The screw tightens again

When I walked into the restaurant Sarah stood up and almost skipped over: ‘You look amazing. It’s been ages.’
I froze. She was still moving forward. She opened her arms. I took a step back and said: ‘Air hug?’ and make a show of hugging the air in front of me.
Her smile died. ‘Oh we’re not…we’ve not to hug? But we haven’t seen each in six months.’
‘Maybe I’m being over-cautious. It’s just…well, you’ve come from London and…Will we order drinks?’ I moved my chair closer to Sarah’s. ‘You never know what’s the right thing these days. It’s all so confused.’
The Covid app wouldn’t download and the waitress insisted we check in before she serve us food. Eventually it worked on my phone. But not on Sarah’s.
‘Ah well,’she said. What does it matter?’
The next morning the text came: ‘I just thought I’d let you know. My building is in lockdown. I don’t have any symptoms yet. Well, only a little cough. But I always have a cough at this time of year.’

Folkestone, Summer 2020

“I wish we could just have a date”

Your words fly slowly towards my face, like a fist in slow motion from a movie fight scene. I close my eyes, stuck shut with gluey tears and a clenched jaw. I feel my teeth bite down hard on themselves and think about all the new chips and dents I’ve developed during lockdown whilst doing fine.
Those tiny words have flicked a switch in the archive of my mind. It’s dark in here and I can’t find my way around. It’s strange how trauma works like that, I know it’s mine but yet I can’t locate it. “I wish we could just have a date” must be a reference or a footnote to something past, but I can’t tell you what it is because I can’t find it. If I was a computer I’d have a bug or a system error or an anti-virus firewall to protect my heart.
I don’t know if you’re a virus or an upgrade, maybe the operating system of my brain is too old to update. I guess capitalism built me to fail.

Norfolk, Summer 2020

I am driving across the Norfolk Broads, brooding with daydreams of all the ways I have flooded. I tell you to put on that David Bowie track, in my head he sings “from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads’, but I know that can’t be right. I try to control the sharpness of my eyes, my pupils are like fishing lines caught on the slippery lines of my mind or dowsing rods searching for water, your water. I think of my fingers and wonder if my steering wheel could become a portal. Index fingers curl and arch like longing backbones presenting crevices.

It starts to rain. Like whole buckets of water being repeatedly slapped on my windscreen. I remember the first time I ejaculated, you would make me soak my mattress every night. I remember giving birth. I remember squirting breast milk over laptop screens & into community meals when serving up. I remember crying myself to exhaustion as a grown adult because I was so scared and you were so far away. I remember putting whole hands & tongues inside you and pulling my body out covered in a mixture of all the fluids a body can produce.

I narrow my eyes again, releasing the tension in my coiled fingers and turn to my daughter, “hey baby we’re here, let’s go”.

Amphibian

For months, I have craved water. Not just being immersed in it, but dipping in and out, sitting on a rock with my legs dangling in the sea and my torso outside, thawing in the sun. I am, after all, an amphibian.

I miss the coast where I grew up, wearing little more than a swimming suit for months on end, running on the shore with other screaming children covered in sand, our hair caked in salt. Our courage was measured by the distance we were willing to swim. Learning to ride a wave with nothing but our body held perfectly straight and perfectly still, arms stretched in front of us, was our proudest pre-teen achievement.

On the coast, there were savage children and rowdy teenagers, and older people too, mostly women, happy to just sit in the shallow sea, half of their body in the water, half of their body out. How boring, I used to think. What a waste, to have a whole field of sea in front of you and do nothing with it.

I understand now. Lockdown has been rough. Nature has been a lifeline, from the first forays into gardening to the long, aimless walks around Hampstead Heath, Waterlow Park, Clyssold Park, the Parkland Walk. (Best of all is walking through Queen’s Wood at dusk and forgetting that there is a whole sprawling city beyond the treetops). But no amount of parks or walks can make up for the absence I feel, painful in my chest, of the sea. And so I crave.

