“Relationships are Hard Work”

“Relationships are hard work.”

How many times would you say you’ve heard that phrase in your life? People say it to each other all the time; over coffee, over cocktails, in the middle of long, exasperated venting sessions and at the end of despairing exclamations. I’ve said it, and I’ve heard it, and every time there’s a nod of understanding and agreement, because it’s just vague enough to sound accurate.

Recently though, I’ve come to realise that the phrase isn’t specific enough to be true.

It’s a bit like when people say, “Well, sure we fight, but all couples fight.”

I always nod. They both sound pretty straightforward, but the truth is that actually they’re blanket statements broad enough to cover a multitude of realities, and I think we sometimes don’t realise that until far too late.

I was once in a really unhealthy relationship.

I remember the feeling of being stuck in the Swamp of Sadness that was my life at that point, the feeling of our relationship being an endless slog. It would be okay, and then slowly it would be less okay, and then not okay at all, and then terrible, and then there would be an explosive argument with tears and shouting and accusations and apologies…

And then we would be back to the start of the cycle and things would be okay again for a short while. You know, before it all went south – again – like it did every time. Everything felt difficult. If I tried to fix things or communicate why I was so unhappy I was “picking a fight” or ruining everything with my “complaining.” If I kept quiet in an attempt to keep the peace, then I had to swallow down so much resentment I almost choked on it, and everything was tainted by the knowledge that it was fake. All of it. Our smiles were fake, because they were smiles papering over the fact that things weren’t okay. Our memories were fake, because the thread of misery was there running through them all like the long, lit fuse of a bomb leading to inevitable destruction. I loved him, but it hurt, and it was hard, and I felt like I was pouring myself into a pit with no bottom, losing myself in suffocating darkness.

Every time I burst into frustrated tears, mired in this misery, I would say these two phrases over and over to myself like a mantra:

“Relationships are hard work.”

“All couples fight.”

These two phrases reassured me, they consoled me, they made me feel less alone… but they were so undefined. They were elastic phrases that stretched and stretched until I felt they covered my experiences. I know for a fact that they cover many more. 

Since then, there’s been a lot of life happening. I’ve been careful to keep my eyes wide open, and I still hear those phrases but now, for me, they have definitions.

Relationships are hard work. They’re hard work because they involve being less selfish, and always taking someone else into consideration. They’re hard work because they involve thoughtfulness and respect and kindness towards somebody else and as human beings we don’t always feel that way inclined. Sometimes we’re tired or grumpy or we’ve had a bad day or we’re in pain and we want to snap at anyone who looks at us sideways, and on those days it’s work to rise above it. They’re hard work because you have to do things for someone else, and sometimes they’re things you don’t want to do. They’re hard work because maybe they have a habit that drives you up the wall and back down the other side but you love them, so you work to ignore it. They’re hard work because all of your time is no longer your own and you have to learn to compromise. They’re hard work because life is full of unforeseen bumps in the road and sometimes you will have to carry the slack, and sometimes they will have to do the same. They’re hard work, but they’re not slavery. It’s not supposed to be constant misery. It’s not supposed to be something you put your all into without getting anything back.

Relationships are hard work but if you have it right, they’re hard work that you enjoy and get paid well for. 

It’s hard work that’s worth the effort. Your payment comes in the form of receiving the same effort from your partner; you’re repaid in support and respect and love and kindness and thoughtfulness. You’re repaid in knowing that someone has your back, that you’ve got a teammate in this Life Race and that you guys meet in the middle.

Which brings us to the second phrase.

“All couples fight.”

This is such a strange phrase. Let’s change it to, ‘All couples disagree.’ I think that’s a fair statement. All couples disagree. I think it’s also fair to say that all couples can get pretty heated when they’re disagreeing about something important to them, so I guess you could call that a fight.

I think that the word ‘fight’ has something more aggressive to it though. The word ‘fight’ makes me think of shouting, name-calling, throwing things and losing control, and if that’s the definition then no, I don’t think all couples fight. All couples can have disagreements, discussions, even arguments… but fights? Fights that are verbal altercations that end with one or both people crying, or someone having to apologise for having said something purposely hurtful out of anger? If this is something that happens regularly in your relationship, that’s a problem. If that’s what you mean when you say, “We fight, but all couples fight,” then you need to reassess. Not all couples fight dirty. Not all couples fight like that. That kind of unhappiness should only happen extremely rarely, if ever. The basic respect that you have for each other as people shouldn’t slip just because you have strong feelings about opposing views. You can be frustrated and angry and upset and still mindful of what you’re saying. 

