Why it’s brave to be vulnerable

sunset

 

A long time ago, a friend translated a Brazilian poem for me called ‘The Almost’. I have no idea if it’s a famous poem in Brazil or something that barely anyone has read. I can’t remember what the poem was actually called in Portuguese. I have no idea if my friend actually translated it all correctly.

And I know I could google the answers to some of those unknowns but that’s not the point really.

The point is – I have a poem called ‘The Almost’, translated by a friend, that speaks so clearly to me, and has always spoken so clearly to me, that I carry it everywhere. It’s on my fridge. In my office. On my laptop. On several USBs.

It feels so important because it reminds me to be vulnerable. And it reminds me to be brave.

 

If you are vulnerable, you will always be brave.

 

And I don’t think enough people realise that. I think there are some people who equate vulnerability to weakness – and then stomp all over you or take you for granted. I think there are some who think they are the ones being brave or “honest” while doing the stomping.

But they don’t get it. Being vulnerable takes a strength that these stompy people may never understand. They also don’t realise that I will always get back up after any stomping – I always have. They are never as strong (or as hurtful) as they think.

 

As an aside, though, when did someone claiming honesty all of a sudden come to mean that are about to say something nasty? When is self-proclaimed honesty a justification to be an arsehole? At the beginning of my academic career, I made a decision to never become the kind of academic I had seen who never gave a positive comment, never supported the wonky days, who would yell or demand the impossible. I made a decision to be the kind of academic who was actually kind, or at least tried to be. I’m allowed to have wonky days too. A lot has been written about this – a beautiful piece at The Thesis Whisperer and I wrote something on it for piirusacuk just the other day.

 

Ask any of my students and they’ll tell you stories of the drafts I have give back to them dripping in track changes and comments, when track changes and comments were needed. Ask any of my colleagues the same thing. I’m not afraid to pull apart things that need to be pulled apart in order to make something better and stronger. I’ve picked up the pieces if my own work and done just that too. But I still have people telling me “You have to be honest” when they hand me their work and it always leaves me wondering – what do they think I’m going to do? Let them fail because I don’t want to tell them they haven’t answered the results section? Have a paper with my name on it go out with a mistake in it because I’m too scared to point it out to my colleagues?

 

I think though that because I always try to add something good in one of comments that people ignore everything else and think I’ve not been thorough enough. I always try for everything I read to try and find at least one positive comment to make – and sometimes it’s been really hard – sometimes the only positive comment is “well at least you’ve put a draft together to see what doesn’t quite fit together yet, let’s work together to find what does work”.

Sometimes I think because I’m not all fire-and-brimstone all the time, I’m not always taken so seriously.

 

But, here’s the thing – I think any writing, any research, even the hardest of sciences, is creative. We create something that didn’t exist before us and bring it to life in a paper. We are vulnerable when we do this – our creativity makes us vulnerable. We put this brand new thing in front of assessors, peer reviewers, examiners, other researchers, for them to tell us whether or not this new creation can go into the world – screaming for all its worth. We are vulnerable in this but we are brave in this as well – we trust that this new creation is worth it.

 

So when someone brings their work to me, I respect that this their vulnerability. Showing someone a first draft is an act of absolute bravery – and trust. I refuse to be someone who squashes the vulnerability out of them. That’s not to say I’ve never banged my head against my laptop reading someone else’s work but I’ve done that with my own stuff too – and I have no doubt other people have done that with my wonky first drafts. Or my wonky fourth drafts. So I take a step back and acknowledge the bravery and vulnerability that comes with every first draft, and I work out how to make this creation shine more brightly, in whatever form it takes.

 

It’s too easy to be critical of other people’s work – to stomp on it – to ignore what it takes to bring a new creation into the world. It sometimes feels frighteningly good to read someone else’s work and tear it to shreds, all the while thinking “I can do better than that”. And who doesn’t want to occasionally feel that they are good at what they do, better than someone else?

But it’s a short-lived thrill. If you give into it, you enjoy it for a moment, but someone else might be devastated.

I think sometimes the people who stomp gave into that thrill a long time ago – it’s become an addiction, their only validation.

 

Writing is a vulnerable thing. Research is a vulnerable thing. It is a brave thing to put your heart and soul (metaphorically but I don’t know your work, maybe tangibly as well) out into the world and see if the creation stands up on its own.

All of us would have had times when someone has tried to squash the vulnerability (and the bravery) out of us. It is hard to come back from. It is not as hard to come back from reviews that acknowledge what you have tried.

 

Being vulnerable and brave researchers gives us power. It makes us braver still to try new things – to discover more. And it also makes us return that recognition, to nurture the other researchers around us.

 

‘The Almost’ argues that the only way to see colour in our lives is to shed our fear about being vulnerable. To show people our work. To press submit. To create. If we don’t, we live in greys forever – we will never be at risk of failing or being rejected – but things will never change either. Being vulnerable opens a bright new world. You just need to be brave enough to step through the door.

Why the perfect red lip matters

2015-11-26 08.05.25So until this past Sunday, I had never really worn red lipstick properly before. Flirted with it just a little, tried red tints, but nothing that was boldly, unashamedly, absolutely red.

Red felt too much. My lips would all of a sudden be ‘HELLO!’ like a slightly drunken aunt in heels she can’t walk in after too much gin on a hot summer afternoon. While that is absolutely my future ambition for when I turn 70 – I will wear kaftans, and dye my hair pink again, it will be brilliant – it’s not quite right for where I am now.

