Writing and helplessness and being comfortably numb

I’m thinking about writing and helplessness and being comfortably numb. I was chatting with my nephew, 27, as we set off to see Exit through the Gift Shop:

(sold out so I suggest you book ahead!) Now, dear reader, 27 is the young man’s age – my sisters and I are not such keen Get Smart fans as to have called our offspring by the code number:

So on the long drive to not see ‘the Banksy movie’, nephew, 27, suggested I’d been a bad influence on him. That influence being my inability to keep a ‘proper’ job and insistence on living with less in order to spend time with trees.

Well, not ‘bad’ but ‘an’ influence on him: he just didn’t seem to be able to care about money, or tether himself to the things that money tethers one to – mortgage, things, bank loans. He has, subsequently, ended up back in a converted shed at his folks after a series of jobs he quit as soon as it became clear he could work there forever.

I, Aunt, 45, have had a mortgage for ten years – by some miracle. But I understand the influence. I’ve avoided the mainstream and managed to follow my heart and that has meant living frugally, in a sense. Well, I don’t think it’s frugal, and certainly it’s a relative poverty (I have running water, hot water, access to education, food, shelter, a computer, a car, take in the theatre on occasion, etc), but there are not many ‘modern trappings’ to be found in my home and lots of second-hand treasure. Recently, for example, I was gifted with a fantastic second-hand kitchen through the generosity of my sister-in-law (brother’s wife) and the home-handyman skills of my brother-in-law (sister’s husband). Why? Because I needed one and my sister-in-law had a spare.

Back to nephew, 27. The money was good in the last job – making windows. And he was fairly autonomous, which suits him.

‘But some of those guys have been there for twenty years’ he told me. ‘I like windows, I’ve got nothing against windows, and I know those guys have a life outside the factory: families and friends. But in the factory, they’re invisible. They just stop existing. And life becomes about how to do the least possible amount of work.’

Nephew, 27, is not a lazy man. He is a car-freak. He may be unpaid, but he is never unemployed.

Recently, he began working as a spray-painter/panel beater and the same feelings are creeping over him. ‘People seem okay with just working to keep working’ he tells me, ‘but it’s like being dead’.

I told him that the Overland blog had just introduced me to Raj Patel and his assertion that human labour (and food) as a ‘commodity’ to be bought and sold in the marketplace, is a relatively new concept. We agreed that the prevailing industrialist/capitalist world view has created an insane world and we took an approving view of folks who still grow their own vegetables.

But we didn’t come to a conclusion about how to reconcile rejection of the idea that we should ‘trade in our hours for a handful of dimes’ and the reality of resisting the depression that comes with never having any money.

Nevertheless, if such a beautiful and quietly rebellious human being as nephew, 27, is the result of any small ‘influence’ of mine, I must be doing something right.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

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  1. This is a tough one. I feel as though I am constantly reevaluating my priorities, particularly when it comes to money and purpose. (On a related aside, no-one in my family understands what I do. I was the first person to attend uni in my family, and it’s a running joke that I’m still there.)

    In my youth, I worked nightshift at a factory while attending uni during the day – and it nearly killed me, and not just because of fatigue. I worked there on and off for four years and found it slowly gnawed away at pieces of me.

    Sometimes I think that’s a flaw in me, of not being able to separate identity from labour while so many other people have to by necessity. Yet this is labour under capitalism: alienation and exploitation. And I think people cope with alienation in different ways.

    I also never have any money, and I also still have things gnawing away at me, just different things.

    1. Thank you Jacinda. I’ve worked some awful jobs too – one as a dispatch clerk in a printing factory specialising in Real Estate literature … it was horrid. The folks in there were reconciled, though. There was even a hierarchy. But it was in a street in Burnley with no trees and I didn’t last.

      A very interesting point about “not being able to separate identity from labour” – one of the great heartbreaks for some people when they retire: they feel like they cease to exist because they are no longer identified as the role they once played.

      Sometimes I think I’m just lazy. But I did try to be an office person, for ages. Well, a few years.

      When I was 16 I was sure it was the world that was wrong. The world that just wasn’t offering any kind of work worth doing. And besides, poets were meant to be poor and live in attics with beautiful lovers. 29 years later, I make my own work and I love it – but it barely pays the bills. And as for the beautiful lovers … ah well.

      I’ll be interested to see what nephew, 27, makes of it all.

    2. Sweet Jesus, there’s probably a whole heart-rending novel tied up in that comment. And I thought i was someone who wore his heart on his sleeve. I have a lot to learn.
      Clare, this is a very interesting post and it has my somewhat jaded mind ticking over, enough to want to write a blog in response. Which I promise I will do next week.

    3. Hi Clare!

      The wanderer isn’t a concept that makes me feel at all sad or lost, on the contrary it fills me with excitement knowing that my life will not become routine and mundane – and material possessions and excess money seem to be the cause of grief for so many (GFC anyone?!).

      Like your nephew, 27, I cannot imagine myself going through life in the same job, day in, day out. I am 22 and finishing a degree in journalism. While I love writing (admittedly we could question the experience of writing in journalism which is why my mind began to wander in the first place) any time I have gone on work placement to a magazine or newspaper, be it one day or one week, I am filled with a sense of dread that I might die from the lack of oxygen in these high rise buildings, I might go blind from staring at the computer screen, I might lose my brains folding and unfolding clothes to be photographed (yes really!)

