Finding God In Grünewald

Written by Neve Robinson

Author’s Note: I recently had an epiphany that the subject matter of my personal essays tends to be a bit maudlin and dreary. I suppose these are indicative of the undeniably misery-riddled times in which we all (often reluctantly!) reside in. I wanted to write something slightly upbeat and about something that fills me with sparks when I think of it. And then it reminded me of an assignment, a question, that I was once asked as a young Neve-ling. I wondered if perhaps I could flesh something out of that very same assignment, given that my intellectual growth since then hasn’t been of too high a magnitude. Well, lo and behold, I present to you my haphazard attempt at a happy piece about a happy time!

When I was little, I vividly recall being asked to recount for a primary school project what I, in all of my infinite infant wisdom, deemed to be the best day of my life. It was, of course, a relatively easy question posed to a child with little expectation of an established response; after all, I’d only been in existence for about 7 years. What did I know about life? And what did I know about experiencing the very creme-de-la-creme of it? The best day of my life probably involved, at this point of my life, watching Rugrats all day and ingesting worrying amounts of (definitely inedible) Play-Doh. I presume the teachers just expected us to come up with fairly basic summarizations of day-trips to the zoo, or decadent descriptions of Disneyland. I probably did answer with something of that description – as I said, being 7, I wasn’t quite the intellectual giant that you see before you today (I jest, I jest). It wasn’t something to ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’ about in the same way that it would be if somebody posed the same query to you at your current juncture of life, because there aren’t many memories to sift through. 

I understand that for many, if the same question was sprung on you suddenly, it may take some hesitation and careful contemplation. Each year of life adds another year of enriching experiences, thus, more moments to choose from. But me? I don’t need even a second to dwell on it, I could answer immediately, but this  isn’t because I’m a perennially positive person – in fact, quite the opposite. I can admit to being quite the moody bastard more often than not, but on this day, the most perfect 24 hour period of my young years, I remember vehemently proclaiming aloud that this really was it. A pleasant peace permeated my soul that day that I don’t think I’ve ever felt since, and I owe it all to Nico (of The Velvet Underground fame), two phones with dead batteries, and my best pal in the whole world. Perhaps I should expand somewhat. But if I just left it there, it’d be one hell of a tagline for a movie, wouldn’t it?

It was 2017, or maybe ‘18. I think 2018. The years sort of blend into one when you’ve virtually just wasted one indoors thanks to a blasted pandemic. My best friend Frances and I, having already embarked on a successful holiday to Budapest a few months prior, decided on a whim to book a week away in Germany. We felt that all great artists – Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, The Ramones – all had their most formative and creative career peaks during their Berlin periods. It seemed only right that we should follow in their footsteps (and hopefully consume an abundance of hearty tankards of Warsteiner in the process). Having booked a multitude of insanely cool activities to embark on while in Berlin – including seeing The Rolling Stones at the Olympiastadion (that comes a close second on The Greatest Day list!) – we packed our suitcases and headed off to die große Stadt, baby. We were staying in a groovy little hostel on Warschauer Platz crammed with a multitude of sensationally strange characters, including a harem of Irish 30-year-olds who regularly serenaded us with a battered acoustic guitar that was missing a string and an American girl who was utterly obsessed with the way that I said ‘pavement’ rather than ‘sidewalk’. We spent most of our days munching on supermarket-assembled picnics whilst sightseeing and generally exploring the city. Checkpoint Charlie, the East Side Gallery, the Brandenburg Gate– you know, the usual. Disappointingly, we didn’t encounter David Hasselhoff, which I personally felt was worthy of compensation, but I digress. We were just having a lovely little holiday, really. Then the day that we took the S-bahn (the Metro) to Grünewald Forest fell upon us. A day I don’t think I will ever forget. Not for it being a particularly remarkable day. Not for it being just the usual excitement of being on a trip abroad. No. it was because of the sheer bliss that we shared that day. It was a day that really, really made me feel glad to be alive.

