January Please

The month that was: lost social skills, cringe exoticism, yoga vs. twitter, no here here, re-finding reading, Virginia Woolf, Un-su Kim, Anne Boyer- GO!

I’m thirsty for scents and for laughter. Thirsty for new songs
— Federico García Lorca, trans. Catherine Brown


Welcome to LETTER PLEASE, the monthly newsletter from teacher and writer Hannah Lees (@hannyplease): ideas, experiments, notes on books, films, critiques, consolations. Sent on the last day of each calendar month, no more, no less.

This January there have been a fair few memes about our socialising abilities breaking down, haven’t there. And they’re all true. At the hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in Haymarket the other day the friendly person behind the plexiglass asked what I was getting up to for the rest of the day. Gab-gifted ad-libbing has left the building. I froze before squawking out a mask-muffled, oh, you know!

Funnily enough they didn’t just, you know, know what I meant. Decision-making skills are also breaking down. Right now I am frozen over the checkout basket at the online bulk foods shop, unsure whether to commit to a kilogram of sunflower seeds, or just 500 grams. It all depends on how long I am staying here in Edinburgh, which I still don’t have an answer for.

Next to the unfulfilled bulk foods basket I have a tab open for the New Zealand government’s Managed Isolation and Quarantine support page, where there are currently no hotel slots available to make possible a return to that place to which I am citizen, and on another tab I have open a Zoopla page looking for sublets in London, the place that I had planned to live before “all this” but that I never quite worked out how to really live in.

None of these are big problems. I don’t feel hard done-by. It’s more the experience of a kind of brain fritz, a short-circuiting inability to get one thing done because the previous enabling domino has not yet fallen into place. Missing the momentum of a plan, but also missing the inertia of sameness, I don’t have a ground zero to stick with. If I don’t make a plan soon I won’t have a place. Which is to say I’m still living in limbo.

Gertrude Stein once said of her old home, torn down to clear the plot for something new, that “there is no there there”. Well here here is not here. Lockdown curiously strips context from a place, especially when you’re relatively new in town and don’t know the faces living behind the walls. I sometimes find myself moving through the small rooms of my day wondering if this is all there is, wishing for a place where there is more to life than this, then remembering that this is what life is: moving through rooms.

But here I am shopping around for my next preferable type of purgatory when this earth is home to true hells. So many are dead. So many are not dead but so death-proximal that the world of the living seems wrong. The world of the living itself, whether it knows it or not, is a jury out to deliberate the fate of the future, constantly slowed down by non-consensus, loud voices using a veto power against promising new suggestions, tyrannous majorities made of misinformation.

Outside the window grey squirrels jump between bare sturdy trees, stopping only for furious bouts of scratching or for the odd tail-flicking stand-off, and long-tailed magpies, shaped like those vortex megahowlers, swoop between the slanted slate roofs on the other side of the street. There is an English-Gaelic dictionary on the shelf in this rental but I don’t trust myself to know whether the context is right for any clumsy one-for-one translation. Magpie, pioghaid (apparently).

I always thought it was east coast Scots for me, but it turns out that there are very recent forebears from the Western Isles, too, and I wonder about the last time that this blood ever spoke that language. I don’t go far beyond wondering since I am so exhausted that the thought of language acquisition seems just too much right now, and also because I am wary of the tickle of auto-exoticism in great Acts of Reclamation from diasporic babies. I’m not writing it off for anyone else. I’m just tired and cynical when it comes to my own moves. Good intentions are hard to trust.

*

I thought I’d try ditching Twitter in January and that didn’t work out. I thought I’d try doing yoga every day in January and that did work out. I’m fine with how those chips landed. The Twitter thing no doubt has a lot to do with the slot machine initiative, and even a little to do with the gleeful meanness that goes on there, but it also has a lot to do with the instant kinship I feel with people who are being wildly silly or wildly quick-witted. I just want to clap. I just want to give a standing ovation for every grim little joke.

The yoga thing has a lot to do with habit-formation, which I am loathe to admit, as is sounds so bootstrappy and finger-waggy. But it’s true, I find it so hard to start but once I am into a routine I am steadfast and true. I’m using an app called Down Dog but I had to change the accent of my AI instructor to a different region because the default English voice took me back to the first lockdown, when this type of disaster was new, and when I first tried my hand/legs/shoulders at this free-trial brand of robo-yoga.

