Life Skills Unlocked: Being a Girl

I can still remember the exact moment when I decided that being a girl was bullshit.

I had spent my first few formative years generally unfazed by gender roles. Sure, I had to wear horrendous dresses on special occasions, and that seemed unfair. My brother wore shirts and shorts and ran around like a loon while I wore dresses with collars that could have doubled as bibs and faced instant restrictions.

“Don’t sit like that.”

“Don’t get dirty.”

“No, you can’t climb trees in a dress.”

My best friend was a boy we’ll call P, and together we would spend afternoons watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and made dramatic explosion sounds as we mashed his Micro Machines into the carpet. We rollerskated in the church carpark beside his home, falling hard and getting back up again, wincing when we had to brush the grit and gravel out of our grazes.

As we grew older, things started to feel different. I remember trying not to be upset when P’s older brothers told me I couldn’t play football with them because I was a girl*. I didn’t really understand it at the time. We were the same, after all. I could do all the things P could do. I could do some of those things better than P could. I didn’t understand being made to sit on the sidelines – literally – to watch the boys. It annoyed me.

I spent long summer evenings scrabbling in the dirt with my brother and our friend A, making a ‘den’ in the bushes by the train tracks. We cleared the area with all the finesse of adolescent gorillas, then swept it clear of leaves with “brushes” made from branches. We dug seats into the slope of the earth, and sat under the canopy of Rowan trees to talk about films or music or school or cartoons. I didn’t feel any different most of the time…

But still.

I noticed that in general there were expectations of me that didn’t extend to my brother. I was expected to be quieter. More patient. More obedient. More gentle. More pleasant. I couldn’t sit cross-legged or sprawled out on the floor, I had to sit with my knees together. I couldn’t laugh as hard. I couldn’t shout as loud. My clothes were less comfortable. My pockets were smaller.

It annoyed me.

For a long time I thought it was because my brother was younger than me. I thought maybe he was allowed to have more fun because he was the baby. It didn’t cross my mind that he was allowed to have more fun because he was a boy.

I was sent to an all-girls school. I collected worms at break time. I made friends with the groundskeeper and followed him around until my teacher, probably concerned about impropriety, pulled me away and told me off. I made friends with a quiet French girl with an apple orchard in her garden, and spent a lot of time after school hanging upside down from the trees until my head felt both heavy and light at the same time.

I started to notice double standards. When boys talked about each other they were “venting”. When girls did it they were “gossiping.” When guys did something funny but malicious it was “banter.” If a girl did it she was “being a bitch.” The expectations I’d noticed when I was younger seemed to spread. The clothes got tighter and less comfortable. Some of the pockets disappeared altogether.

And then one day, I woke up feeling terrible. Every part of me hurt, and I felt heavy and sad, as if I’d had an awful nightmare that I couldn’t quite remember but that had left behind an emotional hangover of epic proportions. After breakfast I still felt strange. I went to the bathroom and closed the door. Taking a deep breath, I pulled my trousers down and found blood. Just… a lot of blood. I stared blankly at it. I didn’t know where it had come from or why it was there. I supposed I was probably dying. I didn’t know what to do, so I cleaned it up as best I could and then carefully folded up some toilet paper and put it in my underwear.

I walked around in a haze for about five minutes, wondering how I should break the news to my parents. I was pretty resigned to this fate of death by unexplained blood loss; my main concern was how to bring it up with my mother. Eventually I decided I had to tell her, and I caught her elbow as she was going up the stairs.

“Something is wrong with me,” I said.

“What?”

“There’s blood…” I trailed off uncomfortably.

She looked at me and then pulled me to the bathroom, where she told me that actually this is just something that happens and handed me a sanitary pad from the top of her wardrobe.

My mind was exploding. This was a thing? I had always thought bleeding was bad, but now I was being told that sometimes bleeding was just a normal occurrence. I unwrapped the sanitary pad and stared at it. It looked like it had been cut out of a baby’s nappy. I put it in my underwear. I tried to pretend it wasn’t there. I tried not to cry.

Half an hour later, I was out on the street, bursting with questions for my mother. Why did this happen? Why hadn’t it happened before? When would this happen again? How long does it go on for?

She was very matter of fact with me. She said it would last a few days.

“A few days?!”

She said it would happen every month.

Every month?!”

Every month for the rest of forever, pretty much.

“FOREVER?!?!?!”

She told me not to make a big deal out of it, that it happened to everyone. That made me feel better, briefly, until she added, “Well, not to boys. Only to girls.”

And as I walked uncomfortably down the street with tears of self-pity pouring down my face, trying to absorb the fact that I was going to be in pain and bleeding for a few days every. single. month. for the rest of my life. I just remember thinking:

‘It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not FAIR.’

…Which was a succinct representation of how I felt at the time, but if I’d had the vocabulary back then, it would simply have been:

‘Being a girl is bullshit.’

‘Being a girl is BULLSHIT. What kind of a hellish design flaw is that? I have to be okay with feeling like my insides are being pulled out of me with a rusty coat hanger every month like clockwork for about the next four decades? I have to be uncomfortable and in pain and bleeding almost 500 times in my life and I have to expect it, and prepare for it? And I can’t even go swimming because of the weird nappy thing, and who the hell designed this anyway because I HATE it, this thick, squishy, crunchy piece of plastic that makes me feel like I’m walking around with a pool noodle between my thighs. And the reason I have to deal with this blight on my life is so that one day I can experience the “miracle of childbirth,” which is to say that someday I will get to feel like I’m being ripped apart as I squeeze something larger than my own head out of myself? Am I crazy to think it is TOTAL BULLSHIT that boys don’t have to deal with any part of this? Who came up with this plan anyway?’

