A Letter on ‘Community’

Photo by Jeremy Cai on Unsplash

In the midst of a year overrun with a pandemic, a wave of protests against police brutality, systemic racism, and the ever worsening effects of the climate crisis, I think it’s fair to say human relations have taken a serious hit. The prominence of digital communication isn’t quite enough to fight the effects of isolation, political and social divide seem more entrenched than ever. Even groups of people rallying for incredibly valuable causes like the climate or antiracism are falling victim to infighting and lack of unity. So how do we avoid further division? How do we unite without dividing or ostracizing?

When discussing this month’s theme, we thought about the concept of unity, togetherness. It’s a beautiful idea but ultimately we decided it wasn’t exactly what we wanted to celebrate. Because what is more beautiful than ignoring differences to unite is seeing these differences and allowing them to exist, to take space between us. 

Interestingly (at least to me, but I’m a bit of an etymology nerd), community and unity come from different latin words. Same root, but a clear difference in meaning. Unity comes from unus, one, whereas community comes from communis, common. And to me, that subtle difference is the key to the strength and the beauty of community. It doesn’t require the individual to join a unit, as much as it encourages them to find a commonality around which to rally. Not we are one, but we are together.

The essence of community that I’m fascinated with is that tension between unity and difference. Community implies proximity and a common sense of purpose, principles shared with others who otherwise may or may not be similar to you.

In How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X Kendi highlights the differences between segregation, assimilation and antiracism. Segregation uses differences to justify discrimination and oppression. Assimilation seeks to erase differences and uphold the oppressor as the ideal to which all should aspire. Antiracism sees differences, accepts and celebrates them.

So perhaps the key to creating a lasting community is to accept and celebrate differences between individuals, and to recognise that these differences will lead to discussions, disagreements, and maybe even conflict.

I shy away from confrontation because I don’t feel confident in my opinions or my ability to express them. In the past, that’s led me to silence myself and to want unity and homogeneity and tolerance above all else. Don’t criticise, don’t clash, don’t express yourself too much.

I was able to hold these views because my humanity and my basic rights weren’t being questioned.

I could stay silent because I was ignorant of the pain that makes speaking out necessary, a tool for survival.

My silence was complicit and my desire for a quiet calm and peaceful world hinged on the persistent oppression of others. Others whose lives, whose desires, whose humanity I did not value as highly as I did my own.

I am starting to understand that confrontation can be a powerful thing. Differences of opinions spark discussions, creativity, worldviews and ambitions I couldn’t have dreamt of.

I am learning to determine when confrontation is an opportunity to engage with new ideas and when confrontation is necessary to allow lives to be lived and breaths to be breathed.

I am hoping I can use my voice to fight against conflict that kills and to contribute to conflict that creates.

I’d like to propose a metaphor because as previously stated I am a nerd, and if there’s one thing I love more than etymology, it’s figures of speech that rope in wildly unrelated topics. So let’s think for a second about gravity. About how gravity brings all objects with mass together but if left unchallenged by other energies, brings about destruction (don’t take my word for it, I’m paraphrasing Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time). 

According to the laws of physics, if the universe wasn’t expanding as rapidly as it is, gravity would eventually take over and cause the universe to shrink back to an infinitely dense state. A reverse Big Bang, named the Big Crunch (which I think sounds a bit like a brand of cereal but that’s off topic).

Gravity brings objects together, community brings people together.

But it’s the external forces, the momentum with which we’re moving, our differences that stop us from shrinking and merging into a single point of infinite density.

Staying unique, accepting conflict and friction allows us to stay human. To expand our worldview as our universe is expanding.

Growing Pains

I’ve been thinking about what growth looks like.

As a child, it’s the notches on the doorframe that show how tall you’ve gotten since last time, and how much you have left to go until you reach your sibling’s height.

As a teen, it’s the grades you go through year by year, numbers growing with the pressure of ‘real life’ looming over you.

I’ve been out of the school system for a good while now, and any further growth spurt is looking unlikely. So how do I know whether I’m growing?

Sometimes I envy plants. Not the ones I’ve had– they tend to have very short lifespans– but the ones that you see being tended to with love by gardeners and other green-thumbed individuals. Their leaves, petals, roots, everything about them is a tool to communicate how they are and what they need.

Then again, maybe the issue isn’t the absence of signs of growth, but the lack of tools to detect them.

