Good things happening to good people, and memories of Beijing.
One more revolution around the sun. The rats marked the occasion by sneaking into my chest of drawers and leaving a pile of dried cranberries in one of my bras.
The freedom-loving rat mom in me is slowly becoming replaced by a more sobre version hankering after not only a semblance of order but also some modicum of respect. This is especially the case given the troubling new habit of Kotti’s to climb up onto my lap when I am working and pee on me. I am assuming this is a gesture of dominance. I am not OK with it.
Suddenly my mother’s frustrations with raising me feel a bit more justified. “You just never did what you were told. I would tell you to do something and you’d just do the exact opposite. Every time”.
Maybe, in a past life, I was actually a rat and this whole experience is the real homecoming I was after all along. Maybe, overidentifying with rats is some new regressive activity of mine that I should work on keeping in check. Who knows. *pees on keyboard*.
Ronja of Sandessjoen
Two major, wonderful things happened this week. One of my favourite people in the world finally got into grad school after years of trying, and my niece was born in a tiny town in the northern Norwegian wilderness. So it’s been a great week, despite the rat-agro (ragro?). Oh, and the fact that my mother got harassed by a rampaging black grouse that ambushed her and which she had to beat away with a stick. I have promised that on my return to Trondheim, she will be avenged.
I would tell you more about my niece, Ronja, but I don’t really know her yet. From the photos I see that she is very small and that her skin has a rubbery, pinkish-white texture to it.
She has been named after an adventurous Astrid Lindgren character in a coming-of-age story about a girl raised by a family of thieves. Ronja Rövardotter ventures into the troll-addled wilderness and thereby discovers her own way and her own moral code. The VHS my brother and I watched terrified us when we were little, in a way that was quite instructive.
Now, on mountain hikes (and by hikes I mean actual hikes -- not whatever it is citydwellers say they do when they find a country trail and a handful of trees) -- I always know to watch out for troublesome roots that might have a family of elves living underneath them. I also check overhead for rolling trolls and by that I mean rolling boulders.
Ronja’s own education will be just on her doorstep. Her only neighbour will be a roaming elk, her best friend a little black cat with gawking yellow eyes. Seven white peaks will make up her skyline and the air she breathes will always taste faintly of seaweed and pine trees.
Hoedowns in Beijing
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in dusty and sweltering Houston, my best friend received a phone call she’d been dreaming of for years. She then called me up, at 1am here. I was glad to pick the phone to what turned out to be great news, not a catastrophe. I texted her the next day with the line “Marathon Maria always makes it to her finish line”.
I’ve known Marathon Maria for just over a decade now. We couldn’t be more different, and more alike. She’s the strongest and kindest person I know. She also kind of looks like Eva Mendes, and says things like “yoga every damn day” but will headbutt a can of beer to open it if appropriately goaded.
She grew up helping her mum sell snow cones and clean houses in her free time. Two years ago, while working with the US census department in running door-to-door surveys in Houston’s Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, she had a gun pulled on her.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I said ‘Sir, put your gun down’. And he did,” she replied.
We met in Beijing as part of the same cohort of booze-addled English teachers in a city that felt a little bit like a Wild West to us, all the more so because its watering holes most often served up a “fake” alcohol that went to your head a bit quicker and more aggressively than the real stuff.
It was the year Xi Jinping rose to power. A strange year to be surrounded by a bunch of people who just wanted to party and capitalise on their native-English-speaker privilege as anti-foreigner rhetoric bubbled in the background.
I would join in on the fun and come home to my little place in Andingmen hutong to write at times despondent and at times acerbic notes in my journal. I would also write for a magazine about bars and gigs and even ended up interviewing a friend of a friend who turned out to have a disturbing Hitler-fetish. That story got me into J-school.
Notes from my journal:
We have our own frat boys. As suspected, the group is a little bit too American to function. Funny how old school inclinations resurface when cliques start to form. “He noticed me!” ffs. Fleeting though, and followed by feeling repulsed by myself. Will be living by myself. Maybe I’ll finally start writing more. Maybe I’ll become a hermit in a cloak. Hermits look good in cloaks.
