I used to be someone who loved winter. I liked the moment when the days started to shorten; didn’t mind the clocks going back; looked forward to getting out my thick coats, heavy boots. But now – and I think this is something to do with getting older – the very thought of it gets me down. I look ahead with apprehension and all I see are months of darkness and cold. Chill winds and icy pavements. Instead of snuggling indoors, I fear being trapped indoors. I have lost my seasonal mojo.
I am reminded that one of our daughters used to get downhearted at this time of year and bought a SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lamp. I go and have a rummage in the cupboards upstairs and there it is. The fact that she left it behind when she moved out may serve as a comment on its effectiveness, but I won’t dwell on that. Online research tells me that early morning is the best time, so I plug it in beside my yoga mat as I do my stretches.
On the other side of the mat sits my phone, which is playing The Rest Is History podcast. Someone described this genre recently as “A Couple of Dads Droning On”, and I can’t argue with that, but it turns out that I love this genre, and find it comforting.
So – I’ve got my SAD lamp, I’ve got my podcast. What else? “Take vitamin D,” says a friend, so down go a couple of capsules. “Have you heard of a Shakti mat?” asks my Pilates teacher, and she goes on to describe the blissful sensation of lying on a bed of nails. I am so intrigued that I order one online. The idea is that the sharp spikes work on acupressure points, triggering relaxation, pain relief and general well-being.
“Blah blah blah,” you may be thinking, and I hear you. I understand that these terms can be overused, and that perhaps we are all seeking a level of relaxation and well-being that is essentially incompatible with being human. But still. I’m stressed and gloomy and in the market for a new cure. When my mat arrives I strip off and lie carefully down on it. I’ve been warned about the pain, and how the pleasure will come later.
Reader, I don’t know what it says about me, but I go straight to the pleasure. Any pain is fleeting, immediately replaced by warmth, and then something that feels not so much like relaxation as relief: a general surrender, which – along with the lamp and the podcast – is beginning to help. But just as I am feeling good, I start to worry that all this relaxation might render me comatose. To keep your spirits up you need stimulation as well as calm. So I head to the Royal Academy to meet some friends at the Marina Abramović exhibition.
The show is the opposite of relaxing. One room is full of huge screens showing images of Abramović and her partner, Ulay, slapping or screaming at each other. A table is covered with knives, chains and whips – the implements on offer when she stood for hours in a gallery and let an audience do whatever it liked to her. There is a photo of the star she carved into the skin of her stomach; a video of her lying naked beneath a human skeleton.
And in one of the real-life performances taking place here today, a naked man and woman stand facing each other, toes almost touching. We visitors are invited to pass between them, as they form a kind of human portal leading from one part of the exhibition to another. I stand and watch, and there is a palpable sense of hesitancy in the air. I feel nervous, but also determined: this is an experience the artist wants us to have.
What shocks me as I approach is the narrowness of the gap. It is not a case of walking between two naked people, but SQUEEZING between two naked people, and, although it takes only seconds, I feel a huge variety of sensations.
I am self-conscious about my clothes – all these buttons and zips; I hope I don’t scratch someone! I feel that I am imposing myself on their stillness, barging in on their private communion. I find myself wondering: am I actually the performer here? I feel embarrassed. Slightly ashamed? I’m taking care not to step on anyone’s feet, or scrape them with my bag, and dear God I think I may even utter the word “Sorry” as I push through.
Basically, it’s an UNCOMFORTABLE experience. And, perhaps not unlike the prickles on an acupressure mat, it prods me into awareness of being alive, which is the best antidote to winter gloom.
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special