I Tried and I Failed

It started with a gif.

The girl in the clip lies flat on the floor with her hands clasped behind her, a long white pole looped between her arms and her lower back. Slowly she pulls her knees forward and then gracefully comes to a standing position with a big smile and a visible six-pack. The heading on this gif was “EVEN HARDER THAN IT LOOKS.”

I watched it, rewatched it, and then with an arrogance borne of pure ignorance thought, “Well it doesn’t look that hard.”

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Exhibit A: The Challenging Gif

I watched the gif again. I read over the comments explaining that to do this correctly, the head, shoulders and pole must stay off the ground. I nodded to myself. Challenge accepted, I thought, nodding confidently, even though nobody had challenged me.

On a mission of my own making, I marched through the apartment with singular focus. I found the mop and pulled off the head with a satisfying THWUNK. I carried the pole to the area in front of the fireplace and lay down on my front.

So far, so good.

I placed the mop handle on my lower back. I locked my fingers together, clasping it in place. I like to think that in this moment my face was a mask of grim determination, but in reality I was probably just facing the wall with the blank resignation of a beached porpoise.

Alright, I thought. Right knee first.

I pulled my right knee up, and then attempted to move my left. This movement shifted my centre of gravity, and in slow-motion I tilted forward, coming to rest on my chin. I looked down my nose at the floorboards and huffed out a sigh of foiled ambition. I put my left knee back down. I moved it up a couple of millimeters and again, my chin came down on the ground. I growled with frustration, and wiggled myself back to the starting position.

The third time, I shifted my left knee and managed to tilt my pelvis up in the air. For a brief moment I felt like I might be getting somewhere; my shoulders weren’t touching the floor and neither was my chin or my pelvis or the mop handle. Unfortunately, I had reached as far as I was going to get.

I was stuck.

I tried to keep going, but I couldn’t move without starting a slow, creaking descent to the floor. I stared blankly at the floor for a moment, and then I started to giggle. There, on the floor, with one knee up around my waist and a mop handle lying across my back, I started to giggle to myself and then I just couldn’t stop. The giggles turned to laughter and I lost the little strength I had in my midsection. My body slumped and the side of my face came to rest against the floor. That made me laugh harder, and soon there were tears streaming from my eyes. I imagined someone walking in and stumbling across my misshapen form, and my laughter turned into hysterical howls.

I spotted movement at the door and shifted my head to meet he worried gaze of my cat, Oscar. He was puffed up defensively and crouching low to the ground, tiptoeing towards me with a face of grave concern. His eyes, wide as saucers, were the only thing countering his sudden and startling resemblance to a fat raccoon trying to steal some food.

The sight of Oscar creeping towards me stole the last bit of breath from my lungs. My laughter turned into choking, wheezy gasps. Oscar carefully and reluctantly picked his way over my knee and under the pole until he was right in front of my face. He stared intently at me, his nose against mine, and then, after a few seconds, apparently decided that there was no danger present other than my own stupidity. He depuffed himself with a shake and trotted over to the side of the room, where he sat at a safe distance to supervise my moronic behaviour. I watched him through a watery haze, laughing to myself on the floor with my mop handle and no upper body strength.

By the time my laughter died away, I was done. I unclasped my hands. I wiped my cheeks and threw the mop handle onto the couch. I picked up Oscar and gave him a hug for coming to check on me, and then went back to work.

It is, indeed, harder than it looks.

Childish Things

When I was a wee slip of a four year old, I remember visiting a friend and following him upstairs to a room that contained a giant cardboard box. It was long, and lay on its side, and easily took up at least half of all available floorspace in the small, book-lined room. In hindsight I suppose it had originally housed a fridge. My friend walked around to the back of the box and called for me to follow him.

I remember looking at it with all the healthy skepticism a four year old can muster. It didn’t look like anything special. In fact, it looked like it might have fallen victim to some sort of cardboard-consuming moth – it was riddled with tiny holes – but other than that it looked entirely unremarkable. I picked my way warily over stacks of books to find a small door that had been choppily cut out of the back of the box, just large enough for a small child to squeeze through without too much trouble. A flap of cardboard had been clumsily taped to the top, and this makeshift door was suddenly pushed up to reveal my friend’s face emerging from the darkness within.

“Come ON!” He said, in that urgent way children sometimes have of making the unimportant seem entirely time-sensitive. He crawled out and tried to pull me down to the floor. “Go IN!”

Dubiously I crouched and lifted up the cardboard flap. I crawled into the gloom and felt soft blankets give way beneath my palms and my knees.

“Lie down on your back!” I heard my friend’s muffled order from outside the box. “You’re in space now!”

I lay down on the blanket as instructed and looked up to find…

Space.

What had looked like a perforated box from the outside was utterly transformed on the inside. The holes were small, and numerous, and they let in just enough light to look like hundreds of stars. I felt safe in there with my gaze turned upward, my chubby child fingers roaming over the invisible blankets. It was a warm, muffled cocoon of cardboard. It was a magical box that had suddenly and efficiently transported me to deep space.