Westerners overheard in a hutong cafe:
“Do you think we’re, like, obliged to do things for people we don’t know? What about people we do know? What about ourselves?”
Phantom nosebleeds and the Beijing shakes. City sprawls like Guangzhou. Girl crying in front of McDonalds.
Elegant, swish, black and white floor
Gin+tonic 35, shisha pipes
Soul music/ house
Not overly Xmas decorated.
Modest dance floor, bronze pillars
Justin Bieber/ catwalks on 2 flatscreen TV
Coaster: “sealing your memories here”
Lone wolf makes a lifelong friend
As a hangover from the obsession with Decadence poetry that had marked my final year at Oxford, I was reading a lot of woozy depressing stuff by a writer called Remy de Gourmont, chain smoking and finding black goo in my nose from all the smog. None of this was very healthy.
Maria was the quiet one in our cohort. Everyone else was so loud and eager to draw attention to themselves. She’d watch us all with the steady eyes of a cat. And, cheesy as it sounds, some people just have a really strong aura of love about them. She is one of those people.
She got into a tight spot when her roommate failed to cough up her side of the deposit they needed for their flat, having already contributed her share. She lost that deposit. I offered to put her up in my studio for as long as she needed, reiterating the point enough times that a person like her, i.e. quite proud and unwilling to accept help even when it’s really needed, couldn’t really say no.
She ended up staying for a month, and we’ve been fiercely loyal to each other ever since. She’d come with me on my lone nightlife writing expeditions and have these funny and fresh quips that would help neutralise my always teetering on pompous prose. She’d talk me down from the panics I’d sometimes get when I’d drunk too much of the ethanol-cut stuff and had wound up sitting in the corner of a club scribbling manically into a notebook.
And a couple years after we’d both left Beijing and had reunited for a holiday in Bali, she threatened to throw my laptop in the swimming pool while I was editing something during what was basically my first holiday in three years.
“Stop worrying about your career and sort your life out,” she said. My arms and legs, at the time, were pockmarked with hundreds of inflamed mosquito bite scars that refused to heal that I could never be bothered to get checked out, and my brain was so fried I could barely tell my left from my right. I was doing good work, but she was right, everything else was in tatters.
Our friendship, which has unfolded more on Facebook Messenger and now Whatsapp than face-to-face, grew even stronger through the pandemic, where the unconditional rooting for one another through all the stagnation and uncertainty has provided us both a lifeline. The thing that always astonishes and inspires me about her is her resilience and chipperness in the face of some really unfair odds. I’ve witnessed her apply and reapply, growing more disheartened with every year, but never giving up.
I honestly can’t think of anyone else in this world who deserves to make it to their finish line other than Marathon Maria. I hope she rules the world someday.
P.S. Maria has run at least four marathons.
Our writer remembers her Oxford University years, and the friendship, trauma and lessons that defined them.
The other night I’d dreamt I was lost inside the roots of a tree so large an old friend of mine had made a home of it. And while she was nowhere to be found, mutual friends of ours were lost in there, too, listening out for a voice that proved impossible to follow. In my wanderings, I came upon a pile of her clothes, tried each on for size before stripping off.
My brilliant friend is short like me and in the time I remember being close to her, took painstaking care in dressing for it. She'd pull haphazardly from a pile of clothes that swamped the floor of her room a building opposite mine at university, trying not to knock over the paper cup of black coffee teetering not far from that pile near a separate pile of papers she’d scribbled all over in red pen.
We became friends quickly, in that first-week-rush of tribe-finding undergrads are told to relish but which most find nerve-wracking and exhausting and during which I’d spent drunk enough to feel permanently likeable. Her sardonic wit had charmed me instantly, and I left her very little choice but to be my friend, inserting myself into her life and the circle she orbited. They were a group of equally sarcastic smokers that congregated outside the library attached to our college. That library was housed in what counts as one of Oxford’s oldest deconsecrated churches, where we stood, smoked and postured among gravestones of bodies exhumed well before our time there.
