Before the begonias die

Paul McCartney’s words in Eleanor Rigby, ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’, haunted my mind throughout 2020’s pandemic lockdowns. During this time, I did an over-the-phone research involving people in urban and suburban Sri Lanka; It was an attempt to understand the long-term implications of this pandemic in our lives. One of the major concerns uncovered from this research is the horror of loneliness that will become more and more normal, especially among the elderly in urban areas. In densely populated cities, buildings and homes are designed to bring more privacy, cutting out the noisy world around; But, in the setting of a pandemic life when the city is in lock-down, and there is no busy bustle distracting you, the thought that you’re experiencing life all alone within concrete walls becomes quite apparent and overwhelming.

There will be individuals and small groups that become isolated within lives and spaces with little to no contact beyond their everyday reality. Individuals who do not have the habit of linking to the world through technology will become especially lonely, and this will have a significant socio-psychological impact in the long run. As a response to this, small cluster communities will be formed, allowing people to find companionship within very close, and sometimes even unlikely, groups.

With my studio Public Works, we developed a short-short-story series based on these insights. This particular story from that series highlights the growing loneliness and disconnection in Sri Lanka’s urban society. Maurine is that property-wealthy, yet cash-poor landlord, you are likely to meet in Colombo’s charming old houses; Most of them are senior citizens who depend on rentals as their sole livelihood. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Sri Lankan government encouraged landlords to give hefty concessions to their tenants, such elderly property-owners found themselves in particularly difficult situations with little access to support, helpers, and medicine, in addition to the revenue loss. This story ‘Before the begonias die’ with the fictional character ‘Aunty Maurine’ weaves through these themes of loneliness, involuntary seclusion and the shifts in space consumption that changed things for many of us.

Before the begonias die

Maurine looked at her wilted begonias. Leela hadn’t come by to clean and water the plants since they had that argument last week. Maurine tried to lean over the balcony ledge and failed—her arm shook too violently to support her weight. She resigned and sighed into her view of the city sea. The sea was filthy, yet beautiful; as long as you were too far to see the careless droplets of human consumption floating across the glimmering waters. When prospective tenants came to see Maurine’s rentable apartments, she made sure that their meeting ended on a balcony with the view; Ideally, it would be timed with a devastatingly beautiful Colombo sunset in all its red-orange-pink-yellow-peach-purple-magenta-coloured pollution dusted glory, forgiving everyone and every sin at the end of the day. She remembered how tenants—especially, the young foreign ones—would stop awestruck at the sight, only to turn around after a minute of silence, to tell her solemnly that they’d take it, at her price. In the heyday of Colombo’s post-war real estate boom, Maurine even got away with slamming the phone on other Sri Lankans; “Sorry, no locals”, she’d say, feeling a secret satisfaction at the resting corner of her childhood heartache connected to the mass emigration of her Burgher family.

Before the pandemic, Maurine had three cleaning ladies; one for each apartment. She would breathe down their backs as they scrubbed, dusted and cleaned, while having heated arguments about spots, stains, discolourations, rust, scratches, broken plates, lost cutlery, torn sheets, the difference between the ‘stop’ and ‘pause’ buttons of the washing machine, and how the watering of the begonias framing the sea view was never timed with the fury of the tropic sun; While also talking about the obnoxiousness of the garbage men, children that left the nest, uselessly alive husbands, usefully dead husbands, the sexual promiscuity of tenants, medicine bills, that lovely young manager man at the Keells… But, when the pandemic struck, her foreign tenants left one by one; and Maurine had to rent her apartments out to locals at half-rate; but, the second wave washed them out too. Maurine let go of two cleaners, keeping only Leela—the least detested. After all, she did sleep over by Maurine’s bedside the night that Roy died; she also nursed Maurine when she first got a laryngeal tumor.

Maurine looked at her phone. ‘Why hadn’t Leela called?’—the woman could never get past a week without making that cleaning money. How is she affording the medicine for the old man? Did her runaway daughter call back? Has Sunil been drinking again? Is Leela okay? Maurine wondered about the thickly coloured chaos of lower-middle-class suburban lives that she so eagerly peeked into through Leela’s neverending complaining. Standing on her balcony overlooking the sea, Maurine realised that she no longer had access to that perversely treasured view into less lonely lives. With a catch in her throat, Maurine realised that the calamity of five people being crammed into a house the size of her living room was the anecdote to her own lonely life. She longed to see that desperate world where solitude was a luxury, not a curse.

