13. Each morning you visit the cupboard to fetch the things you need for physiotherapy. If you’re away from home for more than a day or two you take them with you, but otherwise they stay tucked away, out of sight. Some of them you’d have to explain, some are perfectly normal things that you’d find in anyone’s home. You appreciate the adaptability of everyday objects, how you are surrounded by tools such as cushions, shoes, towels.
In her essay, A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light, Sinéad Gleeson describes visiting the V&A to see a Frida Kahlo exhibition of the paraphernalia of her life. Gleeson is poleaxed by a glass case containing her surgical corsets and plaster casts, what she describes as ‘the objects that both helped and constrained her, […] the source and symbol of her suffering.’
At the age of eighteen Kahlo was in an horrific traffic accident. She described how a ‘handrail pierced me as the sword pierces the bull’, going on to endure multiple surgeries including the amputation of one leg at the knee. While incarcerated in a full body cast she painted its surface, guided by a carefully angled mirror. The majority of her art, until her death at the age of forty-seven, was focused on depicting her damaged body. You read how Gleeson sees the exhibition as a stark reality of Kahlo’s endurance, reminded of her own spica cast worn as a child.
You’ve had only one plaster cast in your life, on your left leg after a car accident. For some reason this memory reminds you of the head brace your sister wore as a teenager to straighten her teeth, a thing of straps and wires that was fastened around her head while she slept. You probably made fun of her at the time, so you try to imagine how it would feel to wear such a thing yourself, and you understand the discomfort, shame and possible pain that your sister experienced.
Now, you bring your own paraphernalia out most days:— A white styrofoam roller. A heavy paperback book (Teaching Today, by Geoff Petty, a god amongst your university students). Several tennis balls. Lycra cycling shorts. A t-shirt that covers your shoulders. A tightly rolled towel secured with elastic bands. A red Converse trainer with matching red resistance band tied around its middle.
In the past you have also used bags of sand or rice, aqua-blue massage tools, a massage chair, a yoga mat, a hot water bottle. Your bed is also a tool, and a dining chair, a wall, a floor.
You have only recently understood that you are not your body, you have a body.
You are not your mind, you have a mind.
Your body and mind are tools, just as versatile as the objects that surround you, and all these things can create pain or joy, anxiety or freedom. They can help or constrain you.
And you can decide which it is. All you have to do is rest with the truth of yourself, the self that has freedom of thought, that can choose hope or despair, that asks the questions and listens for the answers.
This is a place you revisit each morning, a pause before you begin your day when you feel both gratitude for the tools you’ve been given and willingness to learn more about them.
You know you will never stop learning about this world that is full to the brim with objects, but full too with the intangible, the unmeasurable, the incomprehensible.
Because as Frida Kahlo said, Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?
12. — The roof of the neighbouring house, moss growing in a green smudge down the slates. Above, a white dove flies across a pale sky.
— A vast open sky, the Nevada desert ahead of us, a ribbon of heat-hazed tarmac taking us to Death Valley as The Velvet Underground plays discordantly through the speakers.
— Your then lover on stage playing the saw, his bow sliding gently through serrated teeth. Some in the audience glance to each other, their eyes asking, Is this real? But this is no aural illusion, the ethereal vibration filling the space as bubbles rise from nowhere to drift above our heads. The magic of this moment is lost on the saw player, he is too deep in the music, the bubbled tent suspended in a moment of held breath.
— A bell tent on top of a cliff with the ocean beyond the grassy field. Each day you clamber over rocks to reach the beach and the unpredictable sea, the tide rushing in one morning to gulp up your bag. A naked man runs through the surf to retrieve it but he can’t save your dress, so you climb back to your tent in your bikini. Later, you imagine a dolphin shimmying through the waves in the dress.
— Identical dresses covered with frills and garish yellow spots, you and your friend crammed into the changing room to laugh at your reflections. You are both university lecturers, but in that moment you are 1980s disco queens.
— The Queen on mugs, plates, tea towels, china thimbles. Your grandmother is a royalist and wears a royal blue shift dress for special occasions. She has black hair until the day she dies, and black hair sprouting from her pale chin.
— Your daughter’s hair shimmering in the sun. At ten years old she has natural honey highlights that you plait into narrow strands so she can see her beach excavations. She comes to you holding up her fingertips where a transparent crab sits patiently as you capture the image in your camera. The framed photograph is a mere lean away as you write this now.
