I barely got any sleep last night, so today has been a slow day. But Friday nights are for pizza and Netflix, so I’m having a quiet night in. There’s a full weekend ahead.
It started a few years ago with a Netflix recommendation that I decided to watch: The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a fascinating 2014 documentary about one of the hardest races in the world – an ultra marathon in Tennessee that spans five 20-mile (or so) loops through Frozen Head State Park, with a 16,500m accumulated elevation gain, no aid stations, and a 60-hour time frame. So far, only 15 men have finished it. I’ve seen this film a few times now, but for some time, that was all.
My interest in movies about people doing extreme things in extreme conditions was renewed earlier this year at the cinema, with this year’s documentary Oscar winner Free Solo. I went home and, over the next week, watched the makers’ previous movie Meru (2015), and from there worked my way through every documentary on free climbing and alpine climbing I could find on Netflix and Amazon and that looked worth renting (hint: there aren’t enough). By now, Youtube’s algorithm has picked up my interest, and my recommendations feature more and more running vlogs, running tips and running motivation videos.
Sports documentaries (or movies) aren’t usually my thing (unless we’re talking about the Netflix doc Losers, which you should go and see right now if you want to be told some capital-S Stories). So what is it about long distance running and climbing that glues me to a screen and makes me hit play again and again?
I think there are 3 aspects to it:
I love the woods, and I love mountains. I don’t live near either, and so deep down, there’s an empty little space inside me that wants to be filled with the smell of wet leaves and the sensation of rocky, uneven ground under my feet. Movies about walking and hiking actually make me sad for that very reason, and I’m not ready to face that reality. By watching people take our shared love for the outdoors to their own extremes, I get my vicarious fix of scenery and wilderness without having to feel jealous. I’m not going to run an ultra anytime soon, and I will probably never climb Everest, so there is no danger of me feeling bad about the view you get from Everest.
2) Humans, the most fascinating of all beings*
The Badwater 135 is a 135-mile race that leads from the lowest elevation in North America to its highest, starting in Death Valley and finishing on top of Mt. Whitney. In July, with temperatures going over 50°C. The 6633 Arctic Ultra takes its participants hundreds of miles, well north of the Arctic Circle. A portaledge is a tent that hangs off the side of a mountain. THIS GUY. People do all of these things not for competition, but because they can and they want to. Humans are nuts, and I can’t stop watching them.
3) Plain old fitspo (with a hint of existentialism)
I’m currently training for my third half-marathon and forever teetering on the edge of injury. I’m only a month in and my legs hate me, so I’m having to do an unacceptable amount (read: more than none) of stretching, foam rolling and strength training to make sure I don’t get hurt. I hate doing all of these things. But watching Karl Meltzer try to set a record on the Appalachian Trail while I’m on the living room floor, cursing my calves over a black roll, reminds me why I love running. It reminds me what our bodies and minds are capable of, and most of all it reminds me that my sacrifices are nothing in comparison to theirs. And before I know it, my laziness is gone. I know I will only ever achieve the smallest fraction of what so many other people are able to push themselves to, but I too will do the best I can.
And before I finish today’s blog post, here is the movie that got me into this genre on Youtube: Where Dreams Go To Die, about the 2016/17 Barkley Marathons. It’s brilliantly done, and if this story doesn’t get you, I don’t know what will.
* I find bees super impressive as well, but I have a slight bias in favour of my own species
** The video running on my laptop in the photo above is THE SQUAMISH 50/50 | A Ginger Runner Film
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wow, is it April already? Is it April already and I’ve done very little work on one of my 2019 goals, which is to eventually submit my writing to some publications? Have I been spending my days making excuses while also bemoaning the fact that people are celebrating ‘the return of the blog’ without actually posting all that much? Do I need a really hard kick up the rear in the hopes that some words will fall out?
Last year, I missed the start of the 100 Day Project, an online art project in which people come together on social media and dedicate themselves to working on a project for 100 days. I did a version of this in the second half of 2018 to learn hand lettering. It was fun, but sadly I didn’t get to enjoy the community aspect.
This year, I’m doing it properly!
MY PROJECT IS to publish a blog post every day for the next 100 days.
I’M DOING IT BECAUSE I enjoy writing and blogging, and want to do much more with this space.
MY HOPES AND DREAMS FOR THIS PROJECT ARE to establish a decent work routine and learn to prioritise the work I want to do over the many distractions available to me, by holding myself accountable for a stretch of time long enough to make a visible change. (I’ve done 30 day challenges galore, and they never last longer than the 30 days.)
