Monday, July 12, 2010

After the Eclipse

There was a solar eclipse early this morning a little while before dawn, my time. Eclipses, solar and lunar, are important in astrology and this one took place in my sun sign, Cancer, and made a variety of connections in my chart. It fell in my third house of communications and so maybe it's no surprise that I have a strong urge to write today. What's more surprising for me is that the urge is about more personal stuff even though I have a lot of thoughts/ideas on biblical, sexuality and political issues calling out to me, wanting me to play with them in this public space.

When I set up this blog, almost 18 months ago now, it wasn't set up to be a personal site where I talk about my life and my self and all the various dramas that crop up as they do. And it's certainly not meant to be a site where I vent and rant and rage about whatever is upsetting me at the time. Far from it; the purpose of this site is basically to research my thoughts, as my friend and teacher, Ed Conrad, would put it. Ed would tell all his research students that we don't know what we know until we start writing about it. That's why teaching and research go so well together. Just the other day, a friend of mine made the astute comment that the more one knows about something the more one is impelled to teach it. Teaching is a way of gathering thoughts together into clumps called classes. She also understood, too, that often the best way to learn something is to actually teach it.

So this blog is a place where I try to find out about what I know. I've rehearsed ideas here for a number of essays and articles I've been working on. It's a place where I reflect upon what I've read,where I tease out and play with ideas. But the beauty of the blog medium is that it's a public space, each blog is part of a network of blogs doing the same sort of stuff. We can read each other and comment on each other, something analogous to a seminar or a classroom (the ideal classroom perhaps). A blog is kind of a combination of a journal/magazine and a conference. On my blog, I've been exploring my ideas, finding out what I know, playing with my thoughts, sharing my ideas, learning from others, while at the same time others learn from me too (at least so I'm told by the feedback I get).

At the same time I haven't tried to avoid the personal either. I learnt early on that bracketing out the personal is not necessarily conducive to clarity of thought. We are all subjects with specific frameworks of perception and experience. Rather than deny such frameworks, it can be enriching to acknowledge them and deploy them consciously. That's the particular talent of queer readings of texts; it's also been one of the important attributes of feminist criticism and reflection. And I remember for a time there was something called autobiographical criticism, at least in biblical studies, the merging of the personal with the theoretical to engage with the text. The texts of our lives can be just as important as any other text.

Not that I'm planning to do that in this post. No, what I'll be doing is looking at my life, reflecting on my situation to find out what I know, to see if I have a narrative that makes sense, to just take stock. And when I get to the end I hope I will publish it, not least, so that all of you who know me can get a better sense of what's been going on with me, especially if I've seemed a bit odd or distant, and certainly in terms of blogging, much quieter of late.

A week ago I turned 58. As it's said in French, I have 58 years... behind me (and a few more days, a week now too). The older one gets, I guess, the more birthdays serve as times for reviewing one's life, of pondering where to from here. In my case, my birthday serves as a reminder of just how anomalous I am, or as another friend of mine would put it, just what a misfit, how queer, I am. Friends of mine roughly about my age are planning their retirements, some already have retired. In my case though, retirement is the last thing on my mind. However the work I want to do, the work I'm most equipped to do is just not available. I'm talking about academic work and by work I don't just mean a job you do to get some money in, I'm talking about what can be termed a career, or maybe a vocation. The word career too often today is associated with climbing up the workplace or professional hierarchy, not something I'm all that interested in as such. So I'll go for the word vocation.

When I went to university back in the early 90s I went for two reasons. First of all I needed a rest after the years with the AIDS Council, especially as QuAC at that stage had gone in a direction that I considered problematic. But my enthusiasm was excited when I discovered Studies in Religion at uni. I knew more than anything else that was the area I wanted to study. In terms of sexuality, homosexuality, it was a key area for maintaining and transforming attitudes and social norms and I still think that. At the same time, in those days there was a burgeoning in LGBT/sexuality studies courses and a rush of theory, most notably queer theory, and a by then well-established feminist and gender scholarship too. I didn't plan to but ended up in biblical studies, Old Testament studies particularly, when the discipline was undergoing an exciting and dare I say liberating paradigm shift from an older and unicentric historical critical theoretical model to a pluralistic, polycentric, multi-vocal, not model, but milieu. It was an exciting time, but a time which I can safely say is now almost dead.

