2016, it’s been real

When I was a kid, I always ushered in the new year with such enthusiasm and elation, derived entirely from the fact that I would finally be able to write a new number down in the date on my homework. The months changed with too regular a frequency for me to give a shit, but I’d have to wait 365 days!! to be able to write something else in that far-right column, and it was a damn big deal to me.

But as a teenager, I adopted the same semi-pretentious nonchalance towards the new year as most of my friends and classmates. New year, new me? What is a year, anyway? And who am I? This pile of rocks swings ceaselessly around a burning star and I lay awake at night, staring at my stucco’d ceiling with my hands folded across my chest, content in the knowledge that life is pointless and I am arbitrary.

And listen, I confess to holding that view long past adolescence. Sure, a year is a convenient unit of measurement, and sure, I’ll never turn down the opportunity to ring in a new one in with good company and a beer or two (or three or four), but honestly, what even is a year, and why should any of us really give a damn? Time is a social construct after all, and yada yada, yada yada.

But the thing about social constructs is that, while they exist only within the realm of human comprehension, that doesn’t mean that any of us are actually free from them, no matter how enlightened or educated we claim ourselves to be. I mean, language is a social construct, for Christ’s sake. So here we are, hurtling around the sun, exposed to the seasons, and social construct or fact of nature, it does all mean something.

So, here’s a gratuitous list of things that happened to me, or to the folks around me, this year:

  • I received a First on my dissertation after having spent most of the fall semester recovering from major surgery.
  • I developed a severely troublesome preoccupation with the idea of death and for a couple of months, I did little else other than panic about my imminent demise.
  • I got help.
  • I began to feel better.
  • My cousin died one day after turning 38.
  • I graduated, again with a First.
  • I rambled through Sweden and Denmark with my best pal for the better part of a month.
  • My ma was diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • I got the most casual of all casual jobs in order to make a quick buck and fund my travels.
  • My ma “beat” breast cancer, if you would.
  • My aunt died suddenly.
  • I was unexpectedly blown to Scotland by my casual job.
  • I finally completed my Goodreads reading challenge for the first time in, like, ever.
  • I failed to do virtually everything else that I’d set out to do by the end of the year.
  • I did some other beautiful things instead.
  • And I did plenty of irresponsible things.
  • I learned some stuff and know a little more about the world now than I did this time last year.
  • By and large, I kept it together.

But more than all of this, 2016 was the first year in which I became absolutely conscious of the importance of the constraints that exist between January and December. Somewhere between the 23rd of June and Bastille Day, it occurred to me that, in the not-so-distant future, 2016 will probably take up just as much space in history textbooks as 1968 does now. It’ll be described as a turbulent year for certain, and any other words that’ll be applied to it will be dependant on whatever is set to follow.

2016 has been the first year (in my admittedly short life) that I’ve felt, so acutely, that I’ve actually been living through history. It’s been the first year that I’ve felt so sincerely the building up of tensions that have yet to climax.

Here’s a list, in case you’ve forgotten, of things that have happened to us all this year:

  • The outbreak of Zika virus
  • North Korea launching missiles all over the shop
  • The bombing of Brussels
  • The bombing of Lahore
  • The bombing of Istanbul
  • The shooting-up of Pulse in Orlando, Florida; the deadliest mass shooting in American history and one of at least 472 that have happened this year
  • Brexit
  • The absolute pointlessness of the Labour Party meltdown
  • The drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean
  • The attack on folks celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France
  • The attempted coup in Turkey
  • The mass-bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef
  • The Syrian conflict, the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey
  • Trump
  • The rise of far-right nationalism and xenophobia in the West
  • The rise of racism and white supremacy in the United States
  • Ongoing austerity, ongoing scapegoating, the selling off of the NHS, etc etc etc.

And here we are! At the end of it all, but also at the beginning.