I watched boys my age running around, blissfully ignorant of my predicament, and I burned with jealousy. I lay in bed that night crying, thinking, ‘I just want to be a boy. Can I just be a boy? Please make me a boy. I just want to be a boy.‘ If I’d known about people being transgender at the time I think I would have jumped on that in a heartbeat, such was the level of my distress. I felt incredibly hard done by. All along someone had been picking teams and somehow, without my noticing, I felt like I’d ended up on the wrong one.

And then… adolescence. And breasts. And boys. And when I was sixteen walking home from a temp job, a man in his thirties stopped his car in the middle of traffic to jump out and give me his number and I felt simultaneously flattered – because I had never felt pretty before – and frightened. I bumbled my way through this part of my life by testing limits and pushing boundaries. Can I do this? Yes. And this? Yes. And this? No, too far. Okay, roll it back, let’s go back to the beginning.

I came to terms with things eventually. I discovered the soothing effects of maximum strength ibuprofen, and the undetectable magic of tampons. Later still, I came to recognise the wonderful world of back-to-back-to-back birth control packets, which allowed me to live my dream of almost never having to deal with the horror of periods. I grew past the age of having to wear dresses and reached an age of actually wanting to wear them every so often. I developed a fondness for eyeliner.

I still prefer jeans to dresses, though. I still think girls get a raw deal biologically speaking. I miss Micro Machines, especially the ones that changed colour in the bathtub. I miss baggy cargo pants with multiple pockets. I have feminine moments, but I suppose for the most part many would call me a tomboy. I don’t keep up with the Kardashians, but I like to keep up with rugby and romcoms and Formula 1. I like glitter, but I don’t like bows. Yesterday I made a tray of blondies because baking is my therapy, and the day before that I spent six hours taking sixteen ball bearings apart, cleaning them, degreasing them, lubricating them and then putting them back together. I’ve kissed some boys. I’ve kissed some girls.

I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think there’s a right way to be a girl. Or a boy, for that matter. I am who I am, and no knees-together seated situation in a floral dress is going to change that. On balance, I may like traditionally “masculine” things more than “feminine” things a lot of the time, but who decided on those categories anyway?

The idea of “being a girl” brings with it a whole wheelbarrow’s worth of stereotypes. Being a girl means being sugar and spice and all things nice (because that’s what little girls are made of), and wearing pink and frilly things and ribbons and bows and manicures and elegance and ladylike behaviour and a slim figure and a sweet voice and a pleasing manner and NO POCKETS and uncomfortable clothes and no-make-up make-up and being a smart (but not too smart), clean and tidy human who always looks lovely and is kindness personified.

The whole idea of “being a girl” is bullshit if you buy into those tropes and compare them to the freedom of boys to be comfortable and have roomy pockets and be loud and adventurous and competitive.

Happily, it turns out that you can be a girl without any of that. Or with only some of that, if you prefer. OR all of it if that’s what makes you happy! You can pick and choose your interests, your lover, your wardrobe, your life. You can mix it up and try all the different forms of being a girl if that brings you joy. You can be flexible. Despite how it may have seemed to a younger me, there are no rules. That’s the great thing about it; it’s all optional!

Except periods.

Unfortunately, those are still pretty mandatory.

 

*To this day there are few things that make my blood pressure spike as much as when guys go silent or hold their tongue because I’ve suddenly joined the group, saying “Oh… I don’t want to say… I mean, there are ladies present.” WHAT IS THAT? As if somehow because I have different genitals I couldn’t possibly hear a sex joke without swooning, or allow my tiny delicate ears to hear an interesting story without thinking those involved are perverted deviants. Is there anything more obnoxious? It’s like the adult verbal equivalent of a ‘BOYS ONLY’ club…

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Hamilton: The Experience

We took our velvet-covered, straight-backed seats and looked around the auditorium. People streamed in the doorways, ribbons of colour; no narrow demographic here. They were young, old, white, black, businessmen in suits and ties, and purple-haired teenagers in leggings and grimy converse runners.

A lady in her mid-fifties took the seat next to mine. A woman with an asymmetric pixie cut and severe black glasses sat in the row in front. I leaned back and enjoyed the slow wooden percussion of seats being pulled down, the rustle of people settling in, ready for the show. Behind us, a girl in her twenties bounced into her seat clutching a bag of merchandise, her parents behind her beaming with joy. The lights dimmed. The theatre quietened. The music kicked in.

As the opening song came to an end, I was already twitching in my seat. The girl behind us had turned into a musical echo, muttering every lyric just slightly out of time. Her words, breathed out in an awed whisper just loud enough to be heard over the music from the stage, were distracting to the point of physical discomfort. When the closing line of “ALEXANDER HAMILTON!” was parroted behind us in a hissed, urgent whisper, my shoulders snapped up into a defensive posture of displeasure.

There was a blessed millisecond of silence.

I rolled my shoulders, trying to coax them back down from my earlobes.

The auditorium erupted into ecstatic applause. The girl, unfettered by the roar of noise around her, leapt to her feet and proceeded to give a standing ovation of rapturous enthusiasm.

“WHOOOOOOOOO!” She bellowed. “WHOOOOOOO! WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

My fingernails dug into the velvet pile. I resisted the urge to grab her plastic bag of merchandise and pull it over her head.

The next song started and she sat back down, leaning all the way forward until her face came to a stop unsettlingly close to Scrubs’ ear. She whispered her way through the next song, pausing at:

“I was seeking an accelerated course of study
When I got sort of out of sorts with a buddy of yours;
I may have punched him… it’s a blur, sir.
He handles the financials?”
“You punched the bursar?”
“Yes!”
It’s no exaggeration to say she almost choked with laughter.
The rest of the song alternated between whispered rapping and hysterical laughter at every mildly amusing line. At one point, unable to restrain myself any longer, I turned in my seat to stare at this Hamiloonie. Her lips were parted and her eyes were shining – shining! – with euphoria. She looked for all the world like one of those children you see in the Disneyworld ads, with the slow-motion fireworks reflected in their eyeballs as their mouths form tiny Os of wonder.
 