Today, I’m back where I was born. I’m lying down on a towel in the sand, pretending the pandemic, lockdown and the looming financial crisis are happening somewhere else, or sometime else. There are bleached strips of seaweed around me. The smell of the sea becomes sulphur and sewage and then sea once again. This beach we’ve hitched a ride to isn’t pretty, but it’s the first beach I’ve seen in months and, for that, it’s perfect. An old woman is sitting near the shore, her legs in the sea, her head tilted back towards the sun. Another woman is asleep, lying face-down on a rock that’s big enough to surround her whole body. Soon she’ll wake up, slide down into the water to cool herself, then climb back and continue her nap. She reminds me of a seal or, indeed, an amphibian. We’re animals. Evolved, sophisticated, far astray from what we were meant to be, but animals nonetheless. Forgetting it makes us ill, and sad. As animals, we adapt to where we were born, and to our place of birth we crave to return. These places make us, and we make them. This is where I belong: on a barren piece of coast, with just the sea, and the rocks, and the sun. As long as I’m here I can let all worries melt in the heat, and bask in the feeling of being at one with my surroundings. I sit down next to the old woman, my legs in the sea, arms behind me to support my back, droplets of water drying on my chest in tiny salty circles. I tilt my head back to face the sun. Green fireworks bloom behind my eyelids. I’m home.

What stops us creating?

The inner critic stops us creating. We criticise ourselves as others criticised us even if those others are long gone from our lives. In addition, often because society seems to prefer that we look like X and talk like Y and write like Z, we harangue ourselves on behalf of a hostile culture. We police ourselves. We say: No, no, you can’t. You better not. You’re too much. You’re not enough. We carry inside us what my wonderful mate Jane Bradley calls a cop in the head. Why? To protect ourselves. To keep ourselves safe from shame and rejection we experienced when young. The inner critic is trying to protect us, yes, but what a debilitating way to go about it. Listening to the inner critic might keep you safe but it will keep you small. It will keep you scared. It will keep you handcuffed to others’ preferences and expectations and to a past that’s been and gone. 

Fear is what drives the inner critic. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

For over 25 years now, my fear has been shouting “STOP!” to me, every single time I sit down to write. Fear never has a more interesting insight to offer. Never. Just that one word, repeated and repeated with increasing hysteria: “STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP!!!!!”

My fear wants me to stop, because my fear wants me to be safe, and my fear perceives all motion, all inspiration, all work, all activity, all passion whatsoever as potentially life-threatening. My fear wants me to live a smaller life. The smallest imaginable life, ideally. My fear would prefer that I never got out of bed.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Your Fear is Boring

The bad news is that fear never goes away but the good news is that you can turn that inner critic right down to a squeak. How do we do this? Rebel. Rebel right now. Fight the cop in the head. Write. Fly kites. Quilt. Play. Do what the little-you inside you has always wanted to do. Remember creativity is therapeutic. Writing and all other forms of creativity help ease stress and anxiety. Yes, you might say, I know all of this Kerry, but I’m just too busy with kids/ work/ relatives/living in a global pandemic etc. All valid reasons but ask yourself if, underneath, you’re really just scared. Because we’re all scared. All the time. When fear rises—and it will—ask yourself if you’re in actual physical danger. No? Then crack on. Write (or quilt or fly kites or crochet) despite what the inner critic squawks at you. Think of it as exposure therapy. Write for the sheer joy of getting words on the page, the joy of radical noticing, the joy of being present. The sky won’t fall on your head, you’ll learn to value your creativity and the voice of your inner critic will lose credibility. Guaranteed. 

Exercises

  • Write whatever comes to mind and publish it on Anti-diary (remember you can be anonymous!) Don’t edit, just post! Show your inner critic that you’ll survive! Do it again tomorrow. A great practice for reducing fear is just doing it. Again and again.
  • Write about how Fridays make you feel. Write whatever comes into your head and hit submit
  • Write a letter to your fear. Start with Dear Fear and write down everything that comes up. Don’t edit. Hit submit.
  • Set a reminder in your calendar to do an Anti-diary post for a few minutes every day. Do it no matter what your inner critic squawks about how tired/stupid/stressed you’re feeling. Writing daily is self care and this seemingly small act will reap real rewards.

