Autopsy of 2021

1 Jan

For the last few months, I’ve wanted to write about the process of ‘coming out of’ the pandemic. A sort of ‘Covid is over’ retrospective. Although, of course, we find ourselves now in the midst of Wave Eleventy, in this funny kind of ‘personal responsibility’ quagmire that benefits nobody except the chronically selfish.

This year seems to have passed in an instant, doesn’t it? Perhaps because from November to March, I was in near total isolation at my parents’ house, in a city I have never lived in. It was a privileged position, in many ways: I had food, a warm, comfortable house to stay in, and the companionship of my family. We watched a lot of good TV and movies. We went to the beach for bracing walks, when allowed, and, when restrictions tightened, we limited ourselves to a loop around the block.

But in a city where I knew no-one else, my social world narrowed to phone calls and a semi-regular roleplay game in which I played a drag queen wizard with the stage name Glamione Danger. When it came to the spring and cases had at last dropped a bit, I was so desperate to come home to my own life, it was a physical ache.

As for the rest, I hardly know where to start.

Words

Something that made isolation more bearable was working on my languages. I decided to take part in a language challenge that I’ve had my eye on for several years. A bit of disposable income plus an ocean of time meant it was the perfect opportunity to jump in. And it represented a tangible goal: to have a 15-minute conversation in German by the end of May.

The challenge works because it connects you with a community. As someone who works best when I’ve got accountability, having to log my daily 30-minute commitment really fired me up to get it done – and to exceed it, where I could. I also did weekly chats with a couple of other lovely learners, which was a bonus bit of social stimulation in a lonely time.

I also continued my weekly conversations in Greek and English with my language partner Konstantinos over in Piraeus. They have been a real highlight of this year, and I lucked out in finding such an enthusiastic and lovely person to chat with.

In other word news, I developed a pretty good side hustle doing some freelance writing. It’s not glamorous, but it pays, which is something I have always wanted from my writing. It does mean I’ve neglected fiction. But my bank account says thank you.

Dance

Covid took something from me that I deeply, deeply miss: my Greek dancing family, and the joy of the circle. This year, at least during the spring and summer, I tried to make regular time to go and dance in the little park near our block of flats. Weather, drug dealers and cruisers permitting, of course. There is something a little perverse in dancing Ikariotikos under leaden skies, alone, to an audience of pigeons. But better than nothing.

During 2020 I started to follow a few burlesque dancers on Instagram. I don’t actually recall how it started, but soon I had a collection of dancers who posted regular dress-up and choreography videos that added a little sparkle to my life. I knew I wanted to take some burlesque lessons at some point.

If you haven’t heard of burlesque (and a surprising number of people haven’t), it’s a complex artform that encompasses dance, comedy, clowning, and stripping. I have no qualms at all about the latter part of it; I don’t think there is anything wrong with people choosing to express or explore their femininity.

I went to a drop-in class in August, one of the first ‘normal’ things I did post-vaccination. We did a warm-up, a group strut, and a fun routine to Ariana Grande. There were tears in my eyes as the class came to an end. To be in a room full of people, of all ages, sizes and backgrounds, unashamedly enjoying music and movement. It was frankly exhilarating.

I loved the classes so much, I signed up for a four-week intensive course. It was a revelation. A small group of women, and one man, we each had our own reasons for wanting to connect with body confidence. As the weeks went on, we developed our own ‘burlesque personas’. Everyone brought something slightly different to the table, from the energy they wanted to embody (a lot of strong, dominant divas in the room), to the colours they wanted to wear. In the final session, we were invited to try ‘twirling the tassels’.  I expected most people to wear a bra. But actually, most people decided to go topless. It was a moment of liberation, of ecstatic self-acceptance, of being in a safe space we had all co-created. It showed what a journey we had all been on.

Of course, I have signed up for the intermediate course.

Heart

Returning to London meant dipping my toe into the world of online dating.

Having not really been single since 2006, I didn’t know much about the world of ‘the apps’. I found the process initially depressing because it made me feel so shallow. Gradually, though, I hardened. With so many options out there, it becomes necessary to filter quickly, and you soon work out what you will and won’t tolerate in a match.

I wish I could write out all my dating stories. To be honest, I have been extremely lucky in that I have only had two really weird ones. The rest have been perfectly pleasant, and our conversational topics have ranged from the Ottomans to the state of education. Which might be why my ratio of first to second dates is outrageously low.

Reams have been written about online dating, but it’s a very odd world and much, much harder than I anticipated. I’ve run through all the possibilities for my poor performance with friends and family. Do I wear makeup for a date? Yes, a bit, but not too much. Do I dress nicely? I think so. Do I ask them questions? Always. Do I laugh at their jokes? Of course. I won’t even go into the maddening conversations I’ve had with male friends, who suggest my standards are ‘too high’, and that I should ‘dumb down’.

The truth is, until I get to know someone, I am reserved. That’s not always a reflection of how I feel inside. But somehow that is just how I seem. It takes a bit of time and trust to unlock the real me.

Promisingly, something clicked in December. Probably crucially, I squeezed in a date after my burlesque class. Brimming with all the bravado of the lesson, I spilled my bag of clothes on the table in an attempt to explain what I’d been doing: learning to take off a shirt, gloves and a bra. It didn’t phase him. As I don’t want to jinx anything, I’ll pause there. But it showed me enthusiasm and chemistry DO exist, as elusive as they seem.

Body

At various points in 2021 I’ve felt at war with my body. Or rather, that my body is at war with me. After a series of painful episodes through 2020 and 2021, I was diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis, a chronic bladder condition that, although not at all rare, is severely under-researched and poorly understood. Having been through various illnesses and conditions in my lifetime, the last thing I wanted as I tried to piece my life back together was another physical obstacle to overcome.

I threw everything I had at it, in an effort to regain control over myself. I worked with a nutritionist for five months, reworking my diet to make it less inflammatory and more nutritious. For three months, I was gluten and dairy free (and vegetarian). Then, when I managed to connect with a urogynaecologist, he asked me to cut out a variety of foods, including beans, eggs, chocolate and avocado. I wasn’t sure how I would manage, but somehow I did for several weeks before the ban was lifted. I ate a lot of sweet potato.

Just the act of applying my willpower helped me deal with the stress and anxiety arising from the situation. Somehow, despite eating very little junk food for several months, I didn’t lose weight. But I’m at a point of caring very little about that. I want my body to be nourished, strong and pain-free.

Soul

My soul has been nourished this year by connecting with people. I’ve made some truly wonderful new friends. And I’ve removed some others from my life, where they had the opposite effect. I’m learning to set my boundaries and apply them.

At the same time, sometimes people come into my life, and I wonder how I have been so lucky to cross their path. I couldn’t have managed any of 2021 without the kindness and generosity of some incredible friends.

I’ve also put a lot of energy into healing and restoring myself. Nobody else has done that for me. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, even if a lot of it is not easily measured.

To the MVPs of 2021: Memrise, Lingq and Italki; Raneir Pollard; Depop; Tony Soprano; Andrew Garfield; Lacy Phillips; Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook; 3am Tarot; Caroline Polachek; Gereon Rath; Troye Sivan; the zebra crossing outside Farringdon Sainsbury’s; Parks Hyde, Regent’s and St. James’; Great Greek Deli; Timothee Chalamet; that weird sushi place near Baker Street that’s also a car showroom; the river Thames; marshmallows.

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