Surfacing

It’s been three years since I’ve written a blog, or updated the website. I’d left it to lie fallow so long that it had actually gone down and needed an entire reboot. Fairly serious neglect.

To be fair, I made some cursory factual updates at some point in the last year or two, but other than that – I seriously disengaged.

There’s a bit of backdrop to my inattention. Without getting into a big overshare, I unexpectedly moved back to Cornwall while I was in the middle of my unfunded year writing up my PhD. Logistically this was pretty disruptive, and was set against a backdrop of considerable mental and emotional stress. I’m intentionally bypassing the details here because I don’t think they’re remotely unusual or useful to the rest of this post. And the bottom line is that I got through it – I submitted, defended, graduated. Dr Neale is in the house.

Although it was bittersweet, moving back certainly helped a lot with calming internal choppy waters – I’m glad I’m here, no doubt about it. But relocating, resetting, rebuilding everything in Cornwall proved challenging. I threw myself into doing things and being busy, much preferring forward motion to the possibility of potentially stalling and grinding to a halt. Possibly I overdid that – when I think about it, the week I handed the thesis in I was working three jobs at different ends of Cornwall, as well as voluntary stuff. Some of those ideas and projects came off spectacularly well – others didn’t, to my frustration and regret.

Thankfully I’m (a bit?!) less frenetic than that now, and probably as a result of a bit of distance and space, I have come to realise that the whole episode caused a major, fundamental, root level chain of questioning which I’m still working through. I took a fairly seismic confidence knock, which affected how I saw myself both personally and professionally.

One of the ways that manifested was a disengagement with social media. That’s not always the way it goes: some people find strength in bravely baring their souls – but I went the other way, and became a social media recluse. I kept my accounts, so I could stay relatively up to date – but was fairly loath to share anything apart from stuff that I felt people were expecting to hear about (eg PhD hand-in). I largely stopped posting any social media content, much less writing anything remotely long form about either myself or my work, or keeping the site up to date.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle – because having not written or posted regularly enough for it to be un-self-conscious, sharing even the most inconsequential thing often causes me more worry than pleasure. Writing this has been quite a challenge – drafting and redrafting, putting things in, taking them out, wondering where it falls on the scale from cathartic explanation to self-indulgent whining. Elsewhere on social media, I don’t really comment, or post opinions, or even silly puns on current events without overthinking it so much that I find myself deep in a labyrinth of possible misinterpretations or misunderstandings. And then of course, the moment’s passed, and there’s no point.

Alongside this general anxiousness, I also have a horror of doing anything that resembles showing off. For example, Idenna supported the Carols of the Diaspora project by making a spectacular mini documentary film about the event as part of our Stories For Change initiative. I was repeatedly asked to write it up.

I just could not bring myself to do it.

Not because I couldn’t be bothered, or it didn’t matter to me – quite the opposite. It meant a huge amount to me, but I felt dreadful about it. Rather inexplicably, I felt like I’d wasted people’s time. I was worried I would be seen as a shameless self-promoter for shouting about it, for blowing my own trumpet. The whole thing filled me with anxiety and awkwardness.

— anxiety and awkwardness remedy —

Don’t worry, I realise what first world problems these all are. It’s just a personal struggle that I’m trying to overcome, and this is self-indulgent, actually, writing this out is useful. Thanks for sticking with me if you’ve got this far.

Interestingly, this disengagement is completely at odds with what I do in my job. One of the most important things we help our clients with is keeping them connected with their customers, so that their audience knows that they are up to date, available, present, and ready to respond.

So I am very, very aware of the importance and utility of building and cultivating an available, responsive online “personal brand” – I see people doing it all the time, all around me. It’s literally my job to do it for others. And yet, just at the time when I should probably have been doing as much “check out my awesome research!” self-promotion possible, I felt unworthy of any notice, and just wanted to withdraw, consolidate, be invisible.

I also don’t like seeing myself as some sort of “content provider”, which positions my friends, family, and colleagues as my “consumers” – part of me feels like it reduces relationships that I genuinely take pleasure in maintaining in person, through actual conversations, fireside chats, blowy walks, and contact.

Enter 2020. The year that brought home how much we take in-person contact for granted, now that it’s been less possible than ever. Work-wise, going to working from home was actually very easy due to years of doing so on the PhD – a lucky coincidence. I’m lucky enough to live in a wonderful place and have a very amenable working environment.

But the opportunities to maintain proper contact with my nearest and dearest have been pretty curtailed. I’ve been at the stricter and more conservative end of the spectrum with social distancing – haven’t given my mum or dad or brothers a hug since March. The process of maintaining connections has increasingly moved to digital and virtual stages – Whatsapp and Zoom, catch ups with family and friends, virtual music sessions, online Cornish lessons. But the screen-fatigue is real, and there’s something about spending all day staring at a screen for work and then spending the evening staring at a screen for pleasure that just doesn’t stack up.

So in the absence of being able to maintain in-person contact as normal, I’ve umm-ed and aah-ed about posting regularly on social media again. Still working on that. But I have, finally, got around to updating the site. (I kinda like it!). And, as I kept telling myself during the write-up, slow progress is still progress.

Joking aside, in all honesty the process of writing this all out has been pretty helpful. I find that writing things down helps set my thoughts in order – you have to try and make sense of things, make a logical thread, think whether and how you mean things. I realise I might not have achieved that particularly well in this post, but again, it’s a personal process I’m always aspiring to improve. As a nice bit of kismet, when I bought this mug I didn’t know how true it would ring (or that four years later I would have a cat-buddy for a little while. Maybe more on that another time. Cats tend to be good content).

I feel shamefaced for having left some thoughtful and interesting messages and comments to languish unacknowledged, which hadn’t made it through to my inbox. If you’re reading this, having visited before and wondered why this site was down, or sent me a message and wondered why on earth I don’t respond – thank you so much, I do really appreciate your interest and taking the time to get in touch. I’m sorry about my tardiness in replying. I am getting to it, slowly but surely.

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