Crossing Thresholds  - Alec Finlay

Circus' graduate intern, Isabel McLeish has been speaking to artists over the summer to find out about how the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has impacted their lives and art practice. The aim of the conversations is to give artists the opportunity to discuss their experiences of lockdown and current circumstances, how their practice may have changed or adapted as well as explore how they intend to move forward and make work in the new normal.

Alec Finlay is an internationally-recognised artist and poet whose work crosses over a range of media and forms. Much of Alec's work considers how we as a culture, or cultures, relate to landscape and ecology. Through permanent and temporary interventions, integrative web-based projects, and publications, he weaves together generous experiential works, often collaborative, sometimes mapped directly onto the landscape, embedded socially or accessed online. Recently Alec's work has focussed on place-awareness and ecopoetics.

Alec contracted Covid-19 the week before lockdown, at a public event where he did a talk. He has had ME since he was 21 and therefore is high-risk. The combination of his age of 54, gender, and long term immune system weakness from ME, made him a candidate for long term CO19.

Image credits: Alec Finlay

'on not walking' by Alec Finlay

Extract from a longer unpublished essay

Edited by Isabel McLeish

on not walking

 

if you can walk

a half mile

places connect

 

if you can walk

100 yards

then that’s it

 

28.V.20

 

I do irony well. Selected for a residency with Paths for All that would explore walking, creativity, and disability, I end up spending 3 months unable to walk. I promised myself I’d be able to by the end of this essay.

 

That’s not quite true. I can walk down the stairs to the back garden and lay among the lockdown daisies. I can make a minor walk to the recycling bins over the road. In extremis, I think I can still make the Corner shop for coconut milk and bacon.

 

But then comes the desire to go around the block, past the fuchsia, and back by the sculpture workshop. Call it a 250m loop, seven-minute dauner. I’ve done it six times since March and had as many relapses, each lasting 3 or 4 days, waking at 4 or 5a.m., panting, aching with lactic muscles, exhausted. A dump bin of wasted days. That’s what coronavirus does to a vulnerable immune system. There are thousands of people sharing this experience many for the first time. Their world feels strange.

 

How I miss walking. My desk looks over an arterial footpath which was once a busy rail-line to the docks. While I’ve hardly seen anyone during lockdown, I do see people all the time, and their dogs, prams, and bikes. They pass behind the glass, or, on a good day, with the windows held open by a pile of books, I can hear their chatter and the dogs barking.

 

The measure of our pace changes our world.

 

The rhythm of our walk sets our clock.

We begin as toddlers, who toddle, and then, after a long, long walk along the via active of our lives, we gradually decline into doddlers, who doddle. In a walking lifetime the allotted span is supposed to follow the slow patterns of ageing. Our ability to walk should diminish as slowly as tree rings grow. Periods of illness have the appearance of a poor Summer, closing the gaps between the rings.

 

I became a dodderer at 21. That isn’t quite true. I could walk a-ways if I had to, but the outcome – the lag, as I called it – would result in days of agony that made life unbearable. Relapses don’t follow the standard pattern of muscular tiredness. The lag in the legs isn’t a hiker’s stiffness following a day on the hill. For someone with ME or long-term coronavirus, or any number of chronic illnesses, the onset of exhaustion from a short walk, sometimes of a hundred yards or less, may be delayed and the duration of their relapse may extend for days, even weeks. Lactic acid sits on the muscles like beads of mustard. Face it out, another bout of pain the body won’t flush.

 

 

Disabilities vary. Some impairments force themselves on the body permanently. Some illnesses impose fatigue, without fail, in the days after an activity.

 

Fatigue isn’t tiredness. Pain isn’t an ache. It’s the inability to have any thoughts or joys beyond a jagged bodily sensation. Sometimes it feels as if weights and irons have been attached to your legs. This isn’t just a physical problem, it’s existential. It can feel like dying, or it can make you feel that you need to die. It can also make the possible so tender and magical.

 

 

we know where

energy comes from

but where does it go?

