Staying Alive

The other day, while out walking with a friend, we took a detour on our way home and found ourselves in an old cemetery.

It was, as she put it, the sort of place Tom Riddle might show up to challenge you to a wand duel. The ground, bulging with overgrown roots, was uneven and covered over with long blades of grass that soaked us to the ankles. Most of the engravings on the oldest headstones were illegible; the inscriptions had been gently buffed to smoothness by the passing of time. Speckled with lichen and pushed by either weather or slowly shifting soil, the stones leaned drunkenly at different angles. We wandered between them, calling out unusual names to each other or pointing out particularly old dates. Some went back to the 1800’s.

We found a few sad ones; children, siblings, husbands who died in their thirties with wives who died in their seventies. We found a few interesting ones; a headstone marked the passing of a man named Lemon Booth who had died in 1910 (I pictured him as a kindly eccentric with a penchant for wearing yellow). We also found a slab of what we assume is a family crypt dug into the foundations of what used to be a church.

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Some people strongly dislike graveyards. They find them creepy, or depressing, or taboo in a way that makes their skin crawl. The thought of dead people underfoot gives them the heebiejeebies. Some people feel it’s almost sacrilegious to walk through a cemetery full of people you have no connection to, propelled by nothing but curiosity. Some think that cemeteries should only be for the broken-hearted. Some think that it should only ever be a private place for grieving and goodbyes.

I actually quite like them.

Not – obviously – during burials, when my heart feels like it’s being finely grated into ribbons of despair and deposited straight into the ground with the coffin… but after. Later. I find comfort in the fact that so it has been and so it will always be; humans losing loved ones and creating rituals to say goodbye, with something tangible to mark the passing of generally unremarkable people. That’s you, and me, and most people. We, the Wikipedia-entry-less.  We, the people who live important lives but on a private scale. We, the remarkable unremarkable. We live full, busy lives of friendships, and stories, and memories. We have favourite activities, and things we are most proud of, and quirks that are unique to us. We laugh and cry and develop habits and grieve and love and then, at some point, we die and leave it all behind.

Honestly, I hate the idea as much as the next person. Saying goodbye to loved ones has always been so hard, and although my grief stems from not wanting them to ever leave my life, a small part of it also comes from the sadness that comes with the thought of leaving my life. I grieve for myself, but I also grieve on their behalf, for their having to say goodbye to everything. I love this world, the colours in it, the smell of petrichor, the taste of freshly baked bread, the feeling of a badly-needed hug, the sound of a loved one laughing. I love this world, even with the really rubbish bits. Even with the tragedies. Even with the dangers. Even with the Trumps.

I like my unremarkable life. I like being alive.

They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time. I always think of this as I read the names on headstones, shaping the consonants beneath my breath, taking a moment to wonder about the person behind the name, and the life that person left behind.

It comforts me to think that over a hundred years from now, someone might find the marker of my unremarkable life and say my name aloud, wondering about me…

Keeping me alive a little longer.

 

 

2018

We are now in 2018. Welcome everybody! Grab a glass of bubbly! I’m glad we both made it. It’s so good to see you again!

I always start the new year with a niggling feeling like I just barely made it through a stargate and am now standing in a random field, swinging my arms, wondering what happens next. I swear I spend the first week of the year with a cloud above my head that says, ‘NOW WHAT?’ in bubble lettering.

Even though the passing of a year is fairly arbitrary.

Even though it makes no real difference.

Even though it should just be a continuation of what came before, and not some odd date on the calendar that feels like a new page, a clean slate, a blank wall of concrete staring you in the face when you have an unused can of spray paint in your hand.

It’s time to start over.

You know….

Again.

So here we are, in the future of the past which is now the present. I rang in the New Year in Spain, choking on grapes and crying with laughter. I spent the first day of 2018 exploring small towns with medieval walls, before chasing down chocolate con churros with a single-minded focus usually found in bloodhounds on a hunt.

Nothing gets between me and my churros.

Today, the world is glitteringly cold. The sky is a clear, pale blue and if you run outside in your socks (as I – very briefly – did), it feels as if your feet might stick to the ground, rooting you to the spot, freezing you to the flagstones. Everything has been delicately brushed with a thin coating of twinkling frost. In patches of sunlight the ice has melted away, retreating to the safety of the shade, revealing the bright, true green of the grass or the vibrant red of the few remaining autumn leaves.

I have no list for this year. No boxes to check. No impossible goals or overly ambitious aims. Instead I have a word that I’m hoping will propel me into the new year with all the fire and energy I felt I was lacking last year:

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Great things happened in 2017! I visited Mexico! I visited Bali! I swam with sea turtles! I got engaged! I got two enormous kittens with over-sized portions of personality! I planned an apartment overhaul that has turned us into nomads with capsule wardrobes that consist of jeans and more jeans (the toilet did eventually arrive by the way, for those of you who have spent the holidays on tenterhooks waiting for an update about our plumbing)!

I’m hoping that by the end of this month, we will be in apartment 2.0. I’m hoping that it will be the first of many great things in 2018. Part of making that happen, however, involves taking action and pulling on a blue boiler suit (size XL; I look like nothing so much as The Michelin Man in a cleanroom) and a respirator so I can continue the work I started yesterday*.

sigh

So far, ‘action’ is turning out to be deeply uncomfortable…

If you have a word or a resolution, let me know – I find they rub off on me sometimes! Whether you do or you don’t, I wish you all the luck in this new year. I wish you personal successes and private accomplishments. I wish you joy, and love, and happiness. I wish you a minimum of tears (unless they’re from laughter – those are allowed), and I wish you pride in yourself, bravery in your actions, good company and great friends.

Now if you could all just wish me a bit of sunshine so that I don’t freeze and spend the first month of 2018 as a glittering but immobile garden gnome….

 

*I am in the middle of spray painting our kitchen cabinets, and it is both messier and slower than is truly ideal in minus degrees.

 

Birthdays, Waiting Days & Holidays

 

On Wednesday it was my birthday.

