Tag: lockdown

To Watch The Year Turning

From September 2020 until November 2021, I lived alone in a small one-bedroom flat in Cork. I could count on my fingers the number of people I knew in the city — indeed, the country — and for the majority of the time I lived there, none of them were allowed in my house. This was particularly true in the early part of 2021, when Ireland returned to lockdown. My few in-person MA classes moved online, and my social life consisted of shivering through meetings with my supervisor on a bench outside on campus, and sometimes talking to my landlady through an open window. When I signed my book deal for The Butterfly Assassin, I celebrated with a trip to Tesco, and then to the Lough, a nearby urban lake, to tell the waterfowl the news. (I could tell the ducks were impressed.)

A swan on a serene lake with a grey, evening sky. The light is reflected in the water.
Cork Lough, January 2021

As long as I have the internet, and therefore the opportunity to inflict my weirdnesses on other people, I have a reasonably high tolerance for being alone. Pain and fatigue make in-person socialising difficult, before we’ve even come onto the question of my food disabilities and how to work around those. I like alone time, and I liked the freedom of living by myself: not having to sneak around when I stayed up until 3am by mistake again, and knowing that everything in the kitchen was safe for me to eat because I was the one who put it there.

But I can’t deny that it was an incredibly lonely fourteen months, even so. A loneliness which dragged on when I moved back to the UK: although I lived with my parents for a couple of months, I then moved out into another flat, alone, and was for the entire time I lived there either preparing for or recovering from surgery, meaning I was functionally still in lockdown. All in all, I had around eighteen months of profound isolation.

This had its effects on me. Most noticeably, when I eventually did move in with other people, people I hadn’t known before then, I found it much harder than I’d anticipated. I’d heard people talking about the pandemic as “traumatic”, but since I hadn’t been too badly affected (I’d been furloughed with full pay early on; I’d managed to complete my MA; I’d made progress with my writing career; I hadn’t yet caught COVID myself), it felt presumptuous to imagine that such a term applied to me. Trauma was for the essential workers and the nurses and those who’d been unable to see their loved ones before they died — not for being alone in a tiny flat for a year.

So I ignored the way my anxiety spiked around my new housemates, the way I never felt safe at home, the sheer discomfort of being forced into proximity with others and the constant sensory overload simply from sharing space. I figured I’d get over it, and until then, I would grin and bear it. I did a terrible job of this, had more panic attacks than I had done since about 2014, and hit the point where I was keeping snacks in a box under my bed so that if I couldn’t face going into the kitchen in case I met a housemate there or en route, I would at least have something to eat. But I was fine, clearly.

(I probably should have been kinder to myself. It might have made that transition easier.)

I’m giving this as necessary context to explain that I am not, in what follows, trying to romanticise lockdown. If anything, it was the profound loneliness of this period that I want to underline. It was loneliness that meant I spent so much time at the Lough in Cork, talking to the swans and the geese.

But during that long period of being alone, I started to notice things I’d never paid attention to before. I watched the birds in my landlady’s back garden, and learned how to recognise a jackdaw, a hoodied crow, a rook, a pied wagtail. When I walked to the Lough, I passed a house where there were often starlings in the front garden. I learned to know a coot from a moorhen, to recognise a tufted duck when previously I’d only known mallards. I came to recognise black-headed gulls and their distinctive “headphones” look in winter, something I can now never unsee when I look at them.

When I moved in with strangers last year and found my anxiety overwhelming me, it was the nearby woods that offered an escape. I downloaded an app that would tell me what the trees around me were, and grew to love the hornbeams and the way their trunks entwine around each other, hugging, growing in each others’ embrace. I watched the green of the leaves change gradually over the course of the three months that I was there, the light splintering the floor in new patterns.

The sun shining through trees. The trunks are dramatically silhouetted against the light, and cast shadows across the ground. There is a deep gully or fissure in the ground, as though there was once a stream there.
Queen’s Wood, London, July 2022

I wanted to see the seasons turn, but that didn’t work out, and I moved away and left the woods behind me.