Giving her up as a lost cause, I turned my gaze to her parents, who were smiling adoringly at their (presumably only) child as she clutched her bag of Hamilton t-shirts and pins and phone covers and booklets and muttered along in hushed tones that were not nearly hushed enough for anybody in a five seat radius. I narrowed my eyes. I tried to glare daggers. I tried to glare daggers with inscriptions on them that read, ‘CONTROL YOUR CHILD. CONTROL YOUR ADULT CHILD BEFORE I STRANGLE HER WITH A HAMILTON LANYARD.”
 
They didn’t blink. They deflected my eyeball daggers with a strong force-field of love for their daughter, ignorance of my plight and stratospheric levels of self-absorption.
 
By ‘You’ll Be Back,’ my boiling rage had turned to a simmer. Her delirious laughter had dulled my senses and a small and uncharitable part of me had started to believe she wasn’t all there. ‘Poor thing,’ I thought, tilting my head away from the mumbling so that I looked like a King Charles Spaniel with a neck deformity. ‘This is probably her one supervised day out from the musical addiction rehab facility.
 
Her enthusiasm for each and every line of the performance was both commendable and impressive, but it was (unfortunately) definitely not infectious.
 
As somebody who had purchased tickets for this show over a year in advance, and who had listened to the soundtrack multiple times, I considered myself, you know, a fan. I think Hamilton is an extremely well-crafted musical! The lyrics are sharp, the melodies are catchy, and the characters are memorable. All of this to say, I didn’t enter the Victoria Palace Theatre with an indifferent attitude. I arrived ready to enjoy myself.
 
I was not ready, however, for the back of my head to be pummeled by the waves of exhilaration coming off this girl in the seat behind us. I was not ready to simultaneously experience Hamilton: The Musical and also Hamilton: The Breathily-Whispered Performance From a Seated Position in the Upper Balcony. I was not ready to have the amusement of every mildly funny line cut through with screaming, manic laughter, or to have every tender scene building up to a moment of sorrow hijacked by loud, hacking sobs.
 
When we reached the interval, Scrubs and I practically sprinted to the relative tranquility of the corridor – the only place we could find blissful silence – to shakily recover from the assault on our senses.
 
I started the second half of the musical in a dull, numb stage of acceptance. Clearly there was no saving this experience. I thought about asking her to be quiet, but one look at her face told me I couldn’t bring myself to be the one to pull her down from her personal Nirvana. From the looks I shared with the middle-aged lady beside me, I obviously wasn’t the only one with the same thought. During particularly enthusiastic mumbling from the back, she glanced at the girl, raised her eyebrows at me and shrugged her shoulders. ‘At least she’s enjoying herself,‘ I could hear her thinking.
 
I shrugged back, a silent gesture encompassing a multitude of emotions.
Towards the end of the play, (SPOILER ALERT) Alexander’s life comes to its inevitable end. You know it’s coming from the moment the play begins and still, it’s sad. It gets pretty emotional. When I listen to the soundtrack, I often skip over the ending because I don’t want to feel heartbroken for Eliza Hamilton.
 
On this occasion skipping the ending wasn’t really an option.
 
This time the sniffles started long before the sad notes kicked in. Our friend from the row behind was suffering well before anything tragic had taken place. As the music slowed and things started to take a dark turn, the sniffles grew to whimpers, and by the time an emotional blow had actually been dealt, the whimpers had become full, seat-clutching, body-wracking sobs. Her howls of sadness were punctured only by gasps as she desperately inhaled so as not to drown on her own tears.
 
I tried – I swear to God I tried – to stop myself, but I couldn’t help it.
 
I started to giggle.
 
And then I couldn’t stop.
 
My shoulders shook as I bit down on my lip in an attempt to stifle the laughter. I covered half my face with my hand, stealing a glance at the lovely woman beside me to see how she was faring. To my relief, she was just far enough away from the girl to have escaped this latest explosion of emotion. She was absorbed in the musical, her eyes wide and glinting with tears.
 
A keening wail erupted behind me. I snorted with laughter, then swallowed it down awkwardly in an attempt to make it sound like a choking sob. I was desperate to hide my laughter because it felt disrespectful, like giggling at a wake.
 
Unfortunately, it was a relentless assault; the girl was inconsolable.
 
If she had been Eliza Hamilton herself, she could not have been more earnestly devastated by Alexander’s death. Each sound, each distraught utterance from behind us sent me into a fresh wave of convulsions. I hunched over, hiding my face, hoping my shaking shoulders just made me look like any other member of the audience overcome with emotion, weeping into my hands.
 
Honestly I think my hysteria was partly fueled by the relief of knowing that our ordeal was almost over.
 
I turned away from the lady beside me – hoping to spare her the realisation that I was in fits of giggles – only to bump shaking shoulders with Scrubs, who by now was himself silently laughing into a tightly clenched fist. I looked up at him, he looked down at me, and that was a mistake of course, like throwing petrol on a fire. It only made things that much worse. I started crying with laughter from the effort of hiding it. There we were, both of us in tears, surrounded by people crying from actual emotion.
 
I felt like a terrible person.
 
By the time the cast had taken their bows and left the stage (to a standing ovation – they really were amazing), Scrubs and I were desperate to escape. We left the building in a sort of traumatised silence, breathing the night air in with gulping breaths, afraid to say a word until we’d left the theatre far behind us.
We decompressed with some wine and late-night pizza in the only place we found open. There was less discussion about the musical itself than there was about that girl’s slow but relentless goal to drive us all the way around the bend and back again. The show was great, but it just could not compete with the drama taking place in the row behind us.
Now that some time has passed, what did I think of Hamilton the Musical?
It was an experience.

The Upside of Adulting

I walk around town aimlessly.