And then I met the very lovely Mel at Mecca Cosmetica in the Myer Centre in the middle of Sydney. This reads like an unabashed plug but she really was brilliant (and very very patient) given I wandered in akin to a small duckling with a vague sense of wanting to try red lipstick and holding a fear of becoming a drunken aunt. Mel tried different textures and intensities of colours and ranges of red from berry to blue-based to hints. And after trying a whole bunch of lipsticks where my lips were stained with the remnants (which actually made a pretty fantastic colour), I chose the first one.

A matte, creamy, grown-up, unabashed, blue-based red.

It’s called Rita which just feels magnificent. Rita would absolutely wear a kaftan.

And I know the perfect red lip – in the grandest scheme of things – isn’t important. Unless you stretched your long bow to ‘self esteem’, it doesn’t factor into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There are many far more important things to be concerned about, and to think about, and to write about. And I am and I do. I can easily, happily live without red lipstick.

The thing is though – I don’t really care about those arguments. Sometimes you need silly and frivolous and a lipstick named Rita. A little while ago, the beauty writer Sali Hughes talked about how beauty products, and the rituals around them, can be these small beauties when life becomes decidedly less beautiful.

And there is something very powerful in that in terms of identity and wellbeing.

The mornings where I’ve taken the time to do the new lipstick properly, I’ve walked out the door differently, even though nothing else is different. Like a good dress with pockets and properly-brushed hair, Rita has been added to my armoury of things that make me feel confident and capable and happy. These are things that no one else will notice – and far more often than not could care less about – but can make an enormous difference to how I feel presenting, or participating in a workshop, or waiting for my flight home at the airport lounge scribbling down ideas for a paper. It can be hard enough sometimes to find your voice, and make in loud enough to heard, in such a big and hectic world – why not embrace the things that help?

These are small beauties and they work in small ways, but if I only waited for the big beauties and the big changes, what opportunities would I miss? It extends the idea of embracing yes to always being open-eyed to what’s out there and not assuming that something has to be ‘important’ for it to make a positive difference in my life.

 

 

Pink hair and the zen of blah

This is always a rough time of year. Anniversaries of people I’ve lost, deadlines, marking, and end-of-year existential lala all seem to come together in October.

This week particularly has just been blah.

And it’s not that I don’t know how to self-care. I’m much better at it than I used to be, and I’m much better at recognising when I need to take more care than usual. Slowly, slowly stumbling my way towards grace as always with that one.

I run. Walk. Bake. Write. Sit in the sunshine with my small cat. Do breathing exercises.  Go to the foot man. Read books (in the sunshine if possible). Coffee (and skype) with friends as we dissect the world, and The Bachelorette. Sing loudly in the shower.

Occasionally sing loudly out of the shower.

Write some more.

Acknowledge my blessings, because there is no question of that. Remember that there are small beauties and small loves, great beauties and great loves, everywhere. Be present with the sunrise.

Get my hair cut/coloured (my hair may be more pink than ever before right now). Get something pierced, or cry in public at art exhibitions in Derry (hypothetically speaking)

You know, all the things.

I’m not sure there’s an article on stress or wellbeing that I’ve not read, just to make sure there’s not something I’m missing in the quest to keep on being well and happy. To make sure I am as OK as can be, as productive and as creative as possible.

I know I’m not the only one reading everything that comes their way on this.

But sometimes, it all feels a bit blahblahblah. That cogs are turning, and things are whirring, but that nothing actually shifts or changes. Movement and motion, but no action. All of Shakespeare’s sound and fury still signifying nothing.

As much as running is fantastic for relieving stress in the moment and it seems to be the best time for ideas to pop into my head (as an aside, why do ideas only appear best formed during a run or a shower?), all the running in the world won’t make my heart break any less for the anniversaries.

No matter all my insight and self-care and learning, this time of year is always hard. And I was talking to friends yesterday that it’s not that I miss the people I’ve lost in a way – they stay frozen in death whereas I’ve changed. I had to – I grew older. The person I miss isn’t the person they’d be now so that feels a false emotion for me in a way. What I grieve and miss – what breaks my heart – is the loss of that potential. We lost who they could have become, and what they could have been in the world. That I will never know who they could have become, for better or for worse or for all those in-betweens. And that breaks my heart every year.

And I realized yesterday that nothing can make that heartbreak better because how can you fix that loss of potential? There’s nothing that will bring them back.

But, strange as it sounds, yesterday’s realization gave me a freedom I’d never explored properly before. I sat in that rubble and mourned my loss. I had made myself a jam-packed day so did interviews and meetings and things. But I let myself grieve and feel heartbroken. And today I feel lighter for it; this morning I woke up lighter for it. Quiet still, but lighter. Almost as though giving myself over to heartbreak fully yesterday (and these last few days) was enough of a penance – not a penance for sin but one in memory, so maybe that’s not quite the right word – and this morning I could breathe with the weight that has shifted if not entirely gone.

I wonder sometimes though – in our quest to frame everything positively and to retell mantras – that we’re losing our ability to be OK with the blah. That maybe sometimes we need to sit in the rubble with our heartbreak and just be. Be present with our ghosts and make peace with them, because not all of them are scary. Some are just sad. That giving ourselves over to grief, just for a moment, allows us to then cleanse ourselves of it a little more. One week out of a year rather than a whole year. A week to feel the pain, and acknowledge its presence, rather than carrying the load all year in silence, hiding a broken heart.

I could out-PollyAnna a lot of people but, more and more, I wonder whether we strengthen our positivity and our resilience by feeling the hurt – and shouting out to the world that it bloody hurts – rather than coating it in inspirational sayings, rather than giving ourselves a narrative that we would be better if only we did this one extra thing or tried hard enough or read one more article. Maybe we can be OK almost all the time, and still sometimes be sad. Maybe being OK also involves being sad as well….? Maybe some times are just blah and you trust (and you know) that these blah times will pass.

