“When she was young, she’d sliced up her own flesh at the blink of an eye, she loved to get truly abject, but now she’d dried out…not appetising exactly, not desirable, but fodder for someone, a pigeon, at least. Was this getting older? Kathy was worried about ageing, she hadn’t realised youth wasn’t a permanent state, that she couldn’t always be cute and hopeless and forgivable.”
It takes place over a few days in her fortieth summer, and she’s about to get married. It’s not often that we see ourselves reflected so accurately in literature with all our fears and pimples and headaches, and Olivia Laing as Kathy Acker was spot on.
If there was ever a book for the pandemic, it was this one for me – Olivia Laing’s Lonely City – Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Though written in 2016 I could not believe it was not written about the early days of the pandemic, our first experiences of living through a lockdown, and a disease for which, at the time, there was no cure…
Simply put I just loved this book. I read it first on Kindle, then bought a paperback and read chapters multiple times. Olivia Laing is a genius and a master of art and language. She skillfully weaves her experiences of being lonely in Manhattan, through the stories of these artists in Manhattan who had used their loneliness to create, and derives the most definitive insights about loneliness and art.
As always I keep drawing as I read.
“If everybody’s not a beauty, then nobody is.”
“Art was a way to bear witness; to reveal things I’d always felt pressured to keep hidden.”
One parallel to our present time was of course the loneliness that people felt as they stayed shut up in their houses. We often overlook the smallest social interactions we have in shops, with neighbours and so on. It’s even more pronounced if you live by yourself and then these small interactions are also missing. There is a universal human need for connection, for reaching out, for just being seen. I remember my first few weeks in Sweden when I didn’t know anyone. Swedes are wonderful, gentle people, but terribly shy, and they really respect each others’ personal space as well. For most, it means not even making eye contact. So you can imagine, even a smile from a shop assistant was a special day for me. For the first time in weeks, I felt seen.
The other parallel was the onset of the AIDS crisis in the States, and how the gay community were shunned and excluded. India’s Covid Relief has by default excluded multiplemarginalizedcommunities. (If you want to help, take a look at #DesignUpForACause)
Despite, or maybe because of all the pain, I found the book so uplifting and inspiring. I would read a few pages every night, these moving accounts of the pain and suffering that gave birth to so much art, and how they created what they did, and feel inspired and grateful.
There are so many things art can’t do…but it does have some…odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and…of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly…
Grapefruit was an experience – I found that it was an “early example of conceptual art“. I go back to The Book of Play and Keep Going again and again, both are inspirational and great for sparking ideas.
I don’t remember much about Daily Rituals, though, except that it gathered the routines of a large and diverse set of people, and it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, or whether you get up at 5 am like Medium articles recommend! Here are some of the sketches I had made while reading it – about Patricia Highsmith and Frederico Fellini.
Honestly who would have thought that we would spend a quarter of a year in physical isolation from each other. A story to recount in my old age.
And speaking of old age. Umberto Eco once wrote that books are the most robust format of content transmission that we have seen over centuries, and so that if nothing else, my sketchbooks would probably survive till my old age at least, and I will look back on these days and laugh…
"Although I cannot see your face
As you flip these poems awhile
Somewhere from some far off place
I hear you laughing -
and I smile..."
Sometimes in your life you happen to read the right book at the right time. and when that happens, there is a transformation. Up until then in my career there was a lack of women role models…
…and therefore no awareness of possibilities for the working mother.
Through her stories I understood it’s possible to have a career and be a mother, that workplaces can provide support structures, and so can the people in your life.
And that’s how I stopped holding back and took on the opportunities coming my way. Hope, optimism and possibilities – that’s how Lean in inspired me at a crucial time at a moment in my life…and I leaned in towards discovery.