I always feel slightly unworthy on my birthday, like I didn’t do enough to deserve the ‘happy birthday!’s flung my way. I feel like I should have accomplished something great this past year and I just… haven’t. I feel like I didn’t do sufficient good this year, as a human. I didn’t contribute enough. I am lacking, somehow.

Still, as with every year, it’s just made me more determined to knuckle down this coming year. I will blaze through 2018! Hopefully!

….My resolutions start early.

To date, I think this might be my least organised Christmas yet! As things currently stand, some of the Christmas presents I ordered online won’t arrive until the new year, and all I want for Christmas (now that I’ve got my two front teeth) is a time turner or a portable black hole. I need some way to scrounge a couple of days in the midst of the madness to assemble an entire kitchen and do some heavy duty spray painting, so if any of you have time travel theories you need testing, let me know.

I am starting to wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, but my innate optimism in anything relating to matters outside of myself is really buoying me up and persuading me it’s possible. I suppose we’ll see, won’t we? I’ll either manage it, or I’ll be crushed by a falling floor-to-ceiling cabinet and leave a Quinn-shaped hole in the floor (in which case I grant you all permission to tut and say, “Typical!” in a disappointed-but-not-entirely-surprised tone of voice).

Since my home is now a building site, I am currently sitting in the lobby of a local hotel, vagrant-style, stealing warmth and wifi while I wait for a toilet to be delivered.

When you’re ten years old, you never think about the fact that your adult life will one day involve hours of waiting for a toilet bowl to be delivered. You think about the fact that you can have ice cream for breakfast if the fancy takes you, but you never imagine that one day, you too will need to buy a hoover. Someday you will need to iron your clothes*, and weigh up the merits of coyote oak over frappuccino oak, and think about things like triple-glazing**.

You won’t have a clue what you’re doing.

That’s fine.

You will strongly suspect that the shop assistants don’t have a clue what they’re doing.

That’s fine too.

Unlike our parents, we have the internet at our fingertips. The world is smaller than it’s ever been. Just this past week I took in a delivery from Galway, and now I’m waiting on a delivery from Germany. I wish I had a bed to curl up in, but since the bedroom looks like a smaller and less organised version of IKEA’s warehouse I am sitting in this blue twill armchair in this hotel lobby instead.

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There is a bed in there somewhere. At least, there used to be.

The lobby is quite nice actually.

Unlike my home, this lobby has heating.

Unlike my home, this lobby has a bathroom.

Unlike my home, this lobby has a Christmas tree.

Unlike my home, this lobby has somewhere for me to sit that isn’t a precariously balanced assortment of wiring covered with black tarpaulin.

I have been here four hours.

I was told the toilet would arrive “in the morning.” There is an hour of morning left. My toes are numb and I have Christmas shopping to do. If I don’t leave here soon I am mildly concerned that I will become an inadvertent mascot like that cat, Billy, who wandered into the Algonquin Hotel in NYC back in the 1920’s and never left.***

Although… Now that I’ve been here for four hours I am curious as to how long I could stay here before being quizzed about my business. How long do hotels let you hang out if you have a laptop and a purposeful expression on your face?

If the toilet never arrives, I’ll let you know.

Happy Christmas, everybody. I’m sending you all the love, all the good wishes, all the hugs and twinkles and fairy lights and mistletoe kisses you could possibly want.

Have a great one!

PS: If anybody is feeling generous and feels the need to gift me a birthday coffee, there’s a link in the sidebar! I have a dream that one day I will go to Insomnia and order every different kind of hot chocolate, and I suppose if you were so inclined you could make this deranged chocolatey dream a reality! Thank you to those of you who have been kind enough to buy me one already; I REALLY appreciated both them and you!

*For the record this day has yet to come for me. I make a point of only buying clothes that don’t need ironing. Or if they do, I wear them crumpled and pretend they’re supposed to look like that. If I absolutely MUST get creases out of something, I use my hair straightener. This is not because I don’t own an iron (I do; a very intimidating hulk of a thing with a water reservoir and everything), but because life is too short to be faffing about with ironing boards and irons and those tiny plastic water jugs and all the rest of it.

**If you’re anything like me you will have conjured up a mental image of a donut positively dripping with three thick, smooth layers of sticky-finger glazing, but actually this is to do with windows and insulation. Adulting is an endless series of low-level disappointments…

***He kicked off a whole hotel cat tradition. Their current cat is a ginger tabby called Hamlet.

Dealing With Disordered Eating

When I turned five, I lost my appetite.

I don’t mean that I lost it after a particularly nauseating meal only to regain it when confronted with a slice of cake. I don’t mean that I carelessly misplaced it behind a bush somewhere, only to find it again five hours later during a fortuitous game of hide and seek. I mean that one day I went to bed after eating my dinner, and the next morning I woke up without any hint of my appetite. It had simply packed up and left in the night. It hadn’t left a note of explanation, or been prompted by anything that I can think of. It was just… gone.

My issue with the lack of appetite first started with my packed lunches; white bread sandwiches with butter and salami bulging hideously from their cling film wrappers. I would pull each sandwich out of my bag as if it were contaminated, examine it from all angles, and then stuff the indecently solid mass between my bellybutton and the waistband of my tartan kilt, or squeeze it past the wristband of my jumper, giving my forearm an offputtingly lumpy appearance. Then, over lunch, as if I were on a covert mission, I would pass by the large bin poised to catch chocolate wrappers and empty crisp packets from screaming children, and I would dump my sandwich into the black plastic abyss. The moment the sandwich disappeared, I would heave a sigh of relief and run off to play under the sprawling chestnut trees.

It escalated.

If I couldn’t reach the bins – which were often too close to the watchful gaze of our teachers – I would fling the offending sandwiches across the school wall*, or bury them at the foot of a tree.

Slowly, my refusal to eat spread to all meals.

At home, dinnertime became a stubborn standoff. My mother insisted I couldn’t leave the table until I was finished eating everything on my plate, and although I was desperate to get away from the kitchen table, this could take literal hours. It would get dark, the food would get cold, and I would still be sitting at the table kicking my toes against the chair legs, staring glumly at the wall as I chewed.

