next few weeks. In the meantime, work must be.

A matter of conviction


One of my character flaws is that I like to control things – or, at least, be in a situation where things are controlled. It’s not hard and fast, and it applies much less to social situations than professionally. And the truth of it is that some things are best enjoyed without control by letting go – but those are rare.

I’ll feel uncomfortable sometimes when situations are confused and unmanaged. It’ll frustrate me, and if no-one steps in to take control, I’ll often do so myself. Note, it doesn’t have to be me managing things – I’m very happy for someone else to take the lead, just as long as some order is restored. In my experience, most are unwilling or uninterested in taking that part – and into that vacuum, I’ll step.

It’s one reason I find myself taking the lead in things so often, or directing the conversation. It seems convenient, as oftentimes, others are happy to fall into line once a direction has been set. I admit, there are elements of a control freak in me.

It’s much less obvious in a social setting. When everyone’s talking at once trying to decide what we’re going to do or where we’re going to go, I’ll often jump in to hush their baying voices and break the deadlock. I’ll seek consensus by leading the discussion. Generally, I’m the one who’ll go and speak to an official or organise things formally. In actual fact, it pisses me off sometimes that it’s always me, and often I’ll encourage others to do that instead. But, people fall into roles, and mine is as the organiser, for want of a better word.

On Thursday night, at the restaurant, I became frustrated by JV because I thought he was being wishy-washy. It was such a trivial thing – waiting to be led to our table – but it was the lack of decisive action that riled me. It was unreasonable and unusual, and I knew it even as I urged him, repeatedly, to do something, but it didn’t stop me from doing it.

It was a small thing and soon forgotten, but afterwards, it seemed significant. This is the sort of thing that happens when I’m under stress – it’s behaviour that is symptomatic of something deeper. In this case, I was unwell and had been feeling it for a while. I was tired, and I had other issues I was dealing with, and continue to. Basically, I’d have preferred to be home, but that’s no excuse. It’s not how I want to be.

As I do, I seek patterns. In the time since I’ve paired this moment with our tour of the vineyards on Wednesday.

Wednesday was benign, but it was also indicative. I noticed throughout the day how every winemaker was mainly addressing themselves to me. I thought that was because I was the most curious: because my gaze didn’t shift from them as they spoke and I listened to them with intent. I asked questions of them, genuinely interested. I was a good audience.

But then I realised that this was happening even as we walked in the door. I was the one that they went to first as if my presence was greater than the others. I thought, intent communicates itself. If you have a purpose, people observe it, even if they don’t consciously understand it. I was the one that entered their space boldly, and so to me, they turned.

These are probably related attributes. It’s possible to be one without the other, but I’d suggest there’s generally a high correlation between the two, as they are different aspects of the same thing.

What did I make of this? I wondered how much of this was instinctive behaviour, and the answer must be ‘most of it’. That’s important to note because I’ve been feeling very vulnerable for a while, but it appears that it’s not evident to others. In my mind, I see myself as much frailer and uncertain than ever before. It embarrasses me sometimes. Occasionally I feel a kind of shame. I feel diminished, and as if I’m a lesser man.

It tells me that how I see myself and how the world sees me are two different things. It tells me that no matter how I see myself, many of my ‘old’ behaviours persist. What then, is the truth? Is there a truth? Is it one single thing? It comes back to the question that has dogged me for a while now: who am I?

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it’s always been important that I’m strong and masculine. It’s as if that’s the persona I found suited me best as I was developing and adopted it as my own. What are the attributes of that? Calm, decisive, brave, resilient, honest, steadfast, generous, determined, perhaps a little stubborn, and with some fierceness thrown in there. They’re not a bad set of qualities to aspire to, but the point is – I needed to be that man, and any variation from it was a blow to my psyche.

That’s where I’ve found myself in recent times. For many years I think I embodied many of those virtues, though my perspective is biased. The important thing is, I believed I did. In more recent times, that belief has waned. And I guess that is at the core of my recent problems – the loss of belief, and with that, a sense of identity. I’ve lost conviction.

