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.

 

 

Embracing Yes

Shonda Rhimes is a bit of a hero for me; her writing, her vulnerability and fearlessness in speaking out and challenging norms, and her way of seeing a long-term narrative into being.

She is deeply awesome.

(Plus Scandal has the best coat porn of any show ever.)

It’s a bit over one year today that the Thesis Whisperer blog, run by the wonderful Inger Mewburn, published a piece I wrote about the struggles about being an early career researcher in an uncertain role. I felt so scared – so naked – publishing that piece but met some amazing friends on Twitter through it – with their own fantastic blogs, see here, here, and here for just a few. That vulnerability was worth it. In it, I wondered about the practice of always saying ‘yes’ and how many yes-es could be balanced at any one time without being dropped.

And in her new book ‘The Year of Yes’, Shonda Rhimes talks about what she experienced in a year of saying yes – new experiences, new ways of being and doing, a wholeness of life uncovered.

And in the year since the Thesis Whisperer piece, I’ve also begun to truly believe in the power of saying yes.

I have this fear of losing myself in work sometimes where I get stuck in how I do something – too comfortable, too tunnel-visioned. That one day the words ‘but that’s how I’ve always done it’ will come out of my mouth when faced with a new, maybe better, way of doing something.

In saying yes, I feel less at risk of that, simply because I’m always around people who do things differently to me and so always explaining why I want to do something a particular way – and then smooshing both ways together to create something new and workable.

In saying yes, I work with extraordinary people who do work vastly different (and sometimes really similar) to my own but who are also fascinated in seeing the world just slightly differently to how they saw it before.

In saying yes, I am writing this in a university space in a small country town a few hours away from where I live, working on a project where I have learned about Aboriginal history, community-embedded art studios, and the politics of playgrounds. And seen more art deco architecture than I was ever expecting here.

Saying yes has been pretty brilliant.

But its brilliance has also been brighter because I have also discovered the power of saying ‘yes but…’

Yes but can I have another week to do the analysis so I can finish marking assignments…

Yes but if we start the analysis this way, it will be easier to pull together for a paper…

Yes but if I go adventuring to small country towns, coffee is vital.

Thankfully, I have yet to meet someone for whom coffee (or at least a cup of tea) has not been vital.

And in this way, ‘but’ has brought a balance to the excitement and inspiration of ‘yes’. Passion alone is sometimes not enough when you’re tired – it doesn’t get you through every challenge. What passion does do though – when you balance it with ‘but’ – is allow the colour to stay in everything – allows you to work through the night when there’s a deadline, to balance what needs to be balanced when there seems to be quite a number of balls in the air.

Passion nourishes you in ways that pragmatism could never do, but pragmatism keeps your feet on the ground, reminds you to eat, and keeps your iron levels from dropping.

Passion gives you the courage to try something completely new – even if it doesn’t work – just to know that you’ve tried it. And – as fellow academic nerds will also know – when something new works, it’s the best high.

Saying yes has made me more creative, bolder, and braver in my work. It hasn’t always led to success but I’ve felt proud of everything I’ve submitted this year and attempted to do.

And that nourishes in both a passionate and pragmatic way.

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.

Passion and lingering ghosts

The International Association for Suicide Prevention conference was in Montreal last week. Like Dubrovnik, this conference re-ignited and re-inspired my passion for the work. There were a lot of amazing people there – generous-hearted and ridiculously clever. There is something very cool about being able to talk with researchers who you’ve admired from afar and find out that they’re wonderfully and brilliantly human.

It made me think though of why we do the research we do – so many of us there in the one place and still not even close to being everyone – and what drives us to keep going. How the passion stays vital even in a metaphoric winter. And this is something that, were I to generalise, would feel too broad – that I’d be assuming there was one voice. What being in Montreal did was crystalise my love for this work – and how the personal and the professional are so entwined, why they both matter, why (I think) for me the personal grounds the professional, as well as strengthens it. I’ve written about some of this in a previous post.

I have lost a close friend and a brother to suicide: I was 16 when Mark died and 21 when Michael died. Mark has been dead for more than half my life now, an anniversary a little while ago which shook me quite badly. I’m not sure how I’ll be when that milestone is reached with my brother, how my family will feel.

Initially, I didn’t speak about these things so much. I still don’t speak about these things so much, so this feels a naked thing to be doing. The language of grief felt too limited to try and articulate what I felt, when sometimes I didn’t know at all, and feelings sometimes fluctuated. And sometimes you couldn’t be sure of your listeners either – sometimes I didn’t want to have to comfort them as well. Sometimes I just needed to be able to sit in the sadness, just for a little – to acknowledge that these two boys are frozen now in the past and my memories will only dim from here on in, that is, assuming, I’ve remembered correctly in the first place.

Memories though can be bastards.

There are beautiful memories of them both. Mark was the first boy to tell me I was pretty – so important when you’re 15 and deeply awkward. I remember walking along a street with Mark when a gust of wind roared through so strongly that it lifted me off my feet – and Mark held my hand, anchoring me to the ground. Michael was my idiot little brother – I never imagined he would not be there even when we were fighting over who should do the dishes, or who the new kitten loved more. These were boys whose presence I never thought to doubt. There never seemed any reason to doubt.