It escalated further.

Soon it wasn’t just sandwiches but entire lunches that were disappearing. Yogurts. Bananas. Chocolate bars. Cartons of juice. My mother, desperate for some control over my eating, told me I had better eat everything she gave me for lunch, and I, just as desperate, grew sloppy with my sandwich elimination schemes.

My teachers, in particular an eagle-eyed woman called Susan, started to suspect something.

One day, she kept me back and questioned me gently – although it felt like an interrogation at the time – as to whether I just didn’t like what I was getting for lunch. I burst into tears. She must have felt completely out of her depth. Carefully peeling the slices of salami off the buttered bread, she stacked them in a neat pile while suggesting that I ask my mother to make me something else for lunch. I nodded dumbly.

“You have to eat something. I’m afraid I can’t let you out to play until you’ve eaten the buttered bread. See? All the salami is gone.”

I’m sure this was said with kindness and concern, but to me it sounded threatening. I stared at the pale slabs of buttered bread, my eyes boring holes into the indented circles in the butter. I looked up at Susan with a sudden surge of hatred. Didn’t she know that it was too late? That the pungent smell of salami would have infiltrated the butter? That the salami might as well still be there? Just the smell of it turned my stomach. I pulled at the crust, rolling the tiny pieces between my fingers, stalling for time. Then I slowly lifted the bread to my lips and took a tiny, mouse-like bite.

Susan sat opposite me for the entire hour and watched as I tried to eat while choking on tears.

That evening I did as Susan had suggested. It went badly. I continued to get salami sandwiches for lunch. Susan continued to keep me in at lunchtime. One day she sat opposite me as I struggled through another miserable sandwich, scraped of all salami slices. She watched me as I chewed with what must have been an expression of pained disgust. Baffled, she asked, “Did you not talk to your mother about the salami sandwiches?” I nodded dumbly. Speechless, she leaned back and said nothing more for the hour that we sat there together.

She quickly became my greatest enemy. Not only did she keep me in during lunchtime and force me to eat my food, but one day, presumably looking for resolution, she did something unforgivable.

She called my mother.

I won’t go into the ramifications of that call except that from then on my eating became more problematic. No meal or food was manageable. I don’t remember ever feeling a single pang of hunger. I remember sitting chewing with my head resting in my hand, elbow on the table, during my fourth hour of dinner, thinking, “I could be happy if I just didn’t have to eat.”

It was as if my body had decided eating was a revolting, useless exercise that we should have nothing to do with, and my every sense rallied behind this effort. My tastebuds enjoyed nothing. The smell of food made me nauseous. The moment food appeared on a plate in front of me, I shut down. The act of eating was unbearable. No food tempted me. I would chew the same tiny bite of food for fifteen minutes or more. I would chew until I had practically ground it down to a molecular level, and even so, swallowing was a challenge. I would have to take a sip from my glass, creating a truly disgusting watery slop that I would only then be able to choke down.

My mother, panicked by this bizarre behaviour in her five year old, tackled it by trying to terrify me into normal eating habits. She did indeed terrify me, but instead of being scared straight, my behaviour turned more desperate. I turned into a feral squirrel of a child, hiding my food anywhere I thought might give me a few days of peace. As I was only five and my critical reasoning skills were yet to develop (some would argue they still haven’t come in), this led to disastrous decisions on my part.

I became obsessed with getting rid of any food put in front of me. I developed an unusual skill set; every time I walked into a room in which I had to eat, I scanned every corner of it, mentally cataloguing any potential hiding places. Ideally I would hide food in my napkin, excuse myself while hiding it in my hand, and flush it down the toilet. This clean and tidy method worked for a while until some small traitorous green bean emerged from its hiding place in the U-bend at an inopportune moment, ratting me out and bringing the full wrath of my mother down on my head.

From then on, it became a matter of survival. My mother escalated her efforts to force me into eating. I escalated my efforts to wiggle out it.

Mealtimes were battlezones. I would cry silently from beginning to end. In tortured whispers I would beg my father to eat food from my plate when my mothers’ back was turned, and he, distressed by my distress, would wolf down large portions of my dinners in an attempt to defuse the situation.

As a general rule, the adults in my life doubled down on their efforts to get me eating normally again. This consisted of constant supervision; I was no longer allowed to use the bathroom during meals. The intense scrutiny limited my options in terms of disposing of my food, and so now chips, steak, pastries, fish would be crammed into vases, under shelving units, behind washing machines. If I wasn’t sitting at a table I was worrying about the next time I would be sitting at a table. My fear and desperation was all-consuming. I never thought about what would happen when it was discovered, because that was in the future, and I couldn’t afford to worry about the future when I felt strangled with fear and anxiety in the present. I couldn’t eat, and if I couldn’t eat, then the food needed to disappear. It was as simple as that. I would worry about the rest of it at a later date.

Naturally, the “later date” always came sooner than I would have liked. That’s the thing about food; it rots. When it rots, it smells, and when it smells, people go looking for the root cause. It wasn’t a huge leap to consider me the prime suspect in The Mysterious Case of The Custard In The Cupboard, for example, or even The Scandal of The Sandwich in The Saucepan**. Each discovery brought more misery, both to my parents who were disappointed to find I hadn’t consumed whatever it was they had found, and to me personally when I had to deal with the moment of reckoning.

This continued for four years until I was nine years old.

At some point, for some reason, my appetite returned. It strolled back into my life without a hint of shame or compunction. It flung its coat on my caudate, hung its hat on my hippocampus, and cheerfully announced “I’m BACK! What did I miss?”

I remember even less about this than I remember going off food in the first place.

Happily, my appetite has been robust ever since. To this day I don’t know what provoked what was a long and arduous phase for me and everybody around me. It wasn’t triggered by any single event, it didn’t involve any thoughts about body image… it was just a strange switch in my brain suddenly flicked to ‘OFF’ without warning.