There’s a saying, a very old-fashioned one, thankfully, that a woman applies to study at Oxford with the aim of accomplishing one of three goals. A first, a blue (that is, an athletic award), or finding a husband.
From day one, it was quite clear that my brilliant friend was unabashedly gunning for academic excellence, which she went on to achieve -- and then some. A talented and published philosopher, who has spent her career moving between Oxford and Cambridge, she’s remained at the top of her game, and, speaking selfishly, continues to set this benchmark of excellence I know I’ll never reach however hard I apply myself to this subconscious project of playing catch up with a mind that continues to dazzle me.
Ambition and its opposite
If my brilliant friend had her sights set on that first, I entered Oxford with no idea of what I wanted to get out of the experience. She applied with the dream of finally finding friends with whom she could discuss Keats. My own application had far less erudite motives.
My brother had earned a place a year before me, and by some fluke that had stumped everyone involved, my grades had matched his -- so applying seemed worth a shot. We’d moved a lot growing up, so he had always been the most consistent, closest figure in my life. It made sense, in a way, to follow him.
I’d applied to read joint honours in German and English, having had to dispense with the dream of studying art when I floated the idea with my father, who suggested I might as well start working at supermarkets straight away to avoid the pointless expense.
A fading table
Studying a literature-heavy degree with a language as solid and respectable as German seemed like a viable compromise, and, during the interview process, I had the fortune of meeting my professor Chris, who had a glorious white mostache, and is one of the nicest and most encouraging people I’ve ever met.
A medievalist approaching retirement, his cleverness came from a place of gracious curiosity, and being interviewed by him was one of the nicest experiences I’d ever had. It felt like there was someone inside me he’d woken up and invited to sit at a table I didn’t know I had a place at.
The story goes that I hadn’t impressed the English department all that much, especially given the lukewarm references my teachers had sent in. But that Chris was willing to pull whatever strings were available to him within the modern languages department, to get me a place at the university.
I should have been pleased, but all I heard during that conversation was that I had been rejected, that that place at that table had disappeared. I retaliated by turning the offer down, convincing myself that I hadn’t actually wanted to go and that the promise of four years of partying at a ‘normal’ university was far more enticing anyway.
Some time passed, and I changed my mind. Milan Kundera was my favourite author at the time, so joining the university’s tiny and mad Czech department in lieu of its famously old-fashioned English one didn’t seem too much of a sacrifice, even though the language itself proved ridiculously complex. Chris responded warmly to the decision with a letter I wish I’d clung on to.
He wrote about how that library that was once a church had in the 14th century served as centre for followers of religious reformist John Wycliffe. Wycliffe had had strong ties with Bohemia’s Jan Hus -- a key predecessor to the protestant movement, who met an especially nasty end in Lake Constanze when he had been falsely promised safe passage by the head of the Holy Roman Empire, who instead branded him a heretic and burned him at the stake. ‘Wycliffe and Hus were rebels, like you. So I think you’ll be in good company,’ Chris wrote.
On my arrival, we met and he said another nice, Cheshire-cat like thing: ‘You’ll feel like you don’t belong here, and that’s because you do.’
Friendship and aspiration
Oxford’s own C.S. Lewis has a quote about friendship that is quite overused now: ‘Friendship is born at the moment one (wo)man says to another ‘what! You too? I thought no one but myself..’
For that first year at that university, there was no one in this world I thought understood me better than my brilliant friend, no one who completed my sentences as cleverly. No one could leave me in stitches as she could. No one knew how to so elegantly stick a metaphorical middle finger up at anyone whose argument didn’t fall in line with hers. No one could so engagingly articulate a vision about how the world should be such that any other possibility would fade from view. Her thoughts flowed like a powerful river whose water was crystal clear. Mine felt, by comparison, a stagnant, muddied pool. ‘I don’t need my journals anymore,’ I told her, once. ‘I have you’.
