3,500 miles, 14 states, 2 provinces, lessons learnt: We are not built to do big things alone, we are built to do them together

Today’s been my last full day in NYC, and in America. And I’m a bit sad about it.

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This nearly month trip has been a blast and an inspiration. It’s been a frank reminder that our time is too valuable to let a moment go to waste. We need steal as much life as we can out of each day. And I certainly feel like we have done this every single day for 28 days.

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This is mainly due to my ride-or-die-hommie – Colleen – the driver, who drove over 3,5000 miles around north America (Thanks so much Colleen!). Think driving miss daisy meets velema and louise. we visited 14 USA states and 2 provinces in Canada! I visited 6 whole new places/cities – making my knowledge of certain states that I had already ticked off before – even better! With Pittsburg being one of my favourite new cities to have visited. Must be that steel connection. I love understated, post industrial, arty cities *cough*-sheffield-*cough*

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We drove through the most glorious sunsets, that hung around for an hour in all their pinky, orange and purple gloriness. In the end it was like we were actually chasing the sunsets. The more south and west we went, the longer they hung around, felt like you could touch them and looked like paintings in photos.

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We hardly arrived anywhere on time between each destination, (thanks google maps when we were planning for the lies!) but it just goes to show that it’s the journey that matters, and it was never about the destination anyways (especially given that our destination would be back where we had started). In the wrong turns and google suggested adventures, we discovered uncharted areas, and ghost towns of rich-pasts, farm lands, mountains, kangaroo, gems, moon-views, world wonders, the brightest stars and the clearest skies! endless waffle houses and many a gas-station toilet.

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We saw dinosaurs, ate at 120 year old functioning ice-cream parlours, farms of various sizes including the massive production of milk for the North of the USA. We chased waterfalls, and slept in places that felt like we could be in a horror movie — or places that only a protagonist would be staying in to run away from something in their past. (this was emily’s house BTW – deep in a rainforest in Georgia — she said we wouldn’t find it – and boy-was she right!)

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We got some incredible emily warning ceramics, and colleen booked an AirBnB that looked like it was decorated in 1920’s (& i swear down it could have been haunted, i had to sleep with the light on- C still thinks i’m being dramatic about it- but those who saw my insta-story will know the truth).

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I learnt that Colleen sleep walks and talks (don’t worry, she mostly did this in motels/hotels). We nearly picked up a hitchhiker (he invited himself along and we had to politely decline saying the car was too full of pottery for him to have a seat & we were heading to dinasour world next) He quickly disappeared once he thought that *we* were the weirdos. And I also learnt that Colleen is very opinionated about things including road-side eateries. I want her to start a podcast or youtube channel where people just give her a subject and she’ll rift about how scandal-less or waste of time/money it is, or how amazing it is.

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I learn about a dude called Mr Rodgers and how to be kind to ourselves and others through his teachings (& colleen’s pure love for him). and all things from Pittsburgh.

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My french is still LA-TERRIBLE, c’est very bad. (the only time i sound proper yorkshire is when i speak another language). I was constipated for 3/4 of the whole time here (HA). And i ripped my stitches out of my mouth by accident eating SI Broccli! HA!

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Time Zones confused us often. Did you know Tennessee & Kentucky & Chicago is central zone but parts of Indiana and Ohio is not?! very confusing. Tax across the USA is wild. Chicago was the most expensive. We’ve tried lots of foods, from 10am ice-cream in Columbus, Ohio, to mexican breakfasts in Chicago, to Wah Wah gas station food, the biggest slices of pizza in philly (& the worst greek salad haha), to sweet potato pancakes in the south, chicken & waffles, pirogies of all types, hot dogs, my fav tacos and “water and leaf” soups, oatmeal shakes, piles and piles of freshly prepared dumplings, my fav Chinese- PHU-GEES in NH and beyond. I keep ordering far too much food and don’t learn.

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My Sandy Island adventures got me chasing sunrises, i drank too much and kept Lea up chatting absolute bollocks. It made me fully miss sandy summers. I got to see my crew from over the years including Dave B, and Kate, and Julia. Vanda and I reminisced about our Sydney adventures. and Dani and the crew and I went Northern Lights hunting! It feels so weird and good to have a base there. A place that feels like a home. Like a good Smizz Horcrux. I feel like bits of my soul is in NYC and sandy Island. Who knew New Hampshire would ever be a smizz place?

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I’ve spent a good month being glad for life, surrounded by people who I love, doing what I love, & meeting more new super awesome people. I’ve been shown many true and generous acts of kindness this year – here in the USA and back at home. And I’m completely humbled and for ever grateful for these. Thanks just doesn’t seem to come even close to how i want to say Thank you! to EVERYONE!

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one morning this summer before my trip here – with my mouth in stitches, and appointment sheets for the next abdominal surgery, I burst into tears over breakfast, convinced that this illness had drained me of my creative & living/Smizz abilities. Even in that dark moment, though, I knew that my co-workers & friends wouldn’t let me fail. And it isn’t just picking up the baton when I drop it; they’ve (you’ve) motivated and encouraged me through periods of lucidity to art/live the best I could. I’m so damn lucky.

