After the first scramblings for supplies – shoppers dancing around one another to pluck the last bags of pulses, resorting to the less popular ones usually left languishing at the back, coated in a fine layer of dust – the prospect of a little indoors time was not so bad, even if it meant concocting meals with one tube of tomato puree, a sachet of Felix, three squares of toilet paper and half a bag of split peas, like a dystopian Ready, Steady Cook.
The virus was very frightening, invisible and unknown, but downing tools? This is no problem, I thought, like a fool, way back in the early weeks. I am already great at doing nothing!
I embraced the idiot’s idea of "treating it like a holiday”. If I could compartmentalise the death toll, I could relax, read, and catch up with friends later, not so different from all those existing, vague, “yes, we must absolutely, definitely grab a coffee sometime” plans, except now we all had a proper excuse.
What was a lifetime of introversion if not training for such a moment? Didn’t I have a rich inner life to sustain me? I pitied footballers rattling around their minimalistic grey-walled palaces, and sent the chef’s kiss emoji to the group chat whenever someone sent another photo of banana bread or that trending coffee thing, the one that needed to be stirred for 15 long minutes, leaving 23 hours and 45 minutes left to fill in the day.
Twelve months on, life having stopped more than it has started, I feel like a withered husk. My soul, a clump of limp sea monkeys left atop a school classroom radiator, abandoned over the summer holidays. My tank has dried out. I am no longer sure if I am animal, vegetable, or mineral. Only the bare minimum of sustenance, the slow drip of condensation, is keeping my remaining brain cells going, and even then, when they get up some energy, all they do is look around and sigh at the state of things.
It turns out that trying to stay alive, when every day is like the one before it, does not present ideal conditions to achieve anything other than slumping through the week, aiming for but not always hitting to-do-list targets of the very bare minimum, all my darts hitting the wall and toppling to the floor.
A year is enough time to achieve great things, to learn new skills. I, however, have abandoned the following activities: Learning Gaelic. Learning Japanese. Building on my rudimentary, under-utilised French to get my money’s worth from an overly optimistic annual Duolingo subscription. Ditto a New York Times subscription, which I had envisioned reading over a homemade latte, the tools for which now sit ignored, in parts, and slightly mouldy.
Then there was skipping. A daily Yoga practise. Becoming the kind of person who does any kind of exercise at all each and every day. Or housework. Or a fancy five-step skincare applied with icy rollers. And please, do not ask me about the novel in progress. ‘In progress’ it remains. Thank god pasta has returned to the shelves.
I miss ambient, anonymous noise. The clatter and chatter of cafes and pubs, key stomping grounds for a writer, getting us out of our own heads and attuned to strains of conversation around. I miss eavesdropping on the bus. I hadn’t before realised how much I love browsing shops aimlessly, how much picking things up and looking at them and moving on in a coddled, consumerist dwam was key to my sense of well-being. Youtube playlists mimicking these environments worked for a little while, until the novelty wore off.
I miss my friends. I fantasise about sprawling, debauched nights out. But most of all I miss being with them after bad things have happened, and talking it out face to face, all of us having had hard knocks this past year. I miss seeing their breath in the air as we laugh at life together.
In this mood, a proof of Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar landed on my doorstop, published by Scotland’s own Sandstone Press. It is the lively story of Jarrar’s road trip across the United States, along the way reckoning with the abuse she endured as a teenager, and the shaming of her large body and appetite for sexual pleasure.
In a series of enjoyable personal essays, she reflects on BDSM, free speech wars, and her Palestinian heritage; she describes a first crush on the character Thumbelina, who she argues is a queer, visual representation of a clitoris. In particular, I appreciate the book’s theme of healing from adverse experiences; a hopeful forward momentum that is sometimes missing (if sadly understandably) from other accounts of abuse.
But there is one part that really punches the gut, where Jarrar reacts to the Pulse nightclub tragedy of 2016, in which a man killed 49 people and wounded more in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the deadliest attack on LGBT people in US history. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in US history too, but has since been overtaken.
Jarrar was on the road while processing the news, and after a few days resting and bathing at a motel (“I cried and floated and felt an intense loneliness – not solitude at all – just plain painful”), she flew into Minneapolis for a literary conference she had helped organise. “I lived all week with Arab Americans and Muslims, so many of us queer, dancing, talking about art. I’m so proud of us. I need us. I love us. I wish we could spend our whole lives in celebration, communion, checking on each other, loving each other, being free.”