In later years, in one of the many long and agonised phone calls we’d have in which we’d pick apart the emotions, the motives and wider meaning of everything we did and everything that was done to us -- she, always, with more astute observations than mine -- she pointed out my bad habit of hero-worshipping as a way of bypassing responsibility. I’d complained of heartbreak wrought by a journalist whose work, swagger and professional stature I’d envied. I’d idolised him - and fabricated a connection - to the point that the person he was in my head resembled nothing of the person he actually was, an infatuation as silly and egotistical as it was a distraction from the real task that lay in front of me: that of establishing my own career.
‘You’ve attributed to him qualities you deny in yourself,’ she said, with her trademark mic drop. ‘It’s the sort of thing women do all the time.’
Words on belonging
Chris’ words on belonging only made sense on reflection and in hindsight. Of course I felt like I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t like any of my peers. I didn’t work as hard as they did because I didn’t care as much as they did, so of course I couldn’t contribute with the effortless confidence they all had, with their glow of intellectual brilliance.
I’d arrived through a back door, buoyed by a series of episodes of great luck - the mysteriously good grades, and having happened to have been taken a liking to by Chris (and Ray, and Wes, ...and Jim). Being on the course itself, in those surroundings, was a reckoning and a challenge that I wasn’t, for a whole tome of reasons, prepared to take on, and which I pushed back against with an apathy I still sometimes think about with regret.
I masked my insecurity in a party girl persona that gave me one thing to have over these swotty (albeit still pretty ‘rad’) nerds, boasted about the desperately cool raves I’d go to with my London friends, made my room available to anyone who wanted to show up after night outs, wasted and obnoxious enough to carry on debates on topics I had never read enough books about to warrant my inclusion.
But as Chris had implied, this quality I had that made me feel so anxious about where my thoughts came from and whether they were correct. This insecure, questioning quality is what tied me most to my peers, a quality that can turn you so far into your own head sometimes it takes you everywhere and nowhere at all. Maybe.
Chris’ words also recall the popular aphorism; ‘don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.’
On Kleist and fragility
Come second year I would start to find something of my intellectual stride. The joy I’d once had in writing had evaporated in first year, in which every essay I wrote read like someone trying and failing horribly to parrot the confidence and the language of the authors of the secondary literature we were tasked to pick apart as if we were cleverer than all of them. My writing was so bad, I even had one tutor ask me, in the nicest possible way, whether my heritage made me struggle with English.
I told my friend this and we had a good laugh, and she joked about my being a ‘foreign child’ in a way that I think she’d now be horrified by, especially given how hard both my parents had worked to be assimilated into British life.
My writing began to improve after a eureka moment I had late one night trying to read a piece of student journalism reviewing the Alien films that was so obscure and obfuscating and bewildering that it said nothing. I think I read it three times before arriving at the conclusion, that maybe, just maybe, sometimes -- if I didn’t understand what I was reading, it wasn’t because I was stupid, it was because what I was reading was badly written.
I applied that new insight to my own work, strove to simplify as opposed to obscure, and found the stirrings of a voice that could express itself well enough in this world. I started actually enjoying the essay writing process. My friend and I, we’d write side by side in last-minute all-nighter sprints in which we’d take breaks to read passages to each other, or else run to the kitchen and complete the writers-block-busting ritual we created together which involved hopping around playing air violin to The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Honestly, these are some of my fondest memories of my time at Oxford.
So things I think were going kind of OK until my life turned upside down. That is, when, one day, I think it was a Wednesday, I was drafting an essay in my head about feminism and folklore in 19th century Czech literature when I was mowed down by a car that accelerated into me. My body was fine, but my face.
Well, the impact was great enough that I’d lost my two front teeth and fractured my jaw, injuries which took two years of complex, painful and expensive surgeries to fix, which certainly wasn’t the easiest situation to juggle alongside an Oxford degree that had already challenged me. The driver shouted ‘dumb bitch,’ left me bleeding in the middle of the road, and sped off.