It doesn’t matter that the universe doesn’t give a shit about us, and it doesn’t matter that a year is actually hardly anything more than a meteorological/astronomical event. There are seven-point-four billion people kicking about on the planet right now, the vast majority of whom possess a great lucidity of consciousness. We are all bound by the Georgian calendar. Some terrible shit has gone down in the world this year, and 2016 has mattered to everyone.

Back in 1968, American author & historian Susan Strasser was “literally too pessimistic to say ‘Happy New Year‘” to any of her pals. If we replace pessimism with an overarching feeling of despondent apathy (or is it apathetic despondency?), we’ve got me. Things are happening and there’s shit all I can do about it, but I’ll wish everyone a Happy New Year anyway, because what else can you do? Good riddance won’t work, because I understand that, though it may matter to us as people, a year means nothing to human folly and the unfolding of events. And hey ho, the Earth continues its unwavering journey around the sun.

Fuck it, I am the Scrooge

“Ya’ve finished ya Christmas shopping then, aye?” my coworker asks my legs one day in the kitchen, where she spies them jutting out from underneath the workbench as I reach to grab a sack of flour from the back. The question reaches me there as if it comes from miles away and I pause in my rummaging; the deliberation over whether or not to tell a bare-faced lie or suffer the highly predictable consequences brings me to a momentary standstill.

Because the answer is yes, pretty much. For Christmas this year, I bought myself a trip to Reykjavik in March, because we all deserve nice things sometimes. I bought myself a new backpack after my old one had suffered an unfortunate accident in the store room. I’ll probably buy myself some new wheels when I resume working five days a week and have enough time to get down to the cycle shop, but only because my current bike is no longer happy to carry me where I want or need to go. And that, there, is the true extent of my Christmas shopping.

But I know what she means and, because it’s Christmas (and also because the idea of pretending to give a damn for the remaining duration of the month fills me with dread), I choose honesty. “I’m not really getting anything for anyone,” I say, dragging out the flour just in time to see her eyebrows hit her hairline. She tilts her head to the side and smiles confusedly, politely, but says nothing, so I fill the silence with assurances that I am also expecting nothing. But she’s already clocked me for the sort of person I am, and I shrug my shoulders and turn back to my cake.

I’ve worked in service since I was eighteen years old, and each year, my December disappears in a flurry of customer complaints, five pence reusable bags, cups of coffee, baked goods, and checkout belts stacked to the ceiling with Quality Street selection boxes. Each year, I take about four days off in all of December, one of them being Christmas itself, and I rake in an incomprehensible amount of dollar. And each year, I bear witness to the sudden, deliberate, and utterly predictable dumbing down of humanity, wherein I watch people willingly risk their sanity to traverse overcrowded shopping centres and start throwing punches at one another over bags of sprouts.

And listen, try as I may, I just can’t bring myself to be about that life. Sprouts aren’t even fucking nice.

I imagine that it’ll be unsurprising to discover that I’ve been defending myself against accusations of scroogery for years, but honestly, I do get it. Gingerbread lattes are pretty good, Love Actually makes me cry, it’s good when it snows, and it is kinda nice to kick back and gorge yourself on roast potatoes and Buck’s Fizz with relations you haven’t seen in a great long while. And you know, it’s really nice to give something to someone, but I just can’t shake the feeling that the sense of obligation (or else, the expectation of receiving something in return) that defines Christmas these days sort of cancels out the altruism. It doesn’t matter what the advertisements say, you just can’t buy your way into goodwill. Or peace on Earth, for that matter.

So let me say it again for the kids in the back, I’m not opposed to the Christmas spirit — to handing out thermal socks to the homeless, to opening your home up to strangers who have no one to eat with, to sitting through the three-hour introductory credits of Ben Hur, to biting your tongue over your great-aunt’s accidental racism. These are time-honoured traditions and, culturally, they’re important. It’s jus too damn bad that these things are being shit on by a hyped-up consumerism that dictates that Christmas now starts in September and drives people to violence and assault over vegetables.

