9. The Work We've Done
There are ripples that will land on shores we’ll never see
In this issue: the human experience™ in six senses, and an emotional reckoning
The last couple of weeks have been weird. Here is a list of things that have happened that have contributed to this:
The weather has swung wildly from bitter cold hail to hot bright sunshine to thorough grey and a forecast of perpetual thunderstorms that have so far turned out to be gently sunny with occasional rain; the elemental forces hold the strings of my psyche tightly, and enjoy toying with their hapless puppet
I went from months of having a largely unstructured life with very few activities or demands in it to suddenly doing Several Things, and it is requiring an Adjustment
I got some complicated news last week and I’m having trouble processing it
Vaccines??? Are sort of a thing now??? But when and how we get them is an ever-changing rollercoaster or house of mirrors or some unsettling metaphor that you don’t really want applied to public health procedures
Due several of the above things, as well as general life pressures, at least half of the people I spend my time with (including myself) have had some kind of emotional crisis, of varying degrees of severity, in the last two or three weeks
As a result, my brain has been coping by becoming really preoccupied with sensations. Things are louder, brighter, sharper, duller, dimmed and muted and refreshing and more painful and more humid and sweet and bitter and flat shiny soft aching smoky shimmering chaos. The world is turning green and lush again, dragging me out of winter’s undifferentiated fog and into the teeth of human experience. Sunlight hits the evening streets in thick, buttery slabs. How can we possibly bear it?
“The key to really reaching the audience,” Loki tells me, handing me a mug of ginger tea, “is to access the emotion of the song when you’re recording it. They’re not going to be able to read all of that into your voice, but it’s going to connect in a way they’ll feel.”
I’ve never properly recorded my music before, but thanks to the combination of having more time on my hands, a greater need for a project, and the now cumulative years of friends asking me to do it already, I finally found the momentum to make a start. Loki, who is (probably?) not a trickster god but rather a lovely Queenslander I met through the many open mics of Berlin back in 2019, has been working on production and composition and engineering and motivational coaching and basically bringing me up to scratch as a tiny baby recording artist.
The first time I listened to the instrumental track he put together for this first song, I cried. It didn’t have any vocals on it yet, it was just built off a quick demo I’d recorded on my phone. But it sounded like a real song – it felt like someone had taken a thing from inside my head and held it up and made it bigger. I bounced around my apartment, exclaiming, playing the file over and over for my flatmate. “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel exactly like this again,” I told her. “It’s perfect.”
In the intervening weeks I’ve been learning to listen more carefully, to gather points of reference and comparison for vocal engineering or atmosphere, to think about all the elements that go into creating a song – even if I’m not the one building all those elements in. More importantly, I’ve been learning new variations on communication, in how all those fit together to get something across: firstly, how to talk to Loki about what I want the song to sound and feel like, and secondly, how to work towards those goals myself through singing.
The cultural revelations always hit me when I’m not expecting them. “You’ve got to try and expose something real, something vulnerable,” Loki says, and then pauses to clap me on the shoulder. “It’s hard for us Australians to do that, isn’t it?”
Is it? I think. Sometimes I feel like I came over to this continent and simply started having intense emotions in all directions at a lot of people who were maybe only minimally prepared for it. But perhaps the sense of surprise I pick up on is simply because I tend to deliver so many of those emotions as a mildly unsettling half-joke followed up by lengthy earnest musings (I considered “Mildly Unsettling Half-Jokes Followed Up by Lengthy Earnest Musings” as an alternate title for this newsletter but it wouldn’t fit in the sender field for emails). You’ve got to do the humour bit, see, so the earnestness doesn’t come off as gauche.
“I do think that, like, specifically our generation is facing the task of untangling the mess of emotions that have come in the generations before us. And it’s hard. But we’re doing it,” Loki tells me.
It’s been a long time since I had other Australians around in my day-to-day life. Sometimes that’s just how the cards fall; part of me likes the bit where I can feel like my own little island, where all the mirrors of the society I grew up in are so far away that their reflections are just tiny glinting flashes. When we started on this project, I mentioned it to other friends: “There’s something to be said for the fact that the subtleties of communication are easier when you’re talking to someone from your own country.”