My sense of self is fickle at best, and certainly not strong enough to maintain itself day after day, telling me if I’m doing better or worse. No, everyday I wake up with a collection of memories and a template of what an average day looks like. And I try to figure out what I’m going to do with the new one. What the being known by my name and wearing my face would do, should do, will do.

Is there growth in repetition? Is everything that isn’t a Groundhog Day-style time loop moving forward?

Is asking questions a way to avoid finding answers?

I don’t feel like I’m growing as much as I’m moving along a random capillary branch. Like lightning, sending out multiple tendrils – the first one to reach the earth is the one that gets illuminated and goes back up. It becomes the chosen path. At the end of my existence, that path will have been my life. Will I have grown or just moved around, displaced some energy, and then stopped?

Traditional social cues that signify ‘growth’ – getting married, buying a house, having children – don’t feel applicable anymore. At this very moment, I’m unsure when I’ll be employed again. Picturing anything beyond the rest of my afternoon is a struggle. I’ve never felt particularly attached to any of the goals I just listed, but recently I’ve started to realise I don’t actually envision them happening to me. Which is fine, but I don’t want this to mean I’m done growing.

Do I replace them with new ones? Do I accept that life isn’t a linear track with regular milestones along the way? How do you differentiate growth from change?

Growth implies a positive shift, a sense of direction, a goal. A defined next step and a known final stage.

Turning away from these social cues may take away the pressure to conform, but it also takes away the sense of direction. Never mind the road less travelled, this is more akin to standing in a field without a path in sight. I suppose the only thing to do is embrace the unknown and figure out what the next step is.

So here I am standing in a metaphorical field, goal-less, riddled with a never ending list of questions and very few ideas for how to answer them. I’ll start by following a very useful piece of advice I often see cited to help with anxiety. When you don’t know what you’re doing, when you don’t know what you want, when you’re spiralling into an endless whirlpool of unanswered questions, break things down into smaller units. Smaller tasks, smaller steps, smaller questions. Easier to face.

Perhaps when you’re building from scratch you need to use smaller bricks. Once you’ve thrown out the plan, you don’t just start putting up random walls– you go back to the drawing board. Or you test your idea on a smaller scale. With a Lego house.

That could take out the pressure of having to design something new immediately. So what if it’s not perfect, it’s Lego. You’ll fix it later. So now you’re building a Lego house on the foundations of an abandoned brick house. It won’t protect you against the rain but the walls are colourful and you’re having fun.

Maybe growing just means living, and trusting that every day the cumulative versions of you that you have been push you to make new choices. Better ones that you’ll enjoy, worse ones from which you’ll learn. Hopefully the lightning will wait until you’ve built the best house you can, the one that fits you best, the one that resembles you most, before it hits.

‘Every job I worked, I didn’t feel was creative enough’

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that your career is kind of like a relationship. There’s a moment of infatuation, a sudden thrill about what might be ahead. You enter into an agreement, committing yourself to a particular path, and for a little while you experience something like a ‘honeymoon phase’. You’re buoyed by the prospect of new experiences, learning different skills, forming fresh connections, and challenging yourself in new situations. It can be daunting; a leap into the unknown, an uncertain future which you hope will match up with your dreams and aspirations. But you can’t be certain about any of it, unless you take the leap.

So what happens when, after spending years developing and investing in your career, you decide it’s not ‘the one’?

You start again. When Anna Jordan decided to leave her theatre marketing job to pursue a career in tattooing, she had no certainties except that this was what she wanted. The lack of creativity she felt in her previous jobs became a catalyst, motivating her to move forward with her true passion– visual art. For months, she worked on building her portfolio, while continuing to freelance as a social media manager, and starting a small business selling her own prints, paintings, and commissions. In January of 2020, she got an apprenticeship with Hammersmith Tattoo– marking the official start of her new life as a tattoo artist.

As a lover of literature, theatre, and visual art, and having grown up with the idea that careers in the arts were only a viable option for a talented and lucky few, I always treasured the idea of becoming a novelist or a playwright ‘at some point, later’. This was more of a childhood dream than an actual career plan– but I found the idea of ‘one day’ discovering a hidden talent for storytelling and living off of my creativity to be a comforting one. That’s why I loved hearing stories of incredibly successful people starting their careers later in life. Samuel L Jackson, Vera Wang, Harrison Ford, Julia Child– those are names you’ll find on lists of ‘famous people who found success later than you’d think’. What I find fascinating is that these lists seem to define ‘late’ as ‘any time after 22’, reinforcing the idea that deciding on a career path and succeeding in your desired field is something to be achieved by your early twenties. The fact is, for many people that’s simply impossible. The persistent narrative that the job you have early in life is the career you’ll have to stay on for the rest of it can be incredibly limiting, and disheartening.

