Here I’m posting new essays, life writing, autofiction and improvisations which may or may not all merge and evolve into a bigger project. After an operation for bowel cancer in July 2020, I’m making work about life, nearlyness, age, sexuality and identity, the experience of chemo in lockdown, and seeing what might emerge.
THE NEARLYOLOGY OF DISTANCING
The Corona Virus pandemic has led to the production of millions of Nearlies. Think how many things nearly happened to you recently but were stopped in their tracks by the lockdown, think of the diaries full of missed appointments, lost clients, cancelled holidays. Remember those last few events that nearly didn’t happen but just did: relaxed gatherings with friends and family, parties where people breathed, sweated and drank up close, laid back meet-ups in cafes and restaurants sitting pressed together, shaking hands, hugging farewell – memories tinged now with the dread of unintended infection, but precious as the smell of a fresh orange in wartime.
Now we all strive to be as nearly touching as possible. By phone, Zoom, Skype, text, letter and email, chatting over fences and calling from balconies, walking together but two metres apart, we keep up our conversations. With so much skin to skin contact banned, misgivings about corporate surveillance and screen addiction have been set aside as we seize on the magical powers of social media to connect us in our solitudes. Through walls, across continents, we are all equally distant, equally close.
Some virtual nearly events feel like those slimming drinks which fill you up but never manage to satisfy; others prove to be deeply fulfilling human encounters. I feel closer than ever to my grandsons when I read them stories, even though I’m on my laptop in London and they’re snuggled up in bed in Stockholm watching me on an iPhone. I can also feel like one of their toys, played with for a while then dropped on my back staring up at the ceiling when they lose interest in me, discard the mobile and go downstairs to find snacks.
Drinking G&T with friends on Zoom felt alienating at first, but it’s normal now. At the weekend I spent an hour on Skype with a friend who lives in Austria and we enjoyed as deep a conversation as we’ve ever had – able to reach directly to the heart of the matter.
In Sweden it’s said they didn’t need to introduce social distancing because Swedes do it already. I’m told the norm is to ignore your neighbours when you pass them on the street, not to be rude, but rather to respect their space and privacy. Freedom from surveillance can seem more important than a sense of community. Actually we want both company and solitude, connection and downtime. Above all we want to make nuanced choices about the best balance for us of physical and digital, really and nearly.
And I wonder if now we need to keep a respectful distance from each other not just because of Covid 19, but also so that women and men can describe the extent or not of their consent to space invasion or sexual attention, a mindful gap in which to define those fluid desires and fluctuating gender identities that can be easier to acknowledge these days.
I grew up with the message that sexual pleasure was only unlocked by contact with other people, and anything else was only nearly sex, pleasurable but furtive and shameful too. I prefer the notion that sex is something you do alone with your own body and imagination, and experience with others only if and when you’ve found a situation and person you’re comfortable with. This model of sexuality kills the notion of an unstoppable and usually male drive to inflict lust on others. Distance may increase frustrated sexual yearning, but could also lead to people taking personal responsibility for their desire instead of blaming others for inflaming it.
In lockdown we’re divided or conjoined. Those in lonesome isolation very nearly came to be locked in with others. They may be hugely relieved not to be trapped with bores or abusers. Others have been thrust together with new lovers, are depressed to be stuck with long-term partners or renewing the pleasure of each other. Whatever your situation there’s a Nearly in its shadow. There are so many stories on the knife edge of nearly catching or not catching Covid 19, and of course the tragedies of those who nearly survived.
Nearlyologists believe that this is a time when it’s vital to try to express how we feel about all these regrets and fears and constraints. Sharing can help us to cope. We need to acknowledge the yearnings, the guilt, the relief – the power of the unhappening.
Talk about your Nearlies, or if that’s difficult, then whisper them, write them down and grind your secret feelings to nearly dust, then scatter them out of the window and let them drift away.
You are invited to post your Nearlies here if it helps. We could even have a Zoom meeting to talk about them together.
Next it’s time to do some Nearly Art. Stuck in our rooms with laptops but no physical access to galleries, theatres or clubs, we can make our own cultural product and throw off inhibitions about whether what you make is or isn’t the real thing.
A GUIDE TO BEING NEARLY
Even though I’ve had books published and done a PhD in Creative Writing I still don’t feel like a ‘proper writer’… but I AM an expert nearlywriter – and so are you. Also expert nearly/singer/ dancer/artist/whatever else you want to be. As any kind of NEARLYSMITH you’re not pretending expertise you don’t have but asserting your human right to do it anyway.