But sitting there and talking about therapy and honesty and the work of it, I start to think about all the built-in assumptions of communicating with someone who shares your frame of reference. How it isn’t a matter of just using those references as a tool – it’s a project we’re all contributing to, building and changing those frames all the time, tweaking different tiny bits that can change the whole sound of the thing.
I think sometimes we think of “doing the work” in therapy as being this very inward-directed effort, with individual results. But the work we do in therapy isn’t about liberating ourselves as individuals from the weight of societal ills, it’s work that goes towards a common good of tackling those societal ills themselves. I learn ways of dealing with my attachment issues or insecurities, and then talking about them helps build a template for other people to talk to me about their own troubles, and then they build on those templates to talk to yet more people, and little by little it all changes. What might have sounded out of place in a discussion about mental health ten years ago is now commonplace, terminology is richer, awkwardness has been worn smoother.
It’s not just therapeutic work that ripples outwards, either. All the things we do and learn and practice have an effect on the people around us, often unpredictably. I like sending versions of the song to different people as it develops, to hear how they communicate their own feelings about it, to see which words they pull together to describe a wordless thing, creating language to tell me what works and what doesn’t. Dorian described one two-bar section as “orange” to point out how it didn’t quite fit, and I knew exactly what he meant, but I don’t know if I’d be able to reproduce that precise meaning myself.
Speaking of orange, this is maybe my favourite Tumblr post of all time.
Ever since that post crossed my screen, I have felt differently about mandarins. They went from being a conveniently portable and self-contained snack to being this poignant symbol of human connection, a shortcut for every piece of art in that whole collage, a reminder of all the people who’ve had some big citrus feelings and needed to talk about it, a signifier for the meaning of bringing all those words and pictures together to say something about humans, and oh god I love the world that much more as a result.
I think if there is one thing I have learned (and am always learning) that feels like a good template to pass on to others, it’s the value of a well-nurtured support network. Just like I can feel the way that properly practicing my strumming is making a difference when I play music, the work on building good boundaries and trust with different people in different roles has meant that when something difficult happens and I need help, the moving parts click into place pretty well. It’s not exactly automatic, but it is gradually easier to know who to ask for what and how to ask for it.
Do I feel like this is a moment that’s appropriate for me to ask Betül for help in the middle of a work day? I muse, fingers hovering over my phone’s keyboard. I summon a mental list, imagine factors sorting themselves into a prioritised order. Tick, tick, tick. Yep. I text her – “This is an emotional support SOS” – and within twenty seconds she writes back, and three minutes later we have a plan. I get on the train down to her place in Steglitz.
Small tasks only, when I’m overwhelmed: something to keep me busy, something that won’t stress me out. Betül sets me to chopping salad ingredients on the balcony. She pauses as I wash the coriander, and takes it from me briefly to inhale the wet leaves. “So good. Add more, as much as you like.”
Saskia joins us, and we all go to the lake. The air smells like water. I haven’t been swimming since… October? November? The water is a shock, cold enough to burn every nerve ending, but Saskia and I swim out to the middle.
Why do I feel the cold more these days? I wonder. And then, do I still feel cold? I don’t feel like I feel cold now. And then it’s just my feet swinging softly in the dark lake depths, breathing and arms floating and wet hair and the distant shoreline, and we take stock. What do I feel when I say this? Or this? Am I feeling a lot, or nothing? Does this feel the same as other times, or different? Does this feel true? Am I cold? “Are you cold?” Saskia asks. “I’m cold – let’s go back to shore.”
We sit in a line – Saskia, me, Betül – facing the lake, eating grapes and watermelon, trees either side of us. We are dissecting ourselves.
“It’s about emotional unavailability, and acknowledging that we’re drawn to that, and why – once I learned that, things got better,” Betül says.
“I don’t think it’s about emotional unavailability,” I say, picking at a grape stem. “I think I just learned very early on that my value was linked to how much I could serve the needs of others. But also that if anyone actually asked anything of me, I’d be trapped.”
“I don’t know,” says Saskia. “I had a pretty happy childhood, so I’m struggling to figure out the reasons for any of this.”
Suddenly two figures cross into our line of vision, between us and the lake – two boys, late teens, one holding a mostly-full wine bottle, both stumbling and slurring. “I’m just saying!” one yells to the other in German, “You don’t have to talk to every fucking person on the planet!” He staggers, grabs a tree trunk. “Except to ask for cigarettes, of course.”