I do that sometimes. I don’t much like going for scenic walks by myself; I don’t like to be left alone with my thoughts. I would much rather be distracted by the eyecatching chaos of capitalism. So I head into town and I wander around running my hand over sequin scales and plush velvet and thick, cosy cashmere. I stumble up and down streets until my legs get tired, with nowhere particular in mind and earphones on to block any potential social interaction with the international sign for ‘BUSY’. I walk around town aimlessly, and sometimes I stumble on treasures.

Usually these are food-related, because I am a hungry hippo in the body of a short brunette.

On Thursday, it was a 1kg jar of Nutella.

The lid on the jar says “Start your day with Nutella!” and I have been diligently following this excellent nutritional advice. Who am I to argue with dietary guidance from a jar of chocolate spread? It may not physically be good for me, but every morning I pull out a teaspoon, dig it into the jar, shove it in my mouth and smile. I’m an adult, and one of the great things about being an adult is that I can choose to have Nutella for breakfast. 

Sometimes adulting has an upside!

 

*This is not a sponsored post. I absolutely wish. Can you imagine anything sweeter (pun intended) than a Nutella sponsorship? I would never be able to donate blood again because I would have Nutella running through my veins instead. Good for my mood, bad for my health.

 

The Sticking Point

I don’t know if you have ever heard of the Bodies exhibition. 

It is an exhibition of real human bodies – dissected, plastificated – which has been touring the world for years now, and I visited it when it happened to be in Madrid, Spain. It was astonishing; human anatomy as I had never seen it. Maps of blood vessels and arteries, stiffened and displayed between slabs of clear acrylic. Skeletons in motion. Muscles, lungs, and other organs exposed to my curious eyes in a way that seemed slightly indecent. I kept having to remind myself that once upon a time these were people, real people. They had lived and loved and laughed and died and somehow they had ended up here, frozen forever in a frisbee-throwing pose or sliced into sections for intrigued spectators. A modern side-show.

Although I was much younger then, I still remember the black fabric-draped tent in one corner of the hall. A sign by the doorway warned those with sensitive dispositions to turn away. I passed the sign with barely a glance and entered into a long, narrow, spotlit room with numerous glass containers forming a line down the centre. Each glass container held one unborn human, from visible embryo to fully-formed baby. A sign on the wall explained that each specimen had been donated after a miscarriage. The room was sombre and silent, and I remember feeling a wave of sadness for the parents, and the amount of potential happiness and life that had died only to be preserved forever in these glass canisters.

I walked along the rows, reading the signs and looking at these unborn babies. The first few look like tadpoles. Then indistinct shapes with clouded eyes. Then embryos that looked like they might become baby rabbits. As I continued down the row of glass canisters I could see the development, the growth, the unfolding of a new human. The last one looked just like a newborn baby. It had hair, and fingernails. It floated, suspended in the solution, and the circumstances that had led to me standing there, looking this unborn boy in the face struck me as both grotesque and strangely serene, fascinating and utterly depressing.

I tell you all this because I want you to appreciate that I understand what is at stake. I am not ignorant of the facts. I am not blind to the sadness of the situation. I know what an unborn baby looks like; I have seen it with my own eyes.

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In 1983, in an Ireland where abortion was already illegal, a constitutional subsection was voted in giving the unborn an equal right to life to the pregnant woman carrying it. This was intended to safeguard the unborn against any possible ramifications of the Roe vs Wade ruling across the pond. Making abortions extra illegal seemed important in a Catholic Ireland where people still could not buy condoms without a prescription*.

One week from now, Ireland will be asked to vote on whether to remove the 8th amendment from the constitution.

The no campaign has, as you can probably imagine, been extremely organised and well-funded. Their message is simple, and blunt, and effective: if you vote no, you are saving  babies. If you vote yes, you are paving the way to eugenics, and voting for the mass murder of innocents. They mention the decreased number of people born with disabilities in societies with legalised abortion. They discuss ‘contraceptive abortions’ borne solely of convenience. They talk of babies yawning and sucking their thumbs in the womb. They speak of women who have had abortions and later regretted it. 

The yes campaign for this referendum has been scattered, divided, and comparatively disorganised. I don’t think this is a problem with the campaign, as much as it is a problem with the issue at hand; there are many different reasons why people might vote yes, and not all of them mesh well with others.

Some will vote yes because they agree with the idea of legal abortion being accessible.

Some will vote yes because they trust women to make the best decision for themselves and their situation.

Some will vote yes because they find it hypocritical that Ireland continues to outlaw abortion*, while legalising travel to the UK for the same purpose.

Some will vote yes because they think it inhumane that a couple dealing with a fatal foetal abnormality must travel abroad if they want an early termination.

Some will vote yes because they don’t want anyone else – or they themselves – to become the next Savita.

Some will vote yes because they think rape victims should not have to carry a resulting pregnancy against their will.

Some will vote yes because they believe the lives of living, loving, thinking, breathing adult women should not be equal in value to that of ‘the unborn,’ because ‘the unborn’ is very vague; is that the unborn, newly fertilised egg? Is it the unborn embryo, bean-sized, dependent on the mother? Is it the 25-week old unborn baby? Is it all of the above? If it is not, then where is the line? The placement of that line is controversial and, depending on the individual, can be based on personal, religious or scientific reasons.

Some will vote yes for all of the above reasons, and some for a combination of only some of the above.

“We can’t focus on the hard cases,” is something I’ve heard often in the run-up to this referendum. “Not when 95% of abortions are not hard cases. Not when most abortions are done for the sake of convenience.”

I have feelings about this perception that women are getting abortions the same way they’d get their nails done. I have feelings about it, but for me it’s not the main issue.

The sticking point, for me, is this:

What if I’m that woman?

