One Year In The Fishbowl

A collection of reflections on an unmistakably strange time

At the start of the pandemic, I told myself I wouldn’t write about it. I still believed the mass destabilisation was a mere blip I’d later prefer to forget.

Seeing as I try to keep my writing ahistorical-ish when possible, why jump on the bandwagon of picking over what would surely just be a few weird weeks? Hey, remember when we all lost our minds and started sanitising groceries and bumping elbows? Yeah, that was a strange moment.

Plus, I couldn’t excavate a single coherent sentence —even in my diary, which went quiet — reflecting all that was happening and all I was feeling. Denial prompted me to regard the words and pictures careening across my screens as fictitious because they stood too far outside my sphere of reference to seem concrete. Even now, it’s frequently tidier to envision the world ending than to imagine it continuing along the current track.

Often, the only way to say anything is to start with the thing you’re most scared of saying. So, here’s where I’m at.

A time capsule, of sorts. Taken by me in December 2020.

Lately, there are nights when I find myself wanting to tell someone absolutely everything and have them tell me absolutely everything.

To sit — for however many weeks or months it takes — and talk until we’ve each said all there is to say about our lives. Until we know someone else has born witness to every silent moment. Until we’ve seen all of the same things.

As if such a thing is possible. As if memories are something solid.

I think this impulse comes from the desire to, just once, feel like someone else is truly known to me, and vice versa. For whatever reason, I’ve long regarded closeness as synonymous with knowledge, as if every dark spot on one’s internal hologram of a person is the source of a little bit of distance.

Over the past year, I’ve become ever more fixated on memory: what remembering entails, the price of forgetting, the mechanics of transforming recollection into art, the ways in which the past intrudes on the present, the different ways in which people discard or stockpile moments, how our efforts to solidify memories warp the present.

Lately, I think about pain a lot; in particular, how it stays with us and how memories of it factor into how we live. It’s hard not to squint at people around you and try to understand to what extent they’re coping and to what extent they’re deferring it until later.

I bounce between worrying that thinking about pain multiplies it and worrying that not thinking about it is an evasion of everything real. One night last week or the one before, to ground myself during a panic attack, I somehow started repeating a single phrase like a mantra: living means living with pain.

In thinking about pain, I hope to innoculate myself against it, to force acceptance of its inevitability, to not be surprised by it, and to take gentle measures to lessen the sting of whatever possibilities I’d most prefer to ignore.

Pain is the tax we pay on the good parts of life. Perhaps the people who expect it have an easier time in life. Perhaps it’s a good idea to inventory inevitables and be grateful for the brief precedented times when they happen.

Summer will end, we will run out of money, we will not get the girl, we will crash the car, we will lose people too soon and without adequate goodbyes, we will get older or old if we’re lucky, we will see our children drift away into the world, we will not do the thing, we will not stop doing the thing, we will love people who lack the capacity to do anything save hurt us, and our attempts to evade these things are often precisely what causes them.

Over the last year, I understood for the first time that no one gets to hide from pain. Cushioning yourself from it means relinquishing the prospect of anything good and living in a block of ice has its own flavour of agony.

At first as an experiment, I attempted to exist as one full, whole, integrated person instead of fragmenting myself into smaller and smaller splinters. I tried to exchange self-hatred for brutal realism. I fought against my reflexive, unquestioned instinct for self-erasure; my wish to keep wiping the slate clean in order to not be seen by others. As a result, more things hurt and in more ways than I expected, but at least I wasn’t performing elaborate acts of magical thinking to try to prevent that.

In the cold light of day, I saw the sheer extravagance of insecurity, of fearing being seen, of being horrified at the trivialities of living.

Lately, I am beginning to shift from numb immersion in the task of parsing one day at a time towards looking back and trying to look forward.

With the inescapable fact of a year having passed comes the need to look at that time as one whole entity and the scramble to shape it into an open-ended story. In writing, I try to smelt raw recollection into an awareness of what happened and what it means now and how to remember it.

The external practicalities changed beyond belief, of course. But I also learned to approach life differently; to focus on the present and prioritise whatever felt right there and then.

I drastically scaled down my expectations of myself and forgot most of the small things I’d worried about before. I stopped setting goals or planning more than one day ahead. I forgot to berate myself for the usual list of bad habits and things to improve. I wrote almost nothing for my own projects and didn’t even fill one full journal. I wasted time in all kinds of indulgent ways.

Now, reality has kicked in. With this anniversary it becomes impossible to avoid reflection. Looking back, I feel a lot of regret and a lot of guilt. I regret the frantic decision to move country during the slither of time it was possible and I feel guilty for having prioritised the things that felt necessary to survive over the things a good person would have chosen.