I've watched that death over the last few years as one by one the courses disappear and the positions too. I've watched as departments and schools and study programs have gone. I subscribe to the Chronicle of Higher Education Job Search Agent which has given me a ringside seat at the decline of various disciplines, not just biblical studies, in North America. Various terms have been used to describe the processes, the assault on the humanities, the death of the humanities, the corporatisation of universities etc etc. Back in 2008 I was at the SBL International Meeting in Auckland and a number of people were talking jokingly about setting up biblical studies communes, where all us unemployed biblical scholars could live together and support each other as we continued our biblical studies work. I guess, a kind of farming commune cum biblical studies research centre, which has a certain kind of appeal. Monasteries must have been a bit like that once upon a time. Mind you a modern biblical studies commune would have to have a broad base to incorporate all the adjunct theoretical and associated disciplines that are part and parcel of engaging with biblical texts today.

The only places where biblical studies survives seem to be church/religious institutions which for obvious reasons are not places that will employ the likes of me. And there's not really much that interesting coming out of most of them either. Instead the text is kept tame for denominational purposes. All very vanilla and white bread really except for those fundamentalist universities and colleges over in the USA which crop up every once in a while on the job lists to remind you that in the hierarchy of knowledges, LGBT concerns are pretty much out there with the garbage. Certainly not vanilla, those. I doubt that there is anything culinary that can adequately describe them.

So over the last few years, I've soldiered on with an almost reckless tenacity, applying and applying and applying. In the meantime, I've survived on sessional work over the years apart from a really bad patch I went through in 2004. I was quite burnt out and depressed then following a very intense 2003, after finishing the PhD, which I spent editing the dissertation for publication and working on a number of other publishing projects, all the while surviving on next to nothing through sessional teaching. Then from 2005 onwards more and more my sessional work was doing organising with the University based National Tertiary Education Union rather than any teaching. Union work really exposed me to the dark side of University life. Corporatisation has centralised power at the top as well as the imposition of a regime of quite intense micro-management for all staff. And at a time of restricted resources, such regimes tend to make life quite unpleasant for everyone caught up in them. I've seen it before at other times in my working life and I saw it again in the universities I worked at. If there's not outright bullying then there's a constant buckpassing which only barely stops short of scapegoating. There's been quite a few times over the last few years doing organising work when I've had to draw on my experience of telephone counselling back in my AIDS Council days, because I was dealing with deeply distressed and demoralised members who had had enough or had their backs to the wall and turned to the union for help.

My purpose in telling all this is to show that I had really started to wonder whether academic work, university work in general, was really worth the effort. This was 2008. By July of that year, I'd finished a long stint of union work at two different universities. I'd decided to go to that SBL conference in Auckland, which for me felt like a homecoming after a long absence. The rest of the year I had some writing commitments to complete and so I stayed out of the job market to do so; I had enough money saved from all the union work to keep me going. (Before then, between the union gigs, I'd been exploring the broader job market as well as the academic one). And I'd decided that 2009 would be the year in which things would open out one way or another. After all we had the new Labor gov't and there was going to be more resources for higher education flowing through.

It turned out I was right about 2009 but not in the way I expected. I kicked off this blog which I guess gave me more of a profile, linking me much more directly into the world of biblical studies. It also brought an old friend back into my life. I also knew that early last year there was a significant astrological event in my chart taking place to do with career and public profile. Sure enough on the very day in question I was rung out of the blue and offered sessional work at a university here. This pattern continued in the middle of the year with both sessional university and union work offered me out of the blue. I was also being sounded out for some more long term but sessional teaching work at another local institution and a couple of other Australian academic jobs in biblical studies were also advertised in apparently secular institutions. (Many secular universities offer religion courses only through partnerships with denominationally based colleges, making them only quasi-secular).

So it seemed that maybe, just maybe things might be turning around careerwise. At the same time the revived friendship was getting very close - intense might be a good way of putting it. I don't think I've ever had the kind of intellectual rapport with anyone that I had with him then. If I fell in love with him, and I probably did, it was probably for his mind or maybe his ethics. But falling in love, any sort of romantic relationship was not what he wanted and that was fine with me. The friendship was most important; I already had a model in my life of someone, a long time friend, who had once fallen in love with me. And there are friends I have who I had fallen in love with once upon a time but the friendship has continued despite that. Falling in love, is probably an all too common pain or pang of close and long-term friendship. The friendship, though, should take first priority.