We initially went to Grünewald because we were short of an activity for the day, and both being avid devourers of records, we were enticed by the promise that the singer Nico’s grave was nestled rather ethereally in the midst of a leafy forest. Though Nico herself was a person of questionable morals, she was a woman of unquestionable talents, and to pay our respects to such talents in such a beautiful setting was an enticing idea. It was a drizzly, overcast day in East Berlin, so we put our raincoats on and set off. The train stopped off in a village that was quite literally in the middle of a forest. It looked as though the village had grown around the trees. There were a few scatterings of quaint cottages, but mostly nothing but a few wooden signs scrawled in German that were presumably guiding us into the forest – we hoped so anyway. As we shrugged and followed the Grimm’s fairy tale trail before us,  enchanted completely by the verdant lushness of our surroundings, we were walking in a dazed state for a while until we came to a clearing. We’d been walking for perhaps an hour or so and had stumbled across a cafe in the middle of the trees. It felt as though we were in a Studio Ghibli animated picture, which was a far cry from the bustling city only a twenty minute drive away. It was a woodland retreat of sorts. Frances and I ordered hot chocolates and sipped at them tentatively as we watched the warm rain splash from leaf to leaf of the oak tree beside the window. We watched raindrops chase each other playfully on the sill and, after getting immersed in the simple sensory escapism of that small cafe for a bit, we decided to carry on our mission for fear of not ever wanting to part with the cosy little haven. 

We walked and talked for hours. We had a folk playlist (comprised of James Taylor and the like) playing aloud from our phones as we traversed. Our phones’ batteries soon curtailed and died, which should perhaps have been of concern to us given that we were in the literal middle of nowhere,  but we were too engrossed in the birdsong above us and the crunch of leaves underfoot. I finally understood what the Romantic poets meant when they kept going on about the ‘nature of the sublime.’ Like the Earth was its own entity and it was kindly allowing us to traipse all over it, blasting our tunes and having a laugh. It rained, certainly, but it was a balmy, summery mist that was beyond refreshing. We couldn’t help but put our hoods down to get fully saturated in the pleasant dew. I fell in love with the way that it beaded on the tips of my fringe, and a small rainbow would flicker from the soaked strands when I shook my head. We had packed a feast of strawberries, fresh bread and delicious juices, and ate as we trekked through the trees. What struck me most about the day though, was that it felt like a real milestone in our relationship. Frances has been my best friend and confidant for nearly five years now, having bonded closely on a college history trip as I (incredibly boringly) offered to share a crossword with her on a plane. She obliged, and the rest is history. I live with her and have for nearly two years. But I don’t think, in all of our time spent together, I have ever felt so closely intertwined with her as I did on that day. I’m sure she’s cringing slightly upon reading this, but hear me out, Frank. Spending nearly twelve hours wandering around an endless copse of firs with your only scenery really being viridescent green, well – you’re bound to have a natter or two to aid you on your hike. I learnt a lot about my friend that day, and I think she learnt a lot about me – even if all that she learnt was how often I can fall over exposed tree roots (answer in short: many).

When we finally encountered Nico’s grave, it was nestled in front of a small, deeply Bavarian-looking church graveyard. I’ve never really believed in God, mainly out of cynicism more than anything. But that day, finding this completely undisturbed gorgeous collection of gravestones and wild jonquil flowers poking through the cracks between them, I started to understand the line of thinking behind creationism. It would certainly seem inconceivable that such beauty could be undesigned. Everything seemed so…perfectly aligned. I could hear the hum of grasshoppers and see the sparkle of the evening sun through the shafts of the trees. We sat with her for nearly an hour. We didn’t really talk. There wasn’t much to say. It’s rare that Frances and I, the two loudest mouths in Manchester, are rendered completely speechless. That was one of those moments. It took us hours to commute back to the petit train station, especially given that we now had no GPS advantage. We didn’t mind, though, not one bit. We skipped our way through puddles, we bounded through the meadows that appeared in clearings and interspersed the greenery, we laughed at ludicrously unfunny jokes. I felt so giddy, so jubilant, so childlike– it’s hard to describe the level of innocence that I reverted to on that day. It felt like anything I’d ever been upset about had completely melted away, and all that I could feel was this one completely free moment. Nobody knew where we were, and nobody knew us, and for some reason this was comforting to me. I felt like I didn’t have to tone down my personality nor the fun that I was having, because my best friend was having just as much as me. The only bad part of that day? Getting the S-bahn back, and watching our own little chunk of paradise spin past us and into our past. I knew then, like I know now, that no day would compare to this one, and it’s for no particular reason at all, really.

