Saturday, 26 August 2017

Eleven kinds of loneliness (for Annie Siddons, with love)






The loneliness of professional envy

Theatre is such a gift for the socially incompetent. You get to spend entire evenings in the company of fascinating, talented people, without having to worry about making a fool of yourself the moment you open your mouth. I’m most usually alone when I see work, but somehow I knew that Annie Siddons’ How (Not) To Live in Suburbia would be a show I’d want to share. And not with just anyone: with my two closest female, mum, struggling with the whole being middle-aged and married thing, friends, both of whom live in London's sprawling suburbia and have variegated feelings about it. It was February 2017 when we saw it, in Soho’s Upstairs Theatre, and as I sit down to write this I’m wondering what exactly I remember of it. Beyond the sensation of wanting to hide how I cried, even from these people I love so, surreptitiously cupping my chin to catch the tears before they spilled on my clothes.

And of course I wanted to write about the show straight away, but I saw it at the end of another fucking school holiday (my god they roll around so frequently) and had an impossible accumulation of other work to do. At least, that's the story I told myself. The real problem was that I could still – can still now – hear in my head what Megan Vaughan had written when she saw the show in January 2016. The way she described the sunset in London that night, the flagrant colours of the sky. The way she wrote about what London means to her, the decision to leave everyone she knew and had grown up with to live here, the ways in which my birth city has made her grow different. Her description of the northern line as her black aorta. I couldn't remember what aorta meant and when I looked it up I felt like such an imbecile.

The loneliness of the engaged tone

About a month ago Meg interviewed me as part of her PhD on theatre fan-writing/criticism and asked me if I feel part of a community doing this work. And I was surprised by how quickly and vehemently I replied that I don't. It's so many things: feeling older, and unaffiliated, and unable to keep pace either with the performance schedule or other writers or the juggle of different strands of work that also serve to sever, but most of all feeling recurrently disappointed by how hard it is to maintain a sense of connection and sorority in a city as frantic as this, that breathes in ambition and breathes out individualism. I keep trying to collaborate with others, to be social, to open up pockets of space in which people, a community, might meet. But it's a struggle, and mostly I feel like I fail.

The loneliness of worrying that you never get to the point, because you spend so much time mithering, and perhaps haven't really a point to make

Shall I tell you something about Annie Siddons?

Yes, that would be nice.

The loneliness of living in suburbia when urbia isn't just what you're used to but defines your very being

Annie Siddons lives in suburbia. Twickenham Home of Rugby, to be precise. She says it like that, with a twinkle, every time – except when she abbreviates it to THoR, which is somehow even more deflating, a cartoon swipe at rugby's deification of masculinity. Intermittently rugby fans descend on Twickenham in a deluge for a few hours of rumbustious drinking, and then the rugby leaves and Twickenham exhales and returns to its more placid state, as a leafy, prim, somewhat conservative kind of place, where the schools are good, the people are friendly...

What Siddons does is pick at that surface, to show that a place like Twickenham isn't quite as accommodating as it might be. As far as THoR's concerned she's an outsider – not just a newcomer, or an urbanite, but a woman of Greek/Egyptian background, which still (I suspect, having said goodbye to suburbia almost 20 years ago) matters. Plus she's a single mother, and we all know how kindly they've been looked on in the wider Tory culture over the past seven years. So while people make advances – there's the married neighbour who makes a pass at her, for instance – they do so in a way that makes clear her otherness as an exotic creature who works in The Arts. When you can't even join the local book group because you've been deemed too different, something is clearly up.

The loneliness of choosing to sacrifice what you want for the sake of your kids but refusing to let yourself define it as sacrifice because come off it with the language of martyrdom already

Siddons lives in suburbia because she moved there with her husband and two daughters and when they divorced she decided to stay because London is neither heaving with trustworthy schools nor affordable for a single parent, let alone a freelance theatre-maker with a career gap for motherhood. And anyway, all the divorce manuals (I'm told) say that when children are experiencing the destabilisation of the relationship they've taken for granted since birth, the blow can be marginally softened by at least maintaining stability in their physical environment.

Without going into detail, Siddons reveals that one of her daughters has a chronic health condition acute enough that intermittently she needs hospitalisation; meaning that among the concatenation of stressful and isolating events detailed in the show is another bout of child illness, which Siddons has to support and bear alone. The impression me and my friends get is that this is one of the reasons underlying the divorce; meaning that in an earlier version of this post, I wrote some violently rude things about her former husband. which I said I wouldn't apologise for but now wish I could. Our assumption is that he left her, but we're wrong; I'm not sure what this says about the baggage we brought into that theatre, the feelings we bear towards husbands, men, generally. Except I do, of course. They're equivocal.  

