Back to School Time…


New book supply chains needed | Digital Printer

Old habits die hard, and the start of a new academic year seems a good time to reflect and plan. Given my Birthday is the end of August too, September 1st always feels like a bit of reset time. I normally quote Rent, and ask ‘how do you measure, measure a year?’ but really, how do you measure this mess? 

Like many of us, I lost my job. I spent March-July in a weird haze of ‘where are we, who am I?’ I’ve had more existential crises than I care to count. I also lost my entire industry and the framework by which most of my social life hangs. Without theatre, I’ve spent most of 2020 lost, and yes, moving through those existential crises. 


But as much as I wouldn’t wish 2020 on myself again, I am starting to think that some of the positives have been, if not worth it, because nothing is. Then at least something good to take away from it. And so as ‘Back to School’ time kicks in and I enter a slightly crazy busy time that feels like a good thing to reflect on. 


Firstly, like many of us, I’ve had time to think about who matters in my life. I’ve been lucky that friendships have strengthened in this time, and I weirdly feel far far less lonely and alone than I did pre-lockdown. I extracted myself from one particularly toxic relationship, and the freedom that comes with the brain space around that is …a revelation. As my Mother said to me, ‘Only the ones I haven’t liked have turned out to hurt you.’ and my friends, she ain’t wrong. I found myself getting upset over buying a printer because that person had mocked me for still having one. Nobody needs that kind of shit. If someone mocks you for a printer, kick them out of your life. What you need more of in your life are people like my friend Mel the other day, who called me  ‘an encyclopedia of weird’ but meant it in a good way. Because I will sit and explain 20 weird things I learned while looking up this one weird thing originally. Or my friend Ryan, who any time I’m writing gets a litany of weird connections my brain has made sent to his inbox. That’s what counts. Find the friends that lean into your weird. Not the ones that run away from it.  


And it’s true my weird has run a bit wild this year. Having half a year away from having to function and pretend to be a normal human 8 hours a day has been…really freeing actually. Whenever I’ve worked in an office I feel like I have to put on my ‘Normal Person’ suit 8 hours a day. Willing myself not to let too much of my inner weird escape. There’s such an armour we all build-up, but add onto that, layers of neurodiversity, Queerness…and just not feeling like ‘normal people’ honestly, a break from that has done wonders. As I think has a break from work. 


And when I say work I mean 9-5 work. Because I’ve ‘worked’ more on creative projects, freelance things and voluntary work more in 2020 than any other year. Do I get annoyed that people think I’m sitting at home watching tv all day when in fact I’m at my computer 12 hours a day most days? Yes. Am I just going to keep quietly working anyway? Also yes. I know I’ve worked hard when I was able to keep going, that’s what matters. 


And the rhetoric of ‘get a job’ is exhausting. I know lots of people are trying to help. But when I get sent jobs that I wouldn’t have applied for years ago. When I know I’m capable of much more, my heart sinks. Is that all you think of me, I think. There’s a difference between survival jobs and survival job mentality. And ‘settle for this’ mentality. I’m not ready for the latter yet. In fact, more so than ever I’m fighting so hard against it. 


Part of my confidence in this has come from steering Taking Flight at this time. Trust me first and foremost being a Chair in a pandemic, for a theatre company is not the path I would choose. But in finding myself in charge of steering a theatre company through a pandemic that threatens to wipe out our entire industry, I’ve found a lot of confidence and faith in my abilities I didn’t know I had. It’s not something that has happened overnight, or because of the pandemic- I’ve slowly been growing in my confidence as Chair (ironically something that my previous manager hated about me…that’s another story). But this time has really shown me what I’m capable of…and I’m not shy about saying that either. 


