Pandemic diaries

Voice in a time of noise

A LinkedIn message, from a guy I used to box with from 2015-2017:

Hi Vanilla! Can I just take a few words to say how glad I am that “Discovering Ratchet” is live again? I’m proud of you for finding your voice anew! All the best xo

I wish I could say I’ve found my voice anew. I haven’t. 

Roger Rosenblatt, author of Unless it Moves the Human Heart – the Craft and Art of Writing, shares a debate with his students concern the meaning of ‘voice’:

“What’s all this talk of ‘voice’?” asks Suzanne.

“You mean, ‘all this crap,’ don’t you?”

“If you insist. Yes. Crap. That’s all anyone talks about when they talk about writing. Voice. If, at my age, I don’t know my own voice, I’ll never know it.”

I tell her she’s right, that “voice” is merely the latest cliché to signify good writing. Its predecessor was “authority.” She is also right about linking self-knowledge to writing. “But instead of thinking of self-knowledge as idiosyncratic, try connecting it more to the task at hand. Subject matter determines voice. Voice should be selfless. Want to tell a tale in the voice of an idiot savant? Try The Sound and the Fury. Want to create an innocent learning morality? Put your glasses on Huckleberry Finn’s nose, but make sure the reader sees more of Huck’s nose than your glasses. Voice is the knowledge of what you want to say. After that, it becomes any voice that serves your purpose.”

When I started this blog in 2014, I thought it a practical way to share the funny anecdotes in my life in a time-effective manner. Rather than recount them one by one to all my friends at get-togethers or via Whatsapp groups, I could just publish them here, and direct those who had free time to follow my jokey-life online. After a brief detour into my online dating trials and tribulations, it become something more – an anthology of self-discovery, through dating misadventures certainly, but also through the complicated world of mental health struggles.

“I find I don’t know what I mean to say till I start to write,” says Robert.

“You find that you don’t know what you think until you write it, too. You’ll be going along writing sentence after sentence about some slight received by a character, then you find yourself growing angrier on his behalf. Before you realize it, you’re in a rage, and the rage is what you felt from the start, though you had no sign of it until the words unearthed it. If we have to put it in terms of ‘voice,’ voice may be the imprisoned you, waiting to be paroled.”

I stopped writing in 2019 because it became a burden. Writing about my borderline diagnosis was invaluable in helping understand the particular way this destructive disorder manifested itself in my life, however, the more I explained, the more I felt like damaged goods. Moreover, I was in the midst of a very messy dating situation: it is nearly impossible to make sense of an abusive relationship in real time. I was tired of worrying that in sharing my truth, I would jeopardize my perceived professionalism at work. Was my blog was merely an exercise in navel-gazing, proof of the immaturity I was often accused of by coworkers, family and occasionally friends?

“We write what we are,” says Nina.

“I think so. What we are, what we fear, what we love, what we believe, what we want the world to be.”

“Do you believe that?” Sven asks me. “That we write to change the world?”

“I do. If we look like we’re trying to change the world, the writing will sink from the weight of its own piety. But in the best of our work, the idealism is there, like trout below the surface of the water. Of course you want to try to change the world. You just don’t want to show your cards. But look at the world. Who would not want to change it? Books count. They disturb people. You never heard of a tyrant who wanted to burn the TV sets.”

After 3 years of convincing myself my blog did not matter, I am now of the opinion that it does. How or why, I am not yet sure, but I wouldn’t have struggled with its absence for 39 months, nor would I have been met with such positive greetings from family, acquaintances and fellow bloggers I’ve never physically met if this blog didn’t count. 

In a world that is increasingly divided, where there is no shortage of opinions without debate, of labels without understanding, it feels like an act of courage to write what I am. I believe that what ails this planet is an inability to stand the beauty and fragility of our humanity: we live in a constant state of fear, masked by anger – 2 emotions I am overfamiliar with. Perhaps my exercise of self-discovery, of claiming my own humanity, is my way of changing the world: an act of rebellion, of choosing to rise above the constant noise that drowns out all feeling, and replacing it with love. Perhaps not. Subject matter determines voice. Voice should be selfless.

I’ll figure it out eventually. I hope. Until then, thank you for joining me on this journey. 

Artsy picture that has nothing to do with the blog post.

