I woke up today with an optimistic feeling; I had the whole day to myself.
I dream about having the whole day to myself — to ride my bike to Greenwich, grab a coffee and drink it slowly in front of the uninterrupted London skyline. To go to the Royal Academy to see a new exhibition on Japanese printmaking — I would buy a book on the way home and read it in a cafe with a croissant and a coffee. To paint in my room — an abstract oil painting of a woman in her room — until the fumes are too strong and all of my brushes are dirty. To longboard across the Olympic park’s smooth paths, finding myself in the velodrome to watch a bike race and eventually ending up along the canal with a pen in one hand and a slice of pizza in another and a glass of wine on the table, surrounded by friendly strangers, dogs and graffiti. Scribbling away, completely focused.
I daydream about going to a string of boutique shops and trying on wide-legged pants and shoes with heels, buying an elegant bracelet from a shop that sells jewellery and aloe plants and then eating sushi and reading Pachinko in the park until I get too cold. I remember to bring a blanket so that my butt doesn’t get wet and when I look up from my book, I can watch groups of friends eat hummus and celery and dogs scratching their backs in the grass and couples. Every now and then, there’s a breeze.
I daydream about taking a trip to Brighton with my bicycle and cycling to Hove. I buy Ting and sparkling water, an apple and pretzels and an Oreo ice cream sandwich and walk to the beach and set up camp for the day. The air smells like sunscreen and whenever I feel like it, I can practice skipping rocks into the ocean.
My favourite book is The Samurai’s Garden. It’s about a Chinese boy whose family sends him to his grandfather’s beach-side home in Japan in order to recover from tuberculosis. While he’s there, he spends his days relaxing in the quiet town — watching the housekeeper, Matsu, make pickled vegetables and rice, swimming laps in the cold ocean, painting in his grandfather’s study.
His gentle life progresses so slowly and carefully that the greater storyline only becomes apparent toward the end of the novel. Reading it feels like opening a present slowly; my lips furl and my eyes get squinty. I always cry during the last pages because my heart feels so full and complete while engrossed in this world.
I’ve read The Samurai’s Garden half a dozen times now and it always leaves me feeling this way. It sets scenes that I want myself to be in all the time — every free day, I want to be painting furiously in my grandfather’s study, waking up hours later from my intense focus to realise that Matsu has left me a bento box of pickled vegetables, rice and fishcakes with tea. I want to walk to the beach with a book and, when I notice no one else is using it, strip naked and run into the cold ocean to swim laps.
Somehow I never manage to live this simple and focused life. I have days to myself and I ruin them. I ruin them on my bed, laying indecisively, with Pachinko lying facedown at the far corner of my bed and my laptop open with half-written emails in tabs on the screen. My hand is hot from using my phone.
I ruin them by not committing; by the time that I’m ready to leave it’s noon and I don’t trust myself to enjoy a big day trip alone enough to commit to taking one, so I end up spending the day in Angel. I go to shops that I don’t like, drink coffee at my kitchen table and read Timeout magazine. Eventually the sour feeling in my stomach grows to be too big and I decide to do something that I would be proud of — I cycle to the art shop and buy new markers and paper with the intention of drawing Chapel Market on the roof with music playing, but then come home, discard them on my bed and head to the kitchen to make carrots and hummus and toast and tea and eventually get caught up looking at my phone. I forget that I want to be alone and message friends, or my roommates come home and make me a gin and tonic. Or, I slump in my chair, paralysed at the thought of having wasted another day that was supposed to be so beautiful.
I ruin them by not allowing myself to enjoy my own company. I don’t treat myself to lunch, but while out get so hungry that my plans have to be cut short so that I can go home to eat. By the time I finish eating, I forget what I was focused on doing and lose sight of the perfect day. I take trips to parks and other public places but don’t think I need to bring essential items, like sunglasses and blankets and snacks and a jacket. I end up in a park, cold and unprepared, sitting on damp grass and feeling alone. Forty minutes later, I have to go to the bathroom and so I get up and don’t come back.
I fantasise about living in Tarumi in the 1930s because the beautiful and perfect days of The Samurai’s Garden would be mandatory. I so want to live in a world where there are no phones and I don’t need to buy any train tickets or send any emails and the beach is 100 yards from my house and the only people I can see are gardening. Somehow, instead, I live in London and every attempt at dedicating a day to myself ends an agonising day of indecision, full of attempts to treat myself with things that ultimately don’t make me happy.
I don’t believe that the only way to achieve productive and beautiful days alone is by living in a small Japanese beach town full of quiet, older people. I know that I need to spend more energy planning and curating my days and not letting myself take shortcuts and get hungry and change plans because I don’t believe I’ll enjoy being alone. Eventually, with practice, I will learn to spend dedicated time alone and my daydreams about what I can do with a day alone will be achievable. Perhaps, I’ll learn that my daydreams are not even the most perfect version of a day for me and I will discover some new thing that I enjoy doing even more.
The path down to the beach felt like a familiar friend. I kicked off my shoes and walked slowly across the white sand and over the dune. Everything seemed in perfect focus. The air carried a sharp coolness to it, awakening me. The sky was a pale blue with small patches of clouds that resembled islands. Even the sea was calm. Small waves lapped in and out mechanically, clear as glass.