Dreams of Resting Spaces
Raquel Meseguer is a theatre maker, with a vision for public resting spaces, and the need to change our perception of people lying down. This text was delivered (with some ammendments) on 5 November 2017 in front of a live audience at Somerset House in London.
I could describe myself in many ways: I could say I am a theatre maker, a cloudspotter, a dancer, a lover, and a friend. I also have an invisible disability: I experience chronic pain, all day, everyday. And that means I need to lie down. A lot.
It’s difficult for me to be out in the world unless I lie down and rest when I need to: I lie down on trains, in galleries, on benches. Sometimes I get kick back, and sometimes I get moved on.
For example, I’ve triggered a security alert by lying down on the floor at a well known London venue. This was during a festival of work by disabled artists and one of the few places I thought it wouldn't be a problem. I was lying down next to the window, on my matt, with my headphones in, trying to reset my pain levels when a security guard told me I couldn't lie down. He couldn’t say why it was ok for someone a few feet away to sit on the floor, but not ok for me to lie down - all he could say was that he’d been “alerted”. I can’t imagine how that alert was worded, but after consulting on the radio, the security team made the first aid couch, in the medical room available to me for 40 minutes. It was a solution of sorts, but I'd gone to an arts venue, and I didn't want to be isolated in room with no windows that smelt of TCP.
And a couple of months ago I was at a theatre, that’s supporting one of my projects. In the past they’ve invited me to lie down on the sofa’s in their theatre bar, and use it as ‘office space’. So on this particular day, I took up the offer and lay down between meetings.
It was the first time I have lain down there, and with comedic timing: it happened to co-incide with a posh funders do that I was unaware of. I did notice the staff were wearing really nice dresses and high heels, and I did notice most people were given a big glass of wine on arrival. So I had a sense that something was up, but when I checked in with the bar staff, they said it was just a private function.
No problem, I thought. I’ll continue working on the sofa in the corridor outside the studio space. Picture this: I had made myself comfortable. I was lying down with my shoes off, my legs crossed up on the arm of the sofa, wearing particularly brightly coloured socks, on the phone to my designer, when the whole cohort came around the corner, armed with their huge glasses of wine!
I’d like to freeze this moment, because although amusing, I was shameridden:
I knew I looked like I was taking the piss.
I knew I looked like a loafer.
I knew there was no way in that moment to explain myself with
any dignity, so because my disability is invisible, there was no
context for my actions.
But I also knew that I didn’t want to back down.
When another tour group came round the corner, and I finally cottoned on to what was going on, I admit, I felt a little defiant. I didn’t want to behave differently and hide my needs from the funders: I mean, if I am an artist in residence and this is a public building, then am I welcome or not?
10 years ago, my life was very different: I was a contemporary dancer, a few years out of training, totally chuffed that I was getting paid to do something I loved. There were warning signs. But when you are a dancer, you’re always nursing some level of pain or injury. Pain in dance is a little like a secret society, something you don’t talk about it. And many dancers do just fine.
But my story is different. I was in rehearsal for a show when I first felt neurological symptoms in my right foot. It was a stabbing kind of pins and needles that I couldn’t shake, and from that seemingly innocuous moment, my house of cards came down: I was told to stop dancing immediately and get a scan; I was diagnosed with a slipped disc and wasn’t to dance until the symptoms resolved; I did all the rehab recommended and then some; I was disciplined to a fault; and, after a year, I had keyhole surgery. I thought it was a relatively simple case of finding the cause, fixing it, and getting back to what I loved doing. I couldn’t entertain any other outcome.
One of my biggest dissapointments, was waking up after surgery and nothing had changed. Crazy as it sounds, I was advised to take medication and go back to professional dancing. Which I tried to do. But the symptoms spread and got worse, and anyway something was broken in me: I felt utterly uncreative, and I was distracted by the constant pain. So in 2010 I threw in the towel.
I wish I could tell you about a smooth and dignified transition into another creative profession. But in truth, I spent years in the wilderness, struggling with how to manage the symptoms, and what it meant to live a good life in the midst of pain. We tend to like our stories around illness, disability to be of the superhuman kind. We like to hear about conquering limitation, and overcoming challenge, so looking around, I saw few role models, and I felt like the only one failing to adapt to a new life. Work and relationships became strained, and my world got very very small.
For me, adaptation continues to be slow and painful, I wish it were a one time metamorphosis, with clear do’s and dont's. But it is an ongoing thing, with daily challenges:
There is the grief for lives lost: the children I will never have, and the simple things like running or jumping I will never do again. That grief can hit me from out of nowhere;
There is the struggle for a sense of worth, in long term illness;
There are the cognitive affects of medication: so for me, words are often
just beyond reach, unavailable for recall. Which means trying to
learn new words or play Cluedo can reduce me to tears.
