39 – Prince Tribute

This was published by Pennyblackmusic.co.uk after Prince died in 2016. One of the hardest pieces I’ve written.

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Only an idiot would volunteer to write about Prince. This thought dogged me after my Tempranillo-fuelled email late on 21 April 2016, begging for precisely that privilege. It was an impulse a part of me regrets because no words that rise from a primordial emotional stew of disenfranchised grief, disbelief, nostalgia, and adoration will come close to doing him justice. Paying tribute to Prince is like holding a candle to the sun.

There is much we don’t know about Prince, including how he died [at the time, we didn’t. Now we do and it’s sadder still]. The one thing everyone knows, from fellow musicians or far-removed fans, is that he was the best. Genius is a word rendered thin and flavourless by overuse; as are icon, legend, unique, and inimitable. That doesn’t make them any less true when applied to Prince.

My private theory, long-held, is that the only reason he didn’t supplant Jimi Hendrix in music mythology as the ultimate guitar god is that he was too sexy, too queer in the old fashioned sense for the (mostly) straight, white male rock journalists who oversee the beatification of six-string saints. The marvel is: Prince was so good he forced them to pronounce his brilliance despite the yellow laser-cut trouser suit he wore to perform ‘Gett Off’ at the 1991 MTV Music Awards, and his lavish lyrical praise of women who really, really like sex.

Pre-Prince, men had a monopoly on the pocket full of Trojans (some of them used). Then an androgynous imp who played every instrument, arranged every note, and took no shit from anyone came straight outta Minneapolis and turned the world upside down. He made people nervous. Most famously, Tipper Gore whose horror at Nikki masturbating with a magazine birthed the ‘Parental Warning: Explicit Content’ label.

From ‘Darling Nikki’ to ‘Raspberry Beret’ to ‘Cream’ to ‘Peach’ to ‘Head’ to ‘When You Were Mine’ Prince sang about women who dug sex and had fun doing it. He unapologetically refused to adopt the rock’n’roll paradigm where men are Subjects and women are Objects (in the De Beauvoirian sense).

Refusing assent was one of the many things Prince did better than anyone else. From Warner Brothers to the internet, there was no Goliath he wouldn’t sling a pebble at. He didn’t always win these battles, but he never lost. In the end, the record labels, the critics, and the world wide web kowtowed to his sublime talent and awesome willfulness.

This we must celebrate. There aren’t many artists like that. Even, or especially, the most successful musicians play the game. They get slick, learn to give the right answers, straighten their teeth, take up knitting, buy trout farms, get into right-wing politics, advertise butter. Prince, though, never played the game by anyone’s rules but his own.

Magnificently onery to the end, he holed up at Paisley Park, recording, performing, throwing dance parties, hosting movie nights for the assortment of musicians, protegees, sound engineers and technicians who he routinely sacrificed on the altar of musical perfectionism. “The thing about Prince,” one of them told me, “Is that he was better than everyone, at everything.”

I can’t think of one lick of evidence to the contrary. Can you?

Which is why only an idiot would volunteer to write about Prince, or sing a Prince song, or play a Prince riff. Maybe that’s the point though. To get through this thing called life we have to do our best when we’re not the best. We have to trudge while other soar. We have to accept that flowers wither; stars burn out; that perfection isn’t proof against death.

My gut feeling is Prince knew this better than anyone. And that it kept him from giving too much of a fuck. Nobody is ever going to sound as good or be as good as Prince. No one can recreate his magic. What we can do is let that show us how to live, take courage, let his music and spirit infuse us. Let’s be idiots for the things we love. Prince would approve.

18 – Reading Like a Writer

This was another Ideas Tap feature that was mostly an excuse to interview a handful of my favorite people — dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson, another beloved writing friend Nick Lezard, and the man who saved my life during my writing Master’s, course director and prolific author Michael Schmidt.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Want to be a writer? The best way to start is by reading. But how can you make sure you reap the benefits in your own work? Cila Warncke asks writers Paul Hendrickson, Nick Lezard and Michael Schmidt for tips…

“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including, most recently, Hemingway’s Boat.

There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of the forthcoming The Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

“You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.

2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slowreading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadly

Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey, or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

5. Attentively

You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children,” as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    

6. Fearlessly

Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savouring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”

In Focus: Writers’ Recommended Reading:

  • UlyssesJames Joyce
  • To The LighthouseVirginia Woolf
  • A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
  • Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
  • New York Review of Books

17 – Cheryl Strayed on Memoir

This was written for Ideas Tap, an organization (sadly now defunct) that supported young people pursuing the creative arts. Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things was my bible for several months, was as generous and gracious by phone as she is on the page. A case of meeting one’s heroes not going wrong.

Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

After writing her first novel, Cheryl Strayed turned to memoir and wrote her New York Times bestselling book Wild, about her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death. Here, Cheryl tells Cila Warncke about mining memory and sets us to work with a writing exercise…

How does the emotional experience differ between writing fiction and memoir?

It doesn’t. To write fiction well you have to inhabit the consciousness of the characters you’ve created. With non-fiction there’s an extra layer of intensity because the character you’re building is yourself.

When writing memoir, how do you build yourself as a character?

The only way you can build yourself is to dismantle yourself. To take apart who you are, what your assumptions have been, what you hope people think of you. You can’t write: “I’m pretty and cool and awesome and interesting” because everyone would hate you. You have to say: “I’m human. Here are positive things about me. Here are negative things about me. And here are things that don’t make sense, don’t add up, and I’m going to present them to you”. Writing is like the deep work you do in the course of therapy where you take yourself apart.

What memory aids do you use?

I naturally have a very good memory – I think a lot of writers do. I kept a journal through my 20s and 30s. That helped me a lot in writing Wild. I do research where I can, going back and looking at pictures for example. When most people imagine what a memoirist does they think: “I don’t remember anything from high school, from 20 years ago”. But they do remember – they just think they don’t.

How can writers elicit those memories?

The process of writing is re-conjuring memories. It’s doing things so more memories come to you. Even looking at a photo can allow you to remember something accurately. The process is like running into an old friend from back in the day, somebody you knew 20 years ago. When you first start talking you only know a few things about each other. But as you talk and go deeper into your lives you remember things you thought you had forgotten. Just because you haven’t thought of something for years doesn’t mean you don’t remember it, it just means it takes a little work to access it. When I was writing Wild I’d think, “I don’t remember, I just walked” but once I started writing my mind would open up to specific memories.

Do you draw heavily on your own life for your fiction?

You’ll see a lot of details from my life. My next novel is set in Portland [where I live]. None of the characters in the book are me but there are all these little tendrils of the story that you can trace back to me.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

I never call it “writer’s block” but I always have trouble beginning. Writing is hard. I resist writing. I run from it. If I am left alone with a laptop I flounder for an hour or two, then I sink in and I’m in the zone. When I get stuck I go for a walk, come back and try again. I don’t force it. If something isn’t coming, I move on; that’s a good strategy for me.

How long did it take to write your first book, Torch?

Your first book is so hard because you don’t know how to write a book and there is no way for anyone to tell you. It turns out the only way to learn how to write a book is to write a book. I avoided finishing [Torch] for fear of failure, until the point where the fear of failing to finish was bigger than the fear of finishing a book that was terrible. I worked on it for about ten years in total, three years really diligently.

How did you overcome that fear of failure?

Once I let go of the idea that I was going to write a great book, I was able to write a book. I let go of any ego or fear or shame. That was an important moment in my writing life. None of us really knows what kind of book we’re writing. A lot of people think they’re writing brilliant books and they’re terrible. And the reverse is true too. It isn’t up to us to judge our books; it’s up to the people who read them.

In Focus: Writing exercise using objects

I take random objects out of my handbag like lipstick, a ten-euro note, and a pair of sunglasses, and tell my students to pick one and write a story about it.

To begin writing you begin with an image. You begin with a feeling. I encourage people to start writing and not think about it too much. Even if you have a good idea, usually once you start writing it will become something else.

I could do that same exercise with the world’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and something would come of it. Perhaps what came of it would be better than what comes to my students, but that’s how the [Nobel Prize winners] do it too – they begin with something then they make something else.

James Baldwin +Black Lives Matter

#BlackLivesMatter
Donate to Black Lives Matter

blm

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

 

The late literary genius and humanist nonpareil James Baldwin spoke for Black Lives Matter decades before the movement gained a name. And as a gay black man, born poor, he understood intersectionality in a profound sense.

Baldwin’s gifts included the ability to study himself and report, however painful or unflattering the truths that emerged. This spawned an empathy as rare as wise. He didn’t excuse cruelty but he acknowledged and, as a writer, rendered in meticulous detail the pain that (often) underlies it.

The following quotes, from interviews and from his fiction, articulate truths that are as urgent and relevant today as when he uttered them.

