This essay was commissioned as part of a joint SRB-Utp project titled Radical Accessibility.
Listen to an audio recording of the Anxious Caring below. A plain text version of Anxious Caring is posted below. Click here to read it straight away.
‘Anxious Caring’ has been created from a collection of essays in A Memoir of Practice (2021), a monograph originally produced for a Community Arts and Cultural Development Fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts (2018). This essay is dedicated to the story holders who have generously shared space with us at the Community Refugee Welcome Centre over the last six years. The author would like to acknowledge and thank Elham, Leila and Damon who have consented to participating in this story. Thanks and acknowledgement also to Moones Mansoubi at the Community Refugee Welcome Centre, and Inner West Council for providing the space to enable this work to happen. The original project that powered this essay – On Being – was generously supported by the Australia Council for the Arts through the not-for profit organisation The Third Space. Thank you always to Utp for amplifying our collective work in the pursuit of radical accessibility. Finally, acknowledgement to Sara Ahmed for her always nourishing work, especially the inspiring quote that powered this essay, from The Promise of Happiness (2010), Duke University Press, Durham / London.
A graphic essay by Paula Abood with illustrations by Safdar Ahmed
Leila carries a small bag but a lot of troubles.
When we meet at the Community Refugee Welcome Centre on unceded Gadigal land, the intention is to nurture a homely space so that people seeking asylum, especially women and their children can flourish in ways that are safe.
It is Friday afternoon. We gather every week to anchor this place in the practice of love, care and creativity.
These are our tools and they are all we have.
Each person arrives with the outside world lingering like a burden. We greet each other with our arms and cheeks, sharing our first words in multiple languages.
The women at once busy themselves to make sure that everyone’s presence is affirmed in an enactment of care.
Here I pause to think of Sara Ahmed’s words, ‘caring is anxious.’ I take time to reflect on her theorising that: ‘to be full of care, to be careful, is to take care of [someone] by becoming anxious about their future, where the future is embodied in the fragility of [a person] whose persistence matters.’ (Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 2010)
In the context of this moment, ‘becoming anxious’ is a conscious move that builds the conditions for healing. Being anxious opens us to consider how we are in this space as cultural workers and educators; how we express care in the presence of those who arrive with injury etched in their expression, their bodies, their lives.
How can we proceed if we don’t care about the futures of people who trust us enough to turn up every Friday?
We are here to make sure that the present is embodied in the practice of love and anxious care. This is what informs our community cultural work.
There is no rush to start. We all talk at the same time, weaving in and out of language. We cluster in the kitchen and spend time cutting up fruit and cake. Then we move to the tables joined together to make a communal square so that we can see each other. Amongst the fruit and cake, there are blank canvases, workbooks, textured paper, cards, paint, sprigs of jasmine, and every shade of coloured pencil that we have collectively accumulated over decades of community projects.
We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, the Gadigal and Wangal of the Eora nation, and pay our respects to Elders past and present. This acknowledgement is said in Farsi and a moment’s reflective silence follows to make space for the words to be felt.
Afternoon light drifts into the hall-like room through multiple sets of glass doors that open out on to grassland and an urban rush of trees. The women have decorated the Centre with colour-tinted cellophane on the panes of glass. Red and yellow hues intersect with the lustre of pink and orange light. Children skip across rainbows refracted on the floor and scream with joy as they throw themselves onto cushions and bean bags spread across the cavernous space.
Elham serves small glasses of sugary tea. Everyone thanks her and tries to coax her to sit down. She is making sure everyone is cared for, but some of us are conscious that she herself also needs care, so we anxiously look out for her. Elham’s ritual of making tea and pouring it in a row of fine delicate glasses is a gesture that serves the purpose of building homeliness where there is little elsewhere in the punitive settler-colony.
We start by colouring-in empty spaces as an exercise in rumination. Participants choose a picture, a design, their favourite colour. One of the women clenches her pencil so hard it needs sharpening every 5 minutes. Another grazes the paper ever so lightly as if to leave no trace of her presence. She lays her head on the table as she moves her pencil across the whiteness of the paper and lets out a yawn. We spend a little time in this pensive mode, incubating peace, space clearing the detritus of the outside world.
The comfort of this shared quietude feels necessary to recalibrate and inaugurate a slow return to ourselves.
A woman picks up four different shades of blue and starts to colour in where she left off the last Friday we met. She has no words for the world today, nor any other day for that matter. She is certain about that.
In this space of coming together, we are clear as cultural organisers, that it is the participants who drive what we do and the pace. This is a time for creative freedom and healing engagement.
There is no clock that can monitor that. In practice, this means purposely retreating from the rigour of a session plan so the space can breathe its own rhythm, taking in the mood and emotional tempo.
Quietness settles in its own time.
Intuitively, we slowly bring each other out, exhaling all that we have been holding onto. When we are ready, we begin.
I ask what we feel like doing.
