Physical thrill

This Recording, May 2015. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 15.10.00In which we don’t believe in perfect
Physical thrill

There’s only a strip of canal visible across the courtyard, but that bit of canal is everything. I’m sitting at my new kitchen table with my laptop, looking up occasionally at the water: you can see the canal boats docked down there, and the ducks swimming by. Grown-up life is working out pretty well so far, I think, even though this flat that we bought is the tiniest thing. There’s no room for anything in here, meaning my husband and I are now committed to minimalism by default. But when we were looking for a place to live it soon became obvious: there’s no place like home. I wanted to go back to East London more than I wanted space, and when we found this tiny place in the perfect spot there was no turning back. Because who needs space when you’re living in the city? Everything you need is right there, outside.

I’ve been living in my new place for two weeks now, and I have to say it: I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy. Maybe when I got married, on a whim to a man I barely knew – I felt ecstatic then, the closest thing I’ve felt to a sober high. Maybe that time I went to San Francisco for a month by myself, when my jetlag would wake me early and I’d walk the streets for hours with a delirious craving for silence and forward motion I’ve never experienced before nor since. These thing stand out as the happiest I’ve been, and now this: living in my new place.

I didn’t expect to feel like this. I don’t really understand why it’s happening either – although I do know it’s not about nesting, and it’s not about ownership. I have no strong feelings about permanence. It may not even be about moving back to East London, I’m surprise to find. While the weeks dragged on as we waited to move, time slowing down until four whole months had gone by, then all I could think about was moving back across town. East London is where this city started making sense to me, it’s where my life started making sense, I guess. I left East London for good reasons, thinking it would become part of the past, like most things do once you leave. But not this time – I missed my old patch like a lost limb.

So I thought the excitement of moving would be all about coming back to my old neighbourhood, but it seems I was wrong. Because now that I’m in my new house, all I can think about is being alone. I love living with my husband, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that after staying with family for nearly four months while waiting to move into this place, being alone feels like a drug. My husband leaves for work and I sit down to work at the kitchen table, and hours go by when all I can do is revel in the aloneness. I’m drinking it in with a desperate thirst only an introvert can understand. I’m just sitting here, quietly, and it’s a physical thrill.

Being truly, gloriously alone doesn’t mean closing the door for a while – it means having no one else in the house with you. It means, at least for me, having no music playing, just the window open and the hum of the city in the distance. A plant needs watering. I get up from my chair and wander into the bedroom, over to the kitchen, over to the sofa, and back to the computer again. I work for a while. The afternoon sun crawls across the floor, filling up the room. A text message buzzes. My husband will be back soon, and we’ll have some dinner together. In the meantime it’s just me here, by myself, surrounded by the city. I don’t believe in perfect, but if I did, this would be it.

The little daylight

This Recording, February 2015. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 14.33.50

The little daylight

I got on the plane – you always get on the plane in the end. I went to Norway thinking I could always go back to the city early if it got to be too much: the cold, the dark, the silence. I do that now, whenever I leave London: I tell myself I can go back early. Twelve years of living in the Big Smoke and it keeps getting better, or maybe I’m just getting greedier for it? For years my habit has been to always have a plane ticket waiting to take me somewhere, but lately the date of departure approaches and I don’t really want to go. London is gritty, demanding and thrilling, and the constant noise has been a backdrop to every significant thing in my life.

It’s been several days since I came to Norway now, I couldn’t really say; Scandinavian days are so short in winter. Sunset came at 3.45pm today, six and a half hours after the sunrise. Then, once the sun has disappeared, the sky seems to stay blue forever. It’s partially because it’s cold, minus 12°C today, rendering each intake of breath sharp and the air sparkling clear. I lived here for 18 years, but I don’t really remember much about winter. Until I got here a few days ago I’d forgot how the long, slow dark feels so dense once you’re in it, like being in a submarine at the bottom of the sea. The daylight is small, in length and in intensity, like there’s a light somewhere just around the bend but it doesn’t quite stretch far enough to fill up the sky.

As cold as Norway may get in the winter, I was never cold when I lived here. I’m not cold this time either, even after a week of relatively mild frost in London that nevertheless felt like a severe and personal form of punishment. The difference is that Norway expects the cold, so people accept it and prepare for it, not like the English style of remaining in denial while shivering in thin coats in drafty rooms, wondering what’s happened to the air. In Norway, you dress like a polar explorer, with double wool down the arms and legs and insulated shoes. The tricks for managing cold weather is slowly resurfacing from my subconscious, where it’s been buried all these years I’ve been away.