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I feel that I have a little more understanding of what it means to fall over and feel that you have to get up, no matter what you have to leave behind in the process. This is an easy realization to come to because I’m pretty lucky that I have you -all- the amazing people in my life, who have supported me & helped me to live. Whatever i’ve lost, you make it feel like i’m nearly whole. All I have is that you should appreciate what you’ve got.

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I tend to do these trips when I’m sort of running away from what’s been happening to me. It hurts. But I’ve thought long & hard about what I want out of life. And i want to be here for at least another 5 years.

Today I got to see Alex 1 last time, and the way he talks about leadership & connecting always inspires me and i feel it in the pitt of my stomach. (i can’t wait for his future book). As he says, doctors check for pulses but he checks his people. And that’s what i love about him, and something i’m trying to aim for too. My USA trips are always inspiring me to be better, to commit to my work, to give back to my community. I have some time, and if I use it well. It will be more than enough.

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through all this stuff, I feel like I’ve grown up a second time. I’m broken; But I am alive. I’m coming home to  fix some more gnarly health stuff, but i’m re-charged to finish my PHD, start my new work contracts using arts based research methods in public health and doing research into social detriments and getting rid of these health inequalities as much as we can through ensuring access is made for the people who need these services. and restructing injustice things within policy and beyond. I’m looking forward to really starting to lay the bones down for “REAL “- a business adventure with Helen doing social-justice through creative practice. and lots of stuff in between.

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i’m constantly looking forward to sunsets and bike rides and tacos and getting dirt on my boots and feeling grass between my toes and feeling the calm breeze sweep my face as i drive with the windows down. these are the small, forgettable pieces of life that i think contain all the magic, all the billion little tiny disco ball reflections and retractions of the love and light in this world.

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This life is teaching me that there are golden moments, and the darkness cannot touch them. I’m learning the art of discovering those moments, the ones hiding in hard moments and challenging days. but man.. is it worth it.

Wish me luck! and see y’all later!

Shame, Gratitude, (health) Care & Resilience: Working in Art & in Research

Shame. It’s a shameful thing.  To feel ashamed. It makes you feels weak. It feels like you’re kind of worthless. The other day, my GP shamed me. He told me that I just “need to suck it up & live with it”. (it being bad-ass headaches/migraines/face/shoulder pain) I’m not sure he meant to, but he did. I wasn’t even there for that. He tried to quickly move on – but it hung in the air & it is now burnt into my mind ever since. I keep replaying the moment inside my head of all the things I *wished* I had said in response to him. To call him out. But I stumbled over my words and I itched my head as I usually do when I feel socially inept and at a loss of words as all of the emotion came over me at once.

This moment, which I had gone for antibiotics for a chest infection (which i got!),  all came down to him reading some clinic notes that the physio had written. She had said that I take (over the counter) codeine about twice a month  for a 5-year chronic headache & INTENSE neck/face pain, but only when its pain scale 8+ & it’s grinding me down. And it’s true.   The neurologist prescribed me stuff for it 3 years ago – but the GP refused to keep on prescribing it. we tailored the drugs off – and now I just live in pain. I get it. I understand why he doesn’t want me on these drugs. It’s chronic pain, it’s probs a bit psychosomatic – but i do have shit wrong with me that would actually give me chronic headaches like hypercalcemia that gets so high sometimes I have to be hospitalized.  And also like, migraines are a real thing! But he doesn’t see that. And again, I do  it get the “no drugs thing”. That’s why I have adapted my own coping systems. I know stress makes it worse, Physio helps my neck & shoulder & gives me really good relief for a decent amount of time, and I know I need to sleep-in at weekends to give my body *Something* to building itself back up. I know the GP won’t give me shit for it – so I take the odd over the counter pain relief? So what!?  If he wants control over the stuff I am taking – then he should offer the support. But he doesn’t – so, I guess that’s structural iatrogenesis for you.

I have to take the pain relief when the pain grinds me down so much that I feel COMPLETELY worthless – like the pain makes all my left side of face feel numb and sometimes I can’t actually get language out. It’s embarrassing. My job is about communication – and sometimes i just can’t communicate properly with people cuz the headache/face numbness is so bad i loose my ability to grasp the correct word – or know how to spell it? It’s a weird sensation. It’s like having the worlds slowest seizure. But it goes on FOR DAYS. WEEKS. Even months if it’s SUPER bad like it was back in the radiotherapy training days.  It literally makes me feel like I want to kill myself – because anything is better than not feeling like you’re alive. I joke about this with friends at work. They laugh but pull me up on it. “You’re not serious though, are you?” they say. I just laugh and & say “i don’t know” because honestly on those days, i just – don’t know.  We get back to typing on our laptops and pretend we’ve not really exchanged this odd truth because it doesn’t sit well with who i am.  When the pain is manageable – i’m like the chillest, generally happiest person you’ve met that day.