 

 

​*

 

 

lexicon of fatigue

 

I’m slepi, weary

fatigat, so wearied

relinxed, fatigued

afoundred numbed

with exhaustion

and upspent, oh so

exhausted

 

composed from a Dictionary of Old English

 

 

 

All over Britain there are people who have recently come off ventilators and walked, very slowly, back into this world. Many will need months of rehabilitation. They will be learning these terms and inventing their own.

 

 

the wabbit week

 

rested

tired

exhausted

fatigued

very fatigued

totally fatigued

fatigued as f**k

 

 

 

My old pain cycle lasted five days, with the third being the worst. I used to count back and try to guess which event had been responsible. Remembrance of walks past. It took two decades to sand my recovery down to two days, if the weather was fine. Coronavirus has pushed it back up to four. And that’s for a walk of 100m.

 

 

Nothing blunts human responsiveness like pain. Nothing makes kindness more desirable. Blessings on the lover who rubs your legs gently and wards away pain. Blessings on the oil burner and tea tree. Blessings on the bucket of hot water. Sort-of-blessings on the cold bath. Blessings on pillows between the knees. Blessings on sunshine to lie in. Blessings on a cup of tea.

 

 

How the land strikes the legs differs when illness and age bear down upon us. For some illness is learning how to live in a body that has lost its rhythm. Others have fences drawn around them by pain. While, for others, constraints are permanent, physical, and multiplied by natural and man-made obstacles.

 

 

For the constrained walker limits aren’t precise, however, carefully they calculate. The effect of a walk will depend on how a person is on the day it meets a bit of land. Each person with chronic illness carries their own pocketful of harsh experiences with which they gauge the next walk and its limits. Over time, as experience is gained, a rough-and-ready regimen is improvised in which common-sense is a path. The mind begins to form imaginary lines marked far enough, too far, and far too far.

 

 

you always try to

carry a line

ahead of you

 

so as to not cross

into all the pain

that follows

 

 

*

 

 

ME is The Crash, a phrase which describes the inability of the compromised body to recover. You look so well, people say.

 

Someone with ME will have a picture of their disease, but it looks like pages of automatic writing scribbled down in the middle of the night. Meaning can be made out, if you want it to and look carefully, sometimes upside down. You don’t get to sit in front of X-rays and have complex symptoms patiently explained. The medical science is like an account of scattered dust in a far galaxy.

 

You have to work these kinds of illness out yourself, over years, by reading, feeling how your body works, finding what helps, what makes things worse, and learning how to rest, and how to adapt your walking. It is the walk and sleep that are, for the chronically ill, two of the essential measures of how they are.

 

With the arrival of coronavirus my walking shrunk to the odd day, 100m, maybe 200m, at most 250m when I had a better spell, in April. After each short walk – walklet? – my diaphragm would strain and boom, forming a hypertonic muscle, and my legs would ache as if I’d run a marathon. Now that I’m over 90 days into my Coronavirus term, without remission, I’ve been trying a very, very, very short walk each day. The constrained walking that comes with any chronic illness increases the scale of a walk map. One comes to measure the distance of a walk by The Lamppost or an individual tree. I’ve made it as far as the birch, and then, next day, one tree on, to the pine, which is 100m, and 103m. And now I’m paying for it. The need to find a balance been maintaining some pliability in my leg muscles and avoiding such a dose of pain and fatigue that days are lost isn’t easy.

 

The lobby who imagine ME – or any neurological disease – as a shyness from activity couldn’t be more wrong. I want to walk ever day. I want to go further. I want to reach the bus stop. I want to get back to the harbour. But, since I did those two walklets, my body has felt like an assemblage of test tubes filled with various colours of pain.

 

 

*

 

I’d become used to my condition as it was, from before. A minor walk wasn’t an issue, which means that enough of the world is possible. Ah, to be as we were. The problem isn’t walking, for me, but that coronavirus made my body mislay the ability to recover. It’s still fond of old habits and wants to go back to them, to be me walking a wee way along the path, but my mangled lungs say no.

