Every call you put on hold is flashing, waiting to resume
In this issue: dislocation, disconnect, distress, and seeking a way to trust oneself. There’s also mention and discussion of suicide and eating disorders, so please consume with care.
It is July 2021. “Fuck,” I whisper, and sit down on the mat.
It is a very beautiful room, lots of plants lined up at one end, a fireplace pillar in the centre, huge windows and glass doors on every wall. It is very peaceful and very lovely, and I have said “fuck” in this beautiful room at least once a day since I arrived.
The first time was when I was introducing myself. “Why am I here? Well, it was a real fucker of a winter,” I say, and look around quickly to gauge reactions. I was aiming for an icebreaker, but the faces looking back at me just look politely amused. Oh god. “And, well, I lost my job, and got a nice severance payout, so I thought – why not do something pretty out of character for me, and spend it on a yoga/pilates retreat in Portugal?”
All the subsequent times I have said “fuck” in this beautiful, peaceful room have been during yoga sessions.
I’ll be doing some kind of pose where my knees are bent, and I need to lean in one direction or another, and there’ll be a twinge – not pain, really, just a Wrong Feeling – and I will simply fold up like an envelope. I will sit there, hand massaging my knee, signalling quietly that something is painful, even though it’s not painful, not yet. It doesn’t hurt, but my default is to act to any possible observer as though it hurts in order to justify why I am saying “fuck” in this beautiful room and no longer participating in the yoga class, and instead staring at the floor and waiting to see if I’m going to start crying.
It is April 2019 in Bolzano, Italy, and I am lying on the bed in the apartment I’ve rented from a friend for two months, with my feet pointing at the ceiling. Slowly, I swing one leg towards my face, and then the other. Then I bend my knees – which have always had kneecaps that seem to swim around and dislocate at the slightest provocation – and I hear it. It’s like my legs have suddenly become rainsticks, small pebbles dropping down through intricate wooden channels, the sound of wet gravel pressed into a fist.
Two days earlier I’d decided to walk down a mountain. More specifically, I’d taken the 12-minute cable car ride up to Soprabolzano and asked the woman at the tourist information booth for advice on walking trails. “You can get back down to Bolzano this way, via the Earth Pyramids,” she told me in German, “but do you have the right shoes for it?” She glanced doubtfully at my sneakers.
“I’ll be fine,” I told her.
The first half of the trail was beautiful – a woodsy path by a river that turned into a waterfall, and the astonishing Earth Pyramids, which look too strange and beautiful to be real. It wasn’t until I hit the dusty, winding road overlooking the valley that I realised I was going to pay for my hubris. I stopped to peel a mandarin, and felt the muscles in my legs groaning around the joints. I’d picked up a good stick for support, but it wasn’t going to be enough.
The only way to go is forward and down, I told myself. A year earlier in the summer of 2018, I’d visited Bolzano for a summer school, and shared a hostel room for a night with a couple of girls who’d hiked over the Dolomites to get there.
“It’s way worse coming down than going up,” they’d told me. “You never realise how much worse it is. Up feels hard, but down is torture.”
By the time I got back to the apartment I was limping. I spent most of the next day in bed, and the day after that. I was fascinated and horrified by that sound – the weird gravelly noise of the knee-bits moving around – and oscillated between listening to it carefully, and straightening my body out to keep my knees as far away from my ears as possible.
I have done damage to myself. The knowledge sat in my brain like some kind of wild animal, panting, regarding me from within lunging distance. I decided not to look at it, much like I was not looking at several things, including but not limited to the fact that I was once again careening towards emotional devastation as soon as I got back to Germany. I’d written a whole song about it before I left the country, and managed to entirely forget it until a couple of weeks before I returned home. Whatever pain there had been up to that point, I knew I’d done something that would result in serious, as-yet-unexperienced, inevitable forthcoming pain, but as long as I didn’t look at it I wouldn’t have to deal with what that meant.
It is Saturday the 26th of June 2021, and it is 11.30pm, and Betül and Vito are asking if I want to go for a drink. We get beers and sit by the canal, and Betül feels dizzy from the VR-immersive Van Gogh exhibition they went to several hours before, and she goes home. Vito and I stay out, and spend the next several hours in a playground making ourselves nauseous on things that spin and swing. We realise it’s the first time we’ve ever hung out, just the two of us, in the three years since he and Betül got together.
“You know what I haven’t done in ages? What I can’t wait to do again?” asks Vito, perched on a swing. “Stay out until it gets light and the birds start singing. It doesn’t have to be tonight.”