On reflection, I suppose it’s quite an uneventful day to an outside perspective. After all, what did we really achieve? Dead phones, got lost in some trees and rained on for a few hours, and dined on supermarket bread and processed slices of Edam cheese. It’s not exactly on the heights of a day a seven year old Neve would have described to her teacher. But that’s okay. It was special to us. It was the best day of my life, not anybody else’s, and it will remain in my memory forever. Frances and I plan one day to move to Berlin, or at least the outskirts, and try and relive a day as wonderful as this one. For now, I hold the best day of my life close to my heart, and I think of it often, as I’m currently housebound under UK lockdown restrictions until further notice. 

Grünewald, I dream of you and the sanctuary you offered me. If God is real, I can promise you one thing wholeheartedly – He’s present in this forest, from the soil to the dragonflies flitting over the soft tickling streams. Maybe I did find God in a German forest. Or maybe I’m just a romanticist who wants to go on a holiday again. You decide.


I Miss My Life (And If You’re Reading This, I Probably Miss You Too)

Written by Neve Robinson

Languishing in lockdown -, the third of its inspid ilk – has truly been the most tiresome, yet transformative time of my twenty-two years of existence. Stagnant series of hours into days into weeks into months into…well, years. It has, at times, felt as though I was etching a tally onto the confines of my uni room’s weathered walls, counting down like a futile advent calendar to the day that it would be acceptable to feverishly envelope my beloved friends in embraces. I think the most jarring part of it all is the extraordinary sense of limbo I’ve been suspended into, and how accustomed and acclimated I’ve become to this strange inbetweenism. Being able to live, I suppose, but living by abiding by completely necessary but nonetheless neverending rules and regulations. Like being imprisoned in a glass fishbowl, breathing through glistening gills, but only within that unnatural rainbow-rocked prism of monotony. It’s existing. It’s sort of redefined what it means to live. I really, really dislike that, what lockdown has done to us as a society. That is, normalised the concept that we should just be unquestionably patient and content with unfulfillment, with loneliness, with boredom. Our negative sentiments about being trapped indoors are invalidated constantly, aided by guilt-tripping advertisements and an ever-present sense of duty placed on our shoulders as individuals, that we should focus our energies into protecting others. Whilst this is absolutely right  (it is our bare-minimum responsibility as decent human beings to minimise any risk to our high-risk peers!) it is also crystal clear to me the magnitude of how this guilt culture affects the individual living through lockdown, and how it has affected me personally, too. The importance of mental health preservation, the importance of knowing that it’s okay to dislike these circumstances for tearing us away from our established routines, and the importance of hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel should not be lost to this idea of “things could be worse”. Things are terrible! For practically everybody! It’s not something that we should simply accept just because it’s been a long while in captivity. You’re entitled to complain about the crushing causation of the rapid decline of your mental wellbeing, and it’s not a sin for hating this period of time. I’m assuring you of this from the horse’s mouth, so to speak – I hate it, too. Everybody does. It isn’t selfish to dream of laughter with loved ones, of electric gigs, of drunken dancing barefoot in bars (no?! Just me?!) That’s the one huge impact lockdown has had on me and the newly patched-up fabric of my personality. I wanted to write this essay in order to remind myself of how good I had things before coronavirus threw the world into unwilling disarray. Lockdown has made me realise without a shadow of a doubt that I finally fully appreciate my everyday life – the good, the bad and the ugly parts, of which I’d prior considered to be fairly boring. It engenders the most bittersweet sensation.

