13. Immune, Part II
A knife that cuts both ways
In this issue: Did you miss me? I missed you. We may yet miss each other again. Also, tattoos, unicorns, and the search for joy.
“Did I tell you why I was getting this tattoo?” I ask the artist.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t, but I’m desperately trying to cover for the fact that I didn’t really have an answer when she’d asked me to tell her “something interesting about Australia.” (“We lost the Great Emu War” is always my go-to answer for fun facts but it didn’t really land with her, much to my embarrassment. I used to be so good at telling that story.)
She shakes her head.
“Well, I got the first one when I started my PhD, the hot air balloon that’s also a lightbulb. It was meant to represent my thoughts always, uh, lifting me up. Or, well, it was supposed to remind me that that’s what they’re meant to do. That I should, um,” I flounder.
Hey, didn’t you used to be good at this explaining thing? I ask myself.
“That I should… do that. And then, and now I’ve quit my PhD. Two days ago. So.” Maybe not being able to gesticulate while I talk is making this harder. “The lavender is to like, calm it down. The other tattoo I mean. Or maybe my thoughts.”
The needle buzzes along my forearm. “Mm. I see,” she says. “Yeah, getting a tattoo is like a kind of therapy.”
“Totally.” I look out the window.
“How are you doing, are you okay?” she asks. “The colour ink can hurt more.”
“I’m fine. I think I’m just getting to that point where I’ve felt the needle so much it starts feeling like something else in my brain.” Sometimes it feels almost euphoric. This just feels like a different genre of buzzing.
How do you feel? I ask myself. How do you feel how do you feel how do you
“I quit my doctorate today!” I exclaim into the microphone. Cheers from the room. “So there’s some of that energy in the mix! Anyway, let’s! Get! Started!”
I started the Unicorn Open Mic last December, shortly after returning to Berlin from New York. We did a soft launch to see how it would run, and then began running it properly in February. It was meant to be January, but then I came down with Covid. So it’s been five months.
Community building was the intention I set for 2022. My fingers are always pressing against the edges of the space in my heart where a stable, reliable, readily-available group-dynamic should sit. I spent so much of my twenties creating new friend groups, built for purpose, good for a semester’s worth of memories, *slaps roof of the friend group* this baby can fit so much emotional infrastructure into it, it’s an all-you-can-eat short-term drama and big feelings smorgasbord, turns out if you move city every six months for a decade your brain starts picking up patterns you weren’t really intending to set. Listen: I may have zero first-hand experience in having like a serious adult romantic relationship or whatever, but orchestrating friend groups into existence using a wide array of tools ranging from the social media platform du jour to obsessive photographic documentation to event and/or travel planning to a fun and quirky group name? I’m your girl. It felt like it was time to blow the dust off that skill set and see what the year had to offer.
The Unicorn is a queer feminist space that’s open to everyone, and I think that – much like I started this newsletter intending it to be all fun little anecdotes and magic and so on but quickly transformed it into Hey Man I’m Having A Big Old Wistful Pondery Mood Over Here Okay – the open mic rapidly went from “cute little new music and poetry thing” to a weekly benevolent-chaos-vibe distribution service. Every Monday I stand in front of the microphone and just kind of let words happen out of my mouth, and see what the results are.
The first few times I was so anxious that it took me a couple of hours to wind down after it had finished – had everyone had a good time? Did it run smoothly enough? Then there was one night where everything happened like magic – the energy was there, the music, the poetry, everyone was listening and participating and determined to just be there with each other in the room. I floated home.
It really felt like magic. It happened a few times. And then.
And then, what? Sometimes it feels like I’m reaching blindly in the dark for a light switch that seems to have moved. And then the light comes on, and it’s – dimmer, somehow, or the wrong colour, or it doesn’t feel like light at all, just a change of shadows.
I remember shortly after meeting Corinne last year, sometime in summer, sitting outside Laksmi and saying to her, full of delight, “I just really love life,” and I remember the exact expression on her face when I said it. I remember that feeling now as though it’s a ghost sliding through the connective tissue of my body. I even have evidence of it, written down in this very newsletter. I know I was happy then, and I know, I know I know I know that I will feel that way again before too long.
