As I write this, I wonder whether I have anything at all noteworthy or useful to say. An intention to stay as upbeat as possible has persisted through the month and through this half of the lockdown, although I really am struggling with the extent to which life truly feels like Groundhog Day at the moment, struggling to find the patience for it. It feels like it's cracking me up a little bit, like it is everyone.
What to report when everything is more repetitions of the same? Well, two new plants have entered the household. Joe and Karmala. Karmala flourishes, Joe struggles to get the sunlight he needs, however many manoeuvres around the apartment I take him on. The rescuer in me struggles in watching him suffer, keeps wondering if there’s something else I can do. Perhaps I need to let go a bit, let him find his own way.
Caring is hard work. Hard work but important work. That goes beyond these four walls, of course. I see a hashtag trend on Instagram that I approve of. “Community-care” as a subcategory of “self-care” –and as a step away from the increasing egoism of the aforementioned movement. I like this. If I were an inspiring influencer I would say, now “what are you doing to extend beyond yourself and support the spaces that bring us together which we once so took for granted?” I am not sure that is quite the language an influencer would use, though.
I don’t think I would be a very good influencer. I am far too awkward. Recently I had to listen to my own stupid voice when I was transcribing an interview I did for an article. Who says “I feel you” five thousand times to a computer scientist explaining ‘multi-agent systems’? What’s wrong with me?
What else to report?
What else to report? What else have I discovered helps in such strange times? The usual suspects: gratitude lists and little projects. Trips outdoors whenever there is a sliver of sunlight. I am grateful for my job, that I have work interesting enough I can get lost in, challenging enough that it feels like there’s always something new to learn.
I am grateful for the tiny wins along the way in discovering more and more about this new field I am in. One is that I managed to sneak a cheesy pop culture reference into a complex computer science piece this week. That was ‘fun.’ I report this fully aware of how nerdy it makes me sound.
I always say that learning anything feels like stepping into a forest in which you are quite alone. At first, everything feels so dark and scary, and you can’t find your way. You are fumbling so inelegantly, and –honestly– the only thing keeping you going is the sort of blind faith you have that clarity will eventually come.
So you keep going, moving through this darkness that is at once terrifying as is it electrifying. There is just so much to learn. A whole, completely uncharted territory waiting for your footprints to wander through it. And slowly, through all that bumbling, and faltering, and tripping, and looking like a complete idiot, your eyes start to adjust. Your ears sharpen. Your fingers develop a cleverness to them you never knew they had.
Slowly, this darkness is no longer an unfathomable mesh. It’s gloomy shapes you begin to identify, little pieces in these endless puzzles of knowing. For my part, this is one of my favourite stages on the journey –the first crossing of total unknowing into some form of intelligibility. In language learning, for example, that’s the point where you can listen into a conversation and start knowing what the subject matter is, even if you can’t really follow it. In discovering a new field, or investigating a story, it’s the place where you start being able to join the dots together you wouldn’t have seen before.
In fighting, it’s being able to hold your own and not completely freeze up, in having and holding to a rhythm. In settling into a new city, it’s being able to ride a bike around and know where you’re going. In getting to really know someone, it’s the arrival of that indescribable gravel that comes with letting them get under your skin. And all those strange frictions.
Each journey of course is completely unique, unfolding at its own pace and with its own specific ups and downs. But one thing most have in common, is that –unless they are forced upon us –they only begin in our being brave enough to take that first blind leap into the unknown. Brave enough, and trusting enough in our own capabilities in charting a course through the forest, and being OK with whatever happens to us along the way.
But anyway, it’s now light outside, and honestly, this is all there is to report. BerlIn’s dark and strange winter, they say, is on its way out. Nights are supposedly shortening despite how very long they still feel. Perhaps, then, I should see this experience as its own dark and endless forest, something to keep moving through and moving through and moving through and moving through.
And moving through.
Snow fell on Berlin, the first I’ve seen in seven years. I was grateful for it. Grateful for having adjusted to the cold again, too. This time last year I couldn’t stand it, layered myself up like the Michelin man, made a b-line in whichever room I entered for whatever chair was closest to the radiator. Now something about the cold thrills me a little bit, especially when sucking in air after a tough run that tastes like it’s descended from the north.
Snow fell one day after the second of January, the day two friends and I had agreed to complete a circuit of the city that had amounted to 21 kilometres – my first half marathon. Theirs too.
Again, another thing to be grateful for. Having the kind of friends who would agree to do something like that, with almost no notice and with little prior training besides the variations of a much shorter route we repeated week after week in our local park, raking up a commendable mileage during a time in which the possibilities in how we could actually spend our time together had narrowed and narrowed. If it’s true that we are what we repeatedly do, then I’m a runner now. And a relatively good one, despite my short legs.
