Join me, this week, on the small Greek island of Hydra for a story of the nakedness I experience in a relationship. Sounds include the barking of dogs, the jangling of rigging and the ringing of bells. This is the 11th Museling.
A transcript of this episode is below.
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This is the sound of Hydra just before 6 in the morning. There’s a very light breeze. Cocks crowing. If you have good enough headphones, you’ll have heard rigging hitting the masts of sailing boats down in the harbour below. Dogs barking.
I’m staying in a house high above the harbour of this very small Greek island and this sound is recorded from the window of the room that I’m sharing with a man that I’m in some kind of relationship with right now. We’re on holiday here for a week. You won’t be able to hear him but he’s breathing on the bed now, asleep. I’m sitting by the window. Naked.
Last week, if you’re following this little set of Muselings, you’ll have heard me talking about being naked in a performance context. On the island of Lesvos, where I met this man, as it happens. Where I felt clean and light and free of anxiety about my purpose, my existence, my future. Where I felt brave enough to say yes when this man, who has the biggest, most beautiful smile, who I sat next to at the bus station before I knew we were going to be on the residency together, asked me if I wanted to go for a walk on the beach after supper. I thought to myself: Yeah, I’m ready for this. I’m ready to take the risk that this might not work out. I’m ready to take advantage of the good things that could come of it and to accept the bad things that could come of it and to behave, frankly, like I imagine normal people behave when they are attracted to someone and that person asks them out.
And of course things have changed for me since the residency. Because, listen, when you’ve gone to another place far away and you have found yourself there, in some hippy-dippy, however you want to frame it, way, how do you bring yourself home? All of the anxiety that I’d felt slipping off me like buttered sludge on the journey out there, I pulled it right back on, like a winter coat on the journey home. And so, once again, back in London, I’m waking up feeling like I’ve run twenty miles in my sleep. Once again, I’m feeling a clutching behind my sternum. Once again, I’m feeling intermittently heart-broken and confused and alone. And now I’m in some kind of a relationship. And here we are on holiday together. And I’m awake at 6 o’clock in the morning because I didn’t eat enough yesterday and I’ve woken up hungry and anxious.
At this point I think I went up to the kitchen to find a banana.
[Sound of recording device being switched off and then on again]
OK. So it’s mid-morning now. Nearly 10 o’clock. You can hear the ferry in the distance. There are lots of ferries coming in and out of the harbour. I love watching them from the window here. I don’t know why. I managed to get back to sleep after eating the banana. I find that having something in my stomach helps to calm me when I’m feeling anxious.
I’m still naked.
There are different kinds of nakedness, aren’t there? Last week, I was talking about nakedness of the body and, to a certain extent, of the soul, but in performance and largely protected by the paraphernalia of that performance. And, to be honest, in the event, the physical nakedness didn’t feel that strange to me. I went to boarding school so I spent a large part of my adolescence naked around other people. Other teenagers, I should say. Teenagers with bodies that got them assigned male at birth, which are the kinds of bodies that I’ve always been most attracted to. We had the locker rooms and communal showers of many a grown-up fantasy but it was a honey trap for gay teens at a time when to be gay, among my peers at least, was to be classed with paedophiles and perverts. So there was a similar gulf between my body and other people’s eyes – between my eyes and other people’s bodies. You could look but you couldn’t be seen to be looking; and you could never let on that you liked it.
This, here in this room, is a different kind of nakedness. Two people, alone together, each with needs and desires to express.
At 36 years old, I am still very bad at articulating my desires. That’s partly, I think, because, as a teenager, I taught myself to be very frightened of what I clearly liked and wanted but it’s also, I think, because, thanks to a much earlier training, it can be difficult for me even to be aware of my own desires. Although I am unlearning this, there have been periods in my life when I’ve been easily overwhelmed by other people’s thoughts and feelings, which have felt much more real to me than my own and that makes it difficult for me even to know what I want or don’t want, what I like or don’t like. It can be very confusing. And now, faced with someone who has very little difficulty articulating what he wants, I’m realising that I still have a long way to go before I’m entirely comfortable reciprocating that.
And then, at 36 years old, I’m also still finding ways of pushing back against judgement – much of which comes from within me anyway. I mean, listen, I’ve fully taken on board the idea that self-confidence is sexy – true self-confidence, I mean, not based on delusion or vanity, but on that holy grail self-acceptance – but liking my body, feeling attractive, has never come naturally to me at a core level. I have a bad habit of apologising to new partners about the hair on my shoulders and the size of my penis and the fact that I’m not very good at sex or relationships in general in a way that isn’t so much an apology as a pre-emptive defence. It’s something that this guy in the bed here has already picked up on. He finds it annoying. Later, he’ll ask me why I do it and I won’t have a very good answer for him.
I realise now that it’s about asking for permission. And it strikes me as something of a manipulative move. You see, if I feel as though you’ve given me permission to come near to you with my substandard body and my substandard sexual and relational skills, that’s on you. I flagged all of that up and you said that it was OK.
It isn’t a very successful tactic, to be honest. And it isn’t the foundation for an anxiety-free relationship.
The point is, for these reasons and for other reasons, I tend to keep myself at something of a distance from other people. I’m scared of being swamped by other people’s wants and needs and I’m scared of judgement. Which is an isolating way to live. Apart from anything else, I’ve learned that it exacerbates my depression.
Andrew Solomon, who writes wonderful things about depression, defines it as a disease of loneliness and prescribes contact as the most effective treatment.
Which is one of the reasons why, at a time when, in spite of everything I’ve said here, I’m more open than ever before, less worried than ever before about what other people think of me, being naked with someone – just him and me, body to body, not even having sex necessarily, just touching, talking – is so wonderful and so terrifying. It’s one of the reasons why, in a few weeks’ time, when I realise that it really isn’t going to work between us, I will hold onto him and cry like I’m in mourning.
So, yeah, it doesn’t work out with this guy. Which is a shame. He’s great. He has a beautiful smile. And he loves to sleep, which I find an incredibly attractive quality in a man. But we want different things and there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of a compromise. And so I come back to the question that gives me the title for these Muselings: how do I stay naked? Because it is painful to stand in front of somebody and to let them look at you and for it not to work out. It’s painful to take risks. But life without that – without the possibility of that – is unbearable.
One thing that I’m learning is that I have to practise intimacy. It clearly doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to keep showing up. And, as I do this, I’ve been realising that intimacy is actually connected to generosity. To be intimate with someone, you have to allow them to see you. You have to be, to some extent, generous with yourself. I’m such a miser when it comes to my thoughts and my feelings. You won’t think so because you’re listening to this but it’s no accident that I am saying all of this into a recording device, alone, at home. In reality, I’m so scared of how people would judge me if they really knew what was going on inside. I mean, my god, if you only knew what a narcissist I am.
That’s a joke, of course. You know very well.
But more and more, this opening up feels like a political question to me. It has to do with me as a person but also with me as an artist. Being naked here on Hydra when it’s warm and nice and easy is one thing. But it’s not enough. Staying naked when it’s cold and harsh and difficult is the task we’re faced with. And I have to think about that. It’s what I’m going to talk about in next weeks’ Museling.
[Sound of church bells ringing]
OK. It’s 10 o’clock. I don’t know why the bells do that at 10 o’clock. It’s not like it’s Sunday today.
Anyway. Thank you for listening to this, the 11th Museling. For more information about the podcast, you can go to muselings.uk, where you can find links to Muselings on Soundcloud and iTunes. Please do share these with your friends. And let me know what you think. I’m on twitter as @charldrian.
This web page and its contents © Charles Adrian Gillott October 2020