Not done yet

for so many this year, but especially for Audrey Watters

I live in a very small Australian seaside community, with 5600 others. It’s within easy reach of major cities including Sydney, so we’re not exactly isolated. But the non-negotiable topography of Thirroul—ocean on one side, escarpment on the other—keeps commercial development at human scale. I can walk the length of the town. My kids all went to the local primary school. I know the local pathology collectors; I see the two of them at the shops getting their lunch. Last night I found out that the trainer at the gym my daughter goes to is the daughter of the woman who owns the shoe shop. How about that?

In the before time, I had a different relationship to this community. I skimmed and skipped, and drove through it at speed, picking up kids or last minute groceries. In fact, I drove to stores that are a seven minute walk from my house because I didn’t have that seven minutes to spare, seeing as how I was already seven weeks behind on everything. Maybe once a month I’d find myself with the time on weekend to snatch a very quick coffee out and about with a local friend, and we’d both say “well, this is nice not being at work”, while both surreptitiously checking emails.

This year I have walked and walked. I have walked kids to school, and walked to medical appointments, and walked with friends, and walked just to see what was growing in gardens. And in turn I have learned its daily rhythms of place: who’s out to coffee, what time all the different shop owners open their doors, when the school buses wheel in and out of their turning circle, what time the post is delivered.

I have also been the somewhat visible local person with cancer, and as I lost my hair and then slowly got it back, and kept walking, people I don’t know except by these routines smiled encouragingly, cheered me up hills, and asked after us all.

Today I was walking back from the school thinking about why Twitter, the other small community where I’ve spent my year, has become such a place of distress and anger. What does it mean that in this conversation I’ve found sustaining and helpful, that has introduced me to people whose thoughts and research and ideas are of incalculable value to me, people are saying that they have no choice but to move away from the neighbourhood because of its toxic atmosphere and/or emotionally stupid business experiments? What does it mean that so many of those people are women? And how should we even begin to respond to this?

So I was musing on this, and intermittently also thinking about how yesterday’s Australian Twitter was so full of appreciative and reflective commentary on the contribution of Gough Whitlam to Australia’s public universities and hospitals, when I drifted into the thing that happened.

In the middle of a tiny carpark that takes maybe 20 cars, a man was shouting at the driver of a small silver car. The driver was elderly and he kept his window up. As I got closer, the red-faced man yelled “You shouldn’t even be driving!” and charged off to the railway station. I watched the driver pull into a space, where he stayed, evidently very shaken, and still kept his window tightly up. The traffic lights detained me on the other side of the road and gave me a bit of time to think, and when I eventually crossed the road I took a bit of a breath and tapped on his window to see that he was OK.

The thing is, I really think the measure of our capacity to call ourselves a community relates to our responses in a whole range of situations for which there can’t be laws or even social demands, but only instinct. At the beginning of this difficult year, Richard Hall recommended Arthur Frank’s At the Will of The Body to me as a memoir of illness, and I ended up reading many other things that Frank has written, including his beautiful reflection on the tension between justice and care, The Renewal of Generosity. In this book Frank writes on the messy, difficult interactions that comprise medical care: the care that health professionals show their patients, and the care that patients demonstrate in the way that they present themselves. Ranging widely from this point, Frank asks what it takes for us to achieve an instinctual practice of generosity towards others when so much that is awful in the world seems to demand instead that we take sides on issues.

Where we end up with this demand to take a stand, I think, is that our interactions with others become a constant, and exhausting, requirement to show ourselves as good before we speak. Even one of the most beautiful and courageous political interventions that I’ve seen all year couches itself in this way: which side are you on, friend, which side are you on?  But if we accept this practice of camp loyalty as the minimum standard for being worth listening to, and no other, I think we’re also running some risks as these standards have to be expressed in terms of the grossest possible generalisation to work at all. And this means that we are already prepared to relinquish what is particular and complicated about any interaction between two people.