The loneliness of feeling so crowded by others' needs and demands that you don't have space to think

Now I've started writing about it the whole show is unfolding before me again – not specific quotes, much as I'd like them to, but the shape and measure and timbre of it: the steady way Siddons details her accruing isolation; the tragicomic films in which every attempt to reach for the starriness of London only leads back to the gutter outside her front garden; nips of laughter as she makes lists of promise then all too soon crumples them into balls of regret. The carefully planned birthday that goes awry, with Siddons alone on the razzle in Soho, screaming at her friends down the phone. The repeated attempts to write, to write, but nothing working out how she wants it to. The bodies of the Walrus of Loneliness and, later, his twin Seal of Shame pressing closer and closer to her, not just metaphors but physical manifestations of the feelings tightening her veins, squeezing her lungs until she can't breathe. She holds it all with such lightness, uses her body double (the brilliant Nicky Hobday) to give herself enough distance to be wry, but I remember now what it was that made me cry so much, the clay-clag sadness at the heart of it all.

The loneliness so deep-rooted, lived with so long, that it's not even recognisable, except that it is

I might have told these stories before on here; if so apologies for doing it again. When I was 12, after maybe three years of moving from flat to flat, my mum got in her car and started driving north from Dalston, looking for a house cheap enough to buy. She tried and failed in Tottenham, Edmonton, Enfield, before finally landing at a place called Waltham Cross, where the A10 running arrow straight from Liverpool Street into Hertfordshire intersects with London's orbital, the M25. We spent the next 10 years in suburbia and never felt at home. Back then we were about as ethnic as our street got; there was one Sunday morning when my dad, grown so exasper-infuriated by the neighbours' barely concealed racism, opened the front door, pulled one of the stereo speakers into the front garden, put a Greek album on the turntable and turned the volume to full. “They want to talk about us, I'll give them something to fucking talk about,” he fumed.

I figured out how to neck a boy in suburbia, but not how to make friends: I was still going to school in London, and didn't fancy joining in with the speed gang my brother was part of up the road. The one female friend I almost made stole my vinyl copy of Madonna's True Blue album and never spoke to me again. I realise as I'm writing this why someone said to me recently that I sound like I was lonely as a young person. I'd never thought of my teen years that way and didn't know what to say.

“I've never thought of myself as lonely before. But I think that's it. I think that's what I've been feeling.”

That's – as exactly as I remember it – what my friend {a} said as we walked out of Soho theatre and meandered down to the Curzon for a drink. {a} and I met in my Waltham Cross years, wholly by chance: we'd caught eyes at a couple of shoegazey gigs, but at the second one I got distracted by a boy, who happened to go to her brother's school, so when she spotted me at a third gig she came and said hello and we've been devoted to each other ever since. We've supported each other through university, and meeting the people who became our husbands, and becoming mothers to older daughters and younger sons; through the struggle to find work, and to feel fulfilled in our work, and to balance our work with the demands of parenting, and to balance our work with our husbands' work which, because the pay is higher and the hours more solid, always takes precedence; through frustration and boredom and, it turns out, loneliness.

I love that response she had to the show, because I love the ways in which theatre reaches into the deepest part of the self and pulls open the door you've been keeping not just shut but barricaded with furniture and flotsam, and in shining a light on those feelings – the light of shared experience – makes them, for a moment, easier to bear.

I didn't say any of that to her on the night, though. Somehow I couldn't find the words.

The loneliness of feeling like you don’t know how to talk, even to the people you love most

So that was one of the friends who came to the show with me; the other was my beloved friend [z], who I met when already married, and her daughter and mine were at the same nursery, although she's since been priced out of the area and now lives in Crystal Palace – making the same move as my mum but south instead of north. From the outside, I'd say that there are clear advantages to her life in a suburban cul-de-sac over mine: her kids can and frequently do disappear unaccompanied to the neighbours' houses, there's always someone ready to recommend a local plumber, she's often telling me about community events she's been involved in. But the truth is, I wouldn't swap with her for a minute: when I walked out of Waltham Cross for the last time, with my bag balanced on a skateboard that refused to balance me, I made a promise to myself never again to live outside of zone 2. (The advantage of being this old is that I am old enough for this to have been possible.) And [z] would be back in Stockwell in a heartbeat if she could. She's another one for whom urbia defines her very being: the hustle of it (she's one of my more pro-capitalism friends), the vibrancy of it, particularly the abundance of it, all the theatre and art and food and music and life.