But now, even in my dull, newbuild housing estate, there is nature. Back in October, after moving house five times in ten months, I made a promise to myself: I would still be here in the spring. As a symbol of that promise, I planted tulips and daffodils in the front flowerbed, so that I would need to be here to see them flower. And they have flowered, and I am still here. Some of the tulips were stolen, but those that remain are red and yellow and a combination of the two, droopy because they grew too tall but brightening up the house for everyone who passes by.

And: there were eight starlings in my garden today. My housemate drew my attention yesterday to a goldfinch on our garden fence. I often go for walks in a nearby park, a little over ten minutes away by bike, and am learning to recognise the trees there, too. I have watched them bud, and now the earliest leaves are emerging, and blossom flourishes. There are robins abundant, and sometimes I catch sight of wrens and bluetits.

And the lakes there — overfull after a wet spring — offer swans and geese and mallards and tufted ducks and black-headed gulls and coots and moorhens, all my old friends from the Cork Lough. But also cormorants, which I had never seen before. In February, they perched on the bare branches of a forgotten tree protruding from a small island in the lake; now, after two months of rain, that is almost underwater. I don’t know where the cormorants have gone. I watch for them anyway, waiting for them to come back.

Then, this evening, I cycled a little way to the Science Park in the north of Cambridge, which is absolutely teeming with wild rabbits — and their babies, hopping among them. In the late evening, with the Science Park deserted for the weekend and the traffic thin and distant, I heard bird calls I didn’t recognise at all, joyously loud.

I am a nature-deprived suburbanite. In the corner of London where I grew up, there are sparrows, and pigeons, and parakeets; these last green invaders are prone to chasing off many of the other smaller birds, so that’s more or less it for regular visitors. There are squirrels and mangy urban foxes, but few other creatures. I had never seen a hedgehog until university when, as an undergrad in Cambridge, I caught sight of one as I walked home from an event. It is still the only hedgehog I have ever seen in real life. I’ve seen deer, but most often in Knole Park, a National Trust property in Kent, and not anywhere less managed.

Fallow deer on a stretch of open parkland with a historical house in the background.
Deer at Knole Park, Christmas 2019

I commented on this a couple of years ago, when I was working on a book where the seasons and the natural world were more relevant. I felt like I had no connection to that aspect of things. For me, seasons were something that happened on the calendar, something that determined how many clothes I wore and how wet I got while cycling to work, but nothing that meant something. My characters lived at the whims of nature, and would have tasted the seasons on their tongue as they roamed their medieval forests; I couldn’t imagine that. I wondered if I needed to move to the countryside for a while for ‘research’, but my inability to drive made this impractical as a strategy.

Now, though, I can imagine the hope that those early buds on the trees would have offered a man who hardly survived the winter. I can imagine the way the light changes from spring to summer as it filters through the green canopy overhead — the leaves at first pale and thin, the colour deepening as the year turns. I can picture the rapid flitting of a wren, startled by a passing human; the businesslike scurrying of a pied wagtail that seems to have forgotten it can fly; the audacity of a squirrel certain that you’re intruding (although, I remind myself, it would be red squirrels that enjoyed those medieval woods, and not my bold, domineering greys). In my mind, I can see starlings resplendent in their finery, and blue tits squabbling in the branches, and small wild rabbits with their tails flashing white as they hop hastily away.

I still don’t know what all of the trees are around my favourite park. I am hoping to find out, once more of them have leaves that will make them easier to identify. There are hornbeams here, too, a few of them: not as many as there were in North London, but they’re there, like old friends. And oaks, too, I think. But the rest I don’t have an eye for, yet, and when I walk there sometimes all I can think is I want to stay, I want to stay, I want to stay. I want to know what they look like in the summer and into the autumn. I want to watch the year turn and the seasons change. I want to know what manner of creatures I’ll spot once the rain lets up for five minutes.

Maybe there will be hedgehogs, eventually. I would like that.

A tree covered in white blossom, overhanging a lake. There is a swan just visible between the tree's branches.
Milton Country Park, April 2023

I don’t have my characters’ experience of the world. Nobody does, in this modern day and age, though others get closer to it than I do. But I have learned to appreciate the small changes that I never noticed from a bus window on my way to work. To notice the birds that sit on our fence, and those that squabble in the grass. To watch the ducks slip on ice in winter and stomp disgustedly across sodden footpaths in the damp spring. To hear the coots calling out across the water as they make ripples with their lonely journeys.