Luckily a small crowd had formed and taken care of me. The driver returned I think some moments later, having realised that someone would have noted down his number plate. He came up to me and explained that he’d intended to brake when he saw me crossing the road, but had accidentally put his foot on the gas. I apologised and claimed all fault, which he of course quoted in the paperwork he filled out when my Dad filed a lawsuit against him.
Sometimes, when randomly bad things happen to us, we blame ourselves because it helps us restore the sense of control we lose during a traumatic experience.
At the time I got quite into a German playwright called Heinrich von Kleist. He was one of the two German authors I specialised in for my finals (the other being Günter Grass). Kleist enjoyed a revival in the 70s onwards, having spent the majority of his career in the late 18th and early 19th centuries feeling like a failure. As far as I can remember, German literature’s golden boy, Goethe, was especially dismissive of him (although I’m having a little Google now and it seems like they were both as bitchy as each other).
Anyway, Kleist wrote a number of plays, but his short stories are especially good. There’s an expression around which a lot of his thinking and works orbit, that of the Gebrechlichkeit der Welt, the world as having this fragile property to it we only discover when something about the life we know shatters. His characters are often painted grasping at moral absolutes that end up being their downfall.
A couple of weeks after the accident, I told my friend that I felt I had become too fragile. She picked up a glass and said: ‘This glass is just as fragile now as if I had dropped and broken it. The fact that it is fragile does not change whether or not I break it.’
What was she saying? That I was brittle, like that glass, and had broken? An accurate assessment, actually. But not what I needed to hear at the time.
Beginnings and endings
As I stepped into a dark tunnel whose end I was very uncertain about - my body didn’t take all that well to a lot of treatment, which wasn’t that surprising given how badly I was treating it at the time. But yes, as I was falling apart, my friend fell in love. With my other best friend, of course. Someone I’d nudged her towards, knowing that they were well matched.
I think under other circumstances I would have been happy for her. In fact, I was happy for her, for them both. But then, the closer they got to each other, the more disposable I felt, especially now that the one thing that I had to offer them - I think what my friend had once described as a ‘swashbuckling charm’ - had completely gone. She had also once told me that I was the warmest person she knew. And, well that wasn’t exactly true anymore.
We drifted. She became more and more engrossed in a life beyond the refuge we’d established in one another, with her boyfriend, and her studies, where she was just hitting home run after home run. I fell back on the self-sabotaging and hedonistic habits of my high school years that now had a much more nihilistic flavour to them.
Luckily I was able to get away for a year as part of our course, and being elsewhere helped stop the spiral I was in. I performed quite well in internships despite the fact I spent most of the time talking with my hand in front of my face. I suppose trying to avoid opening my mouth at all costs helped sharpen my writing.
I returned to Oxford for my final year having adapted to the rhythm of term time interspersed by operations. I’d grown closer to the students on my course and different friends from college -- friendships that didn’t have the intensity of connection that my brilliant friend and I shared, but with people who were caring and considerate and special in their own ways.
My friend was studying for her masters, but we rarely saw one another. She showed up at the end of my last exam, and, as per tradition, was part of the group of friends who dowsed me in Champagne and confetti and incited me to jump into the river Cherwell, which of course I did without hesitation, having jumped in it regularly in our first silly years there - before the accident when I was game for most things. She left quickly after the celebrations to join a party of philosophers which I took a glimpse at and which, I’ll admit it (I write this fully aware of how obnoxious and bitter this comment makes me sound), looked pretty lame.
Through that time, I never actually told her how mad I was at her for abandoning me in my darkest hour. It felt like she had broken the oath single women (who aren’t like those women) enter into in which we don’t treat each other as placeholders until the ‘real thing’ comes along.
In Arcadia Ego
My final exam and my final operation behind me, I left abruptly for China, returning two years later to get my journalism masters, much of which was covered by the compensation for the accident. I lived at home, to save money.