There are two other themes important for last year. Loss, grief, death is one. As regular readers might remember I launched the blog just after the deaths of two friends. One death was sudden, unexpected, heart attack. He was a few years younger than me too. The other was my old friend and astrological twin, Colin. His wasn't unexpected although it happened more quickly than I had hoped. As well as being AIDS workers and AIDS activists together back in the old days, Colin and I had shared a house with a third person for about 8 years up until 2003. That other person had died, unexpectedly, almost two years to the day before Colin's death. It was as if a whole slab of my life had been deleted. That was thrown into sharper relief because many of the people who had been regularly visiting that household in those years were themselves also dead. And that time of year, late January through early March, seems to be compacted with anniversaries of the dead. A long ago boyfriend of mine had also died unexpectedly in February three years before Colin's death and there have been other deaths around that time in the last few years too. These issues of loss and grief came back again later last year when my mother had a big health scare too involving hospitalisation and some surgery end of September.

The other theme that unfolded late in the year might be called the craziness of friends. I'm not certain what it was but all of a sudden a lot of friends of mine were having crises. Some were also friends of my flatmate and so the home space got drawn into some of this vortex of crisis too. I won't go into those details here but for a while I seemed to be in a web of fallings out and reconciliations and other strange dramas. Sometimes they were happening right there at home in front of me. The dramas over St Mary's South Brisbane got involved too as some of these friends, like myself, had returned there to give support after the departure of Peter Kennedy.

Writing and reviewing all of this brings home to me just what a stressful time I was facing by the second half of last year. So , in hindsight, it's probably no wonder that by November I was unravelling. By that stage the various long term academic job prospects had bombed. One of them, which I thought might have been particularly promising, bombed out in a very messy way as far as the institution itself was concerned, showing itself to be in the grip of rather old -fashioned theological agendas. I presume they've resolved that mess by now - they re-advertised the job again several months ago - perhaps not. But the long and the short was that I was face to face with a dead end while all around me people seemed to be going crazy.

I can't work out when I tipped over the edge myself. Certainly by the start of November I was unravelling badly. Thing was, nobody saw it. It was more a kind of staged implosion than anything dramatically spectacular as was happening with some of my friends. I was walking almost manically at that time. I can't believe the amount of walking I was doing then and I lost weight dramatically. A union friend was shocked when she saw me in December by how much weight I'd lost since she last saw me in September. I fobbed it off by joking about getting fit but really it was due to all this manic energy which drove me to walk and walk and walk. I don't know how I kept working at the time - clearly this was a controlled implosion - but I did. By November and December it was union work again to do with collective bargaining with an intransigent management; I was helping to organise industrial action. So the workplace itself was a pretty intense environment too - perhaps the perfect cover for what was happening to me and an outlet for some of the energy ripping me apart.

Only one person saw some of what was happening, my friend who had come back into my life earlier last year. In fact, he was copping the shrapnel so he had no choice. In my mind I had elevated him into a central of point of signification. Everything was falling apart around me, everything was crazy, except for the relationship with him. It was as if I was drowning or plumetting into the abyss and all I could see to hang on to was him. Of course no one can sustain themselves under that sort of overdetermination so he finally shut me out completely from his life. That was my Hollywood slap, as I term it, the slap that silences the frantic babbling hysteric. It silenced me, it didn't stop me walking, but it put my entire inner life into a complete shutdown. It was almost as if I was an automaton, a walking automaton, always walking but everything else was still. Numb.

That was early December. My work contract was scheduled to finish a couple of weeks later around when I was due to start some housesitting for a month or so over Christmas and New Year. The work kept me occupied, a handy distraction in fact. The solitude from the housesitting was most important. The first week there I was still working so it was a good transition too. I could, at last, attend to some of the crisis that had swept me away. As well as the solitude, what also helped was the prospect of more union work around February with the potential of it being long-term too. That probably helped ease much of the anxiety. I hadn't actually decided that I would take it up if it did become available but it was a fixed point on the terrain where before there was nothing.

Instead I had to deal with the grief, the mourning of a shattered friendship, a friendship which I had trashed. So along with grief was guilt. Such guilt. And I had to try and work out what had happened. I was depressed and so exhausted. I'd even stopped all the walking. If you check out the blog for the period you'll see I put up one post for December, the day before New Year's eve. I'm surprised to see I could get 8 posts up in January. Even more surprising is that I got up 7 posts in November when I was, to coin a term, barking mad, manic. I must re-read them sometime to see how they measure up although my memory of them is that, in the main, they were pretty good. Probably they demonstrate how bifurcated I had become back then (and maybe there is a certain manic quality to writing itself).