If you’re angry and you lash out and say something that’s hurtful – even if it’s untrue – you’re not only hurting them. Once you’ve said something, you can never unsay it. They can never unhear it. You can apologise, but that doesn’t erase it. I really think that’s something more people could keep in mind. Sharp words hurt both of you. They chip away at what’s between you until there’s nothing left.

When I think about Past Me, I feel both sympathetic and annoyed.

I feel sympathy because she was so confused, and so miserable, and trying so hard in such futile ways. I feel sympathy because she didn’t know any better, and she was so, so in love. I feel sympathy because I know she did her best, even if her best was a disastrous emotional mess.

I feel annoyed because it took her so long to read the writing on the wall. It took her so painfully long to dig up the last scrap of her confidence from wherever it had been buried. It took her so long to realise that their relationship wasn’t a winding path, but a closed loop that wouldn’t – couldn’t – go anywhere. It took her so long to stop believing the nonsense.

Nonsense like, “relationships are hard work.”

Nonsense like, “all couples fight.”

 

DISCLAIMER: This is what I’ve learned from personal experience and that is none of this is to say I have it all figured out, because I don’t. I wish I did. If I had it all figured out I would be living on a private island somewhere with a small herd of pet alpacas and maybe a beehive so I could have a continuous supply of honey. I would never have any unpleasantness in my life, everything would be easy, every day would be sunny, and I would never have to consider the pros and cons of having cereal for dinner for the third day in a row.

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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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!

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)!

 

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.

 

Notes From the Country

I was born in a city. I have always lived in a city. I grew up with a street lamp outside my window and the sound of a train passing by every twenty minutes. I’m used to light, and noise, and shops that are less than five minutes of a walk away. I’m used to lots of people going about their business with earphones in, purposely not making eye contact and completely ignoring the existence of anybody else on the road.

So when I take a trip to the countryside, I’m always reminded of the things country people take for granted that are – for me – hugely abnormal. Every so often something happens and I feel like I’m surrounded by Dothraki nodding and muttering “It is known” about something that is decidedly not known. At least, not to me!

Here are a few of the many things I don’t understand about life in the country:

  1. People letting themselves into your home with absolutely no warning.
    • Not so much as a knock on the door! They just turn the handle and walk in. I once got out of the shower, wrapped myself in a towel and padded down the corridor to the kitchen to grab my hairbrush only to find the parish priest sitting at the table casually making himself a cup of tea. I reversed myself back into the corridor at the speed of light, believe me. I stood in the corridor frozen with horror before deciding that my best course of action would be to speedwalk back to the bathroom where I locked the door and listened for the sound of the door.
  2. The lack of convenience stores.
    • I mean really, the clue is in the name. They’re convenient. Usually they are open all hours of the day and night and they sell everything you could possibly want at 2am when you’ve only just realised you’re in dire need of a pack of kitchen roll, a carton of milk, a bag of basmati rice and a tube of toothpaste. Here in the countryside there is only a single shop, it is the size of a large bathroom, and it stocks a wide variety of random items that you might – or might never in your life – require for any reason at all. It also closes at six and the walk there definitely takes more than five minutes.
  3. The silence.
    • It is unnaturally silent. The only time you hear real sound is if the rain is pounding against the window or the wind is making the house creak. The cars are too far away to be heard and so instead there are only inside-noises; the ticking of the clock, the hum of electricity, the sound of the pipes kicking into gear… It’s uncanny.
  4. The darkness.
    • It is onyx outside once the lights go out. Unless the moon is working as God’s own spotlight, you can see absolutely nothing at all. Although I don’t mind this, it does have the peculiar effect of imposing a sort of natural curfew on me; at home I think nothing of leaving the house after dark, but here I suddenly feel like it’s so much later. As soon as the windows become opaque black rectangles, I am ready for my pyjamas. There’s no way I’m going anywhere. I am not afraid of the dark, but if I were I would be terrified because it is black as pitch.
  5. The country hello.
    • In Dublin, I can happily spend half a day surrounded by people without acknowledging even a single one of them. In the countryside, on the other hand, you can’t pass a single person without them nodding their head and saying “Hello there!” or “Fine weather we’re having!” or “How are you?” or making some other kindly, weather-related utterance. When they know you, this greeting is usually accompanied by a smile, but when they don’t it’s often delivered with a suspicious, gimlet-eyed stare. If you make the mistake of coming to a standstill in front of them for any reason, it’s even worse; they try to entangle you in a sideways game of twenty questions in an unsubtle attempt to find out who you are, where you came from and what you’re doing there. Any unfamiliar face is treated to the same gentle interrogation, as if they’re trying to make sure they have a full character profile to hand over to the police for when you, the suspicious stranger, start up some nefarious business and threaten to upset the quiet community vibe.