The moves we do as we prepare to start dancing or think about starting to dance. How it feels inside. The choreography of everyday actions, movements we make without noticing. Pre-dance, pedestrian dance, small dance, flinging yourself about a bit, to music or silence – variations of dad dancing, skipping, running, tripping over…
Write a word in the air you’re your body– what’s the word today?
Your body is your instrument, whether or not you ever play it. You plant your feet firmly on the earth and breath deep, try to escape the cage of your ribs, filling lungs, the rooftop of the cathedral of your mouth. Play with your voice and voices, pushing at the boundaries of what’s possible. No worrying what it sounds like. Trying to put a wider range of notes and tones into everyday speech, stopping just before it sounds like singing. Headphones on – what sounds emanate from your mouth when you listen to other people’s music?
How much sound can musicians make before it registers as music? Illustrating nearlies with improvised sound – what does someone not getting into drama school sound like? Or nearly going for a run? Musicians and non musicians nearly playing along live to spoken words.
Whatever place(s) work for you – find your corner, your route, routine, co-workers & collaborators who get you fizzing and focusing. Trying to find people as wonderful as the Schmeides – it may not be so easy. Meet clients in a café near where you think they’d be impressed that you worked, arrive and explain that your office is just round the corner.
Made of cardboard, string, balsa wood. Just like real tech, ie. it doesn’t quite work yet, but just wait till the end of the beta phase.
Using whatever means work to communicate your story – mixing text, pictures and moving pictures, conversations, encounters; Asemic abstract scribbles and squiggles, calligraphy made on purpose or by accident, found in nature and on the street. Who or what wrote it? What would it say if you could translate it?
What the international world together speaking is.
Not so grammatical nor quitecorrectgemeaning, mixing gestures, expressions, words in other languages… any means necessary to be your message across getting. Sometimes mulched into gibberish euroblah laced with artspeak. “I am exploring objects in time and space.” But using a language other than your own stretches the mind, misunderstandings spark fresh thoughts, jokes, joy, unintentional poetry, unexpected angles on things. Far superior to Bloody Brexit Broken British English.
What don’t you quite dare to wear? What clothes have you nearly thrown out but couldn’t part with?
GROWING NEARLY OLD
The potential to feel ‘othered’ – sidelined, written off, invisible to the midst-of-lively youth and middle-aged. This can be weird for men who are so used to being at the centre of the picture. However the freedom to do what the hell you fucking like because nobody’s watching or caring – the potential to find what matters to you – to be more than a set of roles in a box of privileged skin – the possibility of unshouldering, of becoming nearly human again.
“I nearly would have been born as a boy named Michael. I’m a woman. They told me when I was about 8 years old. I felt confused.”
Near misses and total messes, unacted – so far – desires, nearly pleasurepainlaughtermoans, the erotic being where fantasy and reality most mingle, sensual activities at the borders of doing it, feeling alive to the sexiness of everyday, freedom to do what one pleases including the pleasures of not pleasing not doing at all. No longer shouldering the whole shebang. Time passes and elements of desire separate, disperses through eyes, brain & body.
Leonard Da Vinci wept on his death bed because he felt he’d wasted his talents. Tolstoy thought he’d spent far too much time writing novels instead of promoting vegetarianism. And plenty of idiots think they’re brilliant. Confidence and ability are only nearly connected.
Hokusai said: “From the age of six I had the desire to copy the form of things… but until the age of 70 nothing I drew was worthy of notice… thus when I reach 80 years I hope to have made increasing progress and at 90 to see further into the underlying principal of things so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art and at 110 every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.” Viv Albertine (of the Slits) said:
“For godsake, before you get to your grave live at least ten years when you don’t care what people think. You know, enjoy that last ten years.”
As Hillel the Elder nearly said, “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now… how about next September?”
THE POLITICS OF NEARLY
What do we nearly agree about? How can we build on that? “Embrace Complexity – it’s easy. Say what you really see. Build bridges. Break down walls. Speak truth to power. Open doors…”
“I nearly… married a pro snowboarder and moved to a California mountain top but instead became a contemporary dancer at a Graham school in Toronto.”
“…I nearly worked my ass off for one year to get a prestigious job I probably won’t enjoy, then I nearly moved instead, to study, to live, to feel free, more creative, embracing my curiosity in the buzzing flair of a colourful city. Then I got scared of my brave decision which prioritised the intelligence of my heart over my head…”
“I nearly… lost ten years’ worth of sound material – compositions, recordings, sound library, when my hard-drive containing my archive corrupted, and with no way to recuperate the data. Gave up on it, and moved on. Almost 2 years later, I come across the hard drive while moving my stuff and try it again as a “what if” – it now functions perfectly. It was just hibernating I guess.“