Arteles CreAtive Centre Sunday 3rd September, 2023
I sleep a lot here. It’s easy. So far, I am not setting an alarm, just letting myself drift. I wake up and drift back to sleep and each time I have these micro-dreams. Short scenes but there have been entire lifetimes in these characters. I know, for instance, what song the secret service agent will play at her wedding to get everyone on the dance floor. It’s 9 o’clock. If I am not careful, I will develop a reputation for being a non-morning person and that will ruin my street cred. But I can’t remember the last time there was no pressure to rise, no list a mile long of things that needed to get done today. Today’s list?
There was a moment I woke up last night completely disoriented. It’s only happened to me a few times in my life, despite sleeping in a lot of strange and foreign places. I can usually remember straight away where I am, what brought me here. And last night I knew I was in this bed, this room at Arteles, but I could not figure out what direction I was facing. Where was the door? The wall? The window? I spent whole minutes waiting for my eyes to adjust, waiting to confirm if the bed had been moved during the night. It hadn’t. I could see the exit sign above the door, reach out and feel the wall next to me. It was strange.
The others are mostly awake. This house creaks. You can hear every door and footstep, the water through the pipes. My moment of confusion last night reminds me of the one section I loved from my failed whale short story, the only section that felt true. My character wakes up to a blue, wavering night, as if underwater. She wakes disoriented and realises that in her sleep, she has turned upside down, her head at the foot of the bed. Every night that the whale remains beached in her backyard, this will happen to her. This is the part of the story I hold onto. Maybe today I will try to perfect that scene.
Arteles Creative Centre, Finland 2nd of September, 2023.
I press on the base of my spine as I crouch and its edges surprise me – sharp and irregular, like coral reefs calcified, bleached. My spine speaks to me, as if I have woken something dormant there. I don’t remember what it tells me, but I feel like it was important. Later on, a tiny wolf nips my ankle and I hold it by the throat and run it through the yard screaming, crying wolf. The fox mutters like a human in my wake.
Well, I must have been horny, or else lonely, because there were men, three of them, or four, if you count the man who stared at me in my robe through the hotel window and whom I gave the finger – but playfully, with my tongue out. There is a man who surprises me because he is older, stern. But I find him tender and he is the one for whom I press on my spine and discover its voice. There is a younger man, too, happy, always smiling, and his affections both embarrass and please me, in a way I know all too well in waking, so his appearance in this dream will bother me today.
And then there is the man I hope for. He is the one I run towards with the wolf in my claws. Earlier, he stopped me as I ran by and asked if he could speak to me, later, over coffee. I was flushed from running, but not in a real way. In a movie way, hair perfectly wispy across my face and cheeks pinkened as if from a quick tryst in a closet. A period romance kind of flush. An alluring flush. I tell him yes. He wants to meet on the other side of town. He specifies that: the other side of town. I tell him yes. He asks me if I ever wear the cookie monster pyjama shirt he got me, though he asks it in a strangely poetic way that makes the cookie monster seem beautiful.
And even though the answer is no, I tell him, sometimes.
Welcome to the Arteles Creative Centre in Finland, where I will be spending the next month of my time as an artist in residence. The purpose of this residency is to start writing something new. I tell myself this something new is a novel, though I have no idea what shape it will have, only that it will be a tiny, wild thing. Caffeinated, feverish, perhaps with teeth, the baby kind that fall out and get buried under pillows and stolen by fairies.
At Arteles, I am joined by 14 other artists of different shapes and sizes and mediums, some writers, a printmaker, an architect, a woman who writes kids books and wants to try and sneak Finnish birch bark back past American customs for healing purposes. I love her. I love all of them. It has not yet been 24 hours in this place and I feel as though I am thriving. As I write this, I am sat in my room at an enormous desk made for people who work with much more tangible materials than a laptop, facing a large, splendorous window, on the other side of which it is raining soft rain onto an impossibly green stretch of field and a little tin-roofed house and a distant, stoic pine forest. If I were not myself inside this scene, I would tell my student who wrote it that it was not realistic, too purple, too cliched.