 

“Look, we live in Harlem, let’s say, or we live in Watts. The mother who comes down there with his cap and his own gun in his holster, he doesn’t know what my day is like. He doesn’t know why I get drunk when I do. He doesn’t know anything about me at all. He’s scared shitless of me. Now, what the fuck is he doing there? All he can do is shoot me. He’s a hired concentration-camp keeper…. All you can do is bring in tanks and tear gas—and call the National Guard when it gets too tight. And think you can fight a civil war and a global war at the same time.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

“The black cat in the streets wants to protect his house, his wife and children. And if he is going to be able to do this he has to be given his autonomy, his own schools, a revision of the police force in a very radical way. It means, in short, that if the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

“The country has got the police force it deserves, and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he’s going to stop him—and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it’s one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that’s how black boys die, because the police are scared.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

 

“I’d learned how to get by. I’d learned never to be belligerent with policemen, for instance. No matter who was right, I was certain to be wrong…. I only had one head and it was too easy to get it broken… I figured out what answers he wanted and I gave them to him. I never let him him think he wasn’t king.”

‘Previous Condition’ in Going to Meet the Man

“Those boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage.”

‘Sonny’s Blues’ in Going to Meet the Man

“For everyone’s life begins on a level where races, armies, and churches stop. And yet everyone’s life is always shaped by races, churches, and armies; races, churches, armies menace, and have taken, many lives.”

‘This Morning, This Evening, So Soon’ in Going to Meet the Man

“To be forced to excavate a history is, also, to repudiate the concept of history, and the vocabulary in which history is written; for the written history is, and must be, merely the vocabulary of power, and power is history’s most seductively attired false witness…. One thing is absolutely certain: one can repudiate, or despise, no one’s history without repudiating or despising one’s own. Perhaps that is what the gospel singer is singing.”

Just Above My Head

“All the years that we spent in and out of the South, I always wanted to say to those poor white people, so busy turning themselves and their children into monsters: Look. It’s not we who can’t forget. You can’t forget. We don’t spend all our waking and sleeping hours tormented by your presence. We have other things to do: don’t you have anything else to do? Maybe you really don’t? Maybe the difference between us is that I never raped your mother, or your sister, or if and when I did, it was out of rage, it was not my way of life… Maybe the difference between us is that I’ve never been afraid of the prick you, like all men, carry between their legs and I never arranged picnics so that I could cut it off of you before large, cheering crowds.”

Just Above My Head

 

#BlackLivesMatter

Donate to Black Lives Matter

The Future? Don’t Bet on It

Last year, Chris and I spent Easter week with our dear, long-long-long-standing friends
C & R in Yorkshire. On the edge of the moors. Next door, it transpired, to my ex-boyfriend (who, true to form, was smoking on the front porch as I had my first cup of coffee).

Twelve months ago, someone I’d met and dated in Ibiza turning up next-door in a northern English was cause to murmur, small world.

dav

Yorkshire bluebells

Today, proof of the world’s smallness is inescapable and grim. The ticker-tape death toll mounts, the number of official coronavirus cases races towards two million and even the most fortunate of us hunker at home, waiting for a future that might never happen (that’s cribbed from Mavis Gallant, who wrote exquisitely about societies in meltdown and the delusions they cherish on the way to the flames).

There seems to be a split take on COVID-19. Either, it’s going to usher in hitherto unimaginable era of mutual support and higher consciousness or we’re going to be dragged (resisting or not) back into the machine and crushed between the cogs of resurgent capitalism.

The latter argument is ably made by Julio Vincent Gambuto in his viral Medium piece ‘Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting‘ in which he writes, plausibly:

What is about to be unleashed on American society will be the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again. It will come from brands, it will come from government… the all-out blitz to make you believe you never saw what you saw. The air wasn’t really cleaner; those images were fake. The hospitals weren’t really a war zone; those stories were hyperbole. The numbers were not that high; the press is lying. You didn’t see people in masks standing in the rain risking their lives to vote. Not in America.

On the chirpier side of the fence is Rebecca Solnit who writes in ‘The impossible has already happened: what the coronavirus can teach us about hope‘ (published last week in the Guardian):

When a storm subsides, the air is washed clean of whatever particulate matter has been obscuring the view, and you can often see farther and more sharply than at any other time. When this storm clears, we may, as do people who have survived a serious illness or accident, see where we were and where we should go in a new light. We may feel free to pursue change in ways that seemed impossible while the ice of the status quo was locked up. We may have a profoundly different sense of ourselves, our communities, our systems of production and our future.

(To be fair, Solnit is no Pollyanna. Most of her longform piece details how fucked things are and how stacked the cards are against people trying to unfuck them.)

It says something about my own wiring that I feel compelled to take sides, to argue the case. Coronavirus has turned me into armchair experts. Like a sad gambler, I stare at screens, watch the numbers, argue my interpretation of the stats, have opinions about things I zero right to opine about (South Korea’s testing policy! Sweden’s schools!)

This impulse has  to do with lack of control. I value knowing things, having well-formed and well-informed ideas. In other words, I’m an instant relic; a creature who belongs to the bigger yet more predictable world that existed before January 2020.