I hadn’t really planned to go back to Oxford, but then my Czech tutor Jim passed away and I was invited to his memorial held at my old college. My brilliant friend was working on her PhD at the time, and I reached out to her and she was happy to put me up.
The reunion was lovely, and staying at her place, hanging out with the coterie of postgrad friends she had made and who were kind and curious and welcoming and sat around discussing interesting things with far less pomposity than any of us had while we were undergrads. That made me reflect a little bit on how insecure we all were, how challenged we all felt to perform in a certain way and relative to each other that met the expectations of such a uniquely intimidating environment.
I was also able to observe all the qualities in her that once delighted me. The way her whirling mind meant she often struggled with insomnia she could only assuage in listening to Harry Potter audiotapes. The way, for all her brashness, for the fierce adversarial spirit she has that always made her the most convincing voice in the room, she could be extremely sensitive. Those lame philosophy parties she was always running off to? Well, the prospect of not being invited to just one of them would send her on a spiral of existential despair. The way there were so many things she just couldn’t be bothered to do because they didn’t register as at all important. Like remembering to lock the door when she left the house. Like cleaning dishes.
A few weeks later I was at her doorstep again, this time with a suitcase. I had been offered a job in Hong Kong. I needed a place to stay while I completed my final paper, took my exams, got my thoughts together before abandoning everyone for my new life. And just like that, she slotted into the role I’d always assigned her, that of my saviour.
Light and shadow
eWe’d both grown up a lot all that time in which we’d drifted apart, she especially in the context of herself and her work. After wrestling with institutional biases that had relegated feminist philosophy to a lesser realm, she had a rebellion of her own and is now an important and strident voice in this arena.
For my part, living in China gave me a chance to re-establish myself as capable and independent. After bursting into tears several times trying to navigate the crazy traffic, cars stopped stressing me out so much, and I learnt to flag down taxis with confidence, developed that pushiness you need to get things done over there.
I worked as a teacher alongside a lot of colourful characters from all walks of life. One of them especially left a mark. An ex-alcoholic turned magician from Australia who gave his 120 per cent in every class, creating colourful, wild and thrilling pedagogical experiences that lit up the minds of Chinese students who had up until then conflated learning English with the terror of their high school years.
Thanks to him, I realised that there were many ways to have an impact in this world, not all of them had to involve dazzling your clever friends or professors with a brilliant theory or a gripping read. I also grew out of my habit of instinctively hiding my face, mostly because for a lot of language learners it helps to really see what their teacher is doing with their mouth.
So when my friend and I slotted back into an old friendship, it had a new texture to it. But an intellectual differential persisted. It was like there was a light she could only hold and I could only grasp at.
The last time I saw her in person I was getting on a coach that left for London, where I’d stay one night at her ex-boyfriend (and my best friend)’s place before getting that flight to Hong Kong.
We remained in sporadic touch while I was in Hong Kong, where I started seeing a therapist who helped by holding up that light the way she had. Of course, the whole point of therapy is that you’re taught to hold your own light, but that’s something that still seems like a lot of responsibility to take on, something that a little frightened voice inside keeps telling me people like my brilliant friend are better equipped to hold.
But of course, even the smartest person in the word is not fully capable of understanding the specificities of our lived experiences, nor can we expect them to commit any more than they are willing to offer in trying to.
She ended up in Cambridge for a bit, for her work, and then back to Oxford. Her career was going really well, but I don’t think she was ever capable of taking her success for granted. Whenever she had some kind of application she’d just get so stressed out.
As an outsider looking in, I never understood why. All I’d seen in the entirety of our time together was her getting what she wanted. She fell in love, again, and got married. I missed the wedding. I know I should have gone, but flights were expensive and I had a lot of work on. Besides, part of me worried that she didn’t want me there. That I’d cast a shadow.
