Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The dangers of underutilisation

My ex colleague used to jokingly call me Marvin, because whenever I had a moan at work he said it would start along the lines of "I've got a brain the size of a planet and all they've got me doing is...". That always made me laugh.

Marvin the paranoid android, from The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy
But there's a very serious side to it - a mind that isn't exercised, that doesn't practise its abilities and that doesn't have a chance to really get out there and show off a bit, is bound to suffer. Those who know me learn very quickly that a bored Emily is a very dangerous thing indeed. A bored Emily is generally a frustrated Emily and that breeds resentment, discontent and eventually depression. The last is the most difficult to recover from.

So the easy answer is to keep busy: don't get into boring or frustrating situations. Find a job where you are stretched, where you can do great work all of the time, or failing that start your own business and work for yourself.

That's the easy answer.

Let's leave it there.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Joining the Corporate Side

As of Monday, the little agency I've been working for here in Sydney is no more. It has been bought outright and merged into a much, much bigger company. These things happen. So far, little has changed beyond the name on the deeds - I'm still working in the same office with the same team and our shift to corporate life will be a gradual one over the coming months.

I can hear your disappointment even before I've finished writing the words! "Oh Emily, why? How can you so betray your hippy fairy soul?". Well clearly it's not my choice. I was quite happy where I was, thank you very much. But it also doesn't have to be a problem. Really.

The plans you refer to...

Everything's easier with money. Stop judging! It's an ugly truth but no less factual for its displeasing visage. While a corporate job doesn't necessarily equate to a chunky salary, it does come with a plethora of other benefits: free gym membership, reimbursement of phone plans, salary sacrifice schemes... all of it helping those savings grow up to be big and strong. So the goal of debt-free eco living creeps ever closer. Keeping one's head down, continuing to watch the pennies, it won't be long before I can snatch that parcel of land in Nirvana.

Unfortunately there does seem to be some political and beaurocratic nonsense around getting employer nomination for a residency visa, but I've never been one to let such silliness get in my way. I'm pushing ahead with the application regardless, and will 'persuade' my new employer to play along even if I have to lock all the doors and execute one hostage at a time. (Might not mention that bit to the Department of Immigration...)

"Sign the papers. SIGN THEM NOW!"

The Death Star

It's big. It's posh. It's filled with pristene designer suits and polished glass cityscapes. But it's not all bad: I'll have my best friends beside me and plenty of work to get on with. And let's face it, work is great! It's distracting, it passes the time more quickly and it leads to a sense of accomplishment and self satisfaction. Probably the biggest problem I've had with work lately is the lack of it - I seem to spend most of my time dawdling about, never actually getting stuck into anything very challenging. So that'll be good.

One of the many lobbies. I don't know which one. It's confusing.
Of course it's also going to come with a brand new commute. At present there are just 170 metres between my bed and my desk, but that's about to extend to a whopping 2.1 kilometres More than twelve times as far! Instead of a two minute hop I'll be battling through pedestrian swarms for up to half an hour. Bright side? Well, clearly walking is healthier. Work-life boundaries can be more easily built. Commuting to the office with my best friend / neighbour will guarantee a daily dose of gossip. And popping into specialist food markets on the way home can be cheap as well as interesting. Yeah, I think it's going to be all right.

These are not the employees you're looking for

It might seem a bit out of sorts for a big corpo to hire a bunch of hippies in the first place. Have they made a mistake? Do they know what they're letting themselves in for? 

They insist that they do, that they're prepared for Rebels in their midst and willing to embrace us as we are (if only in the non-physical sense). We may have to tone down the touch-feely hugging for which our team is famed but we are packing the hammock and refusing to take any corporate bollocks from Director Vader. We'll continue as a small team buried inside a bigger one. I guess they're probably hoping that we'll nurture some loyalty for our new overlords but it doesn't really matter as long as we're still loyal to one another. Passion for doing good work is unlikely to change, although I do quietly reserve the right to refuse any particularly evil clients that come my way (I can't have another US pharmaceutical company on my conscience, not after last time).