And there is the ongoing response to ever shifting needs: what was
possible a few months ago becomes impossible. What was impossible
yesterday might just be possible if I break it down, ask for help,
do it differently.
For me, adaptation isn’t about pretending, or masking or hiding what’s
going on. And it’s got nothing to do with conventional successes. It
comes in small, humble, but none the less magic moments. One of
those was deciding to lie down on trains – and risk other people’s reactions
-, so I can actually travel.
Another was a September day in London, when I made a game of trying to find the best place to lie down. That helped shift the shame and embarrassment i felt, and turned the game into an adventure, an artistic endevour: I could map my city, any city for pockets of sanctuary and welcome places to rest.
Another was choosing to identify as disabled. I know people with physical conditions who don’t, but I felt hugely empowered when I read the Social Model of Disability: it was a lightbulb moment to realise that I am able, but I am also disabled by a built environment and vertical culture that is simply not designed for me.
Another was getting back in the studio this year, and challenging myself to dance a very different dance: a quiet, a small dance.
And the most important moments are when I am reminded, deep in my bones, of the creative potential in difference.
But if I’m getting better at doing things differently, it seems the world lags behind: my lying down invariably proves problematic, and reveals the strict etiquette of our public spaces, and prejudice towards the simple act of lying down. Or maybe it’s a squeamishness about private needs showing up in public spaces. But, it seems unless you are in a park or at the beach, then will get some weird and wonderful kick-back.
In one public reading room I was told it was a health & safety hazard to take off my shoes. When I said I was quite used to not wearing shoes and thought I’d be ok, I was told I would be escorted from the building if I didn’t comply. They didn’t say ‘comply’, but that’s what it felt like. One of the things I think I rub up against, is politics of vagrancy, which raises the uncomfortable question of who our public spaces are really for and who they really serve.
The most vitriolic kickback I get, is from other members of the public, policing public space. This happens most often on trains, when I take up more than the one seat I’ve paid for. When I have the energy to explain why I need to lie down, things go smoothly. But I don’t always have the energy to ask for permission. And then even if there are enough seats to go round, I get tutts, glares, and comments like “shouldn’t you be thinking about other people”. I don’t know who these other people are, but I hope they know they are being championed.
Photo: Stephen James Moore
Wouldn’t it be neat if there were resting spaces we could all use as pit stops? A network of public spaces that welcome horizontality which would enable people like me, to move through the world more easily, and prevent those worlds from shrinking?
Cloudspotter is my euphemism for the fatigue and horizontal needs of someone with chronic pain, inspired by how much time I spend lying down, and looking up. A fellow Cloudspotter recently told me there is no where she can go when she’s in a flare up: all social activities involve sitting, which is too painful, so she is confined to lying down at home or in other people’s homes. I mean, think about it, where would you take a Cloudspotter like either of us out on a date?
Another Cloudspotter told me about trying to hold down a job, by lying down in the toilets whenever they thought they wouldn’t be missed. They kept that up for a whole year. Another Cloudspotter told me about 5 the route she’s mapped from car park to shopping centre via the benches she can lie on, and the really hard day, when those benches were cordoned off for roadworks.
Watching children in public spaces, or performance at festivals, I am struck by the different rules for different groups, and different contexts. It reminds me that they are made up, fluid and most importantly changeable. Theatres were my world, which might be why I feel safe lying down there. But they are also public spaces that are busy at night, and often virtually empty during the day. Could they be the perfect spaces to co-opt for a public resting network? And could that network also make provision for people to lie down to watch a performance? I have done it at my local venue in Bristol, and here at Somerset House today, and it’s not that weird. And I am building a network of theatres who are up for it.
And theatres are just the beginning. Could we collectively re-imagine public space in a way that serves more people? Not just the built environment, but the shifts in attitude needed to embrace something like a resting network? That would make me feel welcome in the public domain, considered and valid?
I guess I’d like to leave you with a couple of thoughts: firstly that etiquette is most definitely changeable, and that it was only by challenging etiquette that my world got bigger again. The great thing is, it’s a lowtech solution: we can all decide right now to be more open to different behaviour in our public spaces, and to support, more than we chastise.
Also, living with chronic pain has been a huge challenge. And I am under no illusions about how difficult it may become. But I now know the creative potential in difference, and I am excited about an aesthetics of rest; a new artistic territory to collectively pursue. So, whilst being a dancer was everything to me, I am honestly prouder of every time I have been brave enough to embrace my difference and the difference of others.
You can listen to the final version of this text at bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09pmbdp
Thumbnail photo by Synnove Fredericks