A thin skin of neon green algae wrinkled on the surface of water

Neon green algae had formed an incredibly thin film on top of some stagnant water in a bucket, and it wrinkled with the motion of the water, and made something that looked like an image from an electron microscope.

I am not a fiction writer. Believe me, I have tried; I have sat in cafes on Sunday afternoons, filling notebooks with pages of dross which I have later looked on and cringed hard enough to call it an abs workout. This is very distressing, as I dream of being the kind of person with a head full of wonderful novels, bursting with quirky and original characters and surprising plotlines. I would even settle for having a knack for short stories – heck, even erotic fanfic – but alas, it is not my gift.

Which makes it especially hard to write at all right now. What a joy it must be to be a fiction writer right now, creating universes and situations far removed from reality, snuggling down into an idea of people and places unconcerned with wispy-haired politicians or horrific violence or the purloinment of loo roll and the amusing jokes one could make thereabout. Even dystopic, grim fiction is an escape; nightmarish cloning facilities or feral groups of teenagers led by some kind of ‘chosen one’ are an adventure, a painting, an imagining of darkness which cathartically lets us forget our own.

But if you are not a fiction writer, how can you write about anything anymore? Can journalists write about anything other than the coronavirus right now? What about opinion columnists – will they ever work their way through the growing list of terrible and gravely important issues we need their two cents on? Writing, even thinking, about anything other than the boiling toxic lava which is ‘current events’, seems impossible; it is there every morning, shouting at you as you try to make toast, and it is there all day as you make eye contact with the people on the street and skirt around them with 2 metres of clearance. To focus on anything other than ‘current events’ right now feels so trite and air-headed, like pointing out an adorable bird spotted through the window of an aircraft plummeting towards the ground as its motors rapidly disintegrate.

Many people have put themselves on ‘news diets’, to try to stop being shoved into helpless misery several times a day as reading the news will do at the moment. This is somewhat effective, but ultimately just seems to feel like pouring the days through a sieve, rather than a colander, into your open mouth. The flow is inescapable. And then of course there is the shame of being uninformed; the less news you consume, the less you know and understand of the inequalities and atrocities that we really should know about and force ourselves to engage with, as we sit comfortably in our chairs drinking our coffee with expensive oat milk. What do we choose? Ignorance or despair?

In my years on this planet, I have spent many extended periods coping with isolation, loneliness and despair. Enough time to have unconsciously developed, and then consciously become aware of, my own personal failsafe coping mechanism: when everything feels overwhelmingly terrible, I restrict my thinking to the microcosmic. Caring about, learning about, tinkering with and maintaining tiny little nooks of reality. It is exhausting and impossible to mentally process the sheer vastness of the chaos we find ourselves in; getting to know small systems, clusters of ideas and communities is possible, pleasurable and endlessly rewarding. This is why gardening is such a treat. Every little plant, every tiny bug and bird, is working hard to be itself and get its important tasks done, such as making food, making babies, and growing. With a microcosmic eye you get to know these little details intimately and you see the little details within those details, absorbing and losing yourself fully within them, and it is endlessly surprising and rewarding watching these things change and respond to your careful assistance.

Metalwork, also, is a microcosm. Materials and tools, reacting and melting and deforming under the pressures of push, pull, twist, heat, acid, oil. Imagining all the layers of matter crushing together and shearing apart, chemistry, physics. Any kind of making is a microcosm – even if it just looks like knitting or cooking or spray-painting a lampshade from a distance, it is also a tiny ecosystem of a mind learning about the behaviour of materials and colour, intuiting what will happen when ingredients and flavours come together, experimenting with the implicit optimism that what will come out of it is something special or at the very least some new knowledge.

Aptly now, also, our homes are microcosms, and thinking that way can help us to love the time spent at home rather than regarding it as a prison we should be desperate to leave. Assuming, of course, that you are able to be at home without worrying about violence from or conflict with someone you live with, we can imagine our home like a contented guinea pig might think of their hutch: safe, reassuring, well-stocked with food and water, and of course with one corner for peeing in. Guinea pigs are happy to always have something to do in their hutch, be it napping or shredding scrap paper or dragging an old bit of stick across the floor to a new location which is presumably, mysteriously, better. None of this seems futile to the guinea pig because she doesn’t consider herself to be all that important in the first place; she knows she is just prey, a herbivore, and this means that no one is expecting anything grand from her and she can just take her sweet time draggin’ that stick.

It is possible to guinea pig in your own home, rearranging the furniture as many times as you like just for fun, taking an entire day just to completely revamp a bookshelf, digging out old stuff in the freezer and making executive decisions on whether to throw it away or throw it into a colourful freestyle stew. I like to think of the more unappealing household tasks like tidying or changing the bedlinen in the same way, performed with the same shapeless, passionate energy that drives rodents to obsessively fossick around their sleeping area moving individual pieces of hay into the right position and occasionally, urgently, interrupted by the need to give the space behind the left ear a very thorough foot-scratch.

And then finally there is that question that always haunts the thoughts of someone considering the current reality we are slogging through: can I possibly do anything about this mess? And this is a miserable question because, of course, objectively the answer is no. You can donate money and observe the right hygiene practices and preach the right electoral option on social media but you know, deep in your heart, that your one contribution is microscopic compared to the vastness of the issue at hand.

But then, when taken to the microcosmic level, it suddenly all seems possible: do not ask what you can do for your country, but what you can do for your neighbourhood, for your friends, for the local bees, for just one lonely elderly lady. What if we all just gave up telling each other what to do via hashtags, or despairing about how shite we have hitherto been as a species in almost every global perspective, and instead each of us just did something small and helpful locally, like picking up litter if we’re on a walk or babysitting for a pal? Microvolunteering.

Perhaps it makes sense that I, at 5 foot 2, should feel most comfortable thinking small.

Rose T