Boris Johnson is on the news. Again. There are no tinned tomatoes left at Sainsbury’s. Again. I am desperate to find something, anything to take the edge off the boredom, the anxiety. Again.
In early lockdown, every day takes on a monotonous yet timeless quality and so I start to dredge my mind for memories, picking them up like shiny pebbles on a beach, examining them for hidden marks I missed the first time around. Three firsts stand out for me. Seemingly mundane and laced with mild failure but my mind catches on them again and again, telling me to take notice. Telling me that maybe there is something else to find in this ordinary trinity.
The first time I heard One Direction, I was sitting on my best friend’s bed. Her duvet was scrunched around us in pillowy mountains and piles of clothes were on the floor. Harry’s voice sounded like the sweetest thing on earth, after her laugh, and the beat made my foot tap – badly and out of time.
That night, I could only dance to What Makes You Beautiful after half a dozen lurid green sugary WKDs. The dark of her sitting room allowed me to feel less clumsy and out of place as my fingertips brushed against her hotpants. The girls at school knew dances that they could break out in the playground – Soulja Boy, Gangnam Style – and I knew no such thing, never listened to the radio at home. But in the warmth of a Scottish June evening, I started to let myself loosen a little as the shadows of our limbs intertwined and the gloaming chased away the last of the daylight.
The first time I swam in the sea, I spluttered and splashed. Sure, I’d swum before when I was a kid but it took me until age 15 to swim and bring along this thing called my body. Once I was aware of my hips and bum and boobs, I’d treated the beach as a decorative backdrop for Instagram posts more than a living, breathing thing.
When I got into the water, the cold rush filled up my cracks and crevices as I struggled to stay afloat for more than sixty seconds. The salt made my mouth taste like a fish supper. Ketchup and chips after swimming in the local pool in primary school when I didn’t care that my hair was wet and tangled and my mouth was stained blood red. The cold reminded me that I was also a living, breathing thing, not raw material that needed to be carved into perfection.
The first time I baked alone, I was 13 and the cupcakes exploded in the oven, spilling their gooey innards everywhere because there was too much egg. Recipes were hard for me to follow and I couldn’t understand why. I just knew that whenever I tried to stick to something that wasn’t laid out in a clear order, my brain would tell me it was all wrong and switch off. Friends rescued me before the party started, measuring out exact proportions of this and that, turning basic ingredients into fluffy, golden products.
The first time I did any of these things was a failure. The first time I did any of these things showed me that failures can be fun.
Now, there is nowhere to hide. My body that I haul out with me like an accessory is going to have to spend months at home in lockdown. It is not going to be able to distract itself with punishingly long days or seeing acquaintances for a coffee where we have the same conversation again and again. I have been bound to various things before – to my bed, to bad relationships, to toxic jobs – but never like this. Not with everyone else along for the ride. In the past, when I have been bound to something it has been behind closed doors. The parts of myself that I have shuttered away are about to be flung open and I’m not sure I can face the light.
As coronavirus becomes the newest word in everyone’s vocabulary, I am stuck at home with friends who don’t know the extent of my disability. I paint it for them with my jerky limb movements in the kitchen as I smash plates and chip crockery. My body spells it out for them as I cry myself to sleep at night, leaving an imprint of myself in tears like when you move an ornament and there is a patch clear from dust underneath. Lockdown is hard for me as it is for everyone. But the feelings are not new. I have been here before and although in some ways it is more difficult now that everyone else is stuck in the same place, it also means that I have the space and solidarity to carve out some moments of fun. Of escape.
First, I come across a dance video on Youtube and start it out of desperation to do something different, to move even when I must stay still. When I finish it, I realise that it is the first time in weeks when I have been able to forget myself for fifteen minutes. Then I start baking to provide small sweetnesses to the monotonous days. I find a recipe book with numbered instructions printed in a straightforward way and my understanding slots into place. Then, as the weather gets warmer and lockdown continues, I swim at the tiny rocky beach nearby, which is fuller than I have ever seen it. I only go in until about three feet deep, my tummy almost scraping along the sandy seabed as I swim very slowly but the water cools the anxiety that feels hot in my chest.
