Friday, December 3, 2010

I've Come to a Major Turning Point in My Life

Tuesday, the last day of November marked the end of an era in my life. On that day my honorary status at the University of Qld came to an end. I'll be updating the 'About Me' section on this blog to reflect that fact in the next couple of days. So Tuesday I went out to UQ to return my keys and do some photocopying. Fortunately I was able to hand over the keys to a new person in the School office, as the usual person had stepped out. As she's worked there for quite a few years, it would have been awkward. She's a good person and we get on well.

I wasn't actually surprised because I had had an intuition some time ago that the position wouldn't be renewed. And I've been told that there seems to be a bit of a purge on at UQ of honoraries. I don't know if that's true but apparently honoraries are under scrutiny in various schools and centres. For me the main loss is the Library access. I can get a Library membership as an alumnus but it doesn't carry the same benefits as a staff membership, honorary and paid. The other thing is I no longer have any institutional affiliation. I am now an independent scholar. That's not necessarily a bad thing but it does feel strange. After I handed in the key I had a couple of other things to do so wandered around the campus a bit. Various spots I went past pulled up memories both of my academic and union career at UQ and I felt a certain amount of sorrow and loss. After all I started there 19 years ago as an undergrad student out there, to have a rest after the trying times in the AIDS Council. I never even envisaged back then how my life at UQ would unfold.

The strange thing was that I came to UQ after a critical time in my life. In 1991 I came close to death through a surgical emergency, ruptured appendix and peritonitis. I was several days in intensive care and then a few more days in a ward with nil by mouth and then another week with food, by which stage I was champing at the bit to get out of hospital. When I finally returned to work, about 6 weeks later I ran into a friend who had come down from the Sunshine Coast. He asked me how I was and I replied 'It's the last time I bust a gut for this place.' He smiled saying that he'd wondered how much work had made me sick. Those days we were very big on the idea of illness as metaphor. The notion still works in many ways I think. Back then the AIDS Council had become a fairly toxic working environment. New and much more conservative management with a determination to deal with a perceived 'Bolshie' staff. Some staff had already left that year and had gone on to UQ. They were saying to me 'Get out of the place, come out here with us.' I was also getting involved with Brisbane ACT UP a number of whom were part of Gays and Lesbians on Campus at UQ. And so I made enquiries and found there was a Religion Dept at UQ. I lodged the requisite paperwork and found that the doors had opened and so I handed in my resignation effective at 31 December 1991 (in fact I was still monitoring the after hours AIDSline service through the Christmas New Year period 91/92). That night I went to a queer New Years Eve Dance at the old Blind Hall. As I rocked up to pay my entry, Katie Strandly (who tragically suicided six months later) asked me if I was waged or unemployed. I realised and told her that as of that night I was now unemployed (the actual enrolment process for uni took place in January so I wasn't yet a student) and so Katie charged me appropriately, stamped my wrist and in I went to dance my heart out and the New Year in. It was a very happy night, as I recall.

I recount all this because I'm struck by the fact that pretty much at every transition point in my life something has always opened up for me or more correctly been in the process of opening up for me. And so what's been really strange these last few years when I have been in transition after finishing the PhD is that there's been nothing clearly opening before me. I thought that maybe the union work might have been something, a new direction, and when the union job at Griffith became available, I thought 'Well, that's it then, that's the new direction.' Except it wasn't to be. In fact over the last few years, there's been nothing but blockage and false starts.

And so Tuesday I was cut loose and, right now, I have nothing ahead of me. I've been lucky to have some casual research assistant work these last few weeks but that ends next week too. Thanks to that and my tax return I can survive for little while on my own resources but next year I stand before a great big blank. I see nothing ahead of me, there are no openings, everything I've been doing has come to a dead end. The universe has also played a joke on me by way of a lecturing job being advertised at an interstate university. It's not full-time but four days a week, which it makes it less likely that they'd take someone from interstate, plus a couple of the selection criteria seem a bit odd too. And then there is my age; I'm heading into the final year of my fifties - I'm actually almost on the point of sixty (a prospect that strikes me more with bemusement and puzzled surprise than anything else). I'm pretty sure my age counts against me in these job stakes. It was kind of confirmed when a friend who is younger than me said they were applying for it too, but was nevertheless resigned to the job going to 'a younger person' than them. So what chance I?