There are things I love about the countryside too, of course.

I love the animals.

There are lambs in all the fields now, springing around in a wobbly way as if they’ve been made from cheap pipe-cleaners. There are friendly little robins that don’t look as if they should be able to take flight at all, they’re so rotund. There’s Charlie, the cat, who sometimes greets me with a bloody mess of a breakfast outside my bedroom window (usually one of the aforementioned rotund robins). There are crows, watching carefully for leftovers, and wagtails bobbing across the patio. There’s even a hefty badger that trundles up the path at night to eat whatever Charlie’s left behind. He gobbles up anything in the bowl before trotting back into the darkness. As a city kid whose only exposure to wildlife was cats, dogs, red foxes rooting through wheelie bins, and roadkill… the badger in particular always delights me.

I love feeling ‘away.’

Although it’s inconvenient not being able to go anywhere or see anyone at a moment’s notice, it’s also nice to be here. It’s nice to feel removed from the normal. It’s nice to be out of my everyday timetable; it’s not hugely productive, mind you, but it is nice. It’s like hitting F5. I’m ready for the city again. I’ve had my break and now I’m ready to put back on the robes of routine.

I love how clean the air feels.

I mean, I think the air in Dublin is pretty clean too, but here it feels healthy. When I inhale, I feel like I’m doing my body good. It’s nice.

I’ve been doing a lot of inhaling and exhaling, thanks to your many suggestions on my last post. It’s helped! Thanks guys. Sometimes I just need the reminder to breathe.

If you also need the reminder, here it is: Breathe!

And now if you’ll excuse me, it’s starting to get dark, so I’m off to put on my pyjamas…!

A Rollercoaster of Emotions

So far, 2018 is proving unexpectedly stressful.

In case you couldn’t gather from my last post, I’ve been having a couple of weeks where my waking thoughts have been consumed by one worry or another, and my nights have been spent dreaming of strange amalgamations of the same worries. It’s just wrong; the nightmare equivalent of a giraffe with elephant legs and a crocodile snout.

Honestly, even when I’m not stressed I have a certain amount of The Fear running through me like a low voltage current. I overthink everything until it makes no sense to me. I overthink and overthink and overthink until my thoughts end up in the same place as the word ‘banana’ after you’ve said it 27 times. Gibberish. Total gibberish. The sort of gibberish you need three expert linguists and the Rosetta Stone to decipher.

So you can probably imagine what I’m like when I actually have something to worry about…

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It’s very calming.

The worst part about it is that I’ve had some great news so far in 2018! Really exciting things are happening! Good things are coming! Love is in the air! I have so many things to smile about, and yet the wind must have changed because I can’t seem to move my facial muscles into an arrangement of anything but ill-concealed panic.

So here’s a true adulting struggle: how do I juggle these sorts of extreme emotions so that I can feel them all at the one time? Or even better, how do I overcome the obstacle of overthinking to get to the happy place? Do I just wait it out? Do I simply wait with endless patience for it to pass, so that I can then unashamedly enjoy the good stuff? Or do I try to set the stresses aside for a few minutes a day and ignore the guilt that comes with that?

At the moment I’m just sitting and waiting (and hoping) for the stress to pass, so that I can stop baking therapeutic banana breads that nobody feels like eating.* I’m keeping my happy feelings safe and boxed away for a few days more, in the hope that I can fully enjoy them once life stops making me feel like I’m rollerblading on gravel.

I’m sitting, and waiting (and hoping), and baking banana breads.