We go walking through Berlin – along the canal, almost aimlessly at first. The city is so eerie – it’s nearly 4am on a Sunday morning, but all the people around us go about the streets and canal banks as though it were a relaxed Tuesday afternoon. Nobody seems drunk or disoriented or loud. Everyone just quietly going about their business – and so many of them for the time of night, or rather morning. It is mid-pandemic, post-pandemic, peri-pandemic; it is un-normal, hyper-normal.
Vito and I describe the city as we walk through it, building fantastical layers on top of it – a playground turned fetish club, a strange and definitely haunted satanic light coming from a church, a helicopter watching our every move, a rabbit with a secret agenda. We reinforce the weirdness, ornamenting it and giving it new shapes.
“A guy in my job coaching course killed himself,” I tell him, as the sun starts to come up. “We found out three days ago. I barely knew him, only ever saw him on the screen and barely heard him because he never got his microphone working properly, but I can’t think about anything else.”
“Our coach told us, and I was on the train calling into the Zoom meeting and I couldn’t connect to the audio so it took me a while to get it, and then I got it. And then we took a fifteen-minute break to process that, and then he continued with the coaching session. Isn’t that wild? Shouldn’t someone’s life ending that way cause more of a shockwave?”
I hadn’t talked about it yet – really talked about it, teased out the ideas in my head, pushed my anger and sadness and bewilderment into the air around me – and the space between one day and the next, the hours when we were awake and walking when we shouldn’t be, so tired and woozy and yet so clear-headed, with Vito who I never spend time with one-on-one and yet have a strangely close friendship with, seemed like the place to do it. Everything familiar, yet rearranged into a new landscape. A man I’d spoken a total of three sentences to had killed himself, and beforehand he’d told us that he might not be at the next coaching session, and not once had the thought crossed the minds of anyone in that class that he was depressed, and now he was dead and I was consumed by that fact.
I had come home from the train trip with that Zoom call to an empty apartment, and there was a dead bee on the floor of our bathroom. I’d thought for a few seconds that it might be alive, that maybe I could save it, but it was definitely dead. For a few weeks in late June and early July there were dead and dying bees everywhere in the city. I picked this one up and put it on my shelf and sometimes I cried about this bee I couldn’t save. Properly cried. Sobbed.
“Caitlin. Get rid of the bee. You really need to get rid of the bee,” Betül would tell me the next week, as Julian and Vito nodded, wide-eyed. I’d just been stung by another bee I’d tried to save. The dead bee from the bathroom was on my shelf for nearly three weeks before I buried it in one of my pot plants.
Vito and I could keep walking through the city that morning, just kept going forever, it seems, but we part ways a little after 5am. Both the sun and the birds are up in full force. As soon as I say goodbye at Yorckstraße station and turn to go, my exhaustion hits me so hard that I stagger halfway across the road and nearly collapse there and then on the asphalt.
It is June 2020 and I still live in Flensburg, and someone who I used to be really close to but haven’t spoken to in eleven years has just died of complications from anorexia. I howl, lying on my floorboards, entirely out of control of my body for full minutes on end. I stare at her chat window on Facebook, type messages into it that she’ll never read. I wish you'd been one of the people I got back in touch with when the lockdown happened. It would have been so nice to catch up.
I have never felt as distant from Australia as I have in 2021. Circumstances change constantly both here and there, and never in sync. That used to simply be the case with seasons, and with time differences, but now lockdown periods feel like the new seasons. Nobody in New South Wales seemed to really understand what it was like here in the early months of this year, and now much of Australia is locked down and we are not and the gulf just grows wider. I don’t know what to say to my family or friends there – they are experiencing as new shock what we just lived through for seven months straight; but we are already starting to forget the feeling, now in a new era of in-between that is perhaps already reaching its end.
My sister told me she’s pregnant last week. The frame of our family will extend to a new generation, and there will be a whole new person in the world, and my story with them is in some ways yet to begin, and in some ways began the first day I met my sister. Bethany sends me updates and photos and I still can’t quite hold the idea in my mind. We talk for an hour and a half over video chat, her hair swinging in the sunlight as she walks around and around her garden. We talk about our bodies and ideas of ourselves and the things we inherit.
It is early August 2021, and I am walking through the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Straße for the first time. There are lines in the grass marking the outlines of the houses that used to stand here, that formed the border between East and West for a time – a door to one world, a window to another. Living in this in-between place in those in-between years must have been so strange, so particular, and I wonder if they ever imagined the future where the houses would be gone and their memories would be recorded for thousands or millions of people to listen to. If they could imagine people picnicking in the sun on the grass where their homes were.