What if my wanted, yearned for, unborn baby is diagnosed with some awful condition that means that although I might carry it to term, he or she will die, suffering, within seconds, minutes, hours of being born? What if I have to endure nine months of well-meaning questions from strangers, each kindly remark about an impossible future cutting through me like a knife through my soul? What if I want an abortion to save my unborn baby (and yes, myself) the suffering? Would you think it fair and reasonable that I should have to fly to England, where I would then – like so many other women – have to make decisions about where to go, where to stay, and what to do so far from home with the remains of my very much wanted, heartrendingly loved child?

And what if I am raped? It doesn’t matter by who. An old friend. A man in a dark alleyway. A relative. A stranger with a knife at my throat. I am raped and now I am pregnant. I am already struggling to cope with this awful thing that has happened to me, and now I am pregnant with a daily reminder. Crying, I confide in you. I tell you that I can’t do this. That I’m not mentally strong enough. That perhaps I can overcome sexual assault but I cannot overcome it if I have to carry within my body the result of this rape for the better part of a year. Would you think it fair and reasonable that I should have no choice?

And what if I am diagnosed with cancer, and I am pregnant, and I want to live? What if my doctor tells me that because I am not at imminent, immediate risk of dying, they will have to work around my pregnancy, give me treatment that is less effective, but also less likely to kill my unborn baby? What if they tell me that early, aggressive treatment will cure me but that I cannot access this treatment unless I get a termination abroad? Because my life is equal to that of my ten-week old developing foetus, they cannot harm it any more than they can intentionally harm me. Never mind that inaction will indirectly harm me. Legally, their hands are tied. I must be dying, and not only dying in a long-term manner; I must be dying enough to warrant intervention. What if the time it takes me to carry this pregnancy to term is the time the cancer needs to become terminal? What if I don’t want to take that risk? Would you think it fair and reasonable that I not have a say? 

I have spoken about this to people who are thinking of voting no, and they pat me on the arm and say, in what is meant to be a reassuring tone of voice, “Stop worrying about these things. They almost definitely will never happen to you. The chances are so, so small. These “hard cases” only happen to about 1000 women every year.” And every time I hear this I feel frustrated and upset that I have not managed to communicate my point effectively. 

I’m not worried that it will happen to me.

It’s not about me.

It’s about you.

It’s about you, and how you would react to my being in these situations. It’s about how you would feel if it were someone you know. It’s about whether the needle on your moral compass starts to shake with uncertainty if that one ‘hard case’ is you, or your mother, or your sister, or your best friend, or your cousin, or your daughter. If I become a “hard case” – or, God forbid, you – what does it matter to either of us how many other people are trapped in this same private hell? What does it matter if it is five? Or fifty? Or a hundred? Or a thousand?

It’s about the women that this is happening to right now along the length and breadth of the country. As I am to my friends and family, those women are to others. They are loved. They have people around them who are impacted by their joys and sorrows. Their tragedies unfurl like drops of ink in water, dispersing and turning everything around them a shade darker.

It’s about why the statistics and percentages and numbers of ‘hard cases’ don’t make a difference to me. I don’t think there should even be one couple crying, leaving the ashes of their baby in Liverpool because they can’t afford to courier the remains home. I don’t think there should even be one victim of rape forced to sacrifice their health – mental or physical or both – to carry the resulting unwanted pregnancy to term. They should have the choice to do what they feel is best for their lives.  We should have the compassion to allow them to make that choice.

In one week, Ireland will be asked to vote on whether we should remove the 8th amendment from the constitution.

I will be voting yes.

*Condoms and other forms of contraception were fully illegal until 1980, and then legal only with a prescription until as late as 1985. 

**Abortion currently carries a 14 year prison sentence.

Over and Under

Here is something I’ve noticed lately:

When my confidence is up, my clothes change.

Not the basic fundamentals – I am still a jeans-and-baggy-jumper girl whatever the weather – but the colours shift alarmingly. The black, navy and grey that dominate my wardrobe in the winter months give way to appallingly eyecatching colours. Suddenly I find baby blue garments nestling conspicuously next to the navy, or a vibrant pink sweater appears, garishly singular amongst all the black.

Even though I’m the one who bought them, they still catch me off guard. Most days I see them and quickly slide the hangers over to hide the cocky colours from view. I reach for the baggy navy jumper and the jeans.

Some days, though… Some days I reach for the pink. I pull it over my head and I feel like a softer version of myself. The colour smooths out my rougher edges and tones down the harshness in my head.

It’s hard to be a prickly badass in baby pink.

In my mind, the different hues have attitudes, and the attitudes permeate the wearer. Baby pink, for example, is non-confrontational and gentle and feminine. Yellow is a particularly arrogant colour. Orange is exhibitionist. Red is confidence and sex, kneaded together, squeezed, and distilled into a colour. Lilac is unthreatening. White is eye-poppingly self-assured. Deep purple is heavy-lidded desire, thick and syrupy. I tend towards the cooler end of the spectrum; the blues and greens that make me feel like a human waiting room. ‘Be calm,’ they say. ‘Be cool.’ The clothes are simple. No weird straps here. No highlighter hues or trendy cut outs. No ribbons, no ruffles, no prints.

My underwear drawer, on the other hand, is like a pride parade.

There are yellow lingerie sets, there are sets with cut-outs, there are purple, red, blue sets. There are sets that take fifteen minutes to get into, because it takes me that long to figure out which straps go where. There are sets that are definitely less rather than more, and others that require a full battalion of accessories. There are even sets with (whisper it) ruffles. I don’t care. I love them all. My underwear drawer is a safe place. These are the hidden things, the secret moods, the shimmering, playful undercurrents that lie beneath the black.

I’m sure that a psychologist would have a field day with this sartorial metaphor, or the way I reach for things without thinking, my mind a blissful blank, only to later realise my mood exactly matched what I wore that day, over and under.