I’m trying to figure this out and so far this is as articulate as I can be about it. I have pink hair as a result of trying to sit with my feelings and make myself feel better so this is certainly a grace I’m stumbling towards. Certainly there’s a line between sitting in the rubble and being drowned by it, just as there’s a line between one week turning into many more. But I think as well, when you travel with your trauma every day, you can also allow yourself to learn its ways as well. I know to surround myself with people I trust on the anniversaries. I know that I will be quieter and there will be some work I struggle to do in that week. So I make allowances and am kind to myself because – as long as everything gets done – what does the order matter?  I arrange this week so I can grieve and function all at once – a whole of life.

I’m not sure whether this will work all the time but it’s a process that I know now works for me after a long time now. I take all the bits that work and make a tapestry to protect myself and my inner PollyAnna, because she knows that everything will always be alright in the end.

Safe Spaces and World Suicide Prevention Day

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. I was asked to give a talk this morning (as a researcher) for a community event. I wrote something more personal -decided to be a whole person, and not just a ‘researcher’. This talk went through several iterations as it felt increasingly necessary to be fully human with it. Practicing in the early morning with a tremendous human being half way around the world made me remember that we don’t change things by half-speaking. Sometimes we can only make change – and be truly heard – when we let ourselves be vulnerable and trust that our story can find its place in the world.

So, below, is my talk:

This has been a tricky talk to write.

Not because I’m not used to talking about suicide – I am. I’ve been a researcher in suicide prevention for a few years now.

This talk was tricky to write because, this morning, I’m also talking as a sister and as a friend. I was 16 when I lost a close friend; 21 when I lost my brother. I can tell you the exact moments I found out about their deaths because these were the exact moments my life shattered. I’ve re-built a life since then – re-built a great life – but a life without these two men I loved. And it’s a journey I still work on even more than half my life later. Mark and Michael still exist in every heartbeat, and they always will.

So I didn’t want to give a talk full of rates and numbers because, if suicide has touched your life – whether it’s because you work in the field, or are bereaved, or have been suicidal, or all of those things –  whether you’re used to talking about suicide or if you’ve never told your story before – if suicide has touched your life, you know rates and numbers don’t matter. Not really.

Because one preventable suicide is too many – the deaths that you’ve experienced are too many – the grief that you’ve experienced too much. In focusing on rates and numbers, I’m afraid that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that every suicide statistic was a person, and every person has left someone grieving. That every person who dies by suicide had a story, and every person left behind has a story too.  We need to start talking about suicide where we focus on its human-ness because that’s what really matters in the end.

So this morning – speaking as a researcher, a sister, and a friend – I want to ask two questions.

First, do we actually talk about suicide enough? Do we talk about suicide openly?

I work in the field; I talk about it all the time now. But I’m also asked about it all the time now because I’m recognised as someone safe as soon as I mention my job – I’ve had conversations on planes, in pubs, almost anywhere where a conversation can be started, where people have told stories of their suicidality, sometimes for the very first time.

But it took me a good 12 years to talk really openly about my brother. I was well into my PhD by then. I could find the words to describe other people’s experiences, but not my own. I could listen to other people’s stories but didn’t feel I could find the words to tell mine. No words seemed enough. I’ve foiund them – found some – but it took a long time.

Because talking about suicide is not easy. Suicide can be a scary thing to talk about. It’s a big thing to talk about. In order to talk about suicide, we have to admit that sometimes people feel such pain that they can see no other way to end it; that people can experience this type of emotional pain every day of their lives, no matter how much help they seek. That the life that works for us may not work for everyone – and we can so easily walk past someone every day and not know how they feel. I think for my family, and for me, the hardest thing we had to make peace with, the most confronting thing, was that we weren’t enough to save my brother. Over the years, in different ways, we’ve made peace with this.

But it’s been a confronting thing.

But just as we may struggle to find the words to talk about suicide, so too do people who are suicidal. In studies that have included people who have attempted suicide – and these are only just beginning – people have talked about how they struggled to find the words to describe their pain. That suicide was a selfless act for them because they thought they were too much a burden. And when they did find the words, they weren’t always heard or taken seriously. That it wasn’t always enough to be told ‘not to worry, that things would get better’ – sometimes people needed their pain to be truly recognised and acknowledged – they needed to be seen – and this could make people feel uncomfortable.

But discomfort isn’t enough of a reason to not talk about suicide. Discomfort silences not only the person trying to tell their story or ask for help – but it also silences us as a community. It’s so much harder to hear what we are scared to listen to. When we still face stigma about suicide – where people who die by suicide are still sometimes described as mad or bad or selfish – where there is stil, a perception that suicide doesn’t happen in ‘good’ families – silence only makes stigma worse. We need to start talking about this discomfort in a way that lets us make peace with it– where we can sit in the rubble with someone, and not feel the need to talk over them, but rather let them tell their story in their own words and at their own pace. Where we can sit in the rubble with someone and let them find a peace amidst all the uncertainty – their new normal – without having to say anything. Sometimes being quiet but present with someone is enough.

Which brings me to my second question, how do we make a safe space for someone to talk about suicide? A holding space to talk about the things that matter – so people feel supported, to ensure people feel safe rather than judged, and to help them heal?

Here maybe, we need to start looking at the small things. The small kindnesses that make a big difference when someone is hurting, when they need to be seen. In the same studies with people who had attempted suicide, they talked about being brought proper coffee while they were in hospital, a change of clothes, someone who just sat quietly with them to keep them company. They did not talk about being brought all the answers by a program, or a magic pill that solved all their sadness. There were no easy solutions. Rather, the people in these studies talked about finding people who got them – whether they were family or friends, or a health professional or someone else with lived experience – who understood that there would be good and bad days, who helped them find ways to better deal with the issues that made them vulnerable – whether it was counseling, or medication, or exercise, or art and writing, or mantras, or tattoos, or (most commonly) a mixture of all these things.  And different mixtures for different times, depending on what the person needed at the time. This was never an easy or straight-forward journey.

