The Coronavirus pandemic has been a time during which we seem to have had to re-think our relationships with ourselves and each other. By the time it got to September 2020 began to I realise that this public health emergency was not going to go away any time soon… that 2021 would arrive and we would still find it difficult to be together… not least because being together is the one thing that causes the virus to spread.
The part of me that thinks it knows me would tell you that this is something I would welcome… a chance to be alone… to eschew company, to enjoy less time with others. However, in many ways, the opposite happened… I longed to be with people, to have shared experiences with others. Perhaps they were strangers at gigs or at sports events, but equally people I knew and only saw periodically.
This part of me that thinks it knows me thinks that I am an introvert who could cope admirably on my own. In some ways he is right, I do like a period of solitude every day… and I do find being on my own to be less stressful and tiring than being with other people.
On the other hand since the 2020 lockdown I feel as if I have valued human interaction more, and while during this time I found it difficult to not get this time as much as I would have liked; I also found myself being torn when I thought about those who were on their own… living within their own bubble. What appealed to me was their ability to manage their own time: what was less envious of was their lack of direct human interaction day after day.
I began to realise that there was more than one type, or feeling, of isolation. It is a state that can take on many guises and can have many meanings to it. We can choose to withdraw from the world, we can have the world withdraw from us, and we can, well, just be in isolation. Isolation can be something that we envy in others, and yet for them it can be excruciating… a crushing loneliness. The term ‘isolation’ is, therefore, not a simple one. It very much depends on our perspective of it and, furthermore, that perspective may well change over time. There may be moments when isolation is the perfect state at a moment in time; yet at other times it may be the thing we want least.
I realised this at one of the points of the pandemic when I could start to feel my mental health going, not seriously but enough to feel the clouds gathering. I sensed that the coming winter would not be an easy one, and I began to slide.
It was in this funk that I put on the album, ‘House in the Tall Grass’ by the Japanese band Kikagaku Moyo; a record that I had heard many times and had found to be one that I could not only listen to on repeat, but one that made me feel better every time I listened to it.
I became intrigued by the idea of living in such a house, away from all that bothered me. A place where I could be (at least a version of) myself, and perhaps even a place where a small part of me thinks I should live. I had a basic idea of what it should look like (the album cover helped from that perspective, see below), but I also wondered what form it should take. Could it be somewhere where I imagined going, somewhere I could physically go, or perhaps even a place that existed that would always be there should I need it.
I let these thoughts stew for a couple of months. In truth I could not bring my self to write anything. In many ways my creative mind hibernated, I put my head down and let time pass me by. I took more and longer walks, I spent more time than was strictly healthy on social media… Christmas and New Year came and went and the restrictions gradually got more draconian again: the kids were home all the time and nearly everything was closed.
By the end of February, though, I found myself in an almost liminal state. I had finally written some blog posts that I was pleased with, and the first shoots of spring… the glorious emergence of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils… seemed to be replicated by the gradual emergence of hope… vaccines, falling death rates and a credible way out. Strangely this was the moment when my inner voice became louder in my head. I now longed for more solitude, more time with my music. I grew weary of ‘Zoom’ and decided that now was really the time that my house in the tall grass needed to be built. My plans slowly started to solidify in my mind… but I could only really realise them if I wrote them down. If you are reading this then I succeeded.
My isolation, at least as it sits here now in my head, is one to be desired… to be longed for. It is an isolation that is bucolic and, probably, idealistic. It takes all the best things of being alone and ignores the bits that I know I will struggle with. I know this because I have been alone before… I have felt isolated and I did not like it. However, it is not a rejection of that which is around me, it is definitely not that. Rather a sort of alternate reality which, if anything, augments my life and seeks to make all parts of it better. The whole notion behind having my moments of isolation is to improve the quality of my life and relationships elsewhere.
That is why I want to try to build my own sense of isolation from the beginning. To construct it in my head, but also to think of how that might look in a more tangible sense. How would my isolation look if I were to build it? What would the parameters be? The criteria? How would I preserve it? What would I let in… and out?