As I said, I had sensed that the UQ honorary position was not going to be renewed. I probably would have put up a bit of a fight a couple of years ago but this time round, well, with the depression through most of the year, I wasn't in a state to fight. I felt as if I was dangling from the edge of a cliff and just didn't have any more energy. So I had pretty much decided to simply let go and fall into the abyss. It seemed like an abyss then. Right now it's more like a blank. I've let go but I don't know if I've fallen. I don't know where I am - nothing but a blank. It's kind of I'm kind of in one of those old Dr Who episodes, sitting in a trans-dimensional space, with no features, no nothing, all a blank.

Next year is shaping up to be the strangest year imaginable because I have no idea what's ahead of me. I don't really have any plans apart from those arising from the various projects I'm involved with. I simply don't know what to plan for. I need to get a job of some sort but I have no idea what. No idea whatsoever. The work I enjoy doing and would love to do, teaching, is closed to me. I have to accept that fact. And certainly my union work shone a spotlight on the reality of so much of university life today - they have become pretty toxic workplaces. Just the other day I met a young academic who observed that the way their university operated was often more like a form of institutionalised bullying. I don't function well in such circumstances - most people don't, in fact. And lets face it I think our universities have become so corporatised and managerialised that they are no longer places of critical reflection; if it does exist then it's a kind of delicate flower hanging on in obscure nooks and crannies. And it's not a problem unique to Australian universities. I know that in the US there are major problems in tertiary education and similarly in a number of other countries. Ironically the only place where there seems to be a lot of investment in universities and a lot of openness to critical thought (at least in some areas) is China.

So I have no chance of an academic job. They're as rare as hen's teeth and that's not counting for decent workplaces as well. So what else? I have enjoyed this research assistant work I've been doing (I'm planning another post about the biographies I've been reading). I could quite happily do work like this for a long time, especially if I was doing it mostly from home as I have been with this gig. But this sort of work is mostly short term and sporadic; there's the rub. It's not something I can plan on long-term. When I look back at my life, apart from most of my academic period, the times I've really enjoyed were my AIDS Council days (well most of them, not the last year or two) and then my times at UQ in the Queer Area. In fact, my one regret is that in my later years I wasn't able to be as involved as I had been, especially in my undergrad days. It was, and I believe still is, a very special place. I also enjoyed my Triple Z days too. And this year I've enjoyed my involvement with the History project and the Museum of Brisbane exhibition. It probably was a lifeline while I was trapped in the pit of depression. And when I look back on this year and all that I did do, I'm really quite astonished because I was severely depressed. (And pretty much everything I've listed has been unpaid, community work/activism)

I guess it's time to segue briefly here into my depression. It seems to have lifted, to have let me go. I'm struck by how I can stand face to face with a blank and maintain my equanimity. Two months ago I would have been struck down with major panic and anxiety (I was). Since then, however, my friend, M, contacted me and we finally met up recently to talk about the hard times we've been through. I'm hoping now that our friendship is back on track and that there won't be any major depressive - or other - derailments in future. But that process of forgiveness that I described in the earlier post seems to have laid the depression low. There have been moments when I've felt the old wild steed of anxiety start to rear itself but I've managed to calm it down, to soothe it. Tuesday it didn't stir at all. There was sorrow, but there was no lacerating, accusing misery and no anxiety. It's good to know that I got through that day without the pit opening up beneath me. The thing with depression, of course, is that you don't know when it's likely to hit you - and, of course, our society is an excellent manufacturer of depression. (Somewhere gestating in the back of my mind is a post looking at depression in Marxist terms, with maybe just a dash of Girard and sexuality theory.)

So returning to my job prospects. Next year, the future looks thoroughly blank to me. I get job notices from the various job sites every morning and I dutifully peruse them. At the very least to get some idea of what's around. There's not a lot that actually stirs my enthusiasm. Most of the jobs are clerical and admin. I also get a range of university jobs sent me, admin as well as teaching and research. And I also have some outliers, event management and stuff. But most of the jobs leave me cold. It might be different if job notices weren't so full of spin. I'm struck by the quasi-religious framing of so many jobs. 'Guru' is a popular term, so many employers are looking for a guru, an admin guru, or a customer service guru. Do they know what a guru is? Since when did a 9-5 job get imbued with such religious significance. Presumably the jobs are shit and they want a saintly type who'll meekly accept their exploitation. And if it's not gurus then there is a suite of other disturbing nonsense words in the managerial Newspeak, like commitment or passion/ate or star (used an alternative to guru). Since when did passion turn into a term for obsessive/compulsive attachment to wage-slavery? And I think to myself, well, I've got this job to get done and when that's done there's the festschrift to get finished, and there's writing I've got to do, and a couple of events for next year to organise, not to mention the History project too, all of which is far more interesting and worthwhile, and certainly not depressing like jobhunting. (And jobhunting is depressing)