I guess one solution is that I could become that person again, or at least, convince myself that I was. I could go on my way blithely then, as I did for years before. I have no issue at all in becoming that person – I think he’s fundamentally a sound character, but it’s not as easy as wishing it. The important thing here is not how other people see me, but how I see myself.

The healthier solution is to remove the meaning from it. Be that man, by all means, but remove the soul-deep need to be him. In a way, this is what I’ve been trying to do for the last couple of years – to remove myself from moral need.

We’re talking about the ego, which places unreasonable expectations on us. As soon as we feel the need to be something, or be seen as something, then our ego has us in its sway. It’s human nature that we are subject to its claims. Such is vanity. But are we fully ourself if a tyrant within us demands all for itself? I see it in others sometimes, am embarrassed for them, and wonder what others see in me.

I don’t know how to do this – how to separate myself from my ego. I’m sure it can’t be done completely – the ego has a role – but I’m guessing that recognising the need for change is a good start.

This is an ongoing challenge, but if I’m to find peace, something that must be overcome. I won’t always be well behaved, but if I’m to find my way I feel sure humility is a key to it.

New year, but…


I guess the news here is that Covid is back in Victoria. Not a great surprise, even after 61 days being free from it. It came from Sydney, where the outbreak has been awfully mismanaged – though unmanaged might be a better descriptor. It was almost inevitable, especially at this time of year, that the virus would make it’s way over the border and infect us once again.

There’s a lot of cranky Victorians today. Most of their anger is directed at Gladys, who has failed to mandate mask-wearing in Sydney as the outbreak continued to spread. Her communication has been unclear and wishy-washy, and often at odds with itself. Watching from this side of the border, Melburnians have been wringing their hands and exhorting them to make mask-wearing compulsory, and tighten restrictions – even lockdown. (They haven’t because of brand management, I suspect, and because Gladys is too weak to stand up to the PM – I feel sure that NSW is following his directives.)

Too late for that now, though had the NSW government acted with more certitude sooner I suspect this would all be over by now. As it is, it’s out in the community and spreading across the nation. Borders are closing again, naturally, and restrictions tightening.

So far, there are eight reported cases of community infection in Victoria. The source is a returned traveller from Sydney, and it caught hold in a Thai restaurant only a few kilometres from where I live – and about eighty metres from where I had dinner last night, in Black Rock.

All this had an impact on New Years eve plans. I wasn’t planning a big one anyway, but after the news yesterday there was no way I was going to attend a crowded bar or pub, as was the plan for later in the night. As it was, we had a good dinner, returned to someones home for a drink, and I left a little after 11 – I was in bed with the light off at 11.35. So much for the new year.

I’m hardly upset by that. I don’t feel obliged to celebrate just because of the date. Today will be an easy day.

It’s common to reflect at the start of a new year, and there’s more to reflect on now than most years. I have no resolutions but for general intentions. My biggest priority is to get myself healthy, physically and mentally.

Physically, it’s a worry. There are two issues. Firstly, sleep. I used to an Olympic standard sleeper, but it’s gone way off over the last 6-9 months. I hoped this break would help, but it hasn’t. I stay longer in bed, but I sleep no better, and oftentimes, my sleep is diabolical. It leaves me weary all the time and generally lethargic. I don’t know what to do.

More concerning is my digestion or metabolism or whatever it is. I reported a while back at how bloated I was feeling – well, nothing has improved. If anything, it’s got worse. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling, as most of you will know. It’s got so bad that every time I eat it ratchets up as if I’ve just consumed a big three course meal.

Imagine that – the feeling you have after a big Christmas dinner perhaps, unbuttoning your pants to ease the strain and finding a good seat to vegetate in undisturbed while your meal is digested. That’s okay, you’ve earned that, and it’s only a few days a year you get to feel it – except, for me, I feel it every time I eat now. It’s as if my stomach has reduced to the size of a walnut and everything fills me up.

I churn and brew. It makes sleep even more difficult, and everything else problematic. Basically, it means that I’m eating less – averaging one meal a day, with perhaps nibbles in between. It mitigates the frequency but doesn’t fix the problem. And, perversely, I’ve ballooned.

