For the past week, I’ve been back in Plymouth – the city where I grew up. It’s the complete opposite Berlin – the city where I now live and work. Traffic and noise is replaced with the songs of garden birds; gruff punks drinking beer outside loudly at midnight replaced by the idle chitchat of aging neighbours; grey brutalist architecture replaced by suburban cul-de-sacs and green moorland.
But despite the differences, the week was enjoyable and, most importantly, restorative. Before I went down, I gave a talk in Cardiff. It was a great experience, but also nerve-wracking and exhausting. Every talk requires so much work behind the scenes: research, slides, rehearsal – sometimes for weeks on end (whilst maintaining day-to-day work and domestic responsibilities). I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I returned home, picked up a book and read. Yes, I thought: this feels good, and so I unwound. And unwound. And unwound. I needed the break.
What surprised me is that I would have never have considered myself “burned out” at any point beforehand. The reason for this, I think, is that I never gave myself a chance to listen and feel to what my body was telling me. In order to do so, I needed a quiet, isolated space to disengage from the daily orbit and fade out all the background noise from the Internet. For me, this is back in my old bedroom, drinking Earl Grey, reading books, and watching the country sunset from my window.
One of the books I picked up recently is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. It’s a discordant narrative, threading lots of different themes and subplots together. It floats between memories and present dialogue, and centers on a love tale between the narrator and Naoko, a teenage girl spending time in a country retreat after a mental breakdown. She’s writing a letter to a boy who thinks he loves her, explaining why she disappeared and where she ended up:
I said this one day to the doctor in charge of my case, and he told me that, in a sense, what I was feeling was right, that we are in here not to correct the deformation but to accustom ourselves to it: that one of our problems was our inability to recognise and accept our own deformities. Just as each person has certain idiosyncrasies in the way he or she walks, people have idiosyncrasies in the way they think and feel and see things, and though you might want to correct them, it doesn’t happen overnight, and if you try to force the issue in one case, something else might go funny. He gave me the very simplified explanation, of course, and it’s just one small part of the problems we have, but I think I understand what he was trying to say. It may well be that we can never fully adapt to our own deformities. Unable to find a place inside ourselves for the very real pain and suffering that these deformities cause, we come here to get away from such things.
I love this idea, because it’s undeniably true: we all have our deformities, our monstrous idiosyncrasies and negative traits. Sometimes we are comfortable publicising them, sometimes we keep them hidden. But regardless of visibility, they compose us. For some people, however, they also consume them. Having a safe space provides distance, isolation, protection. I’m glad I have mine.