One of the women wants to write today. She is in the mood to freestyle her life across a lined page. Emerging from months of deep mother mourning, she is keen to seize this moment of clarity. She leans over and quietly says there have been so few moments of light in the last months; it is rare for her to be amongst others, outside the blanket of grief she has swaddled herself in to honour the deep love for her mother.
I have brought a little box of sayings collected over the years from my books of poetry. Using the quiet words of Hafez as our beginning, those who wish to, write.
From a small pile of aphorisms and translated wisdom, each woman picks out a piece of paper and reads.
Nothing is real, other than dreams and love.
Where is the musician to interpret the emotions of my heart?
The mother tongues of Farsi and Hazaragi interweave in the circle.
The participants reflect on the translingual poetics as different sayings are pulled out of the box.
In an embrace of the lyricism inhered in every word, the contexts for deep meaning are not lost on anyone.
When the days allow us to meet, shall we then be reunited?
Leila sighs at the poetic provocation on the piece of paper before her.
She is feeling anxious and scared and can’t find the energy for anything other than sketching an outline of a bird and painting its wings delicately.
She has had to battle hostile people in the department. Again. On top of that, she is feeling fearful for her son who is copping racism from the menacing violence of a neighbour.
As a sole parent with a mountain to bear, the emotional toll rises like a king tide throwing her down against the shoreline time and again.
Another woman can’t bring herself to write either. Words have left her.
‘Why should I speak when my words mean nothing?’
She takes her poetic line and turns it into an image.
If you walk towards me,
I shall run towards you.
Leila asks, not especially wanting an answer… ‘What kind of person uses my trauma for gain?’
Over time, when I become aware of what Leila has been through, I watch out for her every week. She and the other women ground our duty of care in small acts of listening and being anxiously there for each other.
We are here to make space for all who come to breathe through the uncertainty and the racialised fear that frames the lives of people seeking asylum. Our labour as community cultural workers is to create a space that nurtures being and purposeful engagement. With my colleagues Moones and Safdar, Kathy, Ingrid and Lizzy, we apply care beyond mere gesture. Safdar sits with Leila every week and together they draw images that come to life as flash fiction in an afternoon.
I work with the writers and in this process, all it takes are a couple of lines for those who put pen to paper to begin creating narratives.
Some writers go outside themselves, others travel deep inside.
We break open something together that bonds us in ‘a community of spirit’ to quote another famous Persian poet.
These Fridays are momentary in the life of a week but are monumental in the life of those seeking asylum. Individuals who have been politically and socially excluded from community and the service sector as a form of onshore punishment for seeking refuge while brown. Our time together affectively binds us into community of our very own making. Community in all its idealised possibilities, not its oppressive limitations.
The effort of our shared story project, On Being, is the practice of freedom that we actively create together. In this former mental health complex, the process of empowerment germinates in a space that is nourishing and community-led.
Being responsive and receptive to what both individuals and the group collectively want is critical in this work. We organise to support people to creatively express and produce art in emancipatory ways.
Before this project began, we met with a small group of people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds to ask the question … ‘What do you want to do?’
This elusive question is missing in action in much cultural work because we are supposed to have a project plan mapped out months before. So, when we go into a room, do we scurry to fit people into ‘the plan’, or do we honour the praxis of community cultural work and clear space for communities to exercise critical autonomy?
If we aspire to nurture anxious caring in our work, de-planning is necessary. Anxious caring is a fundamental practice, and we are all responsible for actively cultivating it. It is an affective counter to the transactional care that is the dominant model in the neo-liberal present.
Moones, who is the coordinator of the Centre, applies anxious care in how she builds a community of spirit in this space. Damon, a participating artist with lived experience, sits at the table and brings sensitive reflection with his poetry, his pictures, his teaching. Elham sings the moment up when she senses someone’s sadness more than hers.
The poetry we find each week at the bottom of a teacup, on a scrap of paper, or in a person’s story moves us to create moments of light. We collect a gallery of pictures that will animate a book we will publish when we are ready. Oil-based paintings, hand-crafted weaving, pencil drawings, cartoons, calligraphy.
A world of story embodies the images produced in this room.
As we meet Friday after Friday, there is a collective desire to feel joy. In this space, we have moved a little towards wellbeing.
Leila pulls me away to tell me more about the menace she and her son are living through. She has no patience for hope today. I listen and take her words to heart as Sara Ahmed once again arrives in my head: to take care by becoming anxious about Leila and her son’s future whose persistence matters.
The practice of anxious caring is both psychic and spiritual. It is also political where we actively fight against the functionality of the brutal systems that continue to contain, negate and harm.
I call an old friend to report the menace of the racist neighbour. Leila does not want to make a formal complaint as she fears blowback.
She and her son have been through enough racist violence in the settler colony as survivors of the offshore immigration carceral complex.
Leila does not want more of the same. For now, poetry will have to wait.