Maurine reached for the phone, and started calling Leela; but, stopped halfway through. She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t call her, asking. Maurine felt her throat bite back in pain. She sat down on the easy chair in the balcony, stretched out her bony legs, and pursed her lips. “Yes, it’s best to not spend on cleaners, when there’s no rent money coming in,” she told the sky after much thought. Tonight, she would pray for one of those good May monsoon thunderstorms so that the begonias won’t die until Leela gets here—whenever the hell that is. For now, she’d just let the wind blow at her face and ears, like a dull echo of some distant incessant jabbering. 

If you liked Maurine’s story, you might enjoy our short-short-story series on post pandemic lives and realities; it’s called ‘This Time Tomorrow’ and bridges near-distant-future predictions of interesting professionals with the insights from our research. Most stories were designed for Instagram, while a few were designed for newsletters and blogs. Take a look these two Instagram stories from the series.

The fish-woman’s son

Colombo for Christmas

Making and managing meaning

When people ask me what we do at our storytelling studio Public Works, I often start with our defining line—Making and managing meaning. What does that mean? How do we ‘make meaning’ or manage it? This is a little story that explains how meaning is made and managed. 

I live near a church. I’m not a religious person; but, I love most spiritual centres as they often have an architecture that points you towards something greater and beyond the everyday world. This church exudes that same sense of otherworldly serenity into our neighbourhood; On the nights that its choir sings, everything gets covered in a layer of twinkling magic made by gospel music.

This church has a big bell with deep tolls that resound throughout our neighbourhood. Every morning, sharp at six, at high noon, and six in the evening, this bell would echo identifying the beginning, middle and end of each day—significant points in our communal framework of existing within standard time. On Sundays—the day that the church encourages its community to spend in spiritual growth—the bell was sounded thrice at seven am before mass. It sent a message to everyone—including us non-churchgoers—to remember to take a step back from the race and spend time in communion with our inner world. It made perfect sense; it was beautiful, and most importantly, it was meaningful. It was meaningful—not because hitting a big metal dome had any inherent meaning to it, nor because the bell-ringer was a divine being that brought meaning to it—but, because it was made meaningful.

The meaning came from the conscious intention in the act that stemmed from the church’s values, a rational relevance built with a universal framework of time that everyone understood, and the ritual consistency with which it was done. Because of these considerations, it became meaningful not only to its direct audience of churchgoers but also, to everyone else around. 

Earlier this year, the church changed its bell ringer. The new bell ringer rang at five minutes past six, or sometimes even ten past six. He rang it thrice, four times, and occasionally nine or ten times; On rainy days, two feeble chimes would escape the bell before the act was abandoned in an obvious hurry. The lack of intention and consistency was evident. The church bell lost its meaning to a significant degree. Its message no longer had clarity and joined the meaningless chorus of traffic in the neighbourhood. Although the church itself remains beautiful—and I have no doubts that it continues to serve its devotees the same spiritual connection—it lost one of the most meaningful interactions with its neighbourhood. 

Brand conversations are also like this. A successful brand conversation is built upon conscious intention that comes from your company’s values, a rational relevance built to your audience through the message, and the ritual consistency of a well-rounded brand personality, language, voice and tone maintained right throughout. Without these elements, your brand stories will also remain lost in the digital noise, deleted unread from inboxes, or overlooked on the feed.

In our work methodology, we construct specific tools like the Public Works’ Brand Articulation Framework that facilitates meaningful conversations. Essentially, they connect the brand personality and values to the interests and concerns of an identified audience. When on-brand messages that are current, interesting, and relevant to the target audience get presented with a consistent brand voice, the conversations become meaningful. This is what lies at the core of creating stories that generate sales and business for our clients. Want to find out more about how we work? Read more about our process here.

Is ‘meaning’ built on words?

How is ‘meaning’ constructed in our minds? Can we make meaning out of something without words? Is it through words that we understand the world? Let’s look into that.

It’s hard to even imagine interacting and making sense of the world without words. It almost seems that words are the very architecture of thoughts, and the memories formed thereafter. Is it possible to think without words? The answer to the question depends on what you mean by thinking. I think, thinking is a response, a way of making sense of things; it is an attempt to understand; an active derivation of meaning. Thinking is, essentially, processing life. Words are probably the most obvious way to think. Can you think without words? You can definitely feel and experience without words. But, experiencing pain is not the same as processing pain and understanding it. Experiencing music is not the same as processing it and deriving meaning from it. 

Oscar Wilde called language “the parent, and not the child, of thought”, suggesting that thinking is shaped by our words. He’s not entirely wrong.