I’ve loved my anti-diary takeover and I’m looking forward to seeing all of your diary entries over the coming weeks. Keep fighting that inner critic. Every damn day. Happy writing! 

Kerry is the founder of Write like a Grrrl which offers creative writing courses for women & NB in partnership with For Books Sake in the UK. Kerry’s Write like a Grrrl courses are now taught all over the world and Kerry has facilitated workshops across the UK, in Ireland and Russia. Her writing has been featured in various publications including Steer, The Manchester Review, the Kenyon Review and Spilling Ink. Her play Trust was recently performed at the Gulbenkian Theatre.

Return to the office

It is day 3 of the return to the office. This morning, a senior manager asked me how I was finding it. ‘Ok’. She said that didn’t sound promising, and asked me to talk to her. ‘You haven’t provided the appropriate equipment for me to do my job, and we can’t meet people who are also in the office in person, because the rooms are too small, so I don’t understand why we are here.’ It’s only day three, she said.

This afternoon, a recruiter called, to ask about my job search.

This evening, I called him back, explaining I could not talk earlier, because I had been at the office. He said that was strange, and asked how the office was. ‘Horrible’. He said it sounded like he had called at the right time.

Sometimes it would be easier to simple evaporate than to spend one more moment working for these ghouls.

Frazzled

Another work meeting is about to start.

Panic sets in. Crap! Are we meeting on Zoom? Or MS teams? Or Skype? Jitsi? WhatsApp? Facebook Messenger? Telephone? MSN Messenger? Carrier pigeon? Telegram?

I find the invite. I’m late.

I sit there on mute for an hour, me and dozens of others watching the back-and-forth between the only two people who really need to be in that meeting.

My mind wanders, and I remember that communication from a colleague that I need to respond to. I keep my eyes on the camera as I sneakily open the laptop. It’s just out of view as I scroll through my Outlook email. Hmmm… it’s not there.

Balls.

I start searching the phone. Did they Text? No. Facebook post? No. Insta DM? Twitter DM? WhatsApp? Skype? Messenger? Yahoo? GMail? Hotmail? Voicemail? Snail mail?

I heard some dude is teaching law on Tik Tok. I resisted Snapchat. I thought I’d won.

In the last few weeks I’ve navigated four different types of video editing software; three types of recording software; three types of online meeting software; new virtual learning environment software; new accessibility software; learned how to host a website; how to upload videos; how to do online quizzes, how to do online forums, how to do online supervisions, how to do online data management, how to re-write all my lectures so they’re in smaller chunks, how to do break-out rooms, how to adapt my assessments, how to host online drop-ins; how to run online seminars, how to take online attendance. I have more monitors in my house than doors and I’ve paid for my teaching materials myself.

I should be prepared. I should be prepared? I should be prepared!!!

I am exhausted. But apparently, I am only going ‘back to work’ next week, and I’m lazy for not making efforts to see my students in person in class.

Working from home? Ha! This is beyond ‘living at work’.

Radical Noticing

We can so easily get caught up in catastrophising about the future, worrying about the past and generally living in our heads so that we become blind to what’s going on around us. Ten years ago I was offered a free spot on a MCBT course in London. Learning to notice was a big part of the course. The aim of noticing was, of course, to be more present. To be here now. And what a change this simple act made to my life and also to my writing. 

Awareness–noticing the world around– us helps alleviate anxiety and depression. We are present and don’t get caught up in stories about how bad or good we are, the past or the future. By being present we often discover that life is actually ok in this moment and, in fact, there’s a lot of beauty in our daily ordinary, magic in our mundane. 

The practice of noticing also helps us become better writers. Readers read to experience the world so it’s important that we writers slow down and savour the world around us so that we can share our observations. Give your readers significant, specific detail and they will smell, taste, touch, hear and see as vividly as you have. Give your reader a dash-dash of detail and they’ll paint the rest of the picture in their mind’s eye.