I read Austin Kleon’s blog almost every day. He’s been blogging daily since late 2017, and wrote about the effects of it fairly early, mentioning an increase in quality along with the quantity. But what really gets me is this point:
I had forgotten how wonderful blogging is as a mode of thinking. Blogging is, for me, more about discovering what I have to say, and tweeting more about having a thought, then saying it the right way. It’s also great to be able to go as long or as short as you want to go.
Whenever I decide to do a blog post these days, I either agonise over it for way too long and then don’t write it at all, or I just fart something out and hope for the best. Not much of it is quality, and it doesn’t necessarily help me in getting further along with my writing.
So this is it. One post a day: work on my ideas, and work on my style. Find something worth saying. Experiment with different types of posts; not everything needs to be an essay. I’m a little scared and a little excited.
I was on my way to my ever first life drawing class. It was raining a little, I was tired from the shopping I’d had to do beforehand, but freshly caffeinated and pumped to finally do this thing that’s been on my bucket list for years, and I was late – I’d barely make it on time.
Then I missed my stop.
When I lived in London, I’d take pride in being able to take a nap and wake up just as my stop was coming up. The only time I’ve ever missed one was the morning I was texting a crush-just-turned-date, when life was all soft around the edges and I could barely make myself care about work, or getting there.
Yesterday, I missed my stop because I was on fucking Twitter.
We know by now that evolution has not equipped humans to deal with non-stop connectivity and social media, and that most of us have a hard time finding healthy ways of interacting with technology. I’m seeing more of it again at the moment: Craig and Chyna Benzine recently quit the internet for a month, Casey Neistat has just deleted social media apps from his phones after reading this NY Times article, which features Catherine Price, whose book I read last year. I have a copy of Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now in a box somewhere. We get it. We know about the phones.
When I did my own phone detox last year, I didn’t expect it to change my life, and it didn’t. My habits shifted only slightly: my phone is always on silent anyway; I have notifications turned off for most apps; I don’t engage in ‘phubbing’ (looking at your phone when someone is talking to you) unless I do it deliberately (rude? Maybe, but so is talking at someone who’s giving you every nonverbal indication that they’d rather not be talking, including talking at someone who’s doing something on their phone already; maybe you are being the distraction right now, I don’t owe you my attention, oh my god, I have to stop now); when I kicked Facebook off my phone last year, I never reinstalled it. I did reinstall everything else because I’m fickle like that, and mostly I’m okay with this. I can tolerate the minutes and hours I lose on social media when I get sucked into the vortex. But I never agreed to an app having any influence on my physical whereabouts. (except, you know, Google Maps)
I once read that if you want to change your habits, a move is a great framework to do so. In new surroundings, old habits don’t necessarily apply, so we’re able to restart and build a new routine. Over the past 3 weeks since moving to Germany, I’ve noticed a subtle shift in the kind of impulses I get on a daily basis. More often now than in the past years, I want to read. I want to create. I’m itching to dig deep into a challenging book, to learn about storytelling, to get better at making videos and put more words on the screen for this blog and other projects.
At the same time, there’s a completely different impulse. It’s where I suddenly end up for half an hour on some random Twitter account with videos of people almost getting run over by cars. It’s where I sit on public transport with my book open, and because Black Leopard, Red Wolf is really dense, my mind can’t hold on to the words, and I end up scrolling – through Twitter. And then I miss my stop.
I’ve deleted Twitter from my phone now, so I have less reason to be on it. But then there’s the other aspect of phone use: we’re so used to people looking at something that having one’s head up has started to seem a little … weird? The other day I was sitting in a café, staring at the wall opposite as I waited for a short story idea to happen. Next to me sat a guy who was waiting for his friend, so he wasn’t engaged in any activity (other than trying to contain his very excited little dog). And all I could think was, Am I freaking him out? I felt self-conscious about thinking!
What a strange world we live in.
Like many people, every January, I set a word for the year ahead. This year, as in 2018, mine is Intention. It’s about going through life with open eyes, about doing things deliberately. That’s what I tell myself I want. It’s about making choices: how do I want to spend my time? Is this dog video a good way to spend my time? If I want to catch a breath in between doing things and pick a Youtube video to watch, am I about to piss away 20 minutes of my lifetime? In most cases, yeah. And it hasn’t felt good in a long time, and I’m trying to figure out how to stop it.
