61/100 — The track

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I live close to the running track. It’s open to the public at (from what I can tell) all hours. Local schools use it for their sports days, and do their PE Abitur (A-level) exams here.
I never thought I’d enjoy running circles on a track, but it took only a few tries before I realised that not only is it very comfortable to run on – it’s also a kind of a social experience.
On weekdays, when I have to train early, it sometimes happens that I’m the only person on the track. But after 8am on any given day, it’s busy. All kinds of runners from the area come here, and even though nobody really talks to each other, the track makes a little community of us.
Runners of all shapes and abilities come here. I see beginners in full tracksuits, and earlier this year even a woman jogging in a knee-length down coat, shuffling along. Some others (men) are in full gear with sunglasses, hats and shorts, striding confidently, arms pumping, their feet flying higher behind them than seems fair. Some run in pairs. Some run along the fence outside the track in the opposite direction, and some even do the whole loop around the margins that includes the football field. A few days ago I did a speed workout, zooming past a woman with nordic walking sticks, weaving between people on standard easy runs and an adorable father-daughter duo stretching in between loops, and a guy putting us all to shame by lugging a 10kg weight bag around the track on his shoulders.
I like how this free track brings all of us together, each of us putting one foot in front of the other, each running our own race at our own speed.

60/100 — Hello, I'm a digital minimalist now*

Friends, it’s been a month since I decided to give digital minimalism a go. For the past 30 days, I put my phone down at 9pm every night**, I watched no more than one Youtube video a day (often not even that), I severely limited my time on Facebook and Twitter, and I am proud to say that apart from one day where I really needed to find something, I have not used Pinterest or Instagram.

I’m a better person now, right? I’ve spent an entire month doing the ‘hard but fulfilling work of cultivating a meaningful life’, right?! All my shit is now sorted, right?!

…uhm.


Here’s what went well:

  • I have broken out of my Youtube addiction, and I’m so grateful for it. The hours I’ve gained that I used to spend watching dog videos or people giving productivity tips I already knew about: I have them back now. All the hours. (I will come back to those hours.)

  • I sleep better. My anxiety has gone down a little and I haven’t had a migraine in a month. My ‘twitching’ for apps or websites has gone down considerably, and I’m more focused in general.

  • I’ve developed a better understanding for what’s worth my time and attention. It’s a weak ‘muscle’ yet and will need training, but over the past month I have unfollowed one or two people who make good content but whose (online) personalities just don’t vibe with mine – and it turned out that’s okay. So far, I haven’t felt like I’m missing anything.

So here’s what went less well:

  • Youtube is a horrible rabbit hole and its siren call is a strong one. There was one day on which I broke the one-video rule to watch a Let’s Play. Three hours later I re-emerged, half my afternoon gone.

  • The hours I saved with Youtube, I spent on streaming services. I’ve watched a stupid amount TV shows in May, and while they were all great and I don’t regret any of them (especially since I was able to give them my undivided attention), some nights I found myself going to bed with an itch to write or draw something. Yet I’d spent the evening watching Game of Thrones, and if you’ve seen season 8, you can imagine which feels like a more meaningful use of one’s time.

  • I’m on public transport a lot. Sometimes it’s only 10-15 minutes, or it’s crowded and a book just isn’t practical. And sometimes, during those minutes, my brain just yearns for something useful to do. Not that going on Twitter is useful, but it was all I had on my severely dumbed-down phone. (Browser-based, of course. The app has been gone for months. It makes exactly no difference.) Those felt like empty minutes, and I filled them with empty things.

  • I’m still barely any closer to what feels to me like a ‘meaningful life’. Part of that is down to the hours and hours I spent on flat hunting this past month. I’m forever on the go and on bumpy buses and running around Berlin. Maybe that’s setting up that meaningful life, sure. But I’m still not writing as much as I want to. I’m still not doing any of the online courses on my Skillshare list, and I’m barely drawing or making anything else.

What I found missing was that feeling of access to a creative community that I get from Instagram and Pinterest. Nearly all my exposure to art at the moment is work-related, and it’s not the kind of art I feel comfortable with. My offline life in its current state lacks other creators in it, so cutting myself off from that online community for a month pretty quickly felt like a stupid idea.