That’s not to say none of this has affected me. It really has. I joke about an existential crisis, but really I feel the mental health impact of this, as I know we all are. As an introvert, I adapted quite well to lockdown. As someone with moderate to severe anxiety, I understandably didn’t respond well to a pandemic. Though actually this weird in-between time is worse, I do remember one particularly fun moment a few days after I lost my job when I had the first full-on panic attack I’ve had in a long time. Added to that, months of isolation, shifting social norms…my Mum was ill (not with Covid) for a big chunk of this, my chronic illness has been in a flare so bad it made my Doctor go ‘huh’ which is always fun, and my Aunt died leaving me with zero connection to my Dad’s family…all of which is messy and complicated and adds to the collective trauma we’re all experiencing. My head’s a mess, but hey I’m self-aware enough to know that at least. And if being honest about that helps someone else it’s worth saying. 


And so I’ve leaned into various coping mechanisms. For me, that involves a lot of running and reluctant Yoga. It involves a lot of YouTube rabbit holes (see this blog) it involves a fixed set of TV that I know helps distract from…all that. And it involves some very intense fangirling and nerding. There’s a whole blog about my fangirl/nerding relationship to crisis. And it links back to the whole ‘find people who embrace your weird’ earlier this year I felt judged like I couldn’t be this part of me. Now I’m fully leaning into it. Because it helps. 


And so what of ‘Back to School’ time…I find myself in an exciting time writing-wise. Over August I picked up my Angels in America book once more. Telling myself one more go at bashing it into shape. Seeing if I just could. Somewhere in the Universe, something clicked into place because my editor, who had been quiet to the point I thought they’d dumped me and the book emailed asking if there was you know, any chance of a book…foolishly I agreed. And said I could deliver it by October 1st. So that’s September. It’s been a long time in the making, to boil down to a month of writing. And that’s kind of exciting. 


I’ve also got another project bubbling away, which is exciting and being announced this Friday. Yes, I’m being that wanker, but it’s 2020 give me some joy…


I’ve also gone ‘back to school’ literally, in that I’m taking an online course with the University of Alberta, on Native Canada. I did my undergrad degree in history and did a year of that degree in Canada. But my knowledge of Native history is woefully lacking. So this seemed like a good place to start. I’ve only done two weeks, but the return to learning, and then return to actually, what I first was good at- history- is already a revelation. As is having something to learn about outside of my usual remit. I started it as a productive distraction but it may prove far more. 


And with productive distractions, I’m writing again. But shockingly, writing prose-fiction. I wrote a blog at the start of August, that I’ll return to in more detail, about writing for me. I’ve written about 60,000 words over August. I find writing the easiest thing in the world. And weirdly you’re not supposed to? For me, it’s never hard…which maybe means I’m just awful at it. But it’s also like breathing, there’s never been a time I’m not writing something in my head. Or 6 things in my head. But weirdly, I feel this last month has flipped a the switch, and all the creativity I’d lost over not just 2020 but years before has come rushing back…Just by taking the pressure of and writing what I felt like. None of that writing was for theatre. And I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t leading me to question some things. That, and a lot else perhaps is a set of questions for another day. Right now I’m leaning into the writing that brings me joy, and the finishing of what I started. And the waiting and seeing on all the other things. 


2020 feels like a weird year to be thinking about ‘Back to School’ but one of the final joys of this time is that I am getting to teach again. Perhaps a lesson in when the universe takes everything away, you make your own luck. So I made two sets of my own teaching, outside universities and schools, for people who just want to learn for learning’s sake. And that, above all else feels really good. 


I heard a great thing this week, that when you’re doing the job you’re meant to do, you have the answers. I’m not quite there yet…but despite 2020, it feels like that’s swimming into focus a bit more. 


I love Autumn, it’s the best of seasons. I weirdly mark ‘proper Autumn’ by Canadian Thanksgiving, which this year is 12th October. By which time I’ll have submitted this book draft. I’ve been telling myself all summer just to get to the Autumn. And talking of Canadians, listening to this song, way, way too much (like way, way too much) which has the lyrics ‘And it ain\’t hard to tell this\’ll all be well in the fall, If you can just hold on, hold on, hold on with me’ 





By Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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