Distancing Retreat, Day 4

I’m feeling much better today. I slept well, then entered the routine. Physio exercises, walk, work. Trying to focus on how I am going to spend this period of time, and make the most of it.

I was surprised how emotional I felt yesterday. I’ve given talks on the POW experience and read countless accounts of solitary; yet I felt myself overwhelmed with grief and horror about even this mild captivity.

The problem at the moment is uncertainty. I’d originally prepared myself for a 21-day social distancing period. The Prime Minister said 12 weeks yesterday. And reports via the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies are talking about longer. But however long it is, if it keeps people alive, then we must do it.

I’m focussing on making the most of the quiet time, but I am also preparing myself for something that is, initially, open ended. I remember reading about the imprisonment of James Stockwell in Vietnam. The challenges we face are far less than what Stockwell faced, but he came out of his horrific experiences saying:

I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

Stockwell also spoke about the dangers of baseless optimism, giving rise to what is known as the Stockwell Paradox:

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be

We could be here for a while. The pubs are closing tonight, and it will be some time before they open again. But there are simple choices to be made here. There are things to be created. There is joy, sadness and isolation to share. There are friends to be made via the Internet who we can look forward to seeing.

(I recently started reading Katie West’s Better than IRL, a collection of accounts of Internet friendship and community, and it’s an inspiration for these times).

I do hate a lot about this. The empty supermarket shelves drive fear and panic into my heart. I am scared of not being able to buy hand-sanitiser or paracetamol. The current reality might be unfair and brutal, but we will get out. And I’d like to look back on this as a postive experience.

I was talking to Rosy last night about the use of war metaphors for this epidemic. Naturally, we’re both suspicious of them, but I am inspired by the idea of the world coming together for a common cause. The sacrifices we have to make to save lives are relatively cheap. Let’s beat this, then get on with the climate crisis.

Meanwhile, I will cut down on the news updates I read to focus on the official briefings and a single daily news update. The problem with the news cycles is that stories change quickly, unleashing a range of emotions before the facts settle down. Things will be much clearer soon.

I’m not sure how long I’m going to keep up a daily post, but I want something to document how I feel about this period. Writing it as a blog allows me to share it with the world (well, with my small number of followers), and makes it more real.

My plank today was up to 103 seconds. I was originally reckoning I could get 5 minutes by the time the crisis ends. Reckon I can make 10 before the pubs reopen.

Lockdown Retreat, Day 3

  • This morning, I really felt the scale of what is coming. I woke up, got dressed and went for my walk. It was a beautiful misty day, but as I walked on the pebbles I felt overwhelmed and emotional about everything.
  • The biggest problem is probably that I’ve not slept well, and I am overtired. I’ve also not focussed on preparation for lockdown, or developed a routine. This morning was a warning to pay attention to those things.
  • And, as sad and horrible as this is, it’s not as bad as prison, or even house arrest. We have the Internet to help us stay in touch. Even under a lockdown, we are likely to be able to leave our houses for exercise.
  • I’m also uplifted by the idea that staying-in is saving lives. That makes it feel less like the time is being wasted.
  • One weird thing is how much of this already feels like a cliche. Such an intense experience, but also mundane. I also suspect that the 2021 Brighton Fringe will be filled with terrible shows writing during and about the lockdown.
  • I’ve been thinking about Kurt Vonnegut’s final novel, Timequake. It’s not a great book, but the main idea has stuck in my head: the world re-experiences a ten-year period of time, forced to repeat everything they did before. Like in Timequake, we’re living this isolated experience together. It’s a weird thing to have so many people facing loneliness at the same time.
  • Walter Benjamin once referred to “that terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude“.
  • At 5:15, we all stop for the daily briefing. It’s rare for me to find the government so reassuring, but the advice is clear and simple. It’s good to know that if social distancing is widely adopted, then this can be beaten – although the timescale of “12 weeks to turn the tide” is a sobering thought. That takes me beyond my birthday and into the summer. But let’s do this.
  • It strange to drop off food to self-isolating friends, chatting on the doorstep at three meters distance. I won’t miss that. But it’s nice to see them and say hello.
  • At 8pm, Luke Wright did the first of his evening gigs, broadcasting live from self-isolation. It’s good to have entertainment, even if we can’t be in a theatre. There was something lovely and intimate about Luke reciting into a webcam, while projected on my wall, larger than life. Luke compared the gig to a festival one, as he could see people wandering in and out of the stream.
  • Today has been a grim little day mood wise. Tomorrow will be better. I am still determined to make this a positive experience.
  • There is a world after this virus. We need to prepare for this new world, and make sure it is a better world.
  • Today’s plank was up to 87 seconds.