Unlike {a}, [z] didn't recognise, or at least feel personally, the emotion palette of loneliness in the show. Depression, yes; disappointment and anger regarding husbands, yes; but not the loneliness, that was alien. We sat at the Curzon and [z] and {a}, who hadn't met before, bonded over alcohol and shared frustrations, while I quietly busied myself with barricading that door again. Two weeks later [z] told me she had decided to divorce. Everything that has happened to her since has encouraged me to be considerably more careful with my marriage.

The loneliness of lying in a hotel room with the people you made and the person you made them with, sobbing, but silently, because they were arguing for something like an hour before they slept and waking them by accident would be a disaster

The middle-class heteronormative summer holiday is a fucking abomination, isn't it? At least, so it seemed as we trudged up an urban slope in Naples, sticky with heatwave sweat and the accumulated grime of a long-neglected dirt-encrusted city, nine days of arguing behind the four of us and three more to go. It's our fault, I guess, for swapping city for sprawling, mismanaged, brutally inequitable city instead of beach: but then we even managed to argue on seaside days, hurling insults at each other more stinging than the salt, grittier than the sand. We're not very good as a family at giving each other space or solitude. When we got back home I unpacked the suitcases, packed the kids into bed, sat down at the computer and didn't get up again until 2.30am. An aloneness that is the very opposite of loneliness.

On one of those days in Naples I tried to start reading Maggie Nelson's Bluets. But it's a book that needs space, and solitude, not just in the external environment but internally, in the mind, and after five pages I gave up and moved on to one of my daughter's books instead. It's called Wonder, by RJ Pallacio, and {a} had recommended it to me just before the holidays: she loves it because she recognises in it an extreme version of her own experience. {a} has scars that run from her chin all the way down her neck, scars that I stopped seeing so many years ago it surprised me when she mentioned them again; and August, the boy at the centre of Wonder, was born with a genetic mutation that particularly affects his face. So she knows what it is to have people stare at you, and be freaked out by you, and want to know if you were burned in a fire, as happens to August. Those scars have so much to do with the loneliness that {a}, for most of her life, has felt as depression and insecurity.

Before I had to abandon Bluets, I came across this paragraph:

I admit I may have been lonely. I know that loneliness can produce bolts of hot pain, a pain which, if it stays hot enough for long enough, can begin to simulate, or to provoke – take your pick – an apprehension of the divine.

Instead of going to beaches in Rome and Naples, we took the children to churches. Dozens of them, florid affairs, with painted ceilings and marble floors and art commissioned from the leading artists of the time: sculptures by Bernini, paintings by Caravaggio, technically flawless, ravishing.

Those Caravaggios were my salvation, my access to solitude amid the divine.

The loneliness of aching to go home only to return home and realise that home is a thing of the past, you watched it being dismantled piece by piece and did nothing to save or protect it and now you can never go home any more

In that 12 days' absence from London an abomination has occurred on my local high street. New hoardings next door to the library – I library I know we're lucky still to have – announce the imminent arrival of a branch of Metro Bank, convoy to the branch less than two miles away. Although it’s an American bank, the hoarding is a distinctly Thatcherite shade of blue. Running along the bottom of it, in letters the red of fresh blood, is the recurring slogan LIVE THE REVOLUTION.

And I don't know what's worse. Is it that nothing in this city, this city swarmed by bankers and estate agents, property investors and tax evaders and Home Counties trust funds, is sacred any more? Or is it the ease with which meaning is cleaved from kind words, leaving the language degraded?

The loneliness of trying to do your best but knowing your best isn’t good enough

Maggie Nelson is one of the two writers I'm most obsessed with, by which I mean want to write like, at the moment; the other is Claudia Rankine. Each of them identifies as poet but what I've read is poetic prose; a prose lapidarian and gimlet, compacted to the point of becoming diamond while still with the nourishing softness of earth. Neither gives sway to unnecessary words: that's the quality I most want to learn from them. Focus and precision.

Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely is devastating: a fragile torch held up against the appalling darkness of this world, a darkness that expands in every direction, untrammelled. A darkness in which people are deprived of medications because money, or prescribed medications because money, or rendered invisible because money, or treated as less than human, in fact precisely not-human, because money. There is power in this illumination but fragility too, because hope is precarious and humanity's capacity to invent new methods of exploitation and control is terrifying and incalculable. Because to live in this darkness at all seems impossible, and yet we do, and keep doing.

At her most clipped Rankine writes:

Define loneliness.
Yes.
It's what we can't do for each other.
What do we mean to each other?
What does a life mean?
Why are we here if not for each other?

In those three questions is all the struggle of my relationship with – well, everyone, but above all my children, and at the deepest myself. I realise as I'm writing this why someone said to me recently that I sound like I am lonely now. Only I haven't been thinking of it as loneliness. I've been thinking of it as shame.

