I have been in flower school, again, the last week – and will be there all this week, too. At the end of every class I walk, with a big bag in my hand full of the things I have made, all the way up the South Circular Road to the office I have begun to rent a desk in since the start of the year. I have been leaving the things I make around the place – the handtied bouquet full of lilies and gerberas and leatherleaf, the bridal teardrop made of individually wired dust-pink orchids, the wreath that pops with pink roses, September flower and baby’s breath – the button-hole corsages are nestled into a typewriter by the window. Even the crucifix covered in white chrysanthemums and Memory Lane roses has a home. As I write, the four of the women I share the space with are silent, headphones in, focused on the things they are making. Scout the dog sits in her bed, tiny and dark-eyed. When I came in, I found that my wreath had been hung high in the windowsill on a hook – my heart lifted a little at the sight of it.
I have been fully freelance since 2015, and before that for three years in America I hopped gigs. Reception work for three months, stints at copywriting in startups, nannying, cleaning, nannying, a lush year part-time in a bookshop – all around which, I wrote. I have been very happy to work by myself these last five years – mostly working out of the library, or my house. For one of them I rented a desk in a garage on Synge Street, inhabited by five lads who make films. My desk there was a blue upright piano with the keyboard stripped out and replaced by a wooden board, I wrote facing the exposed strings, which sometimes gave off a weird, low tenor. We drank a lot of cans and smoked a lot of rollies – we listened to Lemonade, a lot, that year, too. I wrote the vast majority of Other Words For Smoke in that garage, at that piano. We made We Face This Land out of that space.
I like those lads so much, still – thought the world of them, think the world of them – but inevitably they all moved on to bigger spaces, bigger projects – freelancing is like that. People move. It was important, mostly, to me, to be in a place with other people and after that studio shuttered, I felt like it would never happen again. I closed up, too or something – tightened, became more self-sufficient. Allowed friendships to drift, or come apart. Stopped collaborating. Had an injury, which combined with treatment defined much of my solitude for almost a entire year. I look at my life as a freelancer and think of how it all nearly fell apart when I fell apart. I knew I had to get back to working around people. I was lucky enough to get into residencies in universities and libraries, but in those roles you are always an outsider – a visiting artist, an observer. I liked that, too – after you have spent a long time on the outside, you get cosier there than within any structure, any team. I have always struggled with structure – as anyone who I worked with in that gorgeous bookshop will tell you – so finding a rhythm with other people in a work environment has grown harder and harder for me. I am set in my ways. I hate to be enough of a cliché to say that I’m a lone wolf, but catch me on the rock gazing up at the moon, my coat dappled in snow, my paws enormous but somehow, still, adorable.
I use Twitter instead of coffee-breaks, instead of a water-cooler and Whatsapp instead of lunches out and pints after the work is done.
This life without traditional structure is what led, I think, the internet to become my structure – a framework to make me feel as though I am part of the world, when my everyday movements largely have removed me from it. Micro-routines, ongoing communication with people – all of it provided by the never-ending presence of the internet. A cosy basket for this lone wolf to curl up in, like Scout, there in the corner. I use Twitter instead of coffee-breaks, instead of a water-cooler and Whatsapp instead of lunches out and pints after the work is done. It has become a placebo for a real life and I am still here, nearly twenty five columns deep, maybe an inch closer to the bottom of this problem. I still have a tricky relationship with this other world, but I feel better about it, like maybe I have the upper hand now, though that hand is still wrapped around the too-big flatness of my phone.
Look, I am not trying to say that human contact might have been the answer all along but I am saying that since I began to take part in this space I have started to feel more human, instead of like some approximation of a person taking part from an emotional remove. In a recent column about Tokyo, I mentioned that I had been feeling – well, for the want of a better word, better. That better hasn’t gone away with being home. It wasn’t just the strange lift of being abroad, though that may have tipped the first domino. I sat down to write this column about my continued terror over the epidemic, but rather, found myself looking at this bright room and feeling a halo of something good. Looking at my wreath on the wall and thinking, I made that, and one of you hung it somewhere it would be beautiful, right in the window, right in the light.
So much of the trouble I have is around a sense of aloneness, and a consistent inability to gauge what kind of closeness is helpful, and what kind of closeness is suffocating. I don’t have that answer yet, but I do have today, when I walked into a room full of flowers and felt for a second that I was part, maybe, of a pack.
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