Grief, so much grief. Horror, too, at what had happened. I had become this crazy monster. The worst thing was that this monster was channelling, drawing from my best instincts. I could tell that something was wrong happening to my friend, that there was some sort of problem and I wanted to give my friend some kind of support. But the problem was me. As I said, he was copping the shrapnel from my implosion and the more I could see the shrapnel heading his way, the more anxious I was becoming which was, itself, generating even more shrapnel. I think there were some lucid moments when I could see something of what was really happening, but the maelstrom just drew me back in. I was in a vortex of doubt, such that moments of clarity would quickly be called into question.

That I wrote so much here in January surprises me because I am conscious that at the time I was trying to work out what had happened, to be able to give an account, to describe it to myself. Time and again I would sit down and try to write something but I couldn't. So I think of that time, of all of this year, in fact, as a time of writer's block. I was able to send my friend a message, a short message to apologise just at the end of the year. Whether he got it, whether he read it, I don't know. I've not heard from him, I don't expect to. I think that perhaps back then I was also resisting the temptation to enmesh an apology within an explanation so I kept the apology as brief as possible. He deserves both but taken together explanation can appear as special pleading, or worse, justification. Whether my thinking that is one more form of that overwhelming doubt that pulled me to pieces back in November I can't tell. Whatever might be the case, it certainly constrained me from writing about what had happened, describing it firstly, above all, to myself.

But I know that I need to write about it, to tell it and thus reconcile it before I can do anything else, to achieve any sort of healing. That I can write so much now is astonishing me, I'm hoping it's a sign that I'm finally coming out of the crisis. Because, well, it didn't end then. That union job prospect did come through and I did decided to go for it. My friend and union colleague, who spotted my weight loss, quit to start a PhD. So off I went to work in her old job. I'd worked at that university twice before with her, the last time in August/September last year to help her out with her industrial campaign around collective bargaining. So I knew the place well and liked the people in the branch. Shortly after I started in February, the job was advertised and I applied for it. The selection process took some time because there was another job advertised, too, at another university. Some of the applicants had applied for both - I'd only applied for one - so both had to be resolved together. Finally in early April, just before Easter, I received a call from the State Secretary, saying that I was unsuccessful, I'd missed out by a 'cigarette paper thin margin'. How thin the margin doesn't really matter because in the end you've still missed out. So needless to say mine was not a very happy Easter. Luckily I had a very short housesitting gig over that long weekend because I would not have been good company at home, plus I really needed time to myself. And fortunately, too, the weekend after Easter I came here to start this current long housesitting gig that I'm doing.

I stayed in the job until the end of April to hold the fort until the new person started and to do a handover, settle them in. That wasn't as difficult as it sounds. The new person was another old friend of mine from undergrad days (Brisbane can be such a village sometimes) and, even if not, it was only fair on them to have direct handover and share from my experience in the job to get a sense of continuity. All up, then, April was a busy time with work, housesitting (packing moving unpacking) plus my community commitments (and I wrote nothing here that month). May, of course was a different story, I was unemployed ,although I still had a few things on my plate from my community involvement and my writing/publishing commitments. Nevertheless, it was in May that the depression really began to come back. After all I was back in the situation that had triggered my meltdown last year. There was absolutely nothing ahead of me. Taking the union job was a signal to myself that I had given up on any expectations for academic work. I could deal with that because I had been doing union work for the last 5 years off and on and I was still in the university sector. But that path was closed too. And there was still all the unresolved grief and guilt about my friend.

While I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, nonetheless depression can be a really interesting process to observe in oneself. I've been closely observing it and its waves or cycles over the last couple of months. I think the worst period was probably early this month, certainly the days before and after my birthday, I had some really debilitating times. Everyone thinks of depression as grief or melancholy or sadness and, yes, it is all of those. But, at least as I've experienced it, there are two key words, doubt and paralysis, that best describe what happens.

Doubt, well it's central to anxiety isn't it. You doubt everything, most especially yourself. Nagging, nagging doubt, that probably is the famous black dog that worries at you like a dog at bone. It chews up all the inner energies so that sometimes a complete lethargy, exhaustion comes over you. From doubt comes paralysis. You doubt everything including your abilities and all your motivations. Doubt puts everything in the worst possible light. Consequently, it becomes too difficult to make any sort of decision, to initiate any sort of action. You're like a rabbit in the spotlight, frozen, because everything you might opt to do looks so bad, either bad in itself, or coming out of something bad in yourself. That I'm writing all this now indicates that the doubt has eased because at it's worst I could not have even put finger to keyboard. I would be caught up in an inner self-critical monologue busily analysing and tearing apart why I'm going to write and what I'm going to write especially and then secondarily, the reception and consequences of what I write out there, especially if I publish. It's the primary doubting assault on motivation and ability and worthiness to write that is the most paralysing. And then just replace 'write' with a whole suite of other actions of life, because it's not just about writing it's about all the important aspects of your existence.