They talked about someone not only asking whether they were OK on a bad day but acting on the answer – spending time with them on days when they were not OK. And not just waiting until a person was not OK before doing something as well.

But also – and importantly – not presuming they knew all the answers. In areas like this, I think sometimes we are afraid to admit we don’t know all the answers. I will never know all the answers to my questions as to why I lost Michael and Mark. But this humility makes us better listeners, better health professionals, better researchers. We can make meaning out of uncertainty and shades of grey and spaces in-between – we can find peace with this – and admitting that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions also means that we acknowledge that people experience suicidality and bereavement differently. They will all tell their stories differently and take different journeys of healing. And these stories will be messy and raw and full of emotion. And acknowledging this makes a safe space for people to tell their stories. We have to trust sometimes that just listening to someone – being there for someone – without doing all the talking – is enough to make someone feel better. A might even be enough to save a life.

This can be a tricky day emotionally for some of us – it can be a tricky day for me emotionally too. World Suicide Prevention Day makes us realise how global suicide is – the experiences we share with millions and millions of people around the world regardless of culture and geography and everything else that is usually used to distinguish people. Far too many of us share stories of suicide bereavement and grief and suicidality. The person next to you, behind you, in front of you. Far too many of us are trying to tell stories that can feel unspeakable at times. It took me 12 years to find my words and I can still feel them in the pit of my stomach. In our stories of bereavement, we are all trying to explain the person we loved long ago, to someone who will never know them. Our lost person is a mystery to anyone else who doesn’t weave the same tapestry of memories. But it is important to keep trying to tell these stories in the hope that they might help someone else.

So today, we need to be kind to ourselves, and kind to others around us, as we honour those we have lost, those who still struggle with suicidality, and those who are bereaved. Days like today are important in remembering that we need to talk about suicide and we need to make sure that we are always safe spaces for people who want to share their stories.

A pirate, a question, and feet

Apart from sky-diving, I am usually pretty open to trying new things.

(I have friends who adore sky-diving but I can’t understand it at a fundamental level – it’s scary enough to get on a plane in the first place, I am not jumping out of one.)

So, earlier this week, on a recommendation from a friend, I started some biodynamic craniosacral therapy sessions. Essentially, the recommendation was: “this guy holds your feet and it’s really intense but you feel amazing afterwards”.

How could I not try that?

If you want to know what this therapy is, have a look here:

http://www.balancedintegration.com.au/biodynamic-craniosacral-therapy.html

My paraphrase would probably get a bit too tongue-twisted if I tried.

So I went there for the first time this week and told my usual story of anxiety (hello researcher), and digestion issues (hello anxiety, hello researcher). It’s not an uncommon story, certainly among my peers. I have written more food diaries than actual life-story diaries; take all sorts of supplements; have given up loads of different ‘trigger’ foods at different times to see if that made a difference.

For those of you who’ve done this food journey, you’ll know how boring it can get – trying to replace and reintroduce; wondering why you feel awful after a meal that only included ‘safe’ food; searching for ingredients you can barely pronounce, let alone spell.

I can bake a dairy- and gluten-free brownie with the best of them now, but it’s been a journey.

So, why not try the foot-holding guy?

And, I totally understand why I was given the explanation above. I can’t explain it much more than that – although, he does more than hold your feet. It’s just that I’m not concentrating on that; I focus on my breathing with a visualisation and lose myself in that.

After the first session, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My throat had felt constricted – I’d been holding my breath for too long so was given the breathing visualisation to calm it down. I felt hot, like I had a temperature. Walking home was a slow progress – I felt fragile and entirely spent. I got home, had a shower, and was in bed by 7:15pm. I slept almost straight through until my alarm rang the next morning, and I felt better. Lighter.

He’d made another appointment for Friday. I was afraid this was because I was completely wonky (see: anxiety).

But last night….

Last night, was completely different. There was a drumming music on when I arrived and my heart raced to its beat. Usually a racing heart is an anxiety thing, but not this time. It didn’t feel the same way. My throat felt different but not constricted, and my whole body tingled just under my skin, like a current was racing through it. I felt like a friendlier, less scary Frankenstein monster. Life via electricity.

And I felt amazing afterwards; my body moved more easily. I felt – if not peaceful, at ease with things.

He told me to take care of my throat: my voice would begin to come back this week.

And I got home and sang while I made dinner – much to the sadness of my small cat who went and hid in the bathroom, paws over her ears. I talked with a friend – one of those fantastic conversations that swing around with ideas, and highlight just how much the universe really can have a big stick to get you to realise things.

I realised just how much anxiety can exist in holding your breath; how much you hold your breath when you’re anxious. And how much, at least for me, those two things are very much chicken-or-egg. I know when I became anxious; I can’t remember when I started holding my breath but, in beginning to unleash it now, I know I’ve been doing it for far too long.

And this now opens my eyes far wider to what can be, and what could be. What exists in my life that makes me swallow my breath, and what exists that brings out the music.

And it’s the music that makes everything brighter, even on a cloudy day, reminds me the sun always comes out. It’s not that this is a magic cure, or that I’m seeking one. Rather, it gives me a new way of seeing things, and a new peace in which to see them. And that is something quite precious.