Taking sides, prognosticating, surmising and supposing are ways to pass the time but little more. (Aside: I was listening to a TED en Espanol talk about coronavirus from 16 March; it felt like  listening to a historical reenactment.)

If this pestilent mess proves anything, it’s that opinion is pretty much beside the point.

Still, if I had place a few bob on an outcome, my money is on business as usual with a twist. Advertisers will come after what’s left of our bank accounts, governments will wrangle for the remaining shreds of our civil liberties, global warming will heat back up and we will not turn into kinder, gentler, better versions of ourselves.

Nonetheless, we may be more attuned to the ludicrousness of the situation, and quicker to say so, to complain or resist. I hope so, anyway.

Above all, a year from now, I hope to be with friends somewhere, drinking, breathing fresh air, gossiping about some minor coincidence. That would be a happy ending.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running to nowhere

Since I was 12 or so, running has been my talisman against self-destruction. It hasn’t kept me slim (that was an early-20s drug cocktail followed by vegetarianism) or particularly fit — after more than 25 years of running regularly I still take an hour to run a 10K — but it kept me functional, if not always happy.

run

Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

The worst of this godforsaken lockdown is not even being allowed out to exercise. The minor saving grace is we have a driveway, or mini-camino, that is the only part of the property currently free of knee- to hip-high grass.

After five or so days of trying to get a buzz off yoga I started jogging in the driveway.

It is about 75 metres long, uneven, inconsistently cambered and comprised of a variety of surfaces. Beyond the concrete slab in front of the house is a spot of mud from where we turn the car round. This gathers itself into a mossy, grassy hump I cover in two strides before settling into the right-hand tyre track.

The driveway subsides going away from the house till it reaches the j-bend up to the paved road. About halfway down, at the end of a crumbling, overgrown stone wall, a walnut tree is putting out leaves. They are still tightly furled, waiting, presumably, for some solar encouragement before showing face.

Chris has tramped along the verge with our trusty hand-mower, keeping the grass reasonably lawnish for about 50 metres. Beyond the close-cut strip is an explosion of waist-high weeds. There is dandelion and stinging nettle in there, but mostly some skinny chancer with reddish seed pods. No idea what it is.

Romeo, the tiger-ish looking one of our twin boy cats, usually stakes out a spot at the end of the driveway during my run. Yesterday, he sat at attention, perfectly immobile, for about 15 minutes, staring at something I couldn’t see. He may be a Zen master.

I am not.

Today’s news was that Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s improbably debonair, well-spoken and (I believe, as of today) utterly useless, mashed-potato-brained president has threatened/requested an extension of the state of emergency until 10 May.

While I’m rarely carefree I am also not often apoplectic. Continuous low-level outrage and cynicism seems to inoculate me against the wilder mood swings.

Hearing we are going to be trapped in a rain-sodden ice box of a house, in a place neither of us have any love or affinity, for makes me want to put my fist through a wall.

Literally.

As I write, my chest feels like it is self-compressing. If it weren’t for Chris napping upstairs and the cats (Teddy in particular is distressed by loud noises) I would scream.

Running is supposed to help when I feel like this. Watching my footfall, adjusting my posture, picking up my knees, monitoring my breathing, these things can help.

So I run, counting out the laps: 2.5, 3… 5… 10… 14.5… 23…

On odd-numbered laps I run faster, picking my way between extrusions of natural rock — pinkish, glimmering with tiny crystals — and detritus: rubber piping, smashed tiles, bin liners, odd bits of plastic embedded in the hard earth. Uncut hair flops damp against my forehead. My left Achilles tendon twinges a warning.

Near the end of the drive, on the right (as you face the house) is a bare tree with small white flowers. Must check with my sister later, she’s the garden wizard.

Add that to the post-release list: plant a garden. Be ready,  when (not if) this shit comes raining down next. Dig potatoes and pluck herbs.

The permanent mist thickens and moves purposefully. Rain, now, really.

I jog/wheel/sprint/job/wheel through the 40s without shedding the desire to inflict damage on something. I’m going to need a lot of therapy, which I can’t afford.

And the reasons I can’t afford therapy are part of the reasons I’m at risk of melting into a lava pit of rage and self-loathing without it. None of which can be addressed now, or in a week, month, or perhaps a year.

That’s the kicker, as I turn through 47… 49… 52… Nobody knows when, or how, this ends. (I’ll take ‘bang’, if that’s an option.)

 

 

 

28 Lockdown Days Later

Sometime ago, in the hazy days when freedom still seemed like a possibility, however faint, I wrote a pile of rubbish.

Writing rubbish isn’t an occupational hazard, it’s inevitable. Most writing is crap in the aesthetic/artistic sense: unrefined, hasty, careless, lacking finesse. Ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of anything I write falls in that category and, for the sake of sanity, has to be accepted as ‘good enough’ otherwise I would never make a deadline.