Perhaps I’d have learned to see these things without lockdown. I’ve always liked looking at animals whenever I’ve been somewhere to see them — it just didn’t occur to me to look for them in other places. But there was something particular about that isolation in Cork, where I sometimes had little to do except make a few circuits of the Lough and read the signs there that told me about the birds of the area. There was something about the anxiety in North London, that sent me fleeing to the woods for comfort. And although neither the loneliness nor the anxiety was something I would want to repeat, they did give me this gift.

The next time I have news to share about a book, I will go to the lakes to tell the waterfowl, but not because I’m not allowed to see anyone else. This time, it will be because my stories owe a debt to the time I spend stomping around the park while trying to figure out a plot point, talking to the beasts because it’s easier than talking to myself. It will be because the swans taught me to appreciate a beautiful strength. And it will be because I want the trees to know, too.

I am still very allergic to nature (so allergic to pollen I can’t eat fruit in case my immune system tries to kill me), and still only just capable of keeping a succulent alive, but I feel a little better connected to the world now. I’m learning its rhythms, which for so long I didn’t know. And I hope this year, I will stay in the same place long enough to see the seasons turn.

But for now, it is spring, and there are wild baby bunnies, and the trees are heavy with blossom and the promise of leaves.

Two small grey-brown wild rabbits in front of a rabbithole, in a scrubby area of land with a mixture of grass and weeds.
Baby rabbits at Cambridge Science Park, April 2023

Lowering The Barre

The mantelpiece makes a poor barre.

It’s Thursday morning, and I’m wearing my ballet shoes — a rare occasion these days, even if today they’re paired with faded black leggings, laddered in one thigh, and an oversized My Chemical Romance t-shirt I bought myself as a gift for hitting a writing milestone. I’d love to say I got up early to start the day with a barre, but my knees don’t actually bend when I first get up, let alone the rest of me, so it’s almost noon by the time I press play on the familiar piano music.

I’m in my living room, which is a mediocre studio at best, barely half a dozen paces diagonally, made narrow by the sofa. The mantelpiece is slightly too high for a barre and, being a solid block of wood, leaves me with nowhere to put my thumb, but it’s my best option; the stools by the breakfast bar are too low and unstable to be a viable alternative, and there’s no space for other furniture here. Still, it could be worse — at least I’ve something to hold onto.

I told myself when I moved in that I’d do this. The first time I saw pictures of the flat on Daft.ie, I saw the living room and thought, “Oh, I could do a barre in there!” Its laminate flooring seemed a step up from the carpet in my old house in Cambridge, even if it’s a fraction of the size, and having anything to hold onto that wasn’t a dining chair was exciting. I pictured myself doing a barre each day, or at least a few times a week, building up my strength in anticipation of studios re-opening.

I didn’t.

Dance has been the main casualty of lockdown for me, with studios closed and classes cancelled and every space to small to jump in. Combined with the loss of motivation, I plummeted from dancing five days a week in preparation for a show to dancing maybe once a month, and my fitness has gone with it.

But now, in quarantine and twitchy with energy I don’t have space to walk off, I’m trying again. I’ve told myself I have to do twenty minutes. After twenty minutes I can stop, but not before. It’s a useful rule, because sixteen minutes in to what would once have been only the first third of a class, my FitBit informs me that my heartrate is well into the peak range and I’m sweating enough to have to prop open the front door (there are no windows in the living room).

I make it through my twenty minutes. I manage thirty, if you include stretches — which I do, because the cage of protective muscles around my injured hip that was plaguing me a year ago has tightened into a knot and my flexibility has suffered. My legs are shaking a little with exertion, and I suspect I’ll need a nap this afternoon.

It’s a start.

On Friday, I don’t dance, not because I’ve chosen inactivity but because I’ve decided that a better use of my restless energy is to reorganise all of the furniture in my bedroom. This is easier said than done, since the room isn’t large enough to allow for manouevring, and furniture has to be disassembled and reassembled in its new location. I spend so much of the afternoon taking objects up and down the stairs that I end up hitting my 8,000 step count for the day without leaving the flat, despite it being barely ten paces from one end to the other.