I’ve wondered if it was particular foods that did it, but there seems no pattern. I stuck to proteins, and had the problem, then went off them, and it continued. It might seem frivolous, but it takes the edge off every activity I do. I’m short of energy and the will to do anything much. Altogether, I feel worn down.

I’ll get on top of it, but I’m just not sure how. I made some poached eggs for breakfast, and my intention now is to fast until tomorrow. It’s a shot in the dark, but my doctor is away, so it’s all I’ve got right now.

In the meantime, it’s 2021. I’ll make other plans, whenever…

Cleaning things up


Yesterday, I applied for the job I referred to last week. For some reason, I’d felt a reluctance to do so. Some of that was general apathy – it’s such a pain in the arse, and you have to contrive a persona they want to employ – and I’m over any sort of contrivance these days. I did it though, letting it happen naturally, being open and honest and letting a little of the alpha self shine through, though without overt contrivance.

My gut feel is that I’m over-cooked for the role, which would be ironic.

In a lot of ways, it’s a strange time to apply for another job. Just last week, I submitted a proposal for what would be a huge piece of work which would, in many ways, be transformational for the business. Ultimately, I would expect the proposal to be accepted and that I would be running it, owning it too in the long run, and that my case for a promotion and pay rise would be unassailable. And if that’s not enough, I would find the work fascinating.

The problem is the now. There’s been a lot of talk, but not a lot of action and I’ve grown weary of it. It’s coming, they tell me, but then it’s been coming for months. It’s soured my relationship with the biz. Actions have consequences and, in this case, it’s inaction.

None of that is terminal. If they came to me tomorrow and said here’s a bag of well-earned cash for you, then I’d take it. And I’m pretty sure if I got myself right, I’d look upon things in a more positive light. But still – I feel the urge to start fresh.

There’s a lot to be sorted through. I hope in this break I can clear my head a little and maybe freshen up my perspective. I keep writing about how I’ve changed and have to adapt to the change – and then I wonder, if I healed the places that ache, might I not return at least partway to the man I was before?

I think it’s likely that permanent change has occurred in parts of me. On reflection, I’m not unhappy with that. I ask myself if I want to return to how I was, knowing that it was easier then because I had little doubt. And the answer is that I’m glad to feel doubt, or at least, to acknowledge it. And I’m happy for the insight it has provided me with. I have no real desire to become a hard-driving alpha again, though whether that’s symptom or cause I don’t know. But I miss the feeling of the wind in my hair. I miss being out in front. And I hate the doubt when it cripples me.

Maybe I should note that a lot of this appears internalised. I’m sure some of it leaks out and is visible, but then when people don’t know how I was before they don’t know any different. I feel it, though when I don’t want to engage.

To others, my friends, they see little difference. I think they hardly notice the differences, though I do – I’m not as happy as I was before, and so feel inhibited often, and much less free-flowing. And yet, for Christmas, Donna bought me a pair of personalised socks that claimed I was charismatic and strong because that was “so you” – when I feel neither these days.

It seems to me the important thing is to get that healing done, and sooner rather than later. Presumably, I’ll have a better idea of what I want and what I feel then. I’ll have a balanced perspective and perhaps – hopefully – will feel in control of my destiny.

I’ve done something about that now. I got a referral from my doctor to see a shrink. Because of Covid, I believe we can now get up to 20 subsidised sessions – though I surely hope I don’t need that many. I’ll make an appointment later today to see someone in the new year.

I’m the meantime I’ll continue to chill and unwind. Next week I have a few days away with no mobile reception. I’ll be with friends and will live simply. When I return, I hope to have flushed out many of the toxins collected in me over the year. Perhaps I’ll see things differently then. That’s my hope.

The nub


About half an hour after I posted yesterday I was in a meeting. I’m probably in 3-4 meetings a day, and sometimes more. Some of them I’m there as an observer, but mostly I’m an active participant, and occasionally I lead them.

The meeting yesterday was about an app release in progress. They’ve been a few bugs, which we discussed, and then UAT to come next week, which I’m managing.

I listened to myself as I cut in listening to the description of a problem. I posed questions and proposed solutions. It seemed reasonably clear to me, and though I was surprised that it wasn’t as clear to others, I wanted to impart my understanding to enable the solution.