The two strangers whose paths crossed so disastrously this morning each had a story, and I heard one of them. The elderly driver told me that the man had jumped out to cross the road from between two cars, and he had not seen the man and so had not stopped his car. There had nearly been a serious collision. I could see that part of this was that the man who was walking was actually running for the train, and he had risked the crossing lights to get there. They met. Harm was done to both, and then by one to the other in the name of retribution, in front of many concerned onlookers.

But what does it mean to respond to this? Does it mean that we start every time from a naive relativism, and a determination to see both sides? Do we really have to search for consensus every single time? What about “Yes, that guy was an asshole because, you know, assholes”? Isn’t that sometimes the only way to make a difference at the macro level to the structure of asshole culture? But then, what about agency? What about agency?

Earlier this year when the mental impact of chemotherapy meant that I could hardly read, I returned again and again to a paragraph of Cornel West’s, just because I could understand it—even if five minutes after I closed the page I couldn’t remember anything about it.

Marx’s own effort to account for determination highlights the multileveled interplay between historically situated subjects who act and materially grounded structures that circumscribe, that is, enable and constrain, such action. This human action constitutes structured social practices which are reducible neither to context-free discrete acts of individuals nor to objective structures unaffected by human agency. … The aim of Marxist theory is to view each historical moment as a multidimensional transaction between subjects shaped by antecedent structures and traditions and prevailing structures and traditions transformed by struggling subjects. (Cornel West, Keeping Faith, 231)

That’s pretty clear. And that’s where I think we are with our transactions, our struggling social communities, our networks, the places and persons that we care for. At some level we have to accept that every side is circumscribed, every speaking position is taken, and every single thing that now can be said will trigger someone else’s despairing fury that this is the same old, same old, mounting up to what’s most wrong in the world. I feel that way myself on so many things. And yes, I did want to chase the guy to the railway station and tell him to STFU with his stupid, vengeful performance of injury. So there’s that.

But when I said goodbye to the elderly driver, and walked around the corner, the real thing happened. A small group of three women came up to me and asked if he was OK, because they were also just going up to check on him when they saw me do it. And for a moment there the four of us strangers stood in the sunshine, and thought about what it meant to each of us to care enough about the health of our community to try to be part of a better way of doing it.

I think we’re all shaken by the state of the world, but I’m not sure we’re done with our efforts to understand it, to bring together our individual resources for care, and to act with both personal and collective generosity in it.

Thanks to so many who have helped me and my family this year, that’s where I am.

56 thoughts on “Not done yet

  1. And thank you both too. I think we have many good reasons to feel ambivalent about both Twitter and our actual neighbourhoods, and to notice that many, many people are not well cared for in either. But I was really taken by surprise by the obviousness of this morning: that as humans we are very often considerate of each other, and almost slightly embarrassed by that. So I wanted to share this story because it seems to me that everyday accounts of care rarely make headlines unless, for example, astounding levels of risk and courage are involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That embarrassment is something I’ve been thinking about in a different context. I’m not sure what’s going on culturally that it feels somewhat embarrassing to express care or concern, but I find it troubling — and sadly isolating — that it does. I’ve also wondered whether “taking sides” risks hardening into there being only two sides and only two possible stories.

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  3. Oh Kate, I so enjoy reading your posts. I stumbled upon your blog when you wrote that wonderful piece about trying – and failing – to be a good MOOC student a few years back, and I get that wonderful sense of anticipation when my email shows you’ve posted another article. I’m not sure how to describe why, but I find myself saying “YES” under my breath – as I read and identify with your thoughtful, insightful and accessible style.

    Or in other words – I’m a fan🙂

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    1. That’s very funny as I’m still a rubbish MOOC student. MOOCs of any stripe: constructivist, corporate, really short, very long. I’m a compulsive joiner and non-completer.

      But seriously, thank you so much for this lovely comment. It’s so nice to see you here.

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  4. Bon Stewart and I were just talking on Twitter about the way that we care for people by moving to their side—by showing others that they are not alone—and then immediately that hardens into a politics of Sides. Like you, I’m troubled by this and wondering how we advocate for many sides without weakening or minimising the importance of standing at the side of someone who is being harassed and harmed.