So. This is a love letter to all the mundane features of my life. It’s a cry out for times I once perhaps even considered dull. For routines and structure I once cursed out of laziness and days lost to depression, cocooned in the domains of duvets. How I regret longing to not have to awake early for that 9am lecture. How I regret not clutching opportunities by their respective throats out of fear of failure. How I regret just moaning and moaning and moaning about all of the wonderful and terrible things that made my life, well, my life. Isn’t it strange how the simplest of activities can feel so dear to you when you have been robbed of them for over a year? Popping into Piccadilly Records for a flick through some vinyl in search of that special Patti Smith pressing you’ve been itching for. Watching the sunset from Castlefield Bowl with many cans and many mates. The stepping on a 142 bus, only to hop off just two stops later for a solo saddo mooch around the Whitworth Gallery. Wounding your tongue after biting into a piping Greggs pasty that is, without any hyperbole here, hotter than the Sun. Meeting a myriad of colourful characters on nights out – and always, without fail, befriending the befuddled stranger in the toilet cubicle opposite you who won’t stop proclaiming how beautiful you are. Girls are great. I remember being entangled in a constant sense of feeling hard done by. Of cloying self-pity. Nothing ever seemed satisfactory enough for me. I never felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Never felt that I was truly leading the romanticised version of life I’d conjured up in my cluttered cranium. Little did I realise, all along I was living as an authentic, flesh-and-blood, fantastic human – far better than anything I could ever wish to invent. It’s almost funny to me now how what I dream of every night isn’t this fictionalised life I once sought comfort in. No, the life I long for is the life that I had before all of this.

There’s little structure to my days anymore, other than the following:

  • Wake up no earlier than midday.
  • Make a cup of tea. (Normally out of sodding milk, so abandon tea in favour of a strange herbal concoction snaffled straight from the cupboards of my housemate)
  • Full hair, makeup and funky clothes applied. The living room is now my catwalk.
  • Walk my best friend’s dog, Rex, and watch him potter about the park, oblivious to the absolute hellscape he inhabits. O to be Young Rex!
  • Return to the sofa for a full few hours of festering.
  • Stay awake until stupid o’clock smashing out creative attempts at self sustainment (e.g., in a similar vein to what you are reluctantly reading currently)
  • Crash into a, mostly, terror filled slumber!!!
  • Rinse and repeat.

As you can tell, there’s little to do these days but to ponder and fixate. To contemplate and long for better days. As a result, I’ve recently developed a fear of lockdown restrictions easing. Ridiculous, I know, as this entire essay was blindingly condemning the whole bloody thing. I just mean to say that I’m anxious to return to how things were, in case I’ve hyped them up too much and will be even further disillusioned with life. I’m also a bit worried that I’ve forgotten basic social cues. I’m undeniably the most social of creatures and an unabashed extrovert. I radiate and ingest the energy of my peers. I learn from them. I adapt and adopt some of their behaviours; I think the best people are built upon a blend and hotch-potch of different perspectives and experiences. I want to be as wonderful as the people I have befriended, and in doing so I make sure to surround myself with sunshiney people in order to encourage the most positive mindset I can maintain. Maybe this has been the hardest part of all of lockdown. Having to restrict my extreme desires to socialise. 

Because I think that, of all that I long for, I miss touching the most. Not in a perverse way, before you start! No, I mean in the most innocent sense of the phrase. Sensory shows of affection. I miss the brush of cracked lips against mine. I miss the tangle of frantic hands in one’s hair. I miss the clasping of cold digits, nestled in another’s coat pocket for safekeeping against that wretched North West wind. I miss the gentle kisses of eyelashes on my sallowed skin, the most delicate of butterflies. I miss the pounding of my heart – when it really feels like it’ll burst right through my ribcage and land in a bloodied pool before me; that excitable acceleration one can only feel in the company of the most special people. I miss the simplest of caresses. I miss being in the presence of anyone but boring old me!

I miss… I miss it all. I miss my family, I miss my friends, I miss my job, I miss university, I miss being young and reckless, I miss going on holiday, I miss going for a coffee, I miss being able to moan about the pettiest problems. I probably even miss you, dear reader. I can’t wait to be freed. If there’s one thing that this chunk of captive existence has taught me, and in the most non-cringe-inducing way I can express it, it’s the value of appreciating every ounce and drop that life has to offer. And by God, when I’ve got my life back, I’m going to squeeze every morsel of vitality from it. Just you wait. I hope with all of my heart that you do the same. After all, as the cliche goes, we’ve only got one life. Might as well make the most of it before they fancy popping us into a fourth lockdown, eh…