But I also noticed another thing: even when I do have that access, I don’t really feel a sense of belonging. Those creative online communities, I’m not necessarily a member of them. I feel like an outsider, watching. With this constant exposure to ‘inspiration’, how easy is it to just keep watching and never do anything? Living the life I want to lead vicariously through strangers’ Instagram accounts and vlogs? Not having that exposure (and distraction) made me realise how much work I still have to do, actually do, in order to build something for myself.


So what’s next?

  • Two rules are staying: the ‘1 video per day’ rule and the ‘no screens between 9pm and 7am’ rule. They make me a healthier person and I recommend them to anybody.

  • Creative inspiration and community are important to me. I have two Instagram accounts that I will consolidate into one, because I don’t have the time or energy for two. I’ll also reduce my follow list to no more than 100 accounts, because nobody can keep up with this many things.

  • Build something for myself, and be intentional about it.
    In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport suggests something he calls ‘Seasonal Leisure Plans’. It made me feel sick when I first heard it and it still does, but apparently I too need to fight my lizard brain with all I’ve got, even if it’s marrying the concept of ‘leisure’ with the concepts of productivity and scheduling. (I shudder just typing that out.)
    The idea is pretty simple: schedule your activities. Create a quarterly objective (or whatever works) that supports the habit you want to keep up, then come up with a strategy to make it happen, and add an incentive to make you keep at it. For example, say I want to write a short story by 31st August. I will have to keep up the habit of writing daily, figure out when and how to do that, and by 31st August I’m handing it in for a competition, and I will get the satisfaction of having achieved one of my 2019 goals and take myself out for dinner.
    (I’m still working on this concept. But something like that.)

All in all, I’ve still got a long way to go. But maybe this time I’m actually on the right path to something like intentional living and responsible use of technology. It’s a process, and if it hasn’t healed me, this past month has at least helped me get a better idea of the direction I need to go.

58/100 — I don't know what to read

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I’m in a reading slump, and it’s the worst.

Reading slumps are a very rare thing for me. When they happen, they’re unbearable. My morning routine starts with reading, so every morning I wake up, and my first emotion is dread at the thought of having to pick up a book. Then I face a 40-minute train journey for my commute – each way. It’s felt twice as long already.

I wish I knew where reading slumps come from. Being someone who identifies as ‘a reader’, not reading always brings me to edge of an identity crisis. I read, therefore I am. So if I’m not reading, am I even here?

Over the past month, I’ve picked up and not finished six books.

The Journals of Sylvia Plath? I’ve reached her very experimental phase and I … I just cannot.
Mad Girl’s Love Song? It turns out Sylvia Plath was not a particularly nice person, which makes me not want to read about her.
That Isabel Allende book my dad’s partner gave me? I need to finish that before I visit them next week but, I don’t know. Everything I read in German annoys me, it’s not a pleasant state, but none of this is!
The Time of Our Singing? This one was recommended to me and it did grip me for about 100 pages. But there is a reason I don’t like family histories, and that is because the story is always told from the most boring family member’s perspective. And I really don’t see why I should be stuck in a boring person’s head.
Essentialism? I listened to that one while running and it got preachy. It also got too hot to run with headphones in.
The Terror? Forgot it at work.

Maybe I’ve just watched way too many TV shows this month (The Purge, The Terror, Tuca & Bertie, Game of Thrones season 8, I’m mostly through She’s Gotta Have It, and I’m about to start Chernobyl), and reading is just not my format for experiencing stories right now.

Or, maybe this was all fate. Because 30 minutes ago, when I went to look at my trusted Box of Books I Bought In London to Read in Berlin, I found it – underneath the stack of magazines that live on the Box, I had ‘tidied away’ my April pay slip. The thing I’ve been looking for for the past two weeks, because if you want a flat and you’re the only one who doesn’t have her pay slips together, you don’t get a flat. And I found it, looking for another book to read.

This might have happened:

Anyway.

I’m now going to try The Word for Woman is Wilderness.

57/100 — I don't want to be a movie character (except maybe one)

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I’m just back from another flat viewing, and I’m tired.