The brutal hilarity of it all is that, come January, I’ll wake up to a day off. My customers will wake up to a house free of decorations, where the evidence of all the pointless tatt they splurged out on will no longer be tucked away underneath the tree, but rather inside the closest of their loved ones; out of sight, out of mind. And we’ll be much kinder to one another.

Something tells me it shouldn’t be that way.

So let me buy you something nice in April. Let me treat you on your birthday. Let’s make a boss-ass meal the next time I see you. But let’s not do any of that on Christmas, because what a waste of sentiment that’d be.

(Cross-posted on Medium!)

Glasgow (or, Wordlessness)

I went to Glasgow on a whim today. Halfway down the stairs of my apartment building, I decided that I’d give my legs a rest and take the train into town, and halfway to the station, I decided that if the train was ultimately bound for Glasgow, I’d get on it and go the distance. It was – and it was the express service – so I did. And from my perch on the pull-down seat next to the train doors, I watched as the impossibly picturesque Forth Valley gave way to the familiar industrial landscape that bleeds out from all city centres; and I was struck, not for the first time, by the realisation that central Scotland possesses a colour palette entirely different to that of the North of England. A green much less vibrant, marked with sandy browns and the deep maroon of a plant that I have no name for. And here, as the train rolled through Bishopbriggs, through Springburn, grays and whites appeared in the form of brick walls and rail-side birch trees. An aesthetic that I’d long since grown accustomed to, but entirely different at this latitude.

I’d taken this journey a week ago, in the early winter darkness, but it didn’t end when I disembarked at Queen Street. I’d fought against tides of festive families en route to the Christmas Markets and run blindly in the general direction of Central Station, anxious to get to my connection. But today, in the midday sun, I rolled out of the station with no set destination, hands wrapped around a surprisingly delicious flat white prepared for me by a station attendant, and I walked for hours.

And I’d arrived in the mood to write. The linguistic areas of my brain had already been illuminated, set alight last night by a friend of mine who loves poetry. So I saw everything and responded with language. The ginger babyface wrapped in a blanket and crouched on a piece of rotting cardboard on Argyle Street. The hasty Italian men that checked me as I idled at a crossing, breaking into a panicked sprint as they clocked the double-decker racing down the hill towards them. The crumbling buildings and 1990s store front facades, and the railway bridge that shoots out over the River Clyde, carrying passengers in and out out of the city on cross-country lines. And the kid with the denim jacket and leather bicycle seat, trying to weave his way up a busy pedestrianised high street; I envied his lifestyle momentarily, envied – as I often do in the places like this – the fact that he belonged to such a perfect dive, but I saw him hours later, wheeling his bike off the train in Stirling. Turns out that it was me, and I saw everything.

But I had no notebook with which I could bring this language into existence, so I ducked into Waterstones to buy one. But it was unbearably busy, and I was hot, and the notebooks were both substandard and overpriced. So I turned around and raced for the door, but my eyes, darting around as they do in these instances, fell upon a copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. And I cannot overstate the profundity of this moment, for I both somehow stopped dead in my tracks and didn’t miss a beat in grabbing it and racing back towards the till. I’d forgotten my headache and my dizziness, and I’d forgotten all about my inherent frugality. I’d been looking for this book for almost two years, and here it was. A dude called Glenn titles his hyper-concise Goodreads review of this book as “the Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer“, and here we are.

Five weeks without a single word.

Five weeks of something, of everything, but five weeks with absolutely nothing to say.

Five weeks of frustration, of self-deprecation, of endless irritation at my lack of ability to conjure up anything at all, brought to a sudden end with an uncharacteristically impulsive trip to Glasgow. By a late-night conversation with someone who loves words as much as I do. By a series of beautiful accidents and questionable choices.

I haven’t read anything by Murakami in months, but I’ve thought about him often in these last couple of weeks. Poster-boy for dedication to the craft and everything that I lack.

