A wee while back I wrote a post about being fine in 2020. It was an ode to how we’re basically fine but not fine but sorta fine only not really. You can read that here.
As a follow-up, I guess I should say a bit more about what life being kinda-fine is like for me personally. This is not a guide to life, nor one of those sanctimonious bits of bullshit about the power of candlelight and baths (though I imagine both will feature at some point) because seriously, this is just me, just my brain and my world, and whatever you’re doing, however you’re getting through this and wherever you are – you are awesome. Only you know how you can be fine, and you are so much more than enough.
Instead, as one human waving to another human across the digital void, here’s a vague picture of what we can loosely call my very personal sanity and perfectly fine situation in action, 2020 style…
I read an article that said the best path to resilience was to feel like you were in control over your own destiny, that your decisions mattered and that your actions had real-life consequences. (It also helps if you’ve had a happy, secure life leading up to any time of crisis, science would like to add. I mention this because there’s a lot of BS about heroically enduring hardship making people “better”, rather than how suffering sucks, and some gross stereotyping that comes from that.) Anyway, 2020 has absolutely been an exercise in not having control, at all, for basically anyone. It doesn’t help that writing is fundamentally a career with some very limited agency. No writer can control their sales, or reviews, or how a book is packaged or marketted. You churn out words, splat, and then hope for the best. It is an instability and powerlessness that makes for some interesting psychological quirks and famously erratic behaviours.
With this in mind, I seek to approach writing as a thing I do for joy, rather than a job. Yes, there’s a business, and yes, there’s craft, and both need respect. But the only thing I can control, realistically, are the words on the page, and I take as much pleasure from that experience as I humanly can. Writing is an absurd life choice of uncertainty and anxiety – but it’s also being paid to sit around writing stuff for money, which is frankly, the best job ever. A bit like being fine-not-fine, both these things are true, and on the “things that have helped” bucket, writing has definitely kept me sane.
With my professional hat on it’s worth adding: there’s one book which will probably be announced fairly soon, another book series in the works and a whole TV thing currently gathering steam. None of which I can actually say any more about at this time at all, but blimey yes, what a lot of words it’s been.
Friends and Family
The last time I saw one of my mates outdoors, we met on Hampstead Heath in the rain and it was wonderful. The heath is big enough that it feels like you’ve entered another world, caught beneath trees and colour and water and light. I haven’t seen any of my friends in any setting other than a park since March, but acquiring a bicycle has made it possible to cycle to Southwark Park, Hampstead Heath, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Victoria Park, Hackney Marshes and Battersea Park to meet my loved ones one at a time, and now that winter is definitely upon us, the art of the flask of hot tea is really coming into its own.
These lifelines of company have been a reminder of a) how incredible my friends are and b) how much London benefits from its green spaces. It’s also been an interesting exercise in learning new cycle routes, and thrillingly the cycle network across the city seems to be growing almost faster than I can pedal.
I also talk to friends via phone and video. I really struggle with phone, as I find it much harder to process what’s being said – especially with one friend who I love and has a phone made of suet in a signal-free deadzone of despair – but video has been a lifeline. It is by no means the same as meeting people in person, but it’s still been a blessing, and has led to plans for that surprisingly cliched of nerdy activities 2020 – a Christmas DnD session, DMed by yours truly, in which we will discover that rules be but guidelines, and swinging on the chandeliers is 100% allowed.
I guess as cycling has already come up, it’s worth mentioning that blimey Hampstead Heath is uphill. It’s not even a monster-killer uphill, except for the last few hundred metres around the station. It’s just a steady grind of upness from door-to-heath that I barely noticed as a walker, and as a cyclist oh boy did I feel. On the way back I had this naive illusion I’d just free-wheel all the way home, but no, the wind struck up and the rain fell and blimey, my thighs. I absolutely, it turns out, have thighs. Damnit.
That said, cycling has been a joy, opening up whole swathes of London. I am never going to be a speedy sporty cyclist type. But access to places that were otherwise a bit beyond my range has been a glorious, welcome gift.
I have also kept up with the running with all the pools closed, and 2020 has been the year in which I finally ran a half marathon – partly out of spite. I had signed up to the Hackney Half at the end of 2019 and trained for it all winter. I ran through Storm Clara, Storm Ciara, Storm Clare, Storm Caitlin – it all blurred after a while, but basically, there were a lot of long, cold, wet runs and it was rubbish. Then the half got postponed until 2021 (correctly) and I found myself in March standing in my running shoes without a sense of purpose.
Fine, I figured, resentment writ large across my mug. I’ll do a half anyway. That’ll show winter!