But god, I’m always hungry for it. I am ravenous.
It comes on in bursts – I had a week in mid-to-late April this year where I felt like everything in my life was incredible and amazing, music and creativity thrumming in my fingertips and the edges of my ears and along my collarbones. I remember that, it wasn’t that long ago. I can be pretty sure. I know I told a lot of people how happy I was that week.
Now I walk around the streets of the neighbourhood that used to be endlessly fascinating to me, and I wish it still held that captivating quality for me, all the time. I think back to last year, when I was walking all the time, 7.7 kilometres a day on average, and always discovering something new around some street corner or bend in the canal. I think of how I used to paint, and take pictures of things to paint, and paint some more. I think of how I spent evenings at Julian’s or Carrington’s houses during lockdown. I think about how I used to write this newsletter.
I felt happy then, right? And now this is something else? Do I miss those days, despite everything?
I am so hungry for it. An appetite outstripping any other – food, sex, who needs it, who needs any of it when I know what it feels like to love life? To be sparkling from crown to toe with the good, bright, clear fountain of happy satisfaction bubbling away inside me? Who could possibly even satiate those other appetites without this one?
Have I… have I felt it too much, maybe? Have I used up my quota? Eaten my portion already?
Had that one night at the Unicorn been so wonderful, actually? Or was it just heightened and sharpened because it came in the midst of a lot of turmoil and uncertainty, specifically within days of the renewed invasion of Ukraine? Do I need the endless grey of a seven-month-long lockdown, or the threat of impending war, in order to feel the contrasting joy?
I worry that my mind is not a sustainable source of happiness, that I become immune to the joy in things I love. I worry that my life is a series of chapters of limerence, a concept that I read about ten months ago and I’ve had the Wikipedia article open in a tab ever since because it fully took me out at the knees to have my persistent attachment patterns and issues spelled out for me so, so specifically. I worry that it’s all a sign of immaturity; I worry that it’s all a sign of ageing.
There’s a song I often sing at Unicorn, because Toni – my co-host – says it’s her favourite. Robin says it’s their favourite too – a surprising number of people, actually, I didn’t expect it to resonate quite so much. It’s about how there’s a temptation to dwell on misery in the name of producing art from it, the mythology of the “broken artist” building something beautiful exclusively from suffering. I think I was writing a manifesto of sorts. I sang it that night, the one I’ve been talking about. It felt amazing. The irony was there, I guess, but somehow it blended in so seamlessly with the way everyone was feeling, the intensity and triviality and seriousness and absurdity of gathering to share art on a dark and difficult day.
Had that one night at Unicorn been the only night, actually? Was it really the pinnacle it feels like sometimes? I find myself at the end of almost every night there, pouring my heart into the microphone, summoning up applause from the room for the artists, repeating over and over – “God I love this, god I love doing this, it’s just the best.” I’m not lying. I’m not even exaggerating. It wouldn’t work if I was.
I look out into the room and see my friends there – I see a place where I know I’ll always find someone to chat with and spend a good evening with. I see the people who come back every week. I see the people who’ve become so central to my life in such a short time – Toni, Ella, John.
Do I really not feel joy the same way as I have always done? Julian and I had breakfast at a café the other day, and at some point were using our hands as models of the earth and sun in order to understand the way that seasons worked, abandoning cutlery and baked beans while attempting to identify the Tropic of Capricorn. An hour later as we were walking through Schöneberg, I laughed as I tried to imagine how we’d looked to the other people at the café. At the time I’d been far too absorbed to consider it.
I had a panic attack last Wednesday. John spoke to me on the phone.
“Can you list some things you can see?”
“The cobblestones I’m walking on. The light coming through the leaves. The evening sky over the park.”
“Some things you can hear?”
“People across the road, talking. Birds. Traffic, but far away. You, on the other end of the phone.”
“Some things you can feel, at the level of your skin?”
“The breeze, there’s a breeze. The ground under my shoes under my feet.”
“Some things you can smell?”
“The summer air. The salt on my skin, from the sweat.”
Whenever I thought about writing this newsletter again, I thought, “It’s been too long and I don’t know how to do it anymore and my brain is too tired since I had Covid and what do people even want from it and what do I even want from it.”