Glasgow.

A reminder to do better, as always, next time around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surmountable & insurmountable inclines

I’ve been here eleven days and all of my time has been spent in one of two ways – either loitering behind the counter at the coffee shop that allows me to pay rent (or rather, the coffee shop that allows me to be here) or with my ass glued to the saddle, pounding my way over the road in a manic attempt to see it all, to understand my landscape, to absorb everything as quickly as I am physically able. But late last week, I rode down through some farmland behind my house,and I took a wrong turn and ended up on an incline that my legs just couldn’t respond to. But I pushed my bike to the top, and when I got there, I caught sight of a Trossachs peak, just visible between the rolling hills that lined the long road I was standing on. Snow had fallen the night before and the sun was heading down and this mountain sprouted up in magnificent pink, one million miles away; almost close enough to touch but far too far for my legs to carry me to. Bitterly frustrated with my lack of stamina, I got back onto my bike and turned away from it all, racing back down towards the floodplain and dreaming that I’d get better, get stronger, go farther… eventually.

But in the couple of months that I’ve been cycling, I’ve neglected my feet as a means of legitimate transportation. Yet they’ve carried me much farther than my bicycle; miles upon miles, through cities, countries, continents. And on and on. So, earlier this week, given the opportunity to get away from the coffee house for a day, I set out alone for the hills behind the Bridge of Allan and I walked for four hours until the callouses on my feet – untried and untested for so long – had hardened to the point of agony. And here we are.

I’ve been disappointingly wordless for eleven days, but here’s the next best thing, from the hills:

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Nothing can happen (til you swing the bat)

Last night, I leant against a wooden telephone pole several streets from my grandmother’s home. I watched a plume of heavy smoke drift into the night sky from the foot of a nearby hill, carrying the light of the street lamps up with it and revealing the field of transmission towers that stood between us in its brilliant luminescence. I hadn’t seen a fire in a long time and my eyes searched, perhaps hungrier than they should’ve been, for the hint of a flame poking out between the houses. I never found one, but a firework went off above it all, and I wondered about that for a moment before I realised where I was and what it was all about. It was soon followed by another, and then another, and I pushed myself upright and stuffed my hands into my pockets. Conceding to the fact that the glimpse of a tiny bonfire was a poor replacement for the old wildfire that I really wanted to see, I carried on. Novo Amor sang out through my headphones. It was the third time yesterday that I’d aimlessly wandered around this neighbourhood.

I leave in 24 hours. I lasted five years and twelve days. I’ve been writing this out for over a week now, but I’ve struggled to maintain a consistent vibe because I’ve struggled to maintain a consistent feeling in my chest, oscillating constantly from one extreme to the other. I wanted to write about everything that I’d learned in the last five years, but last night, gazing out at the smoke and the pylons and the poorly executed light show, I realised that everything I’d learned was just a different rendering of the same exact lesson, and this is it: The only thing worth giving a damn about in this world are the folks in it, and absolutely nothing else. Nothing else at all.

But again, as ever, I can’t reconcile the love for my friends with the need to seek out my ever-unattainable original landscape. And what do I say here?  Do I need to leave because my parents accidentally gave me the beautiful gift of placelessness as a child, or do I need to leave because I grew up around lanky adolescents who talked about nothing but the Kerouacian dream? Do I need to leave because I can’t commit to anything for an extended period of time, or can I not commit because I still believe in the deepest part of my soul that the original landscape actually exists? You can’t build anything on unstable ground after all, but I was taught to always be wary of earthquakes and there is nothing more exhilarating than dashing out through the door when one hits.

Is this all in my head? Most definitely. And am I sorry? Most desperately, but also not at all. My mother always tells me that I would find a way to settle if I really wanted to, but I have found no way. And truth be told, I haven’t even looked.

