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Thank you universe (again)

I’ve written before about the value of being at a phase in life when having good work, not a career, is what I value. And how lucky I am to have it right now, having landed in the frankly enviable position of a chance to do some of the service design and innovation world’s most exciting work – connecting user centred design, improving public services, and passing power to people and communities. I truly love my job. But…

I can only really commit to it because it isn’t a career. I am not spending all my time working out if doing x or y will be better for my career path. I don’t spend my weekends making sure my CV is shaping up for the next promotion. I don’t ask myself would doing this or saying that harm my chances of moving on to a permanent contract when the existing one is up. I just think about the work, do what I think is best for the work. It is just about the most liberating thing I have ever experienced, and I am all to conscious of how lucky I am to be in this position. It’s a rare gift.Truth be told I never was very good at the career thing, and more of my time in paid employment has been in ‘good work’ mode than not. But…

As you get older the siren call of the career can sometimes start to lure you dangerously close to the rocks of hubris and petard hoist. As a person of 50 with secondary progressive MS I am all too conscious that my ‘I feel pretty confident I can count on that’ working life expectation is in years not decades. The clear and present danger that the next ‘bad phase’ might be the one I don’t get back up and at ‘em from drives me ever closer to the job as work mode. I feel such an almost terrifyingly intense sense of the preciousness of this time. I likely won’t be working in 10 years, and I’ll be happy if I am 5 years but not unduly surprised if I am not. Every day, every task, every project, is precious beyond belief to me because any one of them could be the last. But…

Every now and again the temptations of a career, with all its comforting (illusion) of security starts to look more interesting than off putting. Just as the sword of Damocles that hangs over me focuses my mind on making the most of every moment, it also reminds me of how scary the time ahead will be. Suddenly that secure pension (the one I walked away from a year ago), those chances to top up the savings, look seriously tempting. The fearful voices can kick in, and when opportunity to land the (illusory of course) security of job = career, my head turns.

Now I am not much prone to mystical thinking, but I just love the way the universe so does not want me to go there. Every time my head turns, the universe snaps it round again and presents me with a visceral reminder of what awaits the foolish sailor lured by that siren call. It puts me in a situation or with people who instantly focus my fearless voice. “See… Look… This is what happens when you have a career, you worry about this, and that, you draw back from doing the other.” And then as if to ram home the message it puts me in a situation or with someone who reminds me “See – this is what loving the work, not the job, looks like. This is what being passionate and brave because you have no career to chip away at gets you”. Today was one of those days. Ah universe you are so good to me. Thank you.

The Music of the Years

Years have a rhythm we only hear in historical echo. The year Norman died – the year of grief and awakening and regret. The year of the big relapse – the year of fear and calm and silence. The year I left my job – the year of certainty and apprehension and panic. Maybe it’s just because I’ve had a particularly dramatic run of years recently that this has been brought to my attention. Certainly I don’t think I knew this before, felt this before, heard this before. But I have been aware of it the last couple of years. I’ve also realised that the rhythms are carrying forward into the years ahead, building into some complex percussive symphony; the motifs and embellishments of one year weaving themselves into the next. So far the music seems at least vaguely cohesive, a sense of some kind of logic and structure, but with hints that it, I, might be heading more towards Boulez than Bach.

Is this just getting older? Time running out, choices become more pressing and poignant? I’ve always thought of music as something that adds to life, is somehow part of but separate from my life, But perhaps music reflects life more than adds to it; perhaps music is just our attempt to make audible that harder to discern symphony that builds achingly slowly across our lives? Certainly the instinct to make and enjoy music is so strong, much stronger than the instinct to make and enjoy art (at least if we judge by simple metrics such as how many of us engage with it regularly in our lives), that it suggests a connection to it that is stronger than mere entertainment. Our forebears were no strangers to this notion. The Music of the Spheres – the idea prominent from Classical times through the Renaissance that the planets create in their movement a harmony of supreme beauty – suggests a tendency to use music to make sense of deeply unknowable things. (It’s no coincidence that the idea of the Music of the Spheres lost currency with the advance of Science).

Perhaps I hear this music of the years now because I am learning to accept the unfathomable, unknowable, uncontrollable nature of life? When I was younger I needed to believe that we, I, could know and tame “life”. But just as with the passing of time I have come to appreciate and enjoy dissonant and atonal music much more, so too I have learnt to appreciate life’s mysterious and untameable experiences. Do I need to know and tame existence? Do I believe in the possibility of knowledge, control? Or I am happy to believe in the Music of the Years, as my ancestors believed in the Music of The Spheres?

But else, in deep of night, when drowsiness
Hath locked up mortal sense, then listen I
To the celestial Sirens’ harmony,
That sit upon the nine enfolded spheres,
And sing to those that hold the vital shears, 65
And turn the adamantine spindle round
On which the fate of gods and men is wound.
Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie,
To lull the daughters of Necessity,
And keep unsteady Nature to her law, 70
And the low world in measured motion draw
After the heavenly tune, which none can hear

John Milton, Arcades (1633)

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