 

My philosophy is that doing too much is inevitable, but I find that being careful, learning to draw the line, is a way to avoid repetitive disasters which hurt the spirit. The persistence of pain will lead some people, including me at times, to contemplate an end. This isn’t to feel suicidal: it’s to feel one can no longer bide in a body dominated by pain. Seeking the mean, I try to avoid relapses. But whether you are doing too much or too little depends upon what energy you have. The impact of coronavirus has changed the treaty I’d insisted my disease made with the world. Now they are at war again.

 

For many people with long-term coronavirus symptoms, or corona-lag, this line drawing is the new lesson for this week, and the next, and probably a few more after that. It takes a long time to adjust between wishes and abilities, to test what you can do and what it will cost.

 

 

*

 

 

I have not walked in some beautiful places. Sometimes I have also been walked for. How does that work?

 

If a walk has an aim, to see particular tree, collect water from a hill burn, or photograph a distant spring, that can be fulfilled for someone. It isn’t walking, but in my work as an artist and poet mapping landscapes I’ve often shared projects with poets and artists who can go wherever I’m unable to, in what could be termed, walking for.

 

To the everyday walker this may make little sense. What use is a walk without walking? But to a poet, for whom the imagination is a mobile instrument of witness, it’s the best second-best thing there is.

 

 

During my time with corona, because I can no longer walk or bus to the shops, I’ve been dependent on food deliveries. The knock on the door opened to find parcels and bags left on the mat remind me of a similar (inter-)dependence that marked my childhood.

 

This is the kind of slow network which we will need to recover in order to reduce climate breakdown. To a needs-must extent, coronavirus renewed community distribution, adding a more urgent task of helping the vulnerable, to the veg boxes, wine and beer boxes, and the panoply of deliveries that help life mosey along. Lockdown has at least meant we’re always in. I’ve appreciated everyone who does the fetching for me.

 

 

*

 

 

I am sacred I may never walk again, or never recover the half mile range I had. It’s easier for the disabled when constraints are shared in the way lockdown demands. I’ve half dreaded the day when everyone else returns to their everyday workplaces and my disability shows up, like Ph paper turned violet.

 

Even though I’m determined to heal, perhaps I will have to rely on those who walk for and those who deliver?

 

Is the end of walking the end of life, or just of a life? Thousands of people are asking themselves the same questions, having been through the hoped-for recoveries and rebuffs that mark post-corona.

 

A couple of years ago I came up with a walking for art project: the proxy walk. I haven’t realised one yet and, thanks to coronavirus, my role seems to have changed from walker to recipient.

 

For any proxy walk, on the same day, for one hour, the receiver remembers a walk in a place they have nominated, and the proxy walker goes there, walks for them, and describes the place as they passed through it. The resulting text is a proxy walk made of two very different memories.

 

I’ve since been told of another artist who gifts such walks, for women, and a nurse in a care home who does the same thing for elderly residents. A proxy walk can happen anywhere. Before this spell of not walking I liked to consider the social implications of people placing their walking at another person’s disposal, redistributing energy between people in an act of altruistic Romanticism. Now I have to consider it.

 

All limits create new possibilities. Not every promise can be fulfilled.

 

 

*

 

 

an optimism

that can allow

 

that continues

that continues

 

and can allow

the possibility

 

of a reason

for pessimism

 

 

(after Joan Retallack and John Cage)

 

 

Alec Finlay

VI.2020

LINKS TO RESOURCES

AUDIO WALKS: These two audio walks composed by Chris Watson are shared as a free resource for people self-isolating during the Coronavirus crisis. They offer imaginative access to a Highland and Lowland environment. The first track features a walk through Caledonian Pinewoods in Summer. The second track features a walk through the Floe Country in Spring. They are released under the aegis of Alec Finlay's year-long artist in residence with Paths for All.

COVID-19 CREATIVE TOOLKIT: Selection of activities for being creative, especially for those who find themselves in isolation. 

COVID RECOVERY: Patient-led website sharing resources and stories as people recover from Covid-19.