I ran it – well, jogged – well… it was accomplished – at the end of August, finishing by Tower Bridge, smug as anything. I’m still running now, and will be doing the Hackney Half (touch wood) in 2021, but honestly I mostly run for emotional catharsis. I’m pretty poor at knowing what I feel most of the time, but when running I generally get a hint of my own emotional landscape, and that is incredibly valuable. Equally I know people who’ve started running as an act of self-kindness, alloting themselves a bit of time that is just theirs, free of any responsibility save to themselves. That is certainly how I run, and will never be particularly speedy or care about personal bests. I run to be ok, and that is more than enough.
Domestically, I am now old enough that the NHS informs me I should also do ‘strength training’, and as my days of lifting heavy lights are largely behind me, I guess the NHS has a point. At the start of lockdown I used an app and did 30-45 minute home sessions of planks and push ups and squats and stuff that you’re meant to do, and my god it was dull. Dull dull dull. Now I do 15-minute sessions more regularly, and have got better at working out what I might enjoy on the day I do it rather than being ruthless (and unhappy) with my schedule. Some days that means a bit of yoga – my calves are in a perpetual battle between long runs and downward facing dog – some days that’s just working through a series of exercises like the dreaded push-up (which I can barely do, and have no ambitions to be able to do in a hench way whatsoever) – and some days it’s more fun, following kickboxing or boxing-style workouts online, which scratches a little of the itch left by the absence of martial arts during this time.
Well, I’m never going to be able to do anything impressive with my strength at all in the world ever. My only ambition is to not grow old in pain, and I’m working on that; and maybe, to a tiny degree, to remind myself that it’s again ok to take a bit of time out of the day to look after myself physically, ‘cos I guess I’m worth it after all? Perhaps? Maybe…?
Self-care, meditation, brushing my damn teeth
So I’ve bundled a tonne of stuff together here, because the famous words “self-care” mean a lot of different things to different people.
On days when I’m writing, and really into it, it means physically having to set an alarm to remind myself that I haven’t brushed my teeth yet. If I then brush my teeth and take a moment to wash my face before going back to the keyboard, frankly, I’ll take it. It is enough.
On other days, it means making a conscious decision that today, I’m gonna look after myself. I really struggle if I don’t have structure or a plan for a day, and 2020 has absolutely gutted the normal patterns of behaviour I’d rely on. I know people who can live spontaneously. I’m not one of them. But making the conscious decision to allot time in the week not just for work but for actually looking after myself has been a big intellectual leap – one I still struggle with in a classically Protestant-work-ethic-cultural-shame kinda way that needs to go jump in the dump. It has also required recognising that when I write, I’m not usually aware of the fact I am writing. I don’t experience the written word as sentences or structure, but as a story that comes and goes. When I stop it can be hard to mentally process that I’ve done any work at all, and this bad habit has lead to comically dire consequences in the past. I am now actively trying to take note of how much I’ve worked, and accept that sometimes it’s ok to stop. It’s ok to chill the crap out. Chilling the crap out is still hard. But even if I still struggle with enough self-respect to do it just for myself, I do accept that it makes it easier to work better, later on.
Meditation falls into the self-care bucket too. A lot of people talk about meditation as a panacea. It is not. I do not do it because I expect magic. I do it because it is an act of stopping and chilling the crap out, and that’s an important habit for me. I also do it because ultimately, a lot of modern meditation comes from a lot of Buddhism, and Buddhism has some fairly on-point stuff about the nature of compassion and story and truth that I dig (in an atheist way) and which I personally find a useful framework for my life.
One genuinely fantastic thing that has come out 2020 is this: when I was 10 years old, I was diagnosed with what was then called Kosten’s syndrome, and is now known as TMJ – an acronym for basically having a jaw that is a bit meh. The result of this is that for 24 years, my face has hurt. Most days it hurts 2/10, a thing I’m aware of but is fine. Some days it rises to 8/10 at which point painkillers and heat can’t do anything for it, and you just have to wait for the pain to abate of its own accord, usually after 8-10 hours. In 1996 the doctor’s attitude was to apply hot water bottles and muscle through, and as a kid you accept that. In 2020, fired up and inspired by the notion that maybe looking after yourself was an ok notion, I contacted a physio.
Oh Jerome the Physio, Blessed Saint of the NHS Whittington Trust. I could write a sonnet in his praise. It’s not just that he’s given me a bundle of exercises to do – which thus far show some cautious signs of working – it was that he took my pain seriously. I feel almost weepy writing it now. After 24 years of ‘muscling through’ constant and sometimes debilitating pain, to have someone look you in the (digital) eye and say ‘ok, we are going to try and fix this’ is revelatory. It felt like leaving a cult of being-in-pain-is-fine and breathing free air at last.
