‘a lifetime of avoiding exposure could not prepare my subconscious’
I’m struggling to breathe in-between my sobs. I’m taking in great gulps of air, but my body won’t cooperate in this crucial moment. The solo performance I’ve spent two years preparing for is due to start right now. Part of my mind is lost to fear, the other part is having an out-of-body experience saying, “It’s ok, you’re just having a panic attack at the most important moment of your creative career.” My sister hugs me and tells me it’s going to be alright. I know there are people waiting outside. I know I’m eating into my allotted performance time, but I cannot get it together. Suddenly, there’s a loud clap in my face.
My friend Emma, a seasoned performer, knows how to snap me out of it. She stops short of slapping my face, but the sound of her hands coming together at the end of my nose does the trick. I regain my composure and take my position centre stage, where the spotlight shines directly on me. I breathe deeply and give the nod to let the audience in. For the next 90 minutes I perform the final showcase for my masters programme assessment. And you know what? All my preparation pays off and, incredibly, I actually enjoy myself.
When the performance is over, even though it went well, I’m upset about my panic attack. I thought I had everything under control. I’d worked hard to overcome my fear of being watched by an audience, but a lifetime of avoiding exposure could not prepare my subconscious for the moment when I, finally, deliberately chose to put myself in the spotlight. In fact, the panic attack should not have been a surprise to me, because the subject of my final showcase was the question of self-limiting beliefs and how to navigate them.
‘The “feel” in my skin and the “feeling” in my mind’
I’m beginning to feel claustrophobic. I’ve been sandwiched between three other bodies for some time now. It could be 5 minutes, it could be half an hour, I’m really not sure. In this state of constant touch and constant motion, rolling over each other, I find it easier not to think. Not to examine too closely what is going on, but just focus on sensation. I will myself into a kind of trance, because if I dwell on what is happening between me and these strangers I start attaching meaning where there is none.
All that matters in this moment is the connection between bodies. My cheek brushes up against someone’s head of hair, my foot pokes the tense muscle of someone’s thigh. My elbow collides with the hard floor, while my soft tummy meets the sharp edge of someone’s shoulder blade. A drip of someone else’s sweat lands on my skin. I keep my eyes closed and hope that I don’t connect with another person’s intimate body parts. Arms, legs, face, head, hands, feet, back, stomach, these are all safe areas. Chest and groin, not so much.
I’ve become obsessed with a certain Instagram account over the last week. It’s a steady stream of insanely cute photographs showing a baby hanging out with his very fluffy dogs in different cosy scenarios — on the sofa, in a cushioned window seat, on a bed. In this adult-free world the dogs appear to be taking care of the baby and I find the snuggling going on both triggering and soothing all at once.
I was broody before this quarantine period started and now I’m craving any kind of bear hug, cosy cuddle or playful tumble. At the very least, I wish I had a pet that I could hold. I am now completing my fourth week in isolation as I type this. The first two with a teenage guest in my house, which was fun. And now two more alone, which is errr… less fun.
Yesterday, I accidentally touched my lip. I touched my lip with my glove. My OUTSIDE glove!
I don’t know about you, but each day I regularly confuse myself with my own strategies to stay safe when I go outside. I wear my soft leather winter gloves to open shop doors and pick food up off the shelf, but then I’ll remove my glove to extract my debit card from its case. Gripping the thin plastic in my outstretched fingers, I hover delicately, trying not to touch the contactless machine with my contactless card, while getting close enough to trigger the money-sucking beep.
As I wait for the cashier to confirm my purchase, I might absent-mindedly adjust my glasses with my exposed hand or maybe with my gloved hand. Some days I forget to put my glove back on as I am leaving the shop and, reverting to normalcy, push the shop door open with my bare hand. Now I get a shock if I touch metal or glass with my skin, the coolness of the smooth surface reminding me of the new protocols that I just failed to follow.
Of course, I can’t wait until I get back to the house to check my phone. I remove my glove again, using the fingerprint mode to unlock the dastardly device and the warmth of my finger tips to navigate across the seductively smooth screen to check for messages, messages that might have landed in the 2 mins since I last checked my phone. Meanwhile, I am holding the phone in its case with the other gloved hand.
On my excursion, within the space of ten to fifteen minutes, I have easily cross-contaminated everything in my possession. By now, I imagine the inside of my gloves are just as germ ridden as the outside, so most probably all this convoluted effort makes no difference at all.
Before I took to wearing gloves while shopping, I spent a week or so pushing and pulling public doors open with my sleeve pulled up across my hand. Moments after leaving a store, walking down the street, I’d feel an urge to itch my face. Conscientiously, knowing I shouldn’t touch my face with my hands, I use my sleeve instead to satisfy that compulsion — the very same sleeve that just opened a potentially contaminated door handle. I have to laugh, it is so ridiculous.
I am watching the screen and copying the teacher’s movements. Using my fingertips, I lightly brush the skin of my arm in one direction, towards the heart. I see similar movements happening across all the other thumbnail windows, which give me a view into people’s homes around the world. While I continue to sweep my fingers from my knuckles to my collar bone, I look down at the counter. It tells me there are 61 people online in this session, 61 people brushing their arms together, in this moment, on this morning.
This is an experience of physical touch in the time of social distancing. It is Thursday morning and I am taking part in a Body-Mind Centering class via, the online meeting platform of the moment, Zoom. A piece of software, once primarily used by the corporate sector for remote business meetings, that has been adopted with gusto by anyone and everyone who wants to create communal space in our current state of global lockdown. The highly contagious Covid-19 Coronavirus keeping us humans physically separated right now means, while I sit in self-isolation worrying about the health of friends, family and frankly the whole human race, I keep thinking about the memory of touch.
