A great triumph of science entered my bloodstream last week, an event that involved the bizarre, post-apocalyptic experience of entering an ice-skating stadium turned makeshift vaccination centre and being told off for taking photos of men in army suits.
‘It’s a historic moment,’ I told the nurse who stood over my shoulder and made sure I’d deleted each one.
I was surprised by the extent to which my body reacted, its weakness, and the strange fever that followed the night of the vaccination, in which I’d dreamt of my brother strangling me. It’s one of my most recurrent nightmares, but this time had the twist that I’d fought back.
I’d had assignments that week -- interesting ones -- and was annoyed by the slowness of my mind, worried that attempts to preserve my sanity through lockdown had dulled the critical faculties I need to perform well professionally. Sometimes, it feels like when you turn a light on too bright you don’t notice the cobwebs you’re supposed to as a half decent journalist.
I ask myself the question - In making concerted efforts to be happy, had I turned my back on my own intellect -- and at what cost? And where’s the middle ground between living a life of joy, and a life of purpose?
I’ve been making concerted efforts to follow and scrutinise the news again, properly, and in German, writing out each unfamiliar word as I used to, back at university when the fear of blowing up my brain had no hold over me, when everything was a frenzy of learning, and where everyone was unapologetic in their love of knowledge, complexity and of depth.
And more than willing to put up with the discomforts that came with that sort of cognitive stretching and scrutiny.
But now I’m romanticising a time that was also really challenging, and an environment against which I’d actively rebelled sometimes, too.
Seems like wherever I am, I find a way not to fit. But maybe that’s just where I’m meant to be.
P.S. I'm towards the end of Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, and it's literally the best thing I've read in five thousand years. Highly recommended.
And just like that, life sprung open again.
After all this waiting, these months and months of waiting.
Of checking news too frequently and then too infrequently. Of whittling friendship circles down to a skeleton that magnifies flaws into monstrosities. Of staring at quasi-strangers turned space cadet friends through screens and having your own stupid face glare back at you. Of getting a little bit excited because you struck up a conversation with someone you didn’t know for five minutes, and stretched a little bit at the ever-narrowing contours of the first world COVID-19 experience. Of telling yourself to be grateful but not being able to feel all that grateful. Of rotating solitary hobbies and self-care strategies around enough times to want to throw every stupid creative thing you’ve tinkered with out of the window. Of having gone so far into your own head you’ve come out the other side with an intricate cartographical research study on every single demon that has taken up residence there and refuses to budge despite whatever self-love mantra you spew at it sat cross-legged on your meditation mat trying to feel pleased with yourself for taking the time for yourself when all it is you’ve been doing really is spending time with yourself.
I almost feel caught off guard, by the end of the lockdown as by the arrival of summer and the complete change in tune the city takes when the sun’s out in full force and everyone is sweaty and half-naked and off somewhere to do something fun or hoard all the vaccine appointments to auction off in some kind of hunger games-style contest. It’s actually all very pleasant, and if I could get my brain out of its lockdown habit of taking every thought for five thousand spins then we might possibly be able to assign the word ‘joy’ - or something approaching it - to my current emotional state, a joy that’s worth stretching at its contours to see how far it can go. Sometimes, people smile at me and I don’t really know what to do with that information.
I have two more months of this journalism fellowship, and have finally written something I feel happy taking ownership for, about how modern day journalism makes journalists crazy, looking at the macho culture that plays a part in this. I found myself grilled the other day in a seminar by a German journalist wanting to know my prognosis for the state of the U.K. post-Brexit and in view of what’s going on in Ireland and how I think this will all play out ten years from now. I shrugged and said I had no idea. Ten years is a super long time, we could squeeze in five more pandemics. He looked extremely disappointed but went on to ask my opinion of the German media from the perspective of a British journalist, which is always a weird thing to be described of as - given that I haven’t been to the U.K. in eight years and just get annoyed thinking about the politics there.
But I said what I have a couple of times. It seems to be a lot of hand-on-hip opinion pieces, not very much fact-based investigative stuff, and a lot of agenda-peddling. And that that’s because that’s what readers seem to want. Someone to help them sound clever and aggravated about something, with their hands on their hips. Because that’s what they are willing to not even pay for. But anyway. Bit rich coming from me, obviously. As my former writing partner said, all I really do when given free reign to write is muse about things.
But anyway, I think the point I was trying to make is that a year of sitting around stuck in a head that already likes to go on overdrive about all sorts of nonsense was not ideal, and that coming out of that state will have its own trickiness. But I’m hoping that there will be a time where I’ll have a clear vantage point of the silverlinings from the experience.
But for now, there are some words I found scrawled in a journal from that strange final year in Hong Kong that seem to apply here:
This is a complex space, and there’s a fragile happiness to it.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.