I've heard it said, too, that depression is about inwardly directed anger. That's probably true but, if so, it's mechanisms are doubt and the paralysis it gives rise to. The depressive wave incorporates a whole range of feelings but for me it still appears to all come back to doubt. Nevertheless, the other day when the wave was really wrenching through me, for a brief moment I noticed a point of rage. It was white hot, almost incandescent and ever so brief. What surprised me, and maybe you too if you've read this far, is that it awoke my curiosity. I was taken aback, intrigued even and wanted to ponder it, examine it. That response acted like a circuit breaker, tripping the depressive wave, releasing me from its grip. At least for a while. A couple of days later I was able to tell a friend of mine in Melbourne just briefly about what had been happening. That was on the weekend and it was an important move on my part. That effort to tell, to give an oh so brief summary in a Facebook message, seems to have been the trigger to get me to move into a writing mode, to be able to write this.

So what next? I don't know. I still have to work out what to do with my life and what to do means more than just getting a job, although having an income is obviously a priority. My CV or resume probably counts against me. I have a PhD for a start. I've heard the stories, its happened to me even, of people being told by a Job Network person that the PhD makes them almost unemployable. It intimidates prospective employers! Added to that, I've got several years of union work to boot. And then there's my age. I'm supposed to be on my way to retirement (I'm so anomalous, though, I'd be happy to work for another 20 or so years). Maybe in this day and age, too, the gay thing mightn't matter so much for the job market, possibly, but if it did I can't hide that either.

No, that's not doubt or negativity, I hope, just a realistic appraisal of the situation, I think. What would I love to do? I would love to be teaching or, put better, sharing the knowledge I have and encouraging people to go off and explore some more. I would love to convene a Bible reading group. Mind you that would be a huge commitment over a long period of time because there are so many texts that are included in the biblical gestalt. What I think is so important, too, is to start reading the texts of the homosexual literary tradition. LGBT folks start off as aliens in their own homes, and they don't get the opportunity to really discover that there even is a tradition. Even at university, at least in Brisbane, there's nothing by way of courses that gives access to that tradition. I was given for my birthday a copy of Mary Renault's, The Charioteer, a classic novel from 1959 of same sex love, the title of which refers to Plato's Phaedrus. How many queer folks have read the Phaedrus, or the Symposium for that matter, or have even had the opportunity to or have even heard of them? How many queer folks have heard of or read Mary Renault? There must be a way to introduce this sort of material to people and to get them talking about the ideas there. And overlapping at many points with this tradition, there's a rich written tradition around friendship. Friendship is a much devalued relationship in our society, fact quite bizarre considering it's central to Christianity, or used to be anyway. Why and what can we learn?

Hmmm, I seem to have gone off on a tangent. But it illustrates my problem nonetheless. When I think about what I want to do, I think about stuff like that. There's no place for anything like that in our modern universities even. So how to go about doing it? And in the meantime where does my money come from? A friend of mine keeps saying "Michael, you've been living on faith for so long and something always seems to turn up." Perhaps he's correct, but right now my faith is sorely tested. I'm thinking too how fortunate I am to have had this long period of housesitting just now, I'm sure my flatmate would agree too. Right now I'd be terrible company for anyone. I want to write at some point about solitude. Not here, though, but I have to say that I really needed it and I'm glad I have a couple more months of it too. And one little voice says that maybe it's a good thing I didn't get that job after all. If I had done, I might never have had the chance to have confronted the unresolved grief and pain and uncertainty. Or perhaps I would have done so but in a far more terrible way.

Then there is all the grief about the friendship now lost. If there was anything I could do to undo those events, I would. I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for him but I know some of what it might have meant for him to have suffered it. That comes from confidences that remain between he and I, which I keep close always. And, believe me, that knowledge heightens the guilt as well. I hope he wasn't too damaged by what happened; I know how, why damage could be done. I don't know how but I hope I can atone in some way, make some kind of expiation some day. I am so sorry. As for any reconciliation, well that's not in my hands and I don't know how it would come about anyway. All I can do is pray in the words of Julian of Norwich that one day, that somehow "all will be well" - for him most of all. (And there are traces of him here at this house I am looking after too. I was here a couple of short occasions last year and he visited here too. There's even a coffee cup in the kitchen cupboard that was his preferred and so now speaks to me of him).