I don’t know how these exercises are gonna pan out long term. But the seemingly obvious revelation that being in pain is Not Cool, is in many ways 2020’s biggest blessing upon my life.
Music, podcasts and silence
On an extension of the whole meditation thing… I’ve been trying to get a bit better at being quiet at home.
A few years ago I had a downstairs neighbour who believed I was drilling holes through the floor to spy on him. He started threatening and harrassing me, eventually resulting in the police and courts getting involved. I thought I was coping well, but it wasn’t until I left that environment that I realised just how much I had been living in fear. Could I have taken him in a fight? Maybe. Is it cool to expect every minute of every day to be attacked? Turns out the answer is a resounding no. Astonishing, the human capacity to adapt and internalise. We do what we need to do to our own neural architecture to survive. Astonishing also how blissful it is to let go, move on, and finally turn down the fear.
Anyway, one of the ways I coped with my anxiety at the time was by always having some sort of sound keeping me company – usually podcasts – which I listened to on headphones while tip-toeing around for fear of arousing my neighbour’s wrath. Years later, I am trying to get a little better at things being quiet. At undoing some of the damage all those years caused to my peace of mind from those years lived scared. It’s tricky, but worth it, I suspect.
And when not doing that? As well as my well-documented adoration of podcasts, I have been listening to music.
As a gigging LD, I had the privilege of every week going to gigs. Hell, being paid to go to gigs! Some of them were to my taste, some of them weren’t, but it meant I never lacked for music. Now that gigs are out, I have been re-discovering the joy of music on my own terms, and trying to learn what I actually love, when I’m not being presented with a band to light every other afternoon. It’s been an adventure – one almost entirely fuelled by BBC Sounds – and a pleasing counterpoint to the quiet I’m also trying to learn.
Reading and magazines
At the start of lockdown I found it hard to read long books. My brain just wasn’t into it. I am now slowly resurrecting the art, not least through having created a squishy reading corner complete with rocking chair that I can sit comfortably in for hours. However, even with the mind going full tilt, I still wanted some of the quieter, slower stimulation that reading brings. Enter the local library’s E-catalogue, which has been a godsend, in particular their impressive collection of magazines. It’s been gratifying too how over the last 8 months more and more magazines have started talking about diversity, mental health and sustainability. Global crisis: I thank you. Sort of. A bit.
Runner’s World has been a staple. I tend to only skim the articles about Very Hench People Doing Very Hench Things, but the tips and the receipes have been very welcome over the summer, and I have some serious wanderlust that has led me to looking at the pages about races I might be able to do in other places with greedy eyes. Do you remember other places? When your maximum operational radius is defined by a combo of cheap bicycle + cheaper thighs, it’s remarkable how appealing the idea of running 13.1 miles through a swamp becomes.
BBC History and BBC Science magazines have also been a godsend – factual dollops for a squelchy brain, as have the BBC Food magazines, given that I’m trying to eat more vegetables and less meat for the climate, and still don’t know what you’re meant to do with an aubergine.
Then there’s the design magazines. I love interior design and like many people locked in their flat these past few months, have done a tonne of DIY. This is because a) it’s been on the to-do-list forever, b) I’m locked indoors so may as well make indoors lovely and c) let’s not kid ourselves, doing DIY feels a lot like having agency. I see a wall. I paint the wall. I AM QUEEN. However, thrilling as this is, I read these magazines to get ideas about how to make my small domestic space work better, rather than because I aspire to a farmhouse in Tuscany or Farrow and Ball walls painted grey with a hint of grey and slung with a tasteful bit of driftwood painted grey for authenticity. So fairly quickly, I started only really looking at the pictures, because the words make me spit.
“Charles and Pruscilla, a young working couple in North London, bought their charming 4-bedroom property for merely £850,000, and then invested another £400,000 in doing up their perfect home. ‘The thing is,” said Pruscilla, ‘we were caught in this property chain and the only way to make sure it didn’t fall through was to buy the flat at the bottom of the chain too!’ Having extended their kitchen with bespoke steel doors into their generously proportioned garden complete with fire pit and summer decking, the stripped-back minimalist inspired feel was touched off by this hand-
carved monochrome monolith made of moon rock. You can shop the look with this rustic, marble-topped bedside table starting at only £4500 for an affordable solution to a family home.”
… and that’s why I’ve been playing Sims 4 instead.