On Saturday, I wake feeling like I’ve been beaten up.

This is not unexpected, but still, the double-whammy of the aches from Thursday’s barre and Friday’s furniture-wrangling leaves every muscle in my body aching. Some are easily identified: my hamstrings are protesting the stretches, my quads the pliés. Others are a mystery: why are my forearms so sore? I spend the day in bed and it’s only in the evening that any energy returns, but when I attempt a plié it feels like my thighs are screaming, so I decide to give the barre a miss.

This is how it always goes: a day where I dance, three more where I don’t. I know from past experience that there’s little to be done for the aches but to push through them, and eventually they’ll recede, but those first few weeks of trying to remember how to move are fraught with the pain of readjustment, and it’s hard to endure it long enough to come out the other side. And my fatigue doesn’t help, with the uncompromising way it fells me when I dare to overstep.

Sometimes it feels like I’ll never dance again.

I remind myself regularly that this is not the case. Past experience is proof enough that interruptions don’t have to be final. Two years without Irish dance has nothing on the six years I previously took away from it; a year without a ballet class is not without precedent and always, always I’ve come back. Slowly. But I’ve come back.

Do I resent those interruptions? Sometimes. Sometimes I wonder what I could have become if my eleven-year-old self hadn’t walked away from ballet and sometimes I’m grateful that I did, before the toxic studio environment could warp my self-image at a formative time of my life. Sometimes I wonder whether I’d be a champion if I’d stayed with my original Irish dance school and sometimes I’m relieved I never found out whether or not that was the case.

But however I feel about stopping, the restart is always a perpetual state of recovery, trying to remember how to be somebody from my past and how to relearn what they once knew within the context of my present self. To constantly start again is a step backwards, a step away from the chance to grow and improve — in some ways. In others it’s its own opportunity. And it isn’t worthless.

I tell myself this a lot, when I’m resenting the process of re-learning, when I’m watching videos of my past self doing effortlessly what my stiff joints won’t allow today. I pretend to believe it. I’m told the power of positive thinking is life-changing, but most of the time it feels like strategically lying to myself, both in the promises I make and in the illusion of believing them.

This isn’t worthless. This simple barre, which exhausts me and highlights all the weaknesses of my body, isn’t worthless. It’s a process of reclamation, taking back a control and a power I used to have. It’s in defiance of the small space and the temptation towards inertia. It’s a step away from a screen, from social media, from the world, and back into mapping out the contours of myself.

Even when I’m not happy with the picture they paint.

The mantelpiece makes a poor barre. But I swap my bedroom slippers for ballet shoes, plug the little speaker into my phone, and begin.

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I’ve been finding myself nostalgic recently.

This isn’t exactly unusual — I’m a nostalgic person, prone to accidentally losing hours scrolling through old pictures and reminiscing. Sometimes I wonder whether I’d be less nostalgic if I had a better memory. Mine’s terrible, so often, looking through photos like that is the only record I have that things happened at all, that versions of me ever existed.

I’m a chronic re-reader, too — again, my terrible memory can make even frequent rereads rewarding, because inevitably I forget plot points and character details, but even the books I’ve read so many times I have sections practically memorised still feel comforting to go back to. I’ve been this way since I was a kid. Sometimes I don’t feel like embarking on something new: I want a familar world, familiar characters, a story with a rhythm that feels like one of those songs you knew as a child but had forgotten entirely until you heard it again.

But recently the nostalgia’s been reaching new heights. I found myself playing RuneScape — a truly desperate state of affairs, considering how many years it’s been since I last did that. If you’d asked me a month ago, I’d have told you my RS days were firmly back in 2007-08, and yet there I found myself, obsessively training my mining and smithing skills and trying to remember the quickest way from Lumbridge to Port Sarim.