The GP – a dude who I really respect & admire – made me feel like *proper* shit by shaming me like that (again esp when I didn’t bring it up!). I carry the shame around with me all the time. It weighs me down, and the dirty secret of mine.  I don’t need to hear to suck it up from someone who is supposed to at least be pretending to help.  So I was like, what’s even the point, right?  And It’s not the 1st time he’s shamed me. I can’t blame him directly tho. Healthcare is historically built upon shaming women (Especially) .

I’ve been making my medical shames into comics (this 1 isn’t finished yet). Maybe one day, i’ll give them to my GP.

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So what’s this shame gotta do with everything else? Well, this is the thing. I know that shame is the opposite of art.

When you live inside of your shame, everything you see is inadequate and embarrassing. The pain you can’t seem to get rid of.  A lifetime of traveling and having adventures and not being tethered to long-term commitments looks empty and pathetic and foolish, through the lens of shame. You haven’t found a partner. Your face is aging. Your body will only grow weaker. Your mind is less elastic. Your time is running out. Shame turns every emotion into the manifestation of some personality flaw, every casual choice into a giant mistake, every small blunder into a moral failure. Shame means that you’re damned and you’ve accomplished nothing and it’s all downhill from here.

Working in art and academia/research kind of makes it super easy to fall into shame. The way these worlds work – defaultly – can make you feel pretty inadequate at times. I mean, anyone who has received the raft of reviewer #2 will know what I mean.

Shame creates these imaginary worlds inside our heads. This haunted house that I have created is forged from my shame. No one else can see it, I keep trying to describe it to them. I find ways to say, “You don’t want any part of this mess. I’m mediocre, stupid/boring, and poor. Do yourself a favour and leave me behind.” Sometimes I think it’s because I want to be left behind, though. That way, no one bears witness to what I’ve become.

I’ve gotten super lucky recently though when it has come to work, somehow. I’ve been blessed with an incredible opportunity to do a commission for Yorkshire Visual Arts Network (YVAN) – on creating a work based on snapshots of working in Yorkshire and Humberside as an artist.   And I decided I’d look at this iffy word Resilience.  It absolutely does my head-in, does that word.  It’s a new buzzword. And it gets banged around in scenarios where people are in really stressful situations: an overstretched NHS, an underfunded school, understaffed university, a over-stretched and increasing demand public sector. The reasons why people are stressed & burnt out & things are taking longer *isn’t* the underfunding – no – people just need to be *more* resilent. Here this is the placing the structural injustices onto individuals – and it turn it shames them too.

The North, traditionally and currently, gets less funding than the south. But – it’s cool because WE ARE RESILIENT.

Over the past few weeks I have been digging down deep across various areas: Sheffield, Doncaster – soon Hull and Withernsea. A bit of Huddersfield. I’ve been taking documentation, talking to people. About labour, about art, about making, about worth/value/time.

But I am left more inspired than I first thought I would be.  Every single conversation has ended up about being and providing some sort of care. I am refreshed. This wasn’t what I was expecting to find. I had chosen these specific people because I knew they were doing something special, and was responding to these structures that build shame around us all. They are responding with a resilence built around care.

Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center. But I’m finding people who are leading us toward a culture that puts relationships at the center. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one. They ask us to see others at their full depths, and not just as a stereotype, and to have the courage to lead with vulnerability. These  people are leading us into a new culture. Culture change happens when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us should copy them.

I am excited to share this new body of work (still in the process of being made) with you – but the website will be shared with y’all soon.

All of this has made me see that we all need to discard some of this shame that we’re carrying around all the time. But even if we can’t cast off all our shame that quickly, through the lens of art, shame can become valuable.

When you’re curious about your shame instead of afraid of it, you can see the true texture of the day and the richness of the moment, with all of its flaws. You can run your hands along your own self-defeating edges until you get a splinter, and you can pull the splinter out and stare at it and consider it. When you face your shame with an open heart, you’re on a path to art, on a path to finding joy and misery and fear and hope in the folds of your day.

Instead of thinking what needs fixing? we need to be here instead. We can build a new kind of existence, one that feels small and flawed and honest, but each day we can accumulate a kind of treasure that doesn’t disappear.  A reminder that you are alive. And you’re worthy and valued and seen. Chronic pain, citations, published journal articles, bad reviews and all.

i think i might be going back to camp

imagine that!

it would be awesome if i did!

but now i’m going about like a crazy person trying to do a 100 things at once!

it’s so much harder these days to get visa’s than it was in 2007!

so much harder!

you have to get 3 references. i’m like whhart? 3 REFERENCES that’s kind of crazy.

so alot of the blog posts next might be all about this.

Currently devizing  a lecturer on Research Excellence Feedback system. yeahhhhh. watch this is space!

holla!!