It's a lizard in a hammock. That's how we roll.
In summary, yes I am now part of the capitalist machine in a much bigger way than I've been for years. It's happened against my will. But I'm running with it. When life gives you lemons etc etc etc, bla-bla-bla...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

This time I know you

I'm starting this week's post with an apology: this is no good. Please, just skip on to the next. It has not been written to entertain an audience, or to continue the blog, or because I want to share my feelings (I'm pretty sure I don't). I can't really explain why I'm writing this one and I may never hit 'publish'. It won't even make sense without reading all the way through. But here it is:

I knew you were coming

This isn't something that hits suddenly - it takes months and months to manifest. It seemed sudden before, when I was younger, because I wasn't yet experienced enough to understand the warning signs. I didn't know back then what was coming. But this time I do. I've been feeling you now for almost a year and, because your progress was slow and gradual, I honestly thought that I could fight you off, ignore you, push you down and carry on.

I remember how you operate

It's been almost three years since your last visit. You struck me in February 2011 when I left Cardiff and started a new job in Swindon. I'd had a sizeable pay-off, walked straight into another role with a better salary and bought the car of my dreams... and yet I managed to justify you. I told myself you were expected because my life had changed without my permission, because the work I was doing was unsatisfying and because I'd lost the social interaction of working and spending time with friends closer to home. Those things supposedly made my fortuitous life miserable enough to warrant you.

I could plainly see the contradiction and was embarassed by the excuses, but my doctor and family backed me up, prescribing drugs and rest to counterbalance the 'horror' of my situation, and when I was later invited to start a new life in London I used those same excuses to shrug you off, eventually indulging in some of the happiest circumstances I've ever been lucky enough to live through.

I thought I'd beaten you

Every time I felt that you might be lurking, I deployed my defences. I planned, imagined, took control of my life and sought out the big rewards that keep you at bay. Change is the key, or so I believe, so I kept changing: new flat, new job, new friends (the most amazing friends), new diet, new ambitions... Every time I dreamt up something worth doing I did it without hesitation. I found creative outlets and I celebrated every win. I believed you would fade away, cease to be.

But I felt your gaze again in December and my defences were weak. My default position was propped up on one elbow, repose on the sofa with a bottle and a pizza box. I drank cheap wine with anyone who'd join me, fearing spending time alone in case you spoke. I knew that you were gaining strength and that my next change would have to be a big one. So I took time over Christmas and conceived the 'build an eco house' plan. It was a good one! One of the few wishes I've always held onto but haven't ever before tried to fulfill, one that I was saving for 'later'. In planning I realised that it was achievable and that I could make it happen now, and the excitement of the project would be enough to defeat you. I was prepared and I was focused.

You didn't back off

But it's a delicate position to be in, relying on just one plan to stave you off. My passion can keep you at bay as long as it's progressing but one setback, one difficulty and you leap. Every obstacle gets harder and harder to overcome, and I feel less and less in control. You're strong now and my plans are faltering. The next milestone is entirely reliant on authorities like the Australian immigration board and my corporate employer, who between them need to prioritise my request for residency here with no self motivation whatsoever to act in my favour. I can't influence that decision and I can't progress with anything until it's been made. I feel helpless.

And you've been waiting long enough. You're ready for me.

Who you are

I always thought that depression was about feeling sad. But that's not all you do to me... you paralyse me. You make me dread. I sit here anxious, scared to do anything at all - I don't want to write, I don't want to speak, I don't even want to get up and make a cup of tea, or grab a bite to eat when my rumbling stomach is all I can hear. It's like needing to urinate in the middle of the night - of course one should get up and go to the toilet but there's no way of convincing oneself to do it. Against all reason I genuinely believe that 'lying here a little longer' will solve the problem. And right now all I want to do is sit here a little longer. I don't want music, company or even comfort, I just want to stay. Exactly as I am. Still.

But that's the one thing life can't allow, isn't it? I'm expected in the office, in direct contradiction to my inability to pull on a pair of boots or open the front door. It's morally outrageous to sit at my desk staring at the BBC homepage for hours on end while my colleagues pick up the slack, yet all efforts to arrange my thoughts clearly fail. I can't keep to a corner in blessed silence while my friends strike up a conversation... but I have nothing to say.

And that just makes it harder again. The pressure of having to do these things, worse to do them cheerfully, makes me feel even less in control of my own life. If I can't even decide what time to get up or whether to eat, what's the point of my existence? I'm just a reluctant automaton, a slave to social conventions with no purpose or direction. Suddenly those big plans I was using to fight you with seem ridiculous, hopeless, beyond fanciful.