A Whatsapp screenshot with only my text bubbles visible that read: ‘The place where I’m now feels like the place I’d live if I was the protagonist in a romantic comedy about coming out of a long term relationship and learning to find your own way. All my neighbours would be quirky characters and one of them would be played by Rebel Wilson. And I just realised I don’t want that’

Flat viewings are fun when you’re just starting out and you don’t have a deadline. But when a month has passed and you’ve been rejected a couple times, the fun considerably lessens. I still don’t have a deadline, and I can choose wisely. But oh man, do I wish I had my own bed and my own curtains.

The place I saw today was newly renovated, smelled of fresh paint, and had the fanciest kitchen I’ve seen so far that I haven’t asked to pay extra for. It was situated somewhere between an adult entertainment area and some of the shiniest houses I’ve seen in Berlin so far, and the staircase alone could be a movie set. (This movie’s Berlin would be crumbling but charming.) If I was a quirky movie character who’s just moved to the city, this is the place where I’d end up. My neighbours would forever be dropping by to chat or cry about their latest heartbreak or smoke weed or something. (I don’t watch these movies very closely, they’re usually my migraine entertainment.)

And this is alright for movie characters, because they don’t need sleep unless the script says so. But I need a lot of sleep. And I don’t need paper thin walls, and the bright and noisy and colourful spectacle of youth playing out in the inner yard, and people walking past my window on their way home from the betting shop or the adult cinema at all hours of the night.

The only movie character I’ve ever wanted to be was Amélie Poulain.

I was 12 when Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain came out, which means that her life has been my ideal for more than half of my life now. Her apartment is enormous, a disturbing shade of red, and filled with trinkets and weird art that sometimes talks.

Most of all, it’s her sanctuary. It’s quiet and cozy, somewhere that looks like it could swallow you up in its warm embrace. It’s a space that is completely hers. It’s where she dreams and creates, and where no one disturbs her. It’s a home.

And when I say I ‘want to be’ Amélie, I mean the life she’d built. I wanted that way of engaging with the world. I wanted that kind of flat (in a different colour), and that space to just be. And, 18 years later, I realise I still do.

As I view one place after another, the kind of life I want to live becomes more and more clear. There was little I could do about my living situation when I was in London, where you had to take what you could afford, so I just tried to make the area work and find people I could bear to share a house with. I don’t want this anymore.

And of course it’s going to be different. Amélie’s Montmartre doesn’t exist. A space that big is still not in my budget. I’ll probably never have a cat. But I want my own space, to be myself in.

Wish me luck. It’s all you need here, apparently.

55/100 — Things that made me come alive this week

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There was a really sweet post on Cup of Jo this week, asking readers, What Makes You Come Alive?

The replies are beautiful and well worth a read. And since my gratitude journal app has been gathering digital dust on my phone for a while now, I thought I’d make my own list:

  • Rediscovering (and silly dancing to) The Ark, a great early 00’s Swedish glam rock band, especially ‘The Most Radical Thing to Do

  • Painting for the first time in a long time

  • Visiting a printer and geeking out over book production

  • Vanilla soy yogurt, especially with fresh strawberries

  • Viewing a flat and really feeling like it could be home*

  • getting into a good book that challenges me (currently, that’s Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing)

  • my first morning coffee

  • a good yoga session and the realisation of how strong my legs have become in the past few months of running

  • going on Pinterest (for a good reason) and feeling that burst of inspiration from looking at other people’s art

What made you come alive this week?


*this has already happened twice before, let’s not get too excited

53/100 — I'm thinking about ... writing about the bad stuff

Two years ago, I tried NaNoWriMo for the second time. I had some admittedly autobiographical stuff I thought could keep me writing for a month, and see where it goes. About fifteen days in, after my protagonist had remembered a few things I had – for the sake of bashing out a quick first draft – pretty much lifted 1:1 from my own life, I skimmed over what I’d written so far.

And I thought, Bloody hell. This is bleak.

Pretty soon after, I stopped writing. Later I’d condense what I’d wanted to do with the framework of the story into a piece of flash fiction that did everything a piece needed to do for sharing. I don’t know where that novel draft is now; I’m not sure I still have it.

This week, Austin Kleon wrote about writing about the bad stuff, and I’ve been thinking about it for days.

Over the years, I’ve done my fair bit of healing and sharing. Looking back, the way I tell my stories has changed; I leave out a lot of detail, and tend to focus on the basics and look for a positive spin. It’s not enough for a novel or even an essay, but it got me on a storytelling podcast once.