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  5. I love this post. So thankful to have come across it via Bonnie Stewart. As someone who considers generosity to be my highest value I very much appreciate what you have written. There are a great many things in the world that are distressing. Certainly there is also a lot of negative within the social space as well. That said, I strive to find opportunities to be as open as I can, to learn from others and to be truly generous – both online and in person. It makes a difference on so many different levels. To me there is no better way to be. Thank you for your words.

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    1. Thank you Jane, and welcome. Do you know Arthur Frank’s work in general, or his Renewal of Generosity in particular? He’s a sociologist of illness narratives, but I think his ideas have wider general application.

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  6. As the secretary on a small community organisation committee, I have been sending cards to members who are seriously sick, recovering from surgery, or recently bereaved. Another committee member calls me the Sunshine girl with a mixed tone of voice, perhaps some of that embarrassment. However, the recipients come up to me to say thank you in a soft voice; there have been thank you notes. This is a continuation of something I did in paid work (I’m a sucker for museum cards and they need to be used), I think for some it provided a softening of the instrumental relationships of the workplace. More gratuitous kindness, I say!

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  7. There’s so much I would like to say in appreciation of your neighborhood story, but leave it as a heartfelt thank you. And hopes for more sunshine on strangers coming together in concern for others.

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  8. Hi Alan, while you’re here, I am really just wrestling with a WordPress thing that’s auto-connected everything to Twitter, and while I like that it enabled two people to talk about gratuitous kindness, I’d so like this eager self-promotion to stop. Can you advise?

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    1. You mean the embedding of twitter stuff in comments (Like Jesse strommel retweet above??)

      I’m only on phone right now but you can disconnect twitter from your blog via Settings-Sharing under Twitter click the x to remove the connection

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Nope, it’s still happening. Passing commenters, I’m so sorry. I’ve created a bot of myself.

    Resolving this is a work in progress, but in the meantime imagine me humming “If I Could Turn Back Time, If I Could Find A Way”.

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  10. Thanks Kate for the story, and grounding online phenomena in the real world. This is the only way to make sense of the changes, but we are shrinking our offline world “by not walking” (isolating ourselves in cars, our looking at smartphones in the tram).

    On the matter of self promotion, I think this is actually a useful feature to have. Admittedly not inline with comments like this one, but still.

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    1. Well, as it turned out the culprit was Bridgy, which is a pretty nice thing coming from a good place I suspect. For the time being I have hushed its eagerness to take over the work of communicating on my behalf!

      It’s a puzzle: how best to draw together comments from more than one site, without violating expectations of specific conversations in specific places/times. What worried me about its including favourites is that this blog then exposed actions that people didn’t necessarily intend to be visible here.

      It’s something I’ve been thinking about since you moved so substantially to G+, and the mix of comments on eLiterate came more from there. G+ continues to feel like a club I failed to join, despite much encouragement. So in relation to community, there’s that: the diffusion of thoughts and conversations has become a significant and real edtech factor, as well as just a people factor.

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  11. hidden people rock

    I almost bought a house at the weekend because the neighbour was nice

    What is missing from twitter – a sense of being read perhaps? Or noticed? Greater than rage?

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    1. Pat, that’s a great question. What do people need? In a practical sense, what Twitter messed with in its latest TL experiment is the subtle capacity people have used in favouriting things to express appreciation. On the internet, to paraphrase a very old saying, no one knows you’re listening. Mostly we think about this in terms of fear of the surveilling institution, but it also means that we don’t know who is listening to us appreciatively, who is also acting in quiet ways.

