2/100 — A walk in the sun

We have been blessed with warm weather and sunshine this week, and for the first time since I started my job, I feel like going outside at lunchtime. For the past two days, I’ve been walking around the neighbourhood, soaking up the sun.

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One thing that’s striking in Berlin is the amount – and the volume! – of sparrows. They’re everywhere; they sit in every hedge and every tree, well hidden in the branches and chirping so loudly it hurts the ear sometimes. Walking down the street often feels like the foliage is yelling at you, that’s how loud they are. Personally, I prefer birdsong over pretty much every other city noise, so I don’t mind them, even if my coworkers complain.

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The neighbourhood I work in is absolutely gorgeous; it’s in West Berlin and full of little cafés and shops, way too many bookshops, and even a couple cinemas. Café owners have put fresh flowers out on tables and window sills, and there’s a woman who sits in the sun right in front of her shop, soaking up the warmth.

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Today, I went an bought myself an overpriced pineapple and raspberry juice so I could sit outside with the rest of Berlin, writing and watching. I plan on doing the same thing tomorrow.

Hello, my Thirties – on to new adventures

Happy New Year!

Today is the first day of my thirties. A brand new decade lies ahead.

Of course, marking a ‘new beginning’ on the first of January or a birthday is an arbitrary thing; I’m not much different today than I was yesterday, or a week ago. But the great thing about leading our own lives is that every moment we choose, be it a new year, week or morning, can be a new beginning, if we decide to see it that way.

I’ve been waiting for this birthday for a while. My twenties were … rough. A lot happened, including many good things, but overall I’m glad to take that decade and file it under ‘Memories’. I’m a very different person from who I was ten years ago, and I fully intend to take everything I’ve learned and do something with it.

One thing I mean in particular is my creative life. My early twenties in particular were largely defined by health problems and life events, and all my previous passions – writing, drawing, photography, design – all took a backseat. In the very far back. Different vehicle almost.

Over time, I have been able to slowly reintroduce these things into my life, but as it goes when you get to a certain age, impostor syndrome kicks in. Rather than doing things for fun, now there is a pressure to be good at those things, and when you haven’t worked on anything in years, it’s hard to just pick them back up again. Social media doesn’t help: if I share my stuff online it’ll give me great accountability, a reason to keep going with it. At the same time it makes me vulnerable to comparison and criticism. Which wins out?

When I wrote last week’s reading roundup, I was a little shocked by how rusty my writing felt. This blog is already a year old (my poor neglected child), and while I wrote and published more than in a long time in 2018, I know this can be improved.

My plan for 2019, as a start of the next chapter in my life, is to create more. This goes especially for writing, but my other interests as well. I still love books and want to read more, and more deeply, than I have in recent years. As awful as it sounds, I miss thinking. I miss engaging with what I consume and create. Writing papers on books used to be one of my favourite things to do, and there are already so many things, works and genres that I would love to explore more deeply, that might even make halfway interesting reading for whoever lands on this blog.

But at the same time, I miss play. It annoys me to think that I’m too old for something, that it’s unacceptable to be new to something at my age, and to be bad at it. Nobody is too old for anything (except maybe professional ballet, that’s not happening for me in this life). The world is an exciting place with many opportunities, so let’s keep trying new things!

My current new thing? Youtube.

2019 will be a year of changes for me (more on that soon), and I’ve long wanted to explore visual storytelling. What better reason to try my hand at vlogging? My video editing is … not great, but the fact that I can see that gives me hope for improvement, and so I want to push on. These are vulnerable times, exciting times, and if not now, then when?

Goodbye, 2018 – A Year in Reading

Yesterday, as has become tradition, I did Susannah Conway’s Unravel the Year workbook. The workbook always starts with a recap before it comes to the goal-setting, which is something I’ve never quite enjoyed. I’m not someone who likes to look back, because in the past that has always felt like a disappointment. I prefer looking into the future – making plans, starting again, believing that things can get better.

That was a little different this year. 2018 has been an amazing year in terms of my health and wellbeing, and I’ve felt his at every corner. It occurred to me recently that people who seem to have their shit together and are on top of things don’t necessarily have a secret – maybe they’re just not depressed. The difference between functioning while depressed and functioning while well is like the difference between crawling and dancing. And the insidious thing is: unless we’re in physical pain, we’re unlikely to notice exactly how hard things are while they’re hard. It’s only once the fog lifts that we realise we’ve barely been able to breathe. But once it does lift – wow.

So that’s one of my many takeaways from 2018. Another one is a list of 70 books I managed to read.