And then, eventually, with just as little fanfare flicked back to ‘ON’.

Years later, parents of friends still recount stories of my sitting with a single plate of food for hours on end, amused and confused by what they think of as childhood feeding foibles. I laugh at all the appropriate moments but inside I squirm uncomfortably, wondering if I ever hid food under their sofa or behind their curtain or between books on the bookshelf.

I make a concerted effort now to listen to my appetite; I satisfy cravings without hesitation. I bake and cook and lick the spoon.

I want my appetite to feel fully appreciated so that it never walks out on me again.

 

*The people who lived next door must have been absolutely baffled by the sudden spray of sandwiches dotting their front garden.

**Seven years later I was still finding mummified slivers of steak in old hiding places.

Memento Mori

 

When I was small(er than I am now), I went on a good many roadtrips with my father. Not to sound too twee about it, but these car journeys often led down long and curving country roads flanked by hedgerows and higgledy-piggledy stone walls and endless green fields. There were no streetlights or footpaths. Houses whizzed by at a predictable, rhythmic pace. Field, field, house. Field, field, house. Field, field, house. We sped through the countryside listening to Kris Kristofferson or the soundtrack from The Big Chill.

I loved it. I still do. Once I leave the last streetlight behind I always feel a little bit more free until I reach the next town. I find it calming to be out on country roads, away from bumper-to-bumper traffic and pedestrians.

But do you know what usually doesn’t fare too well on streetlight-free, pedestrian-lacking country roads?

Wildlife.

Every so often on these childhood roadtrips we would pass an indeterminate shape on the side of the road, and if I so much as caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye I would react as if I had been suddenly and unexpectedly shot.

“DAD! DAD! STOP! STOP THE CAR!”

“What?”

“STOP THE CAR! DAD! PULL OVER! YOU HAVE TO STOP!”

My father would dutifully pull the car over into the ditch, I would jump out, and – one of us walking (my father), one of us running (me) – we would trace our way back to the vague shape. I would crouch in front of whatever unfortunate creature had strayed too close to the road and search for signs of life in the glossy black eyes. Over the years we found badgers, pine martens, foxes, hares, crows, rabbits, ferrets, blackbirds, and hedgehogs; the scurrying creatures and the scavenging opportunists of the Irish countryside.

If the animal showed any sign of life at all, it was carefully picked up and placed in a cardboard box. I couldn’t bear to leave a living creature suffering on the side of the road. Instead it would come with us and suffer in the boot of the car until we reached our destination, where we would try – with absolutely no medical training – to fix it and put it up in a cardboard box lined with a blanket.

You might think this strange… and you would probably be right. Some of you might think my father deserves generous dollops of admiration for his endless patience and indulgence when it came to pulling the car over each and every time we spotted anything that looked like it might be something.

…It was his fault though…

Before I was ever old enough to call for emergency stops like a deranged infant paramedic, he would frequently pull over with no prompting to show me recently deceased roadkill. Together, we would hunker down next to a dead red fox, eyes rounded by terror, and my father would point things out to me; he would alert me to the white-tipped tail, the dark paws. I have hunkered down next to badgers frozen mid-snarl by death. I have hunkered next to wide-beaked crows, silenced in the middle of indignant squawks. If the animal didn’t look diseased I would touch it. My small chubby fingers would gingerly pet the silky feathers of a pheasant, or warily touch the tips of hedgehog quills. Even in death the animals looked beautiful.*

To this day I’m not squeamish at all (although there are a couple of things that make me uncomfortable**), and at night I scroll through news stories on my phone, reading about awful stories of unfortunate people in unlucky circumstances. I sometimes read them aloud to Scrubs, who inevitably balks and says, “Why do you read such horrible things before you go to sleep?”

Why indeed?

The other day my father dropped over for a cup of coffee. We were sitting around the table catching up when he leaned back in his chair and waved his biscuit in Scrubs’ general direction.

“Did you hear about that car accident earlier?”

Scrubs nodded. “Yeah. Awful.”

“FOUR dead. Three in one car.”

Scrubs nodded grimly. My father continued.

“And what about that young girl that commited suicide?”

“What young girl?”

“An eleven year old. Didn’t like the way she looked. Killed herself. Isn’t that horrendous?”

There was a brief pause as my father munched on his biscuit in contemplative silence. I stared off into the middle distance. Scrubs shifted in his seat.

“Has there been any more news about that journalist Kim Wall?” I asked.

“Who?”

“You know, the woman who got dismembered in the submarine?”

“Ohhhh,” my father nodded with understanding. “He said he didn’t kill her. Bit unlikely that he didn’t kill her but did hack her to pieces and sink the body parts.”

“The last thing I heard about it was that they found her arm,” I said as I reached for a biscuit of my own.

Scrubs looked from my father to me and back again.

“Obviously runs in the family,” he said.

A phrase cut short to exclude the implied ‘…you pack of weirdos.’

Since noticing this morbid curiosity that has evidently been passed carefully from father to daughter, I have tried to keep a lid on it. I try to stick to more wholesome parts of the internet when I’m looking for bedtime reading. I fight the urge to instantly share the last horrifying story I read about the latest lamentable occurence.

But I still get an urge to pull over every time I see roadkill, just to check whether it’s really dead or if it needs my inept assistance (or a call to the local animal rehab service).

I probably always will.

 

*Obviously if the animal had been dead for some time or looked obviously diseased or mangled or dirty I wasn’t allowed to go near it or touch it. My father was trying to teach me, not contaminate me.

**EYEBALLS. Damaged eyeballs give me the heebie-jeebies. Also maggots are revolting. It’s the way they move!

 

A Christmas Limbo

 

I love Christmas.

I LOVE it.

I love it the same way boy racers love souped-up cars with LED strips, or the way crazy horse people love horses with braids. It is a strong, evergreen, slightly irrational love. Every year I get tingles of excitement when I decorate the house. I shamelessly sing* along to Christmas carols at home (and sometimes shamefully in public), and I often have to pull over to fully absorb the giddiness the comes over me when I see a particularly overdecorated house.

