8. The Twist
Don't sacrifice yourself on the altar of narrative
In this edition: a lot more swans, several of them dead, I’m afraid.
Okay, let’s give this first bit some mood music.
Robin and I discovered a new sport the other day while wandering around the Engelbecken in Kreuzberg. We’ve landed on Swan Chase as a name for it. It is not, as you might imagine, the sport of chasing swans (a pursuit for those with no sense of self-preservation, one must assume), but rather enticing swans to chase other things. We took part only as spectators: a family stood on the other side of the pond, and launched their small toy motorboat out into the water, driving it in wide sweeps until it caught the eye of the single lone swan on patrol. The swan, member of a species that is ever-ready to throw wings with literally any contender who so much as looks at them funny, naturally took this as a personal insult.
A swan in attack mode is a magnificent sight. Wings working enough to keep its body just out of the water, not quite taking off, not quite landing, the swan plaplaplaplaps along the surface with its feet and lunges for the motorboat, chasing it a full twenty metres across the pond. Everyone cheers: me, Robin, the young family, and the six classic-neighbourhood-old-guys who’ve gathered to watch. The father, holding the boat’s controls, makes the interesting strategic decision to steer the boat back towards his young children, who are now faced with the rapidly approaching swan, which at this point consists of about 70% violent flap and 30% razor beak. There is screaming. There is fleeing. There is a splash. The swan has caught the boat, and flipped it over, where it now floats just beyond reach. The family searches for a branch to fish it out with. The swan saunters back to the middle of the lake, and stretches its wings in gloating victory. It’s a very good sport, and Robin and I are thinking of making merchandise.
“Like scarves or jerseys?” I asked.
“Oh, I was thinking more like the Björk dress,” they replied. “Although… I wonder if that’s a bit like turning up to a football match with a fake dead Ronaldo draped around your neck?”
For better or for worse, swans seem to be a persistent motif for me in the last year. I’m honestly… not fully prepared to delve into what that reveals about me, given the last edition of this newsletter.
To be fair, some of these instances were more about the whole city or country having a bit of a deeply sad swan moment. As the canals all froze over in early February, Berlin was briefly obsessed with the swan that was tragically trapped in the ice as it formed, and died overnight. For several days people came and took photos. Someone flung a small bouquet of flowers down around it. It was a distressingly photogenic scene all round. The city council finally cut the bird from the ice, after Instagram had had its fill, and we all moved on feeling a bit different as we watched the other birds gather around holes in the ice.
Earlier, in December, another swan delayed the trains between Göttingen and Kassel for an hour or so, holding vigil on the train tracks after its mate was killed by power lines. Basically every news outlet that published the story in English used a really terrible pun in the title (“Swan Late” – please, guys), while the Germans managed to restrain themselves (the FAZ went so far as to somewhat clinically refer to the swan pair as “Artgenossen”, which reminds me of when media refers to queer women in relationships as “gal pals”).
I felt kind of primed for all these swan feelings because of the first lockdown, many months earlier, back when I still lived in Flensburg. The shelter-in-place instructions came just in time for nesting season, and with the walkways suddenly empty of their usual traffic, a pair of swans decided to build their nest in the reeds just across the road from my house, right next to the path I walked along to get to work. Early on, before the reeds grew tall, I could see them from my window. Since I was still walking to the (empty, echoing) office every day, I would stop to check on them, particularly once the female had laid all her eggs and was simply brooding. Sometimes her mate would lie in the reeds nearby; often she was on her own. I stood at a distance. We regarded each other.
As the weeks passed, I imagined the baby swans that would soon be hatching. I looked it up: swans usually incubate their eggs for about five to six weeks. It felt like the cygnets that would emerge to swim around the harbour’s edge would be a wonderful symbol of how life was continuing to happen, even while we all sat stuck in suspended animation. Some days I would feel the urge to go check on the mother again, sprinting down the staircase and across the road.
The tides were high last spring. The floodwaters rose up among the reeds early on, but the mother stayed on the nest. The weeks passed. Six weeks after the lockdown began, I started looking more carefully at the nest. The mother was looking thinner every week, but she stayed. Eight weeks. Nine. Sometimes other people stood and looked at the swan too – always some metres’ distance away. I learned a new German word when someone asked me – “Brütet sie noch?” Is she still brooding? It sounded like bleeding. Or blooming.
