I woke up on the Tuesday morning with the sudden realisation I was already on day 6 of my residency. Panic. How did that happen? I haven’t done anything. I haven’t enough time. What am I going to do? Everything felt all too real. If this was the movies there would be a 360º camera pan to convey my disorientation and anxiety. But’s it not, so I flick the coffee machine on, walk barefoot onto the heated floor tiles of the bathroom and hope a shower will give me some perspective.
With coffee in hand I survey my surroundings and take stock of the situation. I am after all here to meet people and do early stage research for my new project I was naked, smelling of rain. I am here to meet people and be lonely. How do I do both? Then of course I realise it’s not one or the other. I am often most lonely in crowded rooms or where there are people.
Like many things to do with mental health, we don’t talk about feeling lonely or loneliness in general. I probably feel lonely about 10% of my time. I feel acutely lonely, where that feeling manifests itself as a real physical pain and bodily sensation about 5% of my time. I am a social being, I thrive on the company others – but I do enjoy time alone, solitude. There is the paradox.
So before I knew it I was doing what I was here to do – research. Thinking. Exploring. Pondering. A text calls me back to the outer world. ‘join us for lunch’ – it’s a message from downstairs in the office – 12-30 is lunchtime – the table gets laid, all manner of foods are presented and the workers eat together. The organisation provides this. The huge beech table is often a social shared space but is large enough to provide a private work station too.
Like I said before, Pikene på Broen do hosting exceedingly well.
The team at Pikene are curious why I want to be there for so long – 2 weeks – and what am I actually doing as I don’t seem to be making or doing anything obvious. I explain that I would stay longer if I could and try to explain that everything I am doing here is research. For instance I go to the harbour every night about midnight, not to see if I can catch a glimpse of the Aurora but to watch, listen, smell… stop and reflect.
Even in the short time I was in Kirkenes I learnt a bit about the weather patterns. The way the clouds moved, the temperature at which they would move in or form, the rhythms of the snow. The movement of the tides seemed imperceptible and there were never any waves. This viewpoint calmed and grounded me. Although at midnight it could be extremely cold – definitely double-digit minus – 3 layers of merino minus – woolen underwear minus.
Funnily enough, in a place where I didn’t know anyone I went somewhere to be alone.
Not far from where I stood was a cabinet with wire mesh doors, with an incongruously robust padlock. Closer inspection revealed 3 reindeer hearts hanging, being cured in the cold. The lock was a deterrent more than anything, no one locks the doors, you can leave your bags and phones on the table of a bar and go to the toilet, in fact the drivers slow down by puddles so as not to splash you, can you imagine that in the UK?
The days took on a rhythm of their own. Unknowingly I created a routine – which as anyone who knows me is an anathema. Morning research, walk, lunch, research/walk, dinner, walk and harbour, bed. Of course there was the life maintenance to do, the keeping the bare minimum of plates spinning in the UK, the shopping etc. Dealing with things like booking a flight only to discover my credit card had been cancelled because the company had sent me a new one. Which means endless time on the telephone, and no, we couldn’t possibly reactivate your old one, and yes we know it must be inconvenient. Which all means it’s impossible to be totally alone and still keep things going so you have something to go back to.
I see my psychotherapist every other Tuesday so we had decided to keep this structure while I was away. It was incredibly important. I had also made plans for other psychological support which was invaluable – even though I was never in crisis just knowing it is there as a potential helps keep me contained. I realised whilst talking to my therapist that I was feeling better with the slower less full life. Keeping fewer plates spinning. When I reflect on the past 5 years I know the amount I need to do to keep the work coming in, things ticking over has increased many fold, whilst the pay and conditions have diminished – so actually you need to do a lot more just to maintain the breadline existence of an artist.
These are all vital findings to be aware of for when ‘Naked, smelling of rain’ starts in earnest.
One night I went to an event at the library. It was a film about Karelia and a discussion, all in Russian and live interpreted into Norwegian. I did not feel lonely in the crowd, in fact I felt strangely connected, present. In a similar way when my hosts would speak Norwegian at the table it was not to be rude or that they had forgotten I was present – I did not feel excluded or lonely. Does the loneliness come entirely from within or is it also something that is manifested from ‘without’, externally, as if given to us?
Kirkenes is a small town of 3,500 inhabitants. At least 10% are Russian and strangely, for such a small town on the edge of the world it has many nationalities within the walls of the wooden houses on treeless streets. This includes a cohort of refugees who cycled across the arctic border into Norway to exploit a legal loophole. You really do feel at the edge of the world, next stop the North Pole, but then you are only 20km from the increasingly rigid and newly pressed ‘Iron Curtain’. It’s not as simple as East-West. You realise the people themselves get on, co-operate, flow relatively freely across the border, it is the nation-states where the issues lie. This diversity is incredible.
On my final night I went to a discussion in Pikene with the University of the Arctic international relations department, a Russian representative from Murmansk and a Norwegian Air Force Commander on ‘Deterrence and Detent’. It was an incredible discussion – not least because it really made evident the potential future of the arctic for exploitation of minerals, opening the shipping routes and the ‘economic benefits of climate change’, and the potential of China and other Asian countries to influence the future. Geo-politics in the region is so different from our euro-western perspective. Without the arctic ice as a barrier everyone becomes much more connected, so much closer.
I couldn’t help reflect upon the fact that I was listening to the discussion and visiting Kirkenes as someone who is living in a country determined to be separate, to put up borders, to reduce the ability to move and cooperate freely and that made me feel genuinely deeply sad. Perspective and context truly are so important.
I was talking to someone as part of my research at the Environmental Research Agency, we were talking about connectivity and community. He had moved from the city to the far north. He made the observation that in the city everything is provided for you, you just need to ‘turn up and receive’. Whereas in the rural communities such as Kirkenes you have to ‘participate, be present’. That was such an amazing observation so eloquently put. Of course, that too ties in with the idea of presence, connectedness and wellbeing. I was finding sign posts for my research in the least expected places.
It is evident day by day that what I though was a discrete topic of investigation is bigger than I could have imagined. There are so many strands to it, in fact I am beginning to think how am I going to focus it down into something meaningful, without it becoming meaningless and overwhelmingly nebulous in its scope and scale. How do I maintain the ‘in’, the ‘interest’, the connectivity with people and avoid ‘Naked, smelling of rain’ becoming a vanity project – exclusive, disconnected and ironically so far from its original intent that it becomes pointless?