Notes for a Younger Me

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

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

*shudder*

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

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

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

Baby Quinn,

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

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

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

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Yep, just like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You fall in love.

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

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

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

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

Let’s just speed through that part.

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

But after all that, you do learn.

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

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

Better than the storybooks.

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

Stay creative.

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

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

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

Fall in love.

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

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

Fight that!

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

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

Be excited about the future.

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

DON’T WORRY.

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

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

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

Those moments are all you need.

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

You’ll be okay.

 

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Thoughts On… Death

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I remember my first dead body.

That makes me sound like a serial killer. Let me rephrase.

I remember seeing my first dead body.

It was my maternal grandmother’s – my Yaya’s – and she was lying in a coffin with white satin lining. It was propped up, almost standing to face those coming to pay their respects, and she was pale. Unnaturally pale. Much paler than I had ever seen her. Her expression was serious, her mouth turned down at the sides. There was no joy in her face at all, which was very unlike her. She was a woman who was always smiling, always laughing, always trying – like a stereotypical grandmother from a storybook – to feed you delicious food until you burst at the seams.

She was a woman who was always shuffling around the kitchen, or fanning herself with her abanico as she leaned back, out of breath from laughing, sighing “Ay!”

She was a woman who always took the time to pin a brooch to her breast and put lipstick on before going out, who always sprayed herself with perfume and made sure each blonde curl was in place, and who had a faith in God that stayed with her even after hope had been abandoned.

Now she lay, silent and still, in a box behind glass; an unsettlingly strange and wrinkled doll in a building of tears and heartbreak. She no longer looked like herself. She was missing that spark that made her her. This wasn’t my Yaya, this wasn’t the woman who would envelop me in her arms and kiss me over and over again until I wriggled away laughing. This was a husk. A shell. This was the discarded coccoon of a life well-lived, of a woman well-loved.

Death frightens me.

Life frightens me.

It frightens me how fragile we all are. It frightens me that we go through life as thin-skinned human popsicles made of nothing more than a pinch of star dust and earth, brought together and animated by an ember of life.

And when that ember is extinguished or extinguishes itself, leaving behind the curling smoke of memories and loss in its wake, it can be suffocating. The after-effects of the end of a life can feel like your heart is in a vice, and every thought of the person you loved and lost is a turn of the screw.

Death is something that enters into all our lives, and it visits more often the older we get. We like to ignore it, skirt around it, pretend it won’t touch us with its long, cold fingers, but it does. It will. It is unavoidable.

When it will come to us is largely unpredictable. It can slip in and out of our lives at any time. As we grow older, we become more aware of its presence; we look over our shoulder every so often and do things that we hope will make death pass over us, at least until we are old and infirm. We stop smoking, we exercise, we eat healthy food. We become more risk averse. We understand the full weight of life. If we’re lucky, we accumulate loved ones and experiences and hobbies and passions that we don’t want to say goodbye to, and so we shrink back when we feel death nearby.

Don’t pick me. Don’t pick us.

We support our friends in their times of grief. We cry with them, because we know the pain. We may not feel their loss, but we feel their suffering. We read terrible, tragic stories about strangers and feel sorrow, but also relief; glad that it didn’t happen to anyone we know, glad that it happened to someone else, somewhere else. No matter that their grief is just as profound, just as crushing as it would have been for us.

Death is busy elsewhere, and we have the audacity to feel safe in its absence.

There is a unique and precious freedom that comes before we learn about mortality. As children, we exhibit a recklessness that we lose around the same time we begin to comprehend the concept of consequences. Even though this is obviously an important part of growing up, I’m starting to think we could all do with adding back a little of our childhood bravery. I know I could. After all, we don’t know when death will come to call.

Is there anything to be gained by dreading it the way we do? Is there anything to be gained by pressing ourselves against the wall, hoping to make ourselves invisible?

I’m not suggesting we all go BASE jumping in the morning.

I’m not suggesting we start a diet consisting solely of donuts*.

I’m just wondering out loud whether we – I – should live a little less fearfully. There are things I haven’t done yet because a thin, reedy voice in the back of my head makes it its mission to spook me every time I think about them too hard. If I talk myself out of things I wish I had the courage to try, am I really living my life to the fullest? I can’t keep putting things off for an indeterminate ‘someday’ when I don’t know how many somedays I have left. I should make the somedays today.

And so should you.

I hope that when death comes for me, I have lived a long and full life. I hope that like my Yaya, I leave behind memories of love and laughter, good food and good company. I hope that like her I have time to say goodbye to those I love, and that I face it with courage and acceptance. I hope, but I don’t know.

So in the meantime, I’m going to try to live fearlessly… or at least, less fearfully.

Same same, but different.

 

 

*Although how delicious would that be?

 

 

 

Memories Are Made of This

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If touch is my drug, then memories are my kryptonite.

I am an overthinker. I have always been an overthinker. As a child, I remember adults telling me, “Don’t think so much!” and wondering how they could ask that of me. I could no more control my thoughts than the weather. They rushed over me in a continuous wave of questions and hypotheticals.

Over the years I learned to stem the tide of thoughts when they got too much for me. I learned to put them away. Today, my mind is a hoarder’s attic, stuffed to the brim with ominously unstable stacks of thoughts and emotions and worries and passions and dreams and experiences and fears and imagination and memories.