My shoulders have grown broad and hair has sprouted up on my cheeks since I’ve been here, and everyone likes to tell me all about how much I’ve changed. But I am ever the scrawny seventeen year-old with sun-bleached brown hair and a battered old copy of L’etranger in my pocket. But listen, something significant has changed in me, and I no longer hold my friends at arm’s length, and I would travel the world over with any one of them if only they’d come with me. And I blame not one of them for staying put, because this place is endlessly beautiful.

I’m always hyper-aware and often times embarrassed that, whenever I sit down to write something here, every word that drops down from my fingers is tainted with pseudo-poetic bullshit, but I lack the means (read: the guts) to be direct about anything. So let me be explicit, let me be absolutely clear for just once: I am sad as hell to be leaving but I am happy as hell to be going, and this is the most wholesome feeling that I’ve ever known.

My palms have only just healed over from the first swing of the bat, but they itch now for another hit and I’m almost certain that they’ll never again sting like they did all those years ago. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to step down from the plate, I wonder if I’ll ever want to; and I can’t stop thinking about all the people who dragged me up there in the first place, the people who handed me the bat without even knowing it, the people who lightheartedly slapped me on the back as I clenched my teeth and willed my arms to stop shaking. If only I could express to them what it meant to me. Thanks ma, thanks pops, thanks Jamie, thanks Kim, and so on and on and on.

Scotland feels one million miles away, and the hilarity of that thought cannot be overstated. When I left Reno, I left Reno. I surrendered every right I had to abode there and cannot go back. I know that I’ll always be welcome here, but with the sharpest taste of irony in mouth, this action feels absolute in a way that that one never did. I’ve learned what happens when you can’t find your way but don’t turn around and run home, and it is nothing short of limitlessly glorious.

What do I say here?

I love you, I’ll miss you, I’ll see you soon.

Everything Orange

I remember Reno sporting a chill in the air as early as mid-September. An otherwise unheard of rain would make it over the Sierras and dump itself into the valley, and it would happen again and again, on and off for about a month and a half until the first snow arrived in late October. And when I was sixteen years old, my high school girlfriend lived on the other side of town. We started going out in the spring, but as the summer fizzled out, my trips to her house took twice as long. I’d opt for the bus that left a good half-hour walk between us, just to be able to span the length of West Seventh Street on foot. I’d start as far back as Washington, dipping underneath the Vine Street overpass and strolling up past Keystone, past CVS, past Raley’s with clumps of sodden orange leaves stuck to the underside of my overpriced Tom’s. Trees sprouted up in front of the bungalows on West Seventh, now golden, now bare, and it was the nicest I’d ever seen the city. When I’d eventually arrive at her house, I’d bake ghost cookies with her roommates in her 1970s kitchen and we carved pumpkins on the dining room table. The rain continued to fall. I would leave long after sundown wrapped in my winter parka, and I’d wait for the lights of the inbound Number 4 to illuminate the wet tarmac as it rolled over from the western suburbs. For a time, everything I knew was orange.

But outside the short-lived phenomenon that is autumn, Reno was always made up of three colours: brown for the desert, white for the blinding snow in winter, and the deepest indigo blue for the sky that almost never clouded. In sharp contrast, northern England is made up of only two: green for the undulating hills in the countryside and various shades of gray for the post-industrial mill towns that sit within in, and for the sky that almost never shows itself. Only in autumn is everything the same. The weather turned a little later than expected this year, but today, everything I know is orange.

Everyone knows that the deepest hue of all – central and symbolic to the entire season – is that of the pumpkin. For the last three years, I’ve been gifted a pumpkin pie by my good friend’s mother, and they all began life as seeds buried in the family allotment. I have friends the world over who laud the ultimate supremacy of Hocus Pocus as soon as the clock strikes midnight on October 1st, but modern-day Halloween as we know it is a decidedly American tradition, and pumpkin pie just isn’t a thing here. And although British supermarkets will provide tiny pumpkins for the sole purpose of cashing in on the dreams of little kids who just want to dress up and eat pillowcase candy, and of broke-ass travelers who lust after peak foliage in New England, they’re just not suitable for much of anything other than carving up and sticking a tealight in. I know this because I’ve tried, always in vain. So when word came in the other day that my pie was almost ready to go, I fell back – as I have done every year for the last three – onto rain-soaked West Seventh, back to ghost-shaped cookies in the old kitchen with once-white laminated flooring, back to the pumpkin patch and corn maze.