After one full month I can say that my feet are now pleasingly flat to the ground for downward dogs, but the new voice’s instruction to fly to the top of your mat is still met with a thud, which the downstairs inhabitants can probably hear, just as I hear the thumps and shrieks of the children in the flat upstairs. More work needed on those landings - from me anyway, not the kids. I’ll stick with the yoga, just like I’ll probably stick with Twitter. The problem with Twitter is not at the community proxy level (fine, for now and maybe for always!) but at the cognitive level (not fine, not now, please!).

The constant acts of bookmarking and saving-for-later mean that the present moment feels never-addressable. There is barely time to truly take in a take or a concept before the impulse comes to tuck it away and move on to the next prize. I’m finding that I’m taking this behaviour to longer-form reading, too, especially ebooks and online articles. I’m struck by a line and instead of enjoying it and moving on I want to be a magpie (a pioghaid?) and save it for later. In truth, I rarely ever revisit these highlights and digital bookmarks. Here is some of what I did bookmark (not best, just most note-worthy), excavated especially for you.

Fiction of the month:

  • The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf

    “The day after my birthday; in fact I'm 38, well, I've no doubt I'm a great deal happier than I was at 28” wrote Woolf in one of her diary entries. I’ve no doubt I’ll be the same when I get there. I have never made for a very good young person. I realised I’d never read Virginia Woolf’s first novel so I set it at the top of the pile for 2021. The older I get the more gaps there seem to be in my reading, but everyone has to read something for the first time, so why not now. I say that casually - the pile for 2021 - but I betray myself by playing down the wonder of a slightly rehabilitated attention span. As to my point on being bad-at-being-young, well, maybe everyone is. Our character Rachel in The Voyage Out certainly is. Sometimes her thoughts read as quasi-naive but, no, we really all go through it, nothing quasi about it, “it appeared that nobody ever said a thing they meant, or ever talked of a feeling they felt, but that was what music was for.”

  • The Plotters, Un-su Kim

    Perhaps a well-worn trope of assassin as lens for existential turmoil, but here we are with a rollicking and surreal read. “Reading books will doom you to a life of fear and shame. Now, do you still feel like reading?” Yes please, sir. The hired gun at first believes the line of work itself is the true agent, and he merely a forlorn, choiceless player, born into chaos and doomed to add to it: “you could buy anything as long as you had the cash. Nothing there was forbidden by law, justice, or morality. That wouldn’t fit with capitalist principles.” But the capitalist nihilism of his business and his life is challenged by a new plotter, “the world is like this because we’re too meek. Because of people like you who believe in resigning yourselves to apathy, who believe that nothing you do can change anything.” To commit every sin in the book and claim one had no choice? This novel might warn that blaming capitalism risks turning our destructive choice of economy into a catch-all comfort blanket.

Non-fiction of the month:

  • The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness, Anne Boyer

    A book that insists on the articulability of what theory tells us is inarticulable. “Pain was my body being reasonable,” says Boyer. She insists that pain is not inexpressible, but really can be shared, ontologically. You can see it, you can hear it, you can know it. Pain does not destroy language, after all. Pain makes up “the shared vistas of the terribly felt.” It’s in Boyers constellation of textual referents too: Audre Lorde, Kathy Acker, Eve Kosofsky Wedgwick, Susan Sontag. Suffering is articulable, Boyer says, just read them and them and them. The Undying is a furious look at the effects of the “ruinous carcinosphere” as well as the ruinous affects of the cancer treatment process - “oncology is a genius at the production of desolate feelings” - and the saccharine marketing of breast cancer, the figure of the ‘cancer warrior’ and all the tone policing that goes with it. A troubling balm of a book, blazing with spare fury and aphoristic insight, made for all the current and future sick (in other words, for everyone).

Others of the month:

  • Momtaza Mehri’s Towers of Observation: On Luxor, Lebowitz & Flânerie, “Artists, like cities, can become victims of their own success. They are the first to bemoan gentrification, even as they drive it.”

  • Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days, in Harpers - on cancer and on yoga, among other precious things!

  • Laura’s newsletter, this one on the Parr residence in The Incredibles, “there’s something about watching a film and feeling like you’ve lived most of your childhood in it.”

  • Jasmine’s latest edition of her newsletter Inevitably Creased, on matrilineal loyalty writ small, in the shape of knuckles, “I feel myself an overwhelming extension of you— your second pair of hands, your stronger set of muscles. I have to be— stronger, that is.”

  • Namwali Serpell’s Unbothered, in the Yale Review: “not having a care in the world can easily be taken for carelessness … nonchalance isn’t a pretense to toughness but rather a deliberate artistic act that both admits and scoffs at vulnerability.”

May you forget realism once in every while and accept that a sweet green verve is coming.

Until next month,

H x

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