The loneliness of fretting in the late hours and the overstretched hours and the indolent dilatory hours whether writing about theatre is the right thing to be doing, and whether it's the writing bit or the theatre bit that's the problem

The last two paragraphs, each isolated within their own page, of Don't Let Me Be Lonely read:

Or Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem – is how Rosemary Waldrop translated his German. The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that – Here. I am here. This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.

Or one meaning of here is “In this world, in this life, on earth. In this place or position, indicating the presence of,” or in other words, I am here. It also means to hand something to somebody – Here you are. Here, he said to her. Here both recognises and demands recognition. I see you, or here, he said to her. In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.

Isn't this precisely what happens in theatre – the best theatre – the theatre that engages its audience in dialogue even when presented as a monologue from the stage, the dialogue whose extents and limitations I am constantly questioning and seeking? In that moment of my friend {a} recognising her own loneliness in Siddons' loneliness, hearing its name, I see a hand extended and a hand receiving. I see a conflation of two same presences, and I see how theatre – and the act of talking and writing about it – has everything, everything, to do with being alive.

But that apprehension, too, can produce a lonely kind of feeling.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Trying to measure the earthquake inside

Assignment: write a list of everything that fucks you off. Choose things that directly affect you. It's easy for us all to agree that war is shitty but if you haven't been on the receiving end of warfare, don't put it down.

The performance of With Force and Noise that I saw at IBT17 began with Hannah Sullivan walking stiffly, tentatively, as though the floor were carpeted in speckled eggshells, to the position near the audience that she held throughout, near enough for the faintest flicker of her features to register but not quite close enough to read the delicate embroidery of her suit. (That detail is much easier to see on this video.) She stood and in a voice barely registering above a whisper began to sing, a single verse that with every repetition grew fractionally louder until she couldn't hold the tone of it, notes lurching wayward and throat scratched with quiver:
What a pity it is
to tease me to sing,
when it does not lay in my power
to do such a thing.
Except clearly it does, because here she is doing it. A pared but potent metaphor for the ways in which humans feel goaded when challenged, react rather than act, wallow, overlook their agency, and give up before they even try.

With Force and Noise is concerned with protest and revolution, both words stitched into Sullivan's costume, along with careful outlines of people marching with placards and the entirely correct name Jeremy Cunt. There's a bit of me thinks that the costume is funny, because it's impossible to be angry when doing embroidery: it's the most placid and domestic of past-times. There's a bit of me thinks that first bit is an idiot, because there's a whole lineage of needle-wielding feminists: suffragettes who used embroidery to communicate their demand, their frustration, their experience of prison; artists who shaped innovative forms of expression through ancient stitchcraft; an entire history – herstory – of political activity that Sullivan and designer Annalies Henny undoubtedly know and respect.

Before protest or revolution, however, With Force and Noise is concerned with anger: the anger needed to prick people into doing something to change the society they live in. Sullivan's text is (deliberately) a patchwork of storytelling and verbatim utterances, unknown voices synthesised with her own, all of them hesitant, diffident, describing moments of experiencing anger with a kind of embarrassment. I wonder whether all of the people she spoke to, or had in mind when shaping the text, were white. Whether the threads of inhibition are interwoven with whiteness.

I didn't take enough notes during the show; what I did write is terse and enigmatic, but might also be suggestive, if I'd ever gotten round to reading Jung: “dream/scratch the black walls/cut the white sky” reads one line; “then revolutionaries ran into everything” another. I don't remember the detail, I remember the atmosphere: focused, sparse and yet full, seemingly reticent yet so forceful she might have been gripping her audience individually by the shoulders and giving us each a shake. Ultimately it's her body that shakes, judders and rattles with rage, and as it moves there is the eerie crashing sound of cutlery clattering, crockery shattering, domestic ease splintering, as though an earthquake were rumbling beneath our feet with Sullivan as its epicentre. I thought this was recorded sound at first, but then she turned around and her back was hobbled by bells. I found the revelation of this burden so unnerving: it made manifest some pain and weight otherwise locked deep within.

Assignment: Look at the list of things that fuck you off, the injustices that leave you inarticulate but with rage in your belly. Choose one and write a rant in response to it. It need not be coherent, intelligent or balanced.

The day I devoured Jessa Crispin's Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, I lost my voice. As I write this sentence, 10 days later, it still hasn't properly come back. And aside from the germs there's a weird psychological thing going on: certain conversations or encounters are closing my voice box. I'm trying to speak but literally haven't the energy, the power, to do such a thing.