I love this memory, because for me there is so much childhood wrapped up in that instant; that abrupt suspension of disbelief, that willingness to go with the game, that ability to fully enjoy the moment no matter how small, and to make stars out of holes in a cardboard box.

The imagination of a child is so powerful. It carves adventures out of nothing and crafts stories out of nowhere. Everything makes sense; nothing is too fantastical. How can it be when they are learning so much about the world? They are being asked to learn and understand any number of mad-sounding things, what’s one more? There are giraffes, and aardvarks, and elephants… why not unicorns? Why not dragons?

As we grow, we lose a lot of our imagination. We get worried and stressed and bogged down in never-ending to-do lists. Sometimes it can be really hard to just submerge yourself in a moment and enjoy it for what it is. The word ‘fun’ has so many connotations attached; it’s supposed to be spontaneous and frivolous and silly and it drags with it a sort of blue-skies-and-primary-colours aura reminiscent of beach balls and bouncing castles. What adult has time for that on a daily basis? We’re busy people! We have work to do and people to take care of and events to plan and activities to take part in and coffee to consume!

Over time, for the most part, that aimless, pointless fun gets squeezed out of our day-to-day. It gets relegated to holidays or long weekends. It gets saved for boozy nights with friends. We get too self-conscious for silliness. Once we’ve learned to anticipate outcomes, it can be very hard to relax into the simple act of making a mess without worrying about the clean-up.

I think when you’re an adult, simple fun can get paradoxically difficult.

I also think that imagination and creativity is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, it wastes away.

When we’re small we make jelly, and scones, and chocolate rice-krispie buns topped with smarties. We marble Play-Doh until the many colours come together to form a single uniform shade of murky brown. We finger paint. We make sandcastles. We twist skinny horses out of pipe-cleaners, and make butterfly paintings by lobbing paint on a page and then folding it over and pressing it down. We make daisy chains, and dance in our living rooms and it doesn’t matter that the daisy chain isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t matter that our sandcastle will be washed away by the tide, and it doesn’t matter that our dancing looks ridiculous, and it certainly doesn’t matter that the Play-Doh is brown because that just means we can make a big Play-Doh bear out of it.

I’m not saying we should put aside life and responsibility and live as adult toddlers for a week, but I think there are lessons to be learned from our past selves. Children really understand how to live in the moment in a way that we forget as we grow into adults. They understand that things don’t need to be perfect to be beautiful, and that sometimes a big mess is a small price to pay for half an hour of laughter. When we were children, we didn’t always need reasons to do the things we did. We didn’t run around the playground because it made us healthier. We didn’t make each move carefully strategising five steps ahead.  Our reasons could be as flimsy as “because I feel like it” or “because I want to.”

I know that as adults we are expected to put away our childish things. We have to be responsible, and practical. We have a lot of things cluttering up our heads and it feels like there’s barely time to do the things we have to do, much less the things we want to do.

I’m just not sure we should put away all our childish things. I think it does us good to channel our inner child sometimes.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to attend a solo dance party in my living room.

…Because I feel like it!

 

 

“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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Hamilton: The Experience

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

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

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

There was a blessed millisecond of silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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.

 

 

Hello

I carried a towering pile of items to the till and placed them on the belt.

“Hi!” said the cashier.

The friendly chirpiness in her voice was probably due to the fact that it was almost closing time, but that’s just a guess. I smiled and returned the greeting, and then focused all of my limited attention on placing the heavy items at the front of the pile so I could bag them the proper way.

Little known fact, but that’s actually what adulting is all about; trying not to smoosh the brie beneath tins of tomatoes. True fact.

The cashier made a comment about the weather, and my friend smiled and agreed while I expertly separated the items in order of weight. I dropped the cartons of milk into the bottom of the bag, followed by the tins of tomatoes and the packet of pasta. I eyed the brie and broccoli as the cashier scanned it through. I was determined to absolutely nail this bagging business.

As an unrelated aside – it’s amazing the things you can trick your mind into thinking are little victories when the going gets tough.

Five minutes later, everything was carefully bagged and paid for. The cashier handed me the receipt. She smiled warmly and said, “Have a good evening now!” to which I naturally replied…

“Hello.”

Not an ‘oh hello, didn’t see you there’ type of hello.

Not a nice, friendly, ‘Hello!!’

Just a flat, short, “Hello” in the same tone you would use if you were to automatically mutter, “Thanks” to a cashier who had just handed you a receipt.

…Which is what I was aiming for when my mind panicked and “Hello” popped out instead.

Cue an awkward pause as the cashier narrowed her eyes at me, probably trying to determine if I had some form of short-term amnesia. I grabbed the bag, turned on my heel and walked right out of the shop while screaming internally.

All this to say that today is my one year blogiversary. I know this because WordPress sent me a little notification to remind me. Thanks WordPress! One year on and I am still having awkward interactions with strangers. One year on and I am still embarrassing myself so you don’t have to. One year on and I am still waiting on that damn manual.

But in the meantime, I’ve got you guys to keep me company.

Hello!