Being able to work in a field that gives you fulfilment is, for many, the result of a lot of hard work and persistence. But for others, having to work outside of your ‘dream career’ is not the result of a lack of hard work and persistence. A lack of opportunity, access, and unstable circumstances on a personal and global scale can hinder our ability to start our desired career how, and when, we want to. 

Once employed, the safety of having a job and a regular income can often become an argument against any further change. ‘Why would I risk this financial security to try something that may fail?’ This is especially true when thinking of starting a career working for yourself, or in an industry traditionally perceived as ‘unstable’.

However there is a clear trend indicating that workers today are willing to change jobs and employers more often and more quickly than ever before.The idea of a “lifelong career” has all but disappeared in the UK today, especially for young professionals, who value work-life balance, and a sense of success, over financial success and longevity in a role. This readiness to start anew comes as the workforce is more skilled than ever, and hopefully as a result, better equipped to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment. ‘Upskilling’ on the job and outside of work is the new normal. For many, office jobs rely on highly transferable skills that no longer preclude workers from changing roles, employers, or careers. And this furthers the normalisation of more fluid career paths– within one field, as well as moving between them. Starting again does not mean starting anew, and in any new start, you’re always accompanied by the knowledge and skills you’ve built from previous experiences.

Anna’s linework and subtle use of colours in her drawings is remarkable– the result of countless hours of practice. But she reminds her prospective tattoo clients to look at her tattoos, not at her drawings. She notes that translating her artistry to tattooing is like learning to draw again. Her trust in the creative process, and patience with learning technical skills, is a wonderful reminder that change may be scary, but the results outweigh the initial investment tenfold. From marketing plans, to pet portraits and tattoo design, we chatted with Anna about her experience changing careers, and finding a professional environment that celebrates her creativity and her values.

You can find Anna on Instagram and Facebook @annajordan_tattoo to message her about commissions and tattoo designs, and on her shop to browse through her prints and paintings

“I’m all about stories”

We chatted with Quarantine FM co-founder Kate McKeown about how to start something completely original, and navigate spectacular success from the comfort of your home – but not so much your comfort zone.

New projects. Like the sourdough starter sitting in the freezer, or the tax return waiting to be finished– lockdown, for better or worse, has given many of us a chance to do that thing we keep meaning to do. For some, it’s an opportunity for creative release, or to explore a different outlet for expression. For others, it’s a chance to fail at something without feeling the usual guilt for having wasted our time. But when London-based actor/singer Kate McKeown and Dublin-based broadcaster and DJ Anna-Rose Charleton decided to start Quarantine FM from their kitchen tables, they certainly weren’t expecting it to become the fastest-growing online radio station in Ireland.

Four months later, with hundreds of interviews under their belt and nearly a thousand hours of airtime, Quarantine FM’s team of artists, presenters and producers is now fifty-strong, and growing. This week, FreeBird founder Emma Gaynor sat down to talk with Kate, about starting a project during a pandemic, the value of authentic and open conversations, and their shared love of Dolly Alderton.

I. WORKING FROM HOME

EG: You’ve created and managed Quarantine FM entirely from home, first in Ireland, and now in London — how has that been?

KM: I came back [to the UK] last Monday. Anna-Rose and I had been doing the radio station from Monday to Fridays, 9am to 9pm, twelve hours a day. I went to work in a hospital, because I had no money, so I’d work Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm and then I’d go straight home, go straight upstairs and then go to bed at like 11pm or 12am and just do radio stuff all evening. It’s intense, you just find yourself constantly consumed by it and you never have time to think about anything else, ‘cause you’re constantly like, ‘Oh, I should do this and this’.

EG: It’s high-pressure, isn’t it?