      I am also a pilates instructor and personal trainer. I also love to cook and entertain and have a food blog. I used to wish that I could just do the things that make me happy without requiring one solid job printed on a business card. And then one day I woke up and i thought ‘well gosh! Why not?!’

      My future – freelance writer, aspiring novelist, food blogger, caterer of children’s birthday parties and personal trainer.

      How much money I’ll earn I’m not sure, but the knowledge that I won’t need to do the black skirt suit and the 11am coffee and muffin habit make me so intensely happy. Instead I walk down to the beach and read a novel and observe the passer-bys. And perhaps then I’ll go home and eat homemade chicken soup for four nights in a row to save money (the nicest chicken soup it is too, check my blog for the recipe…


      …and I’ll plan my classes and write my articles and do yoga and enjoy my thoughts.

      Luckily for me I have a boyfriend who has complete faith in this plan, he recommends i read ‘The Four Hour Work Week’ …

      (http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/) …

      So perhaps Nephew, 27, would enjoy that too to soothe his guilt!

      1. Hey Jennifer, thanks for reading. It sounds like you have, as they say, a plan! Substitute veg curry for chicken soup and I totally get you. The old job/role=identity equation seems to be morphing into a more complex if job=(a) and (b)=sanity and identity=(x + b x a) … well, I never was that great at algebra but you, clearly, get the picture because you are living it! Hurrah! And excellent form for boyfriend with complete faith – though perhaps it’s luckier for him than for you 🙂 I shall pass on the recommendation to Nephew, 27.

        Is it guilt, I wonder? Or perplexity?

        1. Good question! It shouldn’t be guilt, so hopefully it’s not the case, a sense of isolation at first while you buck the trend from the rest of the world…and then…calm!

          And i adore a good veg curry! You should check out Govindas in Darlinghurst – movie and vegetarian buffet for $25!

  2. Aarrgghhh – I’ve been trying to finish this article and watch these at the same time. I think ‘Procrastination’ sums up my mere existence best:

    1. Ha ha saw the Banksy movie and I think I’m in love though you might not like the elephant thing (I didn’t) but it was face-paint so …

  3. Clare, I so much admire the control you have taken of your life, choosing not to be coopted by work and the false promises of capitalism. This post particularly interested me because a few weeks ago I decided no more wage slave and gave 4 weeks notice – last week coming up. I’m not absolutely sure what prompted it – the loss of someone close to me, not enough time to write, too many years working (I started at 11 weighing fruit in a fruit shop after school)or just plain tired. I thought I might wake at 3 in the morning in a cold sweat, wondering what have I done. But nope, I just feel relieved. So good on you and your nephew for making that decision early enough to make a difference to your life.

    1. Ah Trish, thanks for reading – what a wonderful comment. Courage is always rewarded and after the relief – new horizons. Congratulations.

      As for the ‘control’ I have taken of my life … hmmm: perhaps, in a careening, stumbling sort of a way 🙂 Most of the time I feel like I’m about to descend into financial chaos (oops, I already did that) and really, if I didn’t have such a supportive family, I wouldn’t have been able to take the risks I have and still keep a decent home for my girl …

      I began working when I was 14, at ‘Dickens Supermarket’. It had already been out-bigged by Woolworth (now Safeway) and all my customers were elderly and had been shopping there for years – since it was the new ‘supermarket’. They didn’t like the big Woolies where no-one had time to help. One old woman used to sit in a chair while I did her shopping from a list and then I’d call her a taxi. I remember the debate about extending Saturday morning trading from 12 til 1 and opening up on Thursday nights til 9 (Friday night shopping had been a big hit) and how it would lead to the destruction of the family …

      Every good wish for your writing and your new adventures!!

      I have to say: reCAPTCHA says ‘project laziness’ haha!

  4. Dickens Supermarket – oh my goodness – so long ago but I remember it as the first supermarket ever (in Ringwood, Victoria) and thinking that was such a wonderful thing. And those debates about late night shopping and the sacrifice made by those who worked hours not good for family life, family once so revered by capitalists. But those debates have long since abated. Weekends so rarely attract penalties – every day is the same as another. Who gives a flying fig if some poor bastard can’t attend their kid’s cricket game or see a movie together on Saturday night like every other family. Late capitalism doesn’t care let alone reward you time and a half or double time for your sacrifice. But there I go off on another tangent.

    1. How fantastic that you remember Dickins in its hey day!! She was a rather dilapidated tax write-off for Coles when I worked there (and I worked there Thurs nights and Sat mornings for 4 years!) – with a cash register that went ‘ding’ and only gave you the total cost (I still count change back to people, when I get the chance – it was the best part of the job!). We were also in charge of our registers … could change the paper or do whatever and not stand there like a dweeb waiting for a ‘superior’ with a key. I remember when I got a trolley boy – oh the power! In those days, there were check-out chicks and trolley boys. Funny to think of it the idea of check-out boys being laughable. Good old sexism (wish it was dead).

      As for the tangent … go for it! I got paid time-and-a-half for that extra hour, at first. Our local Safeway is open til midnight nearly every day of the year and nearly all the evening workers are mums – for very average wages. I sometimes think how exhausted they must be during the day. And it’s made me lazy – I shop more, because I don’t have to plan.

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