I have always imagined what the perfect place to live would be and have usually concluded that such a place does not exist. If it was in the middle of nowhere, would I get lonely? If it was in a city, would I miss the empty spaces of the countryside or open water? If it were a solipsistic realm, wouldn’t that become boring very quickly (and that’s why I wouldn’t want to live there all the time, I’d need challenge)?
There are a few things that inform my thinking here. The first is the ‘Cabin Porn’ website, on which are shared numerous small and simple dwellings, mostly isolated, all in the middle a beautiful natural habitat which collectively feeds my imagination towards what I think the ideal place would be. A ‘mind cabin’ rather than a ‘mind palace’. This suggests a place that is simple both in its construction and contents, but perhaps somewhere that will be different whenever I ‘visit’ it. This might be down to the climate, but also the changing scenery around it.
I imagine that three sides of the house are surrounded by tall reeds (hence the ‘house in the tall grass’). I can walk in through these liminal reeds, and the feeling is transformative to be in that space once again. However, once in there, I can also move out again and find myself wandering around anywhere I wish to imagine; an idea that has been key during the pandemic restrictions. That, though, is not the principal function of my house in the tall grass, it is the space itself… something that has been heavily influenced by Adrianne Lenker’s album ‘Instrumentals’… which I wrote about here.
I listened to this a lot as the pandemic gradually got worse again in the Autumn of 2020… on my bed… with noise cancelling headphones. Lenker had herself retreated to a remote cabin in the woods during the depth of the first lockdown in the April of that year, and recorded what essentially was a breakup album, ‘Songs’. However, while making it she also brought out this companion piece which is very ambient using field recordings from her time there. I found it an intensely powerful experience to hear the rain, the birds and animals and the wind chimes amidst Lenker’s sparse and minimalist production; something which helped me visualise being in my own such space. I actually felt like I was there when I listened to it.
Another significant influence was an encounter described by Mike Carter in his wonderful book ‘One Man and His Bike’, while staying on the West of Scotland as he cycled around the coast of Britain. Here he tells the story of a man who appeared one day and sat staring at the sea for several hours before leaving again… an act he repeated every day for around two months before returning to wherever he came from. This is something I come back to time and again… why was the man there? What was he working out in his head? What happened afterwards? I am fascinated because my best way of solving a problem or overcoming adversity is to sit with them until I have come to a solution. I can recall several occasions when I have needed to do this (not for two months but for hours/ days at a time) often with transformative results. I can imagine staring out over water, small waves lapping on the shore, as I sit in front of my house in the tall grass solving the conundrums of my life.
It would be easy to see all this as a form of escapism, but I am not sure it is. Rather it is a place to go and do particular things, a venue if you like. A place to think, but also a place to listen… specifically to listen with the depth that I do when writing my ‘album appreciations’ for this website.
As I wrote above, I found it very difficult to write during a large part of 2020 because I could not find the right mental place to do so. Once I had started to construct my house in the tall grass, I found that this slowly began to come back to me. I think this is because it allows me to lower outside simulation and concentrate on the music that I am listening to at the time, and I have done this by creating a sort of ritual in my mind.
I make a cup of coffee in the cabin (I have no idea how the machine is powered, but every ritual has a magical/ numinal element right?) I then put a record on (again I do not know where this comes from but I seem to have everything on vinyl in this little place) and sit with my coffee and my music, and stare out over the water and see what happens.
Of course, this is useless if the music isn’t right. It is the same with any ritual space, I am not going to reach the right state of being by listening to Coldplay or Ed Sheeran… the music is as integral to the atmosphere as the water and the cabin itself. At other times only silence will do.
So this is my house in the tall grass, a place to go that paradoxically helps me to stay rooted in the everyday world. It is a place that is cozy, comfortable, magical, analogue, spartan and secluded. It is a liminal place, a place of ritual which can only be accessed through the reeds that surround it and keep it (in my mind) invisible to the outside world. It is a place that exists purely in my mind to the extent that I would never want to physically go there. It is perhaps that place that replaces something that previous generations would have got through religious rites, or that others get through taking drugs (and have been doing since the earliest days of human existence). That is perhaps a topic for another occasion, all I wanted to do now is share my experience of the last 15 months or so because I am sure that we all have pandemic stories, and I wanted to tell one of mine.
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