Summer came, and things opened up again. I took a trip to Berlin to get a new tattoo (eleven weeks), and I turned 31 (twelve weeks). She was still there. And then after about three months, she’d disappeared, and the nest along with her. The eggs never hatched. I wondered where she’d gone.
I took this photo on the first of August. You can see her there on the left. Her neck was still terribly skinny, but this wasn’t the first time I’d seen her – the first time she’d shown up back on the harbour, her feathers were sparse and scraggly, her head bent.
I felt so strange, looking at her. She’d worked so hard. She’d been through so much. This wasn’t how the story had been meant to go. I’d had it all mapped out in my head so clearly – the perfect foil to the strangeness of that spring. The eggs would hatch; the pandemic would end. There would be celebrating and baby swans. The neatness of the narrative was too seductive to imagine that it had all just… not come to pass. But that’s not how stories go! my child-brain protested.
So often I find myself looking at my life through the lens of a story. If I get too invested in the story I’ve constructed (predicted?), then when it doesn’t come to pass it feels like a real loss somehow. I’m coming to realise how backward this is: instead of uncovering stories in life through the process of living, I’ll try and carve my life into a narrative structure that I feel makes sense – or worse, is somehow more interesting, tantalising, valuable. Here is a thought I remember having at 19, in the midst of one of the most toxic interpersonal relationships I’ve ever had: When I’m older, I’ll tell this story as, “When I was 19, I fell in love with a man twice my age, from another country.” Because teenagers have a sense of perspective that is vastly distorted in specific ways, this sounded romantic and compelling to me then, even as I could feel how deeply damaging the entire dynamic was to my psyche (and even as, somewhere, I understood that whatever this feeling was, it certainly wasn’t love). It gave me an incentive to keep going, to sink more into this story, to give more of myself and my life to it, because the payoff would be narrative satisfaction.
Coming to grips with this feels a bit like the revelation I had during the process of recovering from my eating disorder: clothes should be made to fit people, people shouldn’t have to fit themselves into clothes. If clothes don’t fit, it’s the clothes that are wrong, not the person.
There are so many times when I have clung to things I should have let go of, when I have formed rigid judgements, and when I have resisted situations, relationships, people, opportunities, ideas, impulses, desires, boundaries and lessons, all because the finely-tuned narrative detector in my brain went ping or womp-womp at a crucial moment. If I’m brutally honest with myself, my narrative detector is only partially about the story I myself want to hear, or think makes sense. A large part of it is about the story I think other people are going to approve of, find interesting, value me for. Again, this is the Looking Glass Self at work – this isn’t about what the people in my life actually think, just what I think they think about me.
I’ve felt this at work in a few ways lately. I’m really struggling with whether it makes sense for me to continue working on my doctorate, which in a lot of ways is a far more banal story than any of the swan tales. I haven’t made anything like the progress I thought I would. I no longer work in the field I’m researching. The project that first gave me the inspiration for my dissertation was defunded and dissolved. It’s impossible not to give some credence to Carrington’s assessment of PhDs, which he reminded me of recently: “Kind of feels like they’re just elaborate torture devices for academics? Based on the experiences of every one of my friends who’s done one?”
To make matters worse, there are so terribly few narratives available to me in which finishing the PhD seems worthwhile – I seem to have recorded so vastly many instances of unhappy academics in the course of my (admittedly still brief) career, and so vanishingly few examples of happy, content, fulfilled and well-balanced ones.
At the same time, it feels like such a phenomenal anti-climax to give up on it at this point. It’s a narrative twist, but in the wrong direction. So much of my life has pivoted around my studies in the last three and a half years, and it feels a bit like the last concrete thread of my “professional” identity – the last membership card that allows me into the world of academia, that bestows credentials upon me. And there are things I love about being part of that world – I love the exchange of ideas, the philosophical grappling with concepts for their own sake, the way that teaching and learning are so tightly interwoven that if you do one of them right, you’ll almost certainly also be doing the other at the same time. None of these things are exclusive to academia, and often they’re not the things that are valued or given priority, either. But it’s where I’ve found them most readily accessible in my life thus far, and where I’ve found other people who love those things, too.