This morning we spent an hour and half being shown the sauna by a Finnish man, Teemu, who is very passionate about saunas, though not as passionate as the man he spoke about who has saunas tattooed on his body – I have tried to picture what this looks like and my creative brain fails me. He teaches us a word: löyly. This is a word that encompasses the atmosphere of the sauna, the steam, the air, the heat, the feel of it on your skin. The way he speaks about löyly is reverential, religious. That’s what things are like here. No one laughs at the Welsh woman who goes to walk barefoot in the grass and the rain around the circle of standing stones. Because it looks like it feels incredible. She is beautiful. It is all beautiful. Later, I will go practice yoga in the meditation room above this little yellow timber house. My hands will graze the rafters as I Urdhva Hastasana. I will become the physical embodiment of a spiritual young ‘writer’, with all the quotation marks entail, though I promise not to stoop so low as harem pants.
It has stopped raining now and the sun is bursting through the clouds. The weather changes so quickly here. I hope my writing will follow it; I hope that I will let it meander any way it wants to, let it follow a fox into the forest or thrash itself with birch leaves, dehydrated and blackened in a smoke sauna one minute, awash and contemplative in a wild lake (of which there are three within walking distance here) the next. In Finland, they have a law called ‘Everyman’s rights’, which means that anyone is allowed to roam free in nature, or ‘the nature’ as Teemu puts it, so long as they are not causing active harm. Let the writing I produce here be as free and roaming as the place itself.
The purpose of this now somewhat long-winded introduction is to present to you a new series I will feature on this blog while I am here in Finland. As a way to ensure I won’t get completely distracted with yoga and saunas and walks in the forest, I have decided to start a regular practice of Morning Pages. Instead of reaching for my phone in the morning, I will reach for my notebook. For those unfamiliar to the process, Morning Pages is an exercise in free-writing, where one wakes and immediately writes anything and everything that comes to mind, no filtering, no editing, a morning sickness of words on the page. It is supposed to be moderated either by page length or by timer, but setting a timer requires using my phone, and the pages of my notebook are small. So instead, I will go until it feels natural to stop. This I have always been good at; it is the art of the short story, in a nutshell. I dream a lot, so I imagine these pages will often take on the shape of my dreams, will often be delirious, will often be a great net striving towards the butterflies of indescribable dream feelings, which will always slip through too-big holes in the webbing.
My commitment to this blog and to its one, maybe two, readers (Hi Mum!) is to re-type these pages here without editing or moderation. It could get embarrassing. But maybe this is the point. I hope you’ll come along with me either way. Let’s wake up in the creative lap of Finland together and see where the day takes us.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how viscerally our senses connect us to memory and the past.
Recently, I went to the Body Shop in search of hand cream and came out with a small tube of British Rose. The first time I used it, I wondered why thoughts of my exchange in France four years ago came whirring so suddenly into my head. It was all right there. There was my close little room in the residence, the peach orange blanket, washing draped over every available surface, the window collecting condensation and the radiator warming silently. There were the sounds of doors slamming all up and down the hall and my neighbour’s muffled Cold Play, played on laptop speakers, coming through our shared wall. There were the postcards blu-tacked to the walls and the lemon-yellow placemat that daylighted as a laptop mat. There was the child’s play stool that I used as a makeshift bedside table. And that, that was the key. Because I kept three things on that stool: my current read, a tiny speaker you could fit in one hand, and a tube of British Rose hand cream that I used to put on every night before bed and every morning before I left the residence. British Rose and damp washing (washing that, without a line upon which to dry it and a winter too cold to open the window to, used to take three whole days to dry), these were the scents of that tiny room that I lived in for 6 months. British Rose followed me down the mountain to the city centre. British Rose boarded the train with me to Lyon to see the festival of lights. British Rose lost itself to old sweat smells in the tiny residence gym, to old beer smells in the tiny residence bar, fought my eyelids with me in an 8am lecture on French literary theory on a Friday morning. And yet, at the time, it was such an insignificant part of my routine that it was quickly forgotten once the tube had run out.
I started thinking about other smells that cause that same rush of nostalgia. To me, the entirety of Europe is the smell of cigarettes and weed. Fabric softener stirs longing and regret. The smell of rain in the air is 7 am summer cross country practice in Fred Bond Park. Bleach is plantar warts and the slimy tiles around the indoor swimming pool where we learnt to swim. It’s the cavernous echo that the water created of shouted instructions and furious splashing.