Connected to this – the universe and her big stick and all – is Amanda Palmer’s new book ‘The Art of Asking’ which has been inspiring me this past week or so as well. That there is bravery not only in asking, but bravery in being OK with the answer as well. Even if the answer is not 42, even if the answer feels wonky, it’s always better to ask, rather than silence the question, rather than hold your breath.

So, I am asking things of people now. Not necessarily asking them for things, but asking how they feel, and what they want – and whether they want to write with me. And sometimes the answers have been disappointing. But, other times, the answers have just been interesting and wonderful and made me feel connected to the people I love and adore in my life.

Sometimes, the answer has been yes as well. Because yes always appears eventually, and always when the time is right.

So, right at this very moment, I am thinking of a pirate called Tadhg, and all the adventures he could have with a kitten on his shoulder and flowers in his hands….

When the answer isn’t always 42*

A few weeks ago, my Fitbit broke.

This caused a few minutes of anxiety. I was so used to knowing that I would usually walk around 20,000 steps today (I walk everywhere) and, in doing that, there was a sense of reassurance. That this amount of steps would keep me well; whereas any fewer would obviously let the wolves through the door.

After these few minutes though, I remembered that I would still be doing however many steps without a Fitbit. All it did was record; it didn’t determine or judge. There were no wolves, not really, that weren’t simply products of my self-judgment. A Fitbit alone wasn’t going to keep me well.

And anyway, two days later I got a tattoo on the wrist where my Fitbit would have usually sat. I would have had to take it off anyway. In the end it really didn’t matter.

But I got to thinking about the reassurance of quantification again a few days ago when I was unexpectedly asked to give a lecture on suicide prevention – what we know, what we don’t, and studies I’ve worked on that have given some answers which have led to more questions. I was asked questions during and after the presentation and most of my answers were ‘It depends on….’, ‘It depends but…’ Simply because we don’t know enough to give many definite answers. But more than that – simply because something so very human means that its not easily definable or quantifiable – or the same depending on time or space or place or person.

So much depends on the particular person at a specific time within circumstances that may never necessarily be repeated for anyone else.

But this wasn’t enough for some of the students; it never is for some. They wanted sureties and tick boxes and linear ideals where A would always lead to B but not straight to G. When I couldn’t provide this, some of them became a little frustrated. How could I be an expert if all I knew was ‘It depends…’

Friends in similar sensitive, human fields have had this same experience.

But being human doesn’t always equal tick boxes, or either/ors, or yes/no.

Being human can equal open-ended questions and both and maybes.

Being human can mean that there are few certainties, no answers that will always be right, no superheroes fully assured at the very last moment.

Sometimes we will be uncertain, sometimes we will be wrong, and sometimes we will fall and not be caught.

Sometimes our hearts will be broken and sometimes we will break hearts. And we won’t always be able to predict either, even if it’s of ourselves.

Sometimes the answer will be 42.

But sometimes – because we are all so beautifully, so magically, so brokenly human -we will want the answer to be 42 and it won’t be at all, no matter how much we play with the maths.

Sometimes there won’t be any answer and we could easily spend lifetimes chasing something that simply doesn’t exist. Or deciding that the answer is 42 regardless and wondering why nothing seems to work around it and all our fears and flaws don’t magically resolve.

Except that knowing the answer is 42 can make life seem simpler. There is a calm in knowing that 6×7 will always equal the same number. There are questions that have right answers and definite answers. Unchangeable answers – as unchangeable as anything can be. And these are brilliant because we can move onwards and upwards from them. We can build bridges from them. We can fly planes. We can see stars and find dinosaurs.

These are all entirely inspiring things.

But there will always be things that can’t be quantified. Can’t be numbered.

The feelings that get right to the core of being human – that can make a heart beat or make it stop. And it’s our very humanity that makes everything so complicated because how do we see inside our very selves?

How can you measure love? Or make a numerical comparison of that moment when you look at someone and realise you don’t love them anymore?

How can you measure anger between a fleeting feeling to something that causes irreparable damage?

How can you quantify how much you miss someone who’s gone?

How can you value how much a heart can break?

How many times can it heal over and over?

How sometimes it won’t?

None of these will ever add to 42. None will ever have a definite answer, a consistent one, one that will be the same over time and space and person.

No one thing that will always make a heart stop hurting, or someone return, or whatever it is that we’re searching for to make us feel whole.

And it’s this uncertainty that can cause discomfort. It’s this discomfort that makes it seem easier to search for bones and name the planets rather than sit in the rubble. But it’s this ability to sit in the discomfort – to be peaceful with it in some ways – that’s important. Here it may not be that answering questions is the ultimate goal but rather creating a space that allows for the discomfort and the uncertainty and the multitude of greys in-between.

Maybe we need to truly trust that there are more than 50 shades of grey and not all of them are fucked up by any means. That we can make meaning out of certainty without having all the answers. That we can give kindness, spread compassion, so good work, based on depends and maybes and sometimes.

That humanity is allowed and accepted in all its 42s and heart beats and heart breaks. That we don’t search for answers where there may not be any. That we trust the wolves won’t only not come to our door but trust that they were never there to begin with.

But that’s harder to teach. Harder to put on a band around our wrist. This peacefulness sits inside us, waiting to be recognised and nurtured, if we could only trust ourselves to believe in it.

*Apologies and credit to Douglas Adams – if only the mice were right.

A change of space

I am a true academic nerd.

A card-carrying, flag-waving, hand-on-heart academic nerd. And I’m deeply happy and very peaceful about it.

About a week ago I arrived back from a 3-day trip to Dubrovnik where I attended a 3-day conference.

Australia to Croatia for a 3-day work trip – 4 planes there and 5 in the end to get back home (I had to go to another meeting in a different state in Australia on the way).