As for me... Well, I know what I need most of all and that's the gift of tears. It's not something that can be forced and it's certainly not something that can happen when the waves of depression crash over you and through you, even though then there may be tears too. No the gift of tears is a marker of release. Julia Kristeva observes, although I can't find the exact quote now, that once the tears flow then the suicidal crisis has passed. I think that's true for all crises (no I'm not suicidal now). I know this one will finally pass when the tears flow, when the grief finally gets its chance to speak, when suffering takes voice. I hope my thinking is clear on this for you, dear reader, because, no doubt, you are wondering why I've not got some sort of medication by now. If I thought that it might facilitate the tears then I probably would. I'm not interested in simply being made happy. If it means denying the grief, then, what difference from the original anxiety and depression which are themselves mechanisms of denying, suppressing the grief. But I will willingly take advice on that from those who know of what I speak.

Writing all this over the last two days now has generated a great calm in me. Quite a contrast to my mental state of a few days ago. Have I adequately arranged the data, the events of my life crisis in any meaningful way? If the calm, dare I say peace, that I'm feeling is any indication then maybe I have, that I have described it adequately. The next step is to summon up the courage to publish on the blog because publish I must, I know that. But there's no rush as yet; it's always good to have a further review. I also want to see whether the anxiety levels go up at the thought of imminent exposure. They will, so I guess it's a matter of evaluating the nature of the anxiety. I also want to put some ground rules on my publishing this material too. Except for what I've indicated above, I don't want advice. If however any of you find a resonance with your own experiences and want to share it, then feel very welcome. But I also recognise the vulnerability involved in talking about such experiences so there's no necessity. I know once I've posted this I will feel extremely vulnerable, raw. Consequently, I don't want sympathy. This is not an exercise in seeking sympathy. Sympathy simply makes the experience of vulnerability, of rawness more acute. I will probably not respond to sympathy and definitely not to advice. I may not respond to any comments whatsoever. I can't predict because I haven't written this for feedback as such, or 'support'. I write to describe to myself and I publish because this descriptive exercise is quite substantial and it saves me the expenditure of energy in having to go over it again and again with others. Because obviously it must be told at sometime and I don't know yet how this thing will work out.

That's all for now, I think. I am hoping to write on a range of topics soon, including solitude, hospitality, biblical prophecy, the future of gay identities, maybe something on the state of universities. I might even gird my loins and make some observations on our federal politics. For some reason, the processes unfolding now in Canberra keep reminding me of aspects of the personal depressive crisis. But I probably won't write about that.


  1. Love you. Hope that you will continue to write about whatever moves you. Don't worry about responding.

  2. Thank you, Simone. Serene, I often think of you and keep you in my prayers/wellwishing. I'll certainly continue to write. xxx

  3. After the eclipse comes the light once again. So it will be for you, I have no doubt. Your healing has already begun, for not only have you been able to exercise your gift for expression but you've also revealed quite a lot of positive thinking already. And by the way, congratulations on a very honest and eloquent account.

    That said, it's also evident that you're at a very delicate stage of recovery right now. You need something new, something outside your own inner strength to give you a boost.

    You appear to have three areas of need: spiritual, friendship and vocation.

    You say at one point that "my faith right now is sorely tested." In the very next breath you start to reassert your natural buoyancy, your will-to-live-well - a good sign. I would guess that your faith is stronger than you think, though it may need some refocusing. Whatever the precise nature of your faith, I feel confident to say that the goodness of love and truth is always there for you, always available in different forms. You may be going through hell for all sorts of reasons, quite reasonably thinking that this hell is unfair and/or unfathomable. Bur the goodness does not go away and will surface at times, in places and in ways that you least expect. Provided of course you're open to it.

    In regard to friendship, it's indeed sad if you've lost a special friend. One would have hoped he'd have enough sense and goodwill to know that you were not intentionally damaging the friendship. Maybe one day he'll come back like the Prodigal Son; you can't dismiss this possibility. In the meantime, remember the myth/truth of the many-headed Hydra and be aware that where one friendship is cut off, others will surely grow.