*It turns out baking is an inconvenient coping strategy when you have no real appetite.

 

Notes for a Younger Me

When I look at photographs of myself when I was younger, I experience a strange, out-of-body feeling. It doesn’t feel like I’m looking at myself. It feels like I’m looking at someone else. The child of someone I know, maybe, or a distant relative. It doesn’t feel like me.

Sometimes this slightly freaks me out, because it makes me wonder if this is how it will always be. In twenty years’ time will I look at photos of myself now and feel like a different person? Will I have changed that much? Will I feel like the experiences and memories and thoughts of Now Me are so removed and foreign that they might as well belong to somebody else?

*shudder*

I was sorting through old photographs a couple of days ago hunting for something in particular when I came across a number of photos of Baby Quinn. There I was meeting my godmother for the first time. There I was going to school. There I was building LEGO and jumping through a stream and walking around with a Pampers box on my head. I have chubby legs and big eyes and wild hair. I am wearing flowery hand-me-downs (which means the anti-feminine movement must not have been active until much later) from what must have been the set of Mary Poppins.

In many of these snaps I am looking at the camera head on. There is no expression on my face. I am just staring, wide-eyed, either straight down the lens or with my gaze turned slightly upwards at (presumably) the photographer. I look as if I might be waiting for something. Maybe waiting for someone to tell me something? Maybe waiting for the manual?

Since we all know the manual never made it, I thought I might tell her something now.

Baby Quinn,

You are a small, round little ball of pudge. Look at you! You weren’t always like that (I’ve seen the earlier photos where you look like an alien beamed down from another planet complete with tubes in your head; those photos are less than lovely), but from this stage forward you’ll basically look like this, only stretched.

Not stretched by much, mind you. We stay pretty low to the ground.

In case you’re wondering, that pouty bottom lip will never go away. Don’t worry, you kind of grow into it. Anyway, it will come in handy whenever you want to make your feelings known. For example, on your way to school…

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Yep, just like that.

You will have a brother. You get on very well except for a brief period during which he does nothing but scream for things at the top of his lungs and pinch you when your parents aren’t looking. Don’t worry, he improves.

Your first friend is a boy called Peter. You spend many hours flinging micro machines at walls of LEGO, and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is an age during which you frequently collect worms and put them in your pencil case to “save them” from lashing rain and the indiscriminate stomping of children’s shoes. Please do not do this. They die from dehydration and you feel absolutely terrible when you have to shake their desiccated, hardened corpses out of the pencil tin. It’s very grim.

You also stop eating around this age. Why? Who can say? You hate food. All food. You are not a picky eater, you are a non-eater. You just can’t stand the horror of having to taste and chew and swallow. You can’t bring yourself to eat. Every meal is a battlefield. The very idea of a future filled with the torture of breakfasts, lunches and dinners looms ahead of you every day for the rest of your life.

Luckily, as with the worm infirmary, this too shall pass. I am happy to relate that I now enjoy eating very much. VERY much! Food is amazing. So are drinks (although stay away from the fizzy ones; you can’t burp, so fizzy drinks make you feel like you have a chestburster from Alien struggling to get free). Wait until you try a White Russian for the first time.

You make a best friend. She is awesome. She likes Oasis when other people like Boyzone. You spend a lot of time thumping up and down the stairs of her house and playing on her road. There are many sleepovers and late night chats. Mind her, love her, be good to and for her. She’s still our best friend. She’s still awesome.

With the help of many books from the public library, you reach your teenage years with a wealth of information at your fingertips. You are ferociously outgoing and impulsive to the point of stupidity. You make decisions that are questionable at best, downright dangerous at worst. You skate along safely though, blithely unaware of the disastrous consequences you narrowly avoid along the way.

You fall in love.

The first year or so is amazing and then it’s just one long, drawn-out, awful descent into misery. You follow your heart and it leads you right into The Swamp of Sorrow. You’re not experienced enough to recognise or understand the lies or the gas-lighting. It’s a long three years of crying and fighting and crying and feeling like an idiot and crying and being manipulated and crying. Just… a lot of crying. Prepare yourself. Invest in tissues, even though you don’t use them. Your heart gets irreparably cracked (although you don’t realise it then) and over time, words and actions bluntly bash at it until the cracks grow wider.