It was slightly insane and definitely a smidge hysterical when I discovered really and truly that 3 flights in a row is as much as my actually-getting-better fear of flying is really and truly better with.

And the thing is, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Even with 4 flights in a row. Maybe even with 5.

The conference was that good. It was that inspiring. And it reminded me why I entirely love storytelling and narrative-based research.

A friend asked me how it was and I told him it was ‘intellectually nourishing’. He had never heard that term before.

(I went to ID.Net’s Storytelling conference should you want to be inspired sometime: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/probing-the-boundaries/persons/storytelling-global-reflections-on-narrative/conference-programme-abstracts-and-papers/)

I had 3 days in a room listening to some incredibly passionate (and incredibly lovely) people tell the stories of their fantastically interesting work.

It still makes me want to use all the adjectives.

All the work was all very different to mine in myriad ways, even within a communal space of storytelling. Some people shared similar research interests but many did vastly different work and listening to what they do opened my eyes to whole new worlds. Worlds I will never work in but ones that I’m so happy to know exist because ground-breaking and community-grounded work is being done in so many corners of the world.

And the thing is, because I was on the other side of the world, and away from the vast majority of email and Moodle and my usual distractions – and because my deep jetlag ensured I could only concentrate on the words being said in front of me rather than my monkey mind – I actually had the chance to listen properly to what was being said. And to be inspired. And to realise all the goodness being spoken in front of me.

It was the coolest thing, says the academic nerd.

Because I was in a different space, I could be entirely in the moment. Somewhat by accident, I became enveloped in an academic mindfulness, a presence that I struggle to find sitting in my office. Emails were still flying about, things were still happening, due dates and deadlines still existed, the world kept flying along on its hectic pace, but nothing fell apart because I was in a storytelling bubble and didn’t answer everything the very second it was sent. Not that the world would fall apart without me but that I want to do the best of the jobs that are mine – still trying in many ways to be many (not all anymore) things to all people. It becomes easy then to get lost in the bits rather than the whole, to push aside what makes my academic nerd shine in the face of other loud and competing deadlines – the things that have to be done, that are important, that we all have to do as academics, and that will be different depending on the academic.

And so in this space half a world away, in a space full of ‘my people’ who understood intrinsically what I wanted to say because their minds worked in similar ways, I found my breath again, recognized that my heart still beat beneath everything else. Sitting in the beautiful sunsets, chatting madly to brilliant fellow conference-goers, things slowed down enough for me to appreciate how quickly ideas were flowing. There is nothing better than good wine, good food, and very good conversation.

But now I’m back. Back to the office with its emails, Moodle, very present deadlines, and all the other distractions (which may also include the office kittens but they do tend to be quite calming as well). All the rush and noise and the too-easy ability to slip back into the bits rather than the whole, the louder rather than the nourishing, the things that take up time but may not always challenge me to be more creative or open-eyed.

So I’ve made a promise to myself. I’m holding onto this feeling for as long as possible, come chapter deadlines and piles of marking.

I’m holding onto the inspiration.

I’m holding onto the joy.

I’m holding onto the space, even if it’s now more metaphoric than physical, that made me feel so present and in the moment of the work.

I’m not sure entirely how – mindfulness has always been tricky for me which feelings of being present always feel so precious. Yet, I’m hoping that just being aware of that space – that it can and does exist – is enough for now. To be aware of taking breaths throughout the day, especially when things are hectic and slightly overwhelming, to centre myself and find where the bit I’m doing fits into the more inspiring whole.

So, what do you think?

My Ma and 50 Shades of Grey

I never watch the Oscars. It’s far too long, even if I am just sitting in my pyjamas with a cup of tea and the ability to fall asleep at any moment, usually right before a major award is announced. But I have a deeply frivolous side so, on Tuesday morning, I read all the gossipy bits and looked at some very pretty dresses, particularly Keira Knightley’s Valentino.

But in all this silliness, I felt deeply sorry for Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia in 50 Shades of Grey.

http://www.laineygossip.com/Dakota-Johnson-Melanie-Griffith-awkward-at-2015-Oscars/37701

This may not be terribly shocking but I am not a fan of 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve written about the Twilight series and the dangerous stories it tells about love and goodness and suicidality. For those of you living in blessed ignorance, 50 Shades was written as a Twilight fanfic – Edward and Bella in bondage – the same stalking-equals-love, the same colourless lesser and needy female character to the male character where every possible positive adjective was used in his description. I’m coding 50 Shades for an upcoming chapter and it’s leeching the colour from my soul just a smidge.

I’m struggling to understand how a book that is said to empower women and embrace their sexuality describes a penis in more detail than the lead female character. That feels a somewhat odd sentence to write; odder that it’s true.

It feels ridiculous to have to say that bruises should never be badges of love.

To me, 50 Shades of Grey is deeply disheartening…

But this is not the point. Apparently the movie is better, or at least not as terrible as the book, although reviews have tended not to be overwhelming in their positivity. But – Anastasia apparently becomes an actual character, rather than simply a blank slate for Christian’s desires. Sam Taylor-Wood is an amazing artist so maybe her eye for detail won through. I’m hoping that, when I see the movie, I’ll see something character-driven rather than oh-my-god-Christian-Grey-is-just-a-perfect-man-driven. Mostly I’m hoping that Christian’s penis becomes a less important character than Anastasia.

(Writing this is making me realise just which bits of the book have upset me, not just as a feminist but as a lover of writing too. A few of us were discussing the books the other week and wept with laughter (laughed as we wept?) at some of the more well-used phrases – ‘oh my’ and ‘shattered into a million pieces’ came to mind. A book about sex that seems afraid of the word ‘vagina’. The coding really is as fun as it sounds.)