I’m writing this in Berlin, which is wild to me. I’ve been here for nearly two weeks and I still haven’t quite realised what’s going on, but I can tell that I’m getting used to it already. The more I commute to work on an underground line where nearly every station has a bakery, so the smell of fresh bread wafts into the carriage at every other stop; the more cute dogs I see all over the place,
So I guess it’s time to say a proper goodbye to London, my home for the past 9 years or so.
February was a tricky month. Work picked up a great deal, with projects needing completion, lists requiring handovers, a desk in dire need of a clean, and So. Many. Goodbyes. We managed to finish our first (and my last) Dungeons & Dragons adventure in an office meeting room, and yes: our entire party survived.
Mostly however, I spent February walking around, saying goodbye to a city that shaped me.
In a way, London was the place where I became an adult. When I first arrived, I was 21, fresh out of some much needed therapy. I felt like an egg cracked open; just a tiny nudge and I would spill everywhere. And spill everywhere I did. After a rough 3 years in a not so great place – in many ways – I found myself starting over again, in a different room in a different part of town; closer to trees and woods and fresher air, where I could walk and run and feel more like myself. I joined a drama group, where I made my first proper London friends, people I still care deeply about 5 years later. Theatre taught me how to channel my restlessness into words and movement, and to communicate what I was going through in a way that made it not only accessible to other people, but made them feel more seen in return. Joining a choir had a similar effect on me, and I will miss both these groups a lot. London is a place full of opportunities like this, with thriving creative communities all over the place, and the value of the work they do cannot be exaggerated. (I will forever defend the need for creative community groups and their ability to heal both their members and those who come to see their work, but that’s a different essay.)
There is a sense that living somewhere other than your home country is ‘making it’ – your (Eastern German) parents can proudly tell their coworkers that their daughter lives in London and that she has a fulfilling job many would love to have, a job that sometimes even gets her close to famous people (psst: living in London in the 2010s makes it very easy to get close to somewhat famous people, it just boggles the mind of someone who grew up in a comparably small Eastern German town. I still feel this sense of ‘what is my life’ all the time). You don’t quite realise how much they worry until you have another boyfriend you tell your mum about, and a birthday card arrives from your aunt who mentions how glad she is that you’re ‘not so alone anymore’. But you lean into your big city life, going to plays and exhibitions and complaining about tourists and shaking your head about the political situation you can’t do anything about as a foreigner, and every time someone tells you that you barely have an accent, you feel a sense of pride.
Then you miss a funeral. And another. And you miss a wedding. And you haven’t spoken to your stepdad in months, because every time you Skype home he’s always on the phone in a different room. And you wonder if your version of the big city life is worth it.
There’s a small part of me that’s tempted to see the move to Berlin as a failure. That I wasn’t able to ‘make it’ in the big city. But the thing is, a place like London isn’t for everyone. (Most people I met in London don’t like it there.) As much as I love it, and I do, some relationships just don’t work out. And this particular relationship has simply run its course. Looking back, I didn’t ever imagine I’d grow old in London. There were times when I couldn’t imagine leaving, but maybe part of that is a lonely person’s relief at having found friends, and her reluctance to give them up.
But that was several years ago, and I’m not that person anymore.
Leaving London now is not a failure. If anything, I see it as a success. It’s the end of nearly a decade of trials, of meeting people both good and bad for me, and learning to accept myself, and learning to look after myself. To admit that something isn’t working, and to change it: that’s courage to me now.
They say you can’t love others until you love yourself, but there is a lot to be said for others giving you permission to love yourself. They’re the ones who will hug you when, at the age of 30, you still doubt whether your hugs are wanted. They’re the ones who sing happy birthday to you in 7-part harmony, and the ones who come to see your performances. They do your backing vocals at your first karaoke night. They get up early to meet you for breakfast. They take your phone as soon as you mention your Youtube channel, so you can be in a shot for once. They are the ones to send hugs and emojis and ‘how are you’s and slowly help you tune out that voice at the back of your head that keeps asking, but why me?
I will miss London and its streets and its diversity and its crazy culture. I will miss the free galleries and cheap theatre tickets. I will miss the buses and the grumpy tube drivers, and Oyster cards. I will miss the Wellcome Collection and its weird and fascinating exhibitions and gorgeous reading room. I will miss the Barbican in all its massive glory. I will miss the British book world. So much. I will miss my flatmates and the shrieking foxes in the garden and the cuddly neighbourhood cats, but most of all, I will miss my people. I’m so grateful I was able to get to know them, and I hope I get to come back for a visit soon.