The only tool I have to perceive the future is astrology, which is kind of like a weather forecast facility really. I've just come through the second Saturn Return of my life. There's almost a brief reprise of it around May next year but it's not quite the full transit. But Saturn makes several difficult transits, and one relatively good one, for most of next year. The good one concerns my reputation, career even; it might be good, but it's Saturn so it involves testing of some sort. The difficult ones, of which there are three, haven't been around since '97 which I don't recall as a bad year. But it was the year I gave my first paper at an academic conference, and my first year of lecturing rather than (or as well as) tutoring. I don't expect anything like that next year. A Saturn Return marks a closing off or consolidation so I guess it's appropriate that the link to UQ has finally been severed under its aspect.

So what do I want to do? Jobwise I have no idea because I want to keep writing, both here in the blog and elsewhere. I have several such projects I want to work on. There is my Virgin Mary project, and my homo-erotics of sacrifice project, my interest in canon, and more and more I want to work on friendship, its history and practices, rituals, the theories of friendship and the homosexual significance of that (which I think is quite important) as much for future possibilities as for anything that happened in the past. (Furthermore through the History Project, I want to explore same-sex companion burials, of which I now know of three in one Brisbane cemetery alone) And lets face it, the work I do, in large part, is geared towards some kind of social and cultural change. But to do all this I need an income, a regular income, so that I don't have the ongoing anxiety of wondering where my next payment will come from and how to marshal the limited income to keep me going when the job is finished. I also need to organise my current resources, not least my library. Most of that is still packed away in boxes in several garages. One day I have to bring my library together and for that to happen I will need a place to keep it in. Where I live now, while it's nice, has no room for my library. So for me to get my library together I need a place for that and an income, too, to pay for it.

But then once I think about a different place to live, I find a whole range of utopian desires stirred up and aroused. The most immediate is a desire for the solitary life. I find I enjoy my times housesitting, the solitude of it. I find I have eremitical desires, and the solitary life seems very appealing. But there's a part of me that's critical of it, too. After all, capitalism is an atomising social process. It breaks down all patterns of alliance and solidarity; any sort of collective joining together outside the needs of profit is inimical to its spirit. So any sort of solitary life on my part, has to involve a radical hospitality as part of it too (and when one looks at the solitaries of the past, while they had periods on their own, they were also busy with attending the needs of others; the great Russian saint Nilus Sorsky, carried on a voluminous correspondence with people seeking his advice and guidance, as well as welcoming and sheltering refugees from religious persecution at his forest retreat.) But another part of me would love to live a life of same sex community, queer community, again involving some kind of radical hospitality and simplicity, in a community of friendship.

And I suppose I should mention, now, something else that has happened over this period. I think I can safely say that I have largely come to terms with and embraced a celibate practice. Poverty, uncertainty and other exigencies of my life had pretty much imposed a celibate regime on me, under which I bridled over the last few years. Both romantic and erotic desires would rise up almost in rebellion, most horribly in the crisis that hit me last year that sent me down into the pit of depression and trashed the friendship with M. The shock, horror of that, that I could actually destroy a friendship that I valued so much, left me appalled. I may yet have to write a separate post on being a queer sex-radical celibate, but for now, suffice to say that it was, is, more important for me to be a friend than hung up wanting to be a lover. Capitalist society is heavily sexualised, anyway; sex and romantic love become sites permitted for some kind of personal fulfillment (especially if it leads to shopping), a fulfillment that's individualised, privatised and integrated back into the capitalist nexus (sort of). So where I find myself heading is probably best expressed by Kathleen Norris in her Celibate Passion, which I've just re-read this evening after many years and find that it resonates quite strongly with me, especially with its themes of hospitality and friendship. I have loved a number of men in my life, several of whom are dear friends of mine now (even though I have been a bit of a slack of late). So if that's where the universe wants me to be who am I to say no? Most importantly now that M and I have restored contact, I want to make sure that I never ever do anything that will jeapardise our friendship - I want to sustain it and be as good a friend as I possibly can be. Given that friendship is also one of my inteellectual projects, then really it comes as no surprise that I am led to follow a path of friendship. The Roman Church is wrong to make celibacy an imposition, as it does for its priesthood and as it mandates for lesbians and gays. If one is going to embrace celibacy it can only be through love, for love, there is no other way. Embracing celibacy for love and to cultivate love as a form of radical hospitality and attentiveness to others, is a way of honoring the erotic and channeling it in a way that's not destructive. Romantic love, sexual pleasure and erotic intimacy are good things in themselves but like everything else in life can also be the source of illusion, delusion and toxic fancies. And at this stage of my life that's where I was heading, no, that's where I was mired. So just as I have let go the fantasy of an academic career so I can get on with critical thinking and writing (and I am thinking an awful lot these days) , so, too, I have let go the fantasy of finding Someone to Love ME and of Someone to Satisfy ME, so that I can instead push the horizons of my own capacity to love, so that I can get on with the business of cultivating and building friendship, particular friendships as with M, and more broadly. If this all sounds vague and nebulous, it's because, as with the situation of work, academe, it's all new, I don't know where I'm heading, I have no idea of what the future holds. Although, unlike the work thing, I'm not stuck in some featureless transdimensional space. Instead I have a lot of learning to do, and, as I'm only beginning, I can't see where I'll end up.