I don’t usually go to Norway in the winter anymore but I this year I’m between houses, so I figured my mother’s place in this small Norwegian town would be a nice place to be technically homeless. I was right: it’s peaceful and plentiful here, even in the cold. Everywhere you go is a warm room with ice on the windows. There are no distractions here, but somehow I’m still finding the hours slipping away, and suddenly the front door clicks open as my mother comes home from work. The town is sleepy under the snow covering the streets, the gardens and the porches. The roads are empty as people retreat to their wood-heated houses at night, red-cheeked from frost with hair static from wooly hats.

The night comes so early and I never quite get a grasp on the day before it slips away. The novelty of the dim light distracts me from the things I need to do, as I work in the warmth looking out at the cold, where the disappearing blue light is reflected by the snow. The whole world feels quiet here. I love London more than any place I’ve ever been, I adore the rush and the noise, and I keep thinking this silence will start to bore me soon. But for now I’m just wandering around, from the table to the tea kettle to the bed and back, revelling in the little daylight. Life feels simple here, in the way it always does when you spend time in a place that’s not your home. I was born here but it never felt quite right, in ways that had nothing to do with the light or the temperature.

Now that I’m a visitor it’s okay, it’s even a treat to spend a few days being someone I’m not. There’s a luxury in allowing myself to enjoy the dark and the cold, just for a little while. So I’m just going to sit here, watching the constant changes of the light, drinking in the silence with a thirst that won’t last for long, but right now it feels endless.

Body Talk

This Recording, December 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 12.35.41In which we live outside of memory
Body talk
I never remember Decembers once they are gone. I walk through the days knowing I’ll forget them, that all the detail will fade, except for the feeling of stretching towards the light as it’s disappearing fast. This happens every year like clockwork, marking the seasons. My body is heavy with sleep and my brain is committing nothing to memory, like each day is a polaroid that gets thrown away.

It’s an odd feeling, being in the middle of a moment I know won’t stick. In the narrative of my life, it’s an anomaly: I’m living outside of my memory. I watched a TED talk once about the conflict between the self that experiences, and the self that remembers; how most of the time we choose things in service of our memories, even though the experiencing self may be having a different opinion in the moment. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, especially the question posed at the end: If you were going on a trip, would you choose differently if you knew you’d remember nothing afterwards?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is sometimes called winter depression, but I’m not actually unhappy. I used to be at this time of year, but getting older has fixed a lot. Now, the fog that sets in for the two darkest months is just a physical thing. Sometimes it feels like jetlag, or like having been woken up in the middle of the night. A sunlamp keeps me above water as I do the things I know to help: sleep at night, be awake during the day, go outside, eat properly, exercise. I don’t know what it says about me that I’m surprised: clean living seems to be the solution to almost everything.

People change all the time, I know that, but only if they really want to, or if something big happens. I don’t know which of the two are at work, but somehow the winter fog feels a little different this year. Card-carrying introvert that I am, I’m shocked to discover I’m becoming outgoing, all of a sudden drawn to people, to dinners, drinks, texting, even phone calls. I’ve always needed a lot of time by myself, becoming restless and unsettled if I didn’t get it, and normally, winter tends to bring out the worst elements in me. Still, this year, something is happening. It’s as dark as ever but somehow, change seems possible.

I keep waiting for my solitary nature to assert itself, but this isn’t about my head. Winter was has always been a whole-body experience, and this year it seems the body I live in wants to go out, talk to people, and get another drink on the rocks. Maybe my body is simply taking advantage of this moment outside of memory, realising this is a holiday I won’t remember after it’s over. This is just for the experience. But unless I remember it, is this really happening? A feeling is bubbling up, it’s small but it’s there, and I’m hoping maybe it will be stronger than the waking sleep. Maybe this is a momentary reprieve, or maybe it’s a fundamental change, I don’t know. All I know is that it feels so physical.

A London Particular

This Recording, June 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 14.56.45A London Particular
I know what it’s like to live in a place where nothing ever happens, and West London is nothing like that. I know what it’s like to live in a place where you can’t choose your friends because there are only 300 souls in the village and no public transport, and this is certainly nothing like that. There’s a Tube station ten minutes up the road from my flat, and the world is just there. But it’s not East London.

The window in my old bedroom in Hackney, out East, would open onto the tiny, overgrown garden nestled in between the two rows of terrace houses. There were birds and chattering neighbours and the faraway hum of traffic; I’d lie on my bed, which was exactly the same height as the windowsill, with my head out the open window. The feeling was one of a secret patch of quiet. My current living room in Isleworth, out West, has a window wall with a door that opens out to a terrace, which would be nice if only there wasn’t so much traffic.