I heard my voice, firm and confident. I was no less incisive than ever in my life and at times even interrogatory as I sought straight answers to straight questions so that I could frame the situation. Everybody quietened as I spoke, listening in, curious. In short order, we got to the point I expected, and thus a solution was defined.

I don’t highlight this because it’s unusual, because it isn’t. Rather, I find it hard to reconcile these moments with my general disposition, as I described it yesterday. It’s as if something sparks into life when I spot a logical inconsistency or spy a solution, and I resonate with it. You could call it habit perhaps, but I think it’s more instinct – a reflex outside my conscious mind. And it’s my conscious mind that is playing up.

I think this is one reason that so few people have a clue that I’m having issues. I still present as pretty confident. My thinking remains clear, my communication concise. One of my gifts has always bee to grasp the heart of the matter quickly and to nail it, and that remains so. The architecture of my outward, working self remains in place. To that extent, I remain effective.

The issues I describe affect me less in my personal life, not that I’ve had much personal life to speak of over the year. I feel some sense of tenuousness, but I’m no less definite or certain in my dealings with others. In fact, I remain surprised often why others are less definite – it’s as if I can’t comprehend the lack of focus. It’s strange given all the rest of it, but it suggests that my fundamental self-belief is unchanged. It’s everything around that that has shifted.

Unconnected to any of this, I sent a link to an article about grief to a friend yesterday. He responded straight away, disagreeing with much in the article and the tone of it in general. After some back and forth, he replied to me with the quote he believes best describes what grief is:

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love.
It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot.
All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest.
Grief is just love with no place to go.”

That’s a quote from Jamie Anderson, and it’s very pretty and true enough in what it is, but, as I responded to my friend, too narrow in my mind. Grief is more than just about love, though it can be interpreted very broadly.

I reacted and hardly without thought typed out my experience of grief. It’s worthwhile to read for the sheer spontaneity of it, but even in retrospect feels true:

…My problems – I think – are all about grief, and not simply because my mother died. Grief for all I lost, a place in the world, peace of mind, a sense of security and purpose, a meaning to what I do. A great sense of existential loss

Maybe that’s a kind of love, unfulfilled. Herein is the nub of the situation.

Conversation and affection


I was watching TV last night when on-screen a conversation about William Blake took place, and immediately I felt a yearning. I want to talk about William Blake. And Goethe too, and Beethoven and Kierkegaard and Kandinsky and Einstein and David Lean and about expressionism and the civil rights movement and forms of government and great moments in history and thought and ever fucking so on.

At that moment, there was a sudden realisation of how everything is so small. It’s hardly a new thought, but it’s fresher now because without the distractions and white noise of so-called normal life what is exposed in lockdown are the skeletal forms of everyday life. And the truth of it is, so much of it is repetitive and mindless ritual, time served until it runs out.

That’s a bleak take on things, and it’s not all that bad, especially not when you plug in the lifestyle elements – the distractions and white noise – that otherwise obscure the bare realities. That’s not all bad stuff, but not a lot of it has substance.

You could argue that I’ve been wrestling with these concepts most of my adult life. I felt it inside, but for much of that time, I was removed from it in a personal sense, because I found the distractions necessary to keep me going. Some remain – reading and good food and provocative cinema. Others have gone by the wayside, the obvious, and possibly most critical, being international travel. Once it fueled, perhaps erroneously, my sense of identity. I would travel every year and go deep – but now I haven’t travelled anywhere for about seven years.

For others, it’s family, and that’s something of true substance and value. I imagine it fills up most of the empty spaces and as for identity, then you assume traditional and well-defined roles as partner and parent. All that is ritual too, but it has meaning.

Then there’s work. For the healthy of us, work is a subset of who we are, rather than a definition of it. It’s rare, however, that work doesn’t play some part in how we see ourselves. Given we spend so much time in the job, it would be surprising if it wasn’t a factor, but it also is one of the great distractors.

This has played on my mind for the last few years, and last night it was the first thing that came to me when I considered how small things have become. It wasn’t always the case. I took a lot from work and career in general, and I worked through that in my mind as I sat on the couch last night.