We lost touch. I felt she was drifting from me, again, and lashed out to tell her how much her abandonment had hurt in the second year. That blind sighted her. All she had really heard from me until that point was how grateful I was for her friendship, her support, her wisdom. And all I could really think of was this need I had for her guidance, this dependence I had developed on her mind that had grown selfish. I’d given my power to her and was mad at how she couldn’t hold on to it. That had created a structure between us as brittle as that glass.
I’ve apologised since, clarified that in articulating certain hurts I hadn’t forgotten about much she had helped me. Owned up to a thread of victimhood that lived inside me that had made me feel entitled to a level of support that ultimately it was her choice to offer to give. For my own part, I’ve come recognise that maybe she doesn’t have all the answers. Maybe she’s not the perfect fantasy friend. Maybe there’s no one in this world who can tell us what to do with our messy lives. Maybe not all friendships are meant to last.
We’ve remained civil but distant. I still read and admire a lot of what she writes. I still wonder about whether she reads me, what she would say if she scrutinised my work as she did at university, when she’d clean the mud from my sentences with that clarity of thought I don’t think I’ll ever have. I still feel glad that I met her.
Deep beneath the cover of another perfect wonder, where it's so white as snow.
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.
In which the writer makes an inventory of the bruising inflicted during a particularly passionate week of fighting and learning.
Early morning. Birds moving mostly in one direction, brown has overtaken green and leaves jitter. Visually, winter’s approach is palpable. Physically, also. I wear woolen socks my mother knitted. My feet still feel a chill, but it’s fine. The sensation wakes me up, keeps me alert. These are in fact the perfect conditions for writing. Mild, austere discomfort, and quiet. As I take this inventory of subtle hallmarks of a seasonal shift, I notice changes that have occurred in my own body this week, too.
A greater determination and focus has seen me commit more time to the mat, and the ensuing improvements in performance have lead to me taking greater risks, and showing more tenacity and confidence in a fight: Has led to me showing up, in a fight. Working actively, not just reactively. Though my hesitance in committing to a takedown pervades. I continue to opt for the process that has worked time and again: Keeping low, letting my opponent execute the takedown, and allowing my body to do what it often seems to do of its own accord in this particular context, that is, somehow land and flip things around such that I end up having the upper hand.
“You always fall on your feet,” my mother likes to say.
This shift in tenacity and confidence writes itself into my body. My shins, first, are peppered with subtle green and purple bruises, and there’s a cut on my ankle proving that a sparring partner has not abided by the rules and forgotten to clip his nails. These mementos don’t feel all that strange to me; anyone athletic or outdoorsy would have them.
And they remind me of a session we had with my first coach and his motley crew of fighters who were, by the way, some of the loveliest people I’ve ever met, and besides journalists, the best community I’ve found in terms of being able fling this way and that some great zingers. (‘Go read Moby Dick, nerd’ one guy used to shout at me, before demanding I make him a sandwich. Of course, I lined up my own retorts, and fired them in his direction in between rounds. He, a serious gamer turned Muay Thai nut, was a super fun guy, and I really miss him.)
But yeah, this session I was reminded of, in which our coach told us to stand in a circle and commit to a chain of low kicks, going round and round, learning to instinctively twist our thighs around and tense up the muscles as we received the kick. “You just have to build up resistance to getting kicked so you can focus on other things during a fight,” he said. You learn to laugh off the pain and see bruises as essential to the learning process.
The further up my body these bruises go, the stranger I feel about them, the more I feel like they ought to be hidden somehow. What would people think if they saw them: The purple patch around my wrist the size of my palm which speaks to someone’s attempt to get me into an Americana which I resisted by tensing my bicep, sliding my other hand under him, creating leverage, and clinging to that endangered hand as I slivered out from underneath him.
“In this session, would you like to talk about why you like to fight men?” a therapist asked me last year. The answer to that question is, if given a choice (class ratios tend to be 10 per cent women, if that); my optimal opponent is a woman who is just a bit stronger (doesn’t happened all that often, I have to say) and more experienced and knowledgeable than me (happens all the time). This is optimal for learning.
