Weeknote 10th February – Being ready

I’m writing this after a lovely lunch with Vicky in a railway arch in Forest Gate.

A 'street food' pasta truck, covered in astroturf, but inside a railway arch with tables in front. There are drapes on the ceiling and fancy light bulbs.
The Fiore pasta truck.

It was a truly delightful way to bring quite a momentous week to a close.

Last week’s weeknote was a bit late because I was wrestling with quite a lot of stuff. I mean, how was it that, after nearly a month away from work, I was still feeling…not exactly “burnt out”, but knowing something still wasn’t quite right? I was reminded of something Michael Rosen said in the Guardian about his son Eddie’s death, where he felt he was still ‘carrying around an elephant’. On a much smaller scale, I still felt there was something I’d still not quite managed to shed. And I’d really hoped to do that before I started in the new place – a particular reason to take the extra week off.

Obviously the ‘machinery of government’ move at the start of the week was all over twitter, so I found myself lightly dragged back into that world. A few friends at DIT needed reassuring words, that sort of thing. I didn’t mind, but I was hugely aware that I was having to do it all in a mental landscape with this…thing that wouldn’t quite go away. And I really wanted it to.

I’m not just lying on the sofa eating all the chocolates and hoping to feel better, of course. I’ve been trying to look after myself as much as possible, and keep perspectives broad to try and shake things off. Channelling every bit of Laurie Santos and Paul Dolan I could muster.

I’ve been keeping pretty active – getting out of the house every day. I’ve had two runs already this week and am probably heading to parkrun #52 tomorrow. I’ve been spending over an hour a day playing the piano, and more time in the studio (although ‘the elephant’ has made me pretty numb and I’ve not felt at all inspired). There have been loads more BAFTA films watched (how on earth will I choose between Michelle Yeoh and Emma Thompson, eh?). I’ve managed to meditate every day, sometimes for 30 minutes or more – although my inner monologue always seems to be a bit like this track from Phil Hartoll and Murray Lachlan Young (link should be to full version, or there’s a spotify clip below which gives the vibe):

But somehow still things wouldn’t shift, despite doing all that good stuff.

And then yesterday afternoon I was thinking about something a friend had said about three months ago: “how do you wrap it up as being a good thing to have happened, and metaphorically put a bow on it?” In four years of huge ups and huge downs, how do you reconcile all those different scenes and feelings? And so, out of curiosity, I opened up a document I’d written in December that was some bullet points listing things I’d done while at DIT, and…

It was just massive. Absolutely huge.

I really don’t want to come across as blowing my own trumpet – because yes I also made a lot of mistakes and learned loads and defiinitely didn’t do it all on my own – but there were probably about a hundred people whose working lives I’d made a big difference to. In some cases their personal lives as well. And finally the ‘welling up’ that I’d been expecting at my leaving do hit me like a massive wave. And I realised that I’d found the elephant at last. I’d just never truly looked at the whole thing and tried to assess it. I’d just assumed that it would organically get assimilated over time – but that hadn’t happened.

[Some belatedly added context here: it’s worth saying that when I joined DIT it was still pretty new and things weren’t in a great place, and I had to do a lot of culture/governance/process change – and not everyone wanted to go along with that. There were lots of people who were pretty new in their roles too. So I had to shoulder a lot of stuff that was out of my comfort zone – and take a lot of blows from different directions. And then I moved into Brexit, where a lot of people were under a ton of pressure, and they didn’t always handle it brilliantly. And after that we went into a restructure in a matrix environment, and I often found myself on the frontline when this affected some of the other teams and their ways of working. Plus there was creating a profession from scratch…and then having to give it away again. Along the way, through all that almost-violent change, you pick up a lot of ‘moments’ – good and bad. But what I’d discovered was that this was too big to just deal with without some sort of ritual or process.]

So I sat down and opened a google doc, and wrote a massive load of goodbyes and acknowledgements. And, as I was writing, I decided that this was going to be it. Closing the document would be the end of the story. I could write down every delightful moment, every agonising choice that had kept me awake at night, every regret – but knowing that at the end I could look back at the story of it all, be glad it had happened, say adieu, and not look at it again. Every cinematic vignette that I had ever mentally replayed went into the document, so I could press “close” at the end.

[Some more belatedly added context on this process: as I was going through the document the ‘close document’ idea became more and more momentous. It stopped being just a list of stuff I’d done, and more of a gathering of “everything you ever wanted to say about this, because we aren’t going back here, so if you’ve got anything…ANYTHING…else left to say, get it out now.” The idea was that I’d genuinely have no unfinished business – everything would be laid to rest. So “close document” really meant “close this chapter of my life”.]

Having done that: yes I am glad that it all happened. Those four years were really really hard in places, and writing them down was similarly emotional (and drawn out), but they’re done. It’s done. The document got closed. There is a bow on it. It was worthwhile.

And I’m ready for the next thing. 100% ready.

So maybe that’ll work for you if you’re ending big complicated chapters of your own?

(Interestingly there have been a few bits that have popped into my head since, but the thought process is either “yeah, but that’s in the document and we know how it fits into the bigger whole” or “does this matter so much that you want to reopen the document again?” It’s all much, much quieter.)

What else has been going on?

  • Went to a John Mitchell gig on Wednesday, where it was lovely to catch up with old friend and incredible musician Jem Godfrey, and delightful futurist/singer Mark Stevenson
  • Popped into a GDS leaving do on Thursday for one of the devs I’d worked with closely four years ago – Phil Potter. Bless him, he played the bassoon on “tears of a clown” at my 50th birthday party, despite it being miles out of his comfort zone. I only stayed for two drinks because I’ve not truly started yet, and I didn’t want to get into being lobbied, but it was lovely to wish him well, to see old faces and know that people are Actually Quite Excited I’m joining next week. I’ve also got a bit of a sense of what I’m really there to do, as well.
  • I’ve taken the baby grand piano off its little wooden riser blocks. As I’m playing more than an hour a day, getting to the sustain pedal is now causing more pain than not being able to fully get my knees under the keyboard. The tendons in my big toe are very pleased as a result. And the knees will cope. Of course, this is a reminder that the days are numbered for this hand-me-down, but we’ll get another year out of it at least.
  • I started playing the clarinet again – going back to page one of (a new copy of) my old tutor book “A Tune a Day”. During which time I’ve discovered that, despite having got to grade 6 and been 1st clarinet in the school orchestra, there was a whole missing bit to my technique that nobody had ever spotted or tried to fix. I’d been trying to do staccato with my diaphragm, which is apparently wrong.
Phil Potter on Bassoon. Photo courtesy of Gavin Bell. Piezoelectric crook courtesy of Rhodri Marsden.

So, bring on next week!

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