The Beautiful, Terrible Affliction Of Having A Big Heart

Written by Neve Robinson

There is one faction of my personality, one crucial point, that I both adore and despise. It is that when I fall in love, it is irrevocably. This is not just in a romantic sense (though one would think with the way that I overly romanticize affairs of the heart that I had felt adoration on the level of Heathcliff and Cathy before.) No, it occurs platonically also; it is crippling. I love intensely. Sometimes I love in an all-consuming, unhealthy manner, and, always, I love indiscriminately. Arguably without thorough, careful judgement of character, often rendering me doting over some seriously Snow White level bad apples. The problem is that if there is a warmth and inherent goodness to you, chances are that my soul will be intertwined with yours in some sort of way forever–whether you like it or not (even if that love is not at all reciprocated). This. This is the fundamental occupational hazard of having a big heart. When your ribcage is consumed with constant burning endearment and attachment to almost everyone you encounter in your life, it is essentially an open invitation for heartache. The biggest test of all here is of course, whether this pain is worth feeling. As I grow older, I am trying so very hard to learn this one vital tip: to not lose oneself in the fabric of another.

I realize I sound quite the obsessive Fatal Attraction type of lover, but hear me out. I’m not “crazy in love,” so to speak. Rather, I’m just devoted, and I simply can’t help it. I give all of myself to a person at the slightest drop of a hat – and as a result, my vast ventricles have often been my downfall in the past. I’ve only ever been, you know, in love, about two times I think. Three, if you’re counting the fixation I had on a certain glittering fictional vampire when I was around eleven years old. But by God, did I know it when I was in love. It was like the sun beamed right through their teeth, and sparkled on the strands of their hair, then shot right out onto the digits that caressed the tips of mine. The most average of Joes would transform before my very eyes into an Adonis. I’m normally quite strong of character and, in truth, I’m not one to shy from a debate. But a person could virtually do no wrong when I was in love with them. Arguments would end in a barrage of kisses and apologies because holding a grudge against my beloved was simply unthinkable no matter what the circumstance, and any crumb, any scrap of what I deemed to be romance would be hoovered up gratefully. I suppose a lot of this lurked within my low self esteem at the time. It was rather a sentiment of disbelief that anyone could feel this way about me, even if it was bare minimum behavior. Even though I loved being in love, and I reflect on those relationships as wonderful, jubilant ones, there’s definitely a tinge of melancholy to them. They deserved my adoration, certainly, but I’m not sure the level of love I put into these people was normal, nor do I think the level of expectation I put on them to regularly sweep me off my ruby-slippered feet was. One cannot ever accuse me of making them feel unloved, at least that’s for sure.

When I have misplaced this love, that’s when being a deeply loving person complicates things even more. Just because I have only been in love twice, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I haven’t loved others. Depressingly, I’ve got quite the impressive string of exes under my belt. Of these, I can certainly remember a few where we would both be ecstatically crying that we loved one another one moment– only to never converse again within a matter of months. I’ve not been in love since my boyfriend around two years ago, who is just about one of the kindest and most sensitive men I know. I don’t think this lack of love has been by choice, rather by necessity – I have struggled to replicate any semblance of a relationship as rich in emotional depth and mutual support as this one. My previous boyfriend was also incredibly lovely. I naively presumed that every man I dated from that point on would be equally as wonderful; how wrong I was. It’s been a game of trial and error since then. I was kept at arms’ length by a few men I dated. Others would initially seemingly be head over heels for me in the first instance, pursue me vehemently, and then scarper at the last hurdle. The worst were the ones that I let totally envelope me and swallow me up, until nothing but a shallow husk of a girl was left– robbed of all the things that make me magic. I tried the whole casual loose Lothario thing briefly, but it wasn’t for me – meaningless sex doesn’t really go hand in hand with uncontrollable attachment, does it? None of these men were really my boyfriends as such, but I still loved them at the time. How many times can I repeat it? I couldn’t help it! I constantly wondered how they were doing, took close and careful interest in their hobbies, and aimed to spend as much time with them as possible in the hopes that even a morsel of that care would mutually be awarded back to me. They were all futile. These men liked to sleep with me (they were men, let’s remember), they thought I was a laugh, and they thought I was a good drinking buddy. However, that was where they drew the line with me. When things got deep or difficult– when my ugliest, realest sides would start to shine through the cracks of my “Perfect Wannabe Girlfriend Exterior,” they’d leave. My heart would smash into absolute smithereens every single time, and it crushed me. Just because I wasn’t in love, it didn’t mean that I wouldn’t have wanted to let it slowly develop into love. They just never gave me the chance, I lamented at the time. I realize in retrospect that you shouldn’t be squeezing affection dry out of reluctant lemons. Love’s organic– if it’s not matched and nurtured from the get-go, it’s really not worth it.