The article for which I need to apologize isn’t that kind of rubbish. It is pure, unmitigated cringe. My strong inclination is to wipe the pile of twaddle titled ‘10 things to do on coronavirus lockdown‘ from the internet and, if it were possible, from my memory.

What kind of grade-A asshole writes, in the face of a global pandemic, things like:

Always wanted a capsule wardrobe? This is the moment to dig through those chests of drawers, wardrobes, cupboards and shoe boxes and sort the wheat from the chaff. If this current crisis demonstrates anything it’s that certainties aren’t. Stop holding on to that sale-rack outfit you bought for the occasion that never happened.

or

Do something with your fingers that isn’t typing. Do you draw? Paint? Sculpt? Throw pottery? Play an instrument? Knit? Quilt? Scrapbook? If you do — awesome. Now you have time to throw yourself into it. Get into the flow and lose a few hours, see what you can create.

The smug wanna-be positivity MindBodyGreen-lite-esque-ness of that makes me want to crawl inside my skin and pop my eyes out from the inside.

What moron writes that?

Er, this one. 

mirror

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

My words stare at me: the image of myself I don’t want to see.

Worse than silly, worse than naive, worse than tone-deaf, worse than irritating.

Phony. Forced. What she thinks someone (or some algorithm) wants to hear.

Let’s be clear: I have never in my life looked on the bright side. I have never seen the silver lining before the cloud. I have never thought the glass was half-full.

As a kid, I believed neither in Santa nor happiness. Not much has changed.

Though I am conscious of and grateful for the many good things in my life my default setting is not optimism.  My primary emotions are boredom, frustration, fear, and disappointment.

Before COVID-19 I worried about dying without having accomplished anything. Now, after 27 days of my own company, unrelieved by the mental-health saving drudgery of work and other people, that meaningless death feels inevitable — and  my own fault.

The inescapable fear is that if I were a person who could take my own vapid advice (“If you aren’t already studying something, check out online learning resources”) maybe I would have something to show for 40 years on earth. But I’m not and, it seems, I don’t.

No doubt some people are using quarantine to repaint their cupboards, learn Danish or perfect their eclair recipe. Whoever and wherever you are, I salute you.

eclair

Photo by Xenia Bogarova on Unsplash

Meanwhile, I’ve purged zero items from my wardrobe. I’ve read zero books. I’ve written zero letters. I’ve had sex zero times. I’ve made zero playlists.

What have I been doing?

  • Checking the Johns Hopkins coronavirus map.
  • Reading the Spanish lockdown rules the way hungry people check the fridge: hoping something new will have appeared since the last time.
  • Checking my bank account, hoping something will have appeared since last time.
  • Crying.
  • Dropping thing, having meltdowns then crying.
  • Being cold.
  • Having nightmares.
  • Watching Father Ted.
  • Trying, unsuccessfully, to remember what having freedom, or a libido, felt like.
  • Running up and down my driveway.
  • Being angry.

There is so much to be angry about. I’m angry at myself, at global capitalism, at politicians, at the old ladies in the grocery store who travel in packs, at the weather, at my inability to concentrate, at my helplessness, at my writing skills, at my ex-boss, at the banks, at timing, at circumstances, at the whole stinking croaking aching joyless goddamn mess.

Whenever, if ever, we get out of it, I’d like very much to see my friends, go to the beach, go to a gig, hug someone without worrying one of us will be mortally sick as a result.

Until then, I’m hanging on by my fingernails, not using this as an opportunity for self-improvement. My sincerest apologies for suggesting otherwise.

 

 

 

Childless for Sleep’s Sake

There is a scene in J. D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey where Zooey tells his mother that he doesn’t want to get married because he likes to sit by the window on the train, and once you’re married, you never get to sit by the window.

It expresses, rather beautifully, how my thoughts on children. To paraphrase, I don’t want to have a baby because I like to sleep, and once you have a baby you don’t sleep.

baby1

Photo by Michal Bar Haim on Unsplash

To have or not to have: the baby question

Throughout my adult life I vacillated between wanting and not wanting children. Aged 18 I started a list of baby names. In my early 20s, immersed in London’s club scene, I barely had time to sleep, much less think about kids. Then it kicked through my senses like a police battering-ram. One of our friends fell pregnant and a crazed, logic-free longing rushed through me: I want a baby.

The only problem was, as I said to my then boyfriend in so many words, was I didn’t want his baby. In my defense, I was skunk drunk; which is no defense at all. It was a terrible thing to say and he should have dumped me on the spot.

