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On activism, belonging and shades of grey

On activism, belonging and shades of grey

Some coping strategies for a very confused Malta

Never have I felt a bigger need to ‘do something’, than in these last few weeks since the horrible assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. I’ve been struggling quite heavily with the state of the country for the last few months, frustrated particularly with our national fear of open criticism and real public debate about the things holding us backward.

I work within the arts sector, one that is traditionally rebellious, free thinking, a leader in successfully pushing for change. Yet I’m frustrated with the close ties art has to the public sector where the vast majority of artists in Malta somehow depend on the government for their daily bread. Any activism within the arts comes at great personal courage and the knowledge that you will be seen and treated like a traitor by the institution you work for and all its networks. We expect people to be chastised for questioning, for speaking out, for challenging the status quo, and they often are. Caring for jobs became the holy grail of artists grateful for being able to live off their craft, never mind selling their soul in return.

I expect that the situation is similar in other sectors given that this country is so tiny that everyone knows everyone and we tend to react to opinions voiced in public with attacks on the person voicing them rather than on the arguments put forward.

The pattern often goes like this: person writes article / makes public comment.

If person is foreign we tell them to go back to their country since if they chose to come to Malta, they must now love all its flaws and not in any circumstances talk about them or try to change them.

If person is local, we accuse them of being pl or pn supporters, because of course affiliation with a party immediately invalidates the person’s capacity to think freely. They are now simply puppets furthering the party agenda, unable to make their own personal judgement on any issue. And don’t get me wrong, many are just that.

As humans, we want to belong. We can sense the strength of the group and the protection being part of a crowd affords. We want to be part of something bigger than us.

Here in Malta we cling to our clans with fervour. Families, band clubs, festas, the church, political parties. We’re used to public shows of unity and standing up for those within the clan without question. Upset one of ours and our inner mama bear pounces. Never mind what we think about the argument.

The thing is though, many of us are feeling the cracks in this process and struggling with them. We’re looking around for our clan, for our people, our leaders, our heroes and there are none. We long for a virtuous strong leader to get us out of this mess, we long for impartial orators who can help us make sense of the mud we’re living in, yet we reject everyone who dares enter the field. And many times for seemingly good reason. Dig for 5 minutes and find a scandal. A political affiliation, a link with ‘the enemy’, a history of lack of honesty, a public flop, flaws big and apparent that take centre stage and invalidate every argument.

Suddenly there are no heroes to look up to. No person we can hand over our thinking capacities to and get on with our crazy busy lives. Everyone is a shade of grey. Some darker than others but none without a tint of some kind.

We feel we’re doomed.
How can we cope?

To be honest my most automatic reaction is to shut it all out. I can’t cope with the contradictions, I feel like I can’t possibly trust anyone and I know that everything I say or do is being watched by a mob ready to point out my flaws and motivations. And of course everything gets recorded in the little black book that will at some point come out to haunt me. The easiest thing to do is to sit at home and avoid the news. It’s all fake anyway and we’re all doomed. Or destined for glory, depending on your viewpoint.

Yet there’s a bubbling inside me that I cannot shut out. A frustration, an itch I can’t reach. A mountain of naivety that refuses to budge. A sense of possibility that keeps singing resolutely. And every day I see signs of other people who hear the same song. I see people following their values despite the difficulty, I see people being brave and truthful even when attacked, I see that every shade of grey is made up of white and black in varying degrees and I cannot ignore the good things that are inside the mayhem. Which of course brings me to a state to confusion over which direction I’m supposed to be throwing rotten tomatoes at.

The following are some strategies that seem to help the situation:

Sticking with discomfort.
When frustration bubbles, breathing and giving yourself time to feel out your own biases to the situation rather than running off. Some things are so entrenched they need serious effort to overcome. Like our national resistance to activism. Our inability to protest. Our need to discredit the speaker before the argument. What if we choose to act differently? What would that feel like?

Building open, inclusive communities.
We’re at a place where our sense of belonging feels homeless. We see serious cracks in practically every organisation. We see and feel more struggle in doing the things that we took fore granted a few years ago. Like drive to work. Or be able to afford a house whether rented or bought. Or be able to make a living out of things that don’t make us feel dead inside. This is a time to stick together. This is a time to collaborate, this is a time to have conversations over how we want to live and work on making that happen. This is a time to come outside of our work-home comfort zone to do the things that feel important to us. To examine what strategies help us live better, help us be more ourselves, help us engage with those around us to be able to see what resources we have available and make better use of them between us. How we can better support each other. How we can give our sense of belonging a meaningful home. This is a time to get off our phones and hang out in the streets more. This is a time to fully support good initiatives, even if we feel we’re different from the people who started them. By joining and participating we can create something better.