Devoured isn't quite the word for how I read Why I Am Not a Feminist: it was more like gulping down an icy drink on a sweltering day, gratefully but also flinching. The book is brief, sharp and angry. It is also coherent, intelligent and balanced (although if you're a man encountering the bit on page 111 where she says: “I just want to be clear that I don't give a fuck about your response to this book”, balanced might be the last way you'd describe it. That chapter certainly put the critic from the LA Review of Books off). Above all, Crispin is concerned with power: the power of patriarchy to hypnotize women into perpetuating its systems; the power that humans have to shape and instigate change, if only they set their minds to it.

As such, it's an excoriating book, because it exposes the weakness in feminist thinking, and with it hidden hypocrisy. There are many strands to feminism, and it's worth making clear that Crispin keeps her lens quite tight: to categorise her focus as (relatively) young, white, cis and middle-class feminism is not totally fair but also not totally inaccurate. What she wants is a feminism that dismantles the hierarchies “by which the powerful maintain their position through the control and the oppression of the many”. What she sees is a feminism concerned with attaining power and wielding power. “A feminism that springs from self-interest,” she warns, “that is embraced because it more easily gives access to power – rather than being embraced out of any social awareness – will necessarily be part of this system of power and oppression, and so meaningless as a way towards universal human rights.” What she sees is a feminism choosing to continue “excluding and exploiting”, in the ongoing quest for equality.

In principle – by which I mean, as a basic position, and also in keeping with the principles by which I try to live – I agree with Crispin's argument absolutely. (OK, there is probably the occasional sentence that I question or recoil from, but none of them have stayed in memory.) But I also know I agree with her only in thought, not action. She lives “outside the system”; I bought in. And now I'm trying to bring up kids there, I'm seeing the extent to which thought without action is insufficient. On page 87 Crispin writes: “Growing up in a system that measures success by money, that values consumerism and competition, that devalues compassion and community, … girls and women have already been indoctrinated into what to want. Without close examination, without conversion into a different way of thinking and acting, what that girl wants is going to be money, power, and, possibly, her continued subjugation, because a feminism that does not provide an alternative to the system will still have the system's values.” In the time between first writing and rewriting this sentence my daughter turned 10; her favourite activity is shopping in Zara and Top Shop, and me talking to her about exploitation in the fashion industry is doing nothing to convert her to a different way of thinking or acting. In taking her to the wrong clothes shops at all I have colluded in her indoctrination.

(And now it's the morning of international women's day and, more pertinently, the global strike action, and guess who did the school run? Guess who is sitting at their desk rather than joining a day of protests on the streets in the rain? I have zero sympathy with the women writing sentences, for money, like this: “As a mother whose husband works long hours away from home, how am I supposed to stop taking care of my very young children?” Er, you've had weeks to sort your shit out: tell your husband that he's doing the unpaid labour, ie standing in solidarity with you, and go stand in solidarity with other humans. But here, again, is the hypocrisy Crispin exposes: it's not as if I've done this.)

I felt frustrated, reading the book, that it's 94% diagnosis of the problem, when what I crave is a list of actions, solutions, a 13-point programme to destroy capitalism and patriarchy. Yes, I know, I'm asking for someone to make it easy, or at least easier, and that's ridiculous. Where Crispin does instruct, she has already had an impact, particularly with this paragraph on value: “In order to dismantle our patriarchal, capitalistic, consumerist society … we must stop telling each other stories that equate money with value. We must imagine a world where value is expressed with things like love and care.” I've fretted so much – on this blog, elsewhere – about how I am and am not paid for the writing I do, not just because I'm neurotic about it but as part of a wider conversation about the ways in which art (and criticism) are (de)valued and exploited. When artists I know are not only struggling to make rent but being expected to work for free because they're “doing what they love”, it's vital to keep that discussion going, and expand it to include more people. But are there other ways in which I can contribute to stretching the conversation, arguing for and shaping a dialect of other values, reclaiming the language of love that has been so violently and ruthlessly co-opted by market forces and putting it to fairer purpose? That might be useful work I could do.

This is Crispin's challenge throughout: nothing will change without dedicated work. And by work she doesn't mean writing blog posts and getting busy on twitter, but putting active effort and energy into building new and non-patriarchal systems of social interaction. “We have to understand our power, that we are not at the mercy of this culture,” she says elsewhere in that 6% of solutions. “We are participants of it. We can shape it. But that requires work, not simply commentary. Stop reacting to the moving parts. Lay your attack at the machinery itself.” Figuring out how is also part of the work.

Assignment: add expletives to the rant, and a call to arms. Who do you want to stand alongside you? How do you get them on board?