Whether to it’s his credit, he didn’t, and our relationship stumbled along for a few months. Then I gathered my courage, said what had to be said, and moved to out of the country. At the time, it seemed necessary; now, it suggests a penchant for self-dramatization that does me no credit.

Absorbed in a new life in Ibiza, I didn’t think much about getting into another relationship. The undertone hum of wanting a baby remained, though, reinforced by the Noughties cult of the yummy mummy, epitomized by Kate Moss. Ibiza’s beaches were dotted with plenty of stunning taut, topless mamas romping with catalog-cute toddlers. Even if I hadn’t wanted kids sheer lifestyle envy would have gotten me.

Still, with no potential baby daddy, and a freelance journalist’s intermittent wage, having a child remained an abstraction.

At 32, in a relationship, the baby name list I had been cultivating for over a decade took on new significance. I tried names out with my partner’s surname, and mine, and double-barreled. The only grain of sand in this oyster was my boyfriend’s horror of procreation. As a 30-year-old who lived on Fanta and pizza, and spent hours at a time playing Mario Kart, he felt their was enough youthful energy in the house.

Once again, a case of not your baby.

baby2

Photo by Ana Tablas on Unsplash

The allure of old wounds

For the next couple of years friends and I discussed, semi-seriously, having children as lone parents. One dear friend said she’d nearby and help out (unlike most of these offers, I think she meant it). Another, already a mother, promised me it would be worth it. My ever-supportive sister said she thought I’d be a good mother.

It was this idea, perhaps, more than anything, that kept me hooked – the chance to be a good mother. My sister and I were not blessed with good parents. We, and our brothers, had to find our way through a fog of repression and emotional abuse. In a practical sense, we were on our own from adolescence, working minimum wage jobs while going to school, trying to secure our escape.

Time, distance and my father’s death had helped me be a bit philosophical. Finally, I could see my parents as wounded souls whose sins of omission and commission were grounded in unhealed traumas. Part of wanting to have a baby was wanting to prove it is possible to overcome a crappy childhood. Being a good mother would give me license to keep a little of the familiar old anger.

Axiomatically, this is a poor motive, but no worse than any other reason to have a child.

The right man

When I met my now-husband, one of the first things he told me was he never wanted to have kids. This conversation unsettled me but I figured he would be persuadable.

As our relationship developed, it was me who was persuaded.

Strands wove together, revealing a pattern unseen in earlier years.

Having a child is marketed (particularly to women) as a shortcut to fulfillment, an elevator ride to realms of higher purpose. Having a child is a route to social approbation, as long as you’re a well-educated, middle-class (passing) white cis-woman, as I am. Having a child is supposed to buy entry to some Rockwellian fantasy of family harmony.

couple

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Why sleep matters

What I found in the affection, intimacy and adventure of our partnership is that these things thrive in the presence of freedom, resources and – above all – sleep.

The toughest moments of our relationship have been when work and travel schedules left us bone-tired. I learned the hard way that it is obscenely difficult to be a nice person when you’re exhausted. And when you can’t be nice to your partner, things get rough.

Going through relatively mild sleep disruption warned me, vividly, that I’m not built for protracted sleep deprivation. More than a night or two of curtailed sleep is a kick in the face of my mental health in the face. My moods start swinging like a clobbered piñata, my sense of humor vanishes, and my self-control withers – freeing the snider, sadder parts of my personality to wreck havoc. This is consistent with studies that show insomnia is a causal factor in mental health problems.

The idea of chronic sleep deprivation – recent research published in the journal Sleep shows that women’s quality and quantity of sleep suffer for six years after having their first child – is terrifying.

Perhaps choosing to not have children because I like to sleep sounds as petty as not marrying for the sake of sitting by the window. If so, I’m okay with that.

To be a good parent, you have to know yourself – and that includes knowing your limits and being realistic about your resources. It would be a disfavor to a hypothetical child, and to my real and cherished marriage, to do something that would irrevocably change the basis on which it operates.

***

Sleep hygiene for superheroes

Superheroes are vigilant and alert, always ready to leap into action. If, like me, you are blessed with the gift of hypervigilance – but not the cape and outside-in underwear habit – you probably struggle to sleep. Most nights, maybe every night, your mind will churn with plans, tasks, appointments, retreads of your day, ambitions, regrets. As the world lies quiet around you the pressure builds: to be better, do more, to make tomorrow a better day.

Needless to say, this anxiety fouls the spark-plugs of your brain. In the morning, it sputters and farts, never quite catching even as your pulse races in high gear.

Those of us who are, to quote Didion’s immaculate phrase: “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss” often fight a losing battle to get the rest we need to stay sane and keep our feet on the ever-precarious ground.

feet.jpg

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Sleep hygiene, defined by the National Sleep Foundation as “practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness”, is as essential to us as tight-fitting spandex and avoiding Kryptonite.

