2020 started off gloriously. I changed time zones, I woke up paradise, I listened to the sound of waves, I climbed rocks, I walked on sand, I floated in salt water, I ate paratha for breakfast and stole daal from my love . I spent hours floating on my back listening to fish nibbling away just below the surface and monkeys arguing in the jungle around me. I read five books in a fortnight, I discovered a spiders nest in my underwear, I had cashews stolen by crows and I got recognised as a long lost sister of a friend of mine from a whole other life time. I explored an abandoned 300 room five star hotel, crawling with monkeys and snakes, with trees reclaiming the ballroom and the reception area welcoming people with nothing more than graffiti and bats.
I returned to London to find I could not stay awake, I could not control the pain in my bones and I could not breathe. Then I could not stand, then the cough started, then I bled for 20 days, then the random vomiting, the mouth ulcers, the clinging to furniture to get through a room, the deterioration of my eyesight, the phantom smells, the ripping stomach pain, then sleep stopped and the dreams came, there were holes in my brain where information used to be and my speech seemed to be asleep and I now slur and stutter and sometimes just stop with no idea that I started at all.
I was starting to feel better just as the rest of the UK locked down. I decided, with no medical basis whatsoever, that I was now the least likely person in the world to get COVID and I should probably spend some time supporting people who were not able to go out. I became the grocery shopper for a handful of my neighbours. I managed to get the photo I have dreamed of my whole life - of an empty Piccadilly Circus - I had just never really thought about what it would take to get there.
I began to hear of friends' family members dying. I began to realise I was one of the lucky ones. I began to tie in my food deliveries with photos of people on their doorsteps as I cycled through London. I asked people what they loved. I documented it all on social media, I grew links and conversations. I realised how many people were finding it all incredibly lonely. How much they appreciated news from the outside world. I spoke to many, many, many people who were finding themselves with old body image and disordered eating patterns making a resurgence as the rest of the world span out of control. I had an idea.
I got some funding to work on dance, circus and fitness classes with DV Survivors and decided to widen the project. I expanded the definition of Survivor tot be self-defined, I expanded the workshops to embrace the skills of freelance artists who had lost work due to COVID and offered them to local shelters and support services for their people to take just have something nice. There were singing lessons and yoga and dance classes and core and trapeze and knitting and of course I started to work more with people on their self-esteem through photography. Something clicked (geddit?); it felt right. I supported 15 freelancers over a five month period and we hosted over 250 workshops with people who were having the hardest time (if you would like to support this continuing the crowdfunding page is here https://www.gofundme.com/f/circus-for-survivors ).
I did morning workouts staved off zoom burnout (I spent 6 months pretending my laptop camera was broken - you’re welcome), I made new friends from the wildness of our new surroundings and lot old ones due to their dedication to conspiracy over compassion for others. I realised that when everything feels out of control, sometimes it feels safer to be right than to tumble into the abyss of the unknown - and if this year has taught us anything it is that no one knows anything.
I spent more money on takeaways than I think I legally should have, I stuck a homemade fishing rod into my neighbours BBQ and they are still speaking to me. I cycled through sunset on a warm summer's evening and shouted to my friend cycling ahead that I would remember this night for the rest of my life. I grew vegetables from scraps. I did enough gardening to finally be angry at snails. Friends had babies and I was envious. Friends had to home school their children and I was not at all jealous. I cut out sugar, wheat and dairy and learnt to stand up 7 days a week. I was hungry all the time. I decided to eat food and just sit down more often.
I learnt things, I listened. I tried to find the right balance of talking and shutting the hell up as Black Lives Matter surged from a fact to visceral agony to a political playground to a marketing slogan to a memory, whilst key players I know and love got kicked and kicked and kicked and somewhere in all of this they found their way back to love. It is still a fact. There was accountability to be had. I spoke with white friends and was called out by black ones, and by god I am grateful to have friends who are willing to take me to task. There will be a lot of summarising of this year going on at the moment, and my request to my white friends is that people take stock of what happened back in June, what has happened since, and what actions will be committed to in the coming months. There is an old adage that if everyone who says they marched with MLK actually had showed up then we would have solved racism by now, this is the time to be looking at where we can be offering space and making space. Commit to that, and hold yourself accountable.
I learnt things about myself this year. I learnt that although Long Covid got me good, I am fortunate to have had shotty health for a long time and a necessity to diversify my income into a thousand streams for a long time and all the thing which felt like hard luck have served me immeasurably this year. I learnt that I cope better at life when I make time to read a chapter of a book before I get out of bed. I learnt that in order to discuss emotive things without getting drawn into personal attacks, you need to know your subject matter inside out. I learnt that social media is rarely overwhelming if I impose a no scrolling rule. I learnt that there were a huge number of tasks I thought I did not have time for, when it turns out, actually, I just did not want to do them (I fear I may get around to THAT cupboard about lockdown four). I learnt that I’m quite good at my own company and just as I had long suspected, taking all of my over busy out of my diary was a complete joy.
I finally managed to feel confident enough in the work I was doing to call myself a photographer (you can see some highlights on my instagram: @HeardinLondon) and finally felt like all the passions were finally coming together: the care of others, the body image stuff, the photography, the holding space for people, the making the nice stuff happen for folk who need it most - it all seems to be coming together. At someone this year, someone told Raif they thought I must only have extremely good-looking friends, until they realised it is the love with which I take the photos which shines through. It matters to me - and I care - a lot - and I think that is what you can see in my pictures. Even if technically they are not the best, I am learning. I did a chemo shoot, a miscarriage shoot, a divorce shoot, a wedding that never happened shoot, I did a body dysmorphia shoot, a menopause shoot, a fuck anorexia shoot and a will this pregnancy make it shoot - I want to show beauty in all facets of our lives, not just the ones we filter to be the allowed pretty bits. I want the grit and the wrinkles and the rolls and the rage and the ecstasy because that is what life is full of, and i am no longer willing to edit all that stuff out - there is a whole heap of gorgeous survival going on right there and why the hell would we not celebrate it?
So if the thing you are looking to leave behind in 2020 is being unkind to yourself, or maybe you want to reclaim all that energy that gets sucked up on self sabotage, maybe you might be interested in us doing a photoshoot together in the coming year? Celebrating that, if nothing else, we made it through 2020.
No matter what the new year holds for you, I wish it to be filled with aa use of your time that you appreciate, whether that is lie ins or painting or learning or star jumps - may you indulge in what nurtures you and may we finally leave behind the things which no longer serve us.
I am not sure the phrase 2020 vision will ever quite be the same, so from this moment forth, I wish you everything you wish for someone you really care about. Here’s to staying focused and loving and learning. To 2021. Let’s go.