An hour after With Force and Noise, I returned to the same room in the Wickham theatre for FK Alexander's Recovery. Except it wasn't the same room at all: the bank of raked seats had been pushed out of sight, erasing the line between performer and audience; the floor was scattered with cushions, arranged around a central circle of gongs and singing bowls; and animated images were projected on a side wall, abstract, gloopy things, like the squirming movements of bacteria under a microscope. Welcoming her audience, FK gave reassurance: there is no metaphor or hidden meaning here, nothing that you need to work out. And so I lay on the floor, image flow in sight, draped my coat over me like a blanket against the draughty chill, and let my brain drift.

The hour began softly, with caressing luminous rings and chimes, so mesmeric I began to unburden, for a few moments might have fallen asleep. And somewhere in that rare quiescence, that limbo of placidity, another noise began to rise: like static, radio crackle, electrical disturbance; like the atmospheric build-up of a hurricane; not just the rattle of cutlery and crockery that warns of impending earthquake but the ruptures that it brings, the deafening crash of masonry crumbling, buildings keeling to the ground; the volume rising and rising still, the sound at once alien and familiar; a sound I know in my deepest self, because I hear it between my ears so often, a sound that suffocates, and might drown me, that has me tearing at my skin as though to claw through its surface, seeking release from its pressure, release from everything against which it roars. The sound rises and somehow in its inescapable aggression what I felt was relief: the relief of being known, understood, held. And then it subsides and the hums and flickers and gentle scintillations of the gongs and singing bowls re-emerge from its depths; there is a slow fold into silence, and then another invitation, to take all the time we need to return to the street and the rest of life.

I left Recovery wanting three things: to be hugged, to tell FK how much it had meant to me, and to write, the volcanic kind of writing that is all heat and light and rupture from the centre of my being. It's probably as well that I didn't, that I've waited a few weeks, because... why? I'm always grateful to people who turn their skin inside out online. But they tend to be writing about life; I'm writing about theatre. I guess it's the ways in which that sentence is a lie that keeps me coming back here.

In the four weeks since writing the muted paragraph that appeared on IBT's own site and writing this, FK has presented a five-hour, durational but also drop-in version of Recovery at the Wellcome Collection as part of the Sick of the Fringe festival. I couldn't go so this is just surmise, but I can't imagine it working as a drop-in: it's too carefully orchestrated, too deliberately crafted with beginning, middle and end, not to be encountered as a whole (and indeed holistic) experience. It's an assumption supported by the review by the brilliant White Pube duo (Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad), who – possibly exaggerating – say they stayed for 12 minutes, enough time to experience something of the resting circle and something of the cacophony, then left with some incisive questions:

[Zarina:] I am so fascinated by white spirituality & its components. Bc tbh European Philosophy & religion r separate things (which is odd 4 me bc it's not the case for my experience... I feel like Hinduism,,, duh they're the same... but Islam, also kinda blurrrs the line between religion & philosophy in a way Occidental traditions could never kinda fathom??) & the west hasn't rlly got a history of spiritualism;,;,;,;. … when hippy culture kinda said fuk u to capitalism n if that's a binary, does that mean there's something about the conditions created by anglo-saxon protestantism & capitalism that just INHERENTLY rejects the spiritual??? Does protestant/ - capitalism represent & vibe off that part of knowledge that is quantified & qualified (something the spiritual kinda rejects, bc i feel it as a system of knowing and learning thru ur body & the very f a c t of yr corporeality.??? u get me??? ) n like... amongst all of that is the way whiteness frames meditation: as an activity separate & cut off from any other action than itself.

There's a lot here to unpack, but at a basic level Zarina just didn't have the same experience as me: I felt totally absorbed by Recovery, whereas she felt repelled. What I understand Zarina to be saying is that FK appropriates eastern spiritualities to give (mostly white) audiences a meditation experience, but one that gets no further than a meaningless temporary escape. What I understand FK to be doing is commenting on the ways in which the industries of, for instance, self-help and mindfulness not only appropriate eastern spiritualities but skim their depths and warp them from their original meaning to create a system that deliberately numbs people, distracting them from the actual problem – the impossibility of living within a neoliberal economy – by presenting the problem as internal, a question of attitude, nothing to do with external political realities. Zarina thinks FK remakes this system; I think she condemns it and claims the space for something else.