But it’s not just smell. It’s all the senses. I can’t hear Rihanna’s “Diamonds” without being taken instantly back to an indoor track meet – my first ever - in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina, and all the accompanying, full-body jitters that came with it. As the song plays, I remember how it felt to take the curve of the track at 60 percent speed in the warmup. I remember that was the thing that had struck me most. Because the track was only 200 metres, there were no yawning straights, only a constant, gentle curve. I remember the feel of my ponytail, the longest it had ever been, bound in a rope and gently knocking against my back. I remember the deep throb of night outside the industrial doors and the eerie glow of the lights that barely extended to the parking lot. The song itself would be unremarkable, if not for the fact that it was playing over the loudspeakers on that almost delirious night.
There are all sorts of memory sounds. What stories does the crackle of a plastic covered library book jacket remind you of? For me, it’s James Patterson mysteries (we all have our shameful teenage phases). When we came back to Australia the first time, after two years away, the sound of the magpies warbling in the early morning caught at something in my chest.
The first full cup of coffee I ever had was a soy mocha I purchased for myself right before a 4-6pm creative writing tutorial at uni, because the afternoon had been molasses slow and I knew I would have trouble focussing. From everything I knew of coffee, it seemed it would be the perfect remedy. I understand that it was mostly placebo, but the coffee made my hands shake as I wrote and I felt fearless with energy. Now that first sip of a soy mocha is enough to put me back there in that almost subterranean classroom where I got excited about writing again (and also the moment I first started the inevitable slide towards a minor caffeine addiction, but that’s neither here nor there.)
And finally, there’s touch. We all have our sweat-slicked palm moments that take us back to pre-competition or first date nausea. The feel of cashmere reminds me of Black Friday sales, of heading out in the dead quiet night at 11 pm to find the mall an impossible glowing oasis in the biting cold. Rubbing a dog’s soft, floppy ears always makes me a little bit teary-eyed because my fingers instantly recall our old beagle’s ears, and the little flick back into place they made as I diligently turned them in the right way for him while he dozed.
It's something they tell you all the time in writing workshops: sensory language is key. And this is exactly why. Your characters won’t feel real until they are attended by all these sounds and smells that really, more than anything else, make up a person.
I’m trying to be sparing with my use of British Rose now, because I worry that if I use it too much, my nose will become accustomed to it, and start layering over the memories of my exchange with these wearisome working-from-home days. Both are good to remember, but only the former is an escape in the way that the word nostalgia intends.
There’s all sorts of science behind this connection of sense to memory, I know. But it suits me better to be able to say that it is a kind of mundane, yet extraordinary magic. A gift of teleportation, or time travel, activated by the simple act of putting on hand cream.
There are as many cons to doors as there are pros. On the one hand, doors are gentle and sturdy and are always anticipating my needs for privacy, peace, and shelter. On the other hand, doors are abusive, gaslighting presences who do not respect me as a strong and capable woman.
You could say I have a love-hate relationship with doors.
I like my cupboard doors, because they hide stuff that doesn’t look great on display. I like my bedroom door, because it closes me off from the rest of the house and muffles noise and gives me privacy. I like the toilet and the bathroom doors because within these rooms is where we are most vulnerable and the doors protect us. And when we have the house to ourselves, these doors are complicit in our glee of being able to pee and to shave and to sing in the shower with them wide open.
But I hate automatic doors. Mostly because they seem to hate me, are always waiting until I am close enough for my breath to fog the glass, or my nose to make a little circular smudge before they open for me. And they never open fast enough. I watch doors spring open for others, as if they are a hand touched to a scalding stove, and I wonder what their secret is. What sacrifice do I have to make at the altar of the Gods of thresholds to be able to approach a door at speed and not have to halt my steps or snake my body through sideways?
There is one set of automatic doors at the university that has never once opened for me. Never. I make a fool of myself every time, jumping up and down trying to trigger the sensors, walking backwards to get a run-up, as if that might help. In the end, I have to wait for someone else to enter or exit and ride in on their wake. I have developed a method of making this process look natural. I pull out my phone as I approach the doors and stop, as if I have just that minute received an important email that has arrested my attention and then, “realising” that I am standing in the way of someone else wanting to go in, I apologise and step aside, and follow them through the doors.