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  12. dear god, kate. this is gorgeous. thank you. particularly pleasing as I have been a walker on those very sidewalks and know the rhythms of it. and yes there is plenty of love and spirit around. we do have to see it and cultivate it though. but it’s not so hard to do. love to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This post really resonates with me – about the slowing down and therefore being able to take the time to reach out to someone else; the small acts of kindness that are more about listening than ‘doing’ anything but are sooo important; and the fact that as soon as you step into this world of noticing and responding (and not taking sides) you have company – people who are noticing and listening and responding…

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    1. Yes, I think that’s such a good way to put it: that we have company in taking action, but we might not see it when we first act. And certainly that we need to be moving more slowly than working lives typically permit even to notice these things and give ourselves time to think, rather than react.

      Welcome.

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    1. Thank you and welcome. I am at a really early stage of trying to understand how the pace and scale that walking brings us to replicates itself in slower online practice, and certainly slower work practice. All year I’ve been thinking: I want to walk through my life, not race across its surface.

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  14. Dear Kate – again a wonderful post thank you. If it was not for Twitter and your willingness to share your vulnerability with us, I would (most probably?) not have met you. Thanks for reminding us of the gift of being vulnerable. It reminded me of the words by Ellis (2007) who wrote “Listening to and engaging with others’ stories is a gift and sometimes the best thing we can do for those in distress… Telling our stories is a gift; our stories potentially offer readers companionship when they desperately need it… Writing difficult stories is a gift to self, a reflexive attempt to construct meaning in our lives and heal or grow from our pain” (p. 26).

    Take care.

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    1. This is the most beautiful quotation from Ellis, thank you so much. The gift of difficult stories as a practice of vulnerability is something I’ve learned so much from this year, from all the stories that have been shared with me (especially by other people in hospitals, especially by working nurses). Stories as a practice of companionship isn’t how I’d been able to see it until I read this. For me, you exemplify this in your work: your story woven into a practice of scholarly companionship. I’m interested in the ways in which companionship differs from Derrida’s framing of the encounter of hospitality. It’s a new way of thinking for me, so helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I had read this lovely post a few weeks ago, and if I had to say what it meant to me, I would have recalled your different engagement with your local community since your illness, the sad spat between driver and righteous but cruel pedestrian. But … then you directed me here from our twitter convo and I saw aspects that spoke loudly to me about something I am tussling with – the polarising nature of public debate. So I didn’t recall the latter part of your post but I feel it must have percolated into my thoughts without me realising. That’s one of the benefits of blogs and the conversations around them I think. They help us think and sometimes trace our thought processes. Thanks Kate, you are a continual source of inspiration, even when I don’t notice.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I think the benefit is this strange one of asynchrony. Images and ideas shared on blogs don’t just sit there, but they grow and change over time as different people come along and sift through them for reasons of their own.

    When this post was first published, a group of people saw something in it, and then as it moved through timezones and different geo-networks different people saw something quite different. For me, it also contains all the things I was witnessing and thinking about just before I was walking that are probably closer to this thing that it now is for you: the polarising nature of public debate online (actually the thing that set it off in the first place).

    I now realise reading your comment that one of the most valuable things about blogging to me, that puts it head and shoulders above both conventional journal publishing and the often vaudevillian nature of conference performance is this very, very flexible time in which it exists, that allows as much time for reflective response as you need to take–including for the person who wrote it. What happens next is that all the co-composers of the eventual post as it becomes begin their practice of remixing it.

    I am so glad you came. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. At some point last year I stopped reading an RSS Reader (I started stumbling after Google Reader closed and had been trying a variety of methods and finally gave up). I just recently opened up the TinyTinyRSS install I had on my domain and after it thoroughly yelled at me for having not been able to update feeds in months it started gathering it all back together and I’ve slowly started diving back in. The experience has been incredibly rewarding when I make the time for it in no small part because of finding posts like this that I had missed in the constant stream of life last year. So much of what you’ve said here in relation to community building and generosity haunted me around the time you wrote this last year (and admittedly continues to be a concern). I think if nothing else the first steps to fixing these communities of ours is finding ways to communicate with each other (in more than 140 characters) that don’t rapidly devolve into scenarios like the story of the men here where we find ourselves with the window closed hoping for it all to just go away. Thank you so much for your writing.

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