Grace in the form of a mani/pedi

I’m at the halfway point of a workation in Europe. 14 days: 7 work, 7 leisure – my favorite kind of mix. Just enough time off to be able to enjoy the different scenery but not so much as to feel like a Eurotrip That Requires Planning. I like my trips to center around beautiful vistas that require no more than 50 minutes of leisurely strolls to reach and hours in a café people watching or reading a book with a healthy amount of boozy hydration. I typically prepare for these trips by:

  • Booking a flight;
  • Finding a hotel that is at the sweet spot of location/good vibes/3.5-4 stars/respectful to my bank account;
  • Ordering myself the Dr. Witness Top 10 guidebook from the city in question which I never end up reading but it looks good on my bookshelf as a momento;
  • Arriving at the hotel and asking the receptionist to plan my trip for me – what would he/she do if it was their first time in the city and they hated rushing?
  • Arriving at the hotel and asking the receptionist to plan my trip for me – what would he/she do if it was their first time in the city and they hated rushing?

During today’s breakfast I decided that the best way to spend my last 6 hours in Rotterdam would be to get my first mani/pedi since pre-pandemic. Is Rotterdam renowned for its nail care? Nope. Was I aware of any notable salon? Also no. But I had seen one 78 seconds’ walk from the hotel that had good vibes so good enough for me. Munching on my bagel and smoked salmon, I pondered why it was that in Montreal, despite knowing all the salons my friends swear by – some of them have even volunteered to personally introduce me to their favorite estheticians who will, by all accounts, change my life – the notion of pampering myself filled me with dread, but here in Rotterdam, I was eager to do an activity that used to give me joy. My second latte revealed the truth: I felt safe to reveal myself in a strange city, as there was no choice of me ever crossing paths with the estheticians ever again.

I’ve bought into society’s dictum that a person’s outward appearance is a reflection of their self-worth and a reliable indicator of how society can and should treat them.

A well built physique is a status symbol. It reflects you worked hard for it. No money can buy it. You cannot borrow it. You cannot inherit it. You cannot steal it. You cannot hold onto it without constant work. It shows discipline. It shows self-respect. It shows patience, work ethic, passion & dignity. – The internet

How else to interpret my 40lbs weight gain during the pandemic as an indicator that I have no self-respect? My reluctance in getting a mani/pedi as proof that I have no dignity?

While I was waiting for my time slot at the salon, I watched the two clients before me. Two women, one my age, one slightly older. The younger woman was teasing the middle aged woman about the full-blown excavative work being done one her feet – the kind of comment that would have plunged me into a shame spiral. Instead the older woman giggled and shrugged; they were speaking Dutch, but if I had to guess her reply was along the lines of “what? These are a working woman’s feet.” I became obsessed with her feet: tired, clenched, veiny, swollen. And yet the pedicurist working at them worked with single handed focus, massaging them over and over with care. Excavation or no, the pedicurist had a job to be done, and the middle-aged woman was clearly enjoying her pampering. The more the pedicurist worked her feet, the more the woman’s feet seemed beautiful in their ugliness. Each vein a sign of her life lived till now. The swollenness proof that she stood long days, providing for those she cared about. The gradual relaxing of her clenched toes an indication that for all her hard work, she was willing to let go her day’s worries to the pleasure of being cared for. Seeing her smile at her colorful toes, pack them up into her sneakers, and walk out of the salon with a bounce to her step, laughing with her younger friend, made my heart sing.

My turn came. I felt a wave of vulnerability taking my feet out of my shoes – this was to be the first time they were touched by a stranger in over 24 months. What judgments about my lack of self-care would the esthetician make based on the level of crustiness of my feet? Should I explain that I walk 2h a day and the corns on my toes are a new development since I turned 35? That the dry skin of many blisters isn’t my fault, I’ve always had sensitive feet? Laughingly joke that the hairs on my big toes are a result of a scaled back social life because of the pandemic, but of course normally I would pluck and primp my big toes to have an appearance that is appropriate for the outside world? Or just sit in silence and let the esthetician work? I chose the last option. For 90 minutes she worked my hands and my feet with gentle concentration giving me the same attention as she had her previous client. I caught her smiling and nodding with satisfaction after her last pat down of my feet – her first outward sign that she had seen the state of my feet initially. Rather than judgment, her smile seemed to indicate a satisfaction of having restored my feet to their unique form of beauty.

Sitting in companionable silence with the estheticians with the radio playing an eclectic mix of hits, from Tina Turner to Ed Sheeran to Brad Paisley, it occurred to me that maybe dignity is accepting oneself as one is, and deciding one is worthy of care. I’ve vague memories of a life pre-pandemic where this was a lesson I had well understood, but the pandemic stole much from all of us, including my sense of self.

Rebuilding that sense of self begins with neon pink nails, I’ve decided. They are loud, they are shiny and they are very me. A me I look forward to rediscovering.

Anyone know how to take flattering hand selfies?!