Embracing not knowing.
Let’s face it, we’re in crisis. Our water resources are dwindling as is our ability to produce local food. Our economy is based on dubious practices, many of which rape the little resources we have available at the fastest pace possible with zero thought about long term consequences. We’re losing our ability to provide affordable housing for ourselves. Our institutions are dinosaurs that have no idea how to cope with the fast changing pace of things. Our politics are tribal and all over the place. Our law enforcement is a joke. Let’s all accept that things are not pretty at the moment and that we mostly don’t have solutions. Or at least not the fast simple ones we all crave. They are just not there. The more we get comfortable with not knowing, the more we can openly speak about things as they are rather than feel the need to sugar coat them because we’re afraid of admitting we don’t have a solid plan. Guess what? No one does. The whole world is in the same boat and we’re all trying to swim through murky waters. Mostly obstinately pretending we can see the way or worse still not realising that our navigation tools are just mirrors looking backwards that are absolutely no use now. Let’s all accept that we have no idea where we’re going even if we can feel that things can and should be different, better.

Encouraging courage.
Rather than throw things at whoever dares speak out, let’s listen and engage truthfully. Let’s give each other our ears. Let’s lend each other the platforms we’ve built to make ourselves heard. Let’s build a culture that encourages people to speak out truthfully. Let’s create space for that in every place we have an influence on whether it’s at home, school, work, social media, public life. We must have patience. People need time and encouragement to find their voice, sometimes we will be met with silence, sometimes with confused voices. Let’s leave space for that anyway and have conversations that help focus, question, improve our arguments. Let’s collaborate publicly together. Let’s train ourselves in the art of accepting criticism publicly, of making criticism publicly, of separating the idea from the person and accepting that ideas change, transform, expand, contract and migrate to unexpected lands. Let’s challenge each other to bring out our best.

Taking time out.
These are testing times and we need our wits on. The solutions we need are multifaceted, systems oriented, needing overviews and big picture approaches. We need to find ways to drop the barriers to collaboration and connection. The more we exhaust ourselves in the hamster wheel, the less we can work together to build a new solar powered structure that runs without the need for us to spend all our time struggling with it. Walk, read, stare, do nothing. Be resolute in your decision to make space for yourself. Identify the practices that slow time down for you and be ruthless in making sure you make time for them. Play, dance, sing, paint, sleep by the sea in the sun, do the things that make you feel alive, for this is the most important thing you came here for. The next piece of the puzzle will emerge when you let it.

Valletta old girl, we’re killing you.

Valletta old girl, we’re killing you.

This morning I came across this article from two years ago (don’t ask my why the photo is there, perhaps Valletta’s face is changing so much it’s now not Valletta anymore). It speaks of rents driving out people who can actually afford to live here, the loss of hawkers and small shops that make the city a pleasant place to live in, not to mention breathe life into the stately streets. A quote by Malta’s then prime minister, “The profit motive must not become the predominant one: look at Sliema, Dr Gonzi said, with its seafront all taken over by the profit motive.”
 
Two years down the line the situation is many times worse. Every day more tiny rooms get a fancy renovation including a colourful door and a quaint name and a listing on AirBnB. Every day more of the old shops disappear making way for character-less chains and imagination-free tourist products.
 
The soundscape is now 70% construction noises, 20% traffic and 10% everything else. The pigeons still rule the overground, the cats and cockroaches compete for the underground kingdom that has not yet been turned into overpriced weekend accommodation. The rubbish still piles up in the corners day in day out.
 
Once in a while I encounter some signs of life. Some signs of humans who are interested in more than just money. Humans who own property that they prefer to rent out to those who will actually be living there (shock, shock, horror, horror!). Shops that seem to want to do things ethically and creatively. Artists still managing to exist within the madness of the old city. People going about their daily business as if none of this madness even exists.
 
Most days though, I walk the streets trying to ignore the development notices on every second or third door because I cannot bear to see another pool on the roof, boutique hotel or residence to offices conversion happening. Sometimes I complain about it to whoever might be inclined to listen but to be honest I’m even tired of my own rants, void of some sort of solution as they are. 

Can we not, for once, decide that perhaps we have enough?