And fanfic, always a source of comfort, has reflected this same nostalgia. I still read considerably more published books than fanfics (at least in terms of wordcount, if not in terms of titles), but I’ve been finding myself spending a lot more time on Ao3 recently… reading Les Mis fanfiction primarily published between 2013 and 2015. It’s not that there aren’t newer fics (the Les Mis fandom has been around in various forms since 1862, they’re not going anywhere), but it’s those older fics that I keep going back to, the dynamics and fanon that I remember from sixth form, when I was more active in the Les Mis fandom and was first dipping my toes into transformative work. Why? I don’t know. Because they’re comforting. Because they feel safe, somehow.

Then there’s music. My music taste has always been fairly eclectic, and I’ll give most things Spotify recommends to me a go, which means I often end up getting really into some obscure band that released one album in 2012 and nothing since. So, okay, I would never describe my playlists as up-to-date or engaged with the zeitgeist or whatever. I’m clueless about new releases and charts (are charts still a… thing?), which isn’t a deliberate refusal of the popular or whatever, just a side-effect of how I engage with music.

But recently, I’ve been regressing. Going back to the albums I loved when I was twelve or thirteen. And, okay, I started writing at 13 and I joined Spotify in 2009 and I’ve been making character playlists just as long, so yes, songs from those albums are still on my writing playlists, and it’s not like I ever stopped listening to them. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t listened to The Black Parade on repeat this much since roughly 2008. In my defence, it’s (a) completely full of bangers and (b) perfect for one of my writing projects, so it’s been helping me through my revisions lately, but that doesn’t change the fact that I found myself singing/yelling along to practically the whole album in my living room the other day, and might have ordered myself a MCR t-shirt as a special treat.

It’s a pandemic. That’s my excuse.

But — that is my excuse. Not to psychoanalyse myself (kidding, I love psychoanalysing myself), but I can’t help thinking this nostalgia is a symptom of all the uncertainty we’re experiencing about the future. Without a way to look forward — because we have no idea what the rest of this year will look like, let alone the impact it’ll have on next year — I’ve found myself looking back, seeking comfort in something familiar.

I saw someone on Twitter saying, “Can’t wait to live in precedented times again.” And I think that’s probably a big part of why I’ve been finding comfort in media that reminds me of the world ten or fifteen years ago. While I’d never choose to live 2007 through again — and would be even less keen to re-experience 2013-14, which was one of the worst periods of my life — it’s the familiarity that feels safe. The fics are set in a ‘modern’ world which is safely contained, separate from the drama and change and uncertainty of reality. RuneScape, while it’s changed a lot since 2007, is a way of whiling away the hours that reminds me of being eleven; it’s untouched and separate from adult reality.

And The Black Parade? Is just a really good album, to be honest.

(But it reminds me of home. It reminds me of my 12th birthday, listening to it on repeat via my old Creative Zen V and docking station, accompanied by the model dragon my sister gave me as a gift, which I’d named Máire. It reminds me of half a dozen characters I spent my teenage years writing about, because I have more writing playlists with MCR songs on them than without. It reminds me of being fifteen and afraid to like anything too visibly, making self-conscious jokes about listening to ’emo’ music because I was afraid to admit what I liked. It reminds me of all my teenage angst, which shouldn’t be comforting, except it is, because I’m not a teenager anymore.)

I’m willing to bet I’m not the only person looking to the past right now. Not just looking at Facebook ‘Memories’ of a year ago as lockdown loomed, or the year before with our normal lives untouched by pandemic, or five years ago to our undergrad days, or whatever. But finding comfort in old hobbies, familiar media, well-loved stories. Not exactly regressing to a past version of ourselves, but leaning on them for strength, because in a world where so much is uncertain and unfamiliar, sometimes you need something that feels safe.

Our unprecedented times keep getting more precedented, the longer this goes on. What was strange and unfamiliar a year ago is now a bleak reality from which it can be hard to see any escape in the near future. But the uncertainty remains: the impossibility of making plans, the constant rescheduling of anticipated experiences, the vagueness about the future.

And when the shape of the future is impossible to discern, perhaps it’s inevitable we’d find comfort in nostalgia.