It takes me an hour to get to Soho now from the Isleworth flat, straight on the Piccadilly Line, crammed in with the crowds from the airport. The quickest way to get into Soho from my Hackney house was to walk down to Dalston Kingsland and get the Overground, and the city was there in half hour flat, via Highbury & Islington. My favourite route though, was to walk to the bus stop on Newington Green, which was about the same distance from the house but took you into a completely different part of the city. The leafy backroads were quiet, surrounded by houses made from that yellow brick you see all over East London. Always so much green, so many flowers.

I moved to West London for a good reason, for the only reason I’d ever have even considered it. The man I married has always lived this end of town, first for being a child here and second for working here. Before we really knew each other I expected the hour-and-a-half trek between our houses, between our London villages, to eventually become too big of an obstacle, but as it turned out, not his time. Marriage is different. Actually, let me rephrase that: marriage means that the relationship is different. It wouldn’t work with just anyone.

Because everything else about getting married has been great, but this West London thing … I thought I’d get over it, but I’m not. I’m really not, I know it’s bratty but I can’t help it. I remind myself that this really isn’t that bad, that none of the issues are actually problems, but still, I can’t shift the feeling that this is all wrong. West London is too slick; I miss the grit. This nostalgia is unusual for me, as I’ve lived in ten houses in London before this one and I’ve never felt homesick for any one of them. I even left a whole country once and never looked back: once I’ve left, that’s it. But as it turned out, not his time.

This is England, and nowhere else is this humid. It’s never more noticeable than when I get off an airplane, having spent time somewhere invariably drier; the humidity descends like a second skin the moment you step onto the jetway. The constant mugginess makes the city feel raw in the winter and sticky in the summer, exaggerating the natural direction of the temperatures. The icy fog seeps into your bones in the winter; it’s a London particular, rough and punishing. In the summer the damp heat does the same, but it’s mellow, reminding is why we love the city the way that we do.

East London is not that far away. And West London is really not that different. But home is a feeling.

Desert state

This Recording, 2014. Original article.

tumblr_n0uc8x47xs1qbeqkxo1_500In which we sleep on crisp white sheets
Desert state

Every morning at 7am I climb over my sleeping husband, pulling the curtains open to let in a stream of dusty light. It’s pitch black until then, inside this hotel bubble without sound nor light, but I’m relieved to get up after yet another night of jetlag-ragged sleep. I tiptoe to the bathroom but nothing in this hotel makes any noise: carpet covers every surface, doors close slowly as so not to slam, furniture is heavy so it won’t topple over. The kettle takes so long to boil I have time not only to prepare the cafetiere, but also to brush my teeth for the full two minutes recommended by the dentist. I listen to the buzzing inside my head while outside, the sky is preparing for another day of pale sun in a violet sky. It’s the same as yesterday, and it will be the same tomorrow. We are in a desert state, in a brand new metropolis built on a sudden fortune, in a place where everything is shiny yet dull. It’s a city but it feels like a suburb, created from a drawing board. Every surface is kept clean yet it’s always dusty; the air is so dry that it only takes a moment.

I sit by the window drinking my coffee, inside a skyscraper hotel that’s part of a skyline that looks impressive from a distance. The bay is a few blocks away but I can see the the shore, because the buildings are just a little too far apart. I’ve never thought about that before: the distance between city buildings. But now, in this brand new environment that’s being built in front of our very eyes, it’s impossible not to look at it. In an old city, like the one I call home, the buildings push into each other, like the people on the street, and everywhere are cafes, shops, and even pavements. Here, each trip to the supermarket means manoeuvring a ledge next to a six-lane road, before scaling a sloped brick shoulder that takes you to the shopping mall parking lot. You’re not supposed to walk, is the thing, not when petrol is this cheap. Half the year it’s too hot to move around on foot anyway, with the searing sunshine leaving the outdoors just as inaccessible as if we were in a snowstorm.

In the bed, my husband has pulled the covers over his eyes, fighting against the light pouring in. He got here before me, so he’s adjusted to the local time. As much as the early mornings is a novelty for me, I envy his ability to stay up past 10pm. The sun is up and I’m awake, but my body is fighting me. I gain a little more ground every day, but I’m alarmed at how my heart pounds against my ribs, like a warning. It’s morning in the desert but my body thinks I’ve been up all night again, hankering back to in a place that’s much bolder and louder than this. I sip my coffee as I listen to the sounds trickling in, muffled through the double-glazing; the construction work has already started. For every building in this city there’s another one going up, and another road blocked to build a new lane. Inside their air-conditioned white cars, people are blasting the horns in frustration over the delays. Outside, the workers wears cloths around their heads to protect from the heat and dust.