Each December I pick a colour scheme for the tree and go all in. Last year was metallics; gold and silver and twinkling warm white lights. I strung up silver snowflakes made of wood and placed a garland on the mantelpiece to keep the stockings company. I had a “_____ DAYS TO CHRISTMAS!” board where I’d rub the old number off each morning using the side of my fist before using a piece of chalk to write in the number of days left.

I also love to cook, but it isn’t the same kind of love. It isn’t the pure, blind, uncomplicated love that I have for Christmas. The kitchen is a bit of a mixed emotional bag for me (I’ll probably go into this in a future post), and yet it’s one of my favourite rooms in the house.

…Or at least it would be, if it were actually a room and not a space the size of a broom closet.

Off the top of my head, here are a few of my feelings on cooking:

UPSIDE: I love cooking and baking, I find it really relaxing, particularly if I am stressed out about something in particular.

DOWNSIDE: My kitchen is miniscule. Tiny spaces and large hot baking trays make for inevitable burns. Burns are, needless to say, not relaxing in the slightest.

UPSIDE: I love to scrape all the cake batter from the bowl before putting it in the dishwasher (I obviously eat it all).

DOWNSIDE: I eat so much raw cake batter I generally feel sick for hours afterwards.

UPSIDE: I feel actual heartwarming joy when I feed people.

DOWNSIDE: I bristle at the slightest hint of being taken advantage of, so even though I like cooking, I don’t like being expected to cook. It’s a fine line and where exactly the fine line is tends to depend entirely on my mood.

UPSIDE: I love to cook with other people.

DOWNSIDE: I hate to cook with other people who get wound up and stressed about things, or who get sick of it halway through and decide to half-ass the meal in a way that makes me twitch. Also, as I mentioned earlier, only half of a human being can squeeze into my kitchen at any given time, so cooking with other people in my kitchen can get quite… intimate.

Regardless, my feeding foibles are about to be inconsequential, because this year things will be different for both my Christmas and my kitchen.

I won’t be at home, for one. In a lazily planned, then hastily planned, then stalled, then not so much planned as suddenly-thrust-upon-us turn of events, the kitchen and bathroom will be undergoing a much needed makeover. Since we only have the one bathroom and a kitchen is a fairly necessary component over Christmas, we will all be moving out for the foreseeable future. That means no tree, no snowflakes, no fairy lights, no glitzy tablecloth, no Christmas candles, no gingerbread house, and no stockings. Maya, Oscar and we the people will need to pack up our clothes and out cat trees and relocate until some all-too-distant date in January.

It’s not the best timing, but it does have a few things going for it:

  • Any fluttering concern for my glass baubles in the paws and claws of two very playful kittens is no longer relevant, since they (baubles, not cats) will be staying boxed up until next year.
  • The kitchen will soon(ish) be able to comfortably fit more than half a human being, which is very exciting since currently a great portion of my cooking and baking time is taken up spinning slowly in circles looking for any relatively flat surface on which to precariously balance things.
  • The sooner it starts, the sooner it’s done. Presumably.
  • It is forcing me to be a lot more organised than other years**.

Having said all that, I feel conflicted about this lack of Christmas in my home. I have to mentally smack myself down every time the giddiness rises up within me. I wind up having short, cyclical conversations with myself that leave me feeling flat and defeated.

‘Maybe I’ll pull out the-‘

‘You will NOT!’

‘But it’s no harm to just-‘

‘NO.’

‘Perhaps one single-‘

‘Inner voice, I will strangle you with a length of tinsel, so help me God.’

‘…’

I am fighting my own Christmas spirit.

Let’s hope I can get through this strange holiday limbo with my Christmas cheer – and my sanity – intact.

Itwillallbeworthititwillallbeworthititwillallbeworthit…

*I use the word loosely.

**This is stressful and if I think about it for too long it makes me want to roll myself into a blanket burrito until the new year; I am not an innately organised person. At the end of each school year I would open my locker and immediately be buried in an avalanche of loose A4 pages. I would then have to dig my way out of this mountain of paper before hastily shoveling it into plastic bags and making it dissapear before locker inspection. Were they notes? Were they important? Who can say?

 

 

Red Head

 

I got ID’d yesterday.

I was buying 20 eggs and a bottle of spiced rum – a questionable grocery list at the best of times – when the young guy working the till stopped and looked at me expectantly. There were about five people waiting in line behind me, so as if looking for answers or permission I first glanced at them, and then back at him, and chewed the inside of my cheek nervously. Anytime I – for any reason – hold up the line at the checkout, I’m (I think not unreasonably) afraid that a riot will break out behind me and I will die, suddenly and ignominously, when somebody throws a bottle of Elderflower Cordial at my head.

After a pause that was probably only five seconds long but felt like the eternity of time compressed and squeezed into a matter of seconds, his mouth twisted at the corner and he said, “Sorry, but I’ll need to see your ID?”

As if it was obvious.

As if I pass for an 18 year old on any given Tuesday.

I can say with certainty that I don’t look 12 years younger than my age, so this came as a bit of a surprise. For a moment I wasn’t sure I even had any ID on me. I started to get preemptively annoyed about potentially being prevented from buying my bottle of rum.

The person behind me in the queue shifted his weight from one foot to the other and this tiny gesture (the first sign of the aforementioned riot; I’m sure of it) spurred me into action. I dug into my bag and pulled out my passport card, which I was only carrying by pure chance and have literally never used for any practical purpose.

I handed it over with a face that might have read ‘You have absolutely got to be kidding me‘ but might also have read ‘Please hurry up before someone lamps me with a turnip and I have to go to intensive care for the sake of two cartons of eggs and a bottle of rum.’

He took his time looking the card over. He tilted it to check the holographic shine, then scanned it for my date of birth. When he found it, his eyebrows shot up into his hairline and he looked at me and said, “OOooooooOOOOOOoooOOOOoooh!”