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Hosting and Posting

Recently, I found myself in the position of needing to shift to a new blog host. It wasn’t that I was unhappy with my old host — SiteGround has been keeping the site running smoothly since 2017 — but circumstances have changed. Back then, I was getting nearly 30k hits per year, and I felt optimistic it would continue to climb. Last year? 3,000 hits. Suddenly, what had seemed good value for money had become a major expense that I couldn’t justify, and I needed to switch over to something cheaper.

I have a few ideas as to how this might have happened, and a lot of it’s on me. I deleted my entire archive in late 2019, which meant the pop culture-heavy posts from 2013 and 2014 that had been sustaining me with passive hits via Google suddenly stopped making a difference. And, of course, you can’t expect people to read your blog when you rarely post — since the re-start, I’ve only posted 19 times, which is barely once a month for the time that’s elapsed (and nowhere near as regular).

But also, the internet’s changed. It used to be full of small sites — blogs and badly coded personal websites and obscure, niche forums that sustained themselves on the same systems they’d been using for 15 years with no flashy changes to the UI. Now, it feels like everything has become far more dominated by big social media (Twitter, Instagram, etc), and there’s less space for those unpolished little corners.

And, I mean, I’ve been on Twitter since 2009, so I certainly wouldn’t want this to come across as a hypocritical lament or a tirade against social media. But sometimes I miss the world of blogs. I met so many of my teenage writing friends through blog chains like Teens Can Write Too, and some of them I’m still in touch with, all these years later. Blogs were a space that was ours, that we could customise and moderate and shape to fit what we needed. Those spaces are harder to find these days.

Though, of course, blogs self-evidently do still exist, or I wouldn’t be writing this; I don’t want to be like those people who say Tumblr is dead and nobody uses it while there are people like me who’ve been there since 2011 and have no plans to leave. But I think it’s fair to say the world of blogging has changed. Personal blogs are less of a thing, because it’s so much easier to give people updates on your life via Instagram. Professional blogs, expert blogs — those are still around. But let’s be real. I’ve never been professional a day in my life.

Anyway, what point does this musing have? Not much, except as justification for why I hopped hosts again. Since I am generally useless at remembering it exists, this does mean I don’t think I managed to transfer over my associated email account (finn AT finnlongman DOT com), so if you emailed me recently — and by that I mean in the last 3 months — your email might have been yeeted into the void, never to be seen again. I think we’ve all learned not to expect prompt replies from that account, but… well. I usually try to reply eventually. Even if it’s a year late. I’ll try and get it back up and running again, but I may have missed the point at which it was possible to recover existing messages.

Part of me feels the need to justify the continued existence of this site, too, so it’s possible having recently paid money to ensure that, I might be more motivated to post. But as Ireland continues its endless lockdown, I find I have less and less to say that isn’t thoroughly depressing. It’s very uninspiring, to spend your life in the same three small rooms, and never to see another person. Perhaps that’s why I’ve once again forgotten how to write poetry, though late last year it felt like I was remembering.

Those of us who live alone are encouraged to reach out and talk to others online, but — what is there to say? What can we talk about? I bought a different brand of tea this week, maybe. Or, my sleep schedule is now so disastrous that I may as well be living in a different timezone. I’ve heard it’s the same for those who’ve been locked down with their partner — after a while, you’ve had every conversation. There’s no news. Everything you’ve experienced, they’ve witnessed, because neither of you can leave.

Still, I’m British. When in doubt, there’s always the weather. And oh, the weather here in Ireland has been miserable. I know the stereotype is that Ireland rains all the time, but I think maybe as Brits we underestimate that. We think we know rain. We think, It can’t be that much worse than England. But the difference is, I’ve found, that the south of England (the only place I’m qualified to talk about) will rain for an hour, maybe two, during an overcast day; a particularly bad storm might last longer. When Ireland rains? It will rain relentlessly for six hours. The entire day will be lost to the downpour. It’s so persistent, and sometimes it goes on for days at a time.

It has not, as you can imagine, done my seasonal depression much good. Which combined with isolation and Regular Bog-Standard Clinical Depression has resulted in… some not-great mental health days, I will confess.

But today, the sun is shining, and while the signs of spring are few and far between, they’re there. So it’s time for me to turn off the computer and, for once, go outside.

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