Lockdown Retreat Day 2

Day 2 of the lockdown, and it’s a day of adjustment. A lot of events have been cancelled, including Glastonbury and the Brighton Fringe and Festival. Panic-buying continues, fuelled by disturbing social media rumours about draconian shutdowns.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to stick to a routine. I started with a long walk along the seafront. It seems quieter, with a lot of the personal training groups missing. I was happy to see the carousel being put out, one of the first signs of the spring. (In the past: 1, 23, 4)

It looks like my local Small Batch branch closes today. It was good to say hello to the staff, but also sad, not knowing when I will see them again. Then, I sat down to work. I’m used to remote working, but this is very different. Today, the bandwidth wouldn’t support video in the stand-ups, which was a shame. The working day ends as everyone stops for the daily press briefing. Latest announcements include the schools closing; but the possibility of an antibody test is a promising development.

I’ve done less creative work than planned so far on this retreat. Last night I called a lot of friends, checking that they were OK. There will be time for work though. On that point, I loved Robin Sloan’s newsletter yesterday. The whole thing is worth reading, but this section was particularly striking:

Toil in the shadow of calamity WILL have its day.

There’s a world waiting on the other side of this crisis, and that world wants your strange, personal video game; your cleverly-designed fanny pack; your email newslet—

Scratch that. There’s a world right here, right now, and THIS world wants those things! Even more, it wants, it NEEDS, signs of their production: the light in the (browser) window, the (digital) curl of smoke from the chimney.

My photo app reminded me that, a year ago today, it was the Passionate Machine gig at Brighton’s Old Market. I was lucky enough to have the support slot, performing to a sold-out audience. Now the theatres are closing. We’re in for the long haul, but it’s one day at a time. It will end, though, and the reunion parties will be incredible.

After work, I went for a walk with a friend. We dropped off some food to someone in self-isolation, then drank beer on the beach. Every farewell right now is difficult, not knowing how long it will be for.

Today, I increased my plank time to 81 seconds.

Lockdown Retreat

Last night, I felt a little overwhelmed by current events. The government’s advice against “unnecessary social contact of all kinds” means avoiding pubs, theatres and social events. My office shut yesterday and, if Britain follows France and Italy, I might be stuck at home alone for a few weeks, while the world outside is chaos.

It’s certainly a scary and unsettling time. I’m very lucky that I am healthy and have a relatively low risk; and that nobody I know has been hit by this virus. But the isolation and uncertainty feel very threatening. Particularly since we have no idea where social distancing ends – as one BBC update put it, describing the Imperial College report: “this approach comes with a major problem – there is no exit strategy … cases would soar as soon as measures are lifted… [measures] could need to be in place until a vaccine is available, which could take up to 18 months.

Whatever happens, we’re in for a good few weeks of lockdown and I’ll be spending a lot of time in my flat. I found myself thinking of Desmond from Lost, trapped in the bunker. And I decided, the only way to endure this is to focus on seeing it a positive experience. How many times have I wished for life to slow down so I could focus on things? And here I am with lots of time for quiet contemplation.

I will treat this as a retreat and try to make the best of it. The lack of events and gatherings means space to review my priorities, to make some time for the spiritual. I’m planning a routine, and figuring out some things to do while I am here. There’s no excuse not to do my physio exercises over the next few weeks.

It’s also good to have my job. I am lucky enough to be a full-time employee in a relatively unexposed business. I have a great team, and I’ve found myself really pleased to (virtually) see them today.

While I am restricting social contact, I did run some errands today. Early in the morning I dropped by my local branch of Small Batch. I’m not sure how long that will be open for, as they may concentrate on the larger branches, and I will miss the cafe if that does happen.

Tesco’s was a nightmare. I assume this is just people gathering stockpiles, and that it will calm down in a few days. It brought back memories of New York in 1999, when I went shopping before a hurricane. I went to the supermarket and bought beer, watching everyone else buying water, candles and the like. This time I am preparing better.

I also popped out in the evening to deliver some supplies to friends who are self-isolating. It seems a good way of doing my 10,000 steps. I’ve also put a note in the hall of my block, offering to help anyone self-isolating here, but nobody has needed me yet.

Meanwhile, I try to appreciate the strangeness of the times, finding myself in the sort of scenario that happens at the start of disaster novels. I think there will be long term effects to this, and the world is going to change. I remember Douglas Coupland’s Generation X describing international air travel as decadent. That’s just one thing I can see that changing as a result of what my German cousin referred to the the ‘swivet’ (apparently an obscure American word for “a fluster or panic“).

We have to retreat into smaller worlds for a time. I’m going to try to make the best of it, and hopefully come out of it well. And, if I really hate it, I’ll buy a games console (I’d love to try Death Stranding).