I don’t know what other people do with their memories. My brother has somehow managed to purge all of his childhood memories … or lose them. I’m not sure which. My own seem to be (much like my real life belongings) stored in a state of organised chaos. I revisit them often. I turn memories over and over in my mind until the jagged feelings that used to jut from them are worn away, leaving the recollection itself smooth as a pebble. Easy to handle. Almost comforting.

Sometimes I forget memories only to find them years later, untouched, unexamined. When this happens, I’m always surprised to find the feelings that came with them are still there, unblunted, in the corner of my mind. I prick my fingers on the sharp points, and the unexpected sting of it startles me. My mind makes an immediate jump to hyperspace and I start overthinking again.

  • How did I forget this?
  • Is it even real?
  • Do the other people in the memory remember this?
  • Is it important?
  • Why do I only remember this now?
  • How many times have I examined this memory?
  • How many more times will I examine it before the feelings disappear?

Then I worry that when I’m finished turning it over and over, it will become another pebble: a skimmed pebble. It will bounce twice or three times on the surface of my consciousness and then sink to the depths. I’ll forget it for good.

Something about this, something about memories, makes me profoundly sad. It’s not nostalgia. At least I don’t think it is. Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as:

“a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of

some past period or irrecoverable condition.”

I don’t long to go back. I don’t wish for a time-machine. It’s not the moment in the past I feel a strange yearning for, it’s the memory itself. I worry about my memories getting lost forever. I worry that I am altering them all the time until I can no longer trust which ones are true. I worry that I’ll smooth away all the edges and be left with flat, polished versions of every memory I’ve ever had. Easier to manage, yes, but also smaller. Diminished. Sanitised. Sterilised. Incapable of making me laugh or cry.

A forgotten memory found its way into my mind yesterday. It caught me so completely by surprise that a tear escaped and made a run for it down my cheek before I even had a chance to realise what I was thinking of. The instant rush of thoughts and feelings gave me a sentimental papercut. I sat, listening to music, pressing against the sharp ends the same way you use your tongue to press against a loose tooth. It hurt, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t help it. The pain pleased me.

I examined the memory from every angle. I wondered if there was more to it that I had forgotten. I wondered who else remembered it. If they do, does it come tied to an emotion, or has time buffed away any inconvenient feelings?

If I am the only one who has kept it, does that make it more precious, or less?

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So, Touching

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I am a tactile creature.

Not so much with people, but with things. I like to touch soft fabrics, and run my fingers through deep pile carpet. I like to trace the grain on solid wood, and press my hands against granite stone so hard the imprint is left on my palms. I love searching the seabed, trying to find beaded seashells and tide-smoothed driftwood and coarse-edged coral. I like the slippery coolness of glass, the feel of a salty breeze on my skin, the springy tension of needles on a pine cone. My fingertips explore the world around me. it’s not always enough for me to just look at things; I have to feel them.

I suppose I don’t seem overly tactual when I first meet new people. I didn’t grow up in a cuddling kind of household; I still feel a bit awkward hugging people that aren’t my closest friends. It feels uncomfortably intimate, and I’m never quite sure how to arrange my limbs so that they fit against the angles of a stranger’s body. I overthink it, debating whether or not to stick my hand out or just hug-tackle the person before they have a chance to decide for themselves. When I touch strangers, I always feel like I’m intruding, rudely popping their personal space bubble with my clumsy presence.

If I care about you, it’s different.

If I care about you, I like to sit shoulder to shoulder with you. I like looping my arm around your waist while we belt out lyrics to terrible songs. I like sitting against walls, thighs touching, talking about life. I will hold your hand on the way to the shop. I will throw an arm around your shoulders and pull you close. I will hug you hard and long, because I missed you, or I hate saying goodbye, or I’m happy for you, or just because. I will hesitate for a split second before doing any of the above because it doesn’t come naturally, then do it anyway because I want to be close to you.

But if I love you.

If I love you, I can’t keep my hands to myself. I want to run my fingers through your hair, and trace the outline of your lips. I want to hook my arms around your neck and stretch against you, tucking my head into your shoulder and disappearing into a feeling of warmth and quiet thoughts and soft exhalations. I want to rake my nails lightly down your back.  I want to slip under your clothes and feel the difference in texture between the cotton of your t-shirt and the warmth of your skin. I want to lace my fingers through yours, and kiss a trail down your throat, and place the heel of my hand in the hollow of your shoulder. I want to lean against you, and rest my forearm on your thigh, and be acutely, painfully aware of your arm around me. I want to slip a finger through one of your belt loops, and tug at the rough denim. I want to sit between your thighs and feel the safe, solid weight of your body against my spine. I want to outline the features of your face until I recognise them blindfolded.

The chasm between the stiff discomfort I feel with casual physical interaction and the greedy, bottomless hunger for touch I feel when it comes to those I love has always bewildered me. I assume it has to do with feeling vulnerable, and feeling safe, and the mix of both of those things making it possible for me to express myself. Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that I am not a physically affectionate person. Maybe I am an intensely physically afffectionate person and it just happens to generally be constrained by a straightjacket of apprehension, unease and the usual social anxiety.

Physics says that our electrons never actually come into contact. Our electrons repel each other, keeping us apart from anything we reach for. On an atomic level, I suppose I am never actually touching anything, only following its form.

My fingertips will always hover an infinitesimal distance from yours.