It’s been a good eight months since I last camped out at Foyles. Considering this was an almost weekly haunt of mine before the world imploded back in March, it’d be surreal sitting back down here even if it wasn’t in a room where everyone is distanced in their support bubbles, masked and sanitized and hopefully not infected. Needless to say, the then-and-now difference is hardly just linear.
How different is my life since I last sat here? Very, but again, not just because of COVID. On a personal level, so much has changed in those eight months. I started a new job, my first outside of true retail (the word retail still hovers, linking me to the past decade of my work, but there are other words in my job title that will hopefully lead to the next decade). Not only that, but I’m a month into a part time masters’ course at Queen Mary University, something that still feels a little wild to me, if I’m honest. Less so now than it did in my second lecture at the end of September, when one really-not-that-silly question suddenly made me feel so deeply out of my depth that I spent the next seventy-two hours scrambling for an eject button. But still wild.
I like to blame my whimsical Piscean flighty-ness when it comes to my love of the eject button (nothing says commitment issues like an inability to go on a second date nearly seven years after I left my last relationship), but the truth is I think it’s a pretty natural reaction. As much as you think it’s going to be a comfort to discover the thing you want to do with the rest of your life, it’s actually fucking terrifying. My genuine love of castles and Empress Matilda and medieval anything sustained me through the application process, the visions of my rural English future in the heritage industry suddenly validated when I was accepted into QMU’s Heritage Management program in July. But the reality of taking steps down a new professional path shook me more than I was prepared for, and I’ve had to do a fair amount of talking myself down (read: panic texting) since logging into that first virtual seminar.
On an emotional level, the last eight months saw the last two-thirds of being in therapy. I had two major blows that kicked off that particular journey: first, the sudden death of my dad last July, and second, being forced to step down from my job at Regent Street. The death of a parent is traumatic by nature, and I wrote an essay about why my personal experience of it was such. But in a different way, my demotion shook me even further. For someone whose only adult concept of commitment was to work, suddenly being told you’re not nearly good enough at your job (whether true or not) makes you doubt what you’ve been doing with yourself for the last ten years. So the two experiences, which happened within two months of each other and were equally blindsiding, kind of, y’know, crushed me.
Being a natural optimist, almost incapable of seeing “cons” and described on more than one occasion as sunshine personified (a favorite compliment I will remember until I shed my mortal coil), I did not handle being crushed particularly well. When my best friend suggested I look into therapy, I listened. Therapy looks different for everyone, and I worked through a goodly amount of my struggles from January to July of this year. I think more than anything the lasting benefits of knowing what it’s like to be heard and give yourself space make therapy for any amount of time worth pursuing.
So, again still ignoring COVID, we have a career change, the discovery of a new life passion, a return to academia, and the finishing (a loose term) of therapy.
Mixed in with the life-altering nature of the pandemic, there’s the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, and the personal stock-taking of privilege, being party to, and engaging and benefiting from systems of oppression and learning how to become an ally. Of expanding my awareness beyond the borders of these personal things that have happened to me in the past eight months and processing the experiences of others.
I remember posting about Ahmaud Arbery back in March, making my first calls to a DA office to leave a voicemail, and being terrified of doing it “wrong”, and almost letting that fear stop me from talking about it. Fast forward to Breonna Taylor. To George Floyd. To it becoming belatedly apparent that staying silent in the past was to be complicit, that to be “apolitical” is (and always has been) synonymous with “my life isn’t effected enough to care, and I don’t care that yours is”. What kinds of changes has this wrought in my life? Adding antiracist reading to my regular book stack. Educating myself on systemic racism, and diversifying my feed, my shopping, and my cultural consumption. Learning that you never stop learning, and that it is a privilege that my education in this subject is academic and not physical.
And then, we have COVID.
When I finally got the call that my Italian citizenship had gone through back in 2014, I spent the next few years hemming and hawing about actually making the move back to England. Those were the days before Brexit seemed remotely possible, so instead of being plagued by potential red tape, the primary case I made for staying in the states could be narrowed down to one thing and one thing only: the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
Really? you ask, understandably judgemental of the fact that a plot that involved Keira Knightley and Steve Carell as a plausible romantic couple could make me feel anything other than bafflement. Yes, really. For those unfamiliar, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a black comedy that chronicles the last days of earth, after a final attempt to stop a meteor flying towards our home planet fails (…emphasis on the black in black comedy). Keira Knightley and Steve Carell live in the same apartment building, but they don’t meet until he happens upon her, crying on the fire escape, because she has just found out she missed her last chance to fly back to the UK to see her family before the world ends.
Call me crazy, but that movie and that circumstance really fucked me up. I empathized with Keira Knightley’s character, because choosing to live across an ocean from most of the people you love does relinquish a certain degree of control you have over your life. Sure, it’s unlikely that if I lived in Philadelphia and needed to get home to my family under emergency circumstances, that I’d be able to do so on foot. But if it came down to it, physics wouldn’t stop me. You don’t need a plane (or a pilot, for that matter) to make that journey. If I moved to England, though? That was no longer true, and, ridiculous or no, that fact kept me stateside for years.
Obviously, my feelings eventually changed. Not my feelings towards that fear – it’s still deeply rooted within me. But my practical side caught up with me, and egged on by the nagging dissatisfaction I had with my life back in California, I made the move to the UK in 2018. I figured the chances of an apocalypse that would somehow stop me from visiting home and seeing my family was too absurdly unlikely to sacrifice my dream.
Writing this in October of 2020, I think I owe my past self an apology. COVID may not be the apocalypse, but as impossible as the possibility seemed then, we do now live in a world where any minute my ability to go home can suddenly be, well, disabled. More likely than not, it’d only be a temporary problem, but still. Talk about things you never saw coming. (Or did. But wrote off because it seemed like the thing to do at the time.)
So, now, not ignoring COVID, it’s been a long eight months. A whole lot has happened and I am grateful that if nothing else, Foyles is still standing, and I’ve been able to return after all this time, in this unfamiliar world, to something familiar.
Change has many guises and I don’t know that I have anything more philosophical to contribute to the discourse than that. But it would be remiss of me to sit in this café and not share the experience so as to commune even the slightest bit with that old life of mine. I’m pretty busy these days, whether with work or study or just existing, but I’m going to do my damnedest to try and be here a little more. Despite everything that has happened and continues to happen, writing brings me joy, and we can all use a little more joy, right?
And while all that means in the context of this blog is that I’ll post a little more, I’m not sorry. As Carl would say, I will not apologize for art.