I can currently hold a plank for 67 seconds.

Walking Saltdean to Hove

This last week has been a mess of tiredness, hard work and melancholy, so I needed a good walk to blow the cobwebs away. I didn’t want to be out too long but I wasn’t in the mood for walking near home; my regular routes feel a little overworn from grinding out steps for the fitbit.

It was an extravagance, but I took an Uber to Saltdean and walked back from there. It was raining lightly as I set off, but that was all the better to clear my head.

Just outside Rottingdean, someone had erected a crude wooden cross on the shoreline:

The undercliff was quiet. I watched the effortless flight of the gulls and was  transfixed by odd birdcalls from the shore (I need Shazam for birdsong!). The sky like a Constable painting.

In the Marina boatyard, a painted rudder reminded me of a Mark Doty poem from a recent workshop (‘that green is what I’ve wanted all my life‘). The water in the harbour was calm, and I was fascinated by the complication of the sails on one of the boats. It was for sale, and I briefly considered a pirate’s life, remembering William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night. I’ve forgotten most of that novel, but I love the idea of the Pirate Articles as a founding document for a better America.

I had breakfast at Mac’s near the Marina, which is probably my favourite cafe. They do chips that are crisp and hot, and I’ve found nowhere else that does them so well. Then back onto the seafront, striding west.

Closer in, the town looked grubby. There is a perfect distance to see the i360 from: on the Downs, it’s like a huge flagpole, declaring ‘Brighton is here’. Closer up, it looks like a big chimney. The terraces on Marina Drive are pretty much derelict, but there are plans afoot to renovate, the sort of development scheme that makes you wonder if the neglect was intentional.

At the end of the walk, the sun was fighting through the clouds. I walked home through empty shopping streets, wondering if it was the early hour or the pandemic keeping people home.

The best thing about the walk was the little bits of graffiti, the messages that people had felt driven to leave along the way, like secret codes.

Walking vs Hiking

I’ve been enjoying Craig Mod’s Ridgeline newsletters, which cover various topics but particularly Japan and walking. There has also been some fascinating discussion of process – Craig is working within a young medium and leaving a clear trail for other people who want to follow. While I can’t justify the expense of the Explorer’s Club Membership, the free and paid access seem incredibly well-balanced.

There’s a real joy to reading these mini-essays, and seeing how they expand into larger pieces, such as a recent article on Pizza Toast in Japan. But, for me, the best bit is the insights into walking, such as Craig’s discussion of the difference between walking and hiking:

I suppose technical definition separates the two. Walks are what you might do in your average suburban neighborhood. Hikes, in the mountains. But “walk” is chosen deliberately, meant to be inclusive. By even just using the word “hike,” folks drop off: Not young enough, not strong enough, not ready for the bugs. You can trick a person into hiking by calling it a walk. I’ve done so many times. And “walk” denotes a thing to be easily grabbed. A walk is there to be taken.

Also, there is the contract. I would describe the contract of a “walk” as relatively clear. One foot after another. You leave your home, you walk along the Brooklyn Bridge, you eat some pizza; a walk thus completed. “Hike” is perhaps more fuzzy, the breadth of potential much wider — embark on a hike without double checking and you may end up on the summit of Kilimanjaro or in Berkeley Hills or eating apple pie on Pike’s Peak. On my long walk a man gave me frozen bacon on a mountain pass. But even there, even then, it never felt like a hike. I was walking, the day was bounded, a few more steps and I’d be heading down the other side, and few more steps after that, would be at my inn for the night. The contracts were clear, the bacon cool against my knee.

Withdrawn Traces

My friend Kate recently lent me her copy of Withdrawn Traces by Leon Noakes and Sara Hawys Roberts. The book is a biography of Richey Edwards aka Richey Manic. It also raises a lot of questions about his disappearance (not least ‘Can you ask too many rhetorical questions?’)

The book quotes from Edward’s archives, which is an incredible experience. I was obsessed with the Manic’s third album, The Holy Bible, during 1994/5. The record is an uncompromising and brutally intellectual record, released as Edwards’ mental health reached crisis point.

At the time, Edwards’ decline was documented by the music press, his scars displayed in powerful black and white photos, his extreme statements cast as pull quotes. The ongoing illness played into rock and roll mythology, which fed the self-destruction of both Richey Manic and some of his fans (as Edwards in turn had taken Kurt Cobain as an influence).

Reading excerpts from his diaries strips away the glamour. The story becomes sadder and the intellectual structures are much less rigorous than they appeared when edited and honed in interviews. Rather than describing the self-sacrifice of a rock star, Withdrawn Traces depicts the sad decline of a human being.