    Thirdly there's the matter of your vocation. This is harder because it's less within your control. Clearly you need a balance between seeking and doing, research and teaching, or more broadly exploring and creating. You need to exercise both the male and female aspects of your psyche. This can be done outside academia; indeed I would suggest you cast your net as wide as possible and actively seek employment (for a while) back in the mainstream world. Could your union background equip you for work in an HR role in government or business? And do you really have to mention your PhD in your CV, or some of the other things that might be unappealing to an average employer? I myself have had a career for many years in public service, allowing that to complement my deeper inclinations which led in other directions.

    As a digression I take the point about deficiencies of modern academia. You're not alone. I have a friend (another PhD) who's deeply wounded by rejections of his efforts to research the spirituality of dance. This is a fact of modern life.

    I have always loved the ending of The Count of Monte Cristo, where Dumas tells us that all human wisdom is contained in the words "wait and hope."

    But who am I who is sprouting all this (and maybe presuming too much)? My name is Phil Roberts and I'm another Brisbane gay around your age, a universalist Quaker and devotee of religious philosophy. I'm a more mainstream person, but hopefully sensitive enough to respond to someone in your plight.

    Congratulations on having the guts to be as self-revealing as you have.

    By the way, I'm not versed in blogging technicalities so have no idea what will happen when I try to post this. I don't intend to sign myself as "anonymous" but can't see what else fits. Undoubtedly I'll do the wrong thing!

  4. Hi Phil, and welcome to Jottings. Have no fear you did the right thing; unfortunately without a google identity you'll be an anonymous poster but your responses should generally come through okay.

    And thank you for yours which was rich with insight and sensitivity. I'll reply only briefly to some of your observations because most of it needs to be pondered awhile in the heart.

    First off I feel for your friend. The PhD is designed to awaken and cultivate the love of scholarship. I don't think our society deals well with scholarship. Unless it can be channeled to a tangible/profitable outcome then the love of scholarship is quite suspect. Perhaps because it does involve a critical approach to the world and I don't think our society welcomes such critical approaches.

    As for work in HR, don't take this the wrong way but that's kind of like going to the dark side :-)

    And yes the act of writing this as well as publishing it does represent some sort of turning point. I've not had a reprise of the deep depression I was grappling with in the days before I put fingers to keyboard to write this piece.

    Publishing this too I guess was a kind of public confession as an act of attempted atonement for what I put my friend through. I wouldn't call him a prodigal; if anything I'm the prodigal one, even if it was because I was cracking up at the time. I can't say more without violating confidences but I can understand why he cut me off.

    Finally, I have a very high regard for the Quakers. If I couldn't be Catholic then I would probably join up with the Friends. Otherwise I'd love to see a Quaker Catholicism. I know that's kind of a contradiction in terms, a fact which heightens its appeal even more.

  5. Geronimo! There's been connection (Anonymous Phil here again).

    I admire your passion for your scholarship and your courage in persisting doing what you feel called to do. I freely admit that I'd love to write and study full-time but wimpishly cling to career and the superannuation at the end of the career, even though I've grown to detest being an agent of government, a pawn in the game of power. My justifications are pragmatism - I need to be able to support myself when I get old and live a reasonably free sort of life -and a continuing respect for the old-fashioned idea of public service. I still think we as individuals can do a power of good in whatever situation we are in, even if it's not the situation of our first choice.

    Looks like you're made to walk down minority paths and will continue to do so exceptionally well, though you'll never find it easy. Your blogging is terrific - good for you. Even if it doesn't put food on the table, it's what you love doing, and who can deny that?

    Go for it!

  6. Ah, Phil, I say follow your bliss. I'm glad you like the blogging - I intend to keep it going. As for what's ahead, I have no idea, which sometimes gets really scary. Mind you I have to start organising the Bible and Critical Theory seminar soon. It'll be happening in Brisbane in about a year's time. I'm also very intrigued by the Melbourne Free University. I've got thoughts on that ticking over in my head. Too many thoughts sometimes... perhaps?

  7. I had a phone call from someone this morning who'd just read this, to tell me he has been suffering depression for the last 20 years. Amongst other things, he wanted to say how important it was for him to read this, that it described, even confirmed, his own experience (except he uses 'procrastination' rather than 'paralysis'). And so the writer in me is feeling quite chuffed. There are some parts I think could have been written better but there it is. He thinks it was excellent.

    As a writer in a public space, especially when writing on such topics, I hope that somehow or other I am able to describe, to capture, so that readers can find shadows or even reflections of their own experiences. When I first read Anna Akhmatova's 'Requiem' a long time ago, I was struck by the prose Preface:

    "During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone 'picked me out'.
    On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
    (everyone whispered there) - 'Could one ever describe this?' And I answered - 'I can.' It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face."