I like doors which are labelled “push” and “pull”. I do not like doors which are not labelled. I especially do not like doors which are labelled, but include an extra booby trap.
My friend and I go out to eat at a restaurant by the beach. It has just gone 5 o’clock, so the restaurant has only just opened. The sign on the door says “open”. Another sign says “push”. I push. Nothing happens. So, I figure they must not quite be ready yet. My friend and I stand by the window, glancing in at the staff who are milling about behind the bar, not appearing to be doing anything important. Eventually, after 15 minutes has gone by and nobody has come to let us in, I call them. “Hi there,” I say, “My friend and I are waiting outside. It says you guys are open, but we can’t get in.” The man behind the bar makes eye contact with me through the window and says over the phone, “Push harder, hon.” “Push harder?” I repeat. “You’ve got to push the door a little harder,” he says. I push harder. The door opens. The man behind the bar gives me a sympathetic look, one you might give to really ugly puppies, or teenagers who still believe in Father Christmas.
I like bus doors. Mostly because they are operated by someone else, so I can’t be made to look the fool if they don’t open.
I like that doors lock. It makes me feel safe. But I hate having to unlock doors. There are too many keys that will fit locks but will not unlock them, too many locks that unlock into the door and not away from it, too many keys that stick in the lock and therefore make me assume that they are not the right key when in fact they are.
Thank goodness for the doors on the stalls of nightclub bathrooms when you’re wearing a jumpsuit and have to get entirely naked to pee. And wouldn’t doors be a blessing in changerooms that instead opt for curtains that leave a four inch gap on either side?
But does this make up for how shitty elevator doors are? Does this make up for the number of times I’ve been squashed between them? Or accidentally hit the “door close” button instead of the “door open” button when I’m trying to be courteous and hold the elevator for someone, causing them to be squashed between them?
I had expected the man at the restaurant to say something to me like, “Don’t worry. It happens all the time.” But he didn’t. So, I have decided that he is in league with the doors and they are all collectively gaslighting me.
But it doesn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, I still go running back to them. Closing my bedroom door is the last thing I do before I fall asleep at night. Ironically, doors are a thing which I can never escape in this life, so I just have to accept that, with strength, there must also come weakness. I am superman. Doors are my kryptonite. Thank you for attending my Ted Talk. I’ll be here all week. If I can get out the door.
Okay, so, it didn’t take long for this title, Love in the Time of the Pre-apocalypse, to get a little too real. It was meant to be dramatic and a little funny. Apparently the universe took the joke and really ran with it. One blog post in and suddenly the word pandemic is not just a movie, or a board game, but a real-life global health crisis. There’s no denying that 2020 hasn’t been the year we all envisioned when we closed our eyes and counted to ten on a balcony right before midnight on New Year’s Eve of 2019. When we craned our necks to see the fireworks, we weren’t invoking Robert Frost, some say the world will end in fire…we weren’t wondering about the Mayans and whether or not our ability to outlast their 2012 predictions would have an 8 year time limit. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking, “This year will be the best year yet”. The universe has a lousy sense of humour. Between now and my last (and first) post, four months have passed. Rona has been busy. We have not. Every day now, I remember to be grateful for the good fortune I have living in Australia. We’re ahead of schedule, slowly emerging from social isolation and easing back into an ever-so-hopefully Rona-free and normal life. However, hindsight’s twenty twenty (too soon?) and I’d like to get real about social isolation for a minute here. Because, no matter what it looks like on Instagram, it was far from a glamourous time. They told us to use the time to find peace. They didn’t tell us peace became the world hide-and-seek champion overnight. I tried really hard and sometimes I managed to grasp it for a while. I wrote a lot of poetry, buckled down into my studies, ran a lot of miles. As with everything, there were good days and bad. On the bad days, I was writing lies and illusions, staring at dissertations on a screen and wondering why I couldn’t osmosis information into my brain, going relentlessly back and forth on drafts of a story that was about as rotten as the dead whale carcass it contained, and trying, and more importantly, failing to quite literally out run everything; the loneliness, the frustration, the cold weather. My mood has always been directly linked to how productive I can be on any given day. This is already problematic in so many ways; it becomes more so in an