The following seven strategies are essential to my sleep hygiene; your precise recipe may vary. What matters is that you identify things that help you rest at night, and ruthlessly protect the sanctity of sleep. Trust me, it makes saving the world the next day much easier.

Exercise in the morning

Studies show that exercise improves sleep. However, I know from personal experience it can also throw a spanner in the (clock) works. Running is one of my favorite activities: it clears my head, tones my body, and tunes my emotions. But the last time I ran in the evening, I tossed and turned for hours. The endorphin kick that lifts my spirits in the morning totally sabotaged my sleep. Lesson: beware of when and how you exercise.

Eat more carbs

A survey of scientific literature on the relationship between diet and sleep quality found that lower carbohydrate consumption negatively effected sleep, as did higher fat intake. The same study found that kiwi fruit, cherries, fatty fish and milk all had sleep-enhancing effects. Personally, I find that an evening meal of rice, beans, vegetables and greens is satisfying and sets me up for a good night’s rest.

carbs.jpg

Photo by Jo Sonn on Unsplash

Don’t watch things in bed

There are some people who can unwind by watching TV or films in bed. I am not one of them. The speed of moving images, plus drama or pathos, plus my overactive imagination, means that if I watch something in bed it replays in my head long after the lights are out. Moving viewing to the living room creates a clearer divide between alertness and rest.

Read poetry

You know what does help me unwind? Poetry. My dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson once advised me to keep a book on the nightstand and read a poem or two every night. The density of language, the clarity of the images, the imagination and empathy imbued in each line, promote tranquility – an almost meditative state. If you’re not sure where to start, try Jack Gilbert or Mary Oliver.

Yoga nidra or meditation

Sometimes, the chatter in my head simply won’t let up. In these instances, replacing my own mental monologue with someone else’s words can be hugely helpful. Yoga teacher Paul Dobson recommends yoga nidra, a specific meditative practice designed to foster restful sleep.

I also love Positive Magazine Guided Meditations – the presenter has the loveliest, most soothing voice imaginable and the 10-15 minute guided meditations are the perfect length for dropping off to sleep.

sheets.jpg

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Cotton bedding

What you sleep on matters. After living in Spain, where polyester is considered a legitimate fabric for bedding, I refuse to purchase anything other than 100% cotton – the finer the weave the better. Nice linen can be ridiculously expensive, which is its own sort of worry-making, so I gravitate towards shops like TK Maxx, Ross or Nordstrom Rack. At a push, Target does decent all-cotton sheets and covers. If there is absolutely nothing else available, Amazon Basics are an option.

Lavender essential oil

Essential oils are touted as the cure for everything from unhappiness to indigestion. In the case of lavender and insomnia, though, there is actually evidence it works. A study reported on in the American Journal of Critical Care found inhaling pure lavender essential oil decreased blood pressure and improved sleep quality in hospital patients. It noted: “Sleep deprivation in hospitalized patients is common and can have serious detrimental effects on recovery from illness. Lavender aromatherapy has improved sleep in a variety of clinical settings.”

In a randomized control trial of healthy subjects, including lavender essential oil as part of a sleep hygiene routine got better results than the sleep hygiene practices alone, according to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Dabbing lavender essential oil on my wrists just before I switch out the light is a welcome signal that it is time to relax.

Orgasms

Getting off is an almost guaranteed way to drift off. Remember, our bodies need sex like they need food and sleep. Neglecting our sexual self is easy when we are worried or stressed (not to mention that anxiety is a stone mood killer) so then, more than ever, is the time to love yourself.

Sex is wonderful, but it it isn’t always available. Or it can come with expectations, hang-ups and emotional entanglement (happily married or not). Masturbation gives you total control which is, in itself, relaxing and empowering. I keep a bottle of lube in the nightstand by the lavender oil and a folder of photos on my phone for inspiration.

orgasm.jpg

Photo by Taras Chernus on Unsplash

Superheroes need shut-eye. Though it may be fashionable to brag about how little sleep you get, stinting on rest is a shortcut to long-term physical and mental fatigue – and worse.

Prioritizing routines and habits that promote sleep increases our personal well-being, and gives us the mental, physical and emotional energy to be better friends, lovers, creators, citizens and human beings

Do Less, Accomplish More

Sleeping in

sleep1.jpg

Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

Over the holiday period I’ve fallen into the habit of sleeping till 9 or 9:30 – some 90 minutes longer than my usual routine. For the pats few days, I set my alarm for the normal hour, but hit the off-button and go back to sleep. This feels indulgent, borderline sinful, most certainly lazy.