That perhaps we can actually afford to leave a portion of that block of flats available to those with a lower income who will contribute to the place feeling like home rather than 3 sets of tourists rolling in luggage every week? That perhaps it would be beneficial to all if we look around to make sure that we manage to keep the things that make the city a good place to live in? The little food shops, the ironmongers (possibly the only non-endangered species thanks to all the construction going on), the workshops with people making and repairing things often with their shutters open, the random bazaars, the tea and pastizzi shops, the old stationeries.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should press the stop button on time or change. That never works. But neither does this do-nothing approach that lets market forces decide which things die and which live. Yes, in 50 years time perhaps people will realise that a museum city is not really that interesting and the bubble will burst. Perhaps Valletta will just become another Venice, a sinking relic in the midst of throngs of day-trippers on the hunt for cheesy souvenirs. Perhaps we’re already practically there.

Or perhaps we can use the experience of countless other cities and do something about that which is inevitable unless we drastically change course. It’s not like we don’t have clear examples of what gentrification does to cities without even glancing at the many local studies conducted. Can we possibly not create something different for ourselves? Are we actually so incredibly unimaginative as to simply plod along known roads to mediocrity?

In a small island like this one, where it’s practically impossible to avoid eventually swimming in the sewage you have yourself thrown out, can we not actually work together to create something we actually want? Valletta is a city born out of a collective effort of some of the best local and foreign minds and purses of the time. A city planned out meticulously before it was built. Surely over 400 years later we at least owe the old girl some thought over what will make her once again truly alive rather than a polished shell for a rotting interior fabric.

Endnote:

And in case you’re wondering what you yourself, tiny person can do, there’s plenty.

If you own property, consider capping the rent to what you feel is enough, whatever that means for you not the estate agent. Consider renting to people who will live in the city and make it better.

If you’re renting, speak out about unacceptable prices for tiny dark rooms. Create a relationship with your landlord.

If you’re visiting, stop by one of the small shops or peer into the workshops. Wander beyond Republic Street.

Have conversations with tourists, locals, builders, garbage collectors, bar owners, developers, share a cup of coffee with a stranger. You never know what new realities you might learn about.

Read some of the development notices and decide whether they are helping create a more liveable city. Act on those thoughts by contacting the Planning Authority or even searching out the owner and having a good old conversation where you might agree to disagree.

If you’re an architect dare to give the feedback that’s on the tip of your tongue about how to make a better living space and why it’s not ok to turn every square metre into tourist accommodation. Dare to have standards for yourself.

If you live here, get some plants going, take the garbage out at the right time, speak to your neighbours and see if they are ok even if they seem grouchy.

Seek out the artists and support them, they make the place better for everyone.

If you’re in a position to influence even small things, use it well. Have that conversation, check that situation out, do your homework and stand up for what you feel is right instead of repeating the same old excuses everyone is tired of. You can actually do better.

We can all actually do a lot better.

Experiments with enough – Day 68

Experiments with enough – Day 68

Grumpy day. From early on in the day I could tell it was one of those testy days. Which of course has nothing to do with the day itself and everything to do with me taking on far too much and expecting far too much of myself.

Things that usually were bog standard happenings suddenly triggered me like crazy. I could feel my nerves at the edges of things and at least inserted a few extra breathing cycles before reacting to things, which tends to help.

I worked from home in the morning, visited a friend, worked so more and eventually made it to Zouk class, missing a meeting I really would have liked to attend in the process.

Zouk was a total remedy to the day and I left the place much happier than I was when I went in.

On days like this a part of me feels like things would be easier if I turned into a bitchy, strict, non helpful person. Would I then not be respected more and asked to do silly things less?

Yet at the end of the day, I know that as long as I am taking care of myself (and there lies the challenge), I can be the nicest person in the world and feel extremely good about it. Now to find that self-care gap that’s in there somewhere…

Branding Slasherdom

Branding Slasherdom

An interview with Isaac Schlesinger

For Curiosity Breadcrumbs’ fifth issue I interviewed Isaac Schlesinger about navigating the muddy waters of personal branding and presenting a coherent narrative about the sum total of all that you are. Isaac is a brilliant writer / brand strategist / chef and staunch idealist (slashes my own) who frequently makes me splutter my coffee with his incredibly candid, sharp-witted comments. He spoke to me from his new home in Hamilton, Ontario.

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Back ‘home’

Back ‘home’

I’ve been ‘back’ for over two months now. It feels like both an eternity and no time at all somehow. I can’t say that it has always been plain sailing, yet it feels good to be here and I would not really want to be anywhere else right now. The month I spent at the artistic residence in Italy was the perfect half-way house between Brazil and Malta. Between travelling and ‘being home’. I wrote that in inverted commas because this feels as much my home as it doesn’t. My home due to the familiarity of the faces here, due to the length of time my ties here run deep. Yet the more I move around, the more I see that I carry my sense of home with me, that I create it inside me. Just as I can carry my sense of travelling with me back home.