But right now? I have no interest in writing any more dark stories, about myself or others.

As Austin Kleon says:

We all have pain.

It isn’t necessarily interesting.

That includes ourselves. These days, I’m a lot less interested in my pain than literally anything else. Having become comfortable with writing about pain, that now puts me into a bit of a situation where I don’t know what else to write about, but … that’s something I’m working on figuring out right now!

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for the past few days because it feels like I’ve been given permission. It’s hard to shake that old advice about writing what you know. But really, you don’t have to.

Isn’t that nice.

52/100 — Making books

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The past two days here have been quiet because I’ve been away on a press pass.

Most of the time, sending a book to press means giving it to the printer to make magic happen, and trusting that the result will be good. Usually this goes well, too, and a few weeks later your finished book arrives at your desk, in a warehouse, and later (hopefully) on a shelf somewhere, as part of a routine process that, like most things we just accept, is actually somewhat of a miracle.

But sometimes, a colour book is particularly important, or difficult, and that’s when someone like me, or a designer, or an artist, visits the printer to make sure that the book comes off the press looking the way you’re hoping it will. That was my job this week. Colour books tend to be printed on sheets, which fold into sections. So as each section comes off the press, it’s taken to a light box, its ink densities are measured to make sure they’re consistent with the proofs and throughout the run, and someone (i.e. in this case, me) looks over it and approves it. (I can’t share photos of what I’m doing, but this is what it’s like.) It was a long, long day (as they tend to be), and I’m glad it’s over, but also glad it was done.

To be honest, though: this is not the fun bit for me.

This Wednesday, in between sheets to approve, I was given a tour of the factory. This is the fun bit. This particular company is a few hundred years old, so the building houses not only some fancy new machinery, but also traditional equipment, some of which was still in use only a couple decades ago.

In my job (and outside of it) I’m forever meeting people who seem to have no awareness of the many steps involved in making a book. I’ve been asked to make books happen within days more often than I can remember; as if printers only sit around staring at the wall until they’re given this one job, or paper grows out of the floor right where and when it’s needed. With all the progress technology has made in the past decades, producing books is still a physical process. Many, if not most books we see in bookshops today are still printed on offset presses. This means ink smudges, damaged plates that produce odd little blots; then there are boards that bend because of the weather and foil that flakes off because of the board, and all kinds of possible issues I can’t even imagine with my mere 5 years of experience. And then, of course, there’s the human element. (Making books would be so much easier if it weren’t for the people.) How so many books make it out into the world is a marvel, given everything that could (and does) go wrong. Seeing those old machines put everything into perspective a little. Imagine typesetting every page by hand. We’d have fewer typos, and much fewer books.

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Every time I visit a printer, I’m overcome with awe and envy at everyone’s skill.

I envy the customer service people with their many years of experience, who know the materials and have made the mistakes and can advise you on anything.
I envy the press minders, with their incredible colour vision and knowledge of ink and paper, these machine whisperers who know how to coax just that shade of green out of the roaring, sometimes hissing beast that fills half the room.
I envy pre-press and lithography, with their knowledge of colour and colour separation, who know how to best write the instructions for just that shade of green in the language of cyan, magenta, yellow and black.
And, leafing through the guestbook at the printer and reading the words of so many who have visited before me, I envy the artists who make the works worth printing, and the designers who arrange those words and images on a page. I wish I could do all of these things.

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Earlier this year I went to a choir concert that centred around the topic of reading. Their programme invited the audience to listen to the songs and reflect on ‘the role that books play in [their] life’.

I don’t know what kind of life I’d have without books. There not an aspect of it that I can imagine without them. That I get to be around them every single day is a little miracle in itself.

49/100 — A headache day

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The weather is being funny right now, so of course I went to bed with a headache yesterday, and am going to bed with a different headache tonight. It’s been a long day of trying to stay on top of things; I got an email about how the flat I’d applied for last week wasn’t ‘available anymore’ – the email was so impersonal it landed in my junk folder, despite me having been one of only two applicants.

So I’m a bit down tonight. Tomorrow I’m traveling ahead of one really long day of work on Wednesday. I hope I’ll get something worth blogging about. It’ll be 50 days tomorrow!*


*I mean, I know I missed two days so far, but it’s half time for someone