Of course, like everyone else, I am looking forward to the lifting of the lockdown and the end of the pandemic. Most of all because the spreadsheet of people and organisations in my head that I worry about, all over the world, will, I am assuming, shorten a little bit. I am not worried about myself. The year provided the crisis I personally needed to step into a career and a professional arrangement that has a sense of security, support and optimism my old life always lacked, just as everything from the year before served as a much needed prompt to make a home in the city I always wanted to end up in. I know all of this makes me quite lucky, that these options were available to me, and that what it was that I had to do was determine the door I wanted to open and knock politely but determinately enough until it did.
When you worry a lot, you think quite often about all the bad things that could happen. And you often forget to think about the good things that might sometimes be on the other side. Not necessarily ruin. Sometimes, and in some cases, renewal. I’ve enjoyed being a plant mum. Ernie and Bert –winter plants that grew voluptuously and which I am certain thrived all the better when I placed them next to each other (a gesture that perhaps speaks to my own social distancing blues) –have been joined by a set of daffodil bulbs to help mark spring’s gradual onset.
The streets on the day of the half marathon were relatively empty. It was a nice way to see the city, especially with the added variable of an absence of tourists. And I had a fresh and nice feeling one rarely has at the beginning of a new year: “This is exactly where I want to be. This is exactly how I want to feel.” It’s been a very strange year to return to Berlin, but not a wholly bad one, for me.
There has been something in the narrowness in possibility that has felt quite calming and comforting, especially knowing that it isn’t going to last forever, and having these rituals and routines to which I’ve grown quite attached. Like the beautiful park I see at least three times a week, with a lovely hill that comes especially into its own at sunrise and as your indefatigable training buddy powers ahead of you.
Sometimes this year makes me think about my first in China, in a third tier city in the middle of nowhere that proffered the most intense feelings of culture shock that I’ve ever had. It was quite a difficult adjustment. Actually, I was surprised by how difficult it was. You walked the streets with constant dread (albeit of getting mowed down by a motorcyclist, not contracting the horrible flu that shut down the world), you spent a large portion of your time feeling confused and frustrated, and entertainment-wise, certainly. Well, Toto– we were far from London.
I think we accumulated the most time sitting on a large rock outside a small shop owned by friends we could barely talk to, but who we liked very much, whiling away the hours drinking beers, chain smoking terrifyingly cheap Chinese cigarettes and chucking peanuts shells on the ground. Initially, I worried about making a mess with my peanut shells, but soon learnt that this was what everyone did, this little behaviour showed that I belonged. So I took pleasure in it. I even developed a taste for rice wine.
Sometimes, someone’s very cute toddler would be plonked on your lap, which would be an interesting variation of an evening. At other times, someone would walk past, first rest their eyes on your friend. And then on you, and say, in Chinese. “A foreigner! No… TWO FOREIGNERS.” And then move along. That Christmas there was one of the nicest I’ve had. A shopkeeper’s dog had just had puppies.
Anyway, when I look back on 2020, I think I’ll feel about our weekly running route the way I think about that large rock we always sat on in Foshan.
Da Capo al Fine
I haven’t got nearly as much reading done as I’d imagined I would, but I did finally get around to finishing Jane Eyre –a book I wouldn’t have been caught dead with a couple of years ago, but which –paired with Gloria Steinem’s chapter in her book on self-esteem, has proffered welcome insights. And I love Jane Eyre’s sass.
Other developments that might not otherwise have transpired include a renewed patience for flute practise, and a sense that I am getting close to sounding almost like did when I was sixteen and took it quite seriously –to the point where playing stopped being at all fun and just became another instrument for self-admonishment.
When I picked it up again a couple of years ago, promising myself to focus on the pleasure of it and not turn into that scale-gunning ogre I was, it was nice, though I was disappointed in how much skill I’d lost, the amateur-ness of my sound. The solution has, of course, come, in making space for both. The pain of endless and at times infuriating and crazy-making repetitions. (A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat –sorry neighbours – A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat .A sharp to E flat .A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat.) And the pleasure of a piece you can play well as a result of all that pain.
I have been teaching myself some new pieces, but actually the ones I like playing the most are the ones that most challenged me as a teenager. I still can’t get through Danse de La Chevre without making at least one mistake. Those arpeggios are mental.
And you’d think, having played them hundreds of times, that they’d bore me. But they don’t, really. That is the whole point of classical music performance. You go through each repetition seeking mastery and perfection, and each time bring in something special and unique to a moment unlike any other. And it can be nice, even if what transpires isn’t exactly what you thought you wanted.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.