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Wandering through the city

Wandering through the city

Looking at ways of grounding the traveller’s mindset in our home towns and cities, I chatted with Shawn Micallef, urban columnist for the Toronto Star, editor and co-owner of Spacing magazine and teacher of urban civic citizenship at the University of Toronto, about the flâneur philosophy, psychogeography and the things you can only discover through walking.

Many people have talked about how travel makes it easier for us to see the world anew. How, stripped from routine and familiarity, we can interact with our surroundings in a completely different manner. What I’m exploring is just how much of this is possible for us to have in our everyday lives, in our hometowns, our work, our ‘familiar surroundings’.

 

I saw you described as a flâneur, what does that mean to you and how does this influence your day-to-day life?

 

Flâneur is a word that has been applied to me, (one that I find perhaps a little bit embarrassing), a guiding principle. It’s about being a good observer, about peripatetic observation, blending in, hopefully becoming invisible. This is where the idea of a flâneur becomes an unequal one, not everyone can blend in. As a white male that is so much easier. Lauren Elkin has released a book called Flâneuse this summer, looking at the flâneur from a woman’s perspective. Historically the flâneur’s gaze has been male so I’m really happy that this has been stretched out and looked at as to why it is unequal. I hope that everyone can take what they want out of that and wander, look and just keep looking.

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How to have a traveller’s mindset

How to have a traveller’s mindset

Ways of experiencing the magic of travelling wherever you are

 

1. Get lost

“ to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.”
– Rebecca Solnit

Part of the joy of travelling is the unfamiliarity of our surroundings. We need maps, apps, stops to ask for direction to find the way. At home we often go from A to B using the same route. We’re distracted with thoughts, with being late, with what’s coming next and we rarely really look around us. Try taking a different route on day, try going to a wholly unfamiliar part of your hometown, country. Try to purposely get your self lost, just for the sake of it, then enjoy the wandering that results. And actually talk to people to get yourself un-lost. You’d be surprised what comes out of that.

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A week of Valletta 2018’s Curatorial School

A week of Valletta 2018’s Curatorial School

Curating The New

I’m not exactly sure why, but I have followed the last two annual Valletta 2018’s Curatorial School sessions with a sense of intrigue that has come with a side of ‘I don’t particularly belong there’. Not this year. Having really found my deep love for writing, freed my own inner artist and followed my curiosity into curation, I really felt like this would be the perfect hub for my expansion right now. And how right I was.

Wanting to embrace the opportunity in its entirety, I volunteered to help with the running of the Curatorial School, fulfilling the fun role of curator curation, a.k.a meeting the curators at their hotel each morning and shepherding them via a van to the Old University Campus where the sessions were held over the week. I have volunteered for quite a few events now and can honestly say that this is one of the best ways to deeply experience things, meet infinitely interesting people and generally experiment with and test drive roles / working relationships that you would not usually have contact with.

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Putting fear in the backseat

Putting fear in the backseat

Yasmin De Giorgio’s paths of courage

One of the people I’m lucky to call my friends, Yasmin De Giorgio founder and CEO of The Grassy Hopper and Theobroma Cacao Collective, is a person who seems to have endless fountains of courage. Armed with an ambitious vision of a business that transforms clients, employees and the local environment through healthy, sustainable, locally-sourced food and unshakeable values, she has stepped up from her first vegetarian food truck to now also run three food outlets with a fourth opening soon. I sat down with her at the Gzira restaurant to pick her brains about her relationship with courage.

 

So, Yasmin, what is courage for you?

Courage is the ability to do something even though it scares you. Rather than seeing it as the absence of fear, I really identify with the way Elizabeth Gilbert talks about it,

“is fear in the driving seat or is he at the back?”

Courage is not letting fear drive.

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A sense of home 2: Jonathan Magnin

A sense of home 2: Jonathan Magnin

Surviving (and thriving within) nomadism from those living without a fixed home.

In part 2 of this series I speak to French digital nomad Jonathan Magnin. Jon helps people and business to gain clarity and grow. He’s into creativity, start-ups and growth hacking with a social twist.

Which area of the world are you living in right now? How long have you been nomadic?

It’s been a month that I live in Medellin, Colombia. Before Medellin, I spent 6 months in Brazil, 6 months in France, 5 months in Dublin and about 10 months in Pereira, Colombia.

I’ve been a digital nomad for about 3 years.

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