I like to define and categorise things. I like things to have their place, though I know full well that life is not nearly as neat and tidy as that, and that nonsense and absurdity – as well as chance and caprice – play a big part in how our lives play out. Nonetheless…

I was always very ambitious, very driven. I’ve noted all this before so you can take it as read. I wanted to move forward, if for no other reason that I wanted to test myself and to feel the rush of wind in my hair. That’s not the case anymore.

I sat there and defined it, separating out the strands in terms of ego, which plays a huge part in all of this. It’s the fire that burns in us, but if we don’t ply it with fuel it dies down. This is what has happened to me.

I separated ego into two strands, the structural and the tactical, though they might be better understood as the professional and the personal.

The structural/professional is how you see yourself in relation to others within a work environment. It’s a broader, longer journey. There’s a ladder and you want to climb it. You plot and strive, imagining yourself achieving higher professional goals and attaining ever-greater rewards. It’s competitive in the sense of how driven you are to surpass your professional rivals. It’s about recognition and your place in the world. Sense of self and sheer prestige are wrapped up in this also.

The tactical/personal is more everyday, moment to moment. It’s how you react and respond to challenges and stimuli on a personal level. It’s how ego interplays in your direct relationships with others, strangers, as well as friends and loved ones. How much we are prepared to set aside, and how much we feel the need to assert.

I was always ‘strong’ – if that’s the term – in both of these. Now, it seems, I have little real interest in the structural/professional. It’s no more than habit and knee jerk reaction. I think in my mind that this is what I should be or do, but it’s the residue of former times when it throbbed of its own accord.

I was so directed then, though to be fair, while I was competitive, I never really saw others as my rivals. I always thought I was better. I applied myself to surpassing the job itself. My interest in that now is no more than theoretical – I’ve done it before, I know I can do it again, I feel no need to prove it because, when it comes down to it, I have no real interest in it anymore.

I think the tactical/personal ego is just as strong as ever, and it plays a part in how people see me. I guess much of it becomes your persona. It’s problematic in some ways. I think most people see me as very capable. They believe I’m confident, and I’m certainly more assertive than average. I speak and act with a level of authority, and so the natural assumption is that I’m made for bigger things, and that’s what I want. I wonder, though. In myself, the private me, I have grave doubts about much of this. I’m coming to the point where I think I should just let go.

Without the professional ego raging in me I have no burning desire to achieve outside of the very practical need to set myself up for retirement, if possible. There’s none of me in it anymore and it leaves a big gap.

My sole motivations these days, outside the practical, are to do the best I can because there’s meaning in effort and competence; and, related really, to provide fair value for reward.

That second gives me some leeway because for a long time now they’ve been getting more out of me than I get from them. The solution has always been to match the rewards to effort, but perhaps what’s now more consistent with what I feel is that I reduce my effort to match reward.

I’m not sure if I can dial down so easily. It’s not as if I set my effort to a value – I just give everything I have. By giving everything I have though leaves little left for me. And in a time when I’m conscious of a lack, I probably need to set myself to gain/regain what I don’t have – which means making space for it.

I have a meeting with my manager this afternoon where I intend on following up on the discussions we had weeks ago about my future. If he tells me that yes, here it is, I’ll probably accept it. But if that’s not the case, as I expect, I’m mulling over telling him that I’m going to dial things back. Basically, expect less of me.

Given the mental health challenges of recent times, this might be the most sensible thing I could do: I need to take a break from the job for myself. And, if I can, need to find those things that warm me inside and give meaning to what I do. Conversation and affection are much of it, and a place in the world.

Cracking the inner shell


Over the weekend, I watched an old movie. Old is relative – there was a time I’d consider an old movie being something from the forties or fifties. In this case – The Accidental Tourist – I reckon ‘old’ is around the late eighties. I guess that makes me old, too.

I remember watching the movie soon after it came out. For the most part, I liked it. It was an intelligent, well-made film, and it starred one of my preferred actors from the time – William Hurt (a very underrated actor). The character of Muriel (Geena Davis) grated on me a bit, much in the same way it grated on Macon (Hurt) initially. However, it was her personality that was instrumental in drawing Macon out of himself and in beginning the healing process – and, ultimately, to live again.