Yet the 50 Shades movie is making money and Dakota Johnson went to the Oscars, a rising star in a beautiful dress. Yay her – and I really mean that sincerely. Yet, if you watched the clip above, I wonder if you felt sorry for her as well? Her mother, the actress Melanie Griffith, who couldn’t hide her disdain for a movie that brought her to the Oscars too. Would she have been invited if not for her daughter? For the length of a televised interview, she couldn’t say she was proud of her daughter without deep reservations. And it seemed to upset her daughter, which is not surprising. What could have been a nice moment – if moments televised to the entire world during what is essentially a work event can be nice – was dented in front of millions of people.

Right then, I felt deeply relieved to have my mother. Admittedly, I’m always deeply relieved to have my Ma – she is one of the most calming people I know. Ma is one of the very few people in the entire world who has actually read my thesis and that is a true act of love. And she has always stood up for me, even when my decisions have made her shake her head in bemusement. ‘Are you sure you want to move to China in six days?’ ‘Are you sure you want to start a PhD?’ ‘You adopted a cat this afternoon?’ ‘Why are you coding that terrible book, darling? Why don’t you code a better one?’ No matter my decisions, and no matter how unhappy they may have made me while I’ve worked out other ones, I have always been sure that Ma was (and is) proud of me.

And on Tuesday morning, as deeply saccharine as this sounds, I felt far luckier than Dakota Johnson.

So, Ma, this is my thank you. x

Feeling all the DECRA feelings

This could just be my lack of sleep and the resulting general hysteria talking but I give the grants I’m writing nicknames in my head. Right now, the DECRA is Deczilla because it stomps through my life on its way to submission, towering over every other deadline and allocated task, causing general disruption. And yet, I’m strangely fond of it and love creating this project that might actually help those people who end up participating in it, yet is still true to who I am as a researcher.

It’s the green monster in ‘Oh, the places you’ll go!’ but that’s a deeply unwieldy acronym.

So in having this tumultuous love-hate drunk-dialling affair with Deczilla, I’ve been distracted. Upset at being a smidge ignored for the first time since her arrival, my little cat Laks has now taken to destroying all the toilet paper she can find, shredding it throughout the cottage in protest. And hiding all my pens under the couch. She is full of feelings, is Laks.

But, toilet-paper-strewn cottage or not, my head is entirely full of draft at the moment – my brain sectioned into different parts of the project description, where every word matters. Not that every word doesn’t matter usually but here, in eight pages, and structured sections all requiring completion, there is no space or allowance to quote poetry – even though Sylvia Plath describes it so much better than I ever will, this ‘mad miracle’ I’m trying to study. There is no space for tangents, no matter how interesting – all the interesting things have to remain interesting and full of so-what and gently punch the reader with its impact within the structured eight pages. Must admit that the idea of anything I do punching someone feels slightly against the whole ethos of my work. Could my work maybe just outline a door they’ve never seen before, and open it up for them? Like the wardrobe in Narnia but full of research validity.

Every word has to be perfectly polished because ‘good’ is no longer not even close to being good enough and, while this is exciting in a deeply nerdy way, the work it takes to make something truly outstanding and exceptional is immense. Kittens in tutus and dogs in tuxedo jackets, and all.

Deczilla has to be seriously decked out.

There is no space for the feelings of imposter syndrome and the uncertainty that can plague us all as researchers, at any stage of our career. I know I am the best researcher to do this project – and that this project has the potential to be truly and positively impactful for people who have never shared their stories before. And while writing that still makes me scratchy – creating a self bound to special snowflake-ness doesn’t come terribly naturally – in my heart I know that no one would make this project run or work in the ways that I will. With someone else, it would no doubt have less poetry, and where would its music be then? How would the stories be honoured?

And in all of this, my head is full, and I am distracted.

It bubbles away in the back of my mind so I wake up thinking about it – take notes randomly when things pop into my brain. Things that may not seem sensible at all to anyone with any sense – Plath’s ‘mad miracle’, the quote I badly paraphrase where losing demons could mean angels fleeing which I always thought was Rainer Maria Rilke but is apparently Tennyson…. But these matter because, as they bubble, they suddenly turn into part of the background or a justification for methodological approach. They create the foundation for constant questioning, for continual revolution. They ensure that I don’t get stuck in lazy presumption and easy tradition.

How can there not be a push-pull effect to things when life is so unexpected?

With so much serendipity in the world, research will always have its serendipitous ways too.

There is a paper written by Maggie O’Neill that circulated around the office a little while ago – ‘The Slow University: Work, Time, and Well-Being’ (http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/2226/3696). When everything is so rushed, and everyone is busy, and Deczilla has to be so monstrous because otherwise she’d be lost under other time commitments, the idea of taking time, and purposefully making space, to think and to reflect becomes so vital. Precious in this strange and secret way. Whispered so as to not disturb it. Not just for wellbeing, but for making projects beautiful, for writing thoughtfully and carefully. It’s an article I need to read again and think some more on.

Maybe the beauty of Deczilla lies in her very monstrosity. Like Eco talked about in his book on the history of beauty, sometimes you choose the face upon which you gaze. Sometimes there is a singular beauty in the grotesque, in the terrifying. Writing this grant not only gives me an opportunity to create a wabi-sabi project of my very own but, in the community we have here, allows me to see the amazing work of some truly incredible colleagues. Things I would have missed otherwise. These singular beauties, the face I choose to gaze upon.

So, I’m off again to another workshop to harness the monstrous stomping, to make the poetry more realised into grant-speak, and to create a project that could even set my field a little alight.

How do you feel about grant writing?

