It’s finally springtime in London.
Joggers and dog walkers are multiplying; people walk down the pavement with sunglasses and smiling faces.
This morning I am sitting at a desk in the new house I recently moved to, with the green spines of my flatmate’s aloe vera plant snaking towards my laptop screen. I am writing – more than I ever have in such a short space of time. Coffee mugs are cluttering the table corners; there are open notebooks, a huge white binder, highlighters, pens and scraps of scribble-covered paper all over the place. An empty banana skin beside some orange peel. An ache between my shoulder blades.
My days are beginning to all look the same.
Most afternoons I’m forced by a pre-paid yoga subscription to change into gym clothes and walk across the park, blinking in the natural light. I spend an hour obediently stretching and twisting my body through scrunched knots of muscle in a warmly lit room beneath skylight windows, and then I’m back in my new home again. When my fingers aren’t typing my mind is always set to whirr.
Spoiler alert: I’m writing a book
For the last two years I’ve been engrossed in my masters in Non-Fiction Writing – but ‘engrossed’ has, for the most part, actually meant a great deal of playing with different ideas and themes, with no real commitment to any one of them. A couple of months ago I finally understood that the deadline for submitting a 60,000 word manuscript was approaching ever closer, and I’ve had to adjust my life accordingly.
Writing a memoir about processing the grief of losing my mum throughout the last seven years of my travels has eclipsed virtually everything else in my routine. I’ve taken something of a backseat from my offline world as well as my online life. Partly due to time constraints and the desire to focus all my attention on the task at hand, but also because I’ve never felt so vulnerable and self-doubting about a piece of writing before. Acutely cathartic and pretty emotionally exhausting to create, this manuscript is quickly becoming everything to me. What if it’s no good?
Spotify has proved to be an unlikely ally. Musicians and bands I’d never heard of are now my support networks, chiming chords and strumming strings in constant rhythms that keep me in check and help to feel out the edges of chapters when I can’t see them on the screen. A cup of tea at 4pm is an unconscious tradition, the warmth spreading through my chest like liquid creativity.
And when I’ve started to lose my intention – when the caffeine rush has begun to dissipate and a slower song comes through the speakers – I look out of the window. My new desk affords me a view straight across the wide green expanse of an East London park. I’d forgotten how much I value having open space beside me, complete with slowly moving trees and the occasional flutter of a bird’s swooping wing.
Life beside the window is a luxury.
The only downside is a lack of travel
The first writing I ever published online was through a Tumblr account, on a blog I christened ‘The Passenger Side’. Clearly I saw myself predominantly as an observer: sitting slightly offstage and out of focus. It’s a trope that’s followed me throughout my life, but somehow my current online persona refused to acquiesce. Flora the Explorer has absolutely taken her place in the spotlight.
Yet after more than four years of blogging about travel on this site, the masters has seriously curbed my travelling. It’s seen me refusing press trips and work opportunities, and even meant cancelling travel with friends. So a few weeks ago when an invitation to the Tuscany region of Italy sparked my interest, I threw writing-caution to the winds and flew out for three days.
A renewed love for the window seat
I’ve been uncomfortable with flying for a few years now, and it’s a fear that seems only to be increasing as I get older and overthink more. Apart from the obvious terrorism aspect, I also dealt with a few bad flights – a shattered windscreen resulting in a grounded plane when leaving Cuba, and three hours of incessant turbulence on the way to Morocco – and now every bump and jolt feels like the beginning of a crash.
So when I found out that my Tuscany trip involved connecting flights both outward to Rome and back into London, my stomach lay heavy in my mouth. During take off I panicked quietly: clutching the charms on my necklace, muttering under my breath and expelling air as slowly as I could whenever I felt a shift in the plane.
But then I spotted the little boy in the seat in front of me, who kept speaking excited Russian to his platinum blonde mum with his nose squished against the window in total fascination. And when I looked out of my own window, I could see why: clear sunshine streaming in, glistening rivers, fluffy clouds, and eventually the wide stretch of the English channel – a strip of water that so many hundreds of refugees want to cross.
Bizarrely enough I realised that many of the flights I’ve taken recently involved a nonchalant disregard for the window seat: something which was second nature to ask for when I was younger. For some reason, staring out of the window pulled me straight back to childhood.
I counted rooftops and gazed at farmland: as we rose higher, I wondered for the hundredth time about how those cloud formations really form. When the plane began to rock from a buffet of air, I remembered something a yoga teacher said recently in class: that the essence of yoga is to find calm and and stillness in moments of activity.
Instead of panicking, I gazed out at the sliver-sharp mountains and the full, round, perfect-circle moon above them.
I looked behind me through the narrow crack between window and seat, at a line of faces pressed against their small oval panes of double glass. A row of eager, grown up children.
All I could think was how I’m so incredibly grateful for this. For being able to look down on ribbons of cloud topped by soft blue tinged strips of light.
For being able to fly, even if it scares me.
Flights, fear and freedom
The day I flew to Italy there were bombs and deaths in Brussels, and it made me nervous – but we can’t let the fear that stems from events like this rule our lives and stop us from doing what we love.
Travel makes me inordinately happy. I love it because it shakes me up, carves out new edges in my life, makes me wonder and re-wonder at how many infinite types of people and places and things there are which I still have no concept of, and can barely even fathom. All these different lives I have never lived, which I catch glimpses of purely from boarding a plane – or from stepping off one.
It’s the same with writing. Even when the very action of it seems daunting and insurmountable, I know I’ll understand my thoughts and myself better as a result.
Time moves fast when you stay in one place. Sometimes that feels right, when you’re tired and need to feel confident in your own space: but there’s a vulnerability which comes almost unbidden from the buzz and rush of the unknown, and from the intriguingly different.
Doing what scares me is important. More than that: it’s integral. It’s part of the fibre that I’m proud to be created from. I don’t think anyone can survive purely on mundanity.
Not when there’s views like this to be had at thirty thousand feet, or anywhere else really. Just as long as you remember to look out of the window.