A few months ago I started swimming in the morning.
And yet, if everything is moving where is here?
– Doreen Massey
I used to think I hated swimming in the morning. I thought: I’m not a morning person. I’m too hungry, too heavy, too slow. No way. But then, one day, trying to find a way to give my days a better structure, I thought, surely it’s worth a try.
It was hard for about a week. I would wake before my alarm and lie there, anxious about not being rested enough, and I would move close to the sleeping body next to mine and regret having to leave the warmth of our bed. But then it became okay.
So now, most mornings, I get up and swim, first thing. I like the ease and unselfconsciousness of the morning people at the pool; everyone’s just there to do their thing. There’s one woman I always see drying her hair as I arrive. She props her phone up against the wall while she operates the hair dryer, pausing occasionally to tap the screen and scroll down. I imagine her reading emails before she gets into the office, trying to stay on top of things, which always makes me a little sad.
What swimming in the morning really means is that I’ve inherited quite a lot of time – hours, as it turns out – in the evenings. And I can spend it however I like. I can go to the cinema, to a restaurant, a pub. I can suddenly stop work and slouch back on the couch and stare wearily at the curtains. Often I go for a walk, finding elaborate ways to elongate the distance between our house and the grocery store, because if I don’t get up and do something I run the risk of staying at my desk all night, sort of half-working, which is neither productive nor restful.
The reason I started swimming in the morning was for this time, this space: to give myself, and my relationships with other people, more chance to breathe. But something else occurred to me, too: maybe a change would be good for my writing.
Over the last year I’ve been negotiating what feels like three or four very separate selves – academic-self, freelance-self, writer-self, person-in-the-world-self. It’s hard to hold on to all of those selves all of the time, and somehow writing’s the thing that’s slipped away. Everything else is just always more important, because I’m more accountable to others in my other roles; I’m paid to do things, or asked to do things, or simply expected to do things. Whereas cares, or even knows, if I keep putting off working on the book proposal I haven’t told anyone about, if I don’t write and then delete a few hundred words a day, if I don’t read and re-read the things that make me want to create something of my own?
So I thought: if I change my routine, perhaps writing can become a regular and natural part of my life again. I started waking up earlier. We moved out of one bedroom in the house and into another – facing the garden rather than the street, a bigger, quieter, more grown-up space (or so I like to think). I bought a smart new coat – dark grey, simpler and more serious than my other coats. I even tried to change my hair. I psyched myself up in the weeks prior to my appointment. I wasted a morning trawling the internet for photographs of pretty women with the kind of short, wavy hair I imagined mine could be. But when I got to the salon a girl sat me down in front of a mirror and asked what I wanted to do, and I mumbled my response, and showed her one or two screenshots on my phone, flicking through quickly and abashedly as she barely-looked. She told me she didn’t think I should go too short because if I did, my hair might look really big. She mimed “big” with her hands, spreading them outwards comically from my head as if I might suddenly sprout a bad 80s perm.
“Oh!” I said. “Ok!”
And then sat there silently, resentfully, while she didn’t change my hair at all.
But it was really last month, when we decided to get married, that I suddenly had the sense of my life being in motion again, like things were happening. I think it’s fair to say that we were both surprised by how exciting it was to be engaged. It was like everything was different. Really nothing is different; we still go to bed too late and compete for the last cup of coffee in the morning and make deals like, if you call the plasterer I’ll pay the phone bill. To say that we’re getting married doesn’t change anything; we’ve intended to someday get married for a long time, we’ve lived together in this funny old house for nearly six years now. Quite a few people, when we told them, said things like, “About time!” or “Finally!” or “Can’t say we’re surprised!”
Even so, before bed, instead of reading, I’ve spent the last few nights browsing the internet, looking at photographs of other people’s weddings – letterpressed invitations; fairy lights; earthy, waiflike brides with long brunette hair and sandals showing under simple dresses; bearded grooms in suits with skinny ties. I envy people who can make the visual record of their lives look so effortless and meticulous. The visual record of my life, I think, is hopelessly messy, which is at least accurate: yes, we have wooden floorboards, but they’re scuffed and covered with shoes and stacks of paper and bills we’re ignoring. Sometimes I wonder if I would be a better, or at least a more prolific, writer if I was a better documenter. But when I try taking photographs of the afternoon light on the living room walls, or listing the names of the plants in our garden, it feels exactly as it is: like I’m pretending to notice my own life in a way I ordinarily wouldn’t; like I’m badly mimicking an aesthetic I don’t quite understand.
The truth is that after I’ve stared at the curtains for awhile, after my walk, or my drink in the pub with my fiancé, I don’t really want to write; I have nothing to write about, I reason, all I’ve done is work and stare and walk and drink.
I think that I have nothing to write about, but the truth is that the stories I like best are the most mundane stories: plotless Margaret Drabble novels in which tension is signified only by a woman’s silence; slow, quiet films where everything revolves around a single outburst. Last night, trying to find something to watch on Netflix, I happened upon the 2006 film The Last Kiss. It was imperfect, but it did have a scene I really liked, in which a woman suspects her partner of cheating on her. She is screaming hysterically at him. She keeps yelling, “you make me sick!” He follows her round the house, yelling indistinct things back. Neither of them say anything useful or clever or revelatory. It’s ugly and uncomfortable, but it’s an argument, and it feels like one.
Even the photos I like to look at are domestic – glimpses of other people’s kitchens, their stained tabletops and cracked-spine paperbacks, rows of boots by the front door, sweaters worn thin from use. I like scenes where everything that’s happening is happening under the surface: in someone’s head or heart.
Sometimes – maybe more often than I’d like to publicly admit – the only time I leave the house is for that morning swim, and at that hour I’m too bleary to notice my surroundings, except in the most banal of ways. Pretty autumn leaves, I think. Dog crapping on sidewalk. Noisy uniformed schoolboys veering into the street. A touch of winter on the air. I wish I’d worn gloves.
And the place I’m trying to get back to, I suppose – the place I’m trying to get back to by going somewhere else, somewhere new – is the place where even these observations are the basis for something. The place where the everyday seems extraordinary just for being everyday.