The stories we carry

The other day, a conversation with a friend that started one way ended in an entirely different direction, which is pretty normal, but also left me thinking about how to articulate the emotional life of research within an increasingly quantified world, and where these stories of human-ness fit.

Bear with me…

If you count the start of my PhD as the length of my life as a researcher, I am coming up to my 9th anniversary – my PhD took a while. Apart from making me a million years old, it is almost nine years of working with stories of suicide, self-harm, and bereavement – and missing now – as much as stories of resilience, healing, and meaning-making.

During my PhD, I used to dream about a few of the participants, especially towards the end in the write-up – the ones who stood on the brink of the precipice with very little holding them back, apart from chance and hope. There is one woman who I’m certain is not alive now, who chose death because she didn’t want to live, whose words still hit me in the pit of my stomach when I read them. There is the veteran who I met at a workshop who told his traumatic story in such a straightforward way because he didn’t realise that everyone else didn’t live their lives with the same pain and worry constantly simmering just below the surface. There are the colleagues in remote communities who keep on doing the most amazing work amidst all the challenges and shared grief that come with living in remote communities (in Australia at any rate) that are very easy for people not to see when they live away from there.

Writing of her study on child suicide, the very wonderful Bec Soole wrote that her research meant “there is now a melancholy that I humbly carry within myself”. That hit home, for me and for others. It’s true – every story, whether told in a research context or on a plane or while cutting up fruit before a footy match, stays with you, even in the tiniest way. Even when you think you’ve forgotten. Some stories are heavy, some lighter, but they are all carried. What I’ve heard in the past impacts on how I see people now in terms of risk and vulnerability, how I see myself. It takes a concerted effort sometimes to turn it off, to not see everyone like this. The stories shared, often of people’s darkest moments standing on the precipice, are intimacies, held close, carried as a reminder of why the research is important, and why it needs to be done in a way that is rigorous and ethical (because badly-done research helps no one) but also in a way that is deeply human.

Research – at least for me, in this field I fell into – is more than just however-long-an-interview-lasts with a person asking them questions in whatever form they may take and then ending the conversation and walking away; the person then to become a line in a spreadsheet. Much research is, and has been, done in this way and well-written, heavily-cited papers have been created from the findings of such research. And lots of it really has been good research.

But participants are people. And people are more than their experience that has peaked research interest – they are more than their mental illness, more than their bereavement, more than their death even, because there is (or was) a whole world of life around them.

I am suicide bereaved and this unquestionably impacts who I am as a researcher – just as all experiences shape who we are as people and researchers. When I first started, ideas around research would be framed in my head around ‘Would I let my Ma participate in this?’, ‘Would I let someone ask Ma this question?’ Now, a million years on, this has evolved.  There are more people in my mind when I think of how my research ideas would come across, how they would impact upon participants – there are people with lived experience who very kindly read drafts of things for me and tell me how to make it stronger and more appropriate and relevant. However, I am also far more aware of myself in a methodological sense – I’ve formed a kind of reflexive praxis, inspired by Jaworski and Tamas, which grounds every step of a project: what am I asking, what am I seeing, how am I hearing? Am I hearing what the participant is saying or are my experiences seeping through? There are times when being a sister and a friend makes me a very safe space for participants, and this has helped me become (hopefully) a good researcher. Yet, on the opposite end, during analysis, to be a (hopefully) good researcher, I need to be aware of how this could cloud others’ stories and I need to step away from those parts, to constantly reflect on the stories in front of me, shared by others. It can be exhausting – analysis is always exhausting – on intellectual and emotional levels. And it also takes time – sometimes it feels like the longest time – to sit with people’s narratives and work through the themes and the language, and how the different stories speak to each other. To make sure my analysis is constantly grounded into their experiences and my retelling is authentic to all of this. But this way of research, to me at least, honours the bravery it takes to participate in studies and the stories that I will then carry with me. I can’t imagine being a researcher in any other way. OK, that’s not true, I absolutely can, but this way feels honest to who I am and what I want to do. We always talk about making sure our methodologies suit our methods suit our questions – and perhaps who we are as well needs to factor in that same way?

Other researchers in similar fields have spoken of the stories they carry and I guess it’s more natural in a way to experience this when your research means interaction with lived experiences of trauma, as people tell their stories. But do other researchers in other disciplines have a sense of this too? Maybe an equation so close to being solved and yet… Or a finding seemingly familiar and yet just that little bit different to maybe be unique… Do other researchers, when in that position, carry that story too, of being so close to an answer with it just lingering out of reach?

The thing is – maybe I am too sensitive to the stories, maybe they shouldn’t make me cry, maybe I would write millions more papers if it was more distanced from me, if I didn’t need the time. So many maybes – they’re very pretty, like butterflies, but just as short-lived. Because the day that hearing one of these stories doesn’t make me tear up, or reach out for a hand, or just sit quietly with someone afterwards, is the day I walk away from this field and not look back. Because these stories should hurt – they should be felt. They should spark something. And however much we carry afterwards will always be far less than the person who experienced it in the first place. We don’t shed our humanity simply because we take on the mantle of ‘researcher’ – or at least we shouldn’t. And our research doesn’t become any less valid or rigorous simply by virtue of caring for our participants.

There will always be stories that weigh just a little bit, whose ghosts linger just a little bit longer, but these are reminders of what we should honour, and why ethics, rigour, and humanity of our research matters. Writing grants now, enacting myself as a quantified self, I wish a little that I could write in a more grant-like way and not get tongue-tied trying to explain why the emotion behind it makes for better science. I wish a little for graphs that demonstrate it. But I also know the work I’ve done (and the work I am asked to do) exists because of who I am as a person, methodologically-placed and all.