This is another movie I probably haven’t seen for 20 years, and it’s always interesting to compare the viewing perspective so many years apart. I’m sure last time I saw it it would have been an entertainment for me. These years later, locked in, the experience was very different.

I could see something of myself in Macon, certainly in terms in how I’ve been since being homeless, and for similar reasons – dealing with, and recovering from, grief. I used to be much more carefree, though there were many more reasons for it then than there are now. I want terribly to get back to that but seem incapable of it. I feel locked into myself with a boundary between me and the people around me.

There were other elements of the movie that tugged at me. Macon, at least, has a family to fall back on, however eccentric. I yearn to be enfolded in a family like that. I was, for many years, and accepted it without a second thought. You have a place in the family, and you know where you belong, and you know that if you reach out, there’ll be someone there for you. Love feels like a birthright and affection a given.

To watch the movie and to be moved by it in different ways was more of a reminder than a revelation. I know this stuff. I meander along dealing with it. I hope to change it.

Last week, I created for myself an internet dating profile on a site I had a lot of luck on once. I did it because I need an outlet in lockdown and a way of expressing myself. Love would look after itself, all I was after was a connection. I was very candid in my profile and the very act of writing it was good for me.

Before I published it, I shared it with some friends looking for feedback. This is not something I would ever have done before, but I do it now in the conscious effort to be more open, less guarded. I got great feedback. I was told it was honest and that any woman – any person, in fact – would be drawn to it. The reaction came as no surprise to me I found. As was commented, I write well and, even so, I felt as if the sentiments expressed were common.

It’s a funny thing, at that moment I felt a kind of revelation – though it was not something I haven’t felt before. I can be relied upon to express things well. I can be relied upon in so many ways because that’s who I am. I’m conscientious and alert and smart and methodical when it counts. All good things, you would think, but sometimes I feel as if the boundary I speak of is inside me.

Just by habit, I’m ahead of the game so often because I’m always calculating contingencies and plotting probabilities. God knows, I don’t always say the right thing – but I can be relied upon to say it with poise and style (or else, occasionally, deliberate and pithy bluntness). Generally, I know the right thing to do when nothing’s on the line – how to act, how to be, when to speak and when to stay silent. These are behavioural patterns if you like I probably inherited from my mum, who was always socially aware. I’m lucky in that I read people well, sometimes to their great shock. And I can write just the right thing in the controlled environment of an internet dating profile.

What it all adds up to is a certain knowingness that I think is one of my defining characteristics. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever seen me flustered, though I’ve definitely done anger. I don’t remember a time I felt panic, and I’m sure no-one has ever seen it in me. Mostly I say the right thing at the right time. I carry through. I’ve never failed to do what I said I would do, and have a reputation staked upon it. In so many ways, I’m a very functional human being.

But sometimes it infuriates me. There’s a large measure of control in being that person. It’s not conscious – it comes natural – but rarely does anything irregular or spontaneous leak from it. Listen to how measured I am describing it! The boundary is between the roiling, unpredictable self, and the self that translates that into rational and measured thought. Perhaps that’s why I write – because only then do I tap into that much more creative self. But this how I need to be I think at times like this – make mistakes, be unpredictable, go for it.

There was more of that in me before, and the truth of it is the control I speak of is what enabled me to survive homelessness and the despair that goes with it. I contained the blast to below ground, and it was a mighty effort – but I’ve been left irradiated by the job.

I commonly think that I need someone to show me the way – to take me out of that, as Muriel does Macon. I don’t know how myself, because knowing the problem doesn’t fix it and, in the meantime, everything keeps coming out smoothly.

The counterpoint to this, as it occurred to me last night, was how much I miss intellectual conversation and engagement on matters of culture and art and meaning. That’s the other side of me, questing and curious and restless.

It sometimes feels as if everything is contradiction, but I know well enough that what appears paradoxical is quite often in human nature perfectly natural. That’s not worth fighting or even wondering at. What’s worth doing is bringing the inside out.