In thinking this I'm much influenced by discussion elsewhere: in the IBT writing I mentioned that Recovery reminds me of James Leadbitter/the vacuum cleaner's Madlove activism, and his shaping of “a safe place to go mad”; that's where it seems to me useful that Recovery takes place in a “cut off” sphere. Recovery also reminds me of theatre-maker Ellie Stamp talking about how mindfulness makes her furious, because it's designed to extinguish fury, and with it the power to create change, by smothering it in acceptance of the way things are. If capitalism is a system that breaks people, the “recovery” that FK offers is a different system of knowing, of listening through the body to everything that hurts, and understanding that it hurts because the world is loud and violent and bores to the core of your bones. But part of Zarina's problem, as I read it, is that, as a white woman, FK is able to employ the spiritualities of other cultures as her tools: an act of power comparable to that of the white colonialists and capitalists who for centuries have used the riches of the east to their advantage. At the root of the difference between Zarina and me is the way in which we see (or don't see) FK's whiteness, and through that see historical and contemporary white western exploitation of eastern cultures. And I have no idea how to respond to that, except by listening.

What if depression … could be traced to histories of colonialism, genocide, slavery, legal exclusion, and everyday segregation and isolation that haunt all of our lives, rather than to biochemical imbalances? … [W]hat are the consequences for white people of living lives of privilege in the vicinity of the violence of racism? [Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling]

At the end of January I started an online workshop run by Scottee called Notepad Warrior. It was supposed to last four weeks, but here I am in the middle of March and not yet halfway through. To be honest, I'll probably spend the next four years working on it. But for now, I'm stuck. I'm specifically stuck on the assignments I've included here, all edited versions of exercises set in the first couple of weeks. I'm stuck because, in following that first instruction to list only “things that directly affect you” as things that fuck me off, I've collided into a concrete wall of privilege. So for instance, threats to abortion access fuck me off, but I've never had an abortion, and now I'm in my early 40s I'm never likely to require one, so that's that one discounted. The treatment of homeless people fucks me off, but I was nine when my family got evicted from our flat by an unscrupulous landlord, we were only homeless for a couple of weeks, and I barely remember it anyway, so that doesn't feel like it counts either. I get fucked off by the insidious ways in which poor people are manoeuvred into paying more for utilities, car insurance, you name it, but that's not something I've been affected by in adult life either, especially as my husband is a canny one for haggling a deal. Racism fucks me off, but I've never felt its impact. I could go on. The point is, when it came to choosing one thing from that list and writing a rant, the object of that rant inevitably, disgustedly, frustratedly, was myself: my well-meaning but ineffectual, privileged self.

Looking back at the list, I'm surprised by my omissions. Motherhood isn't on it: I suppose because I drew it up on my sixth night away from the family out of seven, enough time that the bruises from constantly headbutting the situations that motherhood puts me in to had faded. (And yes, it should be parenting: I'd be fucked off about the elision, except I'm efficiently programmed not to notice.) For the same reason, perhaps, the national curriculum is missing, even though I'm witnessing directly its rapid asphyxiation of curiosity and creativity in my children. Also missing is the English language: I suppose because, even though there is so much about this language that infuriates me (its in-built capacity for racism; the way seminal is used synonymously with importance and value; its lack of elasticity, particularly in relation to gender, and ability to force binary where multiplicity would be more natural and humane), it's something that I can have a modicum of control over, using some words/constructions and avoiding others. Something I can't control is complicity: it is impossible, in this society, not to be complicit in inequality, abuse of humans and natural resources, the systems of oppression that, as Crispin puts it, “we inadequately convey with words like 'patriarchy' or 'capitalism'”. Silent complicity isn't on the list either.

(And now it's the morning of April 5 and all I seem to have inside my head is the low breathy whirr of an air-conditioning machine set to temperate. I've lost count of the number of nights I've stayed up as the clock has ticked towards morning, struggling with these paragraphs. If the starting of this blog was the stoking of a fire, the flames that flared have long gone out: I no longer know what the point is of this writing, of my writing at all. And the more I read of people with privilege bleating about how they too are troubled by or depressed within these systems of inequality, or recommendations for how white people can be genuine allies to people of colour, or even just good people [a twitter thread I now can't find], the more I hear in my own voice that bleating, that whining, that anxiety around loss of voice, loss of power, loss of prestige in a system of hierarchy.)

I think about the possibly white people whose voices are heard in fragments in With Force and Noise, struggling to express anger or name a reason to be angry: how much is that to do with this idea of authenticity, a perceived absence of first-hand experience and “direct affect”? I feel myself wanting to evade something here: wanting to protest that you don't have to experience injustice or oppression directly to care. That a key component of humanity is the capacity for empathy. And then I remember how I gave no real thought to the rules around child maintenance, or Legal Aid, or how child arrangement cases are conducted in family courts, particularly those cases in which the woman is claiming domestic violence, particularly those in which her claims of domestic violence have been overlooked, because the evidence to prove them was assumed insufficient to bring to trial, until I accompanied a friend to the West London Family Court – truly a place where dreams go to die, in so many painfully literal ways – and watched the man who had been controlling her existence also control the narrative to get the child access he wanted. I remember that I didn't care about the education system until I had children at school; nor did I think about the segregation that kicks in at secondary level (such is the intersection of class and race that segregation is what wealth creates) until witnessing it first-hand on visits to local comprehensive and private schools. I could go on, again. I could talk of hypocrisy again.

