A belated processing

Posted on | September 11, 2016 | No Comments

Last week I finally wrote the email I have been dreaming of writing for years. It was sent to my publisher, along with the draft of my new book, Counterproductive: A Brief History of Time Management. It made a certain sense when I realized that the day I submitted the manuscript was also the anniversary of my mother’s passing. She died 15 years ago, of cancer. I have never really written about this event, and the many ways it has affected my life. I still don’t want to share much about it, except to say that there are aspects of the book that are closely tied to my memories of her. These include what are imagined connections to different parts of her working life.

When I was young, mum taught home economics at the local school on Bruny Island, Tasmania, where I grew up. She went on to teach and direct Religion and English Literature at the Catholic school I attended in Hobart. It must have been some time during this later period that she acquired a book on stress that I found years afterward. It was this discovery, along with some other books related to health and illness, that inspired my interest in self-help. I saw them as symptoms of how she and other first generation office workers developed strategies of consolation and recovery to face professionalism and its strangeness.

When my mother was very ill, she needed to leave work for certain periods, not all of which I can date well now. Eventually she took early retirement to savor life with my Dad. They spent a lot of time apart while we were growing up, as she took on the breadwinner role and supported us through the perils of Australian farming. Their sacrifice in putting us through private education is something I always hold prominently in mind.

While she was a converted Catholic, mum adopted a range of new practices in response to cancer’s disequilibrium. She did Tai-Chi and meditation. She also started reflexology. One of many regrets I have from our time together is refusing the multiple offers she made to give me a foot massage with her new skills. As a punk rock wanna-be, these gestures seemed entirely weird and unnecessary to me. I think anger was my dominant response to mum’s sickness. Often it still is.

I wish that I’d had more foresight to enjoy the gifts she was trying to offer.

In my book, I dedicate a chapter to mindfulness – one of several examples of time manipulation and self-suspension that workers employ in the quest for affect management. Reading the ideas of alternative medicine gurus as part of this research brought me to the point of experimenting with some of their recommendations. Now, when I meditate – or try – I have started to understand this as a belated appreciation of the spiritual pleasures my mother was finding towards the end of her life. It also makes me conscious that my response to her death, which has generally involved working and writing through it, may not have been an ideal strategy.

This personal history may explain why Counterproductive starts with an account of home economics and ends with an argument about postsecularism and co-immunity. In talking about the myopia of knowledge work, the book addresses many of the same issues of my previous writing projects, but somehow the structure has also become a mirror of certain stages in my own life narrative, filtered through mum. The relief I feel in having completed the manuscript makes me wonder if at least part of my sense of accomplishment has been to find a way to become closer to her, and the messages she was trying to share. While I can’t yet figure out if I’ve succeeded, writing this postscript is a prompt to remember these ideas as part of the record of what the book became and what I have been processing.


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  • @melgregg

    One of many knockout passages in Temp, by @louishyman - important, deeply historical labor scholarship for our times pic.twitter.com/dfkxGyJv92

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