Metaphysical desires


After having a grizzle the other week about how every opportunity seemed closed off to me, I had a chat last week with management. It all came about because my team lead, a truly decent human being, recognised that I deserved, and maybe needed, more. He spoke to one manager, and then in passing, mentioned it to the department head. When she spoke to me, she had ideas and suggested I speak to my manager.

A lot of things are on hold currently, which I understand. The view is that I’m getting antsy about being denied what was promised to me. It’s not as simple as that – yes, I want my just rewards and am generally set by default to seek more; but, likewise, in reality, I’m not as motivated or ambitious as I used to be. There’s a lot of push-pull in me these days and will be until I reconcile it entirely. Regardless of that, there’s the very practical consideration that – having been wiped out – I need more to stash away for when retirement comes. Even so, if someone could guarantee me a relatively modest $120k pa, CPI linked, over the next 10 years, then I’d probably take it – even though I can earn much more than that.

The discussion, when I had it, didn’t touch on the metaphysics of my situation. The metaphysical rarely gets a mention when it comes to career development, and maybe that’s a good thing. It’s confusing enough without it.

What was put to me was an opportunity for a new role in a different team that would give me increased responsibilities and a bigger pay packet. In theory, not bad. Then I was told there was no budget for the role – which is new – until next financial year. At that point, the whole discussion seemed a waste of time. Then he said, well, let me have a chat and see what I can do. The inference was that maybe he could swing it much sooner. He said he’d get back to me in a couple of weeks.

As anyone who’s been reading this blog will know, this left me with confused and conflicted feelings. There’s a lot happening in this mental space. There is paradox aplenty.

I’m getting over it generally, but a recurring issue is that no-one really seems to know what I’ve done or am capable of. They’re all very complimentary of the work I’ve done with them, but I don’t think one of them has set eyes on my CV. That’s a tad disappointing, even if only at a very basic level. I claim not to care much for what people think of me, and I think that’s mostly true, but don’t we all have a fundamental need to be recognised as what we are?

I don’t know how many times I’ve looked on and thought, I’ve done that before and I could do it better. It sounds a bit snooty but I end up shrugging my shoulders and moving along. Times are different now and there’s not nearly the rigour around getting things done as there used to be, and maybe that’s why experience is overlooked. I’m steeped in practices and methodologies, but the whole principle of them has gone out of fashion. I’m happy to adapt and have, but I’m not about to forget the things I know, and it seems a waste in general and a pity that no-one bothers to check if there might be someone more qualified.

At the same time, I’m subject to people that in an earlier phase of my working life would’ve been reporting to me. I can accept that pretty well most of the time because I know that I don’t want that anymore necessarily – but nor do I necessarily want to defer or take instruction from someone who knows less than I do. I can be a bit snappy then, and experience is that people soon recognise it and let me go.

All this is true, in my mind at least, but it’s also ego. It’s the ego that puts the sauce on the objective fact. I know that. It’s what I’m trying to get away from. Let it go is what I tell myself, and after a bit of wrangling generally, I do.

These are practical considerations overlaid by the part of me that strives for more and new.

Then there’s the soul-deep part that has no part of the conversation but looks on wistfully. I don’t know how much of this is me, and my circumstances, and how much of it is stage of life. It can be interpreted as a mid-life crisis, and a lot of it aligns with that. But then, I think some of it comes from having endured what I have, been deprived of nurture through that, and coming out the other end and viewing conventional aspirations as being pretty hollow. To be honest, there was always a bit of that in me, even when I was living the high-life. Having endured the low-life since, it got reinforced.

What it means is that in my soul I want something more than a good salary and a handy sounding job title. I want to be doing something worthwhile to me. Paradoxically, I think a part of that is being my best self.

There’s a comment a friend made a few years back that’s haunted me in the last few days. He said he admired me because, like Kobe Bryant – his hero – I could invent my own shot. When I think of that the urge is to let myself go. Twirl the dial to 11. Go for it.

I just don’t know how real that is. Is it legitimate to start with? And is worthwhile if it is? Is it pure ego again? Or is that the opportunity I turn my back on because I’ve become modest?

Very strange. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life when I’ve known myself less well. The broad strokes I get, the history, but I don’t know who I am really, nor who I’m supposed to be.