But more than any of this: I just can’t quite bring myself to be the person who didn’t finish the thing. Stani and I spoke about this a few days ago. He quit his own doctoral programme in 2019, after a lot of agonising (some of which I was privy to, most of which he kept to himself), and when he told us about his plans I was really shocked. Stani, like me, is the person who’s basically always achieved the thing they set out to do when it came to studies: always got great marks, accolades of various kinds, accepted into the desired degree programme, etc. etc. We said it almost in unison over the phone: “I’ve never failed at something like this before.” It’s just not how our story goes!
It’s not like I didn’t see this as a possibility: when I first started the programme, I didn’t tell many people, and I promised myself solemnly that if it began to compromise my mental health, I’d quit. “If it’s not fun, you can bail!” I told myself, almost believing it.
Here are two things that were said in recent days.
Me, to Robin, on the day of swan sports: “If nobody else knew I was doing a PhD, I think I’d give it up tomorrow.”
Stani, to me: “I spoke to a friend after I dropped the PhD, and he said, ‘I’m glad that you didn’t let this thing destroy you, just because it was something you liked,’ and I think about that a lot.”
I know it sounds like I’ve made my mind up, but I haven’t! It’s also… so very inconsequential in so many ways. Just because I don’t do it now doesn’t mean I’m banned from academia forever. The swan survived her ordeal, and now she knows something about where not to build her nest this season.
Here is a book, called The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams.
I pre-ordered this book months ago because my Mum said it was maybe her favourite book now, which is a really strong recommendation for me because we like a lot of the same books! Even if we disagree on how good Catcher in the Rye is (I don’t love it and she does).
The reason I bring it up is because I’ve been reading it while turning this edition over in my brain, and I noticed something interesting about my narrative expectations for the book – and if you really hate spoilers and you want to read this book, you can finish here, you don’t need to read more, because this is a “spoiler” but it also doesn’t “ruin” any of the substance of reading it, I think.
Okay, so this beautiful book about words and the way they shape our selves and our world does a very interesting thing in terms of foreshadowing. There’s foreshadowing, and then there’s explicit prediction. Foreshadowing has a kind of set up and pay off, and generally can be kind of subtle. Whereas I think that sometimes in telling a story, if you have a character explicitly imagine a certain outcome to the story, then you kind of don’t need to go down that path, because you’ve already explored it a little, and you can take the other road. In some cases it’s even expected: the explicit predictions by the character simply set the stakes for a particular conflict or goal. If we don’t succeed, then Outcome A will happen – and thus Outcome B will feel all the more cathartic!
Esme, the main character in this novel, explicitly imagines bad outcomes to things that are not really within her control. And yet, as I read it, I thought – well, she’s imagined the bad outcome now, so it’s going to go differently, because that will be the most narratively satisfying. And then it doesn’t – instead, things go the way that life often goes. We suffer enormous loss. We make small, incremental achievements. We don’t fully rise to the occasion. We are thoughtless, or driven by impulses we don’t understand. We are humans, not narrative devices.
And yet that’s why I loved the story so much. The book covers the full span of Esme’s life, and it is no less compelling for the mistakes she made, the paths that went nowhere, the potential unfulfilled. It is fiction, but it feels true. It feels like a story excavated, not carved, but beautifully observed and curated.
One more thing
My friend Robin makes beautiful, strange, emotional, magical and bizarrely catchy music that you should definitely listen to, especially if you have swan feelings. You can find them on Spotify and also Instagram, where they share a lot of very good tiny stories and thoughts. My favourite song is Cyclone Season (which also features the lovely Sorcha on violin):
Talk to me. Tell me things about all this. You can reply to this email (as some do) or text me (as most of you do) or eventually bring it up in conversation (also a popular choice) - or you can head over to the comment section (sadly under-used, but I get it!). Whichever way you want to get in touch, it brings me joy every time and keeps me writing.
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Catcher in the Rye is one of my favourites... 1 pt to yer mum!
Catcher in the Rye is one of my favourites..... 1 pt to yer mum!!