I think about my favourite newsletter of this… let’s call it “genre”, the genre of newsletter I think Figs fits into, which is written by Leah Ginnivan; it used to be named Snoozeletter and now it’s Trials of Void and I cannot recommend it highly enough, you should absolutely subscribe. Leah’s writing had a big influence on me starting Figs in the first place. Here’s an excerpt from last October:
“Of course, as adults we also need to be witnessed and attended to – we just get more complicated preferences about who loves us and how. Years ago I unexpectedly found a recently heartbroken friend in a bar and ending up in a long discussion about love while getting trashed on whiskey sours. I remember he said part of his personal definition of love was ‘speaking trauma and having it heard’. I think what he meant is love is possible when you know someone won’t reject your reality or shame you for your feelings. It is possible to feel loved when someone is there for you consistently – their presence creating a containing space where your reality can be gently, and maybe jointly, explored, as you do the same for them.”
Great, right? And it speaks to the impulse in me to write like this, to reproduce experience and thought and send it out into the world and see how it lands with people – the people I care about and see all the time, the ones far away, the ones I don’t even know. I break down the experience I’m having into fragments the way John asked me to break down the sensory inputs I was getting. I tell you, you speak back to me. You ask me to keep writing. We explore reality a bit, gently.
Writing and then performing music is pretty much the same thing, for me. Asking others to bear witness to a deconstructed fragment of experience and not to reject it. Sometimes though, it’s clear that people are hearing a tune or even hearing lyrics, but not really registering them. They receive the pleasant combination of sounds, but the meaning is elusive. Context – reality – is stripped away, and honestly there’s not much you can do about that. It’s probably the way most art is received most of the time. And yet I think there’s still something in the pursuit of love (and perhaps joy, as a result) in creating art and asking people to interpret it and share the experience of it. To bear witness, to create their own experience out of it.
Had that one night at Unicorn even existed? Had it been, in fact, one night? The vagaries of memory shift and swirl in my head, foggier than it used to be (is it long Covid is it depression is it something that happens in your thirties is it a vitamin deficiency is it something else) even though it was only four months ago. I look back through my archives at videos and pictures and can’t pinpoint the date. February, maybe even before the invasion in Ukraine. Or March? How many nights have I blended together, or scrubbed away? Who’s keeping track, who else is documenting the time and the experience and will be able to recite my own history back at me when it becomes clear what a deeply unreliable narrator I am?
This Monday just past, we sat together in the bar and shared bits of reality together. Bore witness. Acknowledged each other. Saw pain, and bore one another through it. It doesn’t feel exactly like joy. It doesn’t feel like the numb buzz either. Maybe it’s the foundation of something else. It makes me happy, I think. At the end, we all sing together, and when I can look around the room and see everyone there in that moment, hear all the voices reaching for each other, that joy hits me for a few minutes.
There’s more to say, if I can bring myself to say it. This is maybe the fourth draft I’ve started since November and labelled as the 13th issue, my files are a mess now. I’ll try to keep writing, and I trust you’ll forgive me when it takes far longer than I planned or promised. I am currently trying to accept that I must be just okay at things before I can be good at them, and that that’s actually a good thing, actually, in fact!! And also that sometimes I can be good at a thing and then fall out of practice and have to get good at it again.
Write back, if you’d like to. Reply to this email. Leave a comment. Talk to me. I’ve missed you.
And send a signal of your optimism for the impending existence of future writings by subscribing, if you haven’t yet. It’s free.
Hey Caitlin, you have found wonderful words to describe this sisyphean struggle of striving to these rare moments of intensity and joy, with vast canyons between. Wondering if they were even real, because our perspective changes. Damning time for advancing so mercilessly, damning human nature for not being concerned with our happiness. But I have found solace in the idea that time is just another category of perception, a way of moving through reality, and that everything that happened is still resonating in the present, à la Emerson: “I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” And furthermore, maybe it is for the better that human nature isn't concerned with our own happiness, but instead a way for something greater than ourselves to work itself into the world through us. Thank you for writing this piece and please continue to do so ..
A big embrace! Dorian