But, we know artists and musicians who think in image or sound. The mathematical genius Daniel Tammet processes numbers by thinking in landscapes. Another interesting thing is how hearing-impaired people, who are cut off from both spoken and signed language, would think. There are records of a fifteen-year-old boy with hearing disability, who wrote in 1836, after being educated at a school for the deaf, that he remembered thinking “that perhaps the moon would strike me, and I thought that perhaps my parents were strong, and would fight the moon, and it would fail, and I mocked the moon,” before he was initiated into language. This is definitely thinking, processing concepts like ‘strong’ and ‘mocking’, and shows how thoughts, even somewhat complex ones, can be created without the help of words. 

So, does that mean that word and thought are independent? Not entirely. Mundurucú, a remote Brazillian tribe, has only words for numbers up to five. When studying their capacity to understand the concept of a number higher than five, it became evident that for many Mundurucú, the idea of greater than five was a difficult one to grasp. Although some showed signs of understanding the idea of ‘something bigger than this’, they were quick to categorise it as ‘a lot’, rather than attempting to define it more specifically.

We can certainly think and process information without words; using comparison, physical memories and associations with shapes, and colours; perhaps even symbols, sound, and movement. However, some meanings can only be completed in the presence of the word.

Mundurucu during a funeral process. Their perception of the world was limited by the extent of their language.

Mundurucú’s limitedness in grasping simple numerical concepts show that although ideas and concepts can be actively processed without words, they may not be fully understood in such cases. Certain ideas or concepts— most certainly numerical ones, as the study with Mundurucú suggest— cannot be grasped fully without the clarity and definition that a word would lend. That is to say, that there are certain kinds of thinking that are made possible only by words. 

Words are symbols, or pathways to symbols, that we can use to define, and zoom out of ideas in order to observe them. This means that, despite words being a very precise way to understand something, they are actually fundamental to abstraction and meta- thinking. Without words, it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t know that we’re thinking, because we would not be able to isolate the concept in order to perceive it. Sure; but, what does that mean?

How the brain processes language and meaning has interested scientific minds throughout time.

This means that for brands— whether personalities, businesses or organisations—words become fundamental to define and set themselves apart as a singular entity in a market. Brands are entities based on operating through a certain identity, and on the basis that the audience has good reason to choose their ideas, services, or products, over or in addition to others’. This decision of the audience to choose your brand is always made through a defining identity that sets you apart. Articulating this exact definition is where words become paramount to brands.

Writing content for a brand must begin with an articulation of what that entity is, and what it stands for in this world. This is why our studio Public Works often recommends new clients to invest in a brand articulation before purchasing any written content from us. It’s the most effective way to draw the true power of a medium as precise as the written word.

A brand articulation is a process where tacit knowledge about the brand is transformed into explicit knowledge. We sit down and outline the ideas, statements and personality frameworks with the involvement of its founders and key decision-makers as a workshop, or through an online questionnaire that the clients take responsibility to complete and submit. The outcome is a consciously articulated definition of your brand framing its core concepts, reason for being and the experiences that it delivers. In the brand articulations that we deliver from Public Works, a brand is first put it into words this way, then followed by a visual articulation that suggests the direction of the brand’s visual identity (depending on which point the brand is at, in its evolution). These are the most important elements for standard communications. A well articulated brand has solid ground to stand on, and speak confidently to its audience. It is from this brand articulation that all communications are drawn out from; In the case of new brands or those coming to a significant shift, sometimes even the name and visual identity are derived from the brand articulation.

Before words are strung together to communicate complex ideas, emotions and values, they are used to define fundamentals, at seed-level. Before a brand uses words to share its stories with the world, it must use the word to define itself at the core.

This is where words become fundamental to businesses. Most businesses would use words for communication—at the periphery of where a brand operates, and engages with its audience; and that is a good use of words. But, a great use of words is at the seed of a brand where it needs to be defined against the world, and brought fully into the light of our perception. It’s where everything begins.

If you want to learn more about the process and outcomes of a brand articulation, send me a message to find out how we do it at Public Works.

References

  • Danielle R. Perszyk, Sandra R. Waxman. Listening to the calls of the wild: The role of experience in linking language and cognition in young infants. Cognition, 2016; 153: 175 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.05.004
  • Brenda Schick , Jill de Villiers , Peter de Villiers and Bob Hoffmeister. Theory of Mind: Language and Cognition in Deaf Children. DOI:10.1044/leader.FTR1.07222002.6
  • Pica, Pierre & Lecomte, Alain. (2008). Theoretical Implications of the Study of Numbers and Numerals in Mundurucu. Philosophical Psychology. 21. 507-522. DOI: 10.1080/09515080802285461