On reflection

Huon River, Huonville, Tasmania. Photo: Gemma Chilton

We moved to the bucolic Huon Valley in Tasmania over a year ago, principally due to the increasing impact of climate change and the availability of cheap land – reasons we’re finding are ubiquitous among our fellow Tassie immigrants. 

It was a difficult decision to leave the NSW coast as we were year-round daily ocean swimmers and it was where most of our friends and family lived. However the gamble has turned out to be worth it as our time here so far has been enlivening, getting to know new friends, experiencing the moods of the valley, exploring waterways and mountains and slowly transforming half an acre of degraded farmland into a productive homely oasis. 

But something wasn’t quite right. My gut was trying to tell me something.

Coming up to seven years since I first quit my office job to pursue woodworking, I’d somehow spent the majority of the intervening years back behind a desk. Moving to Tassie was supposed to enable lifestyle changes, but I was still in the same work regime. So on Christmas Eve I resigned, to try and course-correct once more.

It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to be able to rationalise why we make decisions like this. So much that happens to us is random and to make it feel less random we have a strong desire to post-rationalise decisions to create a narrative that makes sense. There’s also a constant internal tug of war behind your right and left brain hemispheres, which science is discovering with split-brain experiments looks increasinly like we have two conciousness – who’s making the decisions up there?!

So with that caveat aside, I’ll attempt an explanation anyway.

At first glance I thought the reason I wanted to quit was due to pride. My employer reneged on an agreement for my contract extension and then proceeded to use the faceless machine of “People & Culture” (HR) and the contract to grind me out. Feeling like I needed to assert the last vestige of control I had, and save my dignity, I quit. Perhaps I should’ve been like this Frenchman who successfully sued his employer for having such a boring job (so French!), but on further reflection and in some concession to my former employer, I was negotiating conditions I knew had little chance of success. I self sabotaged.

Why? Well after reading my blog post from 2014 (the first time I quit office work to pursue woodworking) nothing has changed dramatically. I still stand by everything I said then, but time has provided some new insights and tempered the energy I brought to that essay.

For starters, I now have two young kids. That alone would be for many a reason to swallow any sense of disaffection and just get on with it “for the kids”. 

Since then, however, I now know the early signs of trouble and that when I said back then that I was “running out of fingers to plug into the cracks forming in the dam of my discontent”, what I was experiencing was my first bout of depression. This was only diagnosed retrospectively after having my second episode of depression diagnosed around my son’s first birthday. Anhedonia (a rather lovely sounding word that belies its true effect) manifested in me in a complete and utter lack of care about if I woke from sleep. I’ve always been a ‘morning person’ – it’s when I’m my most sharp, creative and energetic. The early morning has always felt like it holds such promise and vitalism and to utterly lose that sense was the sign of pathology. 

Well my heart is wiser this time and now knows what happens if my gut instinct is neglected for too long. New stresses may be on the horizon, but to knowingly risk repeating the same would be insane.

“But the kids!” I hear that little voice admonish me again. I know it’s not me, it’s my fear of society’s expectations speaking. If anything, this decision is inspired in part by my kids – their natural curiosity, problem solving, playful resourcefullness, their ability to be in the moment, to be themselves. How much truth is there to telling kids they can do anything they want when they grow up when I don’t as an adult at least try myself? Kids get an enormous kick out of a sense they have generated value to others in their own unique way. The spark is extinguished when they are required to be compliant small humans.

Over the past six years I have mixed both a corporate job (working remotely) and woodworking, however over that time my woodworking has slowly given way to an increasing proportion of corporate work. This happened incrementally in an insidious way – the lure of ‘good money’ and ‘secure work’ ratcheting up from two days a week to five. 

On paper I was living the dream of white collar work – the salary of a city job while living the rural lifestyle. What isn’t so obvious is the compromise at the heart of that deal. 

As most people are now familiar with, there is a currency of attention and your employer takes the lion share – Over. Your. Whole. Life. Worse than that, even if your attention is not required in a fleeting period of low activity, they still own your time and availability, rendering any meaningful attempt at doing something of real creative magnitude (that can become a source of income) diminishingly small. Some people manage it, I’m sure, but for me the two appear mutually exclusive. 

To say that my employment was a drug is not an exaggeration, and just like heroin it was turning me into a zombie, my life increasingly squeezed around the margins of work and the more visceral world of woodworking atrophying away. 

As Mark Baker puts it in his iconoclastic Gang Fit series:

“As time progresses people forget the reasons for being alive. Things get complicated –  employment, money, and ‘responsibilities’ start covering up what should be obvious… The problem for most people is that having a wage blunts their focus, it blocks out why your life is going nowhere. It’s an avoidance strategy. It lets you ignore hard questions.”

However difficult my woodworking was, I never counted down the clock. Compared with when I first ventured out into the unknown of woodworking, my naive optimism and enthusiasm has been tempered – in the blacksmithing sense of the word, as I now have a better idea of what it takes. 

Someone once said that rather than trying to find work that makes you happy, insteady find something you’re willing to suffer for. All work includes suffering to some degree, so I want to make sure that the suffering is constructive and that I have skin in the game that tethers me to the real world.

As much as I felt rejuvenated by our move to Tasmania, I couldn’t shrug off the sense I was an imposter, a fraud – and I’m now beginning to understand why. Not only was I deeply unattached to my work but my relationship with my new community has been one-way, almost parasitic. I provide no value and hence derive no income from the community, and so I don’t truly feel part of it. I’ve found myself curiously envious of the tradies, the garbage collectors, the postman, the cafe workers, even the local banker – but still not real estate agents.

When you move to Tassie, it doesn’t take long to notice that there is still an undercurrent of the ‘make it on your own’ and ‘mind your own business’ frontiersman here. Things and people can still be refreshingly rough around the edges and misfits are never far away.

So taking some inspiration from my fellow Tasmanians (I don’t think they use the word ‘fellow’ for starters) I’m going to venture out into uncertainty and start the next chapter of my work!