Derek Jarman was a master of detail and a master of noticing. Modern Nature, a journal of his last years before he died of AIDS, is one of my favourite books of all time. Jarman’s noticing was a radical act because he refused to be the sad, sorry victim the tabloids, and some sections of society, wished him to be. Instead he committed to finding joy in the everyday—that magic in the mundane— to notice and to record beauty. This noticing was pure subversion. He wasn’t going to be shamed. He wasn’t going to be sorry. He would notice and record and stake his place in the world by celebrating joy and beauty in his every day, every damn day.

Saturday 8th April

The night sky here is a riot that outshines the brightest lights of Piccadilly; the stars have the intensity of jewels. So flat is the Ness that those stars that lie at the horizon touch your very feet and the moon tips the waves with silver.

The nuclear power station is a great ocean liner moored in the firmament, ablaze with light: white, yellow, ruby. Whilst around the bay the lights stretch from Folkestone to Dover. High above, jet liners from the south flash silent in the stars. On these awesome nights, reduced to silence I walk across the Ness. 

Never in my many sleepless nights have I witnessed a spectacle like this. Not the antique bells of the flocks moving up a Sardinian hillside, the barking of the dogs and sharp cries of shepherd boys, nor moonlit nights sailing Aegean, nor the scented nights and fireflies of Fire Island, smashed glass star-strewn through the piers along the Hudson—nothing can quite equal this. 

Modern Nature Derek Jarman: Penguin

Just wow. Notice the specific detail. Notice the colours. Those little brushstrokes of words. An ordinary walk across Dungeness at night made extraordinary by his attention to detail. Jarman was an artist and so was trained to notice detail but we can all be trained. We can train ourselves and we can start right here, right now. 

  • What do you see out of your window? Notice colour. Notice shadow and light. Notice nature. Write it all down. Don’t edit, Just write.
  • Set your alarm and look out of your window at different times of the day. What do you see? Who do you see? What’s happening? Really narrow your focus on the micro. If you hear a voice inside your head saying this isn’t important, ignore it. It is. It’s your life.
  • Sit on a bench outside. What do you smell, touch, taste, see, hear? Who is passing? Who is talking? What are they wearing? What’s happening?
  • Never dismiss seemingly small events—the starlings gathering together on a fence; a woman running across the car park after an Asda bag whirling in the wind. Readers love the the small ordinary events of everyday life. Use detail to take them there. If you go rock pooling, I want to smell the samphire you forage. I want to feel it between my fingers—how wet, how green.

Until tomorrow, happy writing! Enjoy!

Kerry is the founder of Write like a Grrrl which offers creative writing courses for women & NB in partnership with For Book’s Sake in the UK. Kerry’s Write like a Grrrl courses are now taught all over the world and Kerry has facilitated workshops across the UK, in Ireland and Russia. Her writing has been featured in various publications including Steer, The Manchester Review, the Kenyon Review and Spilling Ink. Her play Trust was recently performed at the Gulbenkian Theatre.

Lockdown Love

Ten weeks it had been. Well, actually 10 weeks and 2 days to be exact. Not that I was counting. It was a personal best, or probably more like a personal worst. The longest I had ever gone without human touch. My skin craved it. The feeling of bathwater on my body helped a little, but whilst it had the warmth of human touch, it lacked the ability to squeeze me tight.

We met online. Lockdown meant that our early days were more akin to old-fashioned courting than any previous experience I had had of Tinder. You asked if I was okay. Not ‘How are you?” but “Are you okay?” and I knew right then that you were different, that this was different. You cared for me in a way that I finally felt I deserved.

Our first meeting is engrained in my mind like initials carved in the bark of a tree. We’d barely said hello and we were in each other’s arms, holding each other so tight. We spent the rest of the day in much the same way, walking along the coastline, intermittently stopping for another oxytocin hit.

It’s been 5 months now and so much has happened. A first kiss, a first sleepover, cooking together, laughing together, crying together, meeting friends and families, a first holiday together, and so many dreams for the future. We still hold each other tight, and we will never take the ability to be close for granted.

2020 has been a difficult year, no doubt, but the silver linings are so bright, my lockdown love.