I've been writing this while spending time in a rehearsal room with Chris Goode & Co, a couple of research and development weeks on an adaptation of the Derek Jarman film Jubilee. It's a punk film, centred on a girl gang conjured up as “the shadow of this time” by a mystic for Queen Elizabeth I, running rampage in an apocalyptic England ravaged by poverty, unemployment, ineffectual politics and social disorder. Something that one of the performers, the sharp and lovely Temi Wilkey, said in the first week has burrowed into me: the young women in the film are rebels without a cause, railing at nothing because they're so privileged they have nothing to rail against. Whereas if they were black, they would know what makes them angry. And it would be white supremacy.

I've also been writing this while listening to the to-and-fro argument triggered by the Channel 4 interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Reading back on the paragraph two weeks later, I realise I have no appetite to re-rehearse what that argument entailed, and delete everything except the first sentence. All I feel able to add is this: there is feminism, there are feminisms, and then there is the expectation that women, especially those who position themselves as in any way allies to people more marginalised than themselves, must exist in a mode of constant perfection, always saying exactly the right thing, but also being silent and supportive. And suddenly I'm struck by how similar these expectations are to those that attach to motherhood.

I wanted to do Scottee's workshop because it says it will “help you channel your inner art activist” and for ages now I've felt the need to break myself open in some way, find routes towards a different kind of self-expression, stop feeling so futile and surplus to requirement, silence the noise in my head of constant criticism, or at least learn to harness it or find in it something useful and supportive, something that will guide me into the world, specifically the world of making – making art, but more than that, making social activity. Although I haven't finished the course, and although I've raised questions about that listing exercise, and although I feel a failure, because all the indications are that I'm not an artist at all, or an activist for that matter, Notepad Warrior has been brilliant and fantastically helpful: a challenge I keep trying to hide from, but that follows me around like a Jack Russell, nipping at my ankles so I never forget its demand. I write this at the end of an intensive week of interviewing people about the “civic role of the arts”, not words I'd choose but words I feel I instinctively understand: people like Tom Andrews at People United, whose work is entirely an expression of radical kindness; and David Slater at Entelechy Arts, whose work re-creates models of community eroded by urbanism, the digitalisation of existence, and austerity; and Carine Osment, who with her friend Alexandre runs the Farnham Fun Palace, and through that has become a genuinely active participant in local civic life. Everything in Scottee's course points in the same direction.

But it also points back to writing, and its uses. Crispin's Why I Am Not a Feminist is essentially Scottee's second week of assignments in book form: a rant, with added expletives and colour, transformed into a manifesto. I read its final chapter – in particular, its rallying cry to “reclaim our imaginations” – thinking of the Department of Feminist Conversations, a project I'm doing with Mary Paterson and Diana Damian, the Tiny Letters we're writing to the future, the many aspirations we have for that project – and all the things preventing us from fulfilling them, from day jobs to childcare. The same dull stuff feminism has been talking about for decades, in other words. Progress isn't linear: I know this, we know this. (How funny to re-encounter that sentence after interviewing Le Gateau Chocolat: it's a line he also said to me.) Progress is slow and stumbling and easy to push aside. But the sun keeps rising and we need to keep trying, because living without that song isn't living at all.

We must lay claim to the culture, occupy it. We must remember that our world does not have to be this way. We do not have to reward exploitation, we do not have to support the degradation of the planet, of our souls, of our bodies. We can resist. We must stop thinking so small.

We must reclaim our imaginations. We have been limited by the patriarchal imagination, infected by it. We see only as far as they see.

We must begin again to see beyond the structures we've been given. The way we order our lives, our homes, our work, our souls – our worldviews must be reimagined in wholly new ways. This is more important than ever before. [Jessa Crispin, Why I Am Not a Feminist, p150]

On Thursday, on a whim, I bought a new notebook. (Thank you Scottee for the encouragement.) On Friday, also whimsical, I inscribed a paragraph from John Berger's Hold Everything Dear on the first page. “Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued. Desire never concerns the mere possession of something, but the changing of something. Desire is a wanting. A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfilment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremacy.”

Already Saturday has turned into Sunday, and the noise in my brain is of electricity surging, crackling, dying out. What recovery could solve this, what force could answer this, what noise could replace this? Somehow, with all the writing, there's still so much to figure out.