The man behind me shifted his weight again. I swear I could see his fingers twitching. He was probably having graphic, detailed fantasies of throttling the two of us.

My face started to burn and I turned an unnatural, almost-fluorescent hue that lit up the shop with a rosy glow. Unfortunately, not only do I flush red when I’m embarrassed, but I also find blushing to be absolutely mortifying, and so it becomes a cycle; I turn into a human traffic light stuck on red.

The guy still held my passport card, and was now grinning at me with one eyebrow raised. He slowly moved to hand it back to me, and although I itched to snatch it off him and sprint out the door, I forced myself to move at a normal pace. I took it back and busied myself burying it deep in my bag, hiding my face with my hair in an effort to get my skintone back to an earthly shade. He handed me my rum, still grinning, and I felt another wave of heat wash over me. I tapped my card on the machine and grabbed the receipt off him a moment sooner than might have been polite, and as I turned to walk away, he called after me:

“I hope you have a wonderful night!”

And then, when I didn’t reply straight away, he added (with a touch of innuendo):

“Have fun!*”

Without turning, I lifted the bottle of rum in acknowledgement of his comment and continued out the door.

It’s cold in the Dublin evenings now, but not to worry; my flushed face kept me warm for a few minutes longer.

 

*I suspect he either thought I was a tiny alcoholic with a penchant for spiced rum and omelettes OR he thought I was on my way to get properly hammered and egg someone’s house**. Neither is particularly flattering.

A Last First Kiss

 

We had been sitting next to each other – awkwardly at first, then more comfortably – for about an hour. I could feel his thigh pressed against mine. When he moved his arm, I felt his sleeve brush against my sleeve. He made bad jokes and gave me lopsided smiles while I babbled non-stop in an effort to disguise my nerves. He took a phone call and unfolded himself from the couch to pace the room, so I moved to the window to look out over the river. Even from across the room I felt like there were delicate filaments of feeling tying us together, vibrating with the low sound of his voice and the shy uncertainty woven through my every action. I absent-mindedly flicked through a stack of DVDs as he wrapped up the call, and then he crossed the room until he was standing right in front of me, toe to toe.

“So?” I said.

He smiled down at me. “So.”

My gaze slid sideways to avoid meeting his eyes.

“Are we going into town?”

“No.”

I looked up then to find him looking down at me with an intensity he hadn’t had earlier. I felt it; a strange, electric thickness that hung in the air between us.

And then he dipped his head.

And then his lips met mine.

And that was my last first kiss.

******************************************************************

I was thinking today about being single.

Not longing after it, or wondering how it would be to be single now (although the thought of Tinder makes me deeply uncomfortable), but rather thinking about how I felt when I was single. I loved being single. I enjoyed myself immensely. If ‘love is… selfless‘ then ‘being single is… never having to compromise‘, and there is an unrestricted joy in that. You can do everything for yourself, by yourself, whenever you want, however you want. Your time is your own. There are a lot of things to love about it.

Still, if I were asked what I loved most about being single, it wouldn’t be that I had more me-time, or that I never had to compromise on holiday destinations.

It would have to be the microsecond before a first kiss.

I don’t mean casual first kisses. I don’t mean spin-the-bottle kisses, or truth-or-dare kisses, or seven-minutes-in-heaven kisses. I don’t mean prearranged kisses at teen discos, or kisses that are granted through friends of friends. I mean the few first kisses with people who matter. I mean the monumental first kisses; the kisses that feel like they might change everything and turn your world right on its head.

There is a strange magic about that sliver of time. That fraction of a second before your lips meet is loaded with possibility and hope and anticipation and excitement and sometimes a tiny flicker of fear. There are infinite lifetimes contained within that split moment. It’s like pulling hard on a lever to suddenly and irreversibly switch tracks. It sets you down a course that might lead anywhere. It might take you to a beautiful place, or on a short but scenic route on the way to somewhere else, or it might lead you through a dark tunnel… or it might just send you smack into the side of a mountain before burying you in a landslide of despair.

You have no way of knowing.

If you’re anything like me, all of these barely-thoughts and almost-feelings fuse into a single burst of energy that electrifies the air. Trepidation, lust, expectation, unease, desire and apprehension slam into the thrill of the unfamiliar to create an exhilarating mixture and, in all of its innocence, I honestly think it’s the most wholesome form of intoxication.

Now, my last first kiss is behind me* and instead, in the future, I’ll be experiencing subcategories of that kiss: first kiss as a wife**; maybe first kiss as a mother***. Who knows?

Here’s what I do know:

I pulled the lever and switched tracks that day without hesitation, and I have never regretted it. That’s pretty unusual for an overthinker such as myself, who goes back and forward over the same patch of memory with the fine-toothed comb of anxiety, worrying and wondering about all the other ways things might have gone and might still go.

So while I miss first kisses of that magnitude, I don’t regret having kissed them goodbye.

(And I don’t regret that pun, either.)

 

*Barring some awful tragedy. Touch wood.

**Typing that felt like an out-of-body experience. The word ‘wife’ sounds bizarre when you’ve been a girlfriend for so long. I already struggle with ‘fiancee.’

***(shudder of fear)

Life Lessons

 

There are certain people that come into your life at crucial moments and shape a part of you.

They smooth out a rough edge, or they shave off a section of your heart and cut another facet into your soul. They shape you. Some people add parts to you that you never knew you were missing, or cause you to grow a prickly coating to protect yourself from future encounters with nefarious people. People add and subtract from you as you go, making you more than or lesser than you were before coming into contact with them.

I went to the same school from the age of 4 to the age of 18. Junior school was one thing, but when I stepped into senior school I was 70% hormones and 30% terrified child. I wasn’t a particularly bad student, but I wasn’t a particularly good one either. I often said or did things that would get me into trouble… or at least, the sort of tame, mouthy things that get you into trouble in expensive private schools. I was late with my homework. I drew on my tests. I daydreamed, I sent notes in class, I got caught skipping P.E. I put no effort into anything, because I was afraid of trying hard and failing. It was easier and less embarrassing to not even bother; at least then the disappointment was purposeful.