Each day the hotel maid brings more bottled water, and provide all fresh towels even though the little card says the towels will only be changed if you put them on the floor. We may be in the desert, but there’s little concern for saving water. I wonder if they recycle all these empty water bottles. If I leave the cafetiere unwashed the maid will clean it; at first I felt I shouldn’t leave it as it’s not their job, but then I forgot a few times and now I think it’s really nice not to have to do it myself. I watch how people in restaurants ignore wait staff who bring them things, wondering how long I’d have to live here before I stopped saying thanks.

I stretch my body on the impossibly white sheets, thinking about what I’m going to do today. I have work but my head is full of cotton. I’m only here for the week anyway, having come to see my husband while he’s working. I’d never have come otherwise, as it’s not the sort of place you to visit. I was at the airport once for a stopover, just long enough to learn the name of the capital city and figure I’d probably never actually see it. But circumstances happen and now I’m here, in a padded hotel bubble, inside a not-quite-there skyline. Time feels like it’s standing still yet it’s slipping away, as before I know it it’s morning again and I’m opening the curtains, listening to the slow hiss of the kettle as the water heats up. In the desert, and in this city, there are no pavements, but people are creating sandy paths, through the construction sites. Every evening the sun sets, creating a bright spectacle in the sky, and for a moment it’s amazing before it’s gone and the sky is a dark, blank slate. Something is happening, but life is elsewhere.

Anya Lsk’s visual language

This Recording, 2013. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 17.22.52In which we search for lost meanings
Visual language
A photographer friend of mine is obsessed with bodies and architecture. How the two interact in the cityscape, the soft curled around the hard, breaking up the clean lines. She creates variations on these images again and again but she doesn’t know why, just that they compel her. Of course, she can’t write that on the pieces of paper that’s handed out at her exhibitions. Art has to have an intent and if none comes to mind you have to make it up, so that is what she does.

As a words person, I get a kick out of that sort of task. To mull over a feeling, shift it back and forth, distilling the essence like an egg yolk passed between shells to remove the white. To look for the words to convey the emotion, starting with something vague and feeling the rush as the words come together. But for a visual person like my friend, this translation from feeling to vocabulary is a mystery, a task that feels impossible. For her, the answers are all in the clean lines in her pictures, and in the roundness of the bodies as they distract and mess it all up, without which the city would have no meaning. She knows this, how the answer is in the disruption, but this awareness is not literal but in the heart, just a hunch.

“Sometimes I’m terrified of my heart; of its constant hunger for whatever it is it wants. The way it stops and starts.” Edgar Allan Poe (misattributed).

These collages are by Anya Lsk. We don’t know much about this artist. Her work echoes across the internet, with all roads leading back to her Tumblr, ‘Long Time No See’. Not that she wants to see anyone as she ignores all attempts to reach her, but as she’s made her work available it seems she wants people to see her. Her photography is all clean lines and architecture, a bit like my friend’s, but the stars of the show are her collages. One image is injected into another, brutal yet effective, to create layers of meaning where previously there was only one. A tree in the midst of a barren landscape, a ravine between two lovers, a city in a lake. We know that Anya Lsk is an artist and photographer from Moscow, Russia, but that’s about it. Except, of course, what’s in her work.

On the surface, Lsk’s collages do a lot of the interpreting work for us, as the contrasts are so clear. One world inserted into another, creating a an obvious comparison between opposing forces. So why is it so difficult to pin down? A piece of blue sky in the middle of a mountain, those are extremes, sure. But to what end? I’m wondering what Lsk wants us to think when we look at her work, knowing that if she’s anything like my friend she probably has no real interest in trying to articulate it at all. Lsk is a picture person and she’s denied us any explanation, which for a words person like me is frustrating. It’s left a void where her intentions should be and we have to fill it with own thoughts. I look at Lsk’s contrasting worlds and there is a feeling there, it nags and eludes and it kills me that I’m not better at doing the thing that I love. But I keep looking for the words, even though I get distracted all the time, by the trivial, by the profound, by my own resistance and attraction to the things I need.

“I feel sorry for need, which gives us life and wastes our time. But I am deep down just that way, and it is good. I love being in love. I have wasted so many productive years on relationships that have amounted to time spent. But what is life but time spent?” Elizabeth Wurtzel.

I read a newspaper feature once, it was maybe ten years ago, which told the story how this woman always cut the ends off the ham before roasting it. She didn’t know why she did this, except that she learnt it from her mother. Her mother was then asked about this habit, but she didn’t know either except, again, that her own mother did it. Then to the grandmother, solving the mystery: the habit of trimming the edges off the ham originated because she had a very small oven.