I have a love-hate relationship with the Sims. I really like building homes. There’s even a giant moonrock monolith I could put… somewhere… in a house in the Sims… for reasons… having used the cheat codes to solve the impossible sums of money problem first. It’s a scintillating kind of wish fulfilment. The actual playing-characters part? Meh. Not so much. The Sims has had a long and dodgy history of investing in the idea of a kind of American-wealth-lifestyle that I find really quite problematic, complete with very-white barbie doll females, muscle-bound men, swimming pools for all and heteronormative relations. Not to mention a history of putting content behind a high DLC paywell.
However. I have been enjoying the Sims 4, not least because finally the bodies are starting to look human, relationships don’t have to be hench-man-with-skinny-woman and recent content has really lent into cultural diversity and environmentalism in a way that gives my leftie brain all the feels. It is a game I can only do in short bursts, but on a cold winter night when the mind is at rock-bottom, it’s been a blessing.
Other games that have been getting me through include Stellaris, where every time I play it there seems to be another moment of going “oh right, that’s how that works!” and Assassins Creed: Odyssey, which for authorial reasons I’m still not allowed to talk about, I feel practically counts as research. I’ve been playing the Assassins Creed series since before it was cool, and though I prefer stealthy stealth to all this running-around being Spartan, it still holds a place in my heart. Is Assassins Creed II still one of the best games I’ve ever played? Yes. Have I replayed Assassins Creed: Black Flag more times than I can count? Yes. Will I ever get 100% completion on it? No. Because of the sharks and those damn moray eels. They lurk, I tell you. They lurk.
On a theme of digital entertainment, this is a shout-out to the blessing and the godsend that have been the youtube channels OutsideXbox and OutsideXtra. You are the peak nerdy that I have needed, and the DnD podcast has been an extra appreciated bonus. Through them I have also been introduced to Dicebreaker, which has reminded myself and my partner that we own some really lovely two-player games for short bursts of joy on cold nights. Thank you.
What’s that you say? Resilience is best served with purpose? And I’m an environmentalist profoundly worried about the world, who has lost a significant amount of work – and incidentally gained time – through the collapse of the lighting industry? Why hello local Green Party, I will write some more copy for you. I will draft the emails you need to send; I will help out with the website. In fact, with my new-found time, I’ll even become for a little while the kind of lady who cycles to packaging-free shops in hipster Hackney to buy lentils and couscous, reads about volatile-free paint and organises the installation of eco-friendly loft and under-floor insulation for my Mum. Is all of this arguably a manifestation of my desperate desire to have agency and control of my life during this time? Probably. But long-term it’s significantly cheaper and has a lower carbon footprint than getting a puppy.
I feel this section should be here because in blog posts like this there’s usually a bit where people talk about how they’ve been making their own sourdough.
I am still pretty meh at cooking and find it dull. That is all.
I did some at the start of the pandemic. It made me feel smug and like I had agency and was useful and probably helped a few people out a bit in a tiny way. But the organisation I volunteered for mostly wanted people to be generous, thoughtful and supportive with their words down the telephone line, and as mentioned, I am terrible at telephones, and not great at the whole… saying the right thing in a supportive way. “Blimey, that all sounds crap,” have you never heard touted as the socially acceptable response. What I’m good at is going to the shops and picking up incontinence pads for people who are shielding. That is my superpower. I do not know whether it will be needed again in the foreseeable, but when you too want to know about the VAT exemption for the over 65s on the purchase of certain sanitary products, call me.
News & Politics
Wasn’t it nice when Biden won the US election? I mean, I don’t really like Biden and would have prefered Warren or Sanders but still – wasn’t it nice?
However, apart from that, global news has been a stinker and the UK government’s response to… basically everything… has been an essay in corruption, incompetence and gaslighting the nation. Again, with my environmentalist hat on, I feel a moral duty to stay informed. On the other hand, it was getting to the point that whenever my attention wandered I’d just go straight to a news site out of habit – and it never made me happy. I am now attempting to limit that habit. I still check the news every day. And then, consciously and deliberately, I stop. And I think that’s actually made staying sane a lot easier.
You know what else has made staying sane a lot easier? Dialling back how often I check twitter. I was already using an app limiter to ensure I had to work to check it more than once a day. Now that’s dropped to once every few days, and I have got significantly better at not scrolling through the seas of indignation, conspiracy and screaming that is modern social media. And for that, I give thanks.
And that’s it!
That is basically my entire life. Everything that is happening, basically in my world at all, ever. Oh 2020. You’ve been a stinker. But there’s hopes of a vaccine now, and I am starting to look towards 2021 and dreaming of hugs. Hugs! Hugs and maybe a trip to the sea. These things we have lost seem even more precious now, and if nothing else, I hope some of that magic lingers as we maybe, perhaps, move back towards some kind of normality.