There was one class in which I excelled however, and that was English.

My English teacher was not well liked. She never laughed with us. She didn’t drop by at lunch. She didn’t talk about her personal life. Her sense of humour was incredibly dry. Her comments were blunt and unadorned, and her criticism was often harsh and cutting. She demanded a lot from her students. Sometimes she demanded too much. Her punishments were always slightly more severe than those of the other teachers, and she was rarely lenient. She would give you a grade lower than what you felt you deserved, and then claim it was so that you always had something left to strive for.

And yet.

Of all the teachers at my school, of all the years that I walked in and out those doors, she was the only teacher that I felt ever really saw me.

I suppose the most likely reason for this is that I used my English homework as my emotional safety net. I would funnel myself and my heightened emotions into impassioned railings against the hopeless stupidity of Juliet or the bigoted hatred of Bob Ewell. I suspect that a lot of the time my homework gave more of an insight into my own feelings than those of the characters I was supposed to be critiquing.

Having said that, I never in my life mentioned anything personal. At school I was a happy-go-lucky, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl who never had anything ready or prepared and didn’t care. So I didn’t have my books. So? So I didn’t have my homework done. And? It was fine. I’d be fine. I was always fine!

The truth is I was struggling. I’d been struggling for a long time.

I remember one particular moment that knocked me off balance.

I had been getting in more trouble than usual. In our school, for every infraction you would get a “slip,” and once you reached three slips in a single semester, you were “on report.” Being on report essentially meant that for one week you had to get signed off by every teacher after every class, and at the end of each day your parents had to sign off to say they had seen the teachers’ notes and all the homework was done.

I wasn’t even halfway through the semester and I had accumulated seven slips.

Somehow this had escaped everyone’s notice until one day my English teacher asked if she could speak to me outside. In the middle of classtime, she pulled me out to the landing on the first floor and folded her arms.

“What is going on with you?”

I chewed the inside of my cheek and scuffed the toe of my chunky black shoe against the tile. I wasn’t sure what this was about but I knew it wasn’t good. I stayed silent.

“Quinn, you and I both know that you have seven slips at the moment.”

After a long pause, I nodded. I knew what was coming. I was going on report.

At the thought of this I started to feel a familiar panic course through me. I felt like my veins were on fire. I didn’t care about stupid pieces of paper, or having teachers sign me off. What I cared about – what terrified me – was the idea of my mother knowing. It’s hard to explain in isolation, but suffice to say I started to have a full-blown panic attack right there on the landing. I felt my eyes widen, and even though I shrugged and tucked my chin under so she couldn’t see my face, I couldn’t stop tears from just leaking out onto my cheeks. They streamed down and dripped from my jawline. As if removed from myself, I watched them splash against the tiles. I was numb. There was a ringing in my ears and I just wanted to leave, to hide in a bathroom cubicle and sink through the floor until I disappeared into nothingness.

My English teacher stood watching me for a moment, her arms still crossed.

“Okay.” She said.

I couldn’t speak because I felt as if I had swallowed my tongue. I was shivering so violently I figured she must notice, so I pulled my sleeves over my trembling fingers. I couldn’t think of anything to say because my mind had become a dense fog of fear. A small part of me somehow retained the ability to feel shame, and I did. I felt a red hot trickle of shame at what she must think of me, this overreacting, overly dramatic problem student who was having a nervous breakdown in the middle of the day over a few signatures.

“Okay.” She said again.

There was another pause as she contemplated me, and then she moved to stand right in front of me.  I watched her shoes stop in front of me.

“Look at me, Quinn. Look at me.”

I swiped at my eyes with my sleeve and reluctantly lifted my gaze.

“We both know you have seven slips at the moment-“

I was trying so hard to stem the tears that they pooled, turning her into a blurry collection of colours in front of me.

“Quinn. Listen to me. You have seven slips and you should be have already been on report not once, but twice. I should call your parents myself-“

I lost the battle and another wave of teardrops raced for the floor.

“But I know…” Her voice softened a bit. The most I’d ever heard in her years teaching me.

“I know that you don’t want me to do that. Am I right?”

My gaze dropped back to the floor as I nodded vigorously and gulped for air. Was I going to have to explain? Was she going to ask? Could she tell? What did she know? 

“You don’t want me to tell your parents.”

I took long, juddering breaths and tracked the lines of grout between the tiles.

“Quinn, listen to me. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to strike five of your slips from your record.”

I barely heard her I was so deep in my state of panic. She paused long enough for the words to sink in, and I slowly raised my head to look at her in disbelief.

“Yes. Look. You’re not trying. I know you and you can do better. You have to try, Quinn, and not just in my class. In all of your classes. To be clear, I’m not wiping your slate clean; I’m simply giving you a second chance. I am leaving two slips on your record, so if you get another this semester, you will go on report. Is that clear?”

I nodded.

“Alright.” She sighed, her arms still folded. “You’re excused, Quinn.”

I tugged at the sleeves of my jumper, still wordless, completely unable to believe that I had just received a stay of execution. Before she could change her mind, I went to duck past her into the corridor. She grabbed my elbow as I passed.

“I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Don’t let me down.”

I made a beeline for the bathroom where I locked myself in a cubicle, wrapped my hands like a boxer (if boxers used tissue paper) and silently cried my heart out, partly to release all the pent-up energy and partly from relief.

Ten minutes later I had splashed water on my face and managed to get my heart rate down. I returned to class with puffy eyes, and when I walked in my English teacher turned and looked at me as if the past twenty minutes had never happened.

“Back to your seat, Quinn,” She growled.

I somehow managed to avoid another slip that semester. I dodged that bullet. I tried harder, although not always as hard as I might have. I always tried my hardest in her class though, and she always kept an eye on me like she’d promised.

Once, before we reaching the Hamlet years, she stopped at my desk on her way into the classroom. I had my head bowed low over a book, and daisies I had picked at lunchtime were strewn across my desk.

“Sometimes you remind me so much of Ophelia,” she told me.