I feel a bit embarrassed, sometimes, loving so much. I hate that when I spend weeks withdrawn and unable to eat or sleep over even the most minor breakup, the other person is likely carefree scrolling on Tinder for their next victim, barely being able to recall how to pronounce my name. I hate that I am so emotionally impacted by every person who waltzes into my life and straight out of it. As aforementioned, it’s not just proper love and almost-boyfriends – it’s mates, too. You know the natural way that friendships drift and evolve? Sometimes they wither up because they’ve had their time in the sun. Only now at age 22 am I okay with this. I have now accepted the natural order of things. In the past, I would take great offense to even a girl from school I’d barely spoken to in five years unfollowing me; I would be inconsolable over a friend no longer contacting me. This is, again, symptomatic of a hefty heart. If I’ve loved you once, I will always love you, no matter whether there is bad blood or not. Even girls that ended up bullying me under the guise of friendship when I was a lanky loser of a sixteen-year-old, I still think back on fondly. I kind of think in some ways that this is a pleasant trait to have, this unconditional love. I think I would rather be filled with love than the sheer burden of cynical hate a lot of us seem to carry around (understandably) these days. Criticise my troublesome heart all you want, but it is laden with good intentions and hopes for many. I can be sincere when I say I wish the vast majority of those from my past well. Apart from the boy who tore up my Valentine card when I was eleven– I’m still a bit bitter about that.

So, is there a cure for widespread adoration of even the cruellest of specimens? The coldest of hearts? No, I think this might be testament to my kind nature, or at least, I say this to reassure myself. There is, however, a way to manage it. Firstly, to try to make a conscious effort to not pour the energy and love I should be putting into myself into a man – let alone a man who doesn’t appreciate this energy or love. I cannot let myself get walked all over like a sticky pub carpet; after all, I’m a red Hollywood Academy Awards carpet, baby! This of course will take time and practice. Slowly, I am unlearning this self-deprecating behavior and reminding myself of my worth through therapy and self-affirmations, though I imagine this self-love is something that many women are still learning even into old age. Secondly, to step back and look at the bigger picture. Asking myself: is this love making me happy? Is it mutually emotionally beneficial? If it’s making me cry more than smile, chances are it’s probably something I need to walk away from. Just thinking about how much deeper and more painful my love would be if I dragged out the inevitable ending (as I often do) is enough to perturb me from remaining in an unhappy union.

Most importantly, just because men have made me feel difficult, like a burden, annoying and over-emotional for my loving nature, it doesn’t mean that it’s a totally bad thing. Rather, it’s one of the best things about you. To be warm and full of love is wonderful. I think it’s the reason that I have so many incredible friends, most of which I’ve known since childhood. The world can be very grey and loveless and bleak. It’s not healthy to constantly live in rose-tinted glasses, but it’s more than okay to put them on once or twice. I remember one man, who I loved very dearly, once said to me that I was “pure sunshine, never forget that.” I never did. Whatever I do, I hope I don’t ever lose this sunshine. I hope that I don’t ever stop losing this love. It can be painful,It can work to my detriment, but it can also fill me up gloriously. It can improve and positively impact on others. Remember that there’s other people out there who will love on your level– maybe even people reading this right now relate a little. There’s that famous mock-Latin misquote that translates to “don’t let the bastards grind you down,” and I won’t. For as long as there’s blood beating in my heart, there will be love in it– ardent, burning love, and that’s okay. One day, perhaps a few years from now, there will be someone who wants that love. But for now? I think I’m going to smother my friends with it. I think we could all use some right now, don’t you?