The women I fight with, on the whole, tend to be more communicative and gracious, and the experience of being dominated by one tends to stir fewer complex emotions in me. Although I am getting better and distinguishing between the male opponents who want an interesting and challenging fight, and are helpful and cool, from those that, it seems, really struggle with the idea of being overpowered by a woman, and who can get carried away when that prospect presents itself.
I can feel it, when those emotions come up in them, and something in my body prepares accordingly. I sharpen, and focus, and something within my chest jitters like those winter leaves, almost impalpably. I operate entirely in a defensive mode and play a long game. I try not to tap out in fear, and I try to get the upper hand as and when they start to gas out from all that huffing and puffing. I protect my wrists. Because these are the guys who especially enjoy a nasty wrist lock which disables you quickly with a sharp, searing pain. A cheap shot.
Most importantly, I stay put. I don’t run. And at the end of the round, I shake hands/ bump elbows, and look my opponent steady in the eye.
I’ve been told, by women, that the guys you need to watch out for are the ones who show up having watched a bunch of YouTube videos, eager to fling their weight around. Dedicated guys are not really about that, they say.
“You know, if it was easy, I wouldn’t keep coming back,” said one guy this week, who taught me two new submissions and to whom I admitted struggling with these complex maneuvers. It’s true. If it was easy I wouldn’t keep coming back, either. And I feel exactly the same way about facing a blank page, too. If writing was easy, I don’t I’d do it so much.
There are other bruises, few of them I remember the specific event in which they were inflicted, and which I certainly did not feel as they were inflicted: An ugly and heavy brownish purple one on my arm that has faded surprisingly quickly, and a big annoying purple one on my right elbow that makes itself known every time I attempt to rest on it, and which made me jolt slightly with pain during a meeting in one of those strange moments where the professional persona you have is rudely interrupted by the person you are in your other worlds.
Creep higher up my body still and we have something that has never occurred as a result of my recreational activities before: a little bruise on the side of my chin which I would cover up with concealer if I could be at all bothered with applying make up on a day-to-day basis, and a nearly imperceptible scratch on my left eyelid.
This reminds me of a great line from my first coach when he returned victorious from a fight in preparation for which he had had to cut 10kg of weight in under a month while studying his opponent – a kickboxing brawler-type known for his unpredictability in combat.
“Still pretty,” he said, on his first day back, pointing at a face that was almost blemish-free. In an interview with The New Yorker, Ronda Rousey, MMA’s (now retired) golden girl (whose face is also blemish-free) said that it was the girls who didn’t look like they fought that you had to watch for. They were the ones who were good. The woman who played a part in coaxing me onto the mat with the line; “I can’t wait to see your first KO” - Hong Kong’s first female professional MMA fighter, who quit her high-powered job in management consulting after smashing up too many computers, also didn’t “look” like she had fought.
Some might read the anecdote above as an indication that the person probably most responsible for this strange hobby of mine had anger issues. This simplifies who she is, and what learning to fight does for people like her, people like us. I think some people in this world are racehorses trained to work in pony pens. Intense emotions, like anger, are symptoms of something underlying, something that is wrong, and that needs to change. It’s the lizard brain screaming “enough!” – the part of yourself you learn to talk to, negotiate with, and tame, on the mat in way you don’t get to anywhere else. Not even in a therapist’s chair.
I am not sure I can call myself a racehorse. I believe I am little bit too awkward a person for that label. Racehorses are so suave. But what I am doing is operating within a lane which is quite different from what it’s “supposed” to be, and I think what martial arts is helping me do, is find the courage and the tools to commit to this path. And the result is I have a life I love, bruises and all.
Read more on Sarah's Mixed Martials Arts journey via the links below:
1. Fight Club
2. Lessons from the mat
3. Good and bad algorithms
4. Taming the lizard brain
Read her summary of why she fights, and what cultural value MMA brings in her BIO.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.