More than that, I wonder how they learned to trust themselves – their judgement, their instincts – in unknown and constantly shifting circumstances. In the end, isn’t our trust in our instinct largely built on the foundation that we’ve had a certain amount of exposure and experience within a set of known conditions? For years and years I’ve imagined people in the DDR feeling a constant sense of threat and wondered how they could bear it; these days I wonder if it’s really that different to the experience any of us have in the world. The answer is yes – the answer is no. The threat is located differently for different people.
I wonder when they knew – really knew – that one thing was over, and another thing had begun. I think of a piece by Daisy Alioto about the vibes being off in New York City this summer: “When we say we don’t want to be alive for the end of the world, what we mean is that we don’t want to be alive for the end of our world. But it’s ending every day in all the usual ways.”
It is maybe May, or perhaps April, or some other month in early 2021. Julian and I are sitting in his bedroom, eating cakes we bought from a small place around the corner. We are quiet for a moment, beginning our pastry excavations.
“Do you ever have – what are they called – intrusive thoughts?” he asks me.
There is always traffic noise outside his windows, echoing around the enclosed balcony.
I imagine myself down on the street outside, imagine a car or bus careening off the road and onto the pavement, imagine diving out of the way, imagine not diving out of the way, imagine walking suddenly into traffic without warning. I have absolutely no desire to vehicularly harm myself or be harmed, and I have imagined these things since I was five or six years old.
“All… all kinds?”
He regards his cake. “I imagine food as being mouldy. Like I look at fresh food and imagine it’s gone bad and mouldy.”
“That’s the only kind of intrusive thought you have?”
Some days it feels like all my thoughts are intrusive ones. “Have you ever eaten mouldy food without realising it?” I ask him. He shakes his head no. “I once bought a muffin from a convenience store, I was so hungry and didn’t realise it was mouldy until I’d bitten into it and it tasted wrong, and then I looked at it really carefully and saw.”
His face scrunches up. “Eugh.”
“I’ve never forgotten it.” These cakes are delicious – one is called a Maulwurfkuchen, or mole cake, because it looks a bit like a molehill with its chocolate crumb topping. There are bananas and cream involved. I’ve never tried it before, and it’s a delight.
I don’t want fear to be my overriding instinct.
I am sometimes so afraid of the way the body destroys itself. From the perspective of the thinking mind within the body, it feels like there are three primary ways: either our mind makes decisions that cause harm intentionally, or it makes decisions that cause harm unintentionally, or the body deteriorates within other systems. But are they really all that different? Do we really have that much more control over our minds than our bodies’ other systems? What does control even mean in that context?
I have two primary intrusive thoughts: I love you so much and I am so sorry. These two thoughts will spring into my mind in all kinds of circumstances, directed at all kinds of people or places or plants or nothing at all. They will overwhelm me on some days; on others I will listen to them carefully and gently; on yet other days I will push them to the side and tell them to be quiet. They represent the best and the worst of me, both thoughts – my hungers and humilities, my shames and shining moments, selfishness and jealousy and grace and thoughtlessness and fear and growth and desire. They become my guiding stars and the weights on my ankles. I think about them every single day.
“It’s important to listen to your body,” Shirah says to me. We are back in the beautiful room in Portugal that I have said “fuck” in at least once a day, in late July 2021. The class is over, people are getting tea. Shirah has been teaching me pilates since 2019, when I took it up in the midst of my stress leave, and I have felt differently inside my body’s chaotic structure ever since. She is very good at revealing unexpected connections and describing movement in precise and illuminating ways. She knows about my knee issues.
“I’m trying to,” I tell her. “It’s just that so much of the time, the thing that’s coming up is – sorry, I’m definitely going to cry – is fear.” My voice splinters around the last word.
Shirah asks if she can hug me, and then asks if she can help me. Some of the others in the group have gathered around to give pointers or just nod in agreement and empathy. I plant my left foot forward, knee bent, and Shirah adjusts my stance, gives instructions on redistributing weight and tension.
“How does that feel?” she asks, crouched beside me.
It is mid-August 2021, and I am dancing – really dancing – for the first time in I don’t know how long. My knee twinges occasionally, but I adjust and keep dancing. I dance for three days, feeling happy, feeling sad, feeling tired, feeling loved, feeling lost, feeling nothing but the breeze and the sweat on my face under my mask and the bass thumping in my sternum.
Hey there friends.
I had the title for this edition in my head for the last two months, but it was a really tough one to start writing. So I actually ended up writing a song about it instead, for the Acoustic Guitar Project – you can find that song (also called Whiplash) and some accompanying videos here:
Thanks for hanging in there in this unplanned hiatus, and thank you to everyone who told me they were waiting for a new edition, it was good motivation. Come tell me more things in the comment section, or just reach out in the usual ways.
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