Following last weekend’s chilly, but cheery experience of taking part in the Kindred and Friends Makers’ Fair I wanted to write something about the joy of joining this vibrant creative community and how it is already enriching my life to be around so many kindred spirits. I’ve learned over the years that community isn’t a seed that sows itself and survives on its own – it requires care and dedication, nurturing and participation to create an abundant garden. I’ve made several attempts at finding people to work alongside over the last few years with varying degrees of success. After only a month or so of working at Kindred I can already see so many things they are doing right.
Uncertainty and isolation are the two great banes of a freelance creative’s life. I found that out to my cost after working by myself at home for a couple of years when I first returned to London, after my adventures in the Netherlands, Spain and the Americas. That was nearly ten years ago now, and when I look back on those early years in this great city I see how lonely I felt day to day and how hard it was to feel part of something bigger than myself. One happy day I discovered the existence of an affordable hot desking space in Soho. This was a great gift that changed my life completely and was my first step towards finding a working community that suited me well.
Hot desking, however, was only a temporary solution for me. While meeting new people everyday was a thrill at first, after a few years I realised the constant socialising was reducing my productivity rate. For an introvert such as myself a plethora of introductory conversations each day was quite draining. What I really wanted, I realised, was a small space with about 8 or 9 people who I knew and who I would see most days. Et voila, I stepped into the unknown and gave birth to the Hive Mind Collective (now Hive21) in a small studio space in Westbourne Studios in Notting Hill.
This was my first experience of creating community with a specific intention and boy, was it a steep learning curve. I had so many expectations, some of which were fulfilled, some not. The experience of running a coworking space taught me so much about people – my inner control freak found it hard to deal with people saying one thing and doing another – finding equilibrium in the uncertain and unexpected was vital, otherwise I would continually be knocked off course. Nurturing community was challenging and rewarding in equal measure, and helped me learn to, essentially, just let go.
Leaving Hive21 in October this year seemed like a crazy thing to do. Who puts four years of effort into building a working community and then volunteers to leave? Well, I did. In some ways it still seems strange to me now that such an endeavour would have a shelf life, but with the unexpected dissolution of my business partnership earlier in the year I realised I needed a change of scene in more ways than one. I’m so grateful for the companionship of the brilliant, kind, talented people who populated Hive21 over the years. I know I’ve made friends for life and it’s the greatest compliment to me that, although I chose to leave, they all chose to stay and continue what I started.
Through great fortune, on leaving Hive21 and facing the unwelcome prospect of working in isolation back at home again, I found a new home at Kindred Studios. And so begins a new chapter of my creative life. Kindred Studios was founded by two dynamic and enterprising women Jaime Turner and Angelique Schmitt. Having run my own co-working space I know the time and energy it takes to grow a cohesive community. I am blown away by the dedication Jaime and Angelique have given to their creation and by proxy the dedication of everyone who works here to the community spirit. There was no greater demonstration of that than the Makers’s Fair in Portobello this past weekend.
Not only do Kindred artists care about being connected inside the studios, but they also care about being part of the local geographic community. After basing my own little rogue co-working space in a huge corporate building for the last four years, joining Kindred has highlighted how hard I was working against the machine in so many ways. Both with my work and with my workspace I was meeting a lot of resistance and often felt as though I was continually meeting a brick wall. On leaving, I made a wish that in the next phase of my life I wanted to experience more flow.
Amazingly, flow is exactly what I felt when I stepped into Kindred for the first time. The space Jaime offered me, almost immediately, has plenty of natural light and there are trees outside the window – what joy. Almost everyone I meet in the corridor says hello – how friendly. I was invited to be part of the Christmas Market within a few weeks of arriving – so inclusive.
The market was a new experience for me and it was tough, I’ll admit, but the very best part of it was the people. Getting to know my new studios mates, learning about their work, watching them collaborate on so many creative elements of the event. Little kindnesses proliferated throughout, looking after each other’s stalls, getting people hot drinks, distributing cardboard to insulate our feet against the cold concrete, the encouraging chats when we didn’t feel all that buoyant about how it was going, the helping clear up, the driving car loads of products between the studio and the market.
This past weekend, while I was frozen and shivering on the outside, I was deeply touched and warmed on the inside by the huge communal effort that went into creating this three day event. Jamie, Angelique and Miranda lead by example, working continuously with so much attention to detail, ensuring it all ran smoothly and inspiring everyone else to pitch in. I feel so grateful to have been welcomed into a makers community and to have stepped into a new workspace flow I haven’t experienced before.
Who knows how long this goodness will last. There are many factors which threaten to push artists, designers and crafts people out of central London. I watched a mass exodus of them exit Westbourne Studios as the prices were hiked higher and higher. I’m proud to be part of this bastion of creative, collaborative, resilient community. Bless Kindred Studios and all who sail in her.
Having recently joined the wonderful Kindred Studios, I’m excited to say I’ll be taking part in their designer / maker Christmas Fair from Friday 2nd to Sunday 4th December. It’s going to be a riot of creativity. Please drop by to say hi. I’m selling limited edition giclée prints of my life drawings, as well as postcards of my work to raise money for the Maggie’s Centre in West London. They make for rather beautiful Christmas presents, even though I do say so myself! See you in Portobello.