It was ready today and I went over after lunch to pick it up. I’ve been to Lucy’s house countless times, but never once in the fall, and she took me out into her conservatory where several huge pumpkins sat on a table, the largest of them all cut open and partially de-seeded. There was almost too much to take in here, because behind them, lining the entire length of the conservatory itself, the long stalks of various plants grew high against the frosted windows. Freshly harvested carrots, still coated in dirt, sat in a tray behind me. Out back, the yard was scattered with tools and the woodpile grew high. The wind was cold through my knitted jumper and I fell in love with everything I saw. I ate two and a half-slices of fresh pumpkin bread over a cup of tea, and I considered that while pumpkin pie is decidedly American, allotments and the continued (or is it rekindled?) commitment to low-scale harvesting is decidedly British. And how beautiful. And how much I love this duality. And what a glorious time of year this is everywhere I go.

I’ve just eaten a full quarter of the pie. Nobody else in my family likes it, and neither do my friends that have tried it at my insistence, so it’s up to me to enjoy the other three. The leaves are falling at a steady rate now, and it’ll soon be winter, but not yet.

 

On creativity, on complacency, on inertia, on…

An arts graduate with an extreme anxiety in regards to personal finance, it was always a given that I’d walk out of my degree and into an utterly irrelevant job. In fact, it was always the plan – as I told my mother on the phone a few weeks ago, leaning against a railing that overlooked a subterranean dual carriageway in central Stirling, I am a long way off being a writer, an artist, a completely self-sufficient human being. In a hierarchy of needs, creativity cannot be achieved without first satisfying the need for a sense of financial stability; perhaps in some, but certainly not in me. The plan was to make some money by whatever means, and then I could make some art.

So I got a job, and then I got good at it. Really good at it. I was given a small promotion and then offered a transfer. I took both. I like what I do – it’s enough and I’m looking forward to heading north, but as I dug around in my room tonight, looking for the gear that I’m going to take out to a photo shoot in the morning, I realized that …shit, I haven’t actually done anything in months. This is the first time, perhaps since I finished my degree in early June, that I’ve even made serious effort to do anything of the sort.

I mean, how easy it is to forget about it all when you’ve just clocked nine hours at the till and your hands smell permanently of diluted sanitizer. I was going to make books, but now all I make is coffee.

And this sad revelation comes on the back of the sudden discovery that I’m being consciously underpaid for the role that I’ve been asked to take on, the injustice of which stung hard and prompted an inflation of my self-worth to dangerous proportions. “What the hell am even doing in a place like this?!” I thought to myself as I seethed over the food that I was preparing in the back today. can take pretty photographs. can string words together in a coherent and fashionable manner. I can understand the intricacies of our postmodern society and how we got here, so can do better than…

… than what?  Than a full-time job straight out of university? Than the opportunity to move elsewhere and walk straight into work? Than a job that I actually really dig regardless of whether my current boss – who I’ll be leaving in three weeks, mind – wants to pay me appropriately for it or not?

Yeah, whatever.

But I can do better than coming home and crawling into bed to watch episodes of Fargo until my eyes dry up. I can do better than leaving my camera to gather dust under my bed. I can do better than to just contemplate resisting the complacency that I am so critical of others but give in to in equal measure, if not more.

I can do better, but I don’t. Where can I find the boundless inspiration and motivation that I had in the final months of my degree? I’m literally living the dream, following the plan to a tee, but for one hideously important thing.