Lately, to handle uncertainty about the future, I make grand, fanciful plans to convey to myself that, no matter what, I have a measure of influence over what might happen. Looking forwards in a concrete way feels impossible.

Things are still and my brain searches for something to fill the empty spaces ahead; for something to fixate on; for any sense of what could lie ahead. I make a lot of lists because they seem the right format for a time without structure.

Let’s itemise a few options considered in the past week: I will learn to play the piano that sits in my apartment or perhaps the fiddle; I will fold a thousand paper cranes; I will embroider insects and flowers on pillows for my living room; I will learn to enjoy cooking and care about what I eat; I will take 100 random words and use them as the titles for 100 short stories, I will learn to draw in a way that actually communicates something; I will learn how to properly use my DSLR camera and edit pictures; I will become adept at chess; I will do none of these things and I know it.

In truth, the empty space is novel and I like knowing I could do all sorts of things I never would have considered a year ago. As much work as it takes to avoid reaching the level of understimulation that feels like losing my mind, I like the absence of external impositions.

At night, when I pull the unfathomably heavy wooden blinds down over my windows, everything takes on a tone of unreality. I feel contained and grounded in physical space. I feel like I’m in a fishbowl, swimming around in circles, unaware there’s anything outside.

This space is cavernous and temperamental, full of empty shelves and cupboards scattered with the detritus of past occupants. I love the pretentious plaster decorations on the ceilings, the decagonal rooms, the two doors that lead to nowhere, and the country cottage kitchen. No matter how bored or frustrated I get, this space still feels full of possibility.

Lately, I wake most nights after three or four hours and lie awake for another two or so — or even until dawn if I’m unlucky. During those empty hours, I attempt precise feats of recollection to stave off rumination.

I try to recall the postcode of every place I’ve lived in. The carpet of every hotel I’ve stayed in. Phone numbers of childhood friends. The crockery and kitchenware in each sublet. The names of each flatmate. The staircase of every building I’ve lived in. Stuffed animals lugged around as a kid. Jewellery worn for years and lost. Song lyrics. Things learned in science class. Paintings stared at for hours. The interiors of bars lounged in as a teenager.

If that doesn’t work, I make lists of words starting with A, then AB, then AC and so on through the alphabet. I count the beat of box breathing hundreds of times in a row. I tesselate triangles in my mind. I clench and relax every muscle, one by one.

Or rather, that’s what I do on the good nights.

It’s bad to spend too much time lying awake in bed so I get up, read, pace, tidy small objects, make lists, listen to the clicks and creaks of the building.

Sometimes I can hear the person who lives above me pacing around, sleepless, and it’s oddly comforting. The walls are a thin membrane and jarring reminders of the existence of everything outside leak in: a chorus of mailbox lids clacking, the mechanical purr of the elevator, sparrows on my balcony, wind in the trees.

I wake (or give up on sleep), shake off the debris of the night, then get to work.

Lately, I don’t know what I’ll want to remember, so I diversify the ways in which I hold onto this time.

During the last thirteen years of his life, Andy Warhol packed up 612 boxes — which he referred to as his Time Capsules — containing around 300,000 little objects he collected.

Warhol’s Time Capsules mix now valuable artworks and autographs with mundane everyday trash. They have their own order and were intended to be art in their own right. But they seem quite obviously the work of someone aware of how physical objects retain memories in their own way, much like the archivist Marvin Taylor of the Downtown Collection.

One night in December, I couldn’t sleep (surprise!) and couldn’t stop thinking about the Time Capsules and what I would put in a box to represent this time. So I scrambled to make my own; to encapsulate 2020 through a jumbled collection of trinkets; the juxtaposition of mundane objects.

I photographed those artefacts spread out on my desk in a way I hoped would later be able to bring me right back to that moment (see the top of this post for a picture of part of it); tiny pink baby comb I always carry, sage smudge stick, single earring a friend left behind, rubber elf ears, compact of blush, HELLO MY NAME IS stickers, frog thermometer, elephant incense holder, cork, scattered hair clips, lipstick, Hello Kitty mug, Adidas face mask, chopsticks, copy of Bowling Alone, copy of the True Believer, chamomile tea bag, keys, lighters, and polaroids capturing washed out faces of people stood against white walls.

It felt silly in daylight, but I like the impulse behind Warhol’s Time Capsules. I like the impulse to hold onto memories in whatever way is possible.

P.S. If you'd like my posts delivered to your inbox once per month, sign up here.

Content strategist @ Farnam Street by day. Essays here sometimes. Berlin. More writing/ say hi:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store