KM: Yeah, constantly – I always try to relate it back to your Leaving Cert or your A-Levels, where you sit down for a hot second to have a cup of tea, and you’re like, ‘Oh no but I still need to study!’. It’s that! When you’re doing something that you’re so passionate about as well– it’s nice to find something that we really, really liked, and what was important is that a lot of people were relying on us. Working from home, we were so lucky to be able to get so many people on the project because a lot of our presenters are from the UK, and they’re in London, and they had nothing to do, and they were sitting in their flat all day every day. So we were like, ‘Why don’t you do a show or two on our radio station?’, and that gave them at least a tiny bit of stability or security or schedule, even if it’s just once a day. 

II. MANAGING PEOPLE

EG: You guys must have learnt so much about yourselves, running this and managing people, can we talk about that? 

KM: Yeah, so Anna Rose and I, we have a show called ‘Dirty DMs’ and we did our first hour-long show last week, with a whole segment on the things we’ve learnt. I think it’s really interesting; we’ve learnt so much. Personally, I’ve done a business degree, and I’ve always just wanted to be an actor – that’s all I wanted to do. And I think with QFM, it definitely gave me more purpose, and I realised that I’m actually pretty good at managing and pretty good at organising, and it gave me a newfound fire for something else– which was really nice. Because I do say to people, if you can find anything else that you’d like to do, do that instead of acting, because acting is hard! […] At the moment there’s nothing [going on in theatre] anyway, so I’m gonna try and diversify my career.

Team managing has been huge. […] I’m lucky that I’m kind of a good team manager, I know that about myself– and we have to be able to take credit where credit’s due, you know. And managing people during COVID was really tricky, because everybody was in a completely different headspace. 

Anna Rose and myself, […] to make sure that everybody was okay, we kind of became a lot of peoples’ shoulders to lean on – which was great, I’m never gonna complain about that. So we were really trying to make sure that, yes, we were absolutely hounding everybody all day everyday because it was so much work, but we did it in a way where we tried to be really sensitive towards people. A lot of people had a really tough time, we had to be very careful and really aware of that. Some people would call us and say, ‘look I can’t do a show this week, I just can’t.’ And we’d be like, ‘yeah, fine! If you’re having a bad time, absolutely fine, please let us know so that we can keep communicating.’

I think that was one of my big things, […] learning how to communicate with very, very sensitive people in a very, very sensitive time. Another [thing] I learnt was just saying ‘no’ and just being able to stop. I learnt that I could just Zoom someone for an hour […] instead of trekking an hour on the tube, or in the car, or whatever, to see someone for coffee. And I think a lot of people are finding that it’s important to have some space. Not that I’ve actually had any — but I realised that I need some. So that was good.

III. SUCCESS / GOALS

EG: You guys have achieved so much, and your programming has been absolutely amazing. What initial ideas did you set out to achieve, and do you have any other big goals you’re reaching for?

KM: We just set it up [thinking] it would be a two week project, and then it just, kind of, spiralled. So when it came to goals, we had to sit down at week five or six, and go, ‘Ok, you need to make a statement, you need to make a business plan, you need to sort out what’s going on here because whatever is happening, it’s a thing.’ We always say it was our little child that we birthed, and it just kept on running away from us, and we had to try and run after it!

That’s what QFM is. […] The idea was to get guests, have some great music, platform people and hear their stories. I’m all about stories, Anna Rose is all about stories– we just want to talk to people.

[…] We have dream guests; we have a few celebrity bookers and they work really hard in the background, trying to get people. […] We’ve got tiers, we’ve got our top five, and all of our presenters have got their own list. And we’ve achieved a lot of people’s dream guest, which is great. […] I want Dolly Alderton– I keep messaging her! She replies– she’s so lovely– saying, ‘I’m not doing any interviews’ and I’m like ‘When you do, please call me!’ and she’s like ‘Yes, ok!’ (laughs). So I’m working on getting people like Phoebe Waller Bridge for example […] I know we will [eventually], we’ll just have to be really, really annoying. I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned — I’m an incredibly annoying person when I want to be. 

We’ve been really lucky to have had a lot of press, we were in the Economist, in loads of different newspapers […] It’s tricky because at the time where we launched I think it was perfect because there was no news. So we were news for everybody and we were in everything.