environment in which methods of productivity are restricted and changed. I had one week of backwards progress and my body lost it. Sometimes, we can be so in denial about our stress levels, that our bodies have to step in and tell us that something’s got to give. Monstrous zits, headaches, blood pressure fluctuations, or in my case (and there’s no ladylike way to put this) it took a 24-hour stint of diarrhea to tell me that maybe I should take a weekend off. If I had to name the absolute low-point of social isolation, I would say it was sitting on the toilet stress-shitting liquid and trying desperately to convince myself that I was still a beautiful woman. This happened more than once. When I was little, I used to get stomach aches whenever something changed. Apparently now I just lose control of my bowels. I think I’d like the stomach aches back. I don’t think anybody, when sat down to talk about it truthfully, could say that social isolation was easy for them, but we have learnt so much about ourselves that we can only be better off for knowing. I have learnt that I need to check in with myself far more often than I have been, that sometimes thinking I’m absolutely fine can be the first sign that I’m really not. The universe has a lousy sense of humour and we can only hope that this little practical joke will be tired by the end of the year, but even if it isn’t, social isolation has taught me that sometimes to simplify things is the answer. Eden needn’t always be a garden in Paradise. Sometimes it can simply be a damn good song played very loud. This year, when New Year’s Eve rolls around, my wish will be simpler too. 2021 needn’t be the “best year yet”, it can simply be a year in which things keep carrying on (and, if the universe is feeling particularly generous after it’s somewhat cruel little game, a year in which hopefully I spend less time running to the toilet).
Hello and welcome to Love in the Time of the Pre-Apocalypse, an anxious little blog about anxious little things. What you’ll find here are essentially the musings, anecdotes, and anxieties of a young suburbanite in the 21st century. Enchantée. What is love in the time of the pre-apocalypse? The ramblings of a mad woman? Anxiety? Some honesty for once? Or is it simply just angsty teenage bullshit from someone who’s too old to be an angsty teenager, but skipped that stage in high school and has to make up for it now? I might say all of the above. What it is is un-pegging the washing from the line outside because it’s all beginning to smell like smoke, whilst rapidly being eaten by mosquitoes, causing you to wonder, if vampires were to exist, would you be totally screwed or would you manage to pull a Bella and snag an Edward? Love in the time of the pre-apocalypse is unpegging the washing from the line outside because it’s all beginning to smell like smoke and feeling guilty about daydreaming about something so ridiculously trivial as cute (if extremely problematic) vampires when your country is quite literally burning down around you. But then…what else is there to do? I am honestly asking. Because I have no fucking clue. Love in the time of the pre-apocalypse is that reflex in the thumb that endlessly swipes left. It’s the cat who makes good company while he’s begging for attention, but then casually slaughters a rat in the corner of the bedroom at 1am. It’s the moment you’re standing in the middle of a climate protest and it hits you like a tonne of bricks that you can never have children, not now at least, because this has become a selfish want. It is the crying that happens in the car on the way back to an empty house. It’s not pretty, or neat, or easy. But it’s also not without its moments. Love in the time of the pre-apocalypse is laughing for a full twenty minutes because you’ve never come across the card in Cards Against Humanity about the micro-pig wearing a raincoat and teeny tiny booties and you think it might be the cutest thing a human being could possibly conceive of. It’s all the inside jokes you have with your sisters, all the movies you can quote, all the poetry and the books that shatter you and all the ones that make your barely-smothered laughter on the bus sound like a pug’s breathing after it’s run 20 metres. It’s the family you’re blessed with and the family you choose and its every moment that tells you that you couldn’t have chosen better. Hope is a funny word and never quite accurate. Hope implies a feeling that things will get better, that the pre-apocalypse will never become apocalypse. This is not what I know. It may sound awfully bleak, but it’s not where I’m at right now. So no, these moments are not moments of hope, but simply moments of peace. Moments that make the idea of impending doom a little less scary. And they are moments I never forget to be grateful for. So. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, but don’t forget to laugh like a pug, swipe right occasionally, picture micro pigs in tiny booties, eventually forgive the cat because he’s just being a cat, and daydream about Edward Cullen (but never Jacob Black. If you’re team Jacob, you can get off my blog.)