Here are some of my favourites:

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Hunger by Roxane Gay (2017)
I’ve reviewed Hunger before here; I read it in March and am still thinking about it. Roxane Gay’s memoir about her relationship with her body, her place in the world and her struggle to be kind to herself made me tear up more than once. Raw and strong and beautiful, this is the kind of writing I would love to be capable of: to fully own a painful story, to not be diminished by it, and to share it in such a gracious, generous way is true skill.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
I’d never heard of Elizabeth von Arnim before I found this one on the bookshelf at my local Tube station, but it captured my heart within the first few pages. This story of four women spending a month by the Italian seaside to escape their dreary London lives has a lot more to it than I first would’ve thought; Elizabeth von Arnim was a keen observer of people, and while this is ultimately a light comedy, there is a depth and a genuine desire to enjoy life in her characters that I don’t see often in books. I look forward to reading more of her work next year.

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown (2017)
It’s been a Brené Brown year for me – I spent New Year’s Day walking miles and miles while I listened to The Power of Vulnerability, a collection of her talks that neatly summarises her work so far. It introduces the concepts of shame and of wholeheartedness, which Braving the Wilderness follows by talking about – bravery, and the courage to be oneself. It was a much-needed help during a tricky time this summer when I was alone too much and needed reassurance that, ultimately, we’re all a little lost in our own wilderness, and that if we find a way to make peace with this fact and own it, we will be okay.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013)
How did I never hear about this book before I found it in a charity bin? How has this book not won all the awards? The story of Alma Whittaker spans such a wide range of topics, over 19th century botany to the theory of evolution, love and meaning, a brush with the divine and making peace with oneself late in life, and I cannot even. It absorbed me for the entire week I was reading it, and I was equally sad to let it go and excited to pass it on to the next lucky person.
(I seem to remember someone mentioning that if Ms Gilbert hadn’t been pigeonholed as a ‘chick lit’ author by the time this book was published, it would’ve won more prizes. I’m inclined to agree that if it had been written by a man, it probably would’ve had more attention.)

Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko (2007, this translation 2018)
I’m not the biggest fan of Fantasy or Sci-Fi, but I’m forever low-key looking for my next Harry Potter. So when something features a school, and it’s not immediately clearly a school for assassins (urgh), I’m interested. Pair that with the gorgeous cover, and I needed to read it.
Much like with the (very different) Signature of All Things, I lived and breathed this book, in which the teenage protagonist Sasha Samokhina, through a series of very odd events, enters the mysterious Institute of Special Technologies. What follows is a puzzling, alienating and atmospherically very Eastern European story about a girl trying to do well at a school where ‘doing well’ is just as hard to define as the tasks that are being set. The translator Julia Meitov Hersey has done what I imagine is an incredible job (how do you even begin), and I’m so glad this book is available in the English language. I really hope the rest of the series will follow.

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)
The blurb for this book makes it sound like a murder mystery, but don’t be fooled – this one is special. I usually try and avoid books about loneliness (I read too many of them in 2017), but I’m glad this one found me. I Love You Too Much follows Paul, the 13-year old son of a rich Parisian couple, in the aftermath of their divorce. Ignored by his father and overlooked by his mother, Paul seeks solace in food and his friendship with his mother’s help, until he becomes friends with Scarlett, a popular girl from his school. Just as things start looking up, Paul sees something he shouldn’t have seen. I can’t say too much without spoiling the plot, but I Love You Too Much is intelligent and subtle and devastating and followed me around for days after I’d finished it.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry (2018)
I resisted this one for quite a while, but after seeing a lot of glowing (and slightly concerning) tweets, I caved and bought it for Christmas. Someone on Twitter said they had to remove it from their nightstand in order to be able to sleep, and the same happened to me; I could not sleep with this book near me. Set in modern day Prague (which you wouldn’t know if people weren’t texting), the story follows a middle-aged Englishwoman named Helen Franklin, who comes into the possession of a collection of texts about Melmoth the Witness, a female figure that has been haunting the sites of human atrocities for millennia. Not free of guilt herself, the more she reads, the more Helen herself begins to feel watched.
Melmoth is a ghost story in which the ghost is less scary than those it haunts. Having committed crimes too big to confess, the people she visits carry their actions throughout their lives doomed to be followed by their guilt, with absolution so impossible that there seems to be only one way out. At times it’s true that Melmoth feels a little preachy and too bluntly commenting on the times we live in, but that worked for me. In terms of atmosphere, I can’t think of anyone who can match Sarah Perry here (maybe apart from Lionel Shriver with We Need To Talk About Kevin). It was terrifying and so, so good.

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Looking back, 2018 seems to have been the year of books with a high emotional impact. Reading more than one book per week at times made me feel like I was racing through them rather than properly taking them in, so I’ll see if something can be done about that next year. But overall, it has been a great journey and I look forward to the reading year 2019.

(PS: I did read books written by men this year. I had to check though to be sure – none of them stood out ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)