    That resonated with me when I first read it and still does. The Yezhov Terror, the Stalin purges are an incomparable monstrosity and it's not my intent to put my experiences in that league. But it is that capacity to describe, which I hope I have achieved, in some small way, for you.

  8. I have to write this, a final update. I wasn't happy with aspects of what I wrote,I didn't think I had adequately described what had been going on. In particular, I don't think I really conveyed what I meant by doubt, let alone why it might result in mania. When I talk about doubt, I mean what could be termed a process of self-criticism, except that this is the most withering, most savage, most acerbic and most relentless critical reflection upon oneself, you can imagine. And nothing is safe: every act, every thought, every feeling, every word, aspect of oneself is thrown under the most probing and savage scrutiny. This self critical process is like a Greek chorus in your head, always commenting, always criticising. It never stops. The result is that you see yourself in the worst possible light all the time.

    Oftentimes the result is a retreat, a withdrawal into oneself. It's exhausting having to endure such a barrage of criticism. Also you think so little of yourself, that you feel that contact with others is some kind of awful imposition upon them. You withdraw rather than make life difficult for them, which is what you think you are doing because obviously you are such a useless or vile or rubbish person. That's what the chorus is telling you anyway.

    But that chorus can also drive you into mania, at least for a while. The self can make a rally to resist, to say 'no, this isn't true, I can't be that bad' So the self tries to reach out to find reassurance to have someone break the spell of the maelstrom of self-criticism. But, of course, you get caught up in a hermeneutical crisis. You are being told how worthless you are and the chorus will use as evidence the way others behave with you, casting their actions in the worst possible light. Part of you wants to say it's not true and part of you believes it, because after all this chorus in my head keeps telling me I'm a worthless piece of shit. You become so desperate, you want someone to tell you that you aren't shit. That inner chorus has caused such a hermeneutical crisis that you are sure that people must be regarding you as something awful, you know that your very presence must be an ordeal for them because you are just rubbish. Anxiety takes over, but actually anxiety is too tame a word; fear and terror probably are the best descriptors of what takes over. All the fight or flight mechanisms kick in and the behaviour becomes de-centred, disorganised, 'irrational' Eventually you turn into the very monster, you are desperately trying to prove that you aren't. And the more that you try to be not a monster, the more and more of a monster you become, I became.

    At least that's how it appears in my recollection.

  9. In these times of pressure-pressure-pressure, expectation heaped upon expectation, those of us who survive without falling prey to mental illness of one kind or another are truly blessed. (Phil here again, Michael). I've had a lot of contact with mental illness over the years, so much so that I'm determined I'll do everything in my power not to succumb myself; but if it's not that devil that'll get me, another will!

    You write most eloquently about your experience. I now understand better the suffering of one of my friends last year (and she's had depressive tendencies for donkey's years). Another friend who went through post-natal depression had a great insight when she said realised that the self-destructive power of the mind must have an equal opposite number. In other words, she said, imagine the potential of the mind to uplift in all sorts of ways. Of course, getting to that point is another story.

    Being a bit "down" myself (domestic issues, nothing drastic, and knowing that I wasn't handling it well), this morning I renewed my acquaintance with a book by Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: the Journey Toward an Undivided Life. As you might guess, it's about the necessity of having an integrated life, one of my personal preoccupations (I'm a virgo and somewhat self-critical as well as critical of other people). On p.5 Parker says: "Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness - mine, yours, ours - need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life."

    By the way, I saw your photo the other day at the Prejudice and Pride exhibition. whenever that was taken, you looked so happy!!

  10. Postscript - I forgot to mention that I was intrigued to hear about the Melbourne Free University that's caught your imagination. Not only do we as a society need all forms of delivery of learning, in order to cater for people who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the education system, we also need initiatives like this to counter the crippling impacts of the GFC.

  11. michael
    so much of this resonates... thank you for pointing me to it...
    depression is a cruel tormentor as much as it is the worst kind of teacher... I place it only slightly higher than the bastards who administered my catholic education in terms of factors that have damaged me the most in my life - and yet, it too has been responsible for who I have become and how I am becoming.
    I can only nod at what you have written about your friendship and offer that in the case of what I lost it was possible at one point to speak again, to apologise - and what's more, it has propelled me into this someone other, so unwilling was I to return to that person, that state of affairs... so I hope that you too will be able to sit and speak, to listen and exchange...
    I'm looking forward to catching up... and I'm sorry this is something you've had to go through.