And there are other memories. The aftermaths of their deaths. And here, I remember Michael’s more clearly (or less hazily) because I was in such shock after Mark, felt such guilt. Everything passed by in a slow, painful blur. All I remember of Mark’s funeral is standing outside the church not wanting to go in because, if I went in, then it would be true and he really would be dead. I fell into a depression after this, stuck in the grief and the guilt that I know now is so common in suicide bereavement. I didn’t know this then though. I didn’t know then how many risk factors Mark (and Michael for that matter) ticked, not that this would make any difference to the sadness really. I didn’t know feelings could be so strong that they could kill you. I was put on anti-depressants for six months, where all my feelings sank as though under water so they were no longer so visible and painful. And then I was taken off them and worried whether feelings would ever be safe again.

When Michael died, it was almost as if what I’d experienced after Mark protected me. I knew it wasn’t my fault, and so guilt didn’t haunt me. Grief felt – not easier, not lighter – but different in that I knew the pain of grief dimmed, even if it left a scar. I remember first being told of his death. My hair was still damp from a shower and there was brilliant sunlight pouring into the lounge room where my kitten was sleeping, her eyes determinedly closed against the light. It was such an ordinary morning. I remember crying and packing while my partner at the time chain-smoked cigarettes.

Mostly though I remember the flowers that came in abundance after Michael died. Bright gerberas and other bunches seemingly made for grief – not too bright, not too fragrant. They sat on the table in the darkened dining room. More flowers than I’d ever seen in the house before. For all their good intent and love, they seemed to loom in the darkness – for the first time, I felt close to understanding Plath’s issue with the tulips in her room. My grief stole my breath – I want to say ‘our’ but I barely knew what I was feeling then let alone anyone else – and these things gulped all the air that was left. They felt more alive than the rest of us, more present in the space.

I’ve only begun to be able to bear flowers since – putting flowers from my ramshackle garden in milk bottles in the house. Flowers from florists though are still, to me, funerals and fuck-ups. Give me a bunch of flowers and I will automatically assume someone needs to be mourned, or something forgiven.

Sometimes the ghosts that linger are very stupid ones.

The only thing I remember of Michael’s funeral though is sitting in the front row, watching the coffin, willing it all not to be true, that is was all some fantastical mistake. I couldn’t grasp properly that my brother lay in there and that it was the end of him. I want to say that my heart hurt but I felt so numb and fractured, that nothing and everything hurt all at once, and none of that made any sense.

And in the aftermath of losing Michael, scared of falling apart like I had after Mark, and after being told by my then partner he was afraid ‘I would change’, I focused on being strong. I went back to uni and ended up with the best marks of my undergrad degree. I was untouchable because I pushed all the feelings aside to not let anyone know, still wary of these feelings that I knew from grieving Mark.

A year later though, I realised just how stupid this was, just how much I was hurting myself in being ‘strong’. I almost missed Michael’s anniversary and, in realising this, all the grief that I’d pushed aside fell over me like an avalanche. I realised just how much the death had left a wound, how little it had healed. And so I had to embrace those feelings of grief – the sadness and the anger and all the ones in-between. I had to rage about Michael’s death (here, Dylan Thomas felt more apt) and, as all my baggage became apparent, rage about Mark’s death as well. That their light had died, that it had just slipped away, nothing to could be done anymore.

And these losses stay with me still – healed scars but scars nonetheless. One of the things though – one of the positive things – is that I am very peaceful about feeling all the feelings. I accept that my heart is well and truly beating on my sleeve. I am very good at poker simply because people rarely believe my poker face can be so non-existent. A Brazilian poem called ‘The Almost’ inspires because it argues that you can’t live in the grey and the almost – that sadness exists so you can feel happiness, heartbreak for love, hopelessness for hope.

I didn’t enter this field because of Mark and Michael though. In many ways, it has made me more careful of how I research and what I do. It keeps me honest to what the purpose of this research should be, and that this job should be one of constant learning and questioning. I want to be passionate about this work because that passion is grounded in respect of those who share their stories, of the grief that those who work with me in projects have experienced.

I’ve sat down once before and written about Michael – encouraged by a brilliant Irishman I’d just met , and who is still a friend, to talk about the emptiness. I’ve not written about Mark before. That first piece took me months to write because I wanted it to be a perfect reflection of what had happened and how I felt – and nothing was perfect enough. But how could it be? All it could be – all this piece can be – was how the story came out in that moment. And in acknowledgment that this story differs depending on who I’m talking to, when I’m talking.

It also needs to acknowledge that these memories don’t tell the whole story, aren’t the whole story, can never be the whole story. There are things I know I don’t remember well and tell awkwardly because things are hazy. There are things I don’t know. My brother’s life and death were more than a fear of flowers; Mark’s more than standing outside a church. They are far more – far far more – than my grief. They exist now as a collective memory almost, shared between all of us who knew them, as we weave all our memories together.

I wonder though, will they exist after we’ve forgotten?

The majority of people in my life now have only ever known me in the after-time of these deaths. They will only ever know of Mark or Michael if I speak of them, and then only the memories I have or the stories told that day. It is strange sometimes to have something that I feel still in the pit of my stomach, that still seizes at my chest and stops my breath, that others don’t understand completely. And this is not in the sense of suicide bereavement and grief – this is shared with far too many people – but in that we are all trying to explain the person we loved long ago, and lost in a haze, 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.

In all of this though, after all of this, I have finally found a voice, a niche, which feels right to who I am and to who I’ve lost. That they would laugh at my Sylvia Plath work because neither of them understood my continuing love of poetry but they would be proud of what the work otherwise, of the stumbles which have led to so much learning and, eventually, some success. That they would understand the drive behind work that sometimes leads to be the purchase of cat hats (and long story) but has also led to some of the most important friendships and mentoring of my life.

And for this, my work is always, will always be, in memory of Michael and Mark.