For now, I’ll keep an eye on my wardrobe. The occasional pink jumper is okay, but if I start wearing vibrant prints….

Call for help.

**DISCLAIMER: These are just the ways colours make me feel; I’ve never looked at other people and felt any way at all about the colours they’re wearing except to think they look pretty!

Without You

I am not cool.

I don’t have a cool accent, I don’t wear cool clothes, I don’t know how to order cool drinks at Starbucks and I don’t listen to cool music. If I ever decide to hop onto a trend-driven bandwagon, it’s usually not until long after it’s departed, around the time that it starts to disappear over the horizon.

I love miming the high notes in The Tracks of My Tears (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles), and repeating the relentless rhymes of Best of All Possible Worlds (Kris Kristofferson). I bounce around the house to the staccato energy of Crocodile Rock (Elton John), and sway to the slow sadness of Vienna (Billy Joel). I care more about lyrics than melodies, but will unironically enjoy the hell out of Uncle John From Jamaica (Vengaboys) or If You Want It To Be Good Girl (Backstreet Boys) on the same day that I listen to Curse Me Good (The Heavy) or Julie London’s smoky version of Cry Me a River.

My musical palate is completely uncomplicated by coolness. If it suits my mood I like it, and if I like it I learn it, and it’s about as simple as that. Years and years later, hearing the opening strains of a song will still cause me to regurgitate the words like some strange form of musical muscle memory. Without knowing that I know them, the words will pour out of my mouth. Songs are so strongly tied to feelings for me that familiar tunes are like disembodied time travel.

Scrubs is not of the same musical persuasion. Scrubs likes music that I don’t understand, that barely has lyrics, that runs into the next tune with no warning. He likes music with psychedelic background graphics that remind me of early Windows screensavers. He likes the kind of music that was made for dark places with neon lights and people who don’t like to dance or sing karaoke. 

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In 2015, Scrubs and I linked up with a few of our friends to go to Vegas. We spent a week there, lying by the pool and running between air conditioned buildings in choked sprints, spending money on blackjack and laughing at superstitious craps players. Our first weekend there we had bought passes for Electric Daisy Carnival, a dance music festival that takes over the Las Vegas Speedway and turns it into an awesome, heart-bursting multi-coloured wonderland. I had stumbled on a trailer for it a year before and thought it was something both of us might enjoy; Scrubs would like the music and I would like… everything else. 

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Walking into EDC was mind-blowing. It was a sprawling, glittering fairground full of smiling, beautiful people. I left Scrubs in a tent called Neon Garden full of sombre-looking people bobbing their heads to moody tunes and went exploring. I visited the giant dandelion seeds and the colour-changing caterpillar. I cheered for two strangers getting married in the chapel. I watched a girl hula-hoop for what seemed like hours and exchanged kandi (plastic bracelets) with a bouncing girl in a turquoise tutu.

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I loved it. I loved the people who were so obviously having the time of their lives. I loved the vibe of pure happiness around the place. I loved the costumes and the crazy installations and the art cars. I loved exploring the different sections and getting lost and somehow finding people again among the multitudes.

And I even loved some of the music.

On the first night, I dragged Scrubs to Circuit Grounds to watch Fatboy Slim. I love Fatboy Slim. Something about him makes me happy deep in my bones. I’m not sure if it’s the unabashedly awful shirts he wears, or the fact that he doesn’t try to be anybody other than who he is, or the fact that he’s a bit older than the average headliner, or the fact that he just seems to enjoy what he does so damn much… My glittery rainbow hi-tops barely touched the ground for his entire set. 

The next night I made a beeline for the main stage, Kinetic Fields, to listen to Avicii.

For someone who largely doesn’t understand (or even really like) EDM, Avicii was my happy place. For once my tonally deaf ears could differentiate between songs. That set made me so happy. The wholesome lyrics that made me want to hug the stranger next to me, the crowd thousands strong calling them out at the top of their lungs, and the drops that made the mass of people move as one made me understand why people loved EDM. The voice of Etta James boomed out over the speakers, led into Levels, and I was in a blur of bouncing, kaleidoscopic colour.

He finished his set with a song that I had listened to on repeat for the year that I spent living in Germany.

I tried to carry the weight of the world, but I only have two hands.
I hope I get a chance to travel the world, but I don’t have any plans.
I wish that I could stay forever this young, not afraid to close my eyes,
Life’s a game made for everyone, and love is the prize.

So wake me up when it’s all over,
When I’m wiser and I’m older,
All this time I was finding myself
And I didn’t know I was lost.

That song and The Nights (He said “One day you’ll leave this world behind, so live a life you will remember”) are such bittersweet songs. The lyrics are enough to bring on a minor existential crisis, but the tune is so thumpingly upbeat there’s no time to wallow, so instead you’re left with a distilled reminder to focus and hold on to the important things in life. That night I got such a buzz from just being there and bouncing along to the beat. I didn’t know anything about Avicii other than the lyrics of his songs and that was enough.

Three years later, when I heard that he had died this week it really knocked me. That happens to me sometimes; I feel pummeled by seemingly random events. I blame my mood. Or what I ate that day. Or the weather.

Really it could be anything.

Regardless, it made me truly sad to think that the world is minus one talented and introverted Tim Bergling. I thought about the fact that, waving away all the touring and the music, he was just a 28 year old guy. I clicked on his instagram, where there’s a photo of him and his dad, and another of his dog, Liam. I thought about how upset his family must be. I thought about how confused his dog must be. I just felt… deeply sad.

And so despite not being a fan of dance music, or even really of Avicii, I find myself writing this blog post about a person I have never met or had any connection to outside of listening to a few of his songs on Spotify and seeing him at EDC. I find myself thinking how strange – but also how powerful – music is to link people up like this, forging gossamer-thin strands of connection between strangers at festivals who might never speak to each other, and between audiences and headliners who never see individual faces but instead just one giant, constantly moving wave of people. I think of all the people who have their own important memories associated with certain songs, and how songs create webs of thoughts and feelings and remembrances that span across the globe, and how the people who created those songs will only ever know about the smallest sliver of a fraction of them.