— Many photographs from your recent travels. Last summer in Sicily, the lush Catania courtyard at the heart of the Monastero di San Nicolò l’Arena, your feet aching from a day walking the fevered streets, this gloriously baroque building now home to throngs of university students. You didn’t know then it would be a long time before you’d be surrounded by such enquiring young minds again. You are still waiting.
— Your enquiring mind a never-ending slide show, a multitude of classrooms, previous houses and gardens, holidays and celebrations, open books, journal pages, roads, fields, forests, landscapes, towns and cities, airports, train stations, bus terminals, hotels, Airbnbs, dinners with friends, coffees, cakes, family meals. And now, conversations within the window frame of your mobile phone.
— Your mobile phone a list of the people you love. People you miss and want to hold. They all have their own window of memory and imagination to quicken the day, and you feel glad for this.
11. You have been wearing the same clothes for most of your life, but now they lie torn and tattered across the floor, no longer recognisable as clothes at all. These were the clothes of a mother and a teacher, clothes to keep warm in a draughty cottage, clothes of a certain kind of friend, a certain kind of daughter, lover, sister.
Now you wear only sweat pants and t-shirt, the global clothes of self-isolation, and in your quiet comfort you see clearly what brought you and the world to this precise moment, to this place at this time, although you can’t yet think what this means for tomorrow.
Instead you spend your solitary days thinking of the tattered clothes of others and ways to stitch yourself more firmly to their frayed edges. Anne Lamott suggests ‘…you can start to sew around the quilted squares with the same colour embroidery thread’, and so you do just that, using a dark plum-coloured red to spool from your phone to their phone, a thread of enquiry and dissection, of laughter and bewilderment, of compassion and reassurance. You feel you have unlimited supplies of plum-coloured thread, so you sew every afternoon and most evenings, the stitching together of the disparate squares of your life, a process Lamott describes as ‘grace as an unexpected bond, grace as surprise.’
And now, you look out your window at the houses that surround you, imagining the houses beyond and the houses beyond that, and you see a multitude of threads in a multitude of colours, criss-crossing and shimmering in the freshly washed air of spring, each colour a unifying stitch that sews us into our longed-for future.
10. Anyone who is currently ill, afraid or anxious, whatever the reason, this is for you If you’re experiencing loss, separation or loneliness, whatever the reason, this is for you Anyone who is angry, frustrated or bored, whatever the reason, this is for you
Allow yourself to feel these things, allow yourself to be human then step away, observe, consider
our anxious eyes look to the future, a place we can shape from the present our grief expresses love, fed by memories and thankfulness our helplessness unmoors us, freed to think, to breathe, to give
attention, reflection, insight this is what it means to be human
in chorus to talk and to listen to rest and remember to vibrate and create to reach out and be one
This is what it means to be human and together we are the world
9. ‘The stress of attaching to the experiences of all our days since birth keeps the attention confused, entranced, bewildered.’
You read this in the small square book you brought home several weeks ago. The beauty and truth of this sentence prompts you to look up, to pause and sit for a while. You’ve always believed that the person you are has been moulded by all your previous experiences, but now you wonder… have I attached myself to these things? or have they attached themselves to me?
You have been confused, entranced, bewildered many times over the years, the last few years in particular. You wonder about the word attaching, which also suggests its opposite, detaching. This gives you a sense of liberation and pushes you to read on…
‘Nevertheless, we can use the presence of the nada-sound to help break the trance, to end that enchantment, to help us know the flow of feeling and mood for what it is, as patterns of nature, coming and going, changing, doing their thing.’
You flick back through the pages to remind yourself that the nada-sound is from the Sanskrit nada yoga, or ‘meditation on the inner sound.’ The sound of silence, possibly, but really for most humans there is never silence, there is always ‘a high-pitched inner ringing tone’, the nada-sound. When you rest your mind to hear this you find it disturbing, uncomfortable, but you also feel its insistence on being present, in the present, and just for a moment the enchantments of the past disappear.
The word enchantment makes you think of fairytales and wicked step-mothers, of dark trickery and mysterious forces. The patterns of nature have their own mysterious forces, and the nature of our thoughts pulls us spellbound into the wooded darkness, a place where we can lose our way, feel alone and powerless.
But, the book reassures you, these thoughts ‘are not who and what we are, and they can never really satisfy or, when seen with insight, disappoint us.’
You smile at the idea that a memory can disappoint. It feels to be the wrong word when memories have the power to disturb, to lead us to grief, despair, anger. No matter, you think, returning instead to the phrase ‘when seen with insight’. You see this as the hinge of the sentence, the place where assurance levers you gently towards the alternative path, that of light and joy and togetherness.