The last, powerful, brick-breaking karate chop makes sure it’s properly smashed into glittering shards.

You end it, too damaged and much too late. For three long years you’ve been told that this is what love is, that your idea of love – with respect, and honesty, and common decency – is straight out of the storybooks and that this is as good as it gets… but you (finally!) realise that anything at all is better than this war of attrition you’ve been losing.

There’s more crying, because your heart is still broken after all.

Let’s just speed through that part.

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If I could warn you about all of this… I wouldn’t. Yes, it SUCKS. It sucks. It’s honestly brutal. The lessons you learn are emotionally beaten into you with what feels like a sledgehammer.

But after all that, you do learn.

You’ve learned what you need to be happy, and so you go do that for a while. You spend time with nice people who love you and you slowly put yourself, your sanity and your heart back together. You become a real person, not just a tangled mess of emotions  and frustration strung together in human form. You make good decisions, or at least decisions that are good for you. You take your time.

You fall in love again, and it’s pretty great. Better than expected.

Better than the storybooks.

So here are a couple of the lessons that I’ve learned along the way, Baby Quinn. The things that should have come in your manual. Here are the lessons you learn along the way:

Stay creative.

It doesn’t matter what you do or how it turns out. Some part of you is always waiting to create something. You’ve drawn, painted, cut, carved. You’ve burned names into chopping boards and made cakes that lean like drunken towers and sliced paper into slivers. You are happiest making things with your hands, and the end result is not always delightful but it is always satisfying.

Play with gouache, with watercolours, with acrylic. Play with clay, and candle wax. Crafting is the one area in which you’re never afraid to fail, so keep trying. Keep failing! Every so often you’ll find something that you’re good at that makes people happy.

Do that. It makes you happy to see other people happy.

Fall in love.

You are an affectionate child. You love hard. Keep that with you.

As you grow up, you grow less willing to be open about how much people mean to you. You close yourself off. You still care, but you hide it. You get shy.

Fight that!

It’s nonsense. You still think about people you haven’t seen in years, and cry for people you don’t even know; the least you can do is reach out to the people you love and care about now, today. I know that it makes you feel vulnerable and you hate feeling vulnerable, but the alternative is letting them think you don’t care, and that doesn’t bear thinking about.

Fall in love, and not just with people. Let yourself fall in love with places, with animals, with experiences. Fall in love with lessons learned and dreams that dissipate five minutes after waking up. Fall in love with food (Italy will help), with adventure, with strangers. Fall in love with all of it.

Be excited about the future.

Sometimes things are really rubbish. Sometimes life feels endlessly terrifying and you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going. You look ahead and all you see is an expanse of hopelessness. There are panic attacks and weeks of dull numbness.

DON’T WORRY.

I mean, worry – by all means worry; you’re going to do it anyway – but as Sunscreen says, know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. In the midst of all that worrying, be excited for the future! Even when things look grim and you can’t imagine what there might be to be excited about… be excited about the unknown, because great things happen.

Great things happen to you, I promise. You, I, we have fed pelicans at a zoo! We’ve played with a tiger cub! We’ve bumped around Goa on a scooter, and gone swimming with sea turtles in Gili Air, and seen Mayan ruins in Tulum, and eaten ramen in Tokyo, and galloped around the pyramids of Giza, and sat drinking mint tea in Marrakech, and had gelato in Rome, and lived in Heidelberg, and gone skiing in Bansko, and seen a fever of rays in San Diego, and, and, and…

… And we’ve had hot chocolates on snow days. We’ve read great books. We’ve had long conversations with our grandfather. We’ve had hugs when we most needed them. We’ve danced in the apartment alone, and talked with friends over cups of tea. We’ve discovered maltesers in salted popcorn (the only decent way to watch a movie), and combed the beach for seaglass after a storm. We’ve had quiet, happy slices of time where everything was just right, just for a moment.

Those moments are all you need.

We’ve had good times so far, Baby Quinn. We’ll continue to have them. In the darkest times you couldn’t even have imagined any of those moments ever happening, but they did. They continue to happen. Right now I’m sitting here typing this to you under a barrage of raindrops with a cup of tea next to me and a cat curled up at my feet. I’m more than okay. We’re more than okay.

You’ll be okay.