One quote from the book stood out, which originally appeared in the Melody Maker in December 1994:

When you’re in the places I’ve been in, the first place especially, it’s just any job, any occupation. Housewife, bricklayer, plumber, somebody who works for South Wales Electricity Board, whatever. It doesn’t pick or choose people who pick up a pen… It’s very romantic to think ‘I’m a tortured writer’, but mental institutions are not full of people in bands.

The mythic nature of rock and roll, with it’s doomed genius archetypes doesn’t translate into real life – even for the people enacting those archetypes. The book was heartbreaking, but a powerful insight into much of what was happening behind the scenes in 1994/5.

Making Space for Contemplation

On Saturday afternoon, I went to a poetry workshop in Hastings. Over a three hour period we read and discussed six poems by the writers Elizabeth Bishop and Mark Doty.

Obviously, I attended workshops and seminars as part of my MA, but those sessions were shorter, and we would get through a lot of material; we were also dissecting the poems, seeing how they worked, rather than considering their effect. Sitting with six poems over ninety minutes, sometimes in silence, was a powerful experience.

The poems themselves were incredibly moving, but new depths emerged as I sat and reconsidered them. It made me think about how rare it is to make so much time for art, to sit with it rather than liking it and scrolling on. To allow the space for ‘eternity in an hour’. And that led me to thinking about how novelty overwhelms me in terms of culture: the new-but-mediocre takes space that could be used up for revisiting things I already love. Consumption drives out contemplation.

There is a great quote in the film ‘About Schmidt’ about losing sections of your life just through not thinking about them – are there memories and experiences I would benefit from thinking back to?

There’s a lovely blog post by Cal Newport, summarising Robert Hassan’s book Uncontained. Hassan travelled on a ship from Melbourne to Singapore with no digital media, few books and a different language to most of the crew. Faced with “endless hours with nothing concrete to do”, Hassan says

I began to think about my own history and my life and things that have happened and to begin to explore those memories [and] think about what was around them, what was behind them, and I began to make discoveries. It is amazing to think that [these details are in] there, in all of us, mostly undisturbed unless we devote the time to concentrate and go looking.

The descriptions of how Hassan spends his time are powerful, falling naturally into a pattern of bipshasl sleep, and taking a chair apart and putting it back together. Rather than being bored, Hassan concluded that he would do it again. A similar story was told in the guardian recently, when Mark O’Connel spent 24 hours sitting in a forest clearing as part of a “wilderness solo”.

Finding such space in normal life is not easy when there are so many finely-tuned distractions; but attending that workshop was a good reminder of the depths of engagement that are possible when we give things enough space. The question is how to do it.

Monthnotes – February 2020

February was a scrappy, windblown sort of month, which at first passed slowly then accelerated, leaving me a little surprised that it’s over. It’s been good though.

The month was bookended by two trips outside Brighton. On the 1st I went on a walk around the Long Man of Wilmington, and on the 29th, visited Hastings for a poetry workshop. In between, the month has been filled with amazing conversations and inspiration. New ideas and plans are blossoming.

Work was challenging, with a difficult release taking a lot of attention. My back has been better, but my sleeping (and sleep hygiene) has been less good, leaving me a little over-tired. Sometime to be more careful of this month. The job is still great fun, despite being challenging, and I wouldn’t want it to be easy all the time.

I didn’t finish as many books as I did last month, but have a lot of books that are almost finished. The highlight of the month was Jenny Offill’s Weather, which was inspiring and intensely emotional. I was also lucky enough to read a proof of Kate Bulpitt’s upcoming novel Purple People, which is being released in June. Kate describes the book as a ‘jolly distopia’, and it feels strangely relevant to the current situation (while being more fun and retro!)

Taking 10,000 steps a day proved challenging at points, particularly during Storm Ciara, when I was 8,000 steps short at 8pm. I still managed a total of 378,708, and a daily average of 13,058. My record was 33,241 on the 16th, when I went hiking on a rainy day. My lowest count was 10,112, just 9 steps more than my target. While I’m walking more than January, I’m also apparently getting better at only just passing my target. I think the walking is good for me though, and ensures I am out the house and moving every single day.

I saw three films – the Conan remake was terrible, Hustlers was OK, and Red Scorpion probably would have been more fun to watch at 15 years old.

Other things: Brighton Java had an interested talk from Luke Whiting about Kubernetes; I saw Emma Frankland’s stunning performance piece Hearty; and visited London for an Invisibles meet-up. As part of that visit to London I saw Cat Vincent give a stunning talk on magick that I’m still processing.

I was inspired by so many things last month, but I’ve also seen how important it is to focus on those things. It’s too easy for my attention to be distracted by background music, screens or general monkey mind. The new ideas and inspirations need to be given the space they deserve.