This story has stayed with me all these years, fascinating me with the thought that one lost detail can provide meaning. How there’s always a reason for things, even if we aren’t aware of it. Lsk may be able to explain why she placed an obelisk emerging from a rainbow into a lake, or it could just be a feeling for her, triggered by something profound, or obscure, or random. Maybe she isn’t paying attention, or she’s behaving perhaps deviously. Somewhere in the muddle there’s a small oven, but Anya Lsk isn’t telling us where it is.

“I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything. I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved – I suppose – deviously. I mean, I didn’t actually let too many people know what I was doing.” Joan Didion.

 

Layer of fog

This Recording, 2013. Original article.

TR fogLayer of fog
The text he sent me yesterday, telling me he misses me and wants to be my friend. I respond I would like that too, but I don’t know how. We sigh, as far as that’s possible to do over text, and then do nothing.

That I’m old now, meaning I know you don’t get to be friends, not right away like this. The god of break-ups owns this time, and the deity will make you sit in the waiting room flicking through the thoughts in your head, working through every little tedious thread in the tangle.

That I know why we broke up but I don’t think he does because he keeps asking me: “Did you leave because I’m so broke right now? Did you end it because I take drugs sometimes? Was it because of that guy you met, the one you keep meeting up with?” I feel the anger swell in my chest when he asks this, because it’s none of these things and yet all of these things, and so much more. But most of all it’s how he doesn’t hear me when I try and tell him. I spent the best part of a season trying to salvage things, trying to explain what the problem was, desperately sifting through all the words in my arsenal to find the ones that would show him how I felt. More than anything I wanted him to understand.

The moment when it started breaking. Of course I didn’t realise it at the time but with hindsight I can see it: a freezing day with grey fog hanging low over the city, on a bus because the train wasn’t running. He told me something about what he believed in and how he wanted to live, some dream about communal living and sharing resources and a commitment to social activism. All things I can understand and even admire, but the opposite of everything I wanted for myself, as a fickle introvert with a bad case of wanderlust. And felt an ache swell in my chest, realising in a flash that I’d put my eggs in his basket without understanding who he really was, and how could I have let that happened? I got off the bus and went home alone, deflated. We recovered, but I slowly started to retrieve my eggs, one by one, keeping them safe in my own house again because I didn’t trust him with them anymore.

Some Humpty-Dumpty metaphor.

That time he broke it off via text message while we were trying to work it out, sending me a missive while I was standing in a train station buying wine for a weekend away. I couldn’t even engage with what he was saying, blinded by the indignity of being dumped by text: “I am ending this because you no longer put our relationship first.” Or something like that; I’m not sure what it said exactly because I deleted it, too surreal a message to exist in the world. What I remember is that I laughed, then shook, and then I raged at the absurdity, the humiliation of being dumped in the manner of my mobile operator informing me I’ve exceeded my monthly data allowance. When I got back there was a wall of ice between us, which melted as he came knocking on my door late at night. We spent three days in bed, in a time capsule, but it didn’t last.

The fact that I felt relief when it finally ended. Too many repetitions of the same arguments. I’d stare at him in disbelief, across the pub table or across the stream of text messages, wondering how it was possible to have been with someone for so long and have it end in such confusion. How black and white it felt, everything he said. How he refused to allow for the fact that things could change. How I was probably equally frustrating to talk to for him but I can’t see it, because when you are breaking up, you no longer are who you are.

That I’m realising you never quite finish with someone you used to love, not really. My ex and I still possess pieces of each other, even as he lives on the other side of the city where he calls another woman girlfriend and I have someone else who answers to boyfriend. See it didn’t take long; I told you the breakdown was a relief.

The worst thing about this is realising how wrong I was about him. How it took me so long to get to really know him, blind to reality at an age when I really should know better. How it makes me look at my new boyfriend with a twinge of skepticism, wondering what’s lurking under the surface, as I’ve always thought myself to be a good judge of character but maybe not. I don’t often wish things were different, but I’d give a lot not to feel this way as my new boyfriend deserves better.

That I regret nothing about my ex. Not getting into it in the first place, nor any of the things that caused it to end because when it was good, it was fantastic. And when it started to break down, it felt natural. I can never admit this to him though, because it’s cruel. But I know what it feels like to be so broken up about a relationship that you can hardly breathe, and this isn’t it. All I know is that I toss my phone across the table in frustration at yet another text message where he completely misses the point. But even as I do it, I know it was all worth it.