Entry #8: Richmond
A suburban borough of London, Richmond is its own little town. It is located on a meander of the River Thames and crowded with old English pubs. Its tranquility is reflected in street names such as Paradise Road and The Vineyard. It wouldn’t be a surprise to mistake this region for a rural village. However, Richmond is most renowned for its 2,5000 acres of wild woodland. Richmond Park is a national nature reserve with around 144 species of birds, 546 butterfly and moth species and over 300 red and fallow deer.
Last winter I went on a 5 AM adventure to Richmond Park. The idea was to go early enough to photograph the rising sun and see the lethargic deers. A few other photographers had the same inclining and so we squatted in the shrubs, self-conscious and stealthy. Giant fiery orange trees surrounded us, our shoes were wet from morning dew and the dead autumn leaves covered in frost. We held our breaths in unison, watching the deers move slowly and graze. They were deliberate and quiet in their movement, their ears outward and low in defense. The sound of a shutter clicking could be heard every now and then. Nearly an hour went by and without so much as acknowledging each other, we left the deers to continue their path towards the forest and went our separate ways.
By this point, my shoes are covered in mud and I regret not packing a thermostat with hot coffee. But I continue walking through the park, deep in my thoughts and with the intention of covering all of its grounds before rewarding myself with a caffeine kick. Mesmerized by the vast landscape, I watch dog owners arrive with their big labs and feisty terriers. The birds begin to sing and the sun grows bright and strong in the cloudless sky.
There are two states of mind which nature inspires: an indulgence in the beauty of all that is ephemeral and an intense reflection of the self. Spending time in a forest, by a lake or in the mountains is a peaceful and humble experience, a contagious calm and though that sensation feels widespread, it is also a point of relief, a time to re-center and look inward.
To some extent, and maybe this is just my puritanical self, mentally ruminating feels a lot like seeking penance from the world. Have you ever noticed how; even if it’s a walk through your local patch of greenery, there is no judgment in your thought process? There is no critical voice nagging at you like it would in bed at night? Instead, your mind is open to the possibility of things. Alone in the face of nature, we dissect others, this world and ourselves with empathy and kindness. There comes first a desire to understand everything then, yearning for an absolution from questions left unanswered.
I return to Richmond this week going straight for coffee. The cafe is in a glasshouse, adorned with antique tables and beautiful bouquets of freshly cut flowers. The sound of the coffee grinder occasionally cuts through the loud chatter that fills the air. I nestle in an empty spot with my black coffee. Next to me, a barista picks up dishes, humming to herself. She is wearing yellow overalls and a choppy fringe; there is a sweet demeanor in the way she moves. I notice her gold-framed glasses (a style of specs I’ve had my eyes on for a while now) and ask her where she got them. We do the stereotypically female ping-pong of compliments and I am offered another free cup of coffee.
Growing up, I didn’t have much girl friends and avoided cliques throughout high school. Though my friendships with men involved a great deal of candor, there had always been a deeper potential to share with women. I am still not sure how to navigate all female friendships, but I am grateful that in my early twenties, I am surrounded by a strong group of them.
Each friend has a different lifestyle, profession, and worldview - what ties them together is their ambition to evolve. That said, I struggle most with figuring out whether or not I like or resent being a woman in the first place. This fear and confusion of what it means to be a woman, categorically understanding how to fall into the 'correct' parameters of womanhood, permeates my entire outlook on life.
My getaway retreat is further up north. A fair competition against Richmond, Hampstead Heath may not be on the riverside but it embraces thirty ponds. As the title suggests, The Ladies Pond is a swimming pond for women only. No cameras, phones or alcohol allowed. It is empowering to see other women comfortable in their skin, sunbathing topless and swimming backstrokes in the murky pond. Ducks and dragonflies included. The water is biting cold and if you drop your feet, you can feel the algae brush your toes. It’s invigorating to be in a body of water, to know there is a magical and hidden world beneath you, and accepting that while you kick and flail your arms about, you are totally exposed to its danger.
But vulnerability does not come naturally. To be vulnerable is to display one’s weakness. It is uncomfortable and scary. Nobody wants to walk on the periphery of fear.
When I was a teenager, I made it a point to never let anyone see me cry. To cry is to be exposed and exposure is opening a space for others to misunderstand, belittle, or pity you. Or at least, that’s what I used to think. I went from being a raging, hormonal adolescence, bubbling my emotions into a jar and excessively drinking to find courage in opening said jar, to breaking the jar altogether and tormenting strangers on public transit instead. I am now a less raging, hormonally ramped up half-adult.
In the last few months, I have cried in bathroom stalls, in coffee shops and pubs, on trains, in buses, standing in airport security lines, walking from tube stations to my house, against my own front door, and even in front of the cheese aisle at my local Sainsbury’s.
And you know what? It’s been liberating - borderline exhibitionist - but allowing yourself to be vulnerable doesn’t have to be as obvious. There are small acts of vulnerability, like starting a conversation with a stranger, or following your friends as she dives into freezing water.
As a society, we have agreed that exposure is not for the benefit of human connection, but for self-actualization. Exposure is simply a beckon to be taken advantage of.
In Serbia, we have a word for when someone does something just because they can. ‘Za inat’ is not a spontaneous act of defiance, it is caressing one’s neck, spotting their jugular and taking a stab at it. So, shall we do an eye for an eye?
According to researcher Brené Brown, we are reluctant of being vulnerable because we are in fact afraid of experiencing joy. ““In the midst of great things, we dress rehearse tragedy,” she claims. We engineer smallness into our lives in fear of being unable to physically withstand shame and hurt. We armor up and this goes directly against our human need to belong.
In her talk, Call to Courage, Brown expands on this emotional headlock. To belong, she says, is to let yourself be seen, as opposed to assessing and acclimating your behavior in order to fit in.
Living your life to fit in is dangerous, it is placing a mask stitched so neatly to your face, you might wear it for years without acknowledgment.
All around me, I feel the pressure to become something when I am already someone. I am a woman who has no idea what it means to be woman. I am a woman, who like my friends, is ambitious to evolve in every direction of herself. I am a woman, who unlike my friends is adamant to evolve. To be who you are feels dangerous, to actually be self-possessed enough to share who you are with others even more so.
Romanticizing Where I Live was a call to courage, a fight against the despondency that was slowly growing in me. At first, I thought London is a city in which you easily lose yourself and everything with you. Writing about it has led me to a new conclusion. London is as cutthroat as it was three months ago, but it is precisely its ruthless nature that forces you to learn more about yourself. It teaches you to build a tolerance for failure. I was too afraid of failing in London to notice that I was already failing. Admittedly, I don’t do well with rejection and London is great at giving it.
My ex could tell you that when it comes to holding on a fight, I’m like a pit bull and my mother would agree that I don’t know how to let go. If I’m frank, I don’t feel ashamed of either. I attempt to achieve catharsis by whatever means necessary. A state of limbo and concealing oneself from risk is crushing. Maybe that makes me unreasonable. Maybe it makes me a nutcase. Maybe I’m taking the right risks on the wrong things. But I live by Brown’s words, “to vulnerable is not as scary or dangerous as getting to the end of our lives and having to ask ourselves: what if I would’ve shown up?”
So I show up every day to my writing, my day job, my friends, my family and the ones I love. I was failing blindly, now I am excited to fail boldly. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read my work, motivated me to continue, and share their stories with me. I conclude my series here at the hilltop of Richmond Park with the cool wind and rustling leaves. I am not sure if I found my love for London again, but perhaps letting go of love to come back to love is the only way forward. Until then, I am grateful to roam its streets, indulge in its beauty, and live fully.