I seem to have wandered far from a post about my work and career prospects and lack thereof. But I guess it's all part and parcel of what makes this moment a key turning point in my life. I am surprisingly relaxed about it all, considering my states of high anxiety of only a few months ago. What I think is key is cultivating an attitude of trust, trust in the universe, in life, in the Divine. There's nothing rational about trust but rationality only leads to despair. I've been there and I don't want to go back again. All I can do is have faith that, as Julian of Norwich said "all will be well". I also have to resist giving in to capitalist notions of what counts as success. Such notions are toxic but they're constantly reinforced and in the absence of strong alternative community, they can poison you subliminally. I think that helps account for the epidemic of depression in late-capitalist Australia and elsewhere. Capitalism breeds, relies on depression, and I don't mean economic downturns here. The only antidote is trust and faith; trust means having faith, faith in someone or something. So I am prepared to make that act of faith, to take that leap of trust, to wait in hope, to walk in hope, to allow hope to cultivate love. And see where it takes me. I hope it'll make for clearer thinking. I hope it'll make for better writing. I hope it'll make me a better friend.


  1. i know it's probably my slant (that liminal space where absurdism/zen/not knowing all slither together) but what if that which has opened up to you now is the spacve that has opened up to you now - that yr exactly where yr supposed to be, given yr studies and yr work and yr personal life, and that this indeed is a great opening of life - and like all openings, there are no guarantees - that great illusion of post 50s-80s capitalism, of jobs for life and a caring system that dissolved quicker than the berlin wall....
    i know that doesn't offer much existential comfort - but maybe the last 30 years didn't either; they offered something which is now not there, and this time, this space is for you now to move into?

  2. The universe has favoured me in having our paths cross, align or parallel in various times and places: Toehold, the AIDS Council on the Gold Coast, the Blind Hall NYE 91/92, UQ, GLOC & Queer Tribes, ACT-UP and of course our spiritual quests, passion for community and general queeriosity. I'm quite honoured to count you as one of my friends. I think your work is immeasurably important. But, in my experience, 'jobs' are generally little more than sources of income and impositions on our time that get in the way of us doing more important things, like the work that is our calling or vocation.

    On the subject of this trans-dimensional blank space you find yourself in, I agree with Geoff. While it might not feel very comfortable, a blank page or an empty room signifies possibilities. Perhaps more so than when life is cluttered with responsibilities and commitments. I don't usually throw aphorisms about like scatter cushions but, seeing as we are redecorating here, here is a house-warming offering:

    "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift... that's why they call it the present".

    Yes, I know you probably have that one somewhere already but maybe not in yellow?

    There are books to be written, friendships to be honoured (and made), young hobbits to inspire, communities both physical and virtual to be founded, stories to be documented and roses to be smelled. Oh, and we must catch up in person next month!

  3. I hope you find the ideas under the heading ' You Have More Resources at Your Disposal Than You Realize ' helpful and don't consider this brief post too trite:

    You are in my thoughts and prayers Michael.


  4. Thanks everyone. What's most intersting for me is how calm I feel about it all, which amongst other things, signifies that the depression has lifted, at least for the time being. Perhaps it's that trust thing, I speak about at the end. I've got an attitude of (almost) absolute trust right now. It's certainly not rational, but I think that's a good thing :) There's been a couple of moments when I've felt a touch of anxiety but I let go, and once I let go I'm fine.

    The big thing is what shape my life work now, whatever it might be. But I figure if I just keep trusting, it will unfold before me. Likewise with all the other uncertainties in my life. Just trust and face it all with love and all will work out.

  5. I know 'enjoy' is the wrong word to describe my reaction to reading this piece Michael, but I certainly can relate to and understand your thinking here. I guess as we age we dont stay the same at all, we change even more,which is a good thing I think. Thanks for letting me read this insight. Jeff.