I asked her who that was, and she told me it was a Shakespearian character. I shrugged and went back to my book, but later I looked it up, and when I did and found a fragile girl who drowns herself in a lake, I was offended.

Now with the benefit of hindsight, I see it differently.

I was pretty fragile. I thought I was tough, but the truth is that I was brittle like porcelain and completely unaware of it.

I think of her often.

In the mathematics of my life, she added a lot. She made me more.

 

******************************************

 

DEPRESSING POSTSCRIPT: A couple of years after finishing school, I went back to tell her all of this. She was out sick, and I was going abroad, so I decided I would write a letter. I thought I might return again after my trip away and if she was still out, I could at least drop it off for her.

 A few weeks later, as I put the pen down on the seventh page of the long-winded novel of gratitude I had found myself writing, I got a message from my best friend to tell me my English teacher had been found dead.

I went to her funeral. I cried like she was my own blood.

She taught me one last painful lesson:

Don’t wait until it’s too late to say the things that matter.

 

 

Me Too

ME TOO (1)

I’ve been seeing this #metoo trending hashtag everywhere and I’ve had fairly mixed feelings about it, honestly. When I sit down to comment on it, I either get so agitated I can’t type coherent sentences or else I feel a bone-deep weariness and sit, staring blankly at the screen, until I give up and close my laptop.

I thought that perhaps now, after dragging a 27kg box down my road and up a flight of stairs, I would be tired enough to tackle this issue, but I’m still sitting here jiggling my leg anxiously. I don’t like the #metoo campaign. I just don’t. I don’t like it, even though of course ‘me too’.

Perhaps because ‘me too’.

Have I felt harrassed?

Yes.

When?

How about the time I was 16 and a man in his mid-thirties stopped his car in the middle of traffic to run over and chat me up?

How about the time a man at least two decades older than me sat – uninvited – at my table during my lunch break, followed me back to my workplace and then sent me effusive poetry?

How about the many times I’ve had my ass grabbed, or the men who have slid their arm around me and nonchalantly stroked my breast? How about the guy who almost followed me into my house? Or the men who have forced their unwanted, unasked-for compliments on me and then acted like I owed them? Or the guy whose name I didn’t even know, who made me mix CDs I never asked for and followed me on my commute home? Or the guys who have kissed me against my will?  Or the man who stalked me from store to store despite not a single sign of interest? Or the many men who don’t listen to the first no? Or the second no? Or the third, or the fourth, or the fifth….?

Here’s the thing about sexual harrassment; 98% of the time, the people doing it would never admit to themselves or anybody else that what they’re doing is harrassment. I think that a lot of the time they really are completely unaware that what they’re doing is creepy, or intimidating, or frightening or enraging or just plain inappropriate. They think they’re flirting. They think they’re being charming, or “cheeky,” or that they’re – shudder – wooing you. They either don’t realise or don’t care that your laugh is a nervous one, or that your smile is plastered on over gritted teeth. They are completely oblivious to the fact that you flinch when they try to touch you, and they ignore any subtle hints you might drop about them leaving you alone.

They don’t stop to think about positions of power, or whether or not women feel like they can shut it down. They mistake any gesture of politeness for encouragement. They mistake silence for enjoyment. They don’t stop to consider that maybe politeness feels like the only option. They don’t bother to contemplate alternative interpretations of the silence.

Did I say or do anything?

I once had a job in a large office block. I worked on the front desk of the building, but since it housed several different businesses – each of which had their own receptionist – I didn’t have very much to do. The office I interacted with the most was the one on the ground floor staffed solely by a group of middle-aged men.

Most of them engaged in what they considered “friendly banter” with me, and a lot of it was inoffensive and light-hearted, so I didn’t mind. There was one man in his early sixties, however, who routinely said things that made my skin crawl. It started with outrageously over-the-top flattery and escalated quickly from there. After a week or so he was saying things like, “You’re way better than the last one, that bitch was no fun. And you’re much easier on the eye!”

And then:

“Come down to the garage with me for twenty minutes and I’ll give you anything you want!”

And then:

“I’m going away with my wife for a sexy weekend, but I’ll be thinking of you the whole time!”

And then:

“Oh you have a form for me? Come sit on my lap and read it to me like a good girl!”  – and when I slapped the form down on the table, narrowed my eyes at him and walked out – “That’s okay, I like to watch you walk away too!”

Every time he approached my desk I felt a mixture of negative feelings. Revulsion. Fear. Intimidation. Discomfort. Powerlessness. Shame. Rage. He would say these things – and many others – in front of his colleagues and then wink at me, flashing his dentures in what I’m sure he thought was a dashing grin. His colleagues would laugh, or groan and then laugh. At no point did anybody pull him up on his behaviour. At no point did anybody say that it was inappropriate. At no point did anybody say anything at all.

And neither did I.

Why not?

  • I was young and not very confident.
  • I was afraid of how he (and the rest of the office) would react.
  • The fact that nobody around him ever said anything made me feel completely outnumbered and made me second-guess myself, wondering whether I was making a big deal about nothing.
  • I wasn’t going to be there for very long, so I figured I should just stick it out.
  • My job wasn’t actually linked to his office, so I wasn’t sure who I should even talk to about it. If anybody would be moved it would be me.

… So, you know, the usual reasons people don’t report these things. Or rather the usual reason, singular, because it really always boils down to the same simple truth:

I was afraid of the consequences.

Whether you’re afraid the repercussions will be violent, professional, dangerous or simply awkward, it always boils down to the consequences of standing up for yourself to people who are generally larger, more powerful, more important, and completely unpredictable. The #metoo campaign is like picking up fistfuls of sand and feeling it slip through your fingers; there are so many ‘me too’s. Too many ‘me too’s. It would be better to ask for people who have never experienced it to step forward. Find the scant handful who have never felt that tingle of fear, or that burning shame of not feeling able to risk their job/reputation/safety.

I guarantee you they are few and far between.

So maybe stop looking for the #metoo.

Maybe look for the #luckyfew.