2021: The perfect sponge.

Image of a Victoria Sponge cake taken on Kodak ColorPlus 200 35mm Film. March 2021.

Starting the year, let’s be frank: things were pretty miserable.

Fresh off the back of the Christmas lockdown, plenty of us had spent the Christmas period unable to visit loved-ones. Or in my case, I’d been unable to raise my family’s blood pressure by suggesting that we pan-fry or roast the Brussel sprouts. And with the dull throb of wondering when we’d all be allowed to see each other again, I went to work on Christmas Eve. To a new job I hated more than I’d ever hated any job. Perhaps in part because – on paper at least – it was perfect. Or so everyone told me.

So, off I skipped to catch the bus – mask on and hands already tingling from the alcohol evaporating off them. Having managed to avoid doing so for 10 months already, catching Covid from someone on their way to do last-minute shopping would definitely have sped up the arrival of my P45. I’d have quit with 5 minutes of receiving the text to tell me my test was positive.

After finishing at midday, and being dropped off by a colleague who most certainly took pity on me, we went through the motions. By all means, an M&S Plant Kitchen Christmas is hardly a form of torture. But sat, just the two of us in our tiny flat in Roath, and a year of desperation to feel that safety of the house I grew up in, I would have given both arms to have been able to travel home. Home home.

Over 75s had just started to receive their vaccinations in Wales, and even on the 1st of January, I don’t think anyone could have anticipated how quickly we’d all end up with a needle in our arm and life once again, beginning to blossom.

Photo of a cherry blossom tree in Bute Park. Shot on Kodak ColorPlus 200 35mm. April 2021

It was Monday the 18th of April when I had the phone call. One of the first properly warm days of the year. The saturation of everything switched from 0 to 100. The woman on the other end of the line asked if I could come down right away, explaining that the mass vaccination centre was in located in the old Toys-R-Us in the Bay.

Desperate for the call to end, so I could book my Uber ride, I was already stripping off my pyjamas. This meant that I was an hour early. So after chatting excitedly with a freshly-jabbed taxi driver who seemed more enthused than I was to be dropping me off for mine, I awkwardly spent 5 minutes trying to kill time in the huge Morrisons across the road from Vaccines-R-Us. Until I promptly gave up and checked in 50 minutes early. And you know what? It was to the eager smile of an admin worker who told me ‘yeah, just go straight through, they’ll do it now.’

Only a week later I was sat on the other end of a Microsoft Teams call for the friendliest job interview I’d ever had. Shops were busier, people were less miserable than I’d seen in at least 12 months – maybe longer. Every phone call with a friend, and there were many, were suddenly all about making plans. Not just the kind of plans we’d all made during the many lockdowns we’d been through, but proper, solid, concrete plans.

Of course, they were still punctuated with ‘Oh, we’ll be sensible. Obviously.’ But now we were jabbed. And the fear of losing even more than we already had, started to melt away like snow. Only the occasional glance out the window at the roof of the neighbour’s shed even reminded us it had ever been.

Bute Park April 2021. Taken on Kodak ColorPlus 200 35mm.

And in the rush of everybody’s hearts reopening to the possibility of normalcy. Every little niggling thought at the back of my mind told me if I didn’t deal with the weight of how unwell I’d become, not just over the last year of the pandemic, but really the last decade, I might as well stay home. Carry on pretending the world was closed for business.

For the first time I was able to see how much gloom had descended on my life, and how much disfunction I’d invited, relied upon, to make sense of it. The 2 o’clock cleaning to fend off waves of tears from the worry that, only exagerated by the pandemic, that my friends and loved ones would die, leaving me all alone. Or that I was heading for an early grave. That my worrying was going to send me to an early grave. Or my smoking. Or drinking.

By June, I had started a course of cognitive behavioural therapy, that felt as though I was most certainly drowning. Now on top of the worry I already knew about, was my lack of self-esteem to contend with. And the behaviours that ensued. The way I treated others, and the way I let them treat me. Even the way I facilitated and encouraged it.

Until a moment towards the end of the session, about four weeks in. When, as we wrapped things up for the week, as the counsellor did their standard warm down of well-dones and thank you for showing up did it occur to me, that I didn’t feel worse ending the call. And didn’t feel weepy. Just exhausted and grateful that I was floating. No flailing and splashing. No resistence.

Colwyn Bay Pier, 2021. Shot on Superia Xtra-400 35mm.

As the weeks went on, floating mostly, though still splashing, I moved closer towards the finishing line. Now the line might have just been a course of counselling with a local charity, but getting there felt like stepping onto the most solid ground I’d been on in my adult life. And maybe it was because, at 25, my brain had finally stopped maturing (though the jury’s out on what good that does). Or maybe it was the most validating experience I believe a human can go through: having our worries and fears, and heartache and tears heard by someone who can explain back to us in scientific terms just how normal we really are.

We’re all formed by the context of our lives. And reformed. Forever malleable to the world we’re living in. And I think we even acknowledge this potential for change in the way we push forward with so much terror, everyday. How can I prove my usefulness to my boss, or my family? How can I keep moving so I don’t end up stuck, stagnant? Even if the place we’re stuck has everything we need to find proper world stopping joy. Like discovering you like tea as an adult. Or learning to bake the perfect vegan victoria sponge. Or going for a walk and listening to an audiobook.

For me it was learning to bake. A lot harder than you might think. Especially for someone who tries to cut corners on every meal by cooking in a single pan. But that was it. Slowing down enough to do something for pleasure rather than function was like learning to walk for the first time. Even eating was just a process by which I could end hunger and lower my stress response. The trial and error wasn’t a tear free experience either. But here’s the thing: we don’t often get things right on our first go. Not a cake recipe, or mindfulness.

Disaster Cake – a Chocolate Buttercream Sponge – iced before the cake had cooled. Shot on Kodak ColorPlus 200, 35mm.

I think I’d decided on my 2022 goal, my forever goal, that first week of July. Four weeks into counselling. Go slow.