It’s sort of… sad?

Amazing, but sad.

I hope Tim found some peace for himself in the last two years without the constant touring. Avicii, thanks for bridging the musical gap between me and Scrubs. Thanks for bringing so many people together to bellow along with the powerful voice of Etta James. Thanks for the memories. Thanks for making EDM accessible to everyone, including those of us who don’t know a bass from a treble.

Predator and Prey

David Attenborough’s voice

On the vast plains of the Penneys homeware savanna, a small Grant’s Gazelle picks her way past the rows of bed clothes. Distracted by the sight of a particularly fluffy cushion, she pauses in her pursuit of wildly unnecessary purchases.

A small movement in her peripheral vision attracts her attention. Suspicion causes her eyes to widen and she freezes, staring blindly across the shelf of vanilla bean tea lights. She can feel something watch her through the tangle of children’s clothes. A moment of utter stillness passes, and reassured by the lack of movement, she continues on, trotting past the scented candles.

Out of the corner of her eye she spots another movement. She stops next to the tea towels. Something is following her. Now truly alarmed, she picks up the pace and makes a break for the relative safety of the ground floor. The predator behind her veers off only to come at her from the side and corner her at the foot of the stairs. Her heart flutters with panic.

“Heyyyy….” says the jackal. “How are you doiiiing?”

“Fine thank you” says the gazelle, because maybe she is overreacting? He hasn’t really done anything yet after all. Maybe he’s just an overly friendly jackal. She tries to step around him but he places a paw on her. She doesn’t like it.

“Excuse me,” she says, and sprints up the stairs before he has a chance to react. A swift run gets her to the till, where I hand a t-shirt to the woman behind the register, because I am the gazelle and this metaphor has gone on for long enough.

As the cashier slowly scanned the barcode, my mind ran down dead-ends and alleyways in a frantic effort to keep ahead of my anxiety. I thought about asking the cashier if there was, per chance, a jackal of a man lying in wait for me, but on one hand I thought that if he hadn’t followed me from downstairs then I might seem a bit hysterical, and if he had, then I might freak out the poor woman. And what if security asked him to leave? Then what? Would he wait outside for me? And he was foreign and hadn’t exactly done anything other than make me feel very uncomfortable. Would they think I was a racist?

I kept my mouth shut and paid by card. She handed me my bag and I took it as slowly as possible, stalling for time. When she started to eye me suspiciously, I realised I could put it off no longer. I turned around inch by inch and…

… And he was there. Waiting. Smiling. Staring.

I shook my head at him as if he were offering me something, and bolted for the door. Afraid to look back in case he took any eye contact as a sign of encouragement, I headed up the street and across the road. I pushed into a throng of people in an effort to disappear. I am no stranger to people following me, and I’ve learned that my gut feeling is usually correct. This time my gut feeling was that I was being hunted. I made a sharp right into a women’s clothes shop and made directly for the stairs at the back. I tripped down them two at a time before heading for the farthest corner. When I had nowhere left to go, I turned around.

Only to find him there. Behind me. Waiting. Smiling. Staring.

He moved to corner me again. A frightened “No, leave me alone” hissed through my teeth and I dodged him. Back through the store. Back up the stairs. Out a different door to the one I’d used coming in.

At this point, I was texting Scrubs. Partly because I didn’t know what else to do, partly in an attempt to normalise the whole situation.

“Some dude is following me” I wrote. “Wtaf”

A quick lap of the ground floor told me he wasn’t giving up.

I tried hiding in a food hall. Every time I turned in an aisle he was behind me. Waiting. Smiling. Staring.

I was lagging and my panic levels were through the roof, so I did the only thing I could think of and ran upstairs, straight into the women’s public toilets. I sank down on the red PVC seating provided with a sigh of immense relief.

I honestly could have stayed there all day if necessary. I sat there for twenty minutes. A peek around the doorway revealed he was leaning against the wall, scrolling through his phone, presumably waiting for me.

I considered calling the police. I dismissed it as hysterical.

I waited another twenty minutes.

Finally, he left. I emerged from the toilets and glued myself to the wall as I scooted around the perimeter of the shopping centre and made my way to the exit. Once out on the street I felt exposed, like he might appear out of nowhere at any moment. I hid in the Asian supermarket until my tram arrived, and made sure he wasn’t getting on before I hopped on myself.

Honestly, the stress. I know people say that all the time, but seriously THE STRESS. I got a migraine and had to spend several hours in a darkened room almost crying with frustration.

Every so often I tell myself I should get out more, go into town more often, but then something like this happens and it makes me want to become a cloistered nun. Except, you know, without the nun part. I am a perfectly average person in every way so if this is happening to me, it must be happening regularly to an awful lot of people out there. Either that or I have the invisible tag of “ABSOLUTE SUCKER” attached to me somewhere and I have yet to shake it off.

I used to enjoy bumping into strangers and striking up a conversation, but more and more I find myself immediately wary of anyone who so much as catches my eye, much less tries to talk to me. I am becoming a social hermit crab, and my earphones are my shell.

I don’t want to feel like prey. I want to feel like a (tiny) lioness, well able to stand my ground against any jackal.

Maybe it’s time to take up martial arts.

Neighbourly Concern

The new neighbour arrived without my noticing.

One day the apartment was an empty shell of freshly-applied white paint, and the next a family had moved in. Two tall, slender brunettes and their tiny child now occupied the home where Hank and Daphne had previously lived. They have no names.  If I were to see them on the street I would most likely pass them without recognising them as my neighbours.

They don’t have a dog.