You can hear me read the above text as part of this video. Yep, still doing the Youtube. Not promoting it if it can be helped, but still doing it.
It’s official – after 9 years in the UK, I’m moving to Berlin.
I’ve been hinting at this for a while: London hasn’t felt right for some time now. After a breakup last January, I spent all of 2018 uhm-ing and ah-ing about what I should do – should I keep trying? Should I ignore that voice that had been calling me since my last trip to Berlin a year earlier, and continue building a life in London? Would I be a failure if I didn’t?
It took me until November to start sending out applications. Just before Christmas, I got a job offer in Berlin. I’ll be working there from March on.
January so far has been a month of making arrangements. I’ve given notice on my job and my room, I’ve cancelled subscriptions and made plans to see friends as much as I can. It’s been a strange time – I’ve moved countries before, but my old life in Germany felt a lot less established when I left it to go study in Scotland, and I was excited to leave and start something new. This time, it’s bittersweet. I have a life here; I have a great job, and wonderful friends, and leaving all of that sometimes feels like a silly idea. But I know that I’m strong enough now to make this change – to start again, ‘friendless’ as I keep saying, in a new job, and a new environment. Overall, it feels like the right step. It feels necessary.
It was not an easy decision though. Some years back I already wanted to return to Germany. I couldn’t find any jobs, so I decided to try and make my London life a little better. It worked, and soon I wanted to stay. This hasn’t been the case for a year now: I can’t afford the life I want, just thinking of the London dating scene makes me shudder, healthcare is not great, and, naturally, I’d rather not be in the UK when Brexit happens. As much as I’ve grown here, as much as I’ve learned and achieved – this relationship has run its course. Staying here feels like treading water, and so I must move. Berlin has been calling my name some time now, and I’m glad we’re able to give it a try.
I have four weeks left in London, during which I need to pack, organise a life in Germany, and say goodbye to as many people as I can. I already feel a little untethered; but I know I’ll always land on my feet.
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?
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:
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.
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)_/¯)
Earlier this week, on my way home, I walked past a man and his young bull terrier. Pulling the excited animal along behind him, he picked up a phone call just as I passed them. ‘Hi,’ I heard him say. ‘Yeah, I’m okay ... I’ve been feeling a bit introspective lately.’
‘Me too,’ I thought before I turned a corner and lost them.
Everything has been moving in this direction for a while. Right now, I get most of the human interaction I need from my work hours. After work and on weekends, I tend to stay on my own. I haven’t felt this way since my early teens, so it’s almost a bit concerning now – how content I feel with myself, and my own thoughts.
I’m an only child, and an introvert, so I grew up entertaining myself. I would come up with the greatest stories to play out with my animal toys, or I would draw. Once I could write, I would do that. By the time I had my own computer, I would sit inside, curtains drawn against the bright afternoon sunshine, and write pages and pages of stories nobody would ever see.
It’s similar now. Of course, age and years of depression change you, so nowadays I can’t go 24 hours without leaving the house, or a dark cloud will form above my head. But I take a notebook, or a podcast, and I walk. Maybe I run errands, or maybe I just wander. Maybe I take photos or sit down somewhere to write. If I hear from a friend or family member, that’s great. If I don’t, I don’t miss it.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke had a lot to say about ‘Einsamkeit’ – solitude. In a letter to friends in 1906 he called it a ‘plaster cast for the soul’: ‘My inner life has been dislocated for months, and solitude for now only is a plaster cast for the soul, inside which something is healing.’*) He mourned the attitude towards people who like their own company (‘Parents fear when they notice in their own children the quiet tendency to be alone; those shy boys seem eerie to them, who early in life have their own joys and their own sorrows[…].’) when solitude is a necessity for everyone; especially the artist, and those who love, because a good love is a love where ‘two solitudes protect, adjoin and greet each other’ – as it is impossible to truly love another person without having taken the time to get to know oneself.
Fun fact: in my near 30 years in this life as a German, I don’t think I’ve seen Rilke’s use of the word ‘Einsamkeit’ as meaning solitude in modern German. It always means loneliness; there is always a negative connotation to it.
It’s not always easy being alone. Especially these days; social media can connect us, but it can also remind us with even more ease how much we’re missing, and increase our feeling of disconnection. I’m sure I’ll wake up soon one morning with the belief that everybody I care about has decided they don’t like me anymore.
Until then, I keep learning to enjoy my own company again. If we can believe Rilke, the relationship with ourselves, after all, is the only one in our lives that will not be characterised by distance.
* All clunky translations from the original German are my own.