Having these hobbies I am mediocre at allows me to render visible the invisible parts of my body, to spell out the aspects that many people would prefer to remain hidden. For the first time, I am not seeing myself or my body refracted through a thousand other images and expectations. I am looking at a picture I am creating out of my own comfort – and I am finding it’s not so hard to look at after all.
In lockdown, I sit down at my computer screen and I have the same number of emails as I have always had, if not more. Outlook waits for no one. The economy – that mythical beast that we hold to be so real – won’t wait for a virus. And I am the person who won’t wait for anything. I have attempted to defy myself in the cruellest possible way, pushing harder and further so that I am always fighting a losing battle with my own body.
But now, a few months into having my world contracted, I find that I will wait. In the seconds of a water break when I am dancing. In the time it takes to sit still when the muffins need an extra minute in the oven. I stick my finger in and shoogle it around shaking out the joy. I did these things to survive, yes, but they have gone beyond that into the realms of pleasure.
Harry told me You’re insecure, don’t know what for. But I do know what for. I’ve been insecure in my body because of the way people looked at me when I told them about my seizures. The way they get uncomfortable when they think they’ve snuck a peek behind the façade, when I can’t do something quick enough or ‘efficiently’ enough for their liking. They made me feel that it’s not worth pursuing something unless you fit into a narrow definition of talent, which the vast majority of people never will. They made me feel that you can fail at something you enjoy.
Only in a society which squeezes people dry for every last drop of productivity could pleasure be a failure. And if enjoying a body which has had its unfair share of knocks is wrong, so sue me. Lockdown made me take myself apart and put myself back together and I am tired of constricting myself to an invisible, unwanted corset to make myself fit into a world which was never accommodating. I am tired of engaging in the language of failure and success and binaries. I am tired of filing away my rough edges so I can fit into a narrative that was never my own story.
The experience of lockdown has made my differences clear to myself. My whole world is painted with a colour that others can’t see. That is how I have tried to describe my brain to neurotypical people. Imagine, I say to them, trying to make it a game, trying to make it fun and palatable. Imagine if there was an extra colour in the world that no one else could see. And imagine if that colour caused you literal physical pain but often people didn’t believe in it because they couldn’t see it themselves. That is how I feel about noise. It is how I feel if music – even One Direction (sorry Harry) – is playing in the background in a restaurant. It is how I feel when someone puts their phone on speaker in public, my brain shredded through a spiraliser.
That colour is difficult and it alters my way of seeing but it also makes the world beautiful for me in ways not everyone can see. When I swim, I have to take my glasses off and can only see vague blurry outlines of waves and people on the shore. But I can still notice the movements of birds on the water quicker than my mum and friends can; the silver lining of my hypervigilance is the way the light catches in my mind to make me more aware of the non-human around me.
When I bake, everything is laced with love if not the correct amount of baking powder. I can’t follow orders when they’re printed in big blocks of text but I have an intuition for creative ways of splicing ingredients and most things turn out edible.
When I dance – okay that one is a lost cause. I never know what I am doing and my arms won’t follow the shapes the professional dancers make on the exercise videos but I rarely have so much fun as when I am doing a workout to One Thing.
I turn the wrong way and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror on my living room wall. I don’t flinch at the sight of my lack of co-ordination; I am no longer trying to escape my body or transcend it through a misguided notion of perfection. Now when I hear One Direction, I know that I am beautiful. Now when I enjoy my body in its averageness, there is no ‘guilt’ in the pleasure. Now I want to situate myself, make my body a home just as it is – lack of rhythm and all.
Elspeth Wilson is a poet and writer whose work has been shortlisted for the Canongate Nan Shepherd prize for underrepresented nature writers and Penguin's Write Now editorial programme. She is passionate about exploring joy and wellbeing through writing, and often writes about disability and mental health. You can follow her on Twitter at @ellijwilson and Instagram @elspethwrites.
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