My hands shake, my throat catches and my head hurts. I feel like I'm crying or about to cry even though there are no tears. I'm tired. I have no idea whether I'm better off with company or alone so I'll stare at films and TV shows without paying much attention. Perhaps the characters' voices are comforting, or distracting... I don't notice. Every hour is a struggle to pretend to be okay, and a struggle to fight the desire to escape and crawl back into a small, dark space. I have an overwhelming need to get out of the way.

I love my friends dearly and treasure doing things with them but dread the approaching appointment and breathe an enormous sigh of relief when our engagements are over. Who knows what that means?

Everything will just work itself out. Or it won't. And you've destroyed my ability to care either way.

What do we do now?

Well, there's the question. I could visit a doctor again. What would she say? Take time off work and try some drugs? Sick leave would only cause resentment in the office - I have no right to be sadder than anyone else - and it certainly won't help with career prospects. It would be unprofessional at best or a limp excuse for laziness at worst. And a diagnosis of depression could endanger my residency application, could see me deported from the country if I stopped work. Wouldn't that just suit you perfectly.

No, on balance I'd rather suffer now knowing that I can fight you better in future. I will do my best alone. I'll fix a smile and carry on. I'll hide you from my friends and I'll continue writing, drawing and playing music to channel you. I won't let you take hold of me - I'll be your partner and your companion for as long as it takes to make those big changes. I'll learn to meditate again and use mental presence to appreciate the beauty of the world I'm in right now. I'll break my dependence on the future just as one day the future will break you.

Walk with me, old friend; your time is brief.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Creative pursuits

So, as you may have gathered from recent posts, work is getting less fun again. It's not that I want to stop doing it, rather just that it can't be my number one priority any more... When your life is focused around your job it had better be bloody brilliant. If it's anything less than creative, flexible, social and spiritually satisfying, then you need to treat it as the nine 'til five it is and seek life experiences outside of it.

So I'm shifting those priorities now and finding other ways to occupy myself, hopefully at the same time adding to the house build fund:

Singing for your supper

There are plenty of great busking spots near my gaff in Sydney, not least the Central railway station with its long underground tunnel. I have no idea how lucrative these pitches are but licences are cheap and it would be a great excuse to get back into performing music.

'She had blue hair (Colour)' by Ben K Adams on Flickr (via Sprixi). CC BY-ND licence.
Now I just need to choose an instrument and get practising...

Making your way

My local area hosts community cinema nights every so often, showing interesting films that you may not see anywhere else. They're currently running a crowdfunding campaign so of course I'll support the area where I live by making a contribution. The deal is that, if the campaign hits its target within 30 days, my donation will grant me a stall at the monthly Surry Hills market, a medium-sized market in a fashionable area that specialises in retro clothing and crafts.

'nolasalvage' by adiything on Flickr (via Sprixi). CC BY-SA licence.
What a great excuse to try some stuff out! How about customising some funky shoes? Or making beautiful incense holders? Hand made earrings? Anything that doesn't sell at the market could still go on eBay, or if it's a tremendous success perhaps we'll do it again. The ideation begins...

What would you do?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Joining an Eco Community

As I've continued dreaming about and planning my new eco-friendly home, there's been a nagging issue: where to put it.

And I don't just mean a suitable plot of land with good soil. That's the last consideration. What about the neighbours, and the sense of community? In the modern world we tend to live in enclosed family units, perhaps knowing our neighbours but not necessarily forming strong attachments with them. So if, like me, you don't have a family unit to belong to, how lonely could it get to live outside the city? Is there any point in retiring to live in isolation, miles from the nearest friend, with nowhere particular to go all day?

So there are options: move to a village or town and hope everyone there opens up to you. Except the plots tend to be on the pricey side, and the councils are a lot more fussy about what you can build. The neighbours may just look down their noses at 'that girl with the smelly garden'.

Or get a shed load of cats.

But the inspiration for all this came from Lammas Eco Village, which appears to have an extremely strong community spirit, with single people and families of all ages belonging to it. Rather than just coveting their architecture and ecological principles, I think I'd really like to be their friend.

The Lammas village - a perfect community?

Finding an Australian Lammas

A search for similar projects in Australia started slowly. On the surface, most of modern Australia is a little bit on the snobby side - certainly in Sydney and in the popular retirement spots where prices are high and the standards even higher. There's a lot of talk about ecological building but it's combined with modern architecture and big, ambitious projects to 'hide the eco' and appear 'normal'.