IV. HOME AWAY FROM HOME

EG: One other thing I love about Quarantine FM is, similar to my aspirations for FreeBird, just because it’s Irish, that doesn’t mean you have to be Irish to listen to it. […] I think it’s a really great opportunity to educate people about Ireland. I listened to Bridgie’s conversation with the producer of Fair City— which is such a huge national heritage. I think that’s brilliant, that you could have people listening in America, finding out about Fair City

KM: Yeah, I’m so glad you said that! We set it up and we said this is actually brilliant because when I’m in London, I listen to the radio all the time. But there’s something about being Irish that means we just have to always be a little bit in touch with what’s going on there. […] And when you listen to QFM it’s so authentic, we’re authentically Irish and, you know, it’s not leprechauns, it’s not the gold at the end of the rainbow…

EG: –it’s good craic–

KM: We are! So part of the idea is, if you’re living abroad and you miss a bit of Ireland, just have a listen in. Because you’ll be like, ‘Oh that’s funny’ or ‘I remember that!’. Like, the other day one of our presenters played the most hilarious song I hadn’t listened to in ages, which was by ‘Six’.

EG: Oh yeah!

KM: I hadn’t heard that in years! […] Going forward we’re looking to broadcast in Dubai, Australia– places where a lot of Irish people our age have emigrated, so that they can keep in touch. […] People message us saying, ‘We’re living in X, Y and Z’.We’ve got people listening in Bulgaria, Austria– we’ve got a presenter living in Hawai’i at the moment, which is just jokes. I think the online aspect makes it fun, because, who knows who’s listening?

V. PASSION PROJECT

EG: One thing that we’ve mentioned but haven’t talked about is your show ‘Passion Project’.

KM: From the get-go, I thought, ‘I’m doing the arts and culture show, it’s mine.’ All I wanted to do was get people on and talk about what they loved to do. And they happened to be a lot of arts and culture people, because they’re the people I know. And it just kind of spiralled from there. For the first ten to twelve weeks I had three interviews a day, which, with a full time job, is actually insane, when I think about it.

EG: That is mental.

KM: We’re on week sixteen now, and I’ve interviewed a hundred and twenty people– each for fifteen to twenty-five minutes. And it’s been amazing, I’ve had the best fun. [At a certain point] I said, ‘Right, this is insane, and not sustainable, so I’m gonna do one interview a day and start doing other segments on the show’. So I hit up some other presenters– we always have people sending us emails asking whether can they get involved. […] On the show now, I’ve got ‘RuPaul’s Rundown’, ‘Quarantine Classics’, where we talk about classical music, and a ‘Book of the Week’ segment, which is run by Teleri Hughes, who also went to Royal Welsh [with me]. 

We’ve just got lots of random stuff– I’ve got an amazing guy who does stories, like folk tale stories, old Irish myths, legends. It’s a whole motley crew of stuff — I try and play a lot of musical theatre songs. And I’ve had some amazing interviewees, people who I’m obsessed with! I had [choreographer] Drew McOnie, Charlie Stemp, Julie Atherton– a huge goal of mine, I love her so much– Sean Foley [Artistic Director of Birmingham Rep Theatre], Lenny Abrahamson [director of Normal People], Miriam O’Callaghan, Katya Jones [Strictly Come Dancing winner]. We’ve had the highest caliber of people, and they’ve just given their time for free! So it’s been amazing, and I can’t wait to continue on. I now do my three shows on Friday, Saturday, Sunday from 7pm to 8.30pm, and you can just listen in, see what’s going on. I do little tips of things to do, and stuff to watch online, all those kinds of things. It’s just a fun time, that’s the ‘Passion Project’!

EG: I’m definitely going to make ‘Passion Project’ part of my Irish radio listening, for sure. And I’ll be texting you and Anna-Rose with my questions– especially if you get Dolly [Alderton]!

KM: When we get Dolly, that’s how it works in this place– when! It’ll be a really good day! When she first replied to me, I was like, ‘Dolly Alderton replied to me!’ It was the coolest thing. Now we’re pals. I mean– who am I, we’re absolutely not pals– but it’s fun. 

We’re gonna do a massive QFM party, with everybody who’s ever been on the station– one in Dublin, and one in London, once we’re allowed and it’s all legal! So you guys should come along! 

EG: Kate thanks so much for taking time to chat with us. 

KM: Thank you guys so much for having me, it’s been amazing!

EG: Our pleasure– you’ve been absolutely amazing! Thank you so much, take care of yourself and we’ll be listening!

 

Listen to Quarantine FM live at www.quarantinefm.ie , or listen back on Soundcloud. To find their weekly schedule of shows, and for guest announcements, check out their Instagram

 

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