We watch them exit, stage right. There is a beat, and Betül turns to me. “I think we might be getting somewhere.”
“It’s not like these are super new revelations,” I tell her, “it’s just that I think I need to put them together in the right order, and have them enough times that they start sinking in.”
“Do you think –” begins Saskia, and is interrupted by the re-entrance of the drunk boys, this time going in the other direction.
“Hey. Hey. Give me the bottle,” they yell at each other, and sit down next to a small group of slightly older kids having a picnic.
We watch for a while as the two groups interact - the boys loudly, the picnickers awkwardly. “I used to be a happy drunk,” sighs Saskia wistfully.
“He’s faking. They’re faking. They’re not actually drunk.” Betül is decisive. “Look at the way his legs are steady even though his torso is swaying all over the place.”
One boy turns, and in a high graceful arc, lobs his own phone far out into the lake.
“Okay,” Betül says, “I was wrong. I was really wrong and I can admit it.”
Two of the picnickers wade out to help the boys search the lake. “What did I dooooo,” wails the one who threw the phone. “Why did I do that? It’s a brand-new iPhone 12, my mum’s going to kill me. Diego, give me your phone, I want to use the torch to look for it in the water.”
Back on the shore, one of the girls in the picnic group tactfully hides Diego’s phone under her sweater. He is busy laughing at how his hair gets wet when he looks closely at the lake’s surface.
After fifteen or twenty minutes of watching this comedy of errors unfold, Betül speaks up again. “Are we going to try and see the end of this plot, or do we call it and go home?”
I stand, picking up my things. “I think sometimes you have to leave on a high note. There’s something compelling about an incomplete narrative – the suspense of it – the melancholy – sometimes, sometimes in life, you just don’t get closure.”
“That’s it!” says Saskia as we start walking away from the lake, “there’s our lesson for the day.”
“Perfect,” Betül says enthusiastically, “this is great, this is really great, I love that, that’s –”
A cry of triumph goes up from the lake’s edge. We’re too far away for me to clearly see what’s happened. “Did they – I think they found it! I think –” I start walking back the way I came, Saskia following.
“NO.” Betül grabs us and steers us back away from the water. “That’s not the lesson! The lesson is no closure! The lesson is we don’t always get closure! Keep walking! No closure!”
I went into an art store I’d never been to the week before last, up in a neighbourhood I didn’t know very well. It was rainy and beautiful and I just wanted to touch every single thing in the shop, so I did, and my fingers were soon smudged in wax and ink and chalk and glitter.
At the back of the store they had bins full of soapstone shards. And I realised that I’d almost forgotten that I used to carve sculptures, that I’d once spent hours sawing and scraping and shaving and sanding, that I’d rubbed linseed oil into the surface of them over and over, and the dust and oil had sunk into my own skin and clothes and I could smell it for days. How could I forget that? How could I forget the weight of them, and the smooth cool shape? How could I have forgotten that it was something I knew how to do, a skill still packed away somewhere in the attic of my muscle memory?
I stand in my own darkened room
Naked – hold up a lamp
And draw, white on gold, black-brown lines
Shoulders to thighs
Light painted across skin, reflected
Collarbone, navel, ribs
Flesh folded on tendon and scar.
It is simply shape and shadow,
I tell myself.
There is no use showing
Anything other than what is there.
It takes maybe twenty minutes.
When I’m done, I hold the card in my hands
And stare, as though it has newly appeared.
I have never felt this thing before.
I take a photo, and send it to my sister.
She says, We are capable of so much,
Writes LOVE in all caps, and thanks me.
I have never felt this thing before,
Almost thirty-two years and this is a brand-new thing.
I send it to other friends, exhaling.
A sacred image, says one.
It’s bloody gorgeous.
How did you think of it?
I don’t know. I did it. I don’t know.
Am I more surprised, or are they?
There are many o’s in the words that come back.
Ooooh. Loooove. Like singing.
How do you feel?
I don’t know. It’s a new one.
It’s new. Is there a word for it?
I write back.
How are you guys doing? Are you doing alright? I feel like month seven of lockdown has brought some stranger hours than we’ve had before. Thanks for still reading this and for writing back to me even though it’s maybe going to weirder places than I expected. Tell me how you’re doing or just send me a neat link or something.
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