On the night of 1 January, my husband and I settled in to watch The Big Lebowski.

It was an individual favorite when we met; since then, it has become a totem for our relationship – a source of private idiom and in-jokes on loop.

The opening voice-over informs us that the Dude was a lazy man. What a contrast, I thought, to the expectations a new year brings.

Resolutions

New Year arrives with a cultural imperative to improve. What are your new year’s resolutions?

The noun resolution, in this sense, alludes to a determined wish, or decision.

It is worth remembering that another definition of resolution is ending, or conclusion.

Linguistically, all unwitting, we start the new year by demanding conclusions.

Is it any wonder they fail to materialize?

If there is one thing writing teaches it is that you cannot force a conclusion. They are reached by patience, effort and serendipity.

Let it be

The Big Lebowski is a tale of serendipity.

Sheer coincidence brings together two characters who clumsily try to exploit their chance encounter. The lostness of this cause is what makes the film funny; the universality of the impulse to connive and manipulate makes it poignant.

That The Dude comes off better in the end has nothing to do with effort and everything to do with his ability to, in moments of crisis, tune out and go bowling.

The other foot

As a stone type A, with a self-perpetuating to-do list I love Jeff Bridge’s character because The Dude is my antithesis.

Worry… it’s how I stay in shape, poet Maggie Smith writes in ‘Let’s not begin’.

Me too.

I crave resolutions – the conclusion kind – and if one isn’t plain I’ll fret all day and toss and turn all night, trying to wrestle one into being. If I can’t see how a thing will turn out, I’ll manufacture an ending, toss a match to see what sparks.

Wearing out

This leads to plenty of fractured nights, followed by days where tiredness clouds my senses like swamp gas. The demons of weariness are legion: irritability, forgetfulness, poor hand-eye coordination, binge eating, anxiety, tearfulness. If I get less than eight or, preferably, nine hours, they swarm – shattering my mood, judgment and productivity.

Given my love of ticking items off a list, you’d think that alone would be enough to ensure I got enough rest, but something in my wiring (Puritan genes + protestant upbringing perhaps) gibes me to try harder.

One of the first rational things lost when I’m tired is the ability to admit I need a break.

Instead, I try to fix myself by doing more.

I’m almost done…”

My husband has heard these words too many times to count. They are always a lie. He’s learned to spot them for what they are: a self-sabotaging effort to put my life and spirit in order by crossing off one more line on my to-do list.

Being the partner of a perpetual fixer must be a massive drag. The nearest I got was a long-running infatuation with a man who refused to date me because he had to much to do. At the time, I thought it was a terrible, bogus excuse. We stayed friends, though, and now I’m grateful to have someone who understands the ridiculous compulsion to seek solace in busy-ness.

Even The Dude falls into this trap, lamenting that his thinking had gotten very uptight.

corridor.jpg

Photo by Tiago B on Unsplash

Corridors without doors

When I get tired, my brain ceases to create and wallows in endless grooves. Instead of romping through fields of possibility, it marches along grim, fluorescent-lit corridors without doors. Inspiration and joy are things that happen to other people, in other places; for me, the grindstone, the factory clock; the slow treadmill.

This is lethal for my writing, and sense of self.

As someone who struggles to stay ahead of clinical depression, self-care is essential. Skimping on sleep is the first domino; next come exercise, eating, socializing, work, creating. Then the need to do more panic kicks in and flattens what is left of a painstakingly built structure.

Do less, accomplish more

My guilt at “over”-sleeping is rooted in a real fear that it’ll turn me lazy, like my good friend The Dude. Life is no movie, my brain chides. In the real world, the other Lebowski was right – you gotta get a job.

Yet this fixation with being busy is, as many wise souls have remarked, antithetical to actual accomplishment. Presenteeism is malingering for suck-ups. Most of the things I busy myself with, from house cleaning to answering email, have little bearing on the things that bring me satisfaction and joy. These things – reading, writing, time with my husband – get shoved into corners and fed scraps of my energy and attention.

Fail again

Instead of resolutions, I made a list of new year’s goals. It felt good to write them down, better to fantasize about completing them.

The next day, I woke under a cloud: sad, drained, mind blank. After drinking coffee, I got back into bed and cried for no explicable reason.

It felt like I’d put too much of myself on that page. Once again, I was looking for validation in tasks, instead of being open to what a new year might bring.

cows.jpg

Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

Start simple

Later, my husband and I went for a walk. The sky was bright and the air smelled of wood smoke and bales of sweet straw. We said hello to cows and picked windfall apples. The world began to resume its correct proportions. Cresting another hill, I realized it was time to edit the new year’s goals: sleep, move, eat, love. Everything else will come.

How will you honor yourself this year?