Insight shines brightly on the value of insight.
You close the pages and look at the back cover, the words FOR FREE DISTRIBUTION printed beneath the symbol of a leaf. You find it astonishing that you can be gifted such words, branches of thought that someone has given freely and generously so you can create your own branches of thought.
You are glad there are such people in the world. You are glad for the world.
8. —You and your husband-to-be fall in love on the dancefloor. The 1980s beat of Fine Young Cannibals, Terence Trent D’Arby, Prince. He is a rare man, a dancer. He can spin and drop to the floor on this knees, gliding back up with effortless ease. A space gathers around him, people abandoning their own dance to get lost in his.
—He learns tap-dancing as a child. Once, on his way home from class, he’s taunted by bullies so he swings his steel-tipped shoes at their heads. They never bother him again.
—We travel to Sicily for a friend’s wedding anniversary party, an evening at a beachside hotel, dress code jeans and white shirts. We eat slabs of brightly coloured icecream cake. We dance, a shifting joy of white. Your friend knows you as the reserved English people you are, but when you dance she is shocked, amazed. Her friends are not what she thought they were.
—For a time your Sicilian friend runs a dance class in village halls. These classes begin to mould your week, frustration at complicated Salsa steps shifting to muscle memory, your legs becoming leaner and stronger. You are the fittest you’ve ever been and the latin beat thuds through your heart.
—At your mother’s wedding, young and old dance together. Your twelve-year-old son surprises you, dancing with comfortable abandon, cool as a Tarantino character in his dark suit, white shirt, pink tie.
—In a break from this particular dance floor, you stand at the bar with your newly acquired step-brother. You don’t remember the conversation, but it was one of the last times you talked to him. If you had known this you would have logged every word. A mere four months later and he’s gone.
—When your son grows up he dances like Jim Morrison, a wilder abandon that inhabits the music. He is his father’s son.
—At the end of your marriage, dancing is the only thing you and your husband still enjoy together.
—While staying at the house of a close friend, her step-daughter and two blond-haired twins come to visit. At breakfast your friend shouts ‘Dance!’ and everyone jumps up to dance around the kitchen to Pharrell Williams’ Happy, dirty cups and crockery and crumbs abandoned to the joy.
—Dance as metaphor: dance like no-one’s watching, dance around the problem, dancing on air, dance to someone else’s tune, dance of death, lead a merry dance, all singing and all dancing, make a song and dance, dance on down, let’s face the music and dance, dancing cheek to cheek, dance the night away. The metaphor of music and movement, telling us how to live.
—June 2008, Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury Festival. Leonard Cohen sings Dance Me to the End of Love and Bird on the Wire. He bows after each song, humbled by the crowd’s love emanating towards him, his unmistakeable uniform of pin-striped suit and hat as distinct as the low husk of his voice. When he sings Hallelujah, you dance with your seven-year-old son, a hold and release of alternate hands, your arms spread wide with each turn as though thanking the gods. Cohen sings sixteen songs in all. Sixteen heartfelt gifts as the setting sun warms the field.
—As a child you watch The Red Shoes on TV, The Nutcracker on stage, and later, Billy Elliot at the cinema. You are spellbound. Energy, grace, the fluid movement of limbs or Elliot’s untidy stomp and spasm. Whatever the bodies are doing they feel the music; feel and respond, feel and respond.
—You love Degas’ Dancers at the Barre, the slender ballerina shapes, the blue green of their netted tutus, one ankle on the barre, slender waist and arm curving into the stretch. Degas believed ‘the artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown’ , but he was known as witty but grumpy, with a nasty streak of anti-Semitism. Beauty does not equate with goodness, it seems.
—Now, in 2020, you dance every morning in your bedroom, sometimes in the kitchen too. Latin party anthems, 1970s funk, modern folk, classic pop, Kylie, Stevie Wonder, The Meters, Mumford & Sons, Bill Withers, Cornershop, Fat Boy Slim, Ricky Martin, Sérgi Mendes, Proyecto Uno. You still dance to Prince, you still dance salsa.
—And so you begin the day out of breath, blood coursing, hot with adrenaline and thrumming with joy.
—Then and only then are you ready to think, to eat and drink coffee, to write, and to live.
7. As you lie in bed waiting for sleep to come, you find yourself running your finger over the scar at the top of your nose, midway between your eyebrows. Every time you remember this scar you remember its acquisition, and how the faintly crooked line is the imprint of your sister’s teeth.
You are ten years old and immersed in a chlorine-heavy swimming pool, your lithe body able to do somersaults or backflips beneath the surface, feeling the joy of buoyancy and a ticklish gush of bubbles in the momentum of your resurfacing.
But at the time of the scar-making, your sister is standing close by and laughing, her mouth wide open and joyous, and when you come surging to the surface your nose connects with that laugh, with her front teeth, and the pain is sharp and shocking. When you put your hand to your face the wetness is water and blood.
You can still feel the fury you felt, as though she’d done this to you on purpose, and you climb out of the pool, stomping off to the changing room to staunch the flow, of blood and of anger.
Now, as you lie here and feel that silvery line, you are struck by how long it is since you revisited this memory. Surely you look at this scar every day in the mirror? And yet you don’t see it, this evidence of your past life that is fully part of you, one of the many things on your body (birthmark on your left leg; a collection of fillings and crowns in your teeth; scars on you left knee, left arm, inside your lower lip; ten swirling fingertips and toetips), all identifying you as you.
The only evidence you currently identify is your pain. You cannot see it, not in a mirror, not if you look down at the parts of you that raise questions with their tingling stabbing grumble. No-one else can see it either, but you have become accustomed to looks of doubt. You know all too well that just because you cannot see something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. The undeniable electrical current of your body.
And you remember this pain every day. There is rarely a moment when you don’t think about it. When you are asleep, yes; if you’re in a softly-cushioned seat, sometimes yes; if you are distracted by eating a delicious meal, yes. And even in these moments you have an awareness that it will return, a fear that often manifests the pain back into you, like ushering a familiar but furious friend back into your house.
You realise all this as you lie here feeling the scar on your nose, and you make a promise to yourself.
You will notice the pain-free moments, even the merely low-pain moments. You will notice them as vividly as you remember the others. Notice. Let go of the feeling of fear and dread and instead hold the feeling of ease, of comfort, really listen as your body tells you yes, right now this is all good.
And then, when there is a shift, a movement to a sharper kind of noticing, close your eyes and remember. Your body knows how both these things feel, and she feels them equally and without judgement.
Allow your body to trust this feeling of equality, and how the release of ease is generous and kind and abundant, and it will return again soon.
6. You come to a place of understanding—you are in the midst of your own eclipse.
In A Short Philosophy of Birds, Philippe Dubois and Elise Rousseau tell of the vulnerable moulting phase of ducks as they experience an ‘eclipse’ of plumage. They are grounded, paused, waiting for new growth until they can fly again.
Animals do not think about the stages and transitions of their lives, they do not ruminate on the past or feel regret, instead relying on their instinctual understanding of what is happening now, only now. In eclipse, the only thing required of them is patience and self-care.
Humans have a tendency to resist eclipse. We must not stop, we must work, we must play, we must remember, we must plan, we must post on Instagram.
‘If we are to be reborn successfully, we need to understand how to let something within us die.’ (Chapter 1: Embracing Our Vulnerability)
You consider the things you must allow to die— —Certain relationships, too wounded or complicated to heal. —Your identity: university lecturer, respected, classes filled with questioning, challenge, debate, enlightenment. —Your home: tumble-down cottage, a deep village burrow with morning horses clopping you awake. —The control you thought you had; this was only ever an illusion.
And so you wait for the feathers of your past life to shed, resolving to let them fall without regret or recrimination.
Patience. Care. The happening of only now.
You can feel the downy new feathers waiting to emerge. They are tender, they are eager, they yearn for the soar and sweep of the sky, but they know to wait for their time.
Winter is serving its purpose.
And with the warmth of spring, eclipse will turn to flight.
5. You have read Bluetsand The Pillow Book. You know a list can make meaning and image and emotion. A list can be light with whimsy or heavy with cost. It can voice a plea, an observation, a question. It can push deep or brush lightly, respectfully. It can be one or all of these things.
It can tell a story; apples, shampoo, pregnancy test, vodka.
It can express desire, fear, craving, responsibility.
It can manifest on paper, on a screen, on the back of a receipt or bus ticket, a column of urgent beacons in the mind, a strand spilling from the mouth to instruct others or the self, chalk on a blackboard, haphazard scraps pinned onto cork, a softly whispered prayer.
But you are not Sei Shonagon or Maggie Nelson. You may have the words but it’s likely you’re lacking the bravery.
You can only write for short snippets of time, when your body allows. And not writing fills you with a bigger, deeper, darker howl of fear.
So, list your desires, your fears, your responsibilities. Look for the lists in other people too, those pressing needs that you see in their eyes.
Each one as singular and revealing as a fingerprint.