What they do have is some sort of a cycling obsession. I know this, because the nieghbour man often puts his very expensive-looking bike on a stand on his balcony and cycles for hours. HOURS. Which is fine, obviously. Who am I to say whether or not it’s unusual to get dressed in your lycra onesie and hop up on your perfectly road-worthy bike only to never leave the safety of your balcony?

Unfortunately, Oscar, the once-kitten, now small-bear-cub, has taken a keen interest in all this cycling malarky. Any day with a sighting of the stationary cyclist is a good day in Oscar’s book. I know this because the first day that we saw him pedaling furiously to nowhere, Oscar made an ill-advised attempt at joining him. He was busted only as he dangled on the edge of the window – a hefty wad of fluff swaying drunkenly in the breeze – calculating how far he would have to leap to catch the cycling man.

It turns out my cats have even less spatial awareness than I do, and have yet to master the seemingly simple concept of small versus far away.

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Considering Cycling Man lives a block over and a floor down, I suppose it is – in theory – possible that Oscar has flying squirrel capabilities I am not yet aware of (who knows what lies under all that excess fluff), and was about to deploy these skills to glide gently and gracefully down to our new neighbour. Unfortunately, it is far more likely that he would have leaped optimistically off the balcony like a rotund, airborne starfish and speedily plummeted into the holly bush below our window.

Ultimately, he was snatched to safety and now I am far more aware of our neighbours’ activities than I was before, if only because I have a feline bicycle enthusiast.

If I look out the window right now, I can see Cycling Man pedaling away like he’s trying to out-cycle his demons. Oscar is watching him with obsessive interest.

The window, naturally, is closed tight.

 

 

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Tomorrow is Paddy’s Day so I just want to wish everyone a great Lá Fhéile Pádraig – please remember the cardinal rules relating to shamrocks (never clover) and Paddy (never Patty), and don’t drink too much green beer (know the one that’s one too many; one. One is one too many. Drink something decent instead)!

 

An Open Letter to Sleep

Dear Sleep,

Why do you elude me?

At 4am, when there is a minor rattle from the washing machine that in no sane and rational world would wake any normal person, why do you startle and desert me?

Why do you disappear in a clap of silent thunder at 6am when Maya decides to play hopscotch on my head?

Why do you vanish like fog and refuse to return, leaving me wild-eyed and desperate for a doze?

I love you! Come back to me and wrap me up. Sink me into a coma-like state until morning. Please let me stay with you for at least six hours straight. You don’t understand how much I need you!

When you abandon me in the barbaric hours of the morning, I spend the next day bouncing from sugar high to sugar high, from cup of tea to cup of coffee in an attempt to make it through the waking hours in something resembling a functional state. I spend the day on autopilot, daydreaming about wrapping myself in a plush throw and throwing myself on the couch like a human burrito.

But even more than this…

Why let me start dreams that you’re not willing to let me finish?

Dreamtease.

You seem willing to let me plod through the grimmest of dreams to the brutal and bitter end, so what about the good ones? You know I hate unsolved mysteries. Your habit of slowly unraveling intriguing storylines only to cut the fun short before I can find any resolution is mildly infuriating enough to deserve its own hashtag.

#MildlyInfuriating

Sleep, please let me love you.

Life sucks without you.

Just People

When you’re a child, everything is very black or white.

You’re well-behaved, or you’re bold.

You’re bad, or you’re good.

The world is arranged into two halves and, with good parenting, you are steered towards the positive. “Yucky” things are smacked out of your hand, and the explanations of the world leave no room for nuance. You’re too young to understand the intricacies and complications of a lifetime. You’re told that bad people are bad, and that’s it. Nobody explains why, or how, or tempers it by telling you that these bad people have good qualities too.

Conversely, good people are held up as paragons and then, as you grow, you realise slowly that they are in fact… just people. Not heroes. Not knights in shining armour. Not infallible humans. Not perfect examples of personhood.

Just people.

It makes life a hell of a lot more complicated when you realise that souls aren’t as black as pitch, or as white and sweet as icing sugar. People are a mass of humanity as seen through the eyes of a dog; varying shades of grey in every direction.

Every so often though, you seem to encounter people who are determined to be a dark shade of charcoal grey for no reason at all. Even when it is entirely unnecessary. Even when the alternative would almost have been the easier – certainly the simpler – choice. They complicate what is straightforward. In a world full of cronuts and compliments, they go out of their way to sour every interaction with casual dishonesty and ugly disregard for the people around them.

Why?

Life is hard enough. Each of us at one point or another will spend time wading through our personal Swamps of Sadness. There is grief enough, and heartbreak enough, and struggles enough to fill each person’s cup many times over. There is personal difficulty and overwhelming disappointment. There are insecurities and fears and concerns in other people’s lives that we can know nothing about. Each person carries these weighty issues around, and sometimes thin, delicate cracks of pressure appear on our façades. Of course, we hurriedly papier-mâché over these lightning bolt fractures. Nobody wants to look like the one damaged item on the lot.

Nobody stops to consider that none of us are in pristine condition. Not one. We are all of us dinged, battered, scraped, burnt out or splintered by life in one way or another. We walk around with our private stories tucked tight inside our chests, right up against the breastbone.

And we gently bump up against each other.

Sometimes we bump up against jagged people.

They snag on our scars. They press slowly and deliberately against tender bruises. Their serrated edges cut away at stitches, reopening old wounds. It feels threatening. It hurts. And when this happens it can be very hard not to revert to childhood programming.

It can be very hard to remember that people aren’t pure, undiluted “bad.”

I try to keep that fixed in my mind. They’re not bad people. They’re not pointlessly cruel. Their morals might be so flexible as to seem backwards, but their life experiences have led them to this point, in the same way that my life experiences have led me to mine. They might seem as cold and hard and cutting as steel, but they too have their own private story buried away next to the heart I sometimes suspect they might not have.

They are not entirely bad.

They’re just… people.