But eventually, after a lot of digging, I've found them. The quiet, hippy communities that are either well established or just beginning. And they might be exactly where I need to go.

The concept

Generally, these villages are set up as a cooperative. Pioneers purchase a large plot of land and between them define the spaces - lots of communal facilities with sensibly divided lots for individuals to build on. In some of these the small lots are entirely freehold, though some are sold on a leasehold basis.

It's a choice that sounds ideal to me but certainly isn't for everyone. The conventional Australian is likely to be unimpressed. Which seems to result in some very reasonably-priced properties. Included in the 'sold subject to contract' search is a small house on a 2-acre, well cultivated plot for only $79,000. There would be no problem at all putting a little hobbit house on a plot like that, taking your time and living in the existing house in the meantime.

An adorable home in an established ecovillage for less than $80,000

Another village that's in its very early stages is a good deal further North in Queensland, where you can buy a freehold acre of building land for $45,000 and establish yourself within the community before it becomes too tightly knit. The climate up there would be beautiful and all the schools and facilities you could ever need would be right next door. They also have a 'no dogs or cats' policy that encourages the native wildlife to flourish alongside the people. Imagine living with kangaroos and kookaburras hopping around your garden!


One thing is clear: you can't just buy into these places. If you're joining a community, you have to know who and what that community is. Will it be similar to the pagan community portrayed in The Wicker Man? Will it remind me of my favourite 70's TV series Survivors? Or could there be a dark secret like in Syamalan's The Village? It's important to go to these places and spend some time with the people who could become your neighbours, friends, co-workers and family.

Living with native wildlife
I'm trying to kick back a bit at the moment, taking things one step at a time, but it's something to think about!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Retirement II: Return of the itch!

Here in Australia they take Christmas very seriously. After all, not only is it a collection of public holidays, it's also the summer break. So businesses shut down, shops close, doors are locked and everyone goes away.

Not to 'bah humbug' or anything but I had no interest in going away - my annual leave is precious and should be saved for when it's needed, for example when I want to pop home and see my family. So I fought and argued and complained that I wanted to work through... and was denied. Holiday time was enforced from 25th December - 2nd January.

What to do with extra holiday

I took advantage of this reluctant gap in work to... err... work. I volunteered at the legendary Falls festival in Lorne. The weather was cool and clear throughout and, only being required to work two shifts, I had a lot of time to myself. Time that was spent contemplating, pontificating and daydreaming.

Dangerous behaviour. That's how ambitions start. Tut-tut.

So I came back in the New Year with a whole new project in mind. Retirement was pretty awesome but over far too quickly - I need to get back to it, this time with a good sense of permanence.

So here's the plan:

Retirement II

I'm going to build a house. I'm going to become an Australian resident, buy a block of land and build a house on it. A simple little house, just for me, where I can live 'off the grid' for as long as I like. It won't be expensive but will be a base to which I can always return and where I can sustain myself without the need for any significant income.

And it will be apocalypse-proof! (Within reason.)

Simon Dale's infamous 'Hobbit House'

I've always been thoroughly inspired by the eco roundhouses back in Wales, now officially recognised in the Lammas project. Some of these houses have been built by owners and volunteers for as little as £3,000 and are simply adorable, cosy homes. In northern NSW there's the additional advantage of climate - it simply doesn't get that cold, so a well-insulated home would need no heating at all.

For myself, I've always fancied an outdoors compost loo, a flock of chickens and a goat. I could even learn to garden if my livelihood depended on it. It would be lovely to be part of a local like-minded community and there are a few of those around.

An early draft of my house design

Anyway, it's going to take a while:

1. Secure permanent residency in Australia (this will take about nine months but I can kick the process off quite soon)
2. Attend a straw bale building course (late March)
3. Apply for building grants from the state government
4. Buy land
5. Find a builder / structural engineer to make sure everything's done to code
6. Secure building consent (this seems to be a lot easier than UK planning permission)
7. Put up an on-site yurt / bathroom and advertise for volunteers at the local backpacker hostels
8. Build that house!
9. Move in, possibly whilst still commuting to Sydney once a week, until financially stable enough to quit or go back to contracting on an ad-hoc basis.

Getting started

At the moment I'm still researching all the different aspects of the building - laws, materials